xt72v6986f2h https://exploreuk.uky.edu/dips/xt72v6986f2h/data/mets.xml Alexander, Gross, 1852-1915. 1888  books b92-53-27061911 English Press of the Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, : Louisville : Contact the Special Collections Research Center for information regarding rights and use of this collection. Holcombe, Steve P., 1835- City missions. Steve P. Holcombe, the converted gambler  : his life and work / by Rev. Gross Alexander ; introduction by Rev. Sam P. Jones. text Steve P. Holcombe, the converted gambler  : his life and work / by Rev. Gross Alexander ; introduction by Rev. Sam P. Jones. 1888 2002 true xt72v6986f2h section xt72v6986f2h  








       REV. SAM P. JoNES.






   Mrs. S. P. floleombe,






           IS DEDICATED.

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    CHAPTER I ....................

    CHAPTER II ...................

    CHAPTER III ...................

    CHAPTER IV ...................

    CHAPTER V ....................

    CHAPTER VI ...................






..........  I




.... .. 0..  02


.... - 125

....   1...173

...  ... 269

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   It has been thought and suggested by some of
those having knowledge of Mr. Holcombe's history,
that an account of his life and work in book-form
would multiply his usefulness and do good.  And
since the narration of his experiences by himself has
been of such great benefit to those who have been
privileged to hear him, why may not others also be
benefited by reading some account of his uncommon
   It is hoped that it will be of interest to the general
reader as a revelation and record of the workings and
struggles of some human hearts and the wretchedness
and blessedness of some human lives. It is a sort of
luxury to read about and sympathize with wretched-
ness, as it is a joy to see that wretchedness turned
to blessedness. It will show to those who are unwill-
ingly the slaves of sin what God has done for such as
they.  It will possibly interest and encourage those
who are engaged in Christian work. It may furnish
suggestions as to practical methods to be pursued
in working among poor and needy classes, whether
in towns or cities. Even ministers of the Gospel may
find encouragement and instruction in the experience
of Mr. Holcombe's life and the methods and successes
of his work.
   What few letters of Mr. Holcombe's could be
found are put in as showing phases of this interesting
character that could be shown as well no other way,
and some letters written to him are selected out of


several hundred of like character to show how he
touches ali classes of people.
    The "Testimonies" are from men who have been
rescued under Mr. Holcombe's ministry, and will give
some idea of the work that is being done.  These
are only a few of the men who have been brought
to a better and happier life through Mr. Holcombe's
efforts. If any should feel that there is a sameness
in these testimonies, which it is believed very few will
do, perhaps others will feel the cumulative effect of
line upon line, example upon example.
   The sermons or addresses are inserted because
they have been the means of awakening and guiding
many to salvation, and they may be of interest and
possibly of benefit to some who have not heard Mr.
Holcombe. They contain much of the history of his
inner life in statements of experience introduced by
way of illustration. They are given in outline only,
as will be seen.
   The book lays no claim to literary excellence.
The position and work of the man make his life
worth writing and reading apart from the style of
the book.
   The accounts here given of Mr. Holcombe's char-
acter and work are not written for the purpose of
glorifying him. Many of these pages are profoundly
painful and humiliating to him. But they are written
that those who read them may know from what depths
he has been brought, and to what blessedness he has
been raised, through Jesus Christ, to whose name the
glory is given and to whose blessing the book is
   AUGuJST, i 888.


                   BY REV. SAM P. JONES.
   The author of this volume, the Rev. Gross Alex-
ander, Professor of Theology in Vanderbilt University,
was surely the man to give to the world the Life of
Steve Holcombe. The warm heart and clear head of
the author, and the consecrated, self-denying life of the
subject of the volume, assure the reader ample compen-
sation for the time given to the book.
   Mr. Alexander has known Brother Holcombe from
the beginning of his Christian life, and tells the story
of his fidelity to Christ and loyalty to duty as no other
   I first met Brother Holcombe at Louisville, in the
year i882, when I was preaching in the church of his
pastor, Rev. J. C. Morris. It was from Brother Morris
that I learned of this consecrated layman. He often
told me with joy of many incidents connected with
the conversion and work of Brother Holcombe. My
acquaintance with him soon grew into a warm friend-
ship. It has always been an inspiration to me to talk
with him, and a source of gratitude to me to know that
I have his affection and prayers.
   The work he is doing now in the city of Louis-
ville, Kentucky, is very much like Jerry Macauley's
work in New York City years ago. No man has
experienced more vividly the power of Christ to save,
and no man has a stronger faith in Christ's ability to
save. Brother Holcombe's humility and fidelity have
made him a power in the work of rescuing the perish-


