Bad deeds from bad seed

Previously on Acton Books:-

Doc Davison of Hawesville, Kentucky took involvement in local government too far when he broke into jail to kill an opponent. Still free and harbouring a grudge against another prominent citizen of his little town in Kentucky, he became America’s first suicide bomber.

Nature or nurture?

The Davison children were no strangers to violent death. Of suicide bomber Davison’s four sons, Lemuel drowned in a boating ‘accident’. Nathaniel was ‘brutally killed’ by the police. James got his when he used the butt end of his musket to club a dog. The gun went off. The dog lived; James did not. Last but by no means least in this litany of medieval mayhem in antebellum Kentucky was Davison’s oldest boy William.

William, or Bill to his friends — and you would really want to be his friend rather than his enemy — was born in 1839. “His schooldays were unmarked by any acts of cruelty or violence” wrote a later biographer.

Aged 21, at the start of the Civil War Bill enlisted for the Union. When Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation in January 1863, Davison’s action mirrored the fatally compromised morality of the state itself over slavery, (though of course the proclamation only outlawed slavery in Confederate states and Kentucky was, nominally at least, not one).  Not wishing to fight for the freedom of African Americans, ‘Wild Bill’ Davison switched sides.

Captain Davison (he probably gave himself the rank) could have been mistaken for another Wild Bill — Hickok. He was 5’8″ with moustache and hair down to his shoulders. Davison led his own little band of gangster cavalry, Davison’s ‘Hyenas’ as they called themselves, until nearly the end of the war. Dates are sketchy as this was a warzone where journalists feared to go, so sources differ on dates One says that it was in 1863 the Hyenas murdered 75 black Union soldiers near Simpsonville and a further 17 near Yelvington. Another says it was a year later. The murdering Hyenas were not alone. In a 100 mile area around the Ohio River between Louisville and Owensboro there were said to be about 1000 ‘desperadoes’ in the summer of 1864.

Robin Hoods they weren’t. Killing unarmed black farmworkers, Union soldiers on furlough, or anyone that looked at them crooked as they wandered west Kentucky, burning courthouses, relieving bank of cash and farmers of horses. Indefensible though the murders were, they were held to be reprisals for summary executions, thefts and rapes of some of the Union occupiers.

Toward the end of 1864 Davison hooked up with another terrorist who was reputedly even more sadistic than he, though it was also reported that this man, Isaac Colter (sometimes Coulter), was in fear of Davison. On December 22 1864 they rode into Lewisport together, at the head of 50 men

Gratuitously murderous Colter ‘paid’ for his drink with the dried ears of one of his black victims, which he had been keeping in his pocketbook. He then went outside and shot to death the black man who had stupidly volunteered to hold their horses. They then rode the short distance to the river where the federal mail packet, the Morning Star was about to dock. Up to now the consideration from the regular soldiery on both sides had been to let these purely commercial boats go through.

Not so Davison and Colter. They drowned the boat’s black chief steward, then murdered between three and six Union soldiers (reports differ) who were returning home. A plainly sympathetic report from about 1909 describes one of the murders on the Morning Star as if the writer had been present. “After securing the horses on deck, Colter spied a Federal soldier whom he approached at once and asked if he had a discharge. The soldier replied that he was going home on a furlough. Colter once more drew his bloody revolver saying, “I will give you a genuine discharge.”

They hijacked the boat back to Davison’s home town of Hawesville.

By January Colter and Davison had separated and bullet ridden corpse was all that was left of Colter — the result of an ambush by Home Guards, vigilantes for the Union cause.

Davison rode on, now with two friends that contemporaneous reporting describes as beautiful specimens of youth, but to each is attached the adjective ‘effeminate’. One, whose given name was Jerome Clarke liked to dress as a woman (for spying roles, you understand) and was known to friend and enemy alike as Sue Mundy.

The sympathiser writer from 1909 takes up the story: “These three desperate men were enroute to Nelson County, Ky. for some purpose not disclosed but it was generally believed that the mission was to take command of a larger force that all of them had ever directed and terrorize the entire State. But if this was their intention they were sadly deprived of deriving any benefit from it for when they had arrived at a point twenty miles south of the Ohio river, the three desperate leaders of all the guerillas were ambushed by a party of fifteen Home Guards.

“At the first fire from the Union Home Guards who were secreted behind trees in a thick wood, Sue Munday and McGruder put spurs to their horses and deserted their leader who for fifteen minutes in the midst of a steady fire took chance shots at enemies behind trees but without effect.”

Things went badly for Davison. First shot in the thigh, the last shot of the encounter went through his right arm, into his chest and lodged in his back. Not dead, Davison rode off with the reins between his teeth and hid out, with the assistance of two of his female cousins, for a further month, dying of his wounds on March 7. The two others, Sue Mundy and McGruder were caught five days afterwards and were publicly hanged.

Nature or nurture?

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