It started as a family dispute — a fight between 22-year-old Jerome Boyatt and his 55-year-old uncle, Albert Boyatt. Then the law got involved, and things quickly spiraled out of control. Before the day was over, a deputy sheriff from Pickett County was dead and his sheriff father mortally wounded. By the time the dust had settled once and for all a few weeks later, a total of five men were dead, including both father and son of a prominent No Business family, whose deaths went without justice.
It’s been 89 years this week since the violence began at a Stearns Coal & Lumber Company mining camp on Rock Creek along the Scott County-Pickett County line. And, to this day, most people who know the facts about the way it all played out are hesitant to talk about it. All of those with direct knowledge are gone, of course; the ones who remain in the know are those to whom information was handed down, word of mouth, from parents, grandparents and others who knew the Boyatt family — and, in some cases, helped young Jerome Boyatt hide from the law for weeks after the trouble started.
But as for the incident that started it all — inside a railroad boxcar at the Rock Creek Camp — the details remain disputed. Everyone who witnessed it first hand either died there in the mining camp, were killed later, or have since died. The truth died with them. All that’s left are stories, handed down through the generations, and in some instances greatly exaggerated.
This is the story of the most famous lynching in Scott County’s history.
Who were the Boyatts?
To start the story, an understanding of the players involved is required. And the central player was Jerome Boyatt, the 22-year-old son of Ransom and Poppie Litton Boyatt of No Business Creek.
The Boyatts had seven children and lived on a farm near the head of the creek, several miles west of the Big South Fork River and about a mile from Terry Cemetery. Jerome, born in 1911, was the second-oldest of those children.
Ransom — or Ranse, as he was known to family and neighbors — was the son of Jordan Boyatt (1828-1900) and Mary Ann Slaven (1847-1925). Jordan (pronounced Jurdon) had also lived at No Business.
Poppie Boyatt was the daughter of George Washington and Helen Terry Litton, the granddaughter of Littleton and Polly Coyle Litton.
Who were the Winninghams?
Sheriff George Winningham, 62, was called one of the best sheriffs in Pickett County history. He was re-elected four times, and was hugely popular in Byrdstown.
The Winningham family had migrated to Pickett County from North Carolina in the early 1800s, beginning with Sheriff Winningham’s great-grandfather, Adam Winningham. Two of Adam Winningham’s grandchildren, John Winningham (son of Henry Bransford Winningham) and Martha Winningham (daughter of George Washington Winningham) married. George Winningham, born in 1871, was their second child.
George Winningham married Martha Smith, the daughter of Asa Smith and Nancy King Smith of Jamestown. Asa Smith was a member of Tinker Dave Beaty’s Independent Scouts during the Civil War. During the war, Confederate guerrillas visited the Smith home intent on killing Asa. He wasn’t there, so they killed his father and brother, instead.
Both of George and Martha’s children were lawmen. Their oldest — John Floyd Winningham, born in 1893 — served as his father’s deputy. Floyd’s brother, Willie McKinley Winningham, born in 1895, was elected high sheriff in Clinton County, Ky.
Who was Harvey Winchester?
Jerry Harvey Winchester, age 19, came later in the story. He was a somewhat innocent bystander who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Innocent” because he had not stood trial. “Somewhat innocent” because he was charged with killing the son of a Scott County lawman.
Harvey was the son of Rufus Winchester and Martha Roena Smith Winchester of Pine Knot, Ky. He was charged with killing Manon Perry and Esker Thompson in Winfield in early 1933.
Friday, April 21, 1933
Sheriff George Winningham was just sitting down to dinner at his Byrdstown home when he was notified by phone of trouble at the Rock Creek mining camp. There had been a fight, the camp superintendent said. One man was dead, and the killer was threatening to kill again.
The high sheriff got his son and another deputy, Bram Garrett, and headed to Rock Creek.
As it turned out, no one had actually been killed at the mining camp. Why did the superintendent say there had been? Speculation was that he knew he wouldn’t be successful in getting the sheriff out to his remote camp on a Friday night if he’d told the truth — which was a fist-fight that had taken place between Albert Boyatt and his nephew, Jerome.
What Jerome Boyatt was doing in the Rock Creek Camp that day remains a mystery. It has been written that Boyatt worked at the camp. But a company boss told The Tennessean newspaper that night that Boyatt did not work for the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co.
