True Story of Johnny Keyhole

As a child I used to sit wide eyed as my grandparents told me the story of Johnny Keyhole. Even though they changed the story a little each time, it didn’t matter to me. I was mesmerized by the legend and could never get enough of how this bigger than life man terrorized Quitman and Tunica counties back in the 1920s and 30s. How he was executed in an electric chair brought up to Marks at the courthouse and how his ghost still roamed the back roads. As a teacher in Quitman County I used to share this legend with my students and especially loved telling them on a dark night coming back from a game or track meet. No way I could resist retelling the legend once I started a website, but I still had no proof of him being real. Relatives told me he existed. My grandparents told me he was a real man. However I needed proof and I finally found it.

Before you start though, if you haven’t heard of the Legend of Johnny Keyhole, STOP. Go back and read that story. Just find it in the search bar.

His real name was John William Kehoe and he was born around Panola County in 1894. According to his 1918 draft card, he described himself as of medium height and build with grey eyes and light brown hair. Kehoe was a farmer, but trouble seemed to follow him and his family. In 1927 his father committed suicide by slashing his throat and that was about the time he lived in Quitman County. Not long after he moved to Yalobusha where he got involved in some illegal activities. The twenties were the decade of Prohibition and many Mississippians were involved in the liquor trade. State and federal agents were always on the lookout for illegal stills and bootleggers. They also used undercover agents who risked their life to work for the government. It was one of these affairs that first brought Mr. Kehoe to statewide attention.

On the night of October 20th 1927 several men crept up to the house of a young family in the Bellvue community of Quitman County. The home belonged to twenty four year old J. Hugh Pruitt and his wife. For several years Pruitt had been assisting North Mississippi prohibition enforcement officers and had earned a reputation. According to E.S. Chapman, prohibition administrator for the Northern District of Mississippi, Pruitt had become a thorn in the side of Quitman County moonshiners as agents broke up these rings. Pruitt had once stated that he didn’t want to raise his family in a nest of bootleggers and was proud of his work. However other people living in the area didn’t feel that way and he knew he was possibly a target. He had spent the day at Clarksdale in federal court before returning home. After eating supper shortly before 7 o’clock he heard a voice from outside. His younger brother went to the door and the voice asked for Hugh. Pruitt stepped on his front porch and inquired who wanted him. The voice called out again, “It’s Old Johnnie.” Recognizing the name he walked down from the house into the dark. Suddenly four shots rang out and Pruitt fell dead into a ditch. All four had hit home and a brave young man was now dead.

State and federal agents poured into Quitman County looking for clues in the death of one of their own. Moonshiners and bootleggers were being picked up all over and questioned. One of those arrested was Johnnie Kehoe who Sheriff T.P. McArthur of Quitman County knew well as a trouble maker. The investigation was being led by Department of Justice agents Lee Dixon and Samuel W. Hardy. After interviewing Kehoe they offered him a deal to testify on what he knew of the murder.

According to Kehoe,

The conspiracy to kill Pruitt had started in Yalobusha county with a local Water Valley lawyer named Fred Hamilton. Pruitt was set to testify against Hamilton, Kehoe, Ellison and Lee Cofer, Floyd and Noel Carr along with Glenn Davis. Kehoe was also involved with the initial conversation where Ellison Cofer asked $300 to do away with Pruitt. Kehoe, Carr and Hamilton were asked to each contribute $100. After Pruitt’s death, Ellison actually related to Kehoe how they killed the agent. He also stated that the Cofer brothers had threatened him if he told anyone.

In January 1928 officers headed out to arrest the conspirators. Ellison Cofer was already in jail at Sumner for violating the national prohibition law and intimidation. Lee Cofer was arrested and brought too Clarksdale. When agents surrounded the Carr home a gun battle broke out with Floyd Carr being killed and Noel arrested. Glen Davis actually escaped. Fred Hamilton was also arrested.

The trial of Ellison Cofer for the murder of J.H. Pruitt started in February 1928. With Johnnie Kehoe as the chief witness, Cofer was found guilty and sentenced to life. With one trial down they went after the other culprits in the murder, but they needed Kehoe to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible for him.

