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The Strange, Sad Death of Lucinda Mills:
An Examination of Appalachia’s Only Known Case of Ritual Murder

Audra Boggs and Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt

In February, 1933, in Tomahawk, KY, at the culmination of a week-long Pentecostal revival that included fasting, dancing, incantation, and speaking in tongues, church members decided to offer up human sacrifices. An elderly woman, Mrs. Lucinda Mills, was selected as the first offering, and her son, John H. Mills, choked her to death in front of the congregation. The church members were preparing to burn Mrs. Mill's body on the altar when the local police, either tipped off by a neighbor or attracted by the commotion, burst into the church and began making arrests. Three other women had already been selected as additional offerings. Church members claimed they were held in thrall by a supernatural power and prevented from intervening. John H. Mills was the only person brought to trial. Charged with the murder of his mother, he was convicted and imprisoned. While well-remembered within the community, and widely covered by newspapers of the time, the event is now forgotten by the world at large. This study combines oral history and archival research techniques to document the death of Mrs. Mills in regional folklore and history. In addition to recording the story as remembered, it places the death in the context of the spread of the Holiness movement through the mountains of east Kentucky, examines the surviving documentation associated with the crime, and analyzes the media’s depiction of the events. It preserves an overlooked aspect of Appalachian history and contributes to a richer understanding of the region’s culture.

      The said defendants, in the county of Martin, . . .did unlawfully, willfully, feloniously, maliciously, and of       their malice aforethought, make an assault upon the person of on Lucinda Mills, in some way and       manner, by some means, instruments, and weapons to the grand jury unknown, then and there       unlawfully, feloniously, maliciously, and of their malice aforethought kill and murder the said Lucinda       Mills and from which she did then and there die.1

On the seventh of February, 1933, on the Mills Branch of Rockhouse, in Tomahawk, Kentucky, Lucinda Mills died at the hands of her family in Appalachia’s only known case of ritual murder. That much is certain. The lurid nature of case attracted nationwide media coverage that generated the bulk of surviving documentation. The incident is little known outside Martin County where it survives because of its memorable nature and the local prominence of the Mills family. This paper is an attempt to establish a coherent narrative account. It draws on a variety of sources, some more dependable than others. The truth, as Fox Mulder would say, is out there. Unfortunately, it is also lost on the winds of time.

* * *

The early decades of the twentieth century saw the massive expansion of Holiness churches, as week-long revivals in traveling tents and brush arbors caught on, meeting the emotional needs of supplicants in a way the more staid Methodist Church out of which they sprang could not.

      They flourish mainly among the ignorant and nervously unstable sections of the population, and differ       from the common variety of holiness groups in the extreme degree of their emotionalism. Primitive traits       and the experiences of frontier revivalism make their last stand among these groups, and one encounters       "tongue talking," shouting, visions, trances, jerking, dancing, "gifts of prophecy," and various other       radical motor automatisms or "blessings" as by a familiar psychological process the starved emotional       natures of people less cultured escape rational control and run to extremes.2

Pentecostal churches were largely – and largely are to this day – Charismatic, that is to say, they are characterized by the reception, on the part of the adherents, of charismata – divinely conferred gifts or powers. Martin County physician J. R. Fairchild, who served as a state witness at the trial, stated that, “The praying in ‘the unknown tongue’, which members of the sect themselves admit they can’t understand is proceeded by dancing and the jerking of the shoulders up and down. Shoulders twitch and jerk. Members of the congregations often dance and then sit down. The muscles of their jaws become rigid and they stare straight ahead. Next their shoulders begin to twitch and finally jerk up and down. Then comes the unintelligible muttering they call ‘the unknown tongue.’”3 This would appear to place the “Tongue People”, as they were referred to at the time, in Pentecostal tradition.

The 'Tongue People' along the Tug River are divided into two main branches. One believes you are first regenerated, then 'baptized with the Holy Ghost' and that after that you get the 'gift of tongues.' The other believes that you are regenerated, but that you get the 'gift of tongues' at the same time you are 'baptized with the Holy Ghost.' The Tongue People of the Tug River Valley were thought to number no more than thirty people in Martin County but were more numerous in the West Virginia coal camps on the far side of the river.4 If this number is accurate, Lucinda and the members of her family arrested for her murder would have been constituted a full third of local believers.

