John Maxey was born in 1884 and raised in Frankfort, KY to  John H. Maxey and his mother Cordelia Maxey.  He had an older sister. Alice Maxey. The family lived in a rented home during Maxey’s childhood. His father was well-known and liked in the Frankfort community. John Maxey worked as an attache and a Pullman porter. The older John Maxey’s death was so notable that it was recorded in the local Frankfort newspaper after his passing in 1904. John Maxey the younger found work in Frankfort by the age of 16 as a “boot blacker,” otherwise known as a shoe shiner. While Maxey’s father was unable to read or write, John and his mother had received some form of education and were able to do so.

A circus, hosted by a group from Valdosta, Georgia, arrived in Frankfort on June 2nd, 1909. One newspaper claimed that John Maxey arrived drunk at the circus and attempted to sneak under the flap of one of the tents instead of paying for a ticket. B.C. Bowers, an employee of the circus, caught Maxey in this act, and here the details vary. One newspaper claims that on June 3, 1909, Bowers shot at Maxey in surprise and Maxey shot back in retaliation, fatally injuring Bowers. Other papers report that Maxey shot first after being caught attempting to sneak in. Regardless of who shot first, after Maxey shot Bowers, several of the showmen grabbed Maxey and began beating him with stakes. A crowd surrounded Maxey screaming, “lynch him!” and a noose was hung around his neck and as the crowd was about to draw Maxey up a tree two officers arrived in time to stop the lynching. 

Maxey was thrown into a Frankfort jail that night around 12:30a.m. At around 2a.m. the jailer was called and awoken at his home near the prison. He was told that an officer wanted to put another man in the jail. As soon as the jailer opened his door he was overwhelmed by a masked mob who took his keys and seized Maxey from his cell. Within 10 minutes Maxey was strung up around the St. Clair Street Bridge, otherwise known as the “Swinging Bridge.”  The mob lynched Maxey in the shadow of the statehouse, as one newspaper reported. In contrast, the Lexington Leader described the lynching of Maxey as “orderly and determined.”

The killing of John Maxey was one of the few examples of state officials’ attempts to hold the lynchers accountable. Governor Augustus Willson vowed to bring the members of the mob to justice, and his office went so far as to offer a reward. The historical trail runs cold after this.  There are no reports of a person or group claiming responsibility, and no one was arrested or tried for the crime. The Charleston (WV) Advocate reported that there were rumors among African Americans in Frankfort of a retaliatory lynching, but there are no reports of violence.


Location of the Lynching

Location of the lynching of John Maxey. Map created and developed by Hayden Hancock (2023).


Smith, Cameron. “John Maxey.” Documented Biographies. Documenting Racial Violence in Kentucky. August 8, 2022.