Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia

Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia

Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia

Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia

Excerpt

On the afternoon of September 20, 1967, Canadian Hugh O’Connor and four other television journalists arrived at the hamlet of Jeremiah in Letcher County, Kentucky, to film a documentary on poverty in Appalachia. As they began to interview coal miners living on the property of Hobart Ison, an eccentric sixty-seven-year-old man whose family had migrated to the region in the 1890s, a woman drove up and warned them that Ison “was coming to throw them” off his land. Ison arrived at the scene minutes later with pistol in hand. Shouting “get off my property,” he fired two shots in the air. The filmmakers immediately picked up their equipment and headed toward their cars. As they fled, Ison pointed the pistol at O’Connor and pulled the trigger. The fatal bullet ripped through the award-winning journalist’s chest. Before falling to the ground, a shocked O’Connor spoke his final words: “Why did you have to do that?”

Local authorities promptly arrested Ison for the murder of O’Connor. Realizing that many Letcher County residents supported the defendant, prosecutors convinced the judge to move the trial to nearby Harlan County. But even there Ison enjoyed widespread support. “Before the case, people were coming up and saying, ‘He should’ve killed the son of a bitch,’” Harlan County prosecutor Daniel Boone Smith recalled. “People would say, ‘They oughtn’t to make fun of mountain people. They’ve made enough fun of mountain people. Let me on the jury, Boone, and I’ll turn him loose.’”

Ison’s trial began in May 1968. Prosecutors portrayed O’Connor and his colleagues as respectable men who never intended to degrade mountain people. They blamed Judy Breeding, a Jeremiah citizen, for encouraging Ison to confront the cameramen. Ison’s attorney countered by arguing that the reporters had been intrusive and claimed that his client suffered from . . .

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