Murder, Mystery and Mayhem

The Meanest Son of a Bitch that Ever Lived!

John Reese Prater (1889-1929) worked as a security guard for the railroad in Morgan
County, Kentucky. He was married to Edna Lee Bailey (1890-1964) and had seven children.

John Reece and Edna Lee
John Reese, Edna Lee in back. Osa, Nola and Delmer in front. Cir 1917

Tragically his only daughter died of whooping cough at just under two years of age in 1917. He was known to be a hardworking man who took care of his family. On the afternoon of January 27, 1929 a gunshot echoed through a railroad tunnel and on down the line. Minutes later two other railroad workers arrived at a well-established camp site to find John Reese laying in the dirt near the fire pit heavily bleeding from a gaping wound on the side of his head. Lying on the ground next to him was his own revolver. The two railroad workers picked John Reese up and carried him up the tracks to his father’s house so the doctor could be summoned to help.

John Reese was placed on the kitchen table of his parents’ house and the doctor arrived quickly with his bag of medical tools hoping to work a miracle. By this time word had spread all through the community and a crowd was beginning to form wanting to know what was going on, and how John Reese was doing. The doctor worked tirelessly -trying to remove the bullet that was lodged deep in John Reese’s brain. With no hope of saving him, the doctor gave up his efforts.

Almost immediately worry and concern changed to anger and the gathering mob wanted to know who did this and where to find him, or her. One of the neighbors offered to get his blood hounds and track the killers scent. John Reese’s father, James, agreed and immediately began assembling a search party to find out who killed his beloved son. James ran back into his house with two of his other sons, Stanley and Arby, to grab their shotguns.

Judith Ivey
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Once the search party was assembled they headed straight to the campsite that John Reese used every time he worked the line guarding the tunnel from train robbers. There were no signs of a struggle and nothing was disturbed. His campfire was still burning with a coffee pot sitting on a rock next to the coals. Almost immediately the blood hounds picked up a scent and shot off through the woods. The search party followed as quickly and close as possible. After a few zigs and zags through the woods the dogs turned heading up into a holler. Immediately James ordered the dogs to be called off. Not understanding why James wanted them to stop the neighbor began to protest that the dogs were heading straight to the killer to let them go. James ordered him once again to call off the dogs, or he was going to shoot them dead.

The neighbor complied and restrained his dogs but was still dumbfounded as to why James wanted to stop the search. James explained to him that where the dogs were heading was to a woman and her children and he did not need to see anything more and turned around and walked back down to the tracks then home to prepare for the funeral. Where the dogs were heading was to John Reese’s own house where his wife Edna and their six sons, ages 19, 17, 9, 8, 5 and newborn lived.

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By the time of the funeral two days later, rumors had spread all across the county about who killed John Reese. There were many theories; train robbers, another employee, his wife or one of his own sons. It really could have been anyone. In fact, just days before his death a sign was placed in his yard warning him to treat his family better or he was going to be killed.

Turns out that John Reese was a very abusive man to his children, and his wife. On one
occasion John Reese had his oldest son tied to a tree in his yard and was using a bull whip to give him a set number of lashes as punishment. Edna begged and begged John Reese to stop before he killed her son. John Reese told her that the only way he was going to stop was if she took the rest of his lashes, to which she agreed. John Reese cut his son down then tied his wife to the tree and finished the punishment across her back.

On the day of the funeral Edna gathered her sons and headed to her in-laws’ house. Upon
arrival, she was immediately shunned and denied entry into the funeral. Instead she returned home, packed some of her belongings and went home to her parents in Greenup. Edna and the children stayed gone for a few years. There were several theories about who killed him and quit a few clues that made them very convincing.

Theory #1
Whomever placed the sign in the yard warning John Reese to start treating his family
better killed him. But, John Reese was shot point blank with his own weapon. Not many
strangers could get close enough to him to take his own gun and shoot him.

Theory #2
One of Edna’s brothers could have shot him in retaliation for the years of abuse she and
her children suffered. But once again, it was unlikely that any of them could get close enough to get his gun without a struggle.

Theory #3
One of John Reese’s two oldest sons shot him. They suffered just as much as their mother
did at his hands and they would have been able to get close enough to get his own gun away from him and shoot him in the head.

Theory #4
Edna shot John Reese. She definitely could have gotten close enough to him to take his
revolver from the holster and shoot him in the head as payback for all the years of abuse she and her children suffered at his hands. However, Edna had given birth to her youngest son just 13 days before John Reese was killed. It would have been unlikely that she could shoot him then take off running through the woods up into the hollar and make it home, change clothes and not have some kind of major abdominal pain or bleeding herself.

Although there were several plausible theories John Reese’s death was never officially
solved. But retribution was made. By 1935, Edna and her children had moved back to Morgan County. On July 4, 1935 John Reese’s brothers Stanley and Arby were celebrating the holiday with John Reese’s second oldest son, Delmer (1912-1935). Early the next morning someone passing by a pond noticed a body floating near the shore line and pulled it out. It was Delmer. When asked if either Stanley or Arby had anything to do with Delmer drowning Arby walked away never to say another word about it. Stanley answered, “I can’t say I did, and I can’t say I didn’t”.

His death is officially listed as an accidental drowning but that’s not the consensus within
the families to this day.


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