Tennessee Mountain Stories

Dillam and Bohn Feud

Dillam and Bohn Feud as presented in The Land of Saddlebags

Tom Dillam, a wealthy land owner, married John Bohn’s daughter, who soon left him.  One day Mrs. Dillam angrily returned to her husband’s farm and took one of her aprons from a woman working in the field.  Dillam went to recover it, quarreled with her, and shot his father-in-law, killing him instantly.  Dillam baffled the courts for many years by shrewdness and intimidation.  He armed and incited his relatives and friends till he had behind him a whole band of arrogant outlaws.  In 1885, Bohn’s son William had a dispute over timber with Tom’s brother, George Dillam, who, knowing the band would back him, became insolent.  Bohn armed himself with a Winchester and soon met George Dillam similarly armed.  Both darted behind trees and began firing.  Dillam was killed.  Bohn, wounded, ran for shelter, but was killed by George’s brothers, Sam and Curt.

One of the Bohn’s friends was now drawn into the feud, Lem Buffum.  He had married a sister of George and Sam Dillam.  But the Dillam band were bitter against him because of his former friendship with Bohn.  There was a dance on Christmas night at which two of the Dillam band who had been drinking sought a quarrel with Buffum.  Suddenly it blazed forth, and when the smoke cleared, the two lay dead upon the floor.  Buffum fled to a neighboring state.  His brother-in-law, Sam Dillam, followed him relentlessly.  Once he grazed Buffum’s head with a rifle ball.  Again, reckless with drink, Sam taunted and threatened him.  Buffum, suspecting an ambush, cautiously retreated, Sam following.  When Buffum reached home, he turned, and as soon as Sam entered his lot, he killed him.  Buffum wished to surrender to the officers, but neither they nor the courts would protect him.  That would be merely to invite assassination, unarmed.

The Dillams began a reign of terror.  They threatened every Buffum sympathizer, riddled their houses with bullets or killed them outright.  Buffum’s aged mother was conveyed across the river by Jack Smith, who was thereupon waylaid and killed.  Jake Kimbrell, another friend, was seized at a dance and held fast while one of the band killed him.

But they were carrying things too far.  Ab Dillam, a brother of Tom, would not help to hunt Buffum.  Ab’s son, Jesse, had married Buffum’s sister.  In his absence, his house was riddled with bullets, but his wife and children escaped.  The camp of civil engineers surveying for a new railway was raided.  Nobody was safe.  The Governor, when asked for troops, refused to send them, because the sheriff had not made any attempt to capture the murderers with a posse of citizens.  But the citizens knew that unless they killed or captured all the outlaws, their families would be attacked, their homes burned, and they themselves constantly ambushed.

The judge called for fifty militiamen; fifteen responded.  With this puny force, the sheriff started out.  A lad on horseback saw the officers and gave the alarm.  The outlaws escaped into adjacent hilly woods.  The sheriff retreated, fearing an ambush.  He left seven men at Jesse Dillam’s house to guard it till Jesse could move his family to a safe distance.  Within an hour they were surrounded, the outlaws creeping close through high corn.  Jesse sent away his wife and children, and all started for a neighbor’s log house, which would better resist attack.  They never reached it.  One was killed instantly, one fled, and the rest, badly wounded managed to escape.  The outlaws planned an attack upon the county seat, where the wounded men were, but the activities of the sheriff deterred them.  Various attempts at arrest were, however, futile.

Circuit Court soon met, and Tom and Curt Dillam were arrested, but Tom was released on $5,000 bail.  Thus have Mountain courts, badgered by unscrupulous lawyers, “protected” innocent citizens from desperadoes.  Some weeks later Tom Dillam was walking toward the courthouse with his lawyer, followed by his lieutenant and another man.  When opposite the house where their wounded victims were, they started across the street, drawing their pistols.  The lawyer fortunately walked on.  The outlaws had scarcely reached the middle of the street when a terrific fire poured upon them.  Tom Dillam fell, pierced by sixteen bullets.  Jesse Dillam, Buffum, and their friends had been secretly warned and were ready.

With the death of Tom Dillam, people breathed more freely.  But the poison, of course, had entered into the fabric of the community.  Accustomed so long to no constraint of the law or duty, these men grew brutally arrogant and cruel.  Tom Dillam’s son, now the leader of the band, wishing to remove a rival, gave one of his band twenty dollars and a gun to kill him.  The slyest of the band planned the murder.  He knew that a young woman had invited the victim to supper on a certain evening.  Accordingly, he also secured an invitation from the young woman for that same evening.   While the party was gathering around the dining-table, he slipped back into the parlor and pinned back the heavy window curtains.  After super the victim stepped into the parlor and was instantly shot by someone outside the window.  The community was indignant, and the criminals were hunted down; some of them were killed, the rest were captured.

But even when such flagrant criminals were captured, punishment was not at all certain.  Curt Dillam was released on bail, but his body was found shortly after in the woods.  Doubtless he was shot by someone who was disgusted with “the law’s delays” and afraid that the released outlaw would seek vengeance on those that had given testimony against him.