The police waited for Reverend Tipton to finish his sermon on November, in 1892. Attendees were stunned to learn the simple “mountain preacher,” was actually a wanted man, married to three different women, wanted for two homicides, and who had outstanding warrants for forgery and grand larceny.
John C. Tipton was said to be a born “thief and rascal.” He was born around 1860, possibly in Elliott County, Kentucky. His father was respected pastor Reuben Tipton. He grew up in Carter County, Kentucky. There was nothing remarkable about his childhood, until he reached his teen years. A penchant for thievery emerged in his life, and that would soon blossom into full-blown outlawry.
John first stole a mule from his father. Reuben quickly realized what had happened and went after his son. He found him taking the animal towards West Virginia. He ordered him back to the farm, but didn’t punish him for his theft. Perhaps he should’ve.
John didn’t stop there. He next stole a two, or a yoke, of his father’s cattle. This time, he successfully sold them to a man named Crein in Bath County, Kentucky. His father eventually discovered this and had to go through the courts to get his cattle back.
This was Reuben’s breaking point. He swore out a warrant on his son with Sheriff William Wyatt, of Roan County. Wyatt arrived at the Tipton household. He apprehended John, who asked to be allowed to change clothing before he was taken in. The sheriff conceded and waited. John went upstairs, but didn’t change. He crept out the bedroom window and into the life of a hunted man.
Early Outlaw Years
Tipton eventually teamed up with a cousin named John Hall. Hall was also supposed to be an even more established outlaw. The young men were bad influences on one another. They broke into a warehouse owned by a man named Hatcher, where they stole a number of goods. They pulled the heist off successfully, but at a tremendous cost. They were suddenly well-known, which meant they were already under pursuit. A grand jury found a true bill against the boys, but they managed to evade punishment.
The two now needed to defend themselves. They got a pair of Winchesters to keep with them. A fearless man, Floyd County Deputy Jacob Holeyfeld, decided he would serve the boys. He visited the Hall household, where they were staying, and was shot dead.
A community meeting was held. The boys had broken a code of honor among Appalachian outlaws. The most beloved outlaws seldom attacked innocent bystanders. Their aggression was always towards fellow fighters and feudists, or those who were a threat. Since the boys had made no friends with the people, the people decided to make up a reward for their capture.
Two men, named Cox and Mares, volunteered to apprehend the boys. They stalked the two until the time came. They ambushed the young men. Hall was shot through the heart and died instantly. John was left to fight the two men off alone, and he did, but barely.
Tipton was angrier than ever. He swore he would take revenge on the two men who ambushed him, but then also said he would burn the town down, and take revenge on the whole county. This did not help. Every person in the county was incensed by his words, and he had nowhere to hide. He was forced to flee Floyd County or die.
He went into hiding again and no one knows where he went. Rumors suggested he went into Hawkins County, Tennessee. He was gone for almost a year, but couldn’t resist the urge to return home, to Carter County.
An Exploration in Forgery
He had a new scheme. John previously became acquainted with a successful merchandising company by the name of Hall Bros. The Floyd County operation was expansive and supplied by Cincinnati firm, H.H. Miller & Company. Tipton drew up a staggering order of goods, and claimed the firm was opening a franchise in Carter County. He even signed as a company representative.
John never counted on the number of enemies he had in Carter County. Someone realized the scheme and immediately telegraphed the company. The goods were seized at the Enterprise railroad station and held for a company representative to retrieve.
Tipton again had a tantrum. He declared rail master H.B. Felty was to blame. He turned him in. Poor Felty couldn’t see any peace afterward. He was shot at during the day, and someone shot at his house during the night. The situation grew so dire that all current rail employees had to leave the area.
The Railroad was the next to take action. They had seen enough trouble from Tipton. They swore out a warrant in Elliott County and took it to another fierce lawman named Constable John G. Howard. He was well-known for serving papers to people considered dangerous.
Howard began his search and learned Tipton was getting ready to move with his wife. He teamed up with another lawman and went in pursuit. They followed the couple for ten miles, until they were in Morgan County. Howard rode up and asked if the man was J.C. Tipton. Tipton shot him through the torso with a .38. Howard turned his horse back, but not before Tipton put another bullet in his back. Howard only lived a few hours after the fray.
