The Henry Vanover Story : Killing Rock The Untold Tales Part 2

Henry Vanover's murder has been a mystery. Who actually shot him? Who was blamed for the act? And how did this lead to the Pound Gap Massacre?

Please share this story with your friends

The Life of Henry Vanover

Henry Vanover unknown newspaper
Henry Vanover unknown newspaper. This picture is now disputed as being a picture of his cousin.

Henry Vanover was born in 1835 to Daniel and Nancy Vanover. During the Civil War, he served as a private with the Union Army. After the war, the US Government deeded him 900 acres of land in lieu of pay for his service. This land is located approximately 2 miles down the Elkhorn Creek from the present-day town of Jenkins, Kentucky. The land stretched across both sides of the Elkhorn Creek, and includes the present-day sites of Burdine, East Jenkins, what is now called Number 3 Hollow, Joe’s Branch and Camden. 

Henry never sold any land, however from time to time he would sell walnut, maple, and oak timber from the land and use the proceeds to purchase more land. Henry had acquired some of the richest, choicest timberland in Kentucky and Virginia. As he continued to selectively log, he became a wealthy man and the owner of large tracts of land in both states. 

Coal Discovery

It is of importance to note here; that coal had not yet been developed on the Elkhorn Creek in Kentucky. But in 1883, Richard Broas came to the area and started his survey on Henry Vanover’s land. It was in this way that Henry discovered that not only did he own some of the best timber lands in both states. But in Kentucky, he had been granted a significant portion of the richest coal land in the country by the US Government. However, as quite a few people can attest, with the acquisition of wealth and valuable land problems always arise… 

Ira Mullins

Ira and Louanza Mullins
Ira and Louanza Mullins

In May of 1879 Henry Vanover’s niece Polly Louanza Estep the daughter of his sister Mary and John Estep married Ira Mullins, the son of John L and Martha Mullins of Pike County. And a little over a year later the first of many troubles would arise between Ira Mullins and Henry Vanover… 

Ira, or “Bad Ira” Mullins as he was locally known, was a big-time moonshiner and corn whiskey runner by trade. It is also said that he was a small-time merchant as well, but we could find no record of him owning a general store or mercantile on the Elkhorn Creek. It is possible that he later owned such a business in Virginia. But it is also just as likely that this business or the story of it was used as a front for his illegal endeavors.  

Ira Goes to Jail

Ira Mullins
Ira Mullins

On October 21st of 1880 Ira Mullins would be arrested, fined $25, and spend 10 days in the Whitesburg Kentucky Jail. The only information we could find about this case is the indictment which states that Ira was carrying a concealed and deadly weapon. The indictment was used by the jury to record the sentence and the fine. And as a scratch pad by the Court Clerk to tabulate $12.85 in court fees. The indictment lists the witnesses for the commonwealth as well. Morgan Killers, Henry Vanover, and a man that is repeatedly associated with the story of Pound Gap Massacre, Isaac Belcher.   



Ira and Louanza Move on Vanover Land

Martha "Mary" Patsy Potter Mullins who was the mother to Ira Mullins.
Martha “Mary” Patsy Potter Mullins who was the mother to Ira Mullins.

In the mid 1880’s Ira and Louanza Mullins moved to Elkhorn Creek and settled in a cabin that was built on a plot of land owned by Henry Vanover. Although Henry informed Ira and his niece that the property and the cabin in which they were now living was owned by him. There is nothing to indicate that he asked them to leave, either verbally or in any court record. What we do know is that about this time someone started trying to kill Henry Vanover. 

Attempted Murder

After a hard day’s work on May 28th, 1885, Henry and his family was sitting on the porch of his home having dinner and enjoying the cool evening breeze.  A man riding a horse was casually traveling by the Vanover home. This man stopped in the middle of the Elkhorn Creek in front of Henry’s home. At the time the creek was in use as the road. After calmly sitting there a few minutes, the man drew his riffle and began shooting at Henry and his family. Henry quickly grabbed his rifle and returned fire. The would-be assassin spurred his horse and quickly rode off but apparently not before Henry recognized the man.  