Human sacrifice, it should be noted, is in no way a part of Pentecostal doctrine. It can be argued, however, that the emotional nature of Pentecostal worship predisposes the faithful to commit horrific acts. When a person allows emotion to govern their existence, cognition in the form of rational thought and reason become dormant and, as Francisco Goya famously noted, the sleep of reason produces monsters. For a contemporary example, one need look no farther than the case of the Hosanna Church in Hammond, Louisiana: animal sacrifice, bestiality, and child rape in the name of Jesus.5 When people give themselves over to powerful emotion, reason is suppressed and monsters walk abroad.

* * *

Contemporary newspaper accounts of the murder read more like the pulp horror fiction found on the era’s newsstands than respectable journalism. It’s as if H.P. Lovecraft penned an episode of the Waltons.

      Praying for deliverance, in a guttural, unearthly chant, eight members of a mountain family are in jail       today, charged with murder following the cult “sacrifice” of an aged woman. Police said they crashed       their way through barred doors into the desolate Mills’ homestead as plans were made to place the       body of Mrs. Lucinda Mills, 72, on an altar. Interrupting the haunting ritual of fasting and mystic rites,       which police say started last Friday, culminating in a mad frenzy of ardor, the officers arrested two       daughters, two sons, a grandson, and two sons-in-law of the slain woman.6

The neighbors had contacted the police saying that they were alarmed by screaming from the Mills’ cabin and the arrival of four young Mills girls who had fled the home when John announced they were to be offered up as virgin sacrifices.7 The cabin, labeled a “shabby little hillside shack” by the papers, appears in surviving photographs to have been a modest board and batten home built on pillars. It belonged to Lucinda’s son-in-law Thomas Boyd.8 The family had barricaded – “barred up” – themselves in and would not allow the police officers to enter.9 Inside, the officers reported finding the family “rejoicing.” Deputy Rafe Mollett had to threaten Blaine McGinnis with a handgun and then, “I throwed my gun on Ballard Mills” to make him drop a knife.10 The adults present were arrested and the children were removed.

The body of Lucinda Mills lay on an “improvised altar” on a “rude bed” with a trace chain wrapped around her neck. The nature of the trace chain is unclear. It was either a short length of chain used to equalize tension on a towing linkage or a longer length of heavy chain or a longer length of what would now be referred to as a “log chain”, used to attach a pair of draft horses to a load. Both options would have been readily available at the time. The arresting officers reported “chains wrapped around her body”, which would seem to support the latter possibility.11 When the police burst in plans were being made to burn Lucinda’s body on a cruciform altar while Fred Mills stood at the foot of the bed reading from the Bible. Lucinda’s daughters, Mollie McGinnis and Ora Mills, were said to be “dancing and singing on a nearby table.”12. John was said to have been kneeling on the body of his mother, repeating over and over, “Have your way, Lord, have your way.” When they tried to pull him off, he began speaking in tongues and clung to the chains he had wrapped around his mother’s wrists until he pulled her body off the altar. He then lashed out with his fists until subdued by a pair of deputies.13

John H. Mills, Fred Mills (sons), Ballard Mills (grandson), Blaine McGinnis and Tommy Boyd (sons-in law), Mollie McGinnis and Ora Moore (daughters), Trixie Mills and Alma Mills (exact relation unclear but one was the wife of John) were indicted for murder and taken to the county jail in Inez, the Martin County seat. When questioned at the jail, the family members reported to the police that hours of praying, shouting, singing and dancing called forth “divine commands” that the life of one person present be offered in human sacrifice.14

Imprisoned, the family members sang and loudly prayed until ordered to cease by the jailor whereupon they became calm and quiet. It was, they suggested, a tragic misunderstanding resulting from John’s misunderstanding of a divine message. The jailer reported that the family members were accusing John of “loosening evil spirits among us.” John remained uncommunicative.

