Kentucky homicide rates outdo those of major cities


HYDEN, Ky. -- People wave when they pass each other along the mountain roads of Leslie County. Cars usually stop in front of the courthouse in Hyden to let people cross the street.

Folks here are among the friendliest and most courteous around. And like many in Eastern Kentucky, they think they act a little more civilized than people in big cities.

They are right -- except when it comes to killing one another.

From 1980 to 1989, Leslie had a per-capita homicide rate higher than that of New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles.

A review by the Lexington Herald-Leader found that Leslie and nine neighboring Appalachian counties in southeastern Kentucky had higher homicide rates than many major U.S. cities.

* Wolfe and Perry had homicide rates of 24.2 and 21.6 for every 100,000 people, higher than Philadelphia, Boston or San Francisco.

* Clay, Breathitt and Owsley had rates ranging from 21.1 to 18.6 for every 100,000, higher than Seattle or Nashville.

* And Harlan, Estill, Knox and Lee had rates of at least 15 for every 100,000, twice the state average and greater than Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix or San Diego.

Leslie's homicide rate, 28 for every 100,000, was the highest in Kentucky. It was also more than three and four times that of the state's two most urban counties, Jefferson and Fayette.

The 10 Appalachian counties listed above were among the 14 highest in the state.

"None of this is surprising," said Ronald D. Eller, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and a leading Appalachian scholar.

Eastern Kentucky may be rural, but many of its problems -- high unemployment, poor schools and, in some narrow hollows, crowded living conditions -- are similar to those in urban areas.

The region has a long tradition of violence fueled by the pressures of its boom-and-bust coal economy, Mr. Eller said. Scholars also see links between current levels of violence and the region's turbulent history, including the Civil War and industrialization.

State police and prosecutors think chronic joblessness and high dropout rates have left some people with little patience and few skills to resolve their differences peacefully.

People in Eastern Kentucky "will be nice to you, and if that doesn't work, they will go to the other extreme," said Capt. Douglas Asher, commander of the state police post in London.

Outsiders often associate the Kentucky mountains with violence. The famous Hatfield-McCoy feud is part of American folklore. Harlan County's mine wars made national headlines in the 1930s, earning it the nickname "Bloody Harlan."

Before heading into the mountains, strangers often ask whether they should be concerned about their safety.

"Only if you are related to somebody," said Jane Bagby, assistant director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky.

Contrary to popular films such as 1972's "Deliverance," which portrayed Appalachian people randomly attacking outsiders, the majority of mountain killings occur among friends, neighbors and kin.

The close relationships are a product of the region's economy and landscape. Traveling the twisting mountain roads takes time and money, so people often limit their social life to family and small circles of friends. Many killings occur in homes and neighborhoods as a result of domestic arguments.

Some people in Eastern Kentucky might be less prone to kill one another if they did not drink so much. State police say most mountain killings involve drugs or alcohol. Like gasoline on a fire, the substances often turn minor disputes into fatal confrontations.

"I can count on one hand the number of homicides I've seen that have not involved drugs or drinking," said Alva A. Hollon Jr., Perry commonwealth's attorney since 1982.

Clay County Sheriff Edd Jordon thinks employment and violence work like a seesaw in the mountains. When jobs go down, killings go up. Many people get depressed about the future, start arguments and kill each other over nothing, the sheriff says.

"I could set up a factory in Clay County and cut the crime rate in half," Sheriff Jordon said.

Eastern Kentucky has been one of the poorest parts of rural America for decades. Many of the mountain counties with the highest per-capita murder rates also have the lowest per-capita incomes.

Mr. Hollon thinks some people have not learned basic skills in resolving simple disagreements. In an area that places a high value on personal honor, insults can quickly lead to bloodshed.

"Some slight to me or you might hurt our feelings, but we would be able to talk it out," Mr. Hollon said. "But some people perceive it as a major problem, and the result often is violence."

When William Lynwood Montell began to study the history of homicide in south-central Kentucky, he found that the people he interviewed did not use the word "murder."

They thought "murder," a legal term for premeditated homicide, was far too harsh and implied a viciousness not usually present in the conflicts, said Mr. Montell, a retired professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University.

Instead, they preferred the word "killing."

"Killing" covered a variety of types of homicide, including premeditated ones that the community considered justified under the right circumstances, Mr. Montell said.

Many people in the mountains use that word today. When a dangerous character comes to a violent end, state police say, some respond philosophically, "Well, some people just needs killing."

Revisionist historians do not see murder as a native characteristic of the mountains but as more of a response to political and economic changes from outside.

As a border state, Kentucky found itself in the middle of the Civil War with mountain families fighting on both sides. Guerrilla raids and postwar political power struggles led to feuds in a number of southeastern counties, according to Harry M. Caudill, the late Appalachian historian.

For most of the 19th century, the mountains remained a relatively isolated area of self-sufficient farming communities. But the discovery of coal, land speculation and the coming of the railroads brought conflict.

But if the seeds of violence have been sown from without, most agree that the solutions, including a diversified economy and better schools, must come from within.

"Every generation inherits a whole chest full of cultural goods," said Herb E. Smith, a filmmaker and co-founder of Appalshop, an Appalachian arts and education center in Whitesburg. "Inside that chest are good things and bad. Some will help us shape our future, and some we must discard."

In the mountains of Perry County sits a roadhouse called The Big I. Next to the front door hangs a sign warning customers that guns and knives are not allowed inside.

Firearms are a part of daily life in Eastern Kentucky, so sometimes people need to be reminded.

However, it is hard to find anyone in the mountains who thinks that stricter handgun laws would reduce the homicide rate.

"There are so many firearms, it would take 200 years to use them up," Captain Asher said.

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