The Bobbed-Hair Scandal




Patricia Brashear


Ben Luntz



       Of all the odd and peculiar things that have ever happened in Letcher County, perhaps one of the strangest was the “Bobbed-Hair Scandal.” How a simple hair-do could ignite such a firestorm of controversy is still something that strains the imagination, and if someone were to relate such a story without the documentation to back it up, they would justifiably be considered a little strange or just plain foolish. Not only did this racket consume Letcher County, but it spread like wild-fire all the way to the Halls of State Government, and in the end it drew the Governor himself into the fray. 

      It is best to let the newspapers of the time tell this remarkable story. Below we see the story as it unfolded and progressed to its end.



Reprint of an article from the May 29, 1926 Louisville, Kentucky, Courier Journal.




Fields Orders Release of  Letcher County Miss From Jail.


     Frankfort, Ky., May 28.–Governor Fields of  Kentucky, today ordered the Letcher County Jailer,  to release bobbed-haired, 20 year-old Miss Martha Bates from jail.

      She slapped a minister who was reported to have said the bobbed-haired style was ruining the world.

     The Governor telegraphed Fess Whitaker, the jailer, that he had granted a ninety-day stay of execution of the unsatisfied portion of the jail sentence of fourty days and “hereby direct that she be immediately released from custody on her recognizance.”


Formal Note Written.


      He then has Miss. Cora Morehead, herself bobbed-haired, Kentucky’s first pardon commissioner, write out the formal notice to officials of  Letcher County, staying the sentence.




Fields Orders Release of  Letcher County Miss From Jail.




      He noted Miss Bates’ conviction for assault on the person of Reverend Arlie Brown, rendered by a Circuit Court jury, May 15, when the mountain girl immediately began serving time in the county jail. 

     “It is my information that the assault was provoked by the unwarranted and unjust criticism on the part of the said Rev. Arlie Brown, from the pulpit, of all women who wear bobbed hair.” the Governor’s stay declared.

      He granted the stay, “in order to make an investigation of this case, and to ascertain whether I am correctly with reference hereto.”


Of Prominent Family.   


     Miss Bates is a Whitesburg  girl of prominent family. She attended church at Thornton Gap near there, in February. The Rev. Mr. Brown, Millstone, a substitute preacher, spoke of bobbed haired women as headed for hell, she said. The slapping almost caused a general fight in the church. The members of the congregation crowded about the pulpit, the girl’s friends on one side, the minister’s on the other.

     Many stood with hands on hip pockets and the minister “figured they had guns and knew how to use them.”

       While Mr. Brown said he made no reference to bobbed haired women in general, Miss Bates in a statement to the Associated Press from Whitesburg tonight, said:

       “I walked over to where he was standing and asked him if he meant in his talk that all women that wore bobbed hair were lewd women, and he said that’s gospel, and then I slapped him as hard as I possibly could. I told him it wasn’t hair that makes the woman.

       We must fight the battle against such devils. If we bobbed haired women had a union, we could get rid of such talk.”


Now In Louisville.


     The Rev. Mr. Brown was reported to have said he was not going back to Thorton’s Gap, scene of the disturbance. He has gone to Louisville, 300 miles from the scene.

        Meanwhile in Newport, Ky., 150 miles north of Whitesburg and its mountain county bordering the Virginia line in Southeastern Kentucky, the boss barbers have been obtaining more than 200 signatures for a petition for pardon from the Governor. 

     The petition, however, has not reached the Executive office.


End of article.


Reprint of an article from the May 30, 1926 Louisville, Kentucky, Courier Journal.




Frankfort Girls Subscribe to Fund As Fields Probes Letcher County Case.


      Frankfort, Ky., May 29.–Governor Fields today reserved public expression as to his stay of execution of the forty-day jail sentence given Miss. Martha Bates, of Letcher County, for slapping a preacher who had made uncomplimentary remarks about bobbed hair. 

       The Governor, it is understood, plans to go to Letcher County to make a personal investigation of the court procedure. He said he would reserve expression until he had made an investigation. Upon learning of the sentence Gov. Fields issued a stay for ninety days.

       Bobbed-haired girls employed in the State House and some of the State officials have subscribed to a fund to be used for any necessary expenses for litigation in connection with Miss Bates’ case.

      Miss Bates, in a statement from Whitesburg, today advocated a union for bobbed haired women. “Bobbed hair is worn by many in the interest of sanitation and cleanliness,” she said.

