05 March 2010

Ambrose Milton McGuire Wore Many Hats

Compiled by Teresa Martin Klaiber
March 2010


My curiosity about Ambrose M. McGuire began when I stumbled across the following Portsmouth Daily Times article 29 May 1896:

"Ambrose M. McGuire, of Grayson, Ky., will publish the life and confessions of James DeWitt, who was recently hung in Carter county for the murder of his wife, Elizabeth. Such literature should be given a wide berth, as there can't be anything entertaining or instructive about it. V. W. X."
This could be a small historical jewel. Many handbills, pamphlets and booklets were locally published after tragedy struck an area here in Eastern Kentucky. Ballads especially tell the local stories and lore. I knew of no such ballad for the the DeWitt Murder. Much has been written about the Dewitt Murder and the last hanging in Carter County, Kentucky in local histories. So I called George Wolfford who had done a wonderful page in one of his publications concerning the Dewitt murder and included a picture of James DeWitt's hanging. Did he know of a publication by Ambrose McGuire? How was Ambrose McGuire involved? It has been some years since Wolfford did research concerning the Dewitt affair and did not remember a booklet or pamphlet nor was he aware of Ambrose Milton McGuire's involvement.

That one little article left me with so many questions. The Dewitt case is well known but no one mentioned Ambrose. A quick look at the 1900 Federal Census shows A. M. McGuire, age 40 a Lawyer along with his wife Jennie and 8 children. This made sense but I could not let it drop. If McGuire was the lawyer involved with either the Dewitt divorce or murder trial why on earth was everyone mum about it? If a lawyer published a piece I should have found an entry in the Library of Congress, OCLC, local libraries. I found no cataloged publication by Ambrose McGuire.

In 1880 Ambrose was 20 years old working on a farm, and living with his parents William and Elizabeth in Carter County. He was not in Law School. I located a Lawyers & Client Bulletin for May 1895, just a few months prior to the Dewitt murder that listed only one lawyer in Grayson: H. D. Gregory. Area newspaper ads indicated that Botts and Poage were also conducting law in that area. But no Ambrose McGuire.

By 1902 Ambrose McGuire is selling Singer Sewing Machines in Grayson. He states in his ad in the Carter Bugle 17 Jan 1902 that he has been selling the machines for 3 years. Thus 3 years after the Dewitt murder and the announcement that he is going to publish the Dewitt case he has changed occupations.



Something had dramatically changed in McGuire's life. Nearly giving up on the idea of a book publication I turned to our local library and the Evelyn S. Jackson Vertical File Collection. There I found several grainy, old copied pages of what appears to be a large newspaper article. Not an original, not dated, no name of where published but it does include a portrait of the murderer. James Powers pointed out that the layout looks like it was copied from someone's scrapbook. It was probably given to ESJ for her files. By now I have involved all the library staff and we do concur that this is an article not a publication as I envisioned. But it does seem to indicate that McGuire was involved with the events of the Dewitt case.

"MET HIS DOOM! ...Jas. DeWitt...Sheriff Castle Sprung the Lever...HIS FULL BIOGRAPHY AND CONFESSION....James DeWitt was swung into eternity at 12:35 this afternoon."
Thus while we don't have the author I now can ascertain this was written 21 May 1896. The article goes into detail about how DeWitt met his wife and how they had moved back and forth from Rowan County to Carter County during their marriage. Several columns into the article is found the following testimony supposedly given directly from DeWitt:

"...Grayson...I had gone to see about my divorce suit. She [Elizabeth nee DeWitt daughter of William DeWitt*] threatened my life and followed me to town. She had a talk with me in the road near A. M. McGuire's..."
The article continues and is clipped in several pieces on the copy available. Finally mid section of the "scraps" is the following:

"The following is the life and confession of James DeWitt, who was hanged today, at Grayson. The statements herein were made by him in April, 1896 in the jail at Grayson, in the presence of A. M. McGuire, Charles Scott and others, and is the only authentic confession of DeWitt."

At this writing I have gone through every available local microfilm copy to identify where this particular article was printed without success. There were many articles in papers across the United States that announced the hanging but none contained the photograph nor the confessions as written in this particular piece.

There is no indication that Ambrose McGuire attended law school, at this writing. Ambrose did attend a large local reunion in Olive Hill, Kentucky in September 1904 where he was "cut" by George Ash "as a result of an old grudge." That little tidbit made the Mt. Sterling Advocate. In 1906 Ambrose and his wife Jennie received a loan from Singer Sewing Machine. He mortgaged two small tracts of land for the funds [Carter County Deed book Z-68]. Ambrose is still selling Sewing machines in Carter County in 1910 but has a new wife Estelena along with 3 more children. The census enumerator put down that he had been married 4 times.

Ambrose Milton McGuire and wife Estelena moved to Scioto County, Ohio where several more children were born. He gives his occupation in 1920 as a Grocery Store Merchant. Moon shining was prevalent in Appalachia during this time and some that ran small stores struggled to make a profit and resorted by stepping over the line. The Portsmouth Times reported 20 February 1924 that Ambrose McGuire also known as L. C. McGuire of Lakeside had been arrested in a raid. The officers claimed they dug up half a dozen full half pints near a hog pen on the McGuire property. Bottles and jugs were also found around the house and barn. The article indicates that he had been arrested before "when moonshine was found in a machine on his place" but he had not been convicted in that case. McGuire did not curtail his dealings for a small article appeared again 12 April 1927 stating that a New Boston Man was under arrest "giving the name of Ambrose McGuire" once again for possession of Moonshine.

Apparently McGuire had enough with the grocery business because he told the census takers in 1930 that he was a farmer living in Vernon Township. Tragedy struck the family in January 1932 when son Reed McGuire was shot and killed at the Buckeye Brick Yard, Scioto Furnace by the watchman. Reed was said to have trespassed along with friends and the law officials stated to Ambrose McGuire that the watchman had fired in self defense.

While his age fluctuates in various census records he celebrated his 74th birthday Anniversary in July 1933. The Portsmouth Times announced that he was the father of 28 children.

Ambrose Milton McGuire died peacefully 7 March 1950 at Wheelersburg, Scioto County, Ohio. His death certificate states that he was a carpenter and house builder. His obituary states he was born 4 July 1859 [Independence Day] in Magoffin County, Kentucky, a son of Will and Elizabeth Coffey McGuire. Besides listing 13 surviving children, Ambrose left 58 grandchildren and 56 great grandchildren. He was buried in Vernon Cemetery.

I will leave the genealogy and debate about his mother's maiden name to descendants doing continued research. Online trees state that William McGuire's wife was Elizabeth Patrick not Elizabeth Coffey.

My journey led me to an article, not a publication, but leaves me still with many questions. Just how involved was Ambrose Milton McGuire in the DeWitt case? Was that particular affair enough to change his course in life? Did he have any law background? What I did find was a man who lived life to his fullest and just a little on the edge.

*James DeWitt was born in Rowan County, Kentucky 7 March 1871 & was said to have lived with his mother in Rowan County, Kentucky until 1888. He married Elizabeth DeWitt daughter of William DeWitt and grand daughter of William Shepherd, according to accounts 18 Jan 1889. Historian Evelyn Jackson stated that "James and William DeWitt were distant relatives."

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