Monday, October 24, 2016

A Cryptic Message

Owingsville has a rich and storied past, but perhaps it's the words found scribbled in peculiar places that tell something more. 
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go inside the Bath County Courthouse's bell tower for the first time, accompanied by Emergency Management Director Jason York and his step-daughter Kenzie. On one of the boards, there were names scribbled with dates from as far back as 1917 on it; surprisingly well preserved over all this time.  As we made our way downstairs, one cryptic message was found written on a wall behind a door.  This message wouldn't normally be visible and is almost hidden behind the door, but is written in an old style of lettering.  But first, a little back story.
July 6, 1895 was probably a hot summer day in Owingsville.  One could imagine the sun beating down and the dust kicking up off the dirt roads in town.  A circus was in town on that day with many people taking in the day's activities.  Around 11 o'clock in the morning, two men met at Young's Saloon in town for the first of several times that day.  John D. Young, Jr. was the son of Congressman John Young and well known in Owingsville.  Pliny 'Clem' Fassett was a cousin to Young and the pair were soaking in some drinks when an argument erupted over an unpaid debt Fassett owed Young; another witness attested that the argument was due to Fassett asking Young to borrow money.  At either account, the pair squared off, then parted ways into the street. 
A while later, Young and Fassett were seen at the saloon once again, and another heated argument ensued.  A witness by the name of Coyle saw Young strike Fassett, knocking him to the ground.  Clem was put out of the saloon at this point, but was seen outside the doors with an open knife, taunting Young and threatening to "cut his heart out".  Fassett made such a ruckus in the street, that a crowd had gathered around him.  Witnesses stated they saw the drunken man with a knife and he was spouting off obscenities and threats toward Young. Town Marshal Marks approached Fassett and made him leave the street, escorting him to a bench in front of the Owings House, which was a hotel at the time.  After sitting with Fassett a few minutes, the town marshal left and went into Gaunce's Grocery Store across the street (in the row of businesses next to Smith's Hardware).  In the store, Marshal Marks saw John Young and asked him to go to the circus with him.  Sheriff James Lane was also in the grocery and witnessed this exchange.  Young told the marshal to go on, that he would catch up to him at the circus later.
After a few more minutes, Young walked out across the street and approached Fassett, who was still sitting on the bench.  Mr. Brother, who ran the dry goods store at the corner of North Court and Main Street, was leaning up against a lamp post talking to two other men when they noticed Fassett and Young begin to exchange words once again. 
"What did you follow me for," Pliny Fassett asked John Young.  Not saying a word, Young approached Fassett and knocked the hat off his head.  The Congressman's son then grabbed his cousin and dragged him outward into Main Street.  Fasset broke loose from Young's grip and asked, "what did you hit me for?  Why don't you tell these good gentlemen why you hit me".
Pliny shoved John away at that point and said again, "I want you to tell these people why you hit me for!". 
"I ain't afraid of you!  You better do something about it," Fassett taunted.  Young opened his coat and reached in it.  Witnesses scurried into the hotel, fearing Young was about to brandish a firearm.  E.V. Brother, George Young and C.C. Hazelrigg intervened and separated the two men, believing they had defused the conflict. At this point, the witness' recollections vary; it is agreed that Young backed Fassett against a rail, but their actions  are debated.  According to one testimony, Fassett lunged at Young, holding the knife he was seen with earlier.  Another witnessed stated he saw the men lock into a struggle and Young had a knife.  Whatever was the case, the result was Young struck Fassett in the neck with a knife, inflicting a fatal wound.  Fassett stumbled backward a few steps and collapsed against the railing outside the hotel, dying a short time later.
John D. Young, Jr., son of a congressman, was arrested for the killing of Pliny Fassett.  He was tried in Bath County Circuit Court, found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in prison in May, 1897.  The case was appealed and a motion for a new case was granted the following year.  The first retrial resulted in a hung jury. At least four of the jurors were heard openly talking about the case and how they felt Young should 'pay dearly for his actions'.   The second trial resulted in a fifteen year sentence, and an immediate appeal was granted on the grounds that an impartial jury could not be seated due to the Young family's stature in Bath County.  Circuit Judge Cooper granted a change in venue to Menifee County and the case was heard for a third time.  The Southwestern Reporter, Volume 42, published in 1898, contains Young's appeals case with a wealth of information regarding the case's details.  The final hearing was heard in April, 1899, with a sentence of two years for Young to serve for the killing.  It was the defense's argument that Young feared for his life and acted in self defense, due to statements made by Pliny Fasset that were overheard by witnesses;  some statements were in the context of Fassett stating he would "cut Young's head off and kick it in the hollow".  Eventually, in December, 1899, John Young, Jr. was formally pardoned by Governor William S. Taylor. 
This incident surprisingly isn't chronicled in John Adair Richards' A History of Bath County book, and I personally hadn't heard anything regarding this story until the day I went into the bell tower.  The cryptic message written on the wall reads, "Clem Fasst killed by John Young Clem Fassets gost inhabits this court house attic".  Whoever wrote this message is a mystery, and if Pliny 'Clem' Fassett's ghost really does haunt the attic of the courthouse is an equal mystery.  So, the next time you are in the courthouse and think you hear someone walking around upstairs or feel a strange presence, it may be Clem Fassett seeking justice after all this time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Turning Back Time: Restoring the Bath County Courthouse Clock Tower