Vanover Kills Roberts

The attempted assassin was a man named James Roberts from Ohio who was known to be a guest staying at the home of Ira Mullins. Henry then decided to wait and see if the man would attempt to ride by his home again.  When he later appeared on the road Henry Vanover opened fire shooting Roberts from his horse and killing him. Henry Vanover was charged with the murder of Mr. Roberts but was acquitted due to the circumstances. But the troubles for Henry and his family did not end there… 

The Shooting of Henry Vanover

Most stories about Henry Vanover tells us that: 

On June 18, 1887, while working the fields in Rocky Hollow with his wife, Henry Vanover was ambushed and killed… Although the actual killer of Henry Vanover remains unknown, it was widely thought that Clifton Branham had murdered Henry Vanover. Clifton was arrested and tried for the crime, although there was little evidence and Clifton claimed to be at home with his wife and family that day he was convicted of conspiracy and criminal complicity and would spend 15 years of a 90-year term in prison. Clifton always denied the Vanover Murder and claimed “I got some money for the killing, but I did not kill Henry Vanover” 

Clifton and Tandy Branham

The Hazel Green Herald dated Friday Aug 12th, 1887
The Hazel Green Herald dated Friday Aug 12th, 1887

But thanks to the digitization efforts that have taken place over the last 10 years we can now piece a different story together. 

On page 8 of the Kentucky newspaper The Hazel Green Herald dated Friday Aug 12th, 1887, is two sentences they simply tell us that Clifton Branham and his brother “Tan” are in jail charged with the killing of Vanover. They have made a confession implicating several others. 




Insanity Releases

Hopkinsville Kentuckian dated Jun 24th, 1892
Hopkinsville Kentuckian dated Jun 24th, 1892

Tan was Clifton’s brother Tandy Branham; they were both given life sentences in the Kentucky State Prison at Frankfort in Franklin County for the murder of Henry Vanover. But according to page 3 of the Hopkinsville Kentuckian dated Jun 24th, 1892, Tandy Branham was one of the quote “unfortunates” unquote serving a life sentence for murder at the Eddyville penitentiary who was adjudged insane and sent to an asylum. 

Although we can find no exact date Tandy was released from the asylum prior to August 1896. We know this thanks to two Kentucky newspaper clippings from August and November of that year.

Richmond Climax dated November 25th, 1896
Richmond Climax dated November 25th, 1896

The first comes from the Daily Leader now the Lexington Herald dated August 12th, 1896, the second from the Richmond Climax dated November 25th, 1896. These two papers inform us that Tandy was murdered on August 11th and although his killer had been caught, he refused to give his name. The second clip tells us that his killer was 18-year-old Coon Willis and informs us that Mr. Willis pleaded guilty and received a life sentence instead of facing trial.  

Clifton’s Story

Clifton Branham

Clifton’s story is a little more interesting. Clifton and Tandy apparently took a similar deal to that of Coon Willis choosing life in prison rather than face trial and the gallows. Clifton’s story is summarized and can be found on page 11 of Louisville Kentucky’s Courier Journal dated September 26th, 1903. In 1899 Clifton would follow in the footsteps of his brother Tandy and feign insanity. He would then be transferred to the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum in Lexington Kentucky. Clifton would spend a total of six months in the asylum before he was released. In all, Clifton Branham would spent about 12 years locked up for the murder of Henry Vanover.  

Clifton would be tried and hung for the murder of his wife in 1903. However, there is another oddity in the story about Clifton Branham and the murder of Henry. 

Were the Branham Brothers Insane?

Clifton Branham
Clifton Branham

The story tells us that quote “the actual killer of Henry Vanover remains unknown, it was widely thought that Clifton Branham had murdered Henry Vanover.” It goes on to tell us that quote “Clifton always denied the Vanover Murder and claimed “I got some money for the killing, but I did not kill Henry Vanover” unquote. 