On September 7, 1930 Johnnie Kehoe got into an argument with Ernest Shields at Kehoe’s home west of Coffeeville. The two men were quarreling over a bale of cotton and this argument soon led to a fist fight. Both sides agreed to settle the affair by having a local deputy intervene. However Johnnie Kehoe wasn’t through with the fight. Shields and his family were passing Kehoe’s home the next day when Johnnie ran out and grabbed him out of the car. Another fight broke out, but this one ended with Kehoe pulling a gun and killing Shields. He was found by the sheriff hiding in a closet in his house. While all of this was going on, Kehoe was still a main witness against the bootleggers and somehow managed to get released on a $3000 bail. Johnnie Kehoe’s trial on the murder of Ernest Shields began in January 1931. Because of publicity over a thousand people attended the event at Water Valley. After a short deliberation he was found not guilty and released much to the anger of the Shields family.

Quitman County Court House

By 1940 Johnnie Kehoe and his family were back in Quitman County, but evil had followed him from Yalobusha. On September 18, 1941 Kehoe was arrested for the murder of a Grenada car salesman named Jack Atkinson. The two had been gambling at the Marks Compress when Kehoe attacked Atkinson with a pocket knife to the throat and face. Atkinson died almost instantly. Quickly Johnnie Kehoe was arrested and put on trial. This time his luck wasn’t with him and he was found guilty of murder in September 1943. He was given a life sentence, but allowed to appeal. Unfortunately for Kehoe he was found guilty again and actually given the death penalty. On December 1, 1944 the “Clarion Ledger”published the following article:

Quitman County Farmer Scheduled to Die in Electric Chair

Johnnie Kehoe played his last stack of blue chips yesterday and lost. Early today, the Quitman County farmer, who gambled with his life in one of the strangest cases in county history, was scheduled to die in the state’s portable electric chair at Marks for the convicted murder of Jack Atkinson, a traveling salesman. Convicted in the Quitman circuit court for the knife slaying of Atkinson following a dispute over a $15 poker game debt, Kehoe appealed his life sentence to the state Supreme Court. Ruling that improper evidence had been admitted into the case by the state, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded it. Subsequently, a new trial in the Quitman County court brought another conviction of Kehoe and this time the penalty was a death sentence. On its second appeal to the supreme court, the case was affirmed and the lower courts action upheld. Originally scheduled for execution on November 2, Kehoe was given a stay of execution until December 1 by Governor Thomas L. Bailey in order that the state’s chief executive might study the case. Early this week, Governor Bailey held a two day hearing on the matter and yesterday announced that he would not grant a reprieve. Following this announcement C.W. Watson, the state’s official executioner departed for Marks with the electric chair.

Mississippi’s traveling electric chair and official executioner

Kehoe’s wife and a son who lived out from Sledge were allowed to remain with the doomed man on the night of December 1st. A crowd gathered at the courthouse in Marks on the day of execution to watch the event. The state’s portable electric chair was set up in the courtroom and the first shock was applied at 6:15 a.m. Sheriff T.L Brunt pronounced Kehoe dead by a physician 15 minutes later and that he went to his death calmly, saying that he “bore no ill will against anyone and tell my son to be a good boy.” Shortly before his death Kehoe requested a minister and three responded. He was attended by the Reverend Paul Watson of the Marks Presbyterian church, the Reverend F.T. Copeland of the Senatobia Church of Christ and the Reverend E.L. Kinsey of the Lula Baptist Church. Two physicians, Dr. V.D. Franks and Dr. A.C. Covington, attended the execution along with the sheriff and the official executioner.

With that Johnnie Kehoe passed into history and legend.

References:

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 18 Oct. 1927. Tuesday -Page 7

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 23 Oct. 1927. Sunday – Page 21

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 21, Oct. 1928. Sunday – Page 9

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 6 Jan. 1928. Friday – Page 12

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 18, Feb. 1928. Saturday – Page 10

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 16 Feb. 1929 Saturday – Page 9

“The Greenwood Commonwealth” Greenwood, MS 9 Sept. 1930, Tuesday – Page 8

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 10 Sept. 1930, Wednesday – Page 5

“The Sun Sentinel” Charleston, MS. 30 Oct. 1930,Thursday – Page 1

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS, 25 Jan. 1931, Sunday – Page 1

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 13, January 1931, Tuesday – Page 2

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 19 Sept. 1941, Friday. Page 3

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 2 Nov. 1944, Thursday – Page 5

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS. 1 Dec. 1944, Friday – Page 1

“Clarion Ledger” Jackson, MS 2, Dec. 1944, Saturday – Page 2

“The Delta Democrat-Times” Greenville, MS. 1 Dec. 1944, Friday – Page 1

2 Thoughts

  1. Enjoyed reading this as my father, B Bass grew up in Lula. Although he never mentioned this man, I will assume he knew of him. My father was born in 1919, so very close to his age.

    Like

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