The Bath County Courthouse is undergoing a renovation project just in time for it's 150 year anniversary.  The courthouse you see today is actually the third one for Bath County.  The first one was planned in June 1815 and completed in early 1816.  It was described as a brick two story structure and sat almost in the middle of Main Street at the stop light in Owingsville.   A second, wood frame courthouse was built in 1831, where the current one stands today. 
During the Civil War, Federal troops occupied Owingsville and were briefly garrisoned in the Bath County Courthouse.  Early on the morning of May 22, 1864,  the troops were alerted that a Confederate column was approaching Owingsville.  In their haste to meet the rebel troops, a coal stove was knocked over, quickly igniting the courthouse.  The building and many vital records of Bath County's earliest days were consumed by the fire.  The county received an indemnity from the Federal Government, and a new, and present, courthouse was built on the same site in 1866.
From 1866-1903, the Bath County Courthouse was a rectangular, ordinary structure.  The interior rooms were built to be fire proof and sturdy to prevent the loss of other vital records.  Under the administration of Judge Executive John A. Daugherty, a major renovation project was contracted, starting in 1903 and finishing in 1904.  The front of the courthouse was extended over four feet toward Main Street and a balcony was added for town criers.  The most prominent addition was the construction of the 102 foot tall clock and bell tower.  The tower was built with four clock faces pointing at each direction of the compass.  Built entirely of wood and brick, the tower is supported by several long iron rods that bear the weight of the structure and the 1,500 pound bell inside. 
Galvanized iron ornaments adorn the upper corners of the tower near the clock, and the belfry is an open structure with slats to reduce the elements from creeping in.  The upper dome of the tower is covered with slate tiles and more iron ornamental accents; indeed a commanding structure once finished. 
Accessing the bell and clock is not for the claustrophobic or those uneasy with high places.  Over the years, able bodied men, including my father Tommy, would make the climb up the narrow wooden ladder to wind the Seth Thomas clock mechanism and to clean the mounds of potentially harmful bird droppings.
Access into the bell tower via ladder
Some of those people added their names on a board near the clock's southward face; the earliest I personally found was the name John W. Brother, dated July 6, 1917.  
The bell, located on the fourth story of the five, was cast by the MC Shane Bell Foundry from Baltimore, Maryland and is date stamped 1903.  The large wooden wheel still turns and rocks the bell on the pedestal, but the pendulum was replaced with a mechanical striker attached by steel cables to the clock mechanism on the fifth story at some point.  Over the years, the elements crept into the aging tower and the boards began to decay.  It became unsafe to climb into the clock and perform the maintenance needed to keep it going; the once hourly bell fell silent.  The clock faces, however, still light up at night as a sort of beacon of time. 
Current Judge Executive Bobby Rogers has committed to restore the aging Bath County Courthouse during his term.  Utilizing local contractors and labor from inmates under the supervision of Jailer Earl Willis, work is being done to bring the structure back to its glory.  Tommy Johnson, owner of TJ Construction, was contracted to restore the interior of the bell tower.  Emergency Management Director Jason York gave me an exclusive tour of the tower recently and gave a progress report of the work that has been completed and what's yet to come.
"When they started working on the tower, there was about four inches of pigeon droppings all over the place," York said. 
"We had to have the guys working up there wear hazardous materials suits and respirators in order to stay safe".
The tower itself had shifted about four inches to the west due to seeping water damaging boards and support beams, according to Mr. Johnson.  Some of the ladder's rungs had to be replaced, along with other surrounding support beams that had rotted.  A large hydraulic jack was used to shore the tower and correct the lean, which wasn't readily noticed from street level.
Soon, the clock and bell will be restored back into working order, according to Emergency Management Director York.  Another proposed project at the old courthouse, spearheaded by the newly reorganized Bath County Tourism Council, is the creation of a Bath County Museum in the second floor court room area. The museum is only in the initial planning phases at this time, pending final approval and other preparations that need to be made to accommodate  
Judge Executive Rogers says he "feels the old courthouse is a lasting monument that has meant so much to the people of Bath County. 
That's why the Fiscal Court and I placed such an emphasis on restoring this county treasure." 
 The restoration and future projects at the old Bath County Courthouse should make this historic county treasure an active part of many more generations to come.

Below are some pictures inside the clock and bell tower:

A Seth Thomas type clock mechanism

An ominous message scribbled on a wall
Names and graffiti from long ago