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The most celebrated criminal case of this section

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Photo above: highlighted detail from ‘The Wrestlers,’ by British painter Charles Turner, 1810

The Roanoke Times, Roanoke, VA, December 20, 1892, page 3:The Roanoke Times, Roanoke, VA. https://www.newspapers.com/image/77813728/">1

One of the most anomalous cases known to Kentucky criminal procedure was tried at the September term of the Lewis county circuit court in 1836. It was peculiar, not so much on account of the crime (mayhem) as it was because of the unheard-of conduct of the Sheriff and prisoner after conviction.

The particulars of this odd case (that have furnished several generations of lawyers) were gathered from an interview with ex-Congressman George M. Thomas, of Vanceburg, and from the records of the case now among the archives of the Lewis circuit court. As the details of the case have never before appeared in print, your readers, especially among the legal fraternity, will doubtless be interested in the following narrative:

In the spring of 1836 Larkin Lyles and Edward Campbell, two prominent citizens of Lewis county, engaged in a rough-and-tumble fight at Vanceburg. They were both powerful men physically, and, as witnesses afterward testified, they ‘hit one another like hosses a-kicking.’ Finally, after each contestant had registered a number of knockdown blows, Campbell got his opponent down and proceeded to punish him in harmony with the most approved methods of the old-time fistic art.

Lyles, who had ‘worn the belt’ for several generations, grew desperate at the awful prospect of being ‘licked,’ and, raising his head with bulldog ferocity, he seized the nether lip of the prospective victor between his teeth, and eliminated a large chunk from the inner part of it. At the succeeding term of the circuit court the grand jury indicted Lyles for the crime of mayhem, and a trial was at once accorded the defendant.

The next day Parker rode out to Lyles’ home, and found the latter ‘cutting up corn.’
The next day Parker rode out to Lyles’ home, and found the latter ‘cutting up corn.’

Many amusing episodes occurred during the progress of the trial. ‘Jaybird’ Lyles, the brother of the defendant, when being questioned as to how he obtained such a perfect view of all that transpired during the tussle on the ground, said: ‘Cause, when they got down onter the ground, I wuz standin’ in about ten steps uv ‘em. I then advanced three steps backwards till I got in a diamatry persition whar I cud have a perfect octangetor view.’

The jury, after listening to the testimony, retired, and after a prolonged consultation, Returned a verdict of guilty. Judge Walker Reid, therefore, sentenced the defendant to the penitentiary for one year. And now come the features of the case that constitute it a striking anomaly in criminal history.

The sheriff, W.B. Parker, nicknamed ‘Buck,’ was a life-long chum of the sentenced man. Accordingly, instead of taking possession of Lyles’ person, he told him to ‘go on home, and he would see him the following day.’ Lyles, acting on this liberal suggestion, mounted his old black horse and left for home, seven miles south of the county seat. 

The next day Parker rode out to Lyles’ home, and found the latter ‘cutting up corn.’

‘Hello, friend Larkin!’ shouted the sheriff, riding up to the rail fence, a few steps away from the prisoner.

‘Hello, Buck! Good mornin’. ‘

‘Hard at work, I see?’

‘Yep; gittin’ my hand in, ye see, so’s it won’t go ser fox-laked hard wim me, when I git ter Frankfert.’

‘Er, haw, haw, haw!’ merrily shouted the sheriff. ‘When do you think you’ll be ready to start, Larkin?’

‘I can’t tell jist yit, Buck,’ returned Lyles, coming to the fence and resting his arms on the top rail.

‘Wal, about when do you think?’

‘Lemme see, now,’ returned the sentenced man, scratching his head in puzzled cogitation. ‘I’ll try ter git ready two weeks from ter day. Ye see, Buck, I’ve got er heap sight ‘o things ter see to afore I kin possibly git off. The co’n is all ter cut up, my stray hogs must be hunted an’ put up, an’ dead oodles uv uther matters to see to; but I’ll be ready by that time if thar’s no providential hindrances.’

