March 11 marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Paducah's own Irvin S. Cobb, and by the time of his passing he had amassed a stunningly prolific and varied resume: author of over 60 books and 300 short stories, newspaper columnist, World War I correspondent, screenwriter, actor in 10 films, and host of the 6th Annual Academy Awards
March 11 marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Paducah's own Irvin S. Cobb, and by the time of his passing he had amassed a stunningly prolific and varied resume: author of over 60 books and 300 short stories, newspaper columnist, World War I correspondent, screenwriter, actor in 10 films, and host of the 6th Annual Academy Awards. He was at one time the highest paid staff reporter at a newspaper in the country. Among his intimate friends he listed Will Rogers, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst. His image was used to sell everything from bourbon to vacuum cleaners and his name and likeness was given to a hotel, a bridge, and a brand of cigars.
For all his accomplishments and success, the beginning of Mr. Cobb's career can almost be traced back to a single story, a story of an execution, a hanging in Paducah. This story perhaps did more to set Mr. Cobb on the path to recognition than anything else he had done to that point.
And as with many stories of fame and fortune, it involved a meeting with the Devil.
The Devil in this instance had a real name: George Winston. Nobody called him George though. Long before he committed his infamous murder, Mr. Winston had already garnered the nickname “Devil.” In the late 1800's he was known as being a ne'er do well, a scourge, a man perpetually involved in petty theft who spent more time inside the city jail than out of it. He was also known for his very quick and sometimes very violent temper, a possessed man who would sooner solve a problem with a fist or a knife than a word. He was particularly vicious when it came to his relationships with women.
So it may have shocked the town, but perhaps not wholly surprised them, when a man named Devil, having just been released from a chain gang in 1897, walked into the boarding house where his girlfriend lived and stabbed her to death.
Her name was Vina Stubblefield and was always (and unfortunately) described in accounts as being “half-witted and repulsive looking.” She and Devil Winston argued, fought over a cigarette, and then he proceeded stab her half a dozen times.
His guilt was undeniable for the crime was enacted in front of three witnesses who recalled the gruesome incident down to the very words Devil Winston uttered while wielding his knife, “Fly high now, you buzzard, but you'll have to light sometime.”
Vina died, and the Devil fled but was captured four days later just south of Fulton. He was brought back to Paducah and sentenced to die by Judge Bishop. It was to be Paducah's first hanging in over eight years.
Devil Winston was to hang on November 19, 1897 and a 21-year-old Cobb was on hand to record it. Cobb remembered meeting Winston when he was young. “When I, a knee-panted boy, drove an ice wagon over Paducah's rutted streets, 'Devil' Winston rode at the swing-gate on the back-end and parcelled out the frozen merchandise.” By no accounts did he encounter the Devil again until they met at the gallows that day.
Cobb acknowledges his juvenility, and often the humorist, he stated, “I, a cub reporter on my first big assignment, wrote the story of the execution. For both of us it was our first hanging.”
Despite his inexperience, however, Cobb's rendition of the hanging of Devil Winston is, in a word, inspired. Occupying nearly a full page of The Paducah Daily Sun in very small print, his prose reads like an engaging mystery, yet at the same time it handles a number of delicate paradoxes with expertness. At once he relays both the ghastliness of the original crime and the hanging itself; he evokes sympathy for both the victim, Vina Stubblefield, and the murderer, Devil Winston; and with equal hands he portrays both the excitement of the on-looking crowd and their horror as it took Winston eleven minutes to die at the end of the rope.
The article is a beautiful piece of writing, which is a difficult thing to say about something so violent. By contemporary standards, a hanging is a tough subject with which to come to terms, and to feature it in lengthy and poetic detail is even more inconceivable. Yet, it exists, and as such, can be seen as a valuable piece of history that chronicles the lives of the good and bad and gives some insight into one of Paducah's darker days.
However, the story doesn't end there, not for either man. In a sense, the scaffolding outside Paducah's jail was a crossroads for both Irvin Cobb and Devil Winston. The story of Winston made national news, likely thanks to Cobb's account. While you can't directly attribute Cobb's future success to that one article, it certainly didn't hurt for it wasn't long after that he was enlisted to work at a paper in Louisville which then led to his first job in New York.
While Devil Winston's mortal journey certainly ended in 1897, parts of him continued to live on. Reports started surfacing of him haunting the jail in the form of scorpions and serpents. His legend persisted to the point that songs were being written about him and sung up and down the boats on the river. Slowly he achieved the status of a folk hero, albeit a dastardly one, akin to the likes of Jesse James or Stagger Lee.
Both Cobb and Winston had legacies beyond that day. In fact, the two would encounter each other once again over forty years later. In 1939, Paducah native Mary Wheeler published some folk songs in a collection called Roustabout Songs, among them a tune called “The Hanging of Devil Winston.”
Naturally, or fatefully, Mary Wheeler dedicated the song to Irvin S. Cobb bringing the story of the Devil and Mr. Cobb full circle. Whereas Cobb lent his name and talents to tell Devil Winston's story, so Winston later gave his story back in tribute to Cobb.
Irvin Cobb and Devil Winston are forever connected. As their legacies continue to live on, perhaps it stands to reason that Mr. Cobb did make a deal with the Devil on that November day in 1897. And just perhaps, George Winston found a little devil in Mr. Cobb, too.
Visit the following link if you'd like to read Cobb's full account of the hanging of Devil Winston (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85052118/1897-11-19/ed-1/seq-2/). Special thanks and credit to the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library for their invaluable research facilities and the photos of Irvin S. Cobb.