Just before the closure of Antiques Cards & Collectibles in downtown Paducah, I browsed the scant remains of their stock in search of one last, undiscovered treasure. I riffled through a box of ephemera, a couple of items capturing my attention. The gentleman in charge of liquidating the remaining inventory offered the large stack of papers and photos for five dollars. Sure. If nothing else, I'd get my money's worth spending an afternoon sifting through the remains of days gone by.
At the bottom of the box, past stacks of 1920s sheet music, letters, advertisements, and family photos, I found a handbill. REWARD FOR THE NEWS LEADING TO THE LOCATING OF IRBY J. HURT WHO HAS BEEN MISSING FROM HARDIN, KY SINCE 6 AM, THURSDAY, AUG. 7, 1930.
Now this was interesting. Who was this Irby Hurt? Maybe a bootlegger? Maybe a moonshiner who'd been found out? Maybe a gangster on the lam? While my thoughts drifted to the criminal possibilities, the flyer did not have any law enforcement connection. Who was this man? Was he ever found? What I discovered was an 86 year-old mystery that still has no answer.
I went to Hardin and met Justin Lamb, a Marshall County historian. We drove to an empty lot where a bank once stood. "He was a janitor for the bank," says Justin. "He did that part time. He'd go in the mornings, clean the bank, and then go to the filling station that he ran. When he went missing, people knew something was wrong because he didn't show up at the filling station."
The last public sighting of Irby occurred the morning of his disappearance. He was spotted walking across a field behind the bank with two companions. "A lady saw them," adds Justin. "She saw his hands were tied. For some reason, she didn't tell anyone right away. I have no idea why. She was an elderly lady." Hours later, as the filling station sat unattended, Hardin residents began a search. Eventually, detectives from Louisville along with blood hounds arrived to assist. The search turned up nothing. The small town of Hardin stood in shock.
Justin and I drove down a gravel road through lush fields of soy beans to a wooded area about a mile from Hardin. The canopy of trees nearly blocked all sunlight from the thick brush below. This spot probably looked exactly the same as is it did in 1930. "Wavel Pritchard is the one who came across him here in the Dexter bottoms," says Justin. That was three months after his disappearance. He was identified by the items in his pockets and dental work. An autopsy showed that he'd been shot in the head, probably from behind as he was on his knees.
"It was said that maybe the guys seen with Irby went to the bank to rob it." says Justin. "Irby didn't know the combination to the safe because he was a janitor and it's thought that maybe they got frustrated and afraid he'd tell so they took him out here and killed him. But when they found his body, he had in the pocket of his bib overalls the cash for the filling station. So it doesn't completely seem like robbery was a motive."
Outside of robbery, no one could imagine a reason why someone would kill Irby Hurt. We drove over to Union Hill Cemetery and stood over the stark, plain marker signifying Irby's grave. "He was a well-liked guy," says Justin. "Everybody respected him. He was a song leader at the Union Hill Church of Christ. The last person you'd think would be murdered in Hardin was Irby Hurt."
Irby's murder was the talk of the town for years. Then, in 1948, new evidence surfaced. "Albert Lee, who owned Lee's Country Ham, walked into the sheriff's office and said, 'I found this gun, and I believe it is the one that killed Irby Hurt.'"
Lee claimed he found the gun just fifteen feet from where the body was discovered. Questions swirled about the mind of Sheriff Walker Myers. If this gun was the murder weapon, why was it found so easily so many years later within the crime scene? Many townsfolk began to suspect Albert Lee himself. A trace of the gun showed the last owner was a Hardin man who had died in 1916. Once again, the trail grew cold.
"For years, the old men would sit around under the tree of knowledge across from the old post office," says Justin. "They'd chew tobacco, tell stories, and talk politics; and they'd discuss Irby Hurt, telling who they thought killed him and what might have actually happened. But nobody really has a clue whatsoever."
Our last stop was the Marshall County Library branch in Hardin. In the middle of the room, propped on a shelf, is a framed photo of Irby. Here, his story passes from generation to generation. From behind the glass in the frame, his eyes penetrate the onlooker, still seemingly as alive as the day the photo was taken. They ask for justice. Justice for one of Hardin's most loved citizens and closure for the town's most notorious murder case.
To learn more about Marshall County history, follow A Walk Through History With Justin Lamb on Facebook.