After moonrise on the cold night of January 21, 1897, a mob of twenty-five white men gathered in a patch of woods near Big Road in southwestern Simpson County, Kentucky. Half carried rifles and shotguns, and a few tucked pistols in their pants. Their target was George Dinning, a freed slave who’d farmed peacefully in the area for 14 years, and who had been wrongfully accused of stealing livestock from a neighboring farm. When the mob began firing through the doors and windows of Dinning’s home, he fired back in self-defense, shooting and killing the son of a wealthy Kentucky family.
So began one of the strangest legal episodes in American history — one that ended with Dinning becoming the first Black man in America to win damages after a wrongful murder conviction.
Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Ben Montgomery resurrects this dramatic but largely forgotten story, and the unusual convergence of characters — among them a Confederate war hero-turned-lawyer named Bennett H. Young, Kentucky governor William O’Connell Bradley, and George Dinning himself — that allowed this unlikely story of justice to unfold in a time and place where justice was all too rare.
January 21, 1897
When the guns fell silent and the white men took cover, George Dinning burst out the back of his little wooden house, wearing only his undergarments. He ran through the frigid January air, and when he reached the tall grass of a nearby field, he hurled himself down flat on his back, his lungs heaving, his breath visible and rising beneath a moon almost full and what seemed to be a million stars poking through a smoky blue-black midnight sky. He lay still and quiet and listened to the men’s voices coming from the north, beyond the house. They sounded at first as though they were in a state of consternation, but the voices grew distant as time slid by, suggesting retreat. When he could no longer hear the voices over the heartbeat in his own ears, he sat up slowly, looked around, then darted across the field toward his house. His wife met him at the door with his boots, his heavy coat, and his hat, and he dressed quickly, without saying much, then turned away from the humble home he had built with his own hands, the only home his children had ever known, the home he had defended, and he disappeared into the darkness.
He ran, crashing through the near-freezing vegetation of southwestern Kentucky in close proximity to the Red River, which rolled silently west toward the Cumberland. He remembered the sight of his house surrounded by white men with guns and he tried to puzzle out in his mind the last few minutes, for what had just happened would determine which action he next chose. Who were those men? And whom among his neighbors could he trust?
He made his way first to the farm of Gib Hackney, a white man—a good man, he thought, a friend—who lived a half mile away, near the Tennessee state line. From the nighttime shadows Dinning bellowed, then waited, but he saw no light and heard no sound. He bellowed again and the same silence followed, so he turned and ran.
He cut through field and forest, and the sounds of his footfalls carried through the cold night. A mile away, at Price’s Mill, he came upon the home of Zack Murray, another white man. Dinning called out to him, and Murray appeared in the doorway with a lantern. Murray held the lantern up to the heaving Black man standing before him and examined Dinning in the firelight. He first noticed the shotgun in Dinning’s grip, one of two loads spent. He then saw blood oozing down Dinning’s face, and then the wellspring: a gunshot wound in Dinning’s forehead, as big around as the tip of his finger. He examined Dinning’s arm and saw where his undershirt had torn, and saw a wound about a quarter inch deep and an inch and a half long.
Dinning followed Murray inside. When he’d caught his breath, he explained to his neighbor the evening’s events, lantern light dancing on the walls around them:
He had eaten dinner at dusk. He had hauled some wood in. He had stoked the fire. His wife, Mollie, and children had climbed into bed. There was the baby, four months old; Emma, three years; Nannie, four years; Mertrude, six years; George Jr., eight years; Viola, ten years; and Eva, twelve years old.
He had drifted into a deep sleep, and woke when Mollie shook him. He had heard the dog barking outside, then voices. Then he heard someone call his name, “George!”
The men accused him of stealing from smokehouses, and he protested, said upstanding white folks would speak on his behalf. That was when the bombs came. He thought they were bombs, or dynamite, because they came from above and sounded like someone had cast handfuls of gravel on the floor. Murray tried to set him straight, said he and his whole family would be dead if somebody had thrown dynamite into his little house.
Whatever it was, Dinning told Murray that he grabbed his shotgun and started up the stairs, and just as he passed a window, he felt a sharp pain in his arm and looked down and saw his own blood. He rushed upstairs and threw open the window at the foot of his daughter’s bed. He felt a great pain in the center of his forehead, and he pointed his gun at what seemed to be a yardful of men down below. He squeezed and the blast from his muzzle lit the night. The gunshot seemed to stop time for a split second, and a silence rushed over him, a silence that preceded a great deafening hail of explosions, of flying bullets, bullets flying over the heads of his children.
Murray asked if he’d recognized anybody. Dinning didn’t know. Didn’t think so.
The two men sat until 5 a.m., and Dinning told Murray he’d better head back to the house to check on his family, to face whatever might come. Dinning fetched his shotgun and headed toward the place he’d called home for fourteen years, but his friend Bob Lucas intercepted him a hundred yards away. Bob was a farmer, Black, younger than Dinning by eight years or so, and he lived nearby. In fact, the men who’d come the night before had asked Dinning if he knew where Bob Lucas was. He didn’t, he said. The men told him they were looking for Bob Lucas, too, and now here he was, coming down the road before sunup, carrying devastating news.
One of the men had been hit by George Dinning’s birdshot, Bob Lucas told him, in the cheek and neck and shoulder. Had fallen from his horse in front of George Dinning’s house. Had spilled blood in George Dinning’s yard. Had passed in the night, George Dinning’s name on his tongue.
You shot Jodie Conn, said Bob Lucas. Dinning knew Conn, had done work for him. Had no problem with the man. Hadn’t known he was there that night. Conn was a wealthy farmer from the next county over, Logan. He was the thirty-two-year-old scion of the Conn family. And they would soon prepare his grave.
