Kentucky Nights: A Story of Unexpected Endings
By Eric K. Ward
“Not always got along. Too much to ignore/ But still you find your way and she stakes her claim/ Another day but she knows you’ll be alright/ It’s all right Kentucky night. Kentucky nights make it right.” ~ Bulldog Shadow
One hundred and sixteen years before Louisville police fired the 32 rounds that killed Breonna Taylor, a hail of bullets was aimed at another African American woman just south of the city. Mary Dent Thompson, a sharecropper in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, was the target of an extrajudicial killing — like the one that took Breonna and countless other Black lives. Only 28 years old, Mary was dragged from a jail cell in the early morning hours by a lynch mob. Hung up from a tree. Shot, by some accounts, 100 times.
I know her story because it is mine. The story of Mary Dent Thompson of Shepherdsville, Kentucky is my family’s origin story. It’s how we got to Southern California. It’s also the story of Kentucky Nights, the song I wrote about returning to that part of the country 110 years after my family fled.
This is the story I want to leave you with in these last days before the most important election of our times. A story of unexpected endings. A ghost story with a heavy dose of horror and more than a little hope.
My Family’s Origin Story
The way my family told it, one day in 1904 back in Bullitt County, Kentucky, my great grand aunt Mamie Mace came upon a scene all too familiar in the post-Civil War South: a lynch mob. Mary Dent Thompson, a Black sharecropper, had killed her white landlord after he’d attacked her son. She’d been hauled from her jail cell and strung up from a tree with a noose around her neck.
My great grand aunt packed up the family and headed west that same day, the story goes. They had their sights set on San Francisco, but before they could get there from their waystation in Arizona, the city was destroyed by earthquake and fire. They ended up in Southern California instead.
My family has lots of stories, one for every name inscribed in the family bible, at least, and then some. The story of the lynching that propelled them west never seemed particularly important to those who told it. But it loomed large for me. And I didn’t yet know the half of what had actually happened to Mary Dent Thompson.
About 80 years later I, too, fled for a better life. I’d found my groove in the late 1970s L.A. punk scene. But by the early ’80s I knew that if I didn’t leave Southern California soon, I would die. The punk and skinheads rumbles, the cops terrorizing us outside of shows, the war on drugs that we knew was a war on us. Like my father’s people before me: time to go.
Yes, it’s a bit ironic that I headed north to the region being claimed by white nationalists as an Aryan homeland. That led me into the work I’ve done ever since; work which took me from Oregon to Chicago to Brooklyn. And it was from there that I finally ended up full circle: back in Kentucky.
My First Trip to Kentucky
When a collegial trip took me to Kentucky, the ghost of Mary Dent Thompson was waiting for me. I was conscious of the fact that I would be only about 20 miles from the scene of that lynch mob, from the place my family had left for good reason. But I had a few other things on my mind too. A trip to a legendary guitar store, for one.
I spent a day walking miles down the main street of Louisville, sampling bourbon in every other bar. I got to the guitar store just before closing. They welcomed me in, told me to take my time. I fell in love with a guitar that spoke to me despite my wallet’s objections. I bought her and I started looking around for an open mic. I found one at a BBQ joint a few days later. Let me take you back to that night.
I take a cab there with my new guitar, walk in and notice a couple of things. There’s a Confederate flag hanging above the bar. I’m on the outskirts of Louisville and I know this is probably not going to be like any open mic scene I’m familiar with. I have a choice to make. But I really want to play this guitar. And my cab driver has already somewhat reluctantly left.
I sit boldly down at the bar and order a whiskey and a beer and learn that the music is in the back room. It turns out it’s a jam session; basically, an open mic with a backing band — a bunch of old boys playing music, all much better musicians than me. I can feel my tension. I am consciously aware that I’m unknown and the only Black person in the room. I go back and sit for a while, nursing my drink. And eventually they ask, “Do you have a song you want to play?”
I do have a song I want to play. But my people have not been at home in Kentucky for many years. There in the room with me, my guitar, and the olds boys playing music is the ghost of Mary Dent Thompson. I can feel her everywhere.
Mary never denied killing John Irvine, her landlord. Versions vary, as they always do, especially when the only witnesses are Black and a white man is dead. Wikipedia tells it like this:
“While she and her son were working in her vegetable garden, Irvine approached them, and demanded the return of a pair of pliers. Thompson’s son said that he had already returned the tool. Irvine began to accuse the boy of stealing the pliers, verbally berating him, and kicked him several times in the back. Thompson confronted the landowner over her son and they argued. Shocked that Thompson challenged him, Irvine demanded that she ‘get off his place.’ By evicting Thompson, Irvine took her home, income, and dignity. ‘Angry and desperate… Thompson struck back.’ According to Thompson, she complied with Irvine’s demand, but ‘intentionally walked slowly’. Irvine became enraged and tried to attack Mary from behind with a knife. Thompson, a woman weighing 255 pounds, got the better of Irvine and cut his throat with a razor, killing him. Thompson sold her horse and furniture to her neighbors, and was preparing to flee when she was arrested.”
