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Tuesday, 12 May 2009 17:05

Excerpt from L. F. Johnson. Famous Kentucky Tragedies and Trials. Louisville: Baldwin, 1916. 233-245.

Thompson-Davis Tragedy No. 2.

HON. PHIL. B. Thompson, Jr., Congressman from the Eighth Congressional district of Kentucky, met Walter Davis as he was entering a train near Harrodsburg Junction on the morning of April 27, 1883, and accused him of debauching his (Thompson's) wife and thereupon drew his pistol, and as Davis attempted to make his escape from the train, Thompson shot him in the back of the head killing him instantly.

The deceased, Walter Davis, was not related to Theodore Daviess, who was killed, with his two sons, Theodore, Jr., and Larue Daviess, by Phil B. Thompson, Sr., Phil B. Thompson, Jr., John B. Thompson, Jr., and Davis Thompson at the court house in Harrodsburg in December, 1873.

Walter Davis and his family had been on intimate terms with the Thompson family "for many years, and he had always been a warm political supporter of the Thompsons. Davis had been especially active in his support of Phil B. Thompson, Jr., in his race for Congress.

In December, 1882, Mr. Thompson went to Washington, D. C., on official duty and his wife went with him as far as Cincinnati where she stopped for a visit with some friends and relations who were boarding at the St. Clair Hotel. While there she was met by Mr. Davis, who, it was claimed, enticed her from the hotel and who drank with her until she was drunk and then took her to her room while in that condition.

When Mr. Thompson heard of his wife's conduct he refused to live with her again, and he never saw Davis any more until the time of the killing.

The shooting took place on a passenger coach on the Cincinnati Southern road at the Harrodsburg Junction.

Mr. Davis had started to visit his brother at Chicago, and Mr. Thompson had started to Lexington, Ky., with Mr. J. W. Chinn, to witness the speed of Mr. China's horses. Mr. Thompson rode from the Harrodsburg station to the junction in the passenger coach and Mr. Davis rode in the baggage car, which was also used as a smoking car, and they did not meet until they reached the junction. Mr. Thompson changed cars and had taken his seat in the Cincinnati Southern coach near the door. Mr. Davis went in the same coach and seeing Thompson started towards him holding out his hand and said, " How are you Phil? " to which Thompson replied, " You damn son of a b—h, do you dare to speak to me after debauching my wife ? '' and at the same time rising from his seat. Davis turned quickly and went out; he slammed the car door and started down the steps; at that moment the car started. As he passed the front window to the steps Thompson drew his pistol and fired through the glass, the ball entered the back of his head and he fell from the train and rolled twelve or fifteen feet down an embankment. After the shooting Thompson got off the train and returned to Harrodsburg upon the same train which carried him out. The body of Davis was also taken back on the same train.

Thompson went to the residence of John B. Thompson, his brother, and there remained until the Circuit Court convened, a term of which was at that time being held at Harrodsburg. He went to the court room and walked into the bar and addressed Hon. C. A. Hardin, the presiding Judge as follows:

''May it please your Honor: I know it is not customary, on occasions of this kind for the person appearing before the court, to make any statement of the facts surrounding an affair like this, but I deem it due to myself, the position I occupy, the community in which I have lived so long and who have so often honored me, that I should say something in reference to this unfortunate affair. I need not point to my long life and unblemished character for honor before these people as a justification of what I did, but feel that they should know from me or hear from me a history of the case or a portion of it. Last December, being called to Washington City by the duties growing out of my position, I was accompanied by my wife to Cincinnati; and being anxious to go to Washington as soon as possible, I left on Monday, the same day of my arrival in Cincinnati, and left my wife with friends in that city. The next day Mr. Walter H. Davis, the deceased, came to Cincinnati, and having met her upon the street, registered himself at a hotel and learning from her and the lady who accompanied her that she was stopping at the St. Glair Hotel, he followed them down to the hotel, sought her out and registered again there under an assumed name and took a room at the St. Clair. He then carried her out, under the protest of friends and having plied her with drink until she was utterly besotted, well knowing her infirmity in that respect, and continued his application until he carried her to his room, debauched her, making her the victim in her unfortunate condition of his degraded lusts; then turned her out to wander where she would until picked up by the night watchman, who carried her to her friends.

