It was a rainy Monday afternoon, that May 4, 1874, when Bill Smoot murdered James M. Walker in a small town in Kentucky. Bill pulled his trigger in front of all the townspeople as a warning. He was the head of the local KKK and Jim Walker had been trying to get the Klan to stop killing people—men, women, little boys and girls alike. The Klan was warning local citizens not to interfere.
It was probably the first time a white man had been killed by the Klan in central Kentucky.
After Jim’s murder, the Klan, along with the sheriff and some others, chased all the “good guys” out of the area, using guns as persuaders. One of the pursued was a deputy U.S. Marshal. It wasn’t until the Federal Marshal of Kentucky got into the act and threatened to jail the sheriff that the chase was broken up.
Smoot was tried by a state court and immediately acquitted. That is the way things worked with state courts. But Smoot was then hauled to Louisville to a Federal Court and tried for interfering with a Marshal in the pursuit of his duties. He was found guilty, with two subordinates, and sent to prison for five years.
That should be the end of the story. But Smoot was out of prison quickly, riding again with his gang.
It seems that on March 3, 1877, with only two days to go in office, President U.S. Grant pardoned Bill Smoot and his two friends. And he raised all kinds of questions.
Jim Walker was my great-grandfather and I had written about the murder and subsequent events. I even wrote what I had heard about a pardon, but the National Archives has been unable to find a copy. Then, last week, someone sent me an image of the Smoot pardon by email!
It seems that President Grant, a Republican, had granted a pardon to a KKK member who was a Democrat, an ignorant day laborer with a strong penchant for drink, with no money, who was from an obscure county in KY. Grant wrote in the pardon that he was encouraged to make the pardon at the behest of two Democrat senators and the Democrat governor of Kentucky.
How does a drunken killer with no money get the attention of such high level people? My research showed that most probably the governor of KY was in the Klan, but I do not know if the U.S. Senators were in the Klan. Even so—why go to all the bother of getting a presidential pardon for this lay-a-bout? Grant wrote in the pardon that Smoot was convicted for an infraction of the “Enforcement Act” (civil rights laws of the time) but Smoot was not convicted for that reason, so the pardon was probably not valid, but he was released anyway..
President Grant’s administration was known for its corruption, but no one seriously claimed that Grant was anything but honest.
Perhaps we will never know why Grant gave the pardon for a specific crime and not a general pardon. Nor will we probably ever know why he did anything about Smoot at all. Nor will we be enlightened about Smoot’s “pull” in high places.
We can speculate that Smoot had information about the Senators and the Governor that would be embarrassing, but that is all. There seems to be nothing about Smoot’s case that would be of benefit to Grant or the Republicans.
It is just one of history’s mysteries.
KKK U. S. Marshals Service