by Hillary Delaney
Many counties in Eastern Kentucky are well known for “blood feuds,” some of which lasted for decades and took many lives. The feuds garnered front-page headlines all over the country, giving the region a reputation for family grudges and violence of the worst sort. The legendary Hatfield and McCoy fued along the Kentucky-West Virginia border is certainly the most famous of these, summoning stereotypes of of moonshine-filled hillbilly cousins shooting each other down. Breathitt County comes in a close second for infamy, with decades of bloodshed attributed to feuding which began in 1870 and lasted until 1912. Boone County began to develop its own reputation for feuds around the turn of the century. Two of the most sensational of these occurred in 1905 along the Ohio River, near Constance.
By all accounts, 35-year-old George Richey was always very close with his half-brother, John Warner, who was ten years his junior. This all changed when John took Pearl Smith as his bride. It's an old story, Pearl simply didn't measure up in the eyes of John's family. In fact, half-brother George went so far as to publicly question the woman's virtue, and the feud began.
One hot afternoon in July, 1905, George Richey and local grocer William Smith, the father of Warner’s wife, had words that quickly escalated into a full-blown fight. According to witness accounts, Richey called Pearl a “vile name,” and in response, Smith struck Richey in the head with a piece of wood. Richey brandished a knife, and stabbed his foe, who fled around the building.
Soon after, Richey’s young half-brother, John joined the fray in defense of his bride's name and family, armed with only his fists. Warner soon fell victim to the same knife that stabbed his father-in-law, his last breath taken at the feet of his sibling and killer. William Smith, also mortally wounded, lingered for several days before he, too succumbed to his wounds.
Richey was tried for manslaughter and murder, and sent to the penitentiary for a number of years. He was regretful of the outcome of the feud but maintained his claim that he had been unjustly harassed and threatened by Warner and Smith prior to the fatal fight. Pearl Smith later accused Mrs. Richey threatening her life and that of her infant, though many were skeptical of the claim.
That same year, the second “Kentucky feud” also culminated near Constance, only one month later, between the Reitman brothers. For a number of years, Louis Reitman had suspected his brother Jacob of evil intent. Louis was sure that many, including his own family, were out to do him harm and with the aim of taking his land. On August 23rd, 1905, Jacob Reitman and his wife headed toward at Louis’ farm, taking a shortcut through the property on their way to the Anderson Ferry. When they arrived, he greeted them angrily, went inside his home and returned with a double-barrel shotgun. Louis fired at his shocked brother and sister-in-law, wounding them badly, and leaving each with blindness in one eye. The court found Louis to be of unsound mind and he was committed to Lakeland Asylum.
In a sad coincidence, Wesley Warner, the slain John's father and step-father to the killer, George Richey, also was sent to Lakeland later in 1905. During an interview given the day after John was killed, Wesley was protrayed as the grieving father, though it was later revealed that he had once fired a gun at his daughter's husband in anger. Nonetheless, he was widely liked and considered a living casualty of the family feuds.