“Having accomplished my dishonor, he left the house before breakfast. While I had been informed of some of these facts relating to her intoxication, and that he was the cause of her public exposure at the hotel and her degradation, I did not know the extent of the wrong until last Tuesday night as I returned home, when I was fully informed of the infamy which he had heaped upon her and my family. I do not believe that I will receive the censure of this people, but whatever is the will of the court, I bow to it and submit as becomes a good citizen. This has broken up and destroyed my domestic relations and my peace and happiness. My daughter, dearer to me than all else on earth, is an exile from home and an outcast from society. She has sobbed herself to sleep on my bosom under this great calamity, only a part of which, she knew. His blood is but a feeble atonement for her tears, and had he an hundred lives, all of them would not atone for this great wrong.

'' For the first time, this morning, I met him and I feel that I did what any man, who had a home that he loved and a daughter dear to him, would do, if he has courage to defend them from wrongs. In this I hope and feel that I receive the sympathy of the good and the virtuous and now submit to the action of the court."

"When he concluded the Judge said: "It is, perhaps improper for me, occupying the bench, to express the sympathy I feel for Mr. Thompson as a man, but I deem it my official duty to hold him to bail to await any indictment the grand jury now in session, may find against him and fix his bail at five thousand dollars."

The bond was promptly given and he was released from custody.

During the speech of Mr. Thompson the court house was packed and every word was listened to with earnest attention.

In many respects the trial of Phil B. Thompson, Jr., was one of the most interesting ever held in the State. There have been very few instances where such eminent legal talent had been arrayed on opposing sides in any one case in Kentucky or elsewhere.

The attorneys representing the Commonwealth were Fin- ley Shuck, Commonwealth's Attorney; James E. Cantrill, who was Lieutenant Governor at that time and afterwards Circuit Judge and Judge of the Court of Appeals; W. C. Owens, Congressman from the Seventh district of Kentucky, at that time Speaker of the House of Representatives; Judge Jerry R. Morton, of Lexington; Col. George Denny, of Lancaster, and B. S. Robbins, of LaGrange.

For the defense were United States Senator Daniel W. Voorhees, of Indiana; Senator J. C. S. Blackburn, of Versailles; Gen. D. W. Lindsey, of Frankfort; Col. R. P. Jacobs, of Danville; Col. Phil B. Thompson, Sr., and Col. T. C. Bell, of Harrodsburg.

On May 8th, the case was called at Harrodsburg, Ky., the Hon. Charles A. Hardin presiding. A large number of prominent people from other sections of the State were present to hear the trial.

The case was called in the morning and passed until two o'clock at which time both sides announced ready and the great legal battle was begun.

The first question of importance was raised when the Commonwealth moved the court to commit the defendant to jail during the intermissions of the court, and the defense moved the court to permit the defendant to remain on the bond which had been given, during the progress of the trial. His bondsmen consenting, the court permitted him to remain on bail during the progress of the trial until the case was finally submitted to the jury.

The next question which produced much oratory was a motion made by the prosecution to excuse one of the jurors, who had not been sworn, but who had been accepted by both sides. The Commonwealth stated that since the juror had been selected it had been discovered that he had an indictment for unlawfully shooting pending against him.

The Judge ruled in favor of the Commonwealth and the juror was excused.

Judge Jerry Morton stated the case for the Commonwealth.

