Documentary sheds light on life of Hazard outlaw

Cris Ritchie — Editor

September 13, 2013

HAZARD – A local gun for hire just before the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Smith was responsible for the deaths of several men, many of which occurred during Hazard’s bloody French Eversole War. He earned the moniker of “Bad Tom.”

But for all of his infamy, the history of Bad Tom Smith isn’t nearly as well known today as other historical figures such as Ance Hatfield or Randall McCoy. Beginning next week, however, Perry County residents will have a chance to catch an all-new documentary that sheds light on the man whose deeds ultimately resulted in his own death at a Breathitt County gallows.

Filmmaker and Breathitt County native Charles Shouse premiered his documentary, “The Untold Story of Bad Tom Smith,” at the Honey Festival in Jackson early this month, and so far the reception has been positive. Bad Tom was the subject of one book in the 1960s, but his is a story, Shouse noted, that many folks today are likely quite unfamiliar with.

“This story is really being untold,” Shouse said during an interview this week. “He’s a famous bad man from the area that made national headlines back in the day.”

Indeed, Bad Tom’s exploits were reported in newspapers from Wolfe County to New York. He reportedly confessed to killing three men during the French Eversole feud in Perry County from 1887 to 1894, though according to reports he was responsible for the deaths of several more in Perry, Knott, and Breathitt counties, perhaps as many as eight in total. His final victim was a physician in Jackson, where Smith’s hanging in 1895 was reportedly witnessed by thousands of people.

Shouse first became familiar with the story of Bad Tom while working on an historical play in Breathitt County. A friend named Tony Calhoun suggested a feature about the outlaw, and from there work began on getting Bad Tom’s story on camera.

“We found a guy willing to help us get the feature film about Bad Tom made, which we’re working on right now,” Shouse said.

Work also began on a documentary, which Shouse said can help with increasing interest in the planned feature film. The documentary was shot this year and only in the past month Shouse has begun hosting local screenings. He will bring the film to Hazard next week.

A lot of research went into the documentary, which features interviews with Breathitt County resident and historian Stephen Bowling, whose upcoming book will center on Bad Tom, along with Martha Quigley, director of the Bobby Davis Museum and Park in Hazard. It is narrated by Tom Wopat of “Dukes of Hazzard” fame.

The film also features dramatizations shot at Renfro Valley’s Brush Arbor Village, which stood in for late 19th century Hazard.

The story itself offers insight into the life and times of Bad Tom, from his years as a hired gun for the French faction of the French Eversole War, to his final days when he would repent, become baptized, and tell a crowd of onlookers to stay away from whiskey and bad women just before he was executed.

The film also touches a bit on the controversy over Bad Tom’s final resting place, which for years was thought to be in a Vicco cemetery. According to Shouse, however, their own investigation sheds some very real doubt on that line of thinking.

Bad Tom lived in an era no one today can remember, before the rail road came to Hazard, and before the coal industry really took a foothold in the region. For residents of Eastern Kentucky, Shouse said this documentary provides a glimpse into a time when the region was itself beginning to grow.

“The documentary has a lot of great educational and historical stuff in it from the area,” he said.

“Bad Tom” will be shown in Hazard next week to coincide with the Black Gold Festival. It will open at Hillside Theatre on Sept. 19 and 20 at 1 p.m., and at The Forum in Hazard at 8 p.m. each evening. For more about the film, visit the Bad Tom Movie page on Facebook.