Some websites are now reporting in snippets that there was a third man who was tried and sent to prison for the murder of Henry Vanover at the same time as Clifton and Tandy. These snippets are found on genealogy websites in articles about both men and give this 3rd man’s name as George Johnson. After an exhaustive search we can find no mention of any man associated with the murder of Henry Vanover other than those asserting that Ira Mullins was the man who paid the Branham brothers. 

We did find that both Clifton and Tandy confessed to the crime implicating others. Was George Johnson one of the person’s implicated in the confession? Or is it possible that this is a distortion to hide a simple truth?

In several of the stories about Clifton Branham we are told that he was quite a lady’s man. Its even implied that this was one of the reasons he spent so much time away from his home and his wife. We are told that Clifton was also fond of an alias he often used on these occasions. Clifton often used the alias George Jones… Could it be that the third man was actually a split personality? Could it be that both Clifton and Tandy Branham were insane?  

Sarah Vanover and Her Daughters

Sarah Jane Bentley Vanover the widow to Henry Vanover.
Sarah Jane Bentley Vanover the widow to Henry Vanover.

After Henry’s death his widow Sarah was left to raise their children on her own, however having a large timber producing estate did not make it any easier as at one point Sarah was facing 100 lawsuits from people claiming Henry’s land including a lawsuit from Ira and Louranza Mullins… 

About this time Henry Vanover’s oldest daughter, Catherine had caught the eye of Henan Fleming and He and his brother Calvin were often visitors at the Vanover house helping with the farm, eventually Henan would marry Catherine. 

Doctor Marshall Benton Taylor

Doctor Marshall Benton Taylor
Doctor Marshall Benton Taylor

Doc Taylor was a close friend of Henry Vanover’s and became involved in several of the lawsuits against Widow Vanover, including the one with Ira Mullins… 

If Clifton Branham had knowledge of who actually killed Henry Vanover, he kept silent about it… He also never told who he had received money from for the assassination; …however everyone suspected it was from Ira Mullins and his wife Louranza…

Most people figure that it was the shootout at wise that started the feud between Doctor Marshall Benton Taylor and Ira Mullins. However, it is of particular interest to note that Taylor would become a Federal Marshal in 1889 two years after the death of Henry Vanover and start his war against moonshiners,

It is also telling in the fact that Taylor chose the pursuit and capture of Moonshine runners coming from Kentucky into Virginia. Taylor was known to camp out at what is now known as Raven Rock and spy on the road below using his 5-foot spyglass and then set a trap for the runners at the top of the mountain. 

Over the next 4 years Taylor would lead an assault on Illegal whiskey that many came to say was a personal vendetta against moonshiners. He would also gain fame as an herbalist and spiritual healer often staying with his patients for extended times until they were well.   It is also during this time that he would acquire the nickname… the Red Fox… and take on the persona of being a mystic. 

Thank You

We thank you for continuing to support Kentucky Tennessee Living. As we bring to you the history of the Appalachian Mountains. We must remind everyone that the story names Killing Rock: The Oft Told Tale (s) and Killing Rock: The Untold Story are both under Kentucky Tennessee Living copyright.

Source Information

On Patrol of the Lighter Side

Marshall Benton Taylor

Marshall Benton TAYLOR

Marshall Benton Taylor – A Legend

Marshall Benton “Doc” TAYLOR/Nancy A. BOOTH – Family Details

Marshall Benton Taylor – One Side of the Story

Find a grave

The Hazel Green Herald
Friday Aug 12th, 1887

Hopkinsville Kentuckian
Jun 24th, 1892

Daily Leader now the Lexington Herald
August 12th, 1896

Richmond Climax
November 25th, 1896

Louisville Kentucky’s Courier Journal
September 26th, 1903
Page 11

Copyright and Other Information

All photos are in the public domain unless otherwise noted. This includes photos dated before 1923. All other photos are used with permission or under the education fair use statute of the US copyright law.

Copyright 2022 Kentucky Tennessee Living

Social Media Pages

For more about us, you can visit our Facebook page:

Our Twitter page:

Our YouTube Channel:

When we forget our past and who we are as a people, then we become who “they” say we are. ~~ David Sergent

Latest Posts