By Danny Crownover
Around 1902, a story was reported of the capture of Jeff Van Horn at Sligo, a little coal mining village on Sand Mountain located near Mountainboro. Van Horn had escaped from the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham along with Frank Duncan, one of the most noted criminals ever to be tried, convicted and hanged in the state of Alabama.
Duncan was charged with killing two Birmingham policemen, Kirkley and Adams, while attempting a robbery.
Immediately after his escape, Van Horn became very sick and holed up in a little cabin near Sligo. His neighbors became suspicious. Some of them thought they could identify him by a description sent out by Sheriff A.W. Burgin of Jefferson County.
They had agreed to come to Gadsden and swear out a warrant for Van Horn when Pat Tucker, the superintendent of the mines, saw him and positively identified him from the description furnished by the Birmingham sheriff.
Tucker came to Attalla and informed Deputy Sheriff J.M. Wimpee. They decided to take the stranger into custody. They walked seven miles to the cabin and told Van Horn that they were going to hold him while they notified Birmingham authorities.
In the meantime, Sheriff Burgin had been notified, and he and his warden, W.H. Ball, hastened to Sligo. Ball was taken along to identify the prisoner, but neither he nor the sheriff could do so, Van Horn having changed his appearance because of his sickness. The officers were about to release Van Horn when he suddenly confessed that he was the man they wanted.
Duncan, who was from some northern or eastern state and known far and wide as a robber, made good his escape and was not heard from for more than a year. Eventually, news came that Duncan was taken into custody along with his wife, Myrtle Haas, a woman he picked up in Chattanooga, Tenn.
While in Florida, Duncan posed as Myrtle’s brother. When Birmingham police officers arrived in Florida and arrived at the jail to bring Duncan back to Alabama, they were faced with what they thought was a maniac. Duncan held a small bottle of colorless liquid in his hand, declaring it was filled with nitroglycerine and that he could blow the prison to smithereens and would do so rather than go back to Birmingham.
There was quite a stir among the prisoners and officers for a few minutes, but when somebody decided to call the desperado’s hand, he admitted that the bottle contained nothing but tap water. When he got back to the Birmingham jail, Duncan was good for a news story almost every day.
He employed Col. W.H. Denson, a lawyer who had just moved from Gadsden to the Magic City to make a last desperate effort to save Duncan from the gallows. Duncan claimed long and loudly that he was not Frank Duncan, the murderer of two policemen, but a victim of mistaken identity.
When all hope of escaping the penalty of the law was gone, Duncan he got religion and confessed that was the right man. When asked about lying about his identity, he explained, “Oh, that was just legal fiction.”
On the gallows, Duncan said that it took a brave man to watch his execution and that he wished everybody in Birmingham could see what the state of Alabama was doing to him.
Pat Tucker, the mine superintendent who was instrumental in the capture of Van Horn, was an Irishman who was universally loved in this section. He once ran for office on the Republican ticket and stumped the county, which at that time was 100 percent Democrat.
Tucker campaigned in an unorthodox way. He read much poetry which he composed himself and got much fun out of the fact that hundreds of people listened to his poetic recitations, much of which never have been heard otherwise.
Denson was once the editor of a local Gadsden newspaper and served this district in U.S. Congress for two terms. The press always referred to him as “Billy in low grounds.”
The press also criticized Denson for saying he would “Tote his own skillet” during a heated campaign.