‘All right, friend Larkin; I don’t want to discommode ye no way, shape er fashion. Thar ain’t no big hurry fer ye down thar ter Frankfort that I kin see. It’s got along very well so fur without ye, an’ I guess it can do a leetle while longer. Go right ahead an’ fix up yer matters so’s Polly Ann will hev as little trouble as possible, an when ye’ve got perfectly ready, if I don’t see ye ‘tween now an’ then, jist come on in an’ we’ll go.’

‘All right, Buck. Come around to the house. I heard the dinner horn a-blowin’. ‘

‘I’ll do it, Larkin, fer I hearn yer son John killed a fine fat deer yisterday, an’ ter git a few mouthfuls of it is mostly what brought me over today.’

Two weeks later Larkin Lyles came in and reported to the sheriff.

‘Well,’ spoke the sheriff, ‘if you’re ready, Larkin, I am. Which route do you want to take?’

‘I don’t know what’s your choice route. I propose to go the neardest way, through the hills, an’ take my gun an’ hunt through to Frankfort.’

‘All right, Larkin,’ returned the sheriff. ‘You walk through, if it suits you best. I’ve got a little bizness ter see to at Mayville; so I’ll just go on thar an’ tend to it, an’ then take the stage over the turnpike. I’ll try to be there before you do.’

‘You’ll have to make mighty good time, Buck, ef ye do.’

So sheriff and prisoner started for Frankfort, each taking a separate route. On the way through the hills Lyles killed several deer, and arrived at Frankfort before the sheriff got there.

He reported at once to Gov. Clark. When the latter entered the waiting room Lyles arose and extended his hand.

‘Be you Gov. Clark?’

‘I am, sir. What can I do for you?’

‘Put me in the penitentiary,’ was the laconic reply.

‘Put you in the penitentiary!’ exclaimed the bewildered executive. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Just what I sed. I wuz tried in Lewis county for bitin’ off a durn cusses lip, an’ wuz tried fer it, and the judge sentenced me. Ain’t Sheriff Parker never showed up yit?’

‘No, sir; I know nothing about your case. I’ve no authority to put you in the penitentiary. Where is the sheriff?’

‘Why,’ returned the astonished Lyles, ‘hain’t he never cum? He started the same time I did, and az I walked through, an’ he took the stage, I’d think he orter be here. I’m kinder uneasy erbout him.’

The two friends leaped toward each other with unnatural exclamations of delight.

While they were discussing, and the old governor was puzzling over the strange case, the sheriff came in.

The two friends leaped toward each other with unnatural exclamations of delight.

After they had shaken hands warmly, the sheriff, who knew the governor well, introduced the prisoner as one of the ‘best-hearted men in eastern Kentucky.’

‘Well, now,’ spoke the governor, ‘let’s understand this business. Was this man sentenced to the penitentiary for mayhem?’

‘No,’ returned the sheriff, ‘not for May hens—it was for bitin’ a piece outen the inside of Ed Campbell’s lower lip. An’ now, I want ter tell ye, governor, there never was a better man than Larkin Lyles, an’ I want ter say further, that Ed Campbell is a heap sight better lookin’ man than he wuz before. His lip wuz a heap too thick, governor, an’ Larkin jist trimmed it down to about the right size.’

‘Well,’ returned Gov. Clark, laughing, ‘isn’t this rather strange conduct in an officer leaving a man sentenced to the penitentiary to come alone? Did you know you were responsible for him?’

‘Sartinly, governor, I knowed all that. I know’d jist what I wuz doin’. Ef you know’d Larkin as well as I do, you wouldn’t a-been afeared ter trust him either. I hope you’ll pardon me, governor, for this little irregularity.’

‘Yes, I will,’ returned Gov. Clark, ‘and I’ll pardon him, too. You can both go home.’

So ends the account of the most celebrated criminal case of this section. The truth of it can be substantiated by the records of the Lewis circuit court, and by men of the highest veracity, who, though old, still retain a vivid remembrance of this remarkable case.

More articles on KY court system quirks:

Lots of people thought I was an idiot(Opens in a new browser tab)

We shook hands with them all, including two held for murder(Opens in a new browser tab)

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