New re-enactment events mark 80-year-old murder, trials

SHELBYVILLE — An 80-year-old murder and willful murder trials will play out on the streets and in the old courthouse of Shelbyville, when the Friends of Grove Hill Cemetery re-enact the two events. Inspired by Ann DAngelo’s 2016 book, Dark Highway: Love, Murder and Revenge in 1930s Kentucky, the organization will present the Denhardt Murder Re-enactment and the Garr Brothers Willful Murder Trials Re-enactment in partnership with the award-winning Shelby County Community Theatre. Re-enactment scripts were created from first-hand accounts of the events, newspaper quotes from eyewitnesses and trial transcripts.

Ripped from the front pages of newspapers across America 80 years ago, the reports of the murder of Verna Garr Taylor, “reputedly the prettiest woman in Oldham and Henry counties” in Kentucky, held the country rapt. Taylor was the alleged fiancé of Kentucky’s former lieutenant governor, veteran of three wars and, “above all, an ‘outlander,’” Brigadier General Henry H. Denhardt — her accused killer. The evidence? Taylor died from a bullet from Denhardt’s army gun the night the two went riding together.

The entire country remained transfixed, first by the news of Verna’s murder, then by that of her accused killer, then by the ensuing trial of brothers Jack, Roy and Dr. E.S. (Doc) Garr. Headlines tantalized readers for nearly a year, from Nov. 6, 1936, when Taylor’s body was discovered, through Oct. 23, 1937, the day of her brothers’ acquittal when a crowd gathered in the streets of Shelbyville. Even Hollywood director and producer D.W. Griffith came to town to witness what was then considered the trial of the century.

On Sept. 23, Denhardt’s murder was re-enacted on Shelbyville’s Main Street. Eighty years ago, according to one newspaper account, “in the dim light of the street lamps, he encountered the Garrs, brothers of the slain beauty. Seven shots were fired, and Denhardt fell dead at the steps of his hotel.”

On Oct. 27 and 28, the Garr Brothers Willful Murder Trials — considered by some to be among the most bizarre of the 20th century — will be re-enacted at the old Shelby County Circuit Court at 501 Main Street — in the very courtroom where they were held in 1937. Court House doors open at 6 p.m. and visitors can see exhibits by various organizations, including the Shelby County Historical Society, which is assisting this event. Courtroom doors for the re-enactment open at 7 pm.; trial begins at 8 p.m.

“The re-enactments are part of Friends of Grove Hill Cemetery’s annual tribute to residents of Grove Hill Cemetery,” said Bonnie Burks Gray, organizer. “We are telling the stories of Shelby Countians, who were the defending lawyers, arresting officer, attending physician, presiding judge, county prosecuting attorney and others involved in those events of 1937 and who now reside in Grove Hill.

“Murder is tragic and we aren’t glorifying it in the re-enactments,” she added. “We are portraying how a series of chance happenings changed lives and impacted people for generations.”

Interestingly, some of the re-enactors are descendants of those involved and now at rest in Grove Hill Cemetery. Mayor Tom Hardesty portrays his grandfather, Harry Flood, who was the proprietor of the Armstrong Hotel, on whose steps Denhardt died. Mike Tracy, owner of Tracy’s Home Furnishings, portrays his grandfather – the arresting officer at the scene of Denhardt’s murder. Stephen Collins portrays his grandfather, Everett Hall, who stunned the court with his testimony as Denhardt’s embalmer.

Was Denhardt guilty? Although accused, Denhardt was never convicted. The jury from his first trial could not decide on a verdict. Before sentencing occurred at his second trial, he was shot to death. The re-enactments will take the mystery out of some of the story but won’t solve the mystery of Verna’s death; however, when court reconvenes for the trial re-enactments, new insights will be presented about the man who died for that murder.

Tickets for the trial reenactments are available through Shelby County Community Theatre: https://shelbycountycommunitytheatre.thundertix.com/events/112055.

Visit Grove Hill Cemetery Friends Facebook page for updates on events. Tickets are general admission seating: $15/adults; $12/seniors; $10/students. Proceeds go to Friends of Grove Hill Cemetery, a non-profit auxiliary of Grove Hill Cemetery, for its restoration/preservation work in the nearly 165-year-old non-profit cemetery.