After two days of incarceration in which John Mills refused to take any food and lay in what was described as a catatonic stupor, jailer Dan Harmon and five assistants pinned Mills to a mattress on the cell floor under the direction of county health officer W. N. Keith. Keith then excised two of Mill’s teeth with a chisel, forced a tube through the resulting gap and into Mills’ stomach, and force-fed him a quantity of milk.15

When released he rose, flailing the air with his fists, until he was again overpowered and chained to the cell bars. Mills’ broken teeth are clearly visible in a photograph of him being carried into court on February 21, 1933. There is no record of additional force-feeding but the same photograph betrays a gauntness of the face associated with a sudden dramatic weight loss and is not visible in the photograph of him chained to the cell post-force-feeding. Of course one would expect some facial swelling to result from a forcible tooth extraction. Mill’s was described at the time of his arrest as “a strapping man of 200 pounds, pale, gleaming blue eyes and a resolute, pointed chin.”16

A preliminary hearing was held on the eleventh, one day post-force-feeding, and John had to be carried before the judge on a cot. He was reported to have “merely flailed his arms in the air and shouted meaningless words when questioned.” The other defendants “for the most part were quiet, although at times they lapsed into strange chants and prayers in weird unintelligible syllables. All insisted at the preliminary hearing yesterday that John misinterpreted a “divine command” that they said preceded the “sacrifice.”17

The preliminary hearing was of tremendous local interest. The courtroom was small, capable of holding some twenty people but Inez was said to have filled with men, women, and children from nearby communities all determined to attend.18 In this apparently rather festive atmosphere peculiar stories circulated that found receptive ears among the journalists covering the murder.

Co-defendant Blaine McGinnis appears to have introduced the idea that John was possessed of or by some power capable of controlling the movement of others, stating that he didn’t “know why I couldn’t stop John. I just couldn’t do nothing – I couldn’t touch him.”19 “When I saw John choking his mother to death I tried to grab his arm but I could not. I don’t know how to explain it . . . I couldn’t move. I just stood there and watched.”20

      Townspeople said reports of Mills’ hypnotic power were circulated long before the killing. He had       more than 200 followers they said, all of whom were under his influence. Two Inez men who were       assigned to guard the prisoners after their arrest said that Mills would make strange motions with his       hands and they were “drawn to him.”21

When the trial began, lawyers for the defense offered Mills’ supernatural control of the other defendants as part of the defense stating that they were “under the influence of Mills’ hypnotic power and could not help from participating in the religious orgy which culminated in the death of the aged woman and an attempt to burn her body on a crude altar.”22 Again, it is difficult to sort out the narrative given the passage of time and the lack of other evidence but it may be that Blaine McGinnis offered this idea up as an excuse for his behavior and it spread through the population as a point of discussion only to be picked up and disseminated by reporters.

Accounts emerged of John Mills leading all of the members of the group, including 35 to 40 children, “up the holler” with their eyes shut, stumbling over rocks and brush while shouting and loudly praying.23 Other accounts refer to group members practicing what they called “swording”, which involved “taking a bible in their hands and passing it across one another’s throat.”24 Still others referred to claims of divine healing powers and the performance of miracles, such as the transformation of water into wine and grapevines into snakes.25 “Residents of the isolated region, many of whom have the credulity of children and are eager to believe and circulate weird reports about bizarre religious rites, tell many stories of what is alleged to have happened both before and after the strangulation of Mrs. Mills.”26

The trial commenced in what appears to have been a festive atmosphere: “Crowds of mountaineers, most of them on mule back, continued to pour into the little town during the day. The mule traders were active behind the courthouse and the proprietor of a medicine show, set up on the courthouse lawn, reported business to be booming.”27 A surviving photograph shows the medicine show proprietor, a Black-faced ventriloquist’s dummy tucked under his arm, standing above a crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder and at least ten deep.28

Inside, the atmosphere of the small packed courtroom appears to have been no less chaotic. “Photographers were rebuffed by Judge Bailey after they asked permission to take pictures in the courtroom. ‘You can’t take no pictures in this here courtroom. These people ain’t ignorant and they don’t want the world to see that they ain’t got sense enough to set down.’” When John and Ballard entered the room, “Friends in the room would sing out, ‘Har ya’ there John H.?” and Har ya’ there Ballard?’ The defendants returned unsmiling ‘har ya’s’ with awkward waves of the hand.”

