The Hanging of Big John Stapleton: A lynching in Magoffin

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The following article was taken from The Lexington Press, which was printed in Lexington, Kentucky in January 1885.

An Outrageous Crime
News has just reached here from Salyersville, a mountain town, that one of the most outrageous crimes that stain the records of eastern Kentucky was perpetrated on John Stapleton on the night of the 3d inst., at Salyersville, Ky. The facts pertaining thereto are about these: Two months ago the son of this man, without provocation, shot and killed Callabar(Callahan)  White, which outrage incited the people of Magoffin to such an extent that for safety the prisoner, after an examining trial, which resulted in holding him over without bail, was sent to Mt. Sterling for protection and is there now. The indignant friends of White and bitter enemies of Stapleton, the father of the murdered man, on the evidence of two women, had him arrested, charged with being accessory to the crime. It is not believed there was anything in it. But with no the evidence Stapleton was held over on a bond of $500, and failing to give it was remanded to jail about 10 o’clock that night. Twenty or thirty men, a masked mob, yelling and making themselves hideous, entered the town, overpowered the jailer, took the prisoner to a tree near by and hung him. It is believed that Stapleton was innocent of the charge and the infuriated mob was aroused solely by the women who proved he had made threats against White. The better class, who stand by law and order, are now enemies to the mob and something more serious may come out of it.


The following article was taken from a 1885 Mt. Sterling newspaper. 
A Mob in Magoffin
Mt. Sterling, Jan. 8 - News has just been received here of a most shocking outrage committed in Magoffin County last Saturday night in the lynching of John Stapleton, Sr. The particulars are as follows: A few weeks ago Stapleton’s son shot and killed Colliham(Callahan)  White, for which killing he was sent here for safe-keeping, to escape mob violence. Said killing was entirely unprovoked, and so inflamed the community that nothing short of blood would satisfy their rage. On a pretense, old man Stapleton was shortly after arrested as being an accessory to the above named crime, appeared before an examining court and was held over in the sum of $500. Being unable to execute bond for that amount, he was sent to jail. That night a mob of twenty or thirty men forced an entrance into the jail, took the prisoner out and hung him in plain view of the Courthouse. The good citizens of Magoffin condemn in the plainest language this dastardly act, and the most strenuous efforts will be made to bring the participators to justice.

Like all mountain feuds the bad blood between Callahan White/Whitt and the Stapleton’s was supposedly over a theft. I don’t doubt that, but will wager there is a good deal more to the story. I have read an account written in 1935 by C R Cooper based on stories told by Archibald Cooper as recalled by a great grandson of Callahan White. From this account we learn Callahan White had as neighbors across the hill from Lick Creek on Paint Creek, John Stapleton and his son John Stapleton Jr. We also learn that Callahan White believed the Stapleton’s were stealing corn and meat from him. Trouble came to a head when Will Greene Cooper was visiting his brother-in-law Callahan and suggested they go give the Stapleton’s a good whipping. As fate would have it they met the Stapleton’s in the woods and an argument ensued. At some point White reached for a rock at which point John Jr. shot him dead. This act not only killed Callahan, it led to the elder Stapleton being lynched by a mob. The young Stapleton would draw a 20-year sentence, but would gain a pardon moving to Greenup County. 

As far as I can learn, this is the only hanging ever to take place in Magoffin County, legal or otherwise. Someone, maybe Todd, told me they thought the Beechnut tree might still be standing on the hill known as the Ben Caudill Bank behind the former Discount Gold building. I do not know if that is so. 


Note that some accounts I have read list Callahan’s last name as Whitt.

 A Maysville, KY 1885 newspaper states, “The 10 men who lynched John Stapleton have been arrested and will be tried for murder.” I haven’t researched the outcome, yet. 

From The Hazel Green Herald, June 10, 1885 we learn John Stapleton Jr. was still incarcerated in Mount Sterling six months after the January 3, 1885 shooting of Callahan White/Whitt, but Magoffin Sheriff Patrick was on his way to get him for trial.