In every one of us there is a constant battle between our better angels and our pesky demons. Most of the time the conflicts are insignificant. Sometimes they aren’t.
This is the story of Claude D. Borders, who was a hero of Kentucky’s worst mining disaster before he became a bad guy a few years later — and ultimately wound up a victim. Just like the toddler he killed.
He was born Aug. 9, 1881, in Webster County and was a foreman in the No. 7 mine of the West Kentucky Coal Co. near Clay when it exploded the morning of Aug. 4, 1917. He was credited with saving 43 lives by forcing miners to wall up the entry where they were working and lie down on the floor of the mine to get breathable air.
He was an experienced miner at that time, and threats were required in some instances to keep some miners from attempting to force their way out through poisonous gases. As a result, all were saved when rescue crews finally reached them 3.5 hours later.
Newspapers of that period reported Borders was greeted by wives and children of rescued miners as the hero of the explosion after they emerged.
The mine foreman probably deserved those accolades for his cool head. That mine explosion trapped 200 men and killed 62. It was Kentucky’s worst coal mine disaster; a historical marker in remembrance of it was placed at the Clay City Hall Oct. 4, 2019.
Four years after the mine disaster Borders became the subject of an intensive manhunt. While driving with his wife, Georgia, toward the Henderson downtown on Sept. 15, 1921, he struck and killed 2-year-old Buren C. Porter at the corner of Washington and Julia streets. Borders sped away without stopping.
Henderson County had seen fewer than a dozen traffic fatalities up to that point, and no hit-and-run fatalities involving children, so it was big news.
The toddler, the youngest of Audie and Bertha Porter’s six children, had been playing in the gutter. According to witnesses, his head was crushed and body mangled; he lived about two hours while doctors were preparing to operate.
The speed limit in that residential section was 15 mph at the time. Witness estimates of Borders’ speed ranged from 30 to 40 mph, according to The Gleaner of Sept. 16. Follow-up articles ran Sept. 17 and 18, and in the latter police said they believed they knew who had been driving the car.
Borders, a Madisonville resident, had been identified by his distinctive vehicle, which had the name of the car on the spare tire wheel cover. He had probably the only Velie Six in the Tri-State area. They’re not very common — only 230 are known to exist nowadays — but they were a fine automobile made between 1908 and 1928 in Moline, Illinois, by Willard Velie, John Deere’s grandson.
When the U.S. Navy tested the engines of 76 car manufacturers in 1922 to see which ones would be best suited for airplane engines, the only U.S. models to make the cut were Velie, Duesenberg and Packard. That’s some prestigious company.
Borders apparently was proud of his powerful car and made sure everyone knew it, often opening his cutout so the engine exhaust would bypass the muffler. People who didn’t know his name nonetheless knew his car and the noise it made.
The Gleaner of Sept. 18, 1921, reported police saying they thought he had left the state. “Feeling against the driver is high in Henderson on account of the statements of witnesses who described the excessive speed and recklessness of the man at the wheel.”
(It’s worth noting that Borders may not have been entirely reckless. An oncoming truck may have drawn his attention so that he did not notice the toddler in the gutter.)
The Gleaner of Sept. 21 reported the Kiwanis Club had passed a resolution asking the mayor and police force to strictly enforce the traffic laws; “that reckless driving at a high rate of speed and with cutouts open be carefully watched by the officers of the city.”
The Gleaner of Sept. 25 reported Borders had been apprehended and tried on the speeding charge. He did not take the witness stand. He was fined $100, the maximum allowable, and bound over to the October grand jury. Meantime, he was freed on $750 bond.
Borders was indicted Oct. 13 and his two-day trial was held Jan. 10-11, 1922, according to court records. A jury found him guilty of manslaughter and recommended the minimum sentence of two years in prison.
I can’t give you much detail about the trial because the microfilmed Gleaner from that period is illegible.
The foreman of the jury apparently was not particularly well educated. The verdict found “Clawd Bordes Gilty of Volintary Man Slawghtor and fix his Punishment at two year in the State Pentintary.” The latter half of the word “penitentiary” was written in a different hand, indicating the foreman needed some help spelling that one.
Borders asked for a new trial, claiming one of the jurors — prior to the trial — had said any man who would run over a child and not stop deserved electrocution or hanging. The request was denied and Borders went off to the castle on the Cumberland in Eddyville for two years.
His wife Georgia died in a fire in Central City on Jan. 25, 1925. Her death certificate, which contains no mention of Claude, says she was a “sales lady.”
On Dec. 1, 1933, Claude married Alice Marsh of Nortonville, where he was living at the time because he was foreman of the Mannington Coal Co. mine.
The following week, about 1:30 in the morning on Dec. 10, Borders was walking along what is now U.S. 41-Alternate one mile north of Mannington when he was struck and killed by a truck hauling pecans from Georgia to Chicago.
The 52-year-old was on his way home to his new bride when he met the same fate as the boy he had run over 12 years earlier.
75 YEARS AGO
The Henderson City Commission sold the city’s interest in the old pest farm, according to The Gleaner of Sept. 17, 1946.
The 24-acre parcel was on the north side of what is now Kentucky 351, about 2.5 miles east of town. It was a place where smallpox victims could be quarantined until they stopped showing symptoms. The city and county governments had been half-owners of the farm since 1899.
Also, The Gleaner of Sept. 15 noted the Corydon community had posted a $100 reward for the apprehension of whoever had set fire to a church revival tent, which had been set up on Main Street.
A piano and several chairs were lost along with the tent.
50 YEARS AGO
Two temporary classrooms were set up at Seventh Street Elementary School, according to The Gleaner of Sept. 15, 1971, and they were a big hit with teachers and students.
“They are clean, quiet, cool and comfortable,” said teacher Linda Jackson. “They are just ideal rooms for teaching and the children love them.”
That’s probably because they were air conditioned. Up to that point, there had been no air conditioning in the old Seventh Street Elementary School.
“They are about 24 feet by 32 feet – larger than our average classroom,” said principal Kenneth Middleton.
Members of the fourth grade had moved in Sept. 10 and were virtually unanimous in their approval – especially about the air conditioning.
25 YEARS AGO
Matthew 25 AIDS Services first came to the general public’s attention when an article written by Judy Jenkins appeared in The Gleaner Sept. 11, 1996. At that point, the organization had a dozen charter members, eight of whom had received training to be “buddy volunteers” with AIDS patients.
“Cyndee Burton, a local registered nurse who is volunteer coordinator for the group that has become active in recent months, says the organization was first proposed (in 1995) when Zion United (Church of Christ) lost four AIDS patients who had been affiliated with the church.”
Burton has been the long-time administrator of the agency, which has expanded dramatically and became a separate non-profit organization in 1999. It currently has offices in Henderson, Owensboro, Evansville and Bowling Green and has greatly expanded the range of services provided.
An accompanying article reported that an AIDS awareness walk was scheduled for Sept. 28, 1996, which would begin at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, wind through the downtown, and finish at Zion UCC.
Readers of The Gleaner can reach Frank Boyett at YesNews42@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @BoyettFrank.
Read More: Former hero became a villain when he struck and killed a child