Kentucky Justice

Brigadier General Henry Denhardt is only a footnote character in Kentucky political history who deserves better. He served admirably in the Spanish-American War and in World War I, where he was wounded in battle. Denhardt was the Commonwealth’s lieutenant governor in the 1920s, and later served as Kentucky’s adjutant general and head of the state’s National Guard.
He also has the ignominious fate of having been shot in the back while fleeing his attackers, who were later acquitted of murder by reason of temporary insanity and self-defense.
Denhardt was slain by the three older brothers of Mrs. Verna Garr Taylor, Denhardt’s one-time fiancée. Verna had died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1936 and the general had previously stood trial for her murder. When the jury deadlocked 7-5 for acquittal, a mistrial was declared and on September 21, 1937, Denhardt was in Shelbyville, Kentucky, preparing for his retrial that was scheduled for the next day.
Less than 12 hours before jury selection was to begin, Roy, Jack, and E.S. Garr waited outside the Armstrong Hotel on the busy street corner of 6th and Main streets for Denhardt to return to his rooms there. When Denhardt and his attorney Rodes K. Myers approached, the brothers stepped forward to avenge their sister.
Verna was known as “the most beautiful woman Henry and Oldham counties.” She came from a well-known and well-liked family that was, like Denhardt, a member of the state’s Bluegrass Aristocracy. The mother of two grown daughters, Verna was also quite a catch.
Denhardt, 61, had divorced his wife in 1933, and after leaving public life, retired to an 800-acre ranch in La Grange, not far from where Verna, 40, lived in Shelbyville.
“As a man of substance and breeding, he was admitted into the social activities of the old aristocracy,” a contemporary report of his life and death reported. “There he met Mrs. Taylor, a vivacious, charming woman, a widow of seven years, the executive and owner of the only laundry at La Grange.”
The rotund, 6-foot, 5-inch general and the demure southern belle began a courtship.
“I telephoned her after my return from New York,” Denhardt would later testify. “She asked how I was and I said all right except that I was lonely. She laughed and said she was pretty lonely too.
“So I said we lonesome people ought to get together and so we went out together.”
That was in the spring of 1936, and within weeks the pair became an item.
By midsummer, Verna accepted a ring from the general and announced to her family that she planned to wed Denhardt. Her youngest daughter, Frances, then 17, objected, but Mary, the elder at 21, had no opinion on the matter. Why Frances opposed the union was never made clear. Denhardt was not a male golddigger — he was well-off and not in need of any financial support from Verna. He was, however, 20 years her senior, which might have put off Frances.
On November 6, 1936, Denhardt and Verna went to Louisville from La Grange and returned in the early evening. When Verna complained of a headache, according to Denhardt, they went driving again “in the cool of the evening.”
In addition to her headache, he claimed, Verna was despondent because she was being forced by her family to break off the engagement. Later, Verna’s daughters testified that their mother had wanted to end the relationship herself. She tried on several occasions previously, the daughters said, but Denhardt reportedly told her, “if you don’t marry me, you won’t marry anyone.”
On the stand at his trial, Denhardt strongly disputed those claims.
“She suggested (the day of her death) that we go and get married right then,” he testified. “I told her that it would look foolish for people as old as we were to get married without telling our friends. She said, ‘Henry, you don’t want to marry me.’”
Denhardt told police that driving toward New Castle, his car stalled and he drained the battery trying to restart it. He told Verna that he wasn’t feeling well, so she started walking several hundred yards toward a filling station.
She returned with two men, Barney Browning and George Baker, who pushed the car (with the 220-pound Denhardt inside) to Browning’s gas station.
Browning and Baker left (Browning was apparently not equipped to work on the car), and another Good Samaritan, J.B. Hundley, drove back to La Grange to find a mechanic. Denhardt and Verna sat alone in his car, where according to the general, Verna talked of suicide.
“Mrs. Taylor suggested that we both die together,” he testified. “I told her there was no reason for us to die, that we were going to be happy. She threw her arms around my neck and said I was the finest man that ever lived.”
After that, Denhardt left the vehicle and started walking to the Baker house to use the telephone.
“I heard Mrs. Taylor calling, ‘Henry, Henry,’ and started back toward the car,” Denhardt went on. “Mrs. Taylor was gone when I reached the car.”
Shortly after, Denhardt said he heard a loud gunshot coming from up the road.
“I felt that the worst had happened,” he told the court.
Baker, who was working in his barn, also heard the shot and frightened that it was a robbery attempt or moonshiners, went into his home. He emerged a few minutes later and saw Denhardt by his car. A second shot, apparently from a smaller caliber weapon, sounded in the distance when Baker approached Denhardt. The source of that shot was never discovered and police determined that it did not come from Denhardt’s service weapon.
“The general said the lady with him had gone up the road to look for a lost glove,” Baker told the court. He said Denhardt then told him that his .45 service pistol had been in the car, “but now it’s gone.”
They began looking for Verna and found her two hundred yards up the road, dead from a single gunshot wound to the heart. Denhardt’s .45 was nearby; two shots had been fired.
Denhardt claimed that he had not fired a weapon in six months, but paraffin tests for gunshot residue indicated that he had recently shot a gun. Verna’s paraffin test came back negative.
The car coat Denhardt wore that night had bloodstains on it and bloodstains were also found some distance from where Verna’s body was found.
Denhardt was indicted for murder and in April 1937 he went on trial for first-degree murder.
“I told the coroner that I could not have killed her,” Denhardt told a hostile courtroom filled with Verna’s relatives and friends. “I loved her too much.”
On May 6, after deliberating for 20 hours over two days, it appeared that the jury had reached some sort of decision.
“First inkling that the jurors would issue a report came when it was noticed through the unwashed windows of their second floor conference room that all of them kept their hats on when they came to court this morning,” the United Press reporter wrote.
Unfortunately, the jurors reported to the judge that they had deadlocked and he ordered a mistrial.
On September 21, 1937, Denhardt was reluctantly back in Shelbyville for his retrial when he and attorney Myers left the lawyer’s office and headed back to the Armstrong Hotel.
“Look out, General!” Myers recalled saying. “There’s the Garr brothers!”
The three brothers stepped from a parked car while Denhardt ran toward the hotel. He had good reason to fear the three men. During the first trial, they reportedly never took their eyes off the defendant.
As Denhardt reached for the doorknob of the hotel’s entrance, seven shots rang out, striking the general in the head and back.
Jack, Roy, and E.S. Garr surrendered immediately. Roy admitted firing all of the shots, but his revolver held only five bullets. Two other bullets were fired by E.S. Garr, who was repeatedly described as a “shell-shocked” veteran.
“He often suffers from extreme nervousness,” family members told the press.
Jack and Roy were indicted for murder and E.S. was voluntarily committed to a sanitarium.
Within a month, Jack and Roy went on trial in Shelbyville.
Their defense was that they shot in self-defense because they saw Denhardt reach for something in his pocket. A town marshal who was first on the scene claimed that Denhardt clenched a handkerchief, while Myer testified that he saw nothing of the sort. The undertaker who prepared Denhardt’s body said he found three handkerchiefs — two in pockets and one “loose.”
The facts of the shooting were only secondary in the Garr trial. The arguments to the jury were all about “the right to draw” and a family’s right to avenge a wrong. Before the summations, the judge tossed the charges against Jack, who was not armed that night.
“Roy Garr shot General Denhardt not in self-defense, or because he was crazy at the moment,” argued Kentucky Attorney General Hubert Meredith, who was serving as special prosecutor. “It was because he had to avenge the death of his sister.”
Defense counsel Ballard Clark did not dispute the motive.
“He shot a mad dog,” Clark told the jury. “I say he had a right to.”
Clark’s co-counsel was even more melodramatic.
“Send that man (Roy Garr) back home to his sick wife and old mother and the sun will shine bright again in my old Kentucky home,” he said. “It isn’t a shame that Kentuckians are quick on the draw. It’s an honor sometime.”
After an hour and 15 minutes of deliberation, much to the delight of the crowd, the jurors acquitted Roy Garr of any wrongdoing.