The year is 1885, it’s 10 years after the first Kentucky Derby and 100 years before REO Speedwagon decided they couldn’t fight that feeling anymore. John and Mary Belle Tucker live in Robertson County, Kentucky. The population of the county in 2010 was 2,300. In 1880, it was double that, which still isn’t very many people. It is the least populated county in the state and the smallest by area.
John and Mary Belle didn’t get along. John was over 50 years old when they married and Mary Belle was in her early 20’s. One day, at the end of January 1885, the couple quarreled. This was not out of the ordinary. Mary Belle was beaten with a broom handle. She went to sleep in a separate bedroom from John.
What Happened Next: Version 1
Mary Belle was sleeping when she was startled awake by the sound of a rifle shot. Her husband stumbled through her door, shouted, “O, Lord! I’m shot!” and fell onto the bed. Mary Belle took the couples 18 month old son and ran for help but John could not be saved. (That is Mary Belle’s account according to the newspaper.)
What Happened Next: Version 2
Mary Belle shot her husband. (That is what the grand jury who indicted her surmised.) Now, I’m no detective, but this one feels more likely.
The rifle in question was found in the yard, 18 feet from the door, with the stock broken. The defense argued that John had taken the gun into the yard to break it. Afraid his wife would decide to use it against him. In the process, he accidentally shot himself. They also suggested that the killing could be suicide. I get a very Cell Block Tango vibe from the whole situation.
This wasn’t Mary Belle’s first run in with violence. According to the Maysville Evening Journal, several years before John Tucker’s death a man named John Brown was stabbed nearly to death. His assailant, Mary Belle. The article doesn’t provide a motive for the attack and I could find no further record of it. It is possible that she had a vendetta against all men named John. It’s more likely that John was the popular name for men for several decades and it was a coincidence. It’s not clear if this incident was presented to the jury.
The full details of the trial aren’t given but the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. A brief article states that the evidence against Mary Belle was entirely circumstantial and was not sufficient to convince the jury that she was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The killing is still enshrouded in deep mystery, and it is barely possible that the truth about the affair will never be known.”The Courier Journal May 3, 1885
Four months after the trial Mary Belle shot herself twice in the chest, with a pistol. The wounds were “in the region of her heart”. The Wood Bros., physicians from the nearest town were brought in and declared her very nearly dead and unlikely to recover. Doctoring back then was similar to crime fighting, not overly reliable.
A few weeks later, there was an update. Mary Belle was on the mend, and may even recover. She claims to have made no confession, though double jeopardy would have kept her from being punished if she had. Her reason for the suicide attempt was that a sweetheart had promised to marry her and then run off.
Mary Belle fades from the papers after that. Did she remarry? Die shortly after? Violently attack someone else? Maybe all 3.
Stories found in The Courier Journal and The Evening Bulletin