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Killings: Folk Justice in the Upper South

Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The "State Line Country" of this book is a rugged area of small farms on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Historically the area has had a homicide rate more than ten times the national average.

    In this gripping and penetrating study of violence and death in the State Line Country, Lynwood Montell examines the local historical and social conditions, as well as the prevailing attitudes and values, that gave rise and support to rowdy behavior and homicidal acts from the Civil War to the 1930s. The area fostered, he thinks, a culture of violence. Drawing from vivid oral accounts, which he recorded from present-day residents,

    Montell describes more than fifty killings that took place in the area, locating them against a background of farming, moonshining, and sawmilling activities common in that country. In addition to reconstructing the homicides, he analyzes their key features, including the circumstances under which they took place, the relationships of the persons involved, the presence of precipitating factors (such as deadly weapons and alcohol) in the culture, and attitudes toward law enforcement officers and the courts.

    This close examination of homicide in the State Line Country, which views the tradition from regional and national perspectives, adds a significant dimension to the study of homicide in the South.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5815-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxviii)

    During Indiana University’s spring term, 1963, visiting professor Carl O. Sauer issued a challenge to a graduate seminar in cultural geography, of which I was a member. His charge to us was to select a small geographical area for study, return to it every 15 years to observe the changes that had taken place, and attempt to explain why they came about. Following this advice, I chose a small portion of the Upper South, mainly because of its proximity to Campbellsville College, where I taught from 1963 to 1969, and to Western Kentucky University, which has served as my academic...

  5. 1 In the Beginning
    (pp. 1-22)

    THE STATE LINE country is shared by two states and four counties—two of them in each state. The area is characterized by rocky hills, steep bluffs, sharp ridges, and narrow valleys. In some instances, prominent ridges may rise 500 to 1,200 feet above the valley floors, while pressing closely against the narrow strips of fertile bottomlands at their base; many other ridges are overly stingy and leave no room for patches of tobacco and corn. The central portion of the area contains a combination of all these physical features, but its rugged and nearly inaccessible terrain explains why local...

  6. 2 The Self-Sufficient Years
    (pp. 23-64)

    THE YEAR 1890 represents the approximate date to which current oral traditions reach back in time, thus marking the beginning of the area’s recent history from the insider’s perspective. The narrators had a “feeling” for the years that have come and gone since that time; they or their parents frequently knew firsthand about living conditions and various killings, which they described with unflagging interest. The coming of the entrepreneurial sawmills about 1915 symbolized the beginning of the end of an old way of life in the State Line country, for logging and sawmilling marked the introduction of cash employment for...

  7. 3 A Changing Culture
    (pp. 65-85)

    THE 33 KILLINGS that took place between 1915 and 1940 marked a dramatic increase in the local homicide rate. Such a prolific demonstration of violence reflects a basic alteration of the area’s social and economic structure, which was brought about chiefly by the introduction of extractive industry and the new reality of wage employment. To obtain a fuller perspective on the violent episodes that occurred mainly during the period between the two world wars, it should be helpful to examine both the static and dynamic character of State Line economy for those trying years. The killings themselves will be described...

  8. 4 Violence between the World Wars
    (pp. 86-125)

    THE EASE with which whiskey could be obtained taught the residents of the State Line country to accept drinking, brawling, knifing, and gunshooting as common occurrences. The death of a close relative in a drunken brawl was an ever-present possibility and became reality all too often. A former sheriff testified that “90 percent or more of the knifings and shootings in that area were alcohol related. Someone would get into an argument about something when they’re drinking, and that generally led up to a killing.” It was not the presence of whiskey that brought about the practice of carrying knives...

  9. 5 A New Generation
    (pp. 126-143)

    THE COMING of the modern era for the people of the State Line country was marked by the end of the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. Until that time, local economy, mores, codes of behavior, and churches and schools were all firmly rooted in the past. It was not a lack of propensity for change that characterized the culture; it was a lack of the wherewithal to move ahead. Modern conveniences that other Americans were beginning to accept as routine were not available to the people here. They did not yet have electricity in their homes,...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 144-166)

    I began this investigation of killings in the State Line country because I suspected that the homicide rate there was higher than in the surrounding region; I wanted to determine whether that was indeed the case and, if so, why. Once narrators understood my purpose and accepted me, I was struck by the candor with which they talked about the numerous fatal episodes that had taken place in their home communities. Equally impressive were their attitudes of acceptance toward these killings. The narrators did not view most of the homicides, regardless of the motive, as criminal acts. In this, their...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 167-172)
  12. Works Consulted
    (pp. 173-180)
  13. Index
    (pp. 181-186)