The first witness was Mr. K. C. Smith, ex-Town Marshal of Harrodsburg, who testified in words or substance as follows: I was on the train the morning of the killing; when we reached the junction with the Southern road, while I was waiting for the Southern train, I saw Davis at the door of the baggage car of the branch road. He spoke to me and asked where I was going. I said to Lexington. He said that he was going to the same place. The train then came up and I went into the smoking car. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Chinn were standing up talking. I went on several feet beyond them. When Davis came in with his satchel and coat on his left arm, he held out his right hand to Mr. Thompson; Mr. Thompson said, “Have you the impudence to speak to me, you damn son of a b—h, after ruining my wife and family?” and reached for his revolver. Davis threw his right hand back, but I don't know whether for a pistol or the door knob. Mr. Thompson drew his pistol as he spoke, and as Davis slammed the door, Davis sorter dodged. Mr. Thompson fired and I saw Davis no more until the train was stopped and we found him on the ground dead. He was shot in the rear of the right ear. There was a lightning Colts revolver, thirty-five caliber, self cocker, in Davis' pocket, partially out. I helped carry him up the platform, holding the pistol in as best I could; when we laid him down, the pistol fell out of his pocket. I saw cartridges in the chamber of the pistol.

Pat Nester, a newsboy, saw practically the same as Mr. Smith; when Davis came in he heard Davis and Thompson quarreling. Mr. Chinn was near them, the witness said: “I heard some one say, ' For God's sake don't.' I saw Davis back out of the car, and his valise got caught on the door and then it caught a second time, he pulled it a third time and slammed the door so hard that it broke the glass; about the time the door was shut, Thompson was getting his revolver out. He stepped towards the window and as Davis passed the window, Thompson fired, with the revolver about six inches from the window glass. The next time I saw Davis he was dead, and was lying twelve or fifteen feet from the track. When Davis came into the car he had his right hand on the door knob and never let go of it at all, as I saw; I did not see him extend his hand to Mr. Thompson."

John Wilson, conductor on the branch road, after telling about the killing said: '' After the shot was fired Mr. Thompson stepped off of the train onto the platform opposite the body of Davis, I turned Davis over and said, ' Phil you have killed Walter; why did you do it? ' Phil said, ' Davis had gotten his wife drunk, at Cincinnati, took her to his room and turned her out into the hall of the hotel to be picked up by the watchman, and that he could never look his daughter in the face again while that man lived.' Mr. Thompson twice alluded to his daughter, saying that she was an outcast from society, and he must kill Davis before he could look her in the face again."

Dr. Forsythe said: "I saw the wound; the ball entered the brain in the rear of the right ear and ranged from right to left; then to the front and downward. It was a deadly wound for any man."

The first witness introduced for the defense was Col. Jack Chinn, the noted turfman and politician. He was with Thompson at the time of the killing; his evidence was along the same line of the prosecution. He gave a detailed account of the trip from Harrodsburg to the junction and a very minute account of the killing.

After the introduction of several other witnesses, Mrs. Roth, a handsome French lady, about thirty years of age, wife of the hotel proprietor in Cincinnati, was introduced; nearly a whole day was taken up by the opposing counsel in the case. The Commonwealth claimed that her evidence was not competent, but Judge Hardin permitted it to go to the jury.

She said in part: “I am the wife of the proprietor of the St. Clair Hotel and housekeeper. I am a native of Louisville; Miss Buckner boarded with us. Her room was number forty-nine. It could not be seen from the elevator. Mrs. Thompson occupied room forty-nine with Miss Buckner. She came from the Burnett House. She remained one or two nights. I first saw her the afternoon of the last night. I asked her what she wanted; she said Miss Buckner's room. Next time I saw her, was in the hall at night. I was attracted by talking in the hall, and went out and saw Mrs. Thompson and Davis standing in front of Davis' room. She was very much intoxicated. I asked her what she wanted, and she said she wanted to go to Miss Buckner's room. I said I would take her. Davis said, very well, good night. I took Mrs. Thompson to Miss Buckner's room and rapped on the side window and awakened her. I wanted to see if Miss Buckner would notice Mrs. Thompson's condition and what she would say. Miss Buckner said, ' I thought you said you were going to the theater ' Mrs. Thompson said, ' We did go.' Miss Buckner said, ' When I go I don't get back this early.' Mrs. Thompson said that she left before the theater was over. The night watchman told me that he had tried Miss Buckner's door but could not arouse her and that she was not there. I said, I know she is, but she is sick. Then I went and aroused her, taking Mrs. Thompson with me. I had been out visiting and came in that evening at nine-thirty when John told me, as I went up the elevator, that the man who had room nineteen had come in with the lady who was with Miss Buckner, and they had been drinking and had gone to room nineteen and all was not right.