But that was then. And here I am, and the band is inviting me up. So I get up there and start playing an original. And these old boys start backing me up. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a band behind me. I’d never heard my music that way. It feels so right. Like for the first time, I’m hearing my own music.
All the tension in the room ebbs away. The band asks me, “Did you write that?” I say I did. Their immediate response is, “Let’s play another one.” I play three of my originals that night. We get to talking, I stay until the bar closes, the bass player gives me a ride home. We still stay in touch on social media.
It was a profound night for all of us. It was a night that ended in a way I didn’t expect.
“Walking down the road/ Where you been before/ Seems like a lifetime since you/ Stood at her door.”
I flew home the next day and wrote the song Kentucky Nights. It’s a tribute to Mary Dent Thompson, the jumble of fears and aspirations I felt that night, the old boys that backed me and my guitar, and the moment where we found a bridge.
Stories Don’t Always End The Way You Think They Do
That first trip to Kentucky, the ghost of Mary Dent Thompson both called to me and repulsed me: the racial terror, the courage, a woman who stood her ground but didn’t survive.
I looked for more information about what happened that day of the lynching. I came to find out that she’d done more than stand her ground in that vegetable garden. Nor had her community stood by passively as she was locked up in jail.
That night when a dozen white men came to haul Mary out of jail to lynch her, they were rebuffed by a crowd of African American men. The sheriff talked everyone into going home. Early that next morning a larger mob of 30 to 150 white men returned and stormed the jail. They busted Mary out and took her to the hanging tree.
The historical record isn’t clear on what happened in the melee that took place once they got the noose around Mary’s neck. Some say the rope broke under the strain of her 250 pound heft; some say a rescuer severed the rope with a bullet. I prefer the version where Mary, swinging in the air, noose around her neck, gripped her legs around a white man, grabbed his knife, and cut herself down.
As she fought her way out of the crowd, the gunfire hit her. That’s where most versions of the story end. Mary Dent Thompson, escaped from the noose and then shot dead.
But remember, this is a story about unexpected endings. Mary Dent Thompson did not, in fact, die from that lynch mob’s bullets.
It turns out she was taken by the sheriff to a doctor. A .38 caliber pistol ball had “entered her back and went completely through her body, barely missing her right lung” according to the local history museum’s account. Patched up, she was taken to a stone jailhouse that was sturdier than the wooden one she’d been dragged from the night before. Once more a lynch mob came for her. This time they left without her.
The next morning she was moved to a Louisville jail. The newspaper headline reads, “MARY THOMPSON BROUGHT HERE FOR SAFEKEEPING: POSSIBILITY OF ANOTHER LYNCHING CAUSES HER TRANSFER.” The story reports, “On arriving in Louisville yesterday she breathed a sigh of relief. She said that she feared lynching at the hands of the men in Bullitt County and was glad to be behind the bars of the jail in Jefferson County. Her wounds are nearly healed, and it is almost certain that she will recover.”
We need these stories of unexpected endings. We need to remember, always, that the last chapter has yet to be written. Horror is not always the end of the story.
Horror Is Not Always the End of the Story
What happened once Mary Dent Thompson went to trial in Kentucky in 1905 is just as remarkable as her and her son surviving the garden-row confrontation with John Irwin; just as remarkable as her surviving not one but three lynching attempts and a bullet that ran right through her chest.
Over 350 potential jurors had to be called in order to form a proper jury. You would think that the courts in white supremacist, early 20th-century America would do what the mobs had failed to do to a Black woman, a sharecropper, who had killed a white landowner. Instead, Mary Dent Thompson was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary.
“As true as there is a God in Heaven I did not kill that man until after he had attacked me, and I was forced to fight for my life,” Mary is said to have testified.
Mary Dent Thompson went on to live another 30 years. She died August 18, 1934, the mother of twelve children and widow of her husband Ben. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, less than 10 miles from the BBQ place I played that night with my new guitar.
She still had a future, after all that horror. And after four years of white nationalist terror, increasing political violence, and authoritarian grabs for power — so do we, America.
This is why it’s so important for us to tell our stories to each other. Stories of courage in the face of terror, stories of resilience and redemption. Our stories help us to remember each other’s humanity. Our stories connect us to each other and to all those who came before us who survived the unimaginable.
I want to send you off with some more stories. In honor of Mary Dent Thompson, my father’s people, Breonna Taylor, those old boys in the bar, all the names we say, and the names we don’t even know. I’ve made a playlist for you of the songwriters and the stories that have kept me going over the last four years. May they sustain you and feed your own stories.
I’d love to hear from you: What are the songs that speak to you in this moment, that lift you up. What are the stories that keep you going?
Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with SPLC and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.
For the times we are in: my Kentucky Nights playlist.