Sheriff acquitted of 1877 murder

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Story filled with twists, turns attracted national attention

By Dave Taylor

The story reads like the synopsis for a 1950s television pilot about the old west. But it really happened—not in Hollywood but here in Carroll County in 1877.

Sometime late in the evening hours of Monday, July 16, and the early morning hours of Tuesday, July 17, 1877, Carrie Anderson was shot to death at her family’s home in Worthville. Those arrested and charged in connection with the shooting were none other than the incumbent county sheriff, Joseph Myrick; Charles Gardiner, Myrick’s brother-in-law who was also a deputy sheriff; former sheriff J.W. Sullenger, Julius Pettit, Edward Thompson and Nate Orr.

All were incarcerated in the county jail. This was a facility that preceded the Old Stone Jail that now serves as the office for the Main Street Program in the Carroll County Courthouse square. The jail facility used by the county in the years prior to 1877 had been the site of numerous breakouts and had been condemned in January 1877. The county continued to use the facility until the stone jail was completed in March 1880.

“Public opinion was pitched high against the accused and a lynching was feared,” according to the Military History of Kentucky, a study completed by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project during the 1930s. “Upon request of civil authorities the Governor [James B. McCreary] ordered Adjutant General J. M. Wright to call out troops. The Covington Light Guards, under Captain Frank Wood, were detailed to guard the prisoners during their trial and remained on duty at Carrollton” for eight days in August.

While numerous stories were rampant around the county, some light was officially shed on the circumstances surrounding the young woman’s death when a grand jury examination was convened in mid-August to hear testimony. The courthouse building where the grand jury hearing and subsequent trial was held is no longer standing. It was replaced by the present county courthouse in 1884.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, on Aug. 17, printed a report of the grand jury testimony of the deceased girl’s brother.

“John Anderson, brother of Carrie Anderson, states that before the murder he and (Sheriff) Myrick had a fuss. Myrick accused him of burning his house, called him a thief, struck him in the face, called him a liar, and said that he could prove that he (Anderson) burned his house, and then and there threatened to shoot him. During the quarrel he pulled two revolvers and offered one to him, keeping one for himself, which at that moment went off accidentally. His father, before the murder, received a written notice from persons unknown desiring him and his family to leave the county or to suffer more than he could imagine.”

Among the last persons arrested as a party to the crime was Nate Orr, The New York Times reported on Aug. 21. During a recess in the grand jury examination Orr, in the presence of his brother who was an attorney, met with prosecuting attorney Donaldson and Major W.R. Kinney, a Louisville attorney who was assisting in the prosecution of the case. Orr “told the counsel exactly what he knew,” according to The Times. “They then determined to put him on the stand as a witness instead of a prisoner. When court opened and Orr was placed upon the witness stand a sensation was created.”

The defense attempted to prevent Orr’s testimony but their arguments were overruled by Judge Fisher who presided over the proceedings. Orr was allowed to relate his version of the circumstances surrounding the shooting and killing.

As reported in The New York Times on Aug. 21, Orr testified that on the evening of July 16 he was invited by Julius Pettit to join him for some fun. Mounting their horses Orr, Pettit and Thompson left George Pettit’s residence near Ghent shortly after dark, and reached the Worthville Road near Gap Hill about 10 p.m., and there met Joseph Myrick, J. T. Sullenger, and Charles Gardner.

The whole party then proceeded together toward Worthville, at an ordinary gait. All but Sullenger had double-barreled shotguns. Orr said he rode with Sullenger, who informed him that they were going to give Bill Anderson a scare, so as to run him off. Sullenger claimed the Andersons had burned Joe Myrick’s house. There was no intention to commit violence or to have a difficulty unless attacked, Orr said. The men hitched their horses at Dean’s Chapel in Worthville, and remained there about a half-hour before proceeding to the Anderson residence.

According to Orr’s testimony Myrick took a turpentine ball made with candlewicks, placed it near the corner of the house and set it on fire. They then heard a noise in the house, and thought the Andersons were coming. When the door opened Myrick fired his gun into the air. Some of the others – Orr could not state who, except that it was not Sullenger – fired from behind them, and a girl screamed.

Myrick exclaimed, “My God, don’t shoot any more, you have killed a woman!”

The intruders immediately left, and remounting their horses, rode in a trot or pace to the pike near Gap Hill, where Gardner separated from them, going toward Carrollton. The rest of the party went to Pettit’s and remained there until morning.

Defense attorneys then argued successfully for the judge to postpone the hearing until a later date, in order that they might have time to prepare their line of defense.

“The scenes today around the courthouse were exciting,” The Cincinnati Enquirer reported on Aug. 22. “As the doors were opened the crowds rushed from all points to gain entrance to hear the result of this interesting trial, as the men who are charged with the crime are highly esteemed in this community, and have heretofore borne an excellent character, and were very popular, except that of Thompson, of whom there is not very much known.”

A day later the Cincinnati paper reported that Myrick, Sullinger, Gardiner, Pettit and Thompson had that morning been placed aboard the steamboat Eddyville in charge of E.H. Smith and a guard of 11 men en route to Louisville for safe keeping. On the finding of the grand jury that enough evidence existed for a trial the prisoners had been remanded to the Louisville jail to be confined until the next term of Carroll Circuit Court, which was scheduled to convene during the second week in November.

Nate Orr, in exchange for his testimony as state’s evidence, was “set at liberty,” the newspaper reported.

As the trial commenced in November, a Louisville reporter for The Courier-Journal wrote of the climate among the citizenry in and around Carrollton on Nov. 14, 1877:

“The feeling seems to be in general in the county, so far as we have heard any expression, that there are men on the jury who are there for the purpose of acquitting these men no matter how strong the evidence may be.”

On the following day the defendants were, indeed, acquitted of the charges and set free. The Courier-Journal editorialized that day about the acquittal:

 “If these men did not do the killing, it devolves upon the people of Carroll County to find out who did and bring them to the halter [an alternate term for the hangman’s noose], or there will be another damnable crime in a few days to blacken still further the good name of Kentucky. These assassinations must be stopped, even if several wholesale hangings are necessary.”

All of the players in this case, perpetrators, attorneys, witnesses and jurors have long since joined Carrie Anderson in the eternal realm. Was justice done? Did a vigilante gang, led by a local sheriff sworn to uphold the law, get away with murder? If The Courier-Journal reporter’s account is to be believed, many local residents thought so at the time.


Dave Taylor is a staff writer at The News-Democrat and the author of several books on local history.