There was no time to go home, not under the circumstances. The whites would be bent on revenge. He had to trust that they wouldn’t harm his babies.
He left the neighborhood on Friday for Franklin, the Simpson County seat, taking the Springfield road the whole way, careful, scared, walking nine miles. He left his shotgun with Dick Henry, a Black man who lived on the outskirts of Franklin, and promptly turned himself in to Sheriff Bud Clark at the county jail, a foreboding stone fortress. News of the shooting beat Dinning to the city, and the sheriff was already making plans to spirit him away. Clark loaded Dinning into a buggy and started across the brown and barren country for Bowling Green, in Warren County, some twenty miles away.
While George Dinning rode toward Bowling Green in the custody and protection of Sheriff Bud Clark, armed men showed up at his home and abducted his fourteen-year-old son, Hermann, who had returned home from his grandmother Mary’s, where he had spent the night. The white men took charge of the house and held the boy all day, perhaps hoping George Dinning would return to rescue his son. When he did not, the men told Mollie that she must leave the county, and get at least fifty miles away before stopping, or she would hang.
Her husband had peacefully farmed these 125 acres for fourteen years, with no trouble to speak of. He’d grown up here, in fact, was born on this land in 1855, a son of slaves, a slave himself, one of about 1,850 men and women in bondage in Simpson County, Kentucky, each with a monetary value of about $380. The first Black settlers in Kentucky, many of them free men and women, came from the East—mainly Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. But Irish, Scottish, and German planters brought enslaved Black people with them when they established the early settlements at Harrodsburg and Boonesborough in 1775. Planters migrated to the Bluegrass region, then slowly made their way west to claim federal land grants of several hundred acres, bringing slaves with them. The earliest Black people to settle in Simpson County lived in an area against the Red River known as Coffee Bottom, near Price’s Mill and White Hill. They lived mostly in small board-and-batten cabins made of oak. Kitchen and living room downstairs, and a bedroom upstairs.
The U.S. slave roster of 1860, taken when George Dinning was five years old, did not record his name, or the names of his mother or father, but did list the name of his owner, David M. Dinning, descendant of a David Dinning who emigrated from northern Ireland to the American colonies with his parents in 1762 and migrated to Logan County, Kentucky, near the Red River, in 1817. In the 1860 slave roster, George Dinning was recorded as one of thirteen enslaved people who belonged to David M. Dinning. He is identified in the government record only by age, sex, and color: 5, M, and B.
He was a boy with no history. The recorded lineage and migration of his white owners could fill a book, but he could not say whether his own people came from Ogbomosho or Wushishi or Gombe, whether they crossed the vast Atlantic under a Portuguese or French or Dutch flag, whether they passed through Jamestown or St. Augustine or New Orleans, or whether they took some atypical journey. He could not say whether his ancestors were among the enslaved people who built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison, or laid the foundations for the White House or the Capitol. His past had been eclipsed, or distorted, or wiped away. His father was given the name George, and he in turn gave the name George to his son.
He grew and married and lived a life of toil. He claimed the land upon which he lived when David M. Dinning died in November 1884. He could not read or write, and he was unschooled, but he had managed to buy two horses, a plow, some farm implements, seven hogs, two dozen chickens, and four turkeys. He was industrious, and he’d built himself a two-story cabin, where he and Mollie were raising eleven children. His land was productive, rich soil above limestone bedrock. They lived in a region called the Pennyroyal, named after a prolific variety of wild mint, and the conditions there were perfect for growing the dark tobacco primarily used to make cigars, snuff, and chewing tobacco, which, at the time, were much more popular than cigarettes. Dinning’s farm was profitable, and he owed no man. Would he steal? He was a well-regarded, hardworking longtime member of the community. He was self-sufficient, and lawful. There is no record of any preceding arrest or suspicion. George Dinning was, judging from all evidence available, a good, honest man.
Without her husband, and surrounded by the gun-hung whites of southern Kentucky, what choice did Mollie have? She did not protest that frigid January evening, though she was frightened and worried about her sick daughter. She quietly put Hermann on one horse and threw several featherbeds in front of him, over the horse’s shoulders. She lifted Eva up to him. The girl was ill, and shaken. With her baby in her arms, Mollie mounted their second horse and helped the other children up behind her. At sundown, after one last look, the family started down the frozen road. They hadn’t eaten that day, on account of the chaos. “I was so badly frightened when I left, that I did not take time to put wrappings on myself or children,” Mollie would later say. Once they’d gotten a few miles away, charitable Black families carried food out to the road and handed it up to the outcasts. They rode until they reached the Tennessee line, and beyond that, the home of Mollie’s brother.
Mollie and the children were long out of sight when the white men returned, sloshed out kerosene, and set fire to the main house, to the smokehouse, to the barn, and to the life-giving bottomland fields upon which she and her husband had toiled for fourteen years, from which they’d earned a hard and honest living as free people, to which they would never return. They wouldn’t have smelled the first wafts on the night air of their own possessions catching fire—their threadbare clothes, their woodware, their feather beds, their schoolbooks. They wouldn’t have heard the footfalls of the guffawing and lawless jackboots hustling across the spiny burdock, or the crackle and lurch of the cabin behind them as the fire came alive and consumed it and, hungry still, licked at the curling Kentucky sky.
“A Shot in the Moonlight” is available for purchase online.
Ben Montgomery is a former enterprise reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and founder of the narrative journalism website Gangrey.com. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting and won the Dart Award and Casey Medal for a series called “For Their Own Good,” about abuse at Florida’s oldest reform school. He lives in Tampa with his children. He is the author of “The Man Who Walked Backward, The Leper Spy, and Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.”
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Originally published on Military Times, our sister publication.