21 February 2010

Greenville Morgan Witten Murder

Greenville Morgan Witten was born in Tazewell County, Virginia 24 July 1830 to Thomas and
Mary Polly Lackey Witten. The Witten's made sure their two sons were educated. Green's younger brother enlisted in the Confederate Army and was killed in action.

Greenville M. Witten migrated to Floyd County, Kentucky where his father had done business for many years. He began his career in the mercantile industry, expanded into timber and then along with cousin Joseph Davidson purchased large land grants in Floyd and surrounding counties.

In 1854 G. M. Witten became an early commissioner of the Big Sandy Valley Railroad Company and in 1873 helped create a rail system. The rails ran from the mouth of the Big Sandy River, in Boyd County, to the property of the Great Western Mining and Manufacturing Company in Lawrence County, Kentucky [Peach Bottom] with a goal to reach the Virginia state line. The name of this enterprise was called the Chatteroi Railway Company.

Genealogists tend to list him only briefly, as he left no descendants and never married. While he had money and land he preferred to board in rooming houses and hotels. Green M. Witten was community minded, belonged to several organizations and while living in Prestonsburg had been the Second Master of the Zebulon Masonic Lodge on two different occasions prior to moving to Boyd County, Kentucky.

Money wise, Greenville Witten also became a banker along with his cousin. Having learned the banking trade in Floyd County, together, they opened the bank of Witten & Davidson in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Witten quickly took the reins of the business settling into life in the river town. He had friends far and wide and was said to have carried large amounts of cash on his person. He quickly became involved in Catlettsburg affairs holding the office of police judge and mayor. He retired from banking in 1882 but remained a Catlettsburg resident.

From these small tidbits we can assume that Witten was a strong character. His death made many major newspapers:

"Marion, Oh. 23 March 1896. CATLETTSBURG MYSTERY. Wealthy and Prominent man disappears from home. Catlettsburg, KY. G. M. Witten, ex-mayor, ex-police judge and retired banker has been missing since March 14. The river and Catlett Creek have been dredged in vain and inquiries sent to all parts of the country, but no trace of the wealthy man can be found. He is prominently connected here and no expense is being spared to solve the mystery of his disappearance for which no cause can be learned. He had about $5,000 on his person when last seen here."

"Daily Public Ledger, Maysville, KY. 25 March 1896. It is now believed that Judge G. M. Witten, who mysteriously disappeared from his home at Catlettsburg, was murdered. The City Council has offered a reward of $50.00 for his body, dead or alive and $200.00 for his murderers in case he was killed."

"Climax, Richmond KY 26 Mar 1896. Ex-Mayor Witten still missing. Catlettsburg, KY. No clew [as spelled] has yet been brought to light as to the whereabouts of ex-Mayor G. M. Witten, who disappeared March 14. The citizens of Catlettsburg have raised $300 to be added to the $250 offered by the city council, making $550."

"Climax, Richmond, KY 1 April 1896. The Reward is Increased. Catlettsburg, Ky. Gov. Bradley passed through this city en route to Frankfort and notified Mayor Hopkins that he would offer a reward of $500.00 for the arrest and conviction of the murderer of Judge Witten. This makes a total of $1,000. offered for the arrest and conviction of the murderer. No trace has been found of the missing judge."

"New York Times 2 May 1896. The body of ex-mayor G. M. Witten of Catlettsburg, KY. was found in the river yesterday. Mr. Witten disappeared several weeks ago, and there have been rumors of foul play. He was known all over Kentucky, and was a member of several secret organizations."

"Daily Public Ledger, Maysville, KY. 2 May 1896. Found at Last. The
body of Ex-Mayor Witten of Catlettsburg Recovered. The body of ex-mayor Greene M. Witten, who disappeared from Catlettsburg on the 14th of March, was found yesterday morning in the Ohio River just below that city. On his person was found- 2 $1,000 United States bonds, 2
$500. United States bonds, 4 $100 bills. And $2.65 in change, besides his gold watch and chain, rings, etc. When last seen he was trying to get change for a $100 bill and it is supposed by many that he was murdered for this and thrown into the river, his murderer being ignorant of the other large sums in his possession. One of his arms was broken and there were other evidences of injury to the body. There will be a rigid investigation."

