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Fess Whitaker, b. 1880
History of Corporal Fess Whitaker
Louisville, Ky.: The Standard Printing Co., c1918.


Fess Whitaker was born to Matilda and I.D. Whitaker, Jr. on June 17, 1880, near Hindman, Kentucky. When Whitaker was six, his family moved to Letcher County, Kentucky. Later that same year, his father died. Whitaker left home at sixteen hoping to find work that would support his mother and seven siblings. He eventually found employment as a coal miner in Stonega, Virginia, where he worked until he enlisted in the Army at the outbreak of The Spanish-American War in 1898. Discharged in 1904, Whitaker returned to Kentucky and married Mantie Ison, with whom he eventually had at least one child. In 1905, he moved to Texas and began working a variety of jobs in the railroad industry before returning to Letcher County in 1910. He continued to work various railroad jobs until 1917, when he was elected county jailer. He likely held this office until 1921, when he decided to run for county judge. The New York Times reported that sometime around 1921 Whitaker participated in a street fight, a disturbance of the peace that led to his incarceration in the very jail he supervised and earned him the nickname "The Jailed Jailer." While imprisoned, Whitaker continued his campaign and was eventually elected. In 1922, Whitaker was again jailed, this time for possessing and transporting whisky for illegal sale. Nevertheless, he was re-elected Letcher County jailer in 1925. In 1926, he ran for U.S. Congress but was defeated by a narrow margin. He died in a car crash in 1927.

History of Corporal Fess Whitaker covers the first thirty-eight years of the author's life, from his upbringing in a "dear old typical Kentucky mountain log house" to the diverse experiences he has while working his many different jobs (p. 112). Published in 1918 by The Standard Printing Company of Louisville, Kentucky, the narrative was likely written to promote its author's political career. That Whitaker would produce a written narrative of his life is especially compelling, because he reveals that he "never spoke a word" until he was nine years old and instead "only clucked and motioned" in order to communicate (p. 11). Adults fear that he might be mentally handicapped, and to settle the issue, his mother and uncle take him to be examined by two doctors, a judge and a jury. Finally, after an operation on his neck, Whitaker begins to speak. In the self-mythologizing style that he uses throughout his narrative, Whitaker marks this event as his own "first miracle" (p. 13).

Separating literary exaggerations such as Whitaker's claim to sainthood from the historical facts of his life only becomes more difficult once Whitaker quits his job as a miner and joins the Army. Although Whitaker's narrative describes his military service in some detail, his facts and dates do not align exactly with the historical record. According to his narrative, for example, Whitaker enlists in the Army on February 12, 1898, as part of Company L, 4th Kentucky Volunteers. Records held by the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives do confirm Whitaker's membership in the 4th Kentucky. However, these same records indicate that the 4th Kentucky was formed in July (not February) of 1898, and list Whitaker as a member of Company I.

Also, Whitaker goes on to claim that he re-enlisted after his discharge from the 4th Kentucky in February 1899 and then went "to Cuba and was signed to Col. Teddy Roosevelt's brigade" (p. 41). Whitaker adds that he fought (and was wounded) alongside Roosevelt in the Battle of Santiago. Yet historical accounts of The Spanish-American War show not only that Roosevelt's unit (the Rough Riders) was mustered out of service by September 1898—well before Whitaker claims to have shipped out to Cuba to join them—but also that all fighting in Cuba had ended by December 1898. Nevertheless, Whitaker's 1927 obituary in the New York Times describes him as both a Rough Rider and a friend of Roosevelt.

When his career as a soldier ends, Whitaker looks for opportunities beyond farming in Kentucky. He ends up in Big Springs, Texas, and after working two years as a lumber company carpenter, he uses his Spanish-American War service and supposed friendship with Roosevelt to land a job with the T & P Railroad. Because of his good work for the company, Whitaker is quickly promoted, but this success does not come without a price. Resentful of Whitaker's swift promotion, a coworker attacks Whitaker with a monkey wrench. Whitaker retaliates by firing a pistol at his attacker (p. 56). Whitaker is tried but not convicted for the shooting. He loses his job and eventually returns to Kentucky.

In Kentucky, Whitaker becomes interested in politics. Undaunted by an unsuccessful bid for a county clerkship, he declares his candidacy for jailer of Letcher County in 1917. Whitaker, running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic area, nevertheless wins the election with "the biggest majority any man was ever elected" (p. 80). Whittaker's interest in politics is also evident in his laudatory "Sketch of Work and Words of Woodrow Wilson," which is appended to the narrative (p. 128).

After the election, the narrative's focus shifts from the personal details of Whitaker's own life to a broader, more general look at Letcher County. Whitaker's boyhood home is described as being rural and isolated, but by the end of his narrative, the county has become bustling and prosperous. These changes have much to do with coal mining, and a related phenomenon, the railroad. Whitaker remembers the day when 3,000 people showed up to see the first train pass through the county, an event that ended in chaos when the train's whistle blew and people "started to run" in fear of the noise (p. 120). Still, writing less than a decade later, Whitaker concedes that a train has become "an old thing now," and he is generally approving of the changes in his community, which he sees as signs of progress (p. 120).

Works Consulted: Cornett, William T., "Fess Whitaker: The Jailed Jailer Who Was Elected County Judge," Kentucky Explorer, August 1991; New York Times, "Jail for Fess Whitaker," January 19, 1922; New York Times, "Roosevelt's Friend Killed," September 20, 1927. Gayle Alvis and Walter Bowman at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives assisted with research for this summary.

Harry Thomas

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