      The Rev. Mr. Brown, the preacher in the case, has gone to Louisville from his church at Thorton’s Gap. 

       John A, Goodman, clerk of the Court of Appeals, decided to send a petition to the daily newspapers at Louisville with requests that popular subscriptions be limited to $1.


End of article.


      The incident of the “Bobbed-Hair Scandal” would eventually be forgotten and the only vestige of it was mentioned in the writings of old John Lucas. Below we see what he had to say about Martha Bates and the “Bobbed-Hair Scandal.”


Quote from John Lucas: 

       Martha Bates was a cousin of the writer (John Lucas), and in her younger days was a terror. First she of course had boy friends like most girls, and she was in the fights and scraps. She one time shot Willie Lucas, and a preacher named Brown that preached at Thorton Gap Church that was then located in Thorton Gap, preached about women having their hair cut short, and against them having their locks trimmed, with much criticism. After church was dismissed the crowd came outside and the preacher also. Martha walked up to him and hit him a good hard lick.  

 End of quote.


    Governor Fields, who was, at least in the beginning, completely unaware that nearly all the women who worked in his office wore their hair in the “bobbed-hair’ fashion, was soon to be won over to the  “bobbed-hair” cause. He really had no choice in the matter, and although the public outrage he expressed may or may not have been sincere,  his desperate need to placate and satisfy his office staff certainly was, for without them his active participation in State Government would have come to a halt.       Reverend Brown, apparently a man ignorant of the nuances of mountain culture, misjudged the reaction of a young, tough, mountain woman and paid a heavy price. His only recourse in the end was to get out of  Dodge City and stay out of  Dodge City.  He, greatly humbled,  retreated to Louisville where he licked his wounds and tried to put the whole, unfortunate incident behind him; and that was the end of that.


Notes From Patty Brashear:

Martha J. Bates was born 6 Apr 1903 d/o Benjamin Emmett & Margaret (Lucas) Bates.  Benjamin Emmett Bates was a s/o Jesse & Elizabeth (Asbury) Bates.  Jessee Bates was a s/o John Wallis & Sarah (Waldrup Bates. 

Margaret Lucas was a d/o Aaron & Eliza (Vanover) Lucas.

This reference to the enclosed article is from "Recollections - Concerning Letcher County Families and Various Happenings" by John Lucas and written during 1964-65 and presented to Mrs. Harry M. Caudill for the Letcher Co. Historical Society. 

"BATES - Martha Bates was a Cousin of the Writer, and in her younger das was a Teror, first she of course had Boy friends like most Girls, and she in the fights and scraps she had one time shot Willie Lucas, and a Preacher named Brown that preached in Thornton Gap, Church that was then located in Thornton Gap, about Woman having their locks trimed.  with much Critisism, after Church was dismised and the crowd came outside and the Preacher also, Martha, walked up to him and hit a good hard lick.  Then I went to New Albany, Ind, where she had went to make her home, and I had heard of her doeings in New Albany, the first time I was in New Albany, as I knowed she had a Poliece record, and I wanted to find her I went to the Poliece Department and ask the man sitting at the Desk for her address,.. and the city Detective hunted in a lot of files and couldent find anything about her.  And said they hadent had anything on her for nine years, and I came home, and ask her Brother for her address, and they gave it to me and she was living on Main Street in New Albany right under the Poliece's nose.  the next time i went to New Albany, I found her, clerking in a Store. and I was Pleased to see her.  And more pleased when she had me go home with her for Dinner.  And when we sat down at the table she bowed her head and returned thanks.  The Poliece toled me that when she got on a drunk it took four men to put her in Jail.  Then in 1936, she came to Neon, and got on a whiz.  I dident know she was around untill some one toled me that she was in the City Jail.  The Poliece Judge toled me that it took four men to put her in the Jail hears. and she had lost one shoe. went out and saw the Poliece Judge. and he turned her over to me and I took her to my house.  This last incident was also before she had given her life over to God.  She was a holly Teror, and a shame, but she was now something to be proud of.

Social Security Death records for Martha J. Bates  show she was born 6 April 1903 and died August 1979, New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana. 


By: Patty Brashear & Ben Luntz

The material on this webpage holds a copyright © 2010 by  Benjamin Luntz,

Nancy Wright Bays &  Patty May Brashear

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