Jerome had caught the train to Rock Creek that day, along with his brother Eugene, who was deaf, and three other men: brothers Walter and Charlie Crabtree, and Lige Terry. It is believed that Boyatt was hauling moonshine with him. At Rock Creek, he ran into his uncle, Albert. There has been lots of speculation over the years about the source of the trouble between the two men, but the speculation usually centers on the belief that Albert Boyatt was selling bootleg at the camp, and that led to the argument.
Jerome Boyatt beat up his uncle pretty severely, and the camp superintendent had all five men placed in a boxcar while he phoned for the sheriff.
Who shot first?
Newspaper accounts from that Friday night in April 1933 were matter-of-fact: Sheriff Winningham and his deputies ordered the men out of the box car, and Jerome Boyatt, armed with a .45-caliber handgun, opened fire on them. The Tennessean carried the story the following day on its front page, and other newspapers around the nation picked up the story.
But witnesses at the Rock Creek Camp told a different story. They said that Deputy Floyd Winningham had shot first — maybe into the air as a warning, or maybe into the boxcar.
When those first shots were fired, the witnesses said, 19-year-old Eugene fell back, screaming. Remember, he was deaf and could not hear demands to exit the car. As the story goes, Jerome believed that his brother had been shot, and opened fire with his .45.
Floyd Winningham was shot twice in the face and died instantly. Sheriff George Winningham drew his service weapon and returned fire, and was shot twice in the abdomen. As he stumbled to the ground, Jerome Boyatt fled the boxcar and into the night. The other deputy, Bram Garrett, was not injured and took the remaining men inside the car into custody. They were transported to a jail in Cookeville for holding.
An ambulance was summoned from Livingston, and transported Sheriff Winningham to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville. There he died the following evening.
The official story out of Byrdstown was that the high sheriff and his deputy son had been gunned down in the line of duty as they attempted to arrest the Boyatts and Crabtrees. That’s the story the newspapers told. The Tennessean called Jerome Boyatt a reputed “bad man.” The newspapers did not carry the accounts of the eyewitnesses who argued that Floyd Winningham fired first. Nor was it mentioned that some — though not all — of the witnesses said that Winningham was drunk.
The reputed “bad man,” Jerome Boyatt, did have a police record. He had been arrested at least once: When he was 19, he was picked up by police in Cincinnati, Oh. and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. He told authorities that carrying a handgun was common practice back where he came from at No Business. He wasn’t wrong, and the Boyatt family in general — and Jerome specifically — were well-liked in and around No Business. It was the kind of small backwoods community where everybody knows everyone, and most are family.
Even more popular and more liked were the Winninghams of Byrdstown. More than 2,500 people attended the funerals of Sheriff George Winningham and his son, and a collection was taken for reward money for Boyatt’s arrest. A posse of well over 100 men was assembled to comb the woods in and around No Business. They were intent on finding Jerome Boyatt, and one thing was clear: if he was captured, Boyatt would never stand trial in court. It would be Judge Lynch’s Law for him.
If the folks of No Business didn’t like Jerome, they would’ve likely still rallied to his defense after the posse descended on their small river settlement. As a general rule, they didn’t trust “the government” anyway. And the only people who had any legal authority among the search party were outside their jurisdiction. Sheriff Willie Winningham of Kentucky was leading the charge. Not only was he without legal authority to arrest anyone in Tennessee, but he was also without search warrants or arrest warrants.
That didn’t stop the posse from rounding up the entire Boyatt family from their farm and hauling them back to Byrdstown. In addition to Ranse and Poppie Boyatt, the lawmen and their volunteers arrested all four of Jerome’s sisters: 18-year-old Lola, 16-year-old Violet, 13-year-old Bonnie and 8-year-old Dulcie.
Plenty of help for fugitive
One of the first places Jerome Boyatt went when he returned to No Business was the home of Will and Maude Burke. They rendered aid to him, but so did plenty of others who lived at No Business, including Dewey Slaven.
Dewey — the great-grandson of No Business’s first resident, Richard Harve Slaven — lived with his sister on the creek, and was the last resident of the river community who still lived there when he died in 1960. In April and May of 1933, he funneled food and other supplies — including ammunition — to Jerome Boyatt.
