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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Pine Mountain Settlement School teachers often walked over Laden Trail on Pine Mountain.
Unsolved Murder of Pine Mountain School Teacher Lura Parsons


Unsolved murder of Pine Mountain School Teacher Lura Parsons Remains One Of Kentucky's Greatest Mysteries 100 Years Later                                           
(This is a two-part story. The second installment will be shared next week.)
Appalachian Journalist

(As Published In The Tri-City News)

HARLAN, KY - The shrill whistle of a steaming locomotive pierced the mountain silence 100 years ago on the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River in Harlan County. It was a train carrying Pine Mountain Settlement School teacher Lura Parsons and a prominent and politically aligned Kentucky state assistant veterinarian on board. Although it is claimed the two did not know each other, they were both headed across Pine Mountain to the settlement school when the train stopped at the L & N station in the community of Dillon, which was located near what is now known as Laden, between Putney and Totz On Sept. 7, 1920, Parsons was returning from a vacation break she had spent with her family in Garrard County, Kentucky and the state assistant veterinarian, Dr. C.H Winnes, was traveling to Pine Mountain Settlement School to test cattle for tuberculosis. While the two reportedly did not know each other at the time, both Parsons and Winnes would go down in the annals of Kentucky history as being a part of one of the state’s most horrific, sensationalized, and mysterious murders. 

Parsons was the unfortunate victim whose body had been found by a Pine Mountain search party a couple of days later after she deboarded the train. Winnes was one the suspects in the crime but ended up not being convicted even though a fervent fight was launched by settlement school women directors to see him imprisoned. The on-again-off-again investigation into Parsons' murder lasted close to three years, with a series of bizarre judicial proceedings taking place in the halls of the Harlan County Court House. Parsons’ vicious slaying, however, has gone unsolved over these last 100 years. And while the Lura Parsons murder mystery was dramatically played out in preeminent newspapers throughout the state such as The Louisville Courier Journal and The Lexington Herald, her story in recent years has been almost forgotten. The controversy her murder caused in Harlan County is only known by area scholars and historians. But while the historical aspect of her murder may have been mostly lost in time, the folklore surrounding Lura Parsons' murder is alive as ever. Western Kentucky University Folk Studies professor Theresa Osborne, who lives in the Pine Mountain community on the North side of the mountain, said it is folklore that keeps Lura Parsons speaking beyond the grave through the traditions of song and storytelling. There have been ballads written about Parsons' brutal assault and murder.

  “We may never know what happened on Pine Mountain to Lura Parsons,” Osborne said. “Even though we now have modern science in murder investigations that did not exist 100 years ago. But, as long as her story is handed down by folks and people still remember and share what happened to her, her legacy extends beyond the grave.” 

Laden Trail 100 years ago was an isolated area

With September’s first fall of early autumn foliage, it is likely that the L & N train created a whirl of swirling foliage in front of its locomotive as it came steaming through the Poor Fork valley on Sept. 7, 1920. No one would realize it, but by the time the train departed, a whirl of controversy consisting of elements of racism, political corruptness, sexism, and mistrust of “outsiders” would rush through the mountains of Harlan County because of the Parsons murder. The unsolved crime took place on what is now known as Laden Trail  -  KY 2010  -  that stretches over Pine Mountain connecting the Harlan side of the mountain to the communities of Linefork, which spread out over the North side of the mountain. When Parsons and Winnes both ascended the mountain in 1920 heading to Pine Mountain Settlement School separately, Laden Trail had not yet been built. In fact, it was the women directors of Pine Mountain School who lobbied for the road to be built to improve access to their school and to open new economic opportunities for the North side of the mountain. Construction work was even taking place on the South side of the mountain for the new road during the time of Parsons’ murder. Little has changed on Laden Trail since then. Although now blacktopped, widened, and maintained by the state transportation department, it is still a remote mountain highway that many have been too afraid to travel because of its isolation, nefarious happenings, and unexplained sightings. Many claim parts of the highway are haunted. And those who do not believe in ghosts maintain “weird things” happen along the trail.

The whirlwind of leaves that surrounded the train bringing Parsons and Winnes to Pine Mountain 100 years ago still swirls today up on the mountain when an occasional vehicle traverses over the backwoods roadway, either by necessity or for sightseeing. And there’s a spot near the highway upon an outcropping of rocks where those leaves come to rest. It is where Parsons was raped, bludgeoned, and left for dead. The leaves may cover the tainted ground, but Parson’s story is far from hidden. What some hoped would fade away with the falling leaves and disappear in time, Parsons’ story continues to be handed down by several generations, and Osborne said as long as her story is told, it will continue to have an impact.

