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Gail Jackson Miller, CG, “Finding the Truth in the Undocumented Story,” OnBoard 23 (September 2017): 21–22.
A good story connects the audience to a time and place, weaving details into a structured format. It makes the past seem real while it entertains, persuades, and persists across generations. Depending on the scrutiny given to its details, a good story may lead the careful researcher to new insights, or it may lead the unwary and unsuspecting toward failure to find the truth.
Undocumented stories need critical analysis. The story could be completely true, partially true, or totally false. The researcher must analyze the complete story through its details. The events, people, context, and the storyteller should all be examined separately and together.
- Gather all versions of the story. What details vary in each version? Do the versions come from the same source?
- Identify the storytellers. Was the story told to convey information or to entertain? Was the storyteller an accurate eyewitness or was the narrative intentionally slanted?
- Identify all the people in the story. Are the names and relationships accurate? Can records document events relevant to each person? Do behaviors generally fit the time and place?
- Examine the events. Can the events be tied to dates? Are there inconsistencies in the timeline?
An oral story can be particularly challenging, rarely being recorded verbatim in its original form. The retelling may be biased based upon understanding, memory, and point of view. The murder of Cotton Davis by Ben Jackson—a story retold by several Jackson family members—illustrates the point.
Arthur Jackson’s version
My brother Ben killed a man at a dance when Mozart and the man had a fight. Ben was jailed eighteen months.1
Viola (Jackson) Gill’s version
Ben and his son, Mozart, were in a roadside tavern between Powderly and Central City. Ben thought the man was going to shoot Mozart, so he shot him. Dad went all over trying to get Ben out of trouble and finally got money from his grandfather to give to the authorities. Ben promised to leave the state and never come back.2
Morgan Steele’s version
Ben’s son, Mozart, had a place at his house where he sold whiskey. Cotton Davis was there and got in a shouting match with Mozart. Mozart was loud and overbearing like Ben. Cotton Davis punched Mozart for smarting off and Ben killed him with a handgun.
Ben spent months in the county jail and would have gone to prison except he had the best lawyer in the county, Meredith. Ben paid him all the money he had but lacked $400. Arthur went to Andrew Jackson to borrow the money. Mr. Jackson gave him the money out of Arthur’s dad’s inheritance with the agreement that Ben would pay it back. Ben never paid the money back.3
The storytellers—all relatives—were alive at the time of the event and lived in the location where the event took place. Arthur Jackson was the older brother of Ben Jackson and was apparently involved in financing Ben’s legal defense. Arthur was age ninety at the time of his interview. Viola (Jackson) Gill was Arthur Jackson’s daughter and the niece of Ben Jackson. She was younger than fourteen when the Davis-Jackson confrontation occurred, and her perspective was that of an adolescent. Viola was eighty-five when she was interviewed. Arthur’s and Viola’s memories have been found to be accurate in other situations. Morgan Steele was Arthur Jackson’s brother-in-law. He was an adult at the time of the event and age seventy-two when interviewed. His level of involvement in the event and the accuracy of his memory are unknown.
Since none of the storytellers were eyewitnesses, they may have heard details from Ben Jackson, Mozart Jackson, or other eyewitnesses. The adults may have attended parts of the trial. Their stories reflect their personal biases and impressions of Ben Jackson. Their stories are similar, with each adding additional details. Those details aided in locating the pertinent documents.
