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Kentucky by Heart: Inventor of submachine gun was NKy native; finding strength in challenging times

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

Although not a gun enthusiast myself, I recently noticed while perusing a resource I use regularly, The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, that the inventor of the famous Thompson submachine gun was born in Newport in 1860. I was intrigued with that finding.

Brigadier General John Taliaferro Thompson was his U.S. Army rank and name, and he was nicknamed “Tommy Gun,” as was the gun he created.

Wikipedia called the gun “a signature weapon of various crime syndicates in the United States…a common sight in the media at the time, being used by both law enforcement officers and criminals.” Other names for the iconic weapon, the site mentioned, were “Annihilator,” “Chicago Typewriter,” “Chicago Piano,” “Chicago Style,” “Chicago Organ Grinder,” “Trench Broom,” “Trench Sweeper,” “The Chopper,” and “The Thompson.”

Thompson showcasing a gun (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Although Thompson moved from Northern Kentucky after his early years, his familial ties to the area were deeply-rooted. His mother, Julia Maria Taliaferro, was a member of a prominent Campbell County family. Dr. Thomas was an ancestor and first medical doctor in Newport, and another, James Taylor Jr., was given credit as founder of Newport. And, Thompson’s parents met when his father was stationed at the once strategic military installation, the Newport Barracks.

After a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, including being a high-ranking graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he resigned in 1914 to engage his skills in ordnance and logistics with the private sector. He carried a strong passion, according to the Encyclopedia, to “develop a better gun for the foot soldier, whose weapon had not been substantially improved in 40 years.” He joined the Remington Arms Company and made a significant impact when he directed the construction of two new small arms factories.

However, when World War I broke out, Thompson reentered the Army with the rank of brigadier general. With his authority, he orchestrated a move to manufacture newer, improved rifles to use in the War, and it made a positive difference for American soldiers in Europe.

After again stepping down from military service, Thompson started his own company, called the Auto-Ordnance Corporation. From that platform, he invented his famous Tommy Gun, and, as the Encyclopedia termed it, made “warfare never the same again.” Sadly, the military was not the only user of the weapon for destruction, as America’s underworld—at least to a certain extent, embraced it also.

Ironically, Thompson’s son, a vice-president of his father’s company, was falsely indicted in the early 1920s for sending illegal machine guns to Ireland. He was cleared when another vice-president of the company—known as a supporter of Irish independence—turned out to be the guilty party.

Thompson died in 1940 and was buried at the U.S. Military Academy in New York. The ultimate merits—good or bad–of introducing the Tommy gun to the world will likely be long debated, but there is no doubt that this Newport native had a significant historical influence stretching worldwide.

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It was an optimistic time for me.  After teaching twenty mostly gratifying years in the Clark County school system in Winchester — and being mostly well-received, I think — I was confident and ready to try another teaching challenge, one that I hoped would fully engage me until retirement in less than a decade.  The new position was as a fourth-grade teacher in a creative and performing arts magnet school in next door Fayette County.  The school had a reputation for wonderful parent involvement and high achievement scores, and it promised to be an exciting place to redirect my career efforts.

I was pumped. 

And after some early struggles while learning a new school protocol and getting used to spending more time with after school activities, the new endeavor became what I thought—exhilarating.  The experience consumed my time, mostly in a good way, and the decision to leave a good place for another promising opportunity seemed to be confirmed. 

But things happen that are not expected, and seemingly out of nowhere, a figurative lightning bolt hit my new school community.  My fourth-grade teacher colleague, the beloved Kay Collins, died unexpectedly on March 2 of that year, a shocker to all in what was an extraordinarily close-knit school.

I won’t forget the pathos for all of us involved with finishing that school year.  A lingering cloud of sadness engulfed students, teachers and parents as we collectively pushed toward salvaging a catastrophic school year that involved the impending, crucial and always stressful academic testing. 

During the process, most of the adults dealt with our intense private grief singularly.  Sometimes we stopped what we were doing and shared with others, but mostly we put our feelings aside and dealt with the very practical situation at hand.  We had to “do school.”  First, there were the kids, especially fourth graders; we needed to observe them carefully for their emotional responses to the experience.  Next, the school’s regular academic program, except for a few adjustments the state education department gave us, would continue.  It was especially hard for Jo Ann Spivey, the teacher suddenly asked to replace Kay Collins to finish the year.  Whether we felt like it or not, both teachers and parents had to push ahead under very difficult terrain — and yes, that meant children accepting a good portion of the hardship, too.  Most did, and they often encouraged the adults.  Each person knew intuitively they had a part to play.

I, or rather “we,” survived that school year, bruised and beaten, yet likely a bit stronger.  We had watched over each other, though often from a distance.   The really strong ones modeled tough resolve; I like to say we rose above our circumstances.  Most of us now have a perspective from those dark days — hopefully for the good — that we can offer others.  Truly, we found strength being together engaged in a common goal and hopefully helped raise the character levels of others by our individual examples.  We found that a deep down will and passion to overcome was possible and even doable — at least in that place and time.

Oh, I so wish that America, in this time of severe political and sometimes cultural divisiveness, can find a way to overcome and move toward a workable unity in spirit.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

To read more of Flairty’s Kentucky by Heart series on KyForward, click here.

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