During a recent reconnaissance-level survey, Commonwealth’s cultural resources staff documented a small cemetery in rural Eastern Kentucky. Known as Burns Cemetery, the unassuming burial ground included three visible interments, marked by rough fieldstones with illegible etchings. A deeper dive into research revealed that the cemetery had associations with a series of events that shook the region during the late nineteenth century, known as the Ashland Tragedy.
According to a local cemetery inventory, the Burns Cemetery is the final resting place of Ellis Craft, one of the key figures in the events. Commonwealth’s architectural historians pieced together details of the events and Craft’s participation therein to form a complete context. The Ashland Tragedy is a story of horrific murders that occurred on December 23, 1881. That evening, three teenagers, Robert and Fannie Gibbons and Emma Carico, were staying at the Gibbons’ family home located in the city of Ashland. The three teenage victims were beaten to death with an axe and crowbar, and the killers set the house on fire to conceal the crime. The mother of Emma Carico, who saw the house ablaze from a neighboring house, called for help to have the fire quickly extinguished.
As the fire died down, the victims were discovered and George Ellis confessed to the crime and implicated William Neal and Ellis Craft. The alleged murderers were arrested and trials began in 1882. William Neal and Ellis Craft were convicted in a 10-day trial in January and sentenced to death; however, they appealed. George Ellis was tried in May of 1882, when he was convicted for his role in the crime and sentenced to life in jail. The sentence was unpopular with the area residents, some of whom formed a mob, removing Ellis from his cell and later lynching him in Ashland. In efforts to avoid another lynch mob, Neal and Craft were transferred to Grayson, Kentucky, via steamship on November 1, 1882. A crowd attempted to thwart this effort when a group of 18 young men commandeered a ferry and followed the steamship, firing two pistol shots in their pursuit. Prison guards on the steamship returned fire with “some 1,500 shots in a two-minute hail of lead,” killing four onlookers on the shore. The guards were never tried for their actions. Once the boat arrived in Grayson, Craft and Neal were granted their appeals and a new trial was carried out. However, the verdict was still the same: guilty and sentenced to death. Mr. Craft was hanged on October 12, 1883, and Mr. Neal on March 27, 1885.
However, the story doesn’t end here. The Ashland Tragedy left such an imprint on the Big Sandy Valley that it was immortalized in folk songs and poems. One of the best-known songs, “The Ashland Tragedy,” was composed by Elijah Adams, who printed the ballad and handed it out on the day of the executions.
Furthermore, after Craft’s execution, his family had a grave dug “near McCormick’s school-house some eight miles from Catlettsburg.” When the property owner objected, the family was forced to carry Craft’s remains six miles farther from the original location, digging a grave in an open field on the property of Col. John M. Burns, the present site of Burns Cemetery.
To this day, it is not known who the other two cemetery markers in the Burns Cemetery commemorate. William Neal was interred “on the hill back of his father-in-law’s residence, three miles from [Catlettsburg].” The sycamore tree where George Ellis was lynched was “cut to pieces by curiosity hunters and sent all over the country.” Staff’s research did not reveal the location of Ellis’s burial, and property owner John M. Burns was buried in Ashland Cemetery, and therefore is not one of the two other interments.
Staff used a combination of sources to develop a historic context. All primary source data was compiled using newspaper articles that documented the tragedy across Kentucky, while secondary sources included a review of documentation completed by credible historians. This project is a good example of the important role cultural resource professionals play in identifying significant historic resources in places that may otherwise be overlooked.
“We appreciate the author’s thorough archival research providing our office with substantial information to understand Ellis Craft and his association with the Ashland Tragedy.”
Kentucky Heritage Council
Cox, John Harrington (compiler and editor)
1925 Folk-Songs of the South. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Evening Bulletin
1882 “The tree upon which George Ellis…” Maysville, Kentucky, June 19.
2012 “Event brings city history to life.” The Independent, Ashland, Kentucky, October 1.
2011 “Judge John Mavity Burns,” Find-A-Grave, Electronic resource, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/75594262/john-mavity-burns, accessed July 30, 2018.
Klaiber, Teresa Martin (compiler)
2009 “Boyd County, Kentucky Cemeteries Location Guide,” Electronic resource, http://thebookplace.org/?wpfb_dl=89, accessed July 30, 2018.
The Ohio County News
1885 “State News.” Hartford, Kentucky, April 15, 2.
The Owensboro Semi-Weekly Messenger
1883 “The State.” Owensboro, Kentucky, October 30, 1.
2000 “Ashland Tragedy,” Kentucky Encyclopedia, Electronic resource, http://www.kyenc.org/entry/a/ASHLA04.html, accessed July 30, 2018.