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MY WORD: The shooting of Gen. Denhardt is one of Shelby's biggest stories

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By Don Armstrong

Henry H. Denhardt, a former adjutant general and a lieutenant governor of Kentucky, was charged in 1936 for the murder of his girlfriend, Verna Garr Taylor of Henry County.

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A trial took place in Henry County on April 20, 1937. More than 1,000 people gathered for the trial, with entertainment and refreshments being offered on the courthouse lawn.

It ended in a hung jury, and a retrial was scheduled on Sept. 21, 1937.

On the night before the retrial, Election Day, 1937, Denhardt met with his attorneys, including Rodes K. Meyers, at the Armstrong Hotel in Shelbyville to discuss the trial’s strategy, and then he walked to a nearby tavern. 

When he left the tavern to return to the hotel, Denhardt was gunned down by Verna Taylor’s brothers, E.S., Jack and Roy Garr. 

The Garr brothers turned themselves in and later were cleared of all charges.  Roy claimed self-defense, and E. S. claimed mental illness. Roy was unarmed.

It is one of the most famous stories in Shelbyville’s long history, featured in Lifeand Timemagazines.

 

Taylor’s death

The corpse of Denhardt’s 40-year-old fiancée, called the "most beautiful woman in two counties," had been found with a bullet through the heart with his .45-caliber revolver lying nearby,

Denhardt, 60, declared he had not fired a gun for six months. He suggested the matter was a suicide.

Paraffin tests for traces of nitrates from gunpowder were made of both their hands. Coroner D. L. Ricketts of La Grange announced that the tests indicated Taylor had not recently fired a gun but that Denhardt had.

Ricketts further announced that stains found on the road 410 feet from Taylor's body had been made by human blood, and that stains found on the coat worn by Denhardt the night of her death had also been made by human blood.

“Damn what the coroner says!" yelled Denhardt in the Louisville hotel room where, freed on $25,000 bail after arrest for Taylor's murder, where he had secluded himself under a nurse's care.

"The prosecution has said from the beginning," declared one of Denhardt’s lawyers during the trial, "that General Denhardt shot Mrs. Taylor when she told him she could not go through with their marriage as planned. The truth of the matter is that Mrs. Taylor was begging the General to marry her. He will tell the truth about this when the day of his trial comes."

"Mrs. Taylor's daughters," Coroner Ricketts countered, "are prepared to testify that their mother told them Denhardt had threatened her several times when she tried to break off their affair. The Taylor daughters will say that the General told their mother, 'If you don't marry me, you won't marry anyone!'"

 

High-profile case

Sheriff Evan Harrod of Henry County: "Because of the intense feeling against the General and the murmuring that some of Mrs. Taylor's kinfolk are preparing for any emergency, we are going to be ready to repel any attempt against Denhardt’s life."

New Castle's packed courtroom was surrounded by state police and deputy sheriffs when General Denhardt, 6 feet 2, inches, 220 pounds and a veteran of three wars, appeared for an examining trial.

Denhardt had earned a law degree from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., and served as a prosecutor and later as a judge in Warren County. He led a volunteer company in the Spanish-American War, and in 1916 he served with Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing in the expedition against Pancho Villa.

During World War I he fought on the Western Front and earned a commendation for valor.

After the war, Denhardt returned to Kentucky and his law practice. In 1923, he turned to politics. In a hard-fought campaign, Denhardt defeated the Republican candidate Ellerbe Carter to serve as lieutenant governor under Gov. William J. Fields.

Four years later, he made a bid for the governorship but lost in a contentious Democratic primary.

Denhardt served as adjutant general of Kentucky under Gov. Ruby Lafoon, from April of 1932 to January 1936. He also served as U.S. property and disbursing officer and left the position as a brigadier general.

 

The trial

George Baker, the farmer who had pushed the General's stalled car into his driveway and later heard two shots, took the stand.

The first shot, Baker said, had sounded "awful loud, awful near." He had gone out in the yard, had glimpsed Denhardt standing by his car, then heard a second shot, "like a popgun or a .22 rifle."  Denhardt had explained that Taylor had gone up the road to look for her glove.

A few minutes later two messengers from town had driven up with a new battery for the General's car. "Mr. Denhardt said," Baker continued, "'my, my, ain't that awful? She was the finest woman I ever knew.' While they were fixing the automobile, he said that several times."

The jury couldn’t decide what to believe, and then, before Denhardt could be tried a second time, he was shot in front of the Armstrong Hotel, on the south side of Main Street, between 6th and 7th streets, in Shelbyville.

When the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1944, the owners decided not to rebuild. A historical plaque marks the spot.

No one ever has figured out if Denhardt was the real murderer of Verna Garr Taylor. She is buried in the Valley of Rest Cemetery in La Grange.

 

Don Armstrong, not related to the hotel, lives in Shelby County.