''When I saw Mrs. Thompson in the evening in the hall, she was staggering drunk. I asked her if she was sick; she said, 'no,' and tried to straighten up, but she was too intoxicated and bumped against the wall and struck her head against the door and finally got to Miss Buckner's room. When I first came in and John told me about Davis and Mrs. Thompson going up intoxicated and that they both went into Davis" room, I passed by room nineteen and the door was closed. Davis opened it to take Mrs. Thompson to Miss Buckner's room, when I found them in the hall, but I said I would take her. I told Miss Buckner the next day that neither Davis nor Mrs. Thompson could room there any more."

John Maurer corroborated Mrs. Koth. He said that Davis and Mrs. Thompson had come in at nine o 'clock, both of them had been drinking. When they left the elevator, Davis said, “Come this way, this is our room over this way.” Davis took her to his room. About eleven o'clock I went up to put out the gas and Mrs. Thompson came out of room nineteen followed by Davis. I said, “Lady, what do you want?” She said,'' I want to go to Miss Buckner's room.'' Davis said that he would go with her, but I would not let him. Mrs. Thompson was very drunk and staggered along holding to the wall.

The defense proved that Davis registered at the St. Glair Hotel on the 28th of November. Mrs. P. B. Thompson's name was found registered November 27th, and assigned to Miss Buckner's room. Davis was assigned to room nineteen as shown by the register.

Mr. M. T. Threlkeld was in Cincinnati at this time with Davis. He said: '' Davis, on separating from me in the afternoon, said that he would see me again that evening. I put up at the Gibson House and ordered a room with two beds. Davis did not register. He told me he was stopping at the Emery. I expected he would stay with me over night and that was my reason for ordering two beds. Next morning- I saw him and asked him why he didn't come around. He said he had some business which delayed him. I jokingly combated that excuse and he then said, ' To tell the truth I drank a little wine and got a little full.' He may have said that he got as drunk as a fool, but my recollection now is, he said, ' I acted the fool.' "

After several hours’ argument on the question, Judge Hardin gave John B. Thompson, Jr., the twin brother of the defendant, permission to tell the jury what he had found on investigation. He stated in substance: that he went to Washington City to see the defendant and he found that a letter had been received by him from Miss Buckner in which she had told him about his wife being drunk while in Cincinnati and that the defendant had written to Miss Buckner and his wife asking all the particulars and that his wife refused to tell anything that took place at Cincinnati. The defendant had stopped in Cincinnati as he came home, a few days prior to the killing and had investigated the report in regard to his wife, and he said, “I investigated and verified the worst what we heard."

On the fifth day of the trial, Miss Jessie Buckner, from Cincinnati, was placed on the stand and while she was testifying, three ladies dressed in black came into the court room for the first time. One of them was the widow of Walter H. Davis, another one of them was her sister and the other was the mother of Mrs. Davis and who was the wife of Governor Robinson. Miss Buckner told about Mrs. Thompson being drunk in the afternoon, and about Davis being with her. She said: "In spite of my protestations that evening the two left the hotel to go to the theater and I did not see her again until about eleven o'clock that night. Mrs. Thompson was at that time as drunk as she could be and fell on the floor in a heap; the next morning she left for Harrodsburg. The next time I saw Davis, I told him that he took his life in his own hands when he went home where he would see Phil, who would be sure to avenge the insult to his family."

The witness then made a detailed statement of the whole matter which she said she told the defendant, after he had insisted on her telling it to him. At the close of Miss Buckner's evidence the defense rested, and the Commonwealth introduced twelve witnesses in rebuttal.

