May 12, 2009

Murder of James Hardy Coffey

According to the book, Until He Is Dead: Capital Punishment in Western North Carolina History, by James Thomas Rusher, and published by Parkway Publishers, Boone, North Carolina, 2003, Ernest Reid Coffey was the first and only person ever convicted of first degree murder in Avery Co., NC.

He was accused of and sentenced to death for the assassination of his uncle, James Hardy Coffey. James was the younger brother of Reid's father, John Wesley Coffey. They were sons of Thomas Avery and Louisa E. Gragg Coffey.

During the evening of April 5, 1936 someone fired a single shot from a 12 gauge shotgun into the living room of the Hardy Coffey home, near Linville, NC, killing Hardy, a deputy sheriff in Linville. At the time, Linville was a resort area and Hardy was responsible for assuring the homes of absent owners were safe from thieves.

Reid Coffey, and some of his pals, were known trouble makers in the area and circumstances of the day and evening of the murder made him the prime suspect. The author's description of the law, the background and sentiment of the people of those days in North Carolina are not discussed here, but Coffey researchers should find the book to be a valuable connection for their library.

The author dissects the trial quite well, pointing out discrepancies in testimony, the appeals process and the then governor's commutation of the death sentence as well as the eventual release of Reid from prison. Intermingled in all of this are described the efforts of Reid's father to see that his son did not unfairly die for a crime of which he believed his son to be innocent.

To my knowledge, no one else was ever charged with the murder of James Hardy Coffey.

This murder was not the first tragedy to affect this family. Thomas Avery Coffey was a son of Austin and Mary A. Blalock Coffey. Before her marriage to Austin, Mary had given birth to two illegitimate children: William McKesson (Keith) Blalock in 1837, and Mary in about 1842.

When she and Austin married, Austin raised the children as his own. During the Civil War Keith fancied himself a Yankee and made plans to help the Union cause. He and his wife, Malinda Pritchard joined the Confederate army - she disguised as a young boy - and both hoped to defect to the Union side whenever their CSA unit was near or engaged with a unit from the Union side.

According to history however, their CSA unit was sent to an area of NC where action was limited. Malinda was discovered to be a female when during a skirmish she was shot in the shoulder. She was discharged and a month later Keith was discharged. He is said to have undressed and rolled around in poison ivy. The result was that he became so sick the CSA had to let him go home.

Upon his return home, he and some of his henchmen began to transport Union recruits through the Confederate lines. Between August, 1864 and February, 1865 Blalock's gang became responsible for a reign of terror that resulted in many deaths, including his own uncle William Coffey, brother to Austin. Elisha Coffey, Keith's cousin and probable son of Joseph and Isabella Lindsay Coffey, is said to have been a member of Keith's "bushwacker" gang.

As that war is often described, it was really brother against brother, father against son.

Click on the title to read an earlier blog about James Hardy Coffey.

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