The judge denied a request from Mills to enter the jury room where the rest of his family and their defense lawyers were waiting.

      Whereupon John Mills broke down and wept. Between sobs he blurted out, addressing the crowd: “Hit       seems like everybody is down on me since this here trouble and there ain’t nobody nor anything good       for me.” A few minutes later the deputy sheriffs suddenly discovered Mills had disappeared. There was       a brief flurry of excitement, then they found him wandering through the crowd, “jist seein’ the folks.”29

The counsel for the defense had moved for John Mills to be found not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity. Mills was examined by four physicians, two local practitioners and two alienists from Lexington.30 For reasons unclear, the defense then declined an offer to try Mills for insanity. This remains a point of considerable unclarity in the record.

Another point of unclarity is the possibility of additional sacrifices. Newspapers reported that an additional six sacrifices were planned. “It was reported that John Mills had marked the young girls for death after he professed to have been directed to sacrifice “six who are virgins.” “It was said that the mother of a four-year-old had prepared her daughter to be burned on an improvised altar, rigged up on a rude bed. The mother, who was the daughter of the slain woman, was fearful of her own life and was forced to sacrifice her child. The sacrifice of the virgins was interrupted.”31

The question of Lucinda Mills’ motivation for going to her death a willing sacrifice also remains. Was it to please a God she believed demanded her life? Curiously, this does not seem to have entered into the discussion. Two possible, more transactional, motives surfaced during the trial. It was suggested that “she was willing to make the sacrifice, believing it would help free her son, Leonard, sent to an insane asylum a year ago.”32 Blaine McGinnis quoted her as saying, “I would willingly give my life for my son Leonard.” McGinnis further stated that, “She was the first among us to experience the new sensation and she thought by sacrificing her own life she might help her son in some way.”33

Another possibility, more whispered than documentable, is that Lucinda offered herself in hopes of deterring the sacrifice of other family members. She does not appear to have been the first choice: “Others had been first chosen, according to stories told to commonwealth attorney J. B. Clark. First a little girl about six years old, then several women in their thirties, but all resisted when the final test came and proved their ‘unfitness to die.’”34 Perhaps she thought that by offering herself, her son would desist. Perhaps she thought that, having slain his mother, he would be so distraught that the shock would end the whole thing. It is entirely possible that she was unclear on her own motivations.

It is said that the hollers of Appalachia are “filled up” with religion and death and, indeed, to this day, the only constants in these narrow valleys between the worn and broken stubs of what were once peaks to rival the Alps in height are the small, often independent and crumbling, churches that once served to provide solace and a basis for social order, and the isolated graveyards that still gape open to swallow the dead. It is an area that most of America forgets still exists or disparagingly refers to as “banjo country,” and depicts as populated by homosexual rapists and inbred clans of aggressive cannibals. It’s a land whose inhabitants are often depicted as “living extensions of the threat of the wilderness.”35

It is a stigmatized land populated by a stigmatized people who are motivated to forget the incidents that gave rise to its fearsome reputation – something that has often been done quite successfully, as witnessed by the willful forgetting of the region’s only known case of human sacrifice. Lucinda Mills died “upon the altar of God,” and her bones, along with those of her murderer and those of her fellow believers who bore witness to her strangulation, lie not far from the place where she, for reasons unknown, went willingly to her death.

1. Commonwealth of Kentucky against John H. Mills, Fred Mills, Ballard Mills, Blaine McGinnis, Mollie McGinnis, Tommy Boyd, Ora Moore, Trixie Mills, and Alma Mills. Indictment. April 3, 1933.

2. Clark, E. T. (1937). The Small Sects in America: An Authentic Study of Almost 300 Little-Known Religious Groups. Nashville, Abingdon Press. P. 85.

3. Physician Bares Strange Rites of Tongue People. Waterloo Daily Journal, Waterloo, Iowa. 10 April 1933.

4. Clark, E. T. (1937). The Small Sects in America: An Authentic Study of Almost 300 Little-Known Religious Groups. Nashville, Abingdon Press. P. 85.