The court instructed the jury: First, as to the murder; second, manslaughter; third, if in doubt the jury should find for the lesser offense; fourth, as to self-defense; fifth, if the jury believe from the evidence that Phil B. Thompson, Jr., at the time he killed Walter Davis, if they believe from the evidence that he did kill him, was so mentally insane as not to know that such an act was either legally or morally wrong, or not to have sufficient power or control to govern his actions, they should acquit him; sixth, if there is a reasonable doubt of the defendants being proven to be guilty he is entitled to be acquitted.

The court gave each side seven hours in which to argue the case to the jury.

B. S. Bobbins commenced the argument for the prosecution, followed by W. C. Owens. Senator Voorhees made an eloquent plea for the defense, while he was describing the meeting at the time of the killing he said, it was more than man could do to restrain himself; James Garnet, the brother of Mrs. Thompson called out, " You are a G— d—d liar.'' The Judge ordered Garnet removed from the court room.

Governor James E. Cantrill, Judge Jerry Morton, Judge Denny and Finley Shuck made arguments for the prosecution, and Col. Thomas C. Bell and Hon. J. C. S. Blackburn for the defense.

Judge George Denny made the strongest argument which was made for the prosecution and Hon. J. C. S. Blackburn made the best for the defense. Many people who heard him said, “He made the best speech that was ever made in Harrodsburg.” During the trial Mr. Blackburn received the following telegram: ''Guthrie, Ky., May 10th.—Twenty thousand men in Southern Kentucky say, ' Little Phil ' did right." (Signed)" Soldier.''

After about two hours consultation the jury returned into court the following verdict: “We, the jury, find the defendant Phil B. Thompson, Jr., not guilty as charged in the indictment.


The last words had not been uttered, before a shout went up which shook the court house to its foundation, and it was repeated over and over again, in spite of the Judge's gavel and the sheriff's cries for order. The crowd made a rush to shake hands with the defendant and the lawyers who defended him.

Walter H. Davis was a prominent business man at Harrodsburg; he had been on intimate terms with the Thompson family and this friendship had been made closer by his marrying a close friend of Phil B. Thompson, Jr. He left a wife and two small children. The friends of Davis claimed that he found Mrs. Thompson on the streets of Cincinnati, in an intoxicated condition and that he took her to his room in order to get her sober and to protect her while she was in a helpless condition and that his conduct towards her was honorable and in keeping with the excellent character of the man.

Phil B. Thompson, Jr., was a bright young man under thirty-eight years of age at the time of the tragedy. He was a son of Phil B. Thompson, Sr., one of the best criminal lawyers in Kentucky at that time. He was known as '' Little Phil," he had many striking qualities of his father and also of his Uncle John B. Thompson, Sr., who was Lieutenant Governor, and later was United States Senator from Kentucky, and who was also one of the great criminal lawyers of the State.

Phil B. Thompson, Jr., served with his twin brother John B. Thompson, Jr., as a Confederate soldier under General John H. Morgan. It was said that the twin brothers were so much alike in personal appearance that it was very difficult for their best friends to distinguish one from the other. They were only boys when the war closed and when they returned to their homes both of them studied law. Phil B. Thompson, Jr., was elected Commonwealth's Attorney in his district and he won distinction as a prosecutor. They were so much alike, not only in personal appearance but they had the same expression from the eye and the same tone of voice to such an extent that, when it was not convenient for Phil B., to attend court and perform the duties of Commonwealth's Attorney his brother John B., would take his place and neither judge nor juror would know the difference.

Phil B. Thompson, Jr., was elected to the Forty-Sixth, Forty-Seventh and Forty-Eighth Congress. He was serving in the Forty-Eighth Congress at the time of the unfortunate killing. In his first race for Congress he defeated William 0. Bradley, one of the brightest lawyers in the State and who was afterwards Governor of Kentucky and United States Senator. In his second race he defeated Speed S. Fry who was a very popular man.


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