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History Monday: The Murder of Harry Webb, 1874

By Mike Watson

The murder of Harry Webb, of Columbia, was never solved. Someone may know the truth of the matter, handed down from a century and a half ago, but we will likely never know the answer to the question--who killed Harry Webb?

This crime has become part of folklore in our county and there are those who say the site of the crime is haunted by a headless ghost. The following is an excerpt from an upcoming publication on crimes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Adair County...

The Murder of Harry Webb, 1874

Columbia, Adair County, and Kentucky were baking under the hot summer sun in 1874, Old Sol beat down on man and beast, crops struggled in need of rain. Hard working folk tended to heed the warnings of those who knew about such things, that the heat could lead to suffering and death.

During these Dog Days of summer, those who could keep cool did so, wherever that respite could be found. But life continued, work and recreation.

Monday morning, the 31st day of August, was hot like every day of the past month, with little hope for cooler temperatures or rain. That Monday someone decided to finally investigate the flock of buzzards that had been hovering over a ravine just outside the town of Columbia. It was a gash in the ground where trees and undergrowth were gnarled and provided some protection from the elements, and prying eyes. This was a place of concealment.

The alarm went out upon a grizzly discovery--human bones in the ravine! The authorities came quickly, since town was just a few minutes away. The Sheriff and other interested parties observed the scattered bones, a piece of scalp, and the clothing of some poor soul. After surveying the site, William Walkup held an inquest over the remains, then they were gathered and taken away for future burial.

A small town like Columbia was close-knit and when anyone went missing it was noticed. Upon inquiry it was discovered that during the previous two weeks two men had not been seen about town. That was not unusual as hired laborers often took work on outlying farms or in neighboring towns. This was a hot and dry period, so no one thought much about these two men--they may have found better conditions in Campbellsville or Burkesville or Greensburg or elsewhere, and would return in a few days or weeks.

Harry Webb and Reason Dohoney were the two men absent from town. Where had they gone? Additional investigation proved the clothing and a pocketbook found near the remains were the property of Harry Webb. Another knife found near the scene was identified by some as one belonging to Reason Dohoney, a local man of questionable character, as some would say.

This isolated ravine, so near to town, was a known gambling spot. Men often gathered there, mostly black men of the town and visitors from the county, to while away a few hours, gossip, drink, and throw dice. During the hot days of August, no one had ventured out there, thus no one discovered the body--or they chose to keep quiet for fear of implication in what was likely a capital crime.

A search was made for Dohoney, but no one had seen him since August 17th, or so they said. Was the knife really his property? Perhaps, but did he drop it after fighting with Harry? Knives were often the weapon of choice, particularly for black men of this era. Guns were typically not carried, or even owned, by former enslaved men; guns could quickly get a man into a great deal of trouble. Most white men carried a pistol and there always existed the fear of confrontation; few people would question a black man killed by a white man in 1874, everyone knew that.

Black men did kill other black men at times, and knives were often the weapons used in such cases. Could this knife have been used on Harry Webb by Dohoney? Perhaps, but there was little left to work with other than the finding of the knife in the vicinity. If it was the property of Reason, did he use it and leave it, or was it left there by someone else to purposely implicate him?

Rumors circulated that Reason Dohoney was seen in Indianapolis soon after the body was located, but there was evidently no follow-up. For the next twenty-five years the first case of each Adair Circuit Court to be presented was the Commonwealth of Kentucky versus Reason Dohoney, and each time it was continued, for he could not be produced in court.

Did Reason Dohoney kill Harry Webb? What became of Dohoney? Did he blend into the crowded metropolis of Indianapolis and disappear, using a new name? Others from Adair County lived there and may have hidden his identity to protect him from certain death at the end of the rope.

Harry Webb was born about 1833 in Kentucky, likely in Adair County, and was a hired farm laborer at the time of his death. "Henry" Webb made a formal declaration of marriage to Malinda, before the Adair County Court on 31 August 1870 and stated they had been married 14 or 15 years. Malinda was eight years his junior. They were parents of at least four children: Fannie, born about 1861; Thomas, born about 1863; George, born about 1866; and Charles, born 1869.

The ravine, as it was dubbed in the newspaper stories of the time, became known as "Harry Webb Hollow" and bore this name for at least a century. The site was located between property owned in 1898 by J.F. Montgomery and Dr. John Henry Grady. The Adair County News printed from time-to-time in the 1920s a front page column 'Do You Remember?' and in March 1922 carried the following: "Do you know that Jo. Williams, of color, who is now employed by Mr. Gordon Montgomery, on the latter's farm, is the only living man, who was present when 'Reesen' Dohoney killed Harry Webb? Jo. gave the News, a few days ago, the names of all the parties present, and as above state, he is the only one living."

I am indebted to Billy Conn who provided more information on the location of Harry Webb Hollow. About a year ago, when I first published a version of this event, Mr. Conn said, "I've always been told the hollow below our house is the Harry Webb Hollow. When I was a kid my grandmother lived on out Greensburg Street. We lived with her at the time. When I would come home from town and the movies I would run top speed from Mrs. Ruth Burdett's house, where the Library is now, all the way home, scared to death, I know I heard screams and moans."

Proceed out Greensburg Street, and just before you come to the sharp curve, look to the side, at the still-remaining gash or ravine in the earth. Do you hear anything? Maybe try it after dark!

This story was posted on 2020-03-02 10:23:54
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