ing and saving the fallen. I have been charmed by
the purity of soul manifested by him on all occasions,
and his continual efforts to bring back those who
have been overtaken in a fault. Hundreds of men
who have felt his sympathizing arms about them and
listened to his brotherly words have grown strong,
because they had a friend and brother in Steve
Holcombe, who, in spite of their failures and faults,
has clung to them with a love like that which Christ
Himself manifested toward those who were as bruised
reeds and smoking flax.
   Brother Holcombe, rescued himself by the loving
hand of Christ, has extended the hand from a heart
full of love for Christ and men, and has done his best
to save all who have come under his influence.
   This volume will be especially instructive to those
who are interested in the salvation of the non-church-
goers of the great cities. For surely Brother Hol-
combe's Mission is a place where the worst sinners
hear of Christ's power to save, and where they see,
in Brother Holcombe himself, with his rich experience,
one of the greatest triumphs of the Gospel.
   I heartily commend this volume to all Christian
people, because it tells of the life of a saved man. It
tells also what a saved man can do for others, and it
will inspire many hearts with sympathy for such work
and prepare many hands to help in it. I heartily
commend this book because it is the biography of
one whom I love and whom all men would love, if they
knew him in his devotion to God and duty. Brother
Holcombe has frequently been with me in my meetings
and in my private room; I have frequently been with

                      INTRODUCTION.                  Xi

him in his Mission, in his family circle, on the streets
of the great cities, and he is one man of whom it may
be said: "His conversation is in heaven." I frequently
feel that my own life would have been more successful
with such a fervent consecration to my work as Brother
Steve Holcombe exemplifies.
   The sermons contained in this volume will be read
with interest. They are his sermons. They come
from his heart, and they have reached the hearts of
hundreds and thousands who have heard him gladly.
   I bespeak for the book a circulation which will
put it into the library of all pastors and into thousands
of homes.                            SAM P. JONES.
   CARTERSVILLE, GA., October i8, i888.

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    I have read with very great interest the " Life of
Steve Holcombe," and have carefully looked through
the letters, testimonies and sermons to be included in
the proposed volume, and I rejoice that it is to be
published. Professor Alexander, who was Mr. Hol-
combe's first pastor, has written the life with the best
use of his fine literary gifts, and with sound judgment
and good taste. It is a wonderful story. I have long
felt interest in Mr. Holcombe and his work, for after
beginning his Mission he attended my seminary lessons
in the New Testament through a session and more;
but this record of his life warms my heart still more
toward him and his remarkable labors of love. I
think the book will be very widely read.  It will
stir Christians to more hopeful efforts to save the
most wicked. It will encourage many a desperate
wanderer to seek the grace of God in the Gospel.
Such a book makes a real addition to the "evidences
of Christianity." No one can read it without feeling
that Christian piety is something real and powerful
and delightful. Much may be learned from Mr. Hol-
combe's recorded methods and discourses, and from
the testimonies of his converts, as to the best means
of carrying on religious work of many kinds. The
book will, doubtless, lead to the establishment of like
Missions in other cities, and put new heart and hope
into the pastors, missionaries and every class of Chris-
tian workers. It will show that zeal and love and
faith must be supported by ample common sense and

force of character, as in Mr. Holcombe's case, if great
results are to hoped for. Many persons can be induced
to read his brief outline sermons who would never
look at more elaborate discourses. As to two or
three slight touches of doctrinal statement, some of
us might not agree with the speaker, but all must
see that his sermons are very practical, pervaded by
good sense and true feeling, and adapted to do much
good.                          JOHN A. BROADUS.
  LouIsvILLE, Ky., September 25, i888.



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STEVE P. HOLCOMBE, known in former years
     as a gambler and doer of all evil, no less known
     in these latter days as a preacher of the
Gospel and doer of all good, was born at Shippings-
port, Kentucky, in i835. The place, as well as the
man, has an interesting history. An odd, straggling,
tired, little old town, it looks as if it had been left
behind and had long ago given up all hope of ever
catching up. It is in this and other respects in strik-
ing contrast with its surroundings.  The triangular
island, upon which it is situated, lies lazily between
the Ohio river, which flows like a torrent around two
sides of it, and the Louisville canal, which stretches
straight as an arrow along the third. On its north-
east side it commands a view of the most picturesque
part of La Belle Riviere. This part embraces the
rapids, or " Falls," opposite the city of Louisville,
which gets its surname of "Falls City" from this
circumstance.  In the midst of the rapids a lone,
little island of bare rocks rises sheer out of the
dashing waters to the height of several feet, and
across the wide expanse, on the other side of the
river, loom up- the wooded banks of the Indiana
side, indented with many a romantic cove, and sweep-
ing around with a graceful curve, while the chimneys
and towers and spires of Jeffersonville and New


Albany rise in the distance, with the blue Indiana
"Knobs" in the deep background beyond. From this
same point on the island, and forming part of the
same extensive view, one may see the two majestic
bridges, each a mile in length, one of which spans
the river directly over the Falