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Sacred Silence: Marijuana, God’s Law, and Kentucky’s Cornbread Mafia

This article was written by James Higdon (The Cornbread Mafia) for The Marginalia Review. It is re-posted with the permission of the site and author.

When I started working on the book that would become The Cornbread Mafia, I never thought that I would be telling a story of God’s law versus Man’s law. But that’s how it turned out. Which was scary stuff, I thought. The supremacy of divine law over secular law was (I assumed) a concept reserved only for religious fundamentalists, so what was I doing with it in a story about large-scale marijuana growers?

I thought I was writing a true-crime story, and at the start I didn’t know much more than the basics: between 1985 and 1989, 70 men from a three-county area in central Kentucky were arrested on 30 farms in 10 states with 200 tons of marijuana in what federal prosecutors said was the “biggest domestic marijuana [syndicate] in American history.” They called them “the Cornbread Mafia.”

Now, having grown up in the middle of that three-county area (Lebanon, Kentucky in Marion County), I had some clue about this Cornbread deal, who some of the men were and what kinds of cars they drove. I went to school with their kids. We were all part of the same Catholic parishes and ended up at the same Catholic wedding receptions. But what did our rural Catholic identity have to do with a giant marijuana cartel?

It didn’t take long into the reporting process to encounter these facts: of the 70 men arrested in Cornbread-related busts, 69 were Catholics and zero agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for a lesser sentence. Those facts, and others like them, left me searching for a cause-and-effect relationship between Catholicism and criminal activity — and I found it in newspaper microfilm and in church archives as they illuminated the parallel histories of the frontier Catholic church and the distilling industry.

The first Catholic church west of the Appalachian mountains was built in 1790 in Holy Cross, Kentucky — ground zero of what would become Cornbread country 200 years later. Five years before the church was built, the land had been settled by a group of Catholic families of English descent led by a man named Basil Hayden, a distiller of whisky.

Hayden’s grandsons would later bottle the old man’s bourbon recipe under the Old Granddad label. By the turn of the 20th Century, Marion County had nine active distilleries employing hundreds of men. And then, Prohibition came to Marion County in 1919 and all those distilleries closed, taking the jobs from hundreds of Catholics (with about a dozen children each) and criminalizing the only thing they knew how to do.

So suddenly, an entire Catholic community descended into lawlessness. To read the newspaper microfilm of The Lebanon Enterprise for the 13 years of Prohibition is to read about comic book-level violence and absurdity: revenuers leaping from the running boards of one moving vehicle onto another, gun fights, car chases, and one record-setting still bust after another.

In this sort of environment, where men felt forced into criminal activity to provide for their children, those children learned quickly that silence was the only weapon they had against the men with guns who were taking their fathers away. When the man asked questions, not answering was the only way to fight back. When everybody did it together, it created a strong bond between them and a strong wall of silence that was almost impossible for outsiders to penetrate.

In the 1950s, I discovered in the newspaper archive that Lebanon still had the reputation for bootlegging, as Marion County was the last “wet county” to the Tennessee line. It came to a head in 1958, when an agent for the Alcoholic Beverage Control was building a new house when someone dynamited it in the middle of the night. Authorities in Frankfort, the state capital, took this attack on their authority personally. They sent 30 state policemen to harass the local liquor merchants while investigating the ABC agent’s house bombing. The state’s public safety commissioner, a young Harvard grad, accused the whole community of “open and commonplace gambling, prostitution and illegal whisky sales.”

The public safety commissioner then traveled to Lebanon with the state’s press pool in tow, claiming to have evidence to make arrests in connection with the ABC agent’s house bombing. But when he exited the courthouse empty-handed, a mob had assembled against the commissioner, shouting things at him in response to the prostitution accusations, like “Where are those girls?” and “Where are those girls!”

There, in the back of this mob scene, the local newspaper editor explained to a big-city reporter what the hell was going on, and that conversation made it into print, which was preserved in the newspaper microfilm where I found it 50 years later: “Gambling and liquor violations are a sin against the state, but prostitution is a sin against God,” the local editor said. “That’s a serious charge.”

He’s saying that the community wasn’t angry about the accusations of drinking and gambling, because they were true — but claiming that prostitution was also going on just went too far. And more importantly, it seems to suggest that this community existed in a moral universe that successfully ignored a number of state and federal laws while still maintaining its moral center by focusing on the authority of the Church instead of the encroaching power of the state, which was hell-bent on trying to control things it couldn’t control.

The children of that mob scene would grow up to become the Cornbread generation: men who seemed to possess an ability to live outside of civil authority without losing their souls in the process. Of course, this is not universally true, and the story of those who successfully walked this line is littered with others’ failure. The body count in my book is about a dozen, and the number of families torn apart by mandatory federal prison sentences and property seizures is too great to count.

But many of the men doing those prison sentences did more time than they would have, if they had only turned on their friends and cooperated with the government. But none did, zero out of 70. Family and community were more important than staying out of prison.

Step by the library on Monday, September 30 at 6:00 PM to hear Higdon speak on The Cornbread Mafia. He will have books on hand to sell and sign after his presentation.

The Derringer – History of Legion Park and James H. Hickman

by Courtney Hatley

Legion Park, the oldest city park in Owensboro (with the exception of Smothers Park which was set aside as public grounds in the 1816 plat of Rossboro), was acquired as a shady picnic area in 1894. At the time, the location of Legion Park was outside the city limits and patrons paid a fare of 5 cents to ride a streetcar the 1 and a half miles to and from the park, which was operated by the Owensboro Railway Company and ran every 20 minutes. James Hardin Hickman (1852-1931), “tall, handsome, ram-rod straight” and Mayor of Owensboro at the time, purchased the land from Camden Riley, Sr. for a total of $4,000.

Hickman was one of the most well-loved and admired Mayors of Owensboro; he was elected five more times and is considered the Father of Owensboro’s parks movement. Hickman’s titles included pharmacist, tobacco merchant, doctor, bank director and manufacturer of Owensboro Wagons. An extremely influential man, he also served as a school board member and city councilman, and successfully argued for the development of paved streets. Hickman regarded nature as something to be cultivated and treasured; in an editorial for the Owensboro Inquirer, Hickman wrote, “He is not a normal man who is not in love with woods and trees and shrubbery and flowers; for they are among God’s best gifts to the world.” Providing the city with beautiful places and parks became an obsession of Hickman’s and it is largely due to his initiative that we have such splendid ones today. Eminently popular among Owensboro’s citizens, Hickman’s wealth was generously used to advance the prosperity of the city. However, Hickman’s fortune was largely dissipated with the Hickman-Ebbert Wagon Company venture and he ultimately committed suicide after a long period of ill-health and despondency.

Originally called Hickman Park, the name was changed in 1923 to American Legion after Hickman encouraged the commissioners to honor the Owensboro men who fought in World War I. The large trees and natural setting, as well as winding walkways, picnic shelters, fish ponds, a bandstand, concession stand and a fountain enhanced the already exceptionally beautiful park. A monkey house was eventually added which featured two monkeys, white rabbits, foxes, coons and an assortment of birds.

“The parks we have are a sacred trust for the benefit alike of the normal, wholesome and merry folk, who may find recreation and relief from life’s toils, but to the sick, the weary and the care-worn, they offer a place where the cooling shadows kiss the tired brow and invite surcease from suffering and give a nature’s failing forces a chance to live again.” – James Hardin Hickman

Mayors of Owensboro, Kentucky by Jerry Long
History Owensboro Parks and Recreation 1815-1990 by Evan Ray Russell
Owensboro Messenger
Owensboro Inquirer

Echoes of Elmwood

For the Derringer
By Leslie McCarty

One was an aviation pioneer.
She led others, yet she was blind.
No mob was going to lynch his prisoner.
This Civil War hero made a fatal decision.
Why the Colonel went into the lion’s den, day after day.

Each of us has a story to tell; so do they. Come and here these voices speak for themselves at Echoes of Elmwood.

Have you missed some stories from years past of Voices of Elmwood? If you have, then this is your chance get caught up. Echoes of Elmwood is revisiting ten stories from Year One.

Performances will be under a tent at Elmwood Cemetery May 17 & 18 at 7 & 9 p.m.

To get your tickets, please call the Owensboro Museum of Science and History at 270-687-2732, or visit

This event is proudly hosted by Rosehill-Elmwood Cemetery

The Derringer Presents: The mystery of the stray balloon.

By Leslie McCarty

While looking at the current issue of the Kentucky Explorer Magazine, there was listed a newspaper clipping about a stray balloon that had flew over Daviess County and mysteriously crashed. The only date given for this was December 1887. I checked our archives of the Owensboro Messenger and found three articles that cover this strange incident. The first article was listed on Sunday December 11, 1887.

According to the article, “the citizens of the eastern portion of the city yesterday discovered a balloon to the northward, passing slowly from east to west. It was an immense affair and was sailing at a great height. After being in sight for some time it began wavering in the wind and finally began to descend, falling slowly at first and at last taking a desperate plunge earthward and passing out of sight. Nothing has been heard of a balloon ascension, and it is not known where it came from, or whether or not an aeronaut was in charge of it. It will probably be heard from within a day or two.”

According to two follow-up articles in the Owensboro Messenger on Tuesday December 13, 1887, “late Saturday evening an immense balloon was seen on the opposite side of the river and some distance back in Kentucky. It was sailing slowly at an immense height from west to east and after being in sight for some time, it began wavering in the wind, and finally commenced falling. It plunged toward the earth below the timber tops. This morning a search party went out from Hawesville to look for the balloon, and after a search of several hours they found, and to their horror, also the remains of a man a few feet away from the basket, which was partially torn from the balloon. No papers or evidence were found to indicate the identity of the unfortunate aeronaut. No balloon ascension has been heard of and the affair is a mystery. The general accepted theory is that he was dead before the balloon hit the earth and that he died in the upper regions of the atmosphere.”  

Who was the man and where did he come from?  Was he flying for pleasure or other purposes? Does ownership of the balloon indicate that he may have been wealthy? Our questions to this mystery may never be answered.

The Derringer- Rosa Burwell Todd: A Profile

By Leslie Byrne

If you aren’t aware, Owensboro is home to many interesting people, including but not limited to celebrities, athletes, aviation pioneers and soldiers. Profile, a soon-to-be regular Derringer segment, shows how these not-so-ordinary folks left their legacy imprinted on Owensboro history. One of these folks is Rosa Burwell Todd.

Rosa Burwell Todd was born January 14, 1849 and was the daughter of Colonel William M. Burwell and granddaughter of William A. Burwell, who was a private secretary to Thomas Jefferson. She married Dr. Charles Henry Todd on February 15, 1865. He was born in Shelby County on Nov. 6, 1838 and was the son of Colonel Charles S. Todd. At the beginning of the Civil War, he resigned his position as assistant physician of the insane asylum at Bayou Sara, Louisiana and went to Virginia and as assistant surgeon of the 6th Louisiana Regiment. In 1862 he was later promoted to regimental surgeon of Stonewall Jackson’s division of General Lee’s army, and remained with them until final surrender at Appomattox Court House. Mrs. Todd was a writer for several well-known magazines, including a series in the Taylor-Trotwood Magazine of Louisville, which include reminiscences of distinguished guests that been in her girlhood home.  Her daughter, Rosa Shelby, organized the Daughters of the Daviess County Confederate Association in 1893, which later became the John C. Breckinridge Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. On October 26, 1897, Mrs. Todd became the organizing regent for the Owensboro Gen. Evan Shelby Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the chapter was organized in her home. Mrs. Todd also became the Kentucky State Regent to the NSDAR. Rosa Burwell Todd died November 9, 1911, in Owensboro, KY and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. She was survived by her husband, Charles H. Todd, a son, Charles Stewart Todd, and a daughter Rosa S. & Frances S. Todd.


A History of the John C. Breckinridge Chapter 306 United Daughters of the Confederacy, Owensboro, Kentucky by Edna Shrewcraft Macon, July 2012

1883 History of Daviess County, Kentucky

Owensboro Area Obituary Index


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