5. Physician Bares Strange Rites of Tongue People. Waterloo Daily Journal, Waterloo, Iowa. 10 April 1933.

6. Physician Bares Strange Rites of Tongue People. Waterloo Daily Journal, Waterloo, Iowa. 10 April 1933.

7. Ellzey, D. (2007). Agents graphically describe abuse. https://archive.is/20130125003345/http://www.hammondstar.com/articles/2007/12/03/top_stories/9453.txt

8. Human Sacrifice offered as part of Odd Ceremony held by Cult in Kentucky. REF.

9. The Sacrifice of Lucinda Mills. 21 June 2016. Sparks, J. https://thecommontatersite.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/june-21-2016-the-sacrifice-of-lucinda-mills/

10. Cult Sacrifice Scene Depicted in Murder Case. The Daily News-Record. 11 April 1933.

11. Less dramatically, “the doors were locked and the shutters of the cabin drawn” in the World Encyclopedia of 20th Century Murder by Jay Robert Nash. (1992). London: Rowman & Littlefield.

12. Cult Sacrifice Scene Depicted in Murder Case. The Daily News-Record. 11 April 1933.

13. Son Strangled Mother During Rites of Cult. Bowen, J. L. Associated Press Report. 9 Feb 1933.

14. This account is from a widely shared Facebook account (https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=The%20Appalachian%20Project%20tomahawk) of the case and may reflect details from the oral tradition or embellishment. We have been unable to substantiate accounts of family member activity at the moment of arrest elsewhere.

15. Cult Sacrifice Scene Depicted in Murder Case. The Daily News-Record. 11 April 1933.

16. Human Sacrifice offered as part of Odd Ceremony held by Cult in Kentucky. The Evening Independent. February 9, 1933.

17. Alleged Cult Slayer Fed. Syracuse Journal. February 11, 1933. Also Sparks article.

18. Cult slaying. Charleston Gazette. The Charleston Gazette. 10 February 1933.

19. Cult Members Await Action. The Charleston Gazette. 13 February 1933.

20. Cult Leader and Members to be Heard. The Charleston Gazette. 11 February 1933.

21. Cult Leader and Members to be Heard. The Charleston Gazette. 11 February 1933.

22. World Encyclopedia of 20th Century Murder by Jay Robert Nash. (1992). London: Rowman & Littlefield.

23. Insanity Plea Now Plan for Cult Slaying. The Charleston Gazette. 7 April 1933.

24. Insanity Plea Now Plan for Cult Slaying. The Charleston Gazette. 7 April 1933.

25. Cult Leader and Members to be Heard. The Charleston Gazette. 11 February 1933

26. Cult Slaying Trial to Open. The Charleston Gazette. 3 April 1933.

27. World Encyclopedia of 20th Century Murder by Jay Robert Nash. (1992). London: Rowman & Littlefield.

28. Cult Leader and Members to be Heard. The Charleston Gazette. 11 February 1933

29. Insanity Plea Now Plan for Cult Slaying. The Charleston Gazette. 7 April 1933.

30. Human Sacrifice Trial is Mountaineer’s Holiday. The Star Journal, Sandusky Ohio. 7 April 1933. P. 1.

31. Cult Slaying Trial to Open. The Charleston Gazette. 3 April 1933

32. Court Order. Martin Circuit Court. Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. John H. Mills, etc. No date. The physicians named in the order are: Dr. W. R. Castle, Dr. F. M. Picklesimer, Dr. J. R. Fairchild, and Dr. W. M, Keith.

33. Cult Leader and Members to be Heard. The Charleston Gazette. 11 February 1933

34. Cult Slaying Trial to Open. The Charleston Gazette. 3 April 1933

35. Son Strangled Mother During Rites of Cult. Associated Press. 9 February 1933.

36. Cult Slaying Trial to Open. The Charleston Gazette. 3 April 1933

37. Cunningham, R. (1987). Apples on the Flood: Minority Discourse and Appalachia. The University of Tennessee Press.


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