"Daily Public Ledger, 4 May 1896. The Coroner's Jury at Catlettsburg returned a verdict declaring that the late ex-mayor Witten was killed and his body thrown into the river. The thief and murderer got about $100 and left nearly $4,000 on Witten's person."

Greenville Morgan Witten was laid to rest in Section A, Catlettsburg Cemetery, Boyd County, Kentucky.

"Newark Daily Advocate 17 May 1896. Arrested In Indian Territory. Ashland, KY., May 16. It is stated by parties in touch with the officers that Aaron Fickle, the railroad engineer wanted at Catlettsburg fo the alleged murder of ex-police judge G. M. Witten, has been located at Kreb, I. T., and will be arrested as soon as the proper steps toward securing his removal from the nation can be arranged."

Armed with this piece of information, I searched the Circuit Court Records of Boyd County, Kentucky and found no entry for Aaron Fickle until the 14 September 1896 Term where the Commonwealth vs. Aaron Fickle and ordered an alias Bench Warrant. An alias writ is usually a secondary writ issued for a cause that had been issued earlier without effect. I went back, yet found no other entries in the Boyd Circuit Court. I followed the bench warrant forward, term by term by term for 6 long years. A new alias bench warrant was issued at each term during those six years for Aaron Fickle with no returns.

Aaron Fickle had not been a resident of Boyd County, Kentucky. In 1880 he was single, residing in Indianapolis, Indiana with occupation listed as railroad engineer. Single, born in Ohio, as with most rail road workers he moved around. He was a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and on at least two occasions 1883 and 1887 withdrew from one division moving to another according to journals.

Krebs, Indian Territory is located in Oklahoma and was part of the Choctaw Nation and home of the Osage Coal and Mining Company. They had a good depot and rails by the late 1880's as well as newspapers from circa 1899 according to the Library of Congress. It was considered Indian Territory from 1890-1907. The territorial Marshal should have received the bench warrant. At least 4 different US Marshal's held positions in Indian Territory, Southern District during this time frame. The bench warrant would have directed any Sheriff, coroner, jailer, constable, Marshal or policeman to arrest the person and bring him before the issuing Circuit Court in the state where the warrant was written. I have found no indication in local records that Fickle was actually returned to Catlettsburg for trial.

Aaron Fickle does not appear on the 1900 Federal Census nor the Oklahoma Territorial Census records. He was born in Ohio and may be the Aaron Fickle who resided with his family in Perry County, Ohio in 1870.


  1. Thanks so much for posting this article. Green M. Witten is a relative of my hubby [Steve Witten]. Green's father and Steve's grandfather [Dr. William Witten who married Lockie Hackworth] were brothers. I had recently found the above mentioned NY Times article but did not have the time to follow up on the story. Looks like you saved me a whole lot of work, Teresa. We're really tickled about this.
    I'd like to add an interesting tidbit about Green M. Witten. During the Civil War, in August 1862, he was arrested by Colonel Cranor of the 40th OVI and brought to Louisa, along with John M. Burns and others. The order for his arrest was issued by Genl. J. T. Boyle who was commanding the US forces in KY at the time.
    Green took the oath and gave bond. He also agreed to go to Virginia with John M. Burns, trying to effect an exchange for a man by the name of Gordon. I am pretty certain that his arrest prompted G. M. Witten to leave Prestonsburg and settle in Catlettsburg.

  2. I am still curious about the why of the murder. I don't think we have a complete story. I wonder if his being a rr engineer had a connection to Witten and his involvement with the railroad.

  3. It is possible that Fickle and Witten knew each other. They may have even boarded in the same hotel, who knows. It is odd that only the $100 were missing and nothing else. If this would have been a bonafide robbery, the jewelry and watch as well as the rest of the money would have been gone, too, unless Fickle was interrupted somehow and just pushed the body into the river in order not to get caught. You think the documents of the coroner's jury session are still in existence? I assume there was an autopsy or some such. Would be interesting to read in detail what they found during the investigation.
    What really puzzles me about the whole story is the fact that the authorities in Krebs, I. T. did not respond to any of the bench warrants. Six years is a long time to ignore such a matter. Have you contacted the Historical Society in Krebs to see if they may have some information about Fickle? They have a nice website, with pictures, etc.