None of the storytellers provide any dates, and there is no Kentucky death certificate for a Cotton Davis. However, knowing that Viola (Jackson) Gill was under age fourteen at the time of the event provided a possible range of dates. This led to Howard Davis’s death certificate recording his death on 13 February 1933 in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, from a pistol wound.4 His death date allowed a search for the trial. Court records reveal that Ben Jackson was indicted for the willful murder of Howard “Cotton” Davis on 21 April 1933 in Muhlenberg County.5 The case moved through the courts for about a year. On 23 January 1934, a jury found Ben Jackson guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to twenty-one years in the state penitentiary.6 A few days later, the punishment was suspended pending an appeal to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.7
More information for this family story is available than for many. The appeal contains the entire case file prepared by attorneys from both sides. Eyewitnesses to the event told their varying stories. The appeal argued that the Commonwealth attorney’s closing arguments at the original trial were prejudicial. It was successful, and on 15 April 1935, the manslaughter conviction was reversed. Ben Jackson was released from county jail and did not go to prison.8
Comparison of the family stories to information found in public documents shows truth and error depending upon the storyteller. Ben Jackson killed Howard “Cotton” Davis at a dance held near Central City, Kentucky. When Ben Jackson and his son Mozart arrived at the dance, Wilma Stewart was dancing with Cotton Davis. Mozart attempted to “cut in” but Wilma did not want to dance with him. A fight broke out between Cotton Davis and Mozart Jackson. Ben Jackson became involved. Eyewitnesses disagreed on whether the fight was verbal or physical, and on whether Davis had a knife. Wilma saw no knife.9
Ben Jackson drew a pistol and shot Cotton Davis three times in the lower bowel. Davis died thirty-six hours later. Ben Jackson was indicted for murder on 21 April 1933. He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to Eddyville Penitentiary. The sentence was reversed by the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Ben Jackson spent about eighteen months in the county jail but never went to the state penitentiary.10 He was living in Dearborn, Michigan, by 1940.11
Hubert Meredith, Ben Jackson’s attorney, apparently was a good lawyer. Meredith showed that the jury did not receive proper instructions for considering his self-defense theory. Examination of testimony by various witnesses suggests that some of it changed and may have been coached.12 Because of Meredith’s local prominence, he may have been perceived as “the authorities” by the youngster Viola. The county attorney did not retry the case after the Court of Appeals reversed the original judgment.13 Perhaps there was an agreement that Ben Jackson would leave the state.
This event was only one generation removed from the telling of the stories. Having eyewitness accounts for comparison reveals inherent problems that may be common to all stories. Although the storytellers were all alive at the time of the incident, their stories vary. Age, experience, and personal bias affect the stories’ slant. Names, dates, and relationships are sometimes confused or omitted. Events and timelines vary. However, despite these problems, family stories do connect us to past events, past people, and to possibilities of new information. They make the people and events real. It is the researcher’s job to use the details to discover the truth.
1. Arthur Jackson (deceased), interview by Gail Miller, 30 July 1981; notes privately held by Miller, Bowling Green, Kentucky, 2017. Arthur Jackson, Ben Jackson’s brother, was not present at the shooting.
2. “Interview of Viola (Jackson) Gill by Sandra Latham, 2009,” e-mail, Latham to Gail Miller, 25 September 2009; privately held by Miller, firstname.lastname@example.org, 2017. Sandra Latham is the daughter of Viola (Jackson) Gill. Viola, daughter of Arthur Jackson, believed the event occurred before 1939 when she entered high school.
3. Morgan Steele (deceased), interview by Douglas Jackson, Greenville, Kentucky, September 1987; manuscript in the possession of Gail Miller.
4. Kentucky, Bureau of Vital Statistics, death certificate no. 5066, Howard Davis (1933); State Board of Health, Frankfort, Kentucky.
5. Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, Circuit Court, Commonwealth Order Book 9:582, no. 6065, Commonwealth v. Ben Jackson; Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA), Frankfort, Kentucky.
6. Ibid., Commonwealth Order Book 10:136, no. 6065.
7. Ibid., 10:150, no. 6065.
8. Ibid., 10:378, no. 6065.
9. Kentucky, Court of Appeals, no. 61802, Ben Jackson v. Commonwealth; bundle 4149, D09, G7-D, KDLA.
11. 1940 U. S. census, Wayne County, Michigan, population schedule, Dearborn, enumeration district 82-7, sheet 7-A, household 184, Ben Jackson; NARA microfilm publication T627, roll 1825.
12. Kentucky, Court of Appeals, no. 61802.
13. Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, Circuit Court, Commonwealth Order Book 10:533, 10:580.
Gail Jackson Miller, CG®
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