Boyatt hid out for weeks in the cliff-lined ravines around No Business Creek. The posse visited over and over, but he managed to elude them.
The story of Jerome Boyatt has been the source of multiple books and magazine articles over the years, some of this ridiculous exaggerated. One book tells of how Jerome ambushed the posse on multiple occasions, wounding or killing several of those who were searching for him. Those accounts are not true. After that Friday night inside a boxcar at Rock Creek, Boyatt is not known to have fired a shot at anyone.
Murder visits No Business
Whether or not murder happened at the Rock Creek Camp on April 21, 1933 depends on who you ask. In Scott County, they’ll say Jerome Boyatt acted in self-defense. In Pickett County, they’ll say both the Winninghams were murdered.
But one thing is certain: Ransom Boyatt was murdered.
Days after the Boyatt family was rounded up at their No Business home, Ranse was released from jail while his wife and daughters remained in custody. He was allowed to return home under the auspice of caring for the farm. Newspaper accounts from the time claimed that he had been released because he promised he would convince Jerome to give himself up.
A few weeks later, concerned neighbors entered the Boyatt home and found Ranse’s decaying body lying on his bed. An inquest was held, and it was determined that he had been killed — but a suspect was not named. It has always been assumed that Ranse Boyatt was hanged in the barn, then his body carried to the home and left on the bed. But his body was so badly decomposed by the time it was discovered that it was impossible to say for sure how he had died.
After Ranse Boyatt’s death, Poppie and her daughters were released from jail and allowed to return home. There, they faced the task of burying their husband and father. But Poppie was adamant that she didn’t want Jerome to find out what had happened. If he learned of Ranse’s death, he would turn himself in — and she feared that would mean certain death for her son.
A couple of weeks later, concerned neighbors decided that Jerome needed to know his father had been killed. And, after he learned of Ranse’s death, Jerome did exactly what his mother feared he would do: He turned himself in.
Newspaper accounts said that a neighbor held Jerome captive until lawmen showed up when he went to their home to seek food. People who knew the situation in No Business scoffed at that. No one in that community would have turned Jerome in, they said. But Jerome was afraid of what fate his pursuers might have in store for the rest of his family, and so he turned himself in to Scott County Sheriff Esau Laxton.
The story ends in tragedy
On June 9, 1933, a mob of 25 masked men showed up at the Scott County Jail, beat the jailer, and hauled Jerome Boyatt and Harvey Winchester away. The next day, their tortured and bullet-riddled bodies were discovered in the woods off U.S. Hwy. 27 in Helenwood.
Winchester was the first to die. His body was found by a tree, shot dead, a rope noose nearby.
Several hundred yards away, Jerome’s body was discovered. He was naked. It appeared that he had been stripped and turned loose to run while the mob fired at him. Then he was shot twice in the back, and once in the back of the head at close range: executed.
Who was responsible for the death of Jerome Boyatt? Suspicion immediately centered on Sheriff Willie Winningham, of course. If it were Winningham, though, why was Harvey Winchester also dragged from jail and murdered? The Winninghams likely wouldn’t have cared about a Scott County teen who was accused of murder. Their quest for justice centered on Boyatt.
But the next day, one of Willie Winningham’s deputies died of a gunshot wound in Kentucky. The official story was that he had dropped his gun and it had gone off. The only problem? The bullet did not match the gun he carried.
Still, the evidence was circumstantial, and no one was ever charged in connection with Jerome Boyatt’s death.
Six days after Jerome Boyatt was killed, his brother, Eugene, and the other men who were in the boxcar that April night were cleared of wrongdoing by a Pickett County grand jury and released from jail.
Martha Winningham was appointed by Pickett County Court to fulfill the unexpired term of her late husband, Sheriff George Winningham.
Sheriff Willie Winningham died the next month during a shootout with a suspect in Clinton County, Ky.
Jerome Boyatt was buried at Foster Crossroads. Eugene Boyatt died in 1951 and is also buried at Foster Crossroads. Poppie Boyatt remarried and survived until 1978, when she died and was buried at Foster Crossroads. The last of Jerome’s surviving sisters, Violet, died in Ohio in 2012.
Harvey Winchester was buried at Pine Knot Cemetery. The last of his siblings, Winfred Winchester, died in Indiana in 2019.
No one was ever charged in connection with the deaths of Ranse Boyatt or Jerome Boyatt.