A Travesty of Justice
If Tipton thought he was a wanted man before, it was nothing compared to the pursuit of him after Howard was murdered. He couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without eyes on him. It was only inevitable that he was betrayed, and he was. He was apprehended in West Liberty, Morgan County. The authorities sent him to Mt. Sterling to await trial. On the way back from his preliminary proceedings, he waited until the wagon was around 12 miles from town. The sheriff had him handcuffed to another prisoner. Tipton managed to rip the cuffs from the other prisoner’s wrist and jumped out of the wagon.
He was at large for a time. A string of robberies coincided with his freedom, and he was blamed for them. One victim was even a distant relative in Ohio. John stole $165 from him. After he absconded with the cash, the relative made the long journey to Reuben’s home. He demanded reimbursement., and was given the entire amount
The next robbery was in Carter County. He was blamed for stealing $500 from Sophia Garvin. There wasn’t enough evidence to indict, so the matter was dropped.
He next fell in with his father’s half brother, another bad man. Two acquaintances named Toliver, who were from Ohio, rode with him. They all traveled to Floyd County, where they robbed John’s own uncle, Sill Hall, of $1,004. They were indicted and arrested, but it did little good. The locals were so afraid of the men they wouldn’t testify against them.
Even though he was out of custody, he was not free. Tipton felt the need to disappear again and turned up in Hawkins County. He was arrested, again, and returned to Kentucky for the murder of Howard.
For some reason, his friends and family again rallied to his side. Some money was passed somewhere, and he was almost magically acquitted of the murder. Sill Hall refused to prosecute for the robbery, so the authorities were back to where they began.
Tipton stayed in Kentucky only long enough to meet his third wife. They then returned to Hawkins. They ventured through Thorny Point and on into Washington County, Tennessee. No amount of running could sway Tipton out of his old habits. His cousin, M.C. Tipton, worked on the farm of A.B. Cummings, in Jonesboro. Tipton waited until dark and stole two mules on the evening of August 25, 1891. He smuggled them back into Kentucky.
He abandoned his third wife and found another group of highwaymen. They returned from Jonesboro into Hawkins, and stole two saddles and a gun coat in the process.
A Den of Thieves
The men went to Wells’ Cross Roads, a popular hideout for horse thieves. They hid during the day and traveled through Hawkins County that night. Despite their attempts to conceal themselves, they were still witnessed by many. They returned to Carter County, Kentucky.
Cummings was not a member of the Tipton or Hall family. He refused to be bullied or intimidated. He would not let the matter rest. He was already on the hunt for Tipton, himself. He had a number of handbills circulated in his search for Tipton. Several weeks later, a letter arrived from Constable William Brown. He said he would find the mules, for a price. Cummings said he would pay $100 for their return.
While Cummings was making arrangements, John and his friend led the animals out of Carter, and down to Fleming County. They traded one to a man named A.G. Carpenter, and another to ‘Squire Gulley.
Brown knew where the animals were. He eventually bought both of them back. Cummings set out to come to Kentucky. He arrived in Lexington and checked into the hotel. No one would give him any information at all. At breakfast the next morning, a young Kentuckian tried to warn him about the people. Cummings showed no fear, and mentioned he was used to mountaineers. The fellow boarders were pleased with his confidence. They told him how to find Enterprise.
He met Brown and took the animals. He traveled back home on foot. He maneuvered two mules and a horse for eleven days. It gave him a great deal of time to think, and he decided he was going to start the wheels of justice against Tipton. He began looking for information and was startled to hear about “Rev. John C. Tipton,” in West Virginia.
Cummings retained the services of a detective. He also obtained a requisition from the Governor of Tennessee. The detective and his partner worked their way to Logan County, West Virginia. The intel was accurate. Tipton was holding revival services in November of 1892.
Tipton came out of the church to conduct the baptism. The two men were dressed in regular clothing. They ambushed him. It was almost perfect, except for the fact that the minister was armed. He had a pistol hidden in his clothing. He managed to shoot the lawman in the foot.
His struggle was for naught. He was returned to jail in Jonesboro. Since he was such a flight risk, the authorities sent him to Knoxville to await trial. While there, he held revival in jail and converted around twenty prisoners.
Tipton wasn’t taken to the next court session. He claimed he was ill. Procrastination didn’t lessen the severity of his case. His luck had ran out, and there was no one left to help him escape justice. He was sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. The judge said he would’ve given twenty, but the maximum for grand larceny was ten.
Whatever happened to Tipton after his release remains unknown. Various rumors suggest he returned to West Virginia, or Hawkins County, and died of consumption around 1910.