“I used to drive over that mountain everyday to go to work,” said Osborne when she was the Appalachian Center Facilitator at Southeast Kentucky Community And Technical College in Cumberland. “And there was hardly a time when I didn’t think about her. She was a single woman coming by herself to the remote mountains of Harlan County to try and do some good in this world, and she was met with such a violent ending to her life. I think this story resonates with a lot of women. I have for a long time been fascinated with the Lura Parsons murder and have done some independent research on her story. Her story transcends beyond so much more than murder, even though that was tragic in itself. But it was also about very serious community issues of the time, such as possible political coverups and fighting the ‘good ol’ boy system.’ I believe that is why her murder is still talked about today  -  well that, and everybody loves a good ghost story. Again, it’s where folklore comes into play, and us mountain folk carry on our history a lot of times through storytelling.”

Pine Mountain resident Barbara Halcomb said she remembered her aunt Ella Wilder telling her about the Lura Parsons murder every time they would cross the mountain.

“She would point over to a certain spot on the mountain and say, ‘that’s where they found her body,’ and it would just give me chills,” she said. “I remember her saying they found her with clumps of hair in her fists. She must have given one good fight.”
Pine Mountain resident Sarah Epperson said she grew up hearing her family and friends talk about the murder. Some of her friends and family swear they have seen Lura’s ghost, which is said to linger along the highway near the place she was murdered, and get into the backseats of passing vehicles, wanting to return to Pine Mountain Settlement School.

 “I can’t remember hearing her story for the first time, because I was raised listening to it. I’ve always known about it,” Epperson said. “It’s just one of those stories that all of us local kids knew and stuck in the back of our minds. Growing up we were told where the murder happened and where they found her body. My Mamaw and Mom would point to the murder site when we crossed the mountain. The story fascinates me because not only does it have some paranormal tones to it, but it shares a lot of history, and I think that’s important.”

It doesn’t surprise Pathfork paranormal and cryptid investigator, history documentarian and Zombie Media producer Thomas Marcum that people have claimed to see the ghost of Lura Parsons on Pine Mountains’ Laden Trail, plus other unexplained oddities. Marcum said research has pointed to the fact that Pine Mountain is a hotspot for paranormal activity because of its geology.

“The land and some would say Mother Nature provides these special areas like Pine Mountain that just have an unexplainable energy about them,” Marcum said. “A place where things just feel different. This area also has a lot of natural quartz, which has electrical properties and is used in many electronics. The Pine Mountain area is basically a natural source of energy. There have also been reports of several areas that have underground streams, and Pine Mountain is one of them. This also acts as a source of energy, and then if you combine the two – quartz and water  - it could even be more powerful. This is something that could arguably play a part in the mysteriousness of Pine Mountain.”

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park Ranger Lucas Wilder has long been a student of the Pine Mountain range. Wilder’s views on the mystery of the mountain comes from more of a historical perspective. Although he agrees that Pine Mountain has some natural peculiarities about it, his major interest has always been in the vast remoteness of the area, and what that caused for both mountain settlers and those just passing through.

“Pine Mountain is located in the Cumberland Plateau, a physiographic region of Appalachia where the lofty peaks were formed by creeks, streams, and rivers carving it out,” Wilder said. “Within those dark hollers, moonshiners, bushwhackers, and a host of other unsavory characters could hide and never  be found. Who knows what else the Pine Mountain and its surrounding terrain hides within its undulating landscape?”

Marcum agrees with Wilder about the historical intrigue of Pine Mountain. He said the area’s long, deep hollows where at one time no one had hardly set foot was the perfect place for nefarious happenings to take place.
“It’s dark, and it’s unnerving,” Marcum said. “Often times, it’s damp and the air is a little cooler. It’s the place for myths and legends to live undisturbed.” 

The Tri-City news will publish a second part to this Lura Parsons mystery story installment of our October series “Mountain Haints” that will chronicle the historical events of the sensationalized murder and trial. In next week’s part two story, we will look further into the community strife that was created because of the murder. As we will write about more next week, Winnes was acquitted in the murder trial. Local officials tried to connect Black convicts to the murder in Winnes defense, but they were also eventually found not guilty in a court of law, as well. Convicts had been helping to build the Laden Trail road as part of a work detail program when Parsons and Winnes were crossing the mountain in 1921. Parsons walked on foot, and Winnes had rented a mule for the trip at a store located at the foot of the mountain at Laden. Eyewitness reports from prison guards and convicts place both Parsons and Winnes on the mountain, but at an hour’s time apart from each other. Next week this story will continue to tell how the women directors of Pine Mountain Settlement School hired their own private investigator and special prosecuting attorney to convict Winnes, which they were convinced murdered their teacher. In some of her correspondence during the time, Pine Mountain Settlement School Co-Director Ethel de Long Zande wrote “We are having a terrible fight with local officials. I do not know whether there is some sinister political influence at work, but against evidence which does not amount of any reasonable debate, they persist in trying to fix the blame on one of the convicts.”  Evelyn Wells, who also had Pine Mountain Settlement School connections, wrote in her diary “There is absolutely no doubt of the fact that Dr. Winnes is a murderer…It must be that Winnes has some secret power somewhere.” Zande told her school board of trustees that “There just isn’t any doubt it wasn’t a convict, and it wasn’t a moonshiner. You know such crimes as these are the rarest in the mountains.”

Osborne agrees with Zande’s documented statement. She said the wild tales that Pine Mountain was full of desperadoes such as moonshiners and wildcat loggers were exaggerated, and the fact that a murder did happen in their community had been startling and rattled the feelings of safety in an otherwise peaceful, God-fearing locale.

Because of the community discord that was created because of the Lura Parsons murder, the case was grossly investigated and tried in court. It is said that Harlan County officials and residents had a mistrust of the Pine Mountain directors and staff because they were “outsiders,” and thought that them blaming Winnes, who was a highly-respected state official, was “ludicrous.” Racism became involved when some said Parson’s rape and murder “was not something a white man would do,” sexism was also a factor as the women directors of Pine Mountain Settlement School were not taken seriously, political corruption was questioned because it appeared officials were trying to cover up for the veterinarian, and mountain children’s education was at stake as some county officials even threatened to stop construction on the new road leading to the settlement school or close down the school all together if the directors did not cease their investigation of Winnes. Local scholar and historian Dr. James Greene, who currently serves as secretary of the Pine Mountain Settlement School Board of Directors, will share with us next week his findings in the notorious murder case. Greene came across the murder story some years back when he was conducting research for his doctoral dissertation concerning Pine Mountain Settlement School’s early years.
Tales of Lura Parson’s ghost may continue to be shared locally, and some adamantly swear they have seen her apparition along the winding road of Laden Trail, but the historical reality of the teacher’s murder is bothersome enough to unnerve most. The fact that politics probably played a big part in keeping her murder unsolved and an ongoing mystery is the most disturbing part of all. Greene said it is stories like the murder of Lura Parsons that make the best folklore. It is the “what if” factor that most intrigues him.
“The fact that two different men (Winnes and a Black convict) were tried for it and neither convicted meant that there was no resolution and has led to speculation over the years, some of which I heard when working on the dissertation,” Greene said. “It is my opinion that had they had modern forensic methods of processing the physical evidence and in particular DNA testing, the crime would have been solved. Also, the unwillingness of local officials to entertain serious possibilities that did not fit their particular frame of reference impeded getting to the bottom of the case.”

Hearsay and colorful narrative have been added to the Lura Parsons tale through the years, much of which can not be proven nor refuted. Some say Parsons and Winnes had known each other previously  - that they had a past. Epperson said she had always heard Winnes was in love with her. Some say a convict was found with a bloodied coat, but that it was later determined to be the blood of an animal.
“Several say they see Lura’s ghost today,” Epperson said. “I haven’t seen anything, myself, but even though I’m into the paranormal, I’m a scaredy cat. I very rarely drive over that mountain by myself in the dark, so I haven’t given her the opportunity to show herself to me. There’s other weird stuff that’s happened on that mountain, too. An uncle of mine was hunting at the foot of Laden trail on the North side, it was Halloween time because kids were out trick-or-treating, and he said he heard a ‘God-awful’ commotion’ up on the mountain and he had no idea what it was. Ends up, this woman and her son had wrecked up on the mountain and died. I remember hearing a story on the South side of the mountain on a curve where an African American man was found with a silver spoon in his mouth. Just a lot of crazy stuff goes on up on that mountain, and the ghost of Lura Parsons is just one of several stories that keep Pine Mountain an interesting, but very intimidating place to visit.” 

To be continued......

 You can read the first post in this series by Clicking here


This is a guest post by Jennifer McDaniels. Jennifer is journalist, marketing and public relations specialist. She is also a News Correspondent & Marketing Manager for WFXY Foxy Radio and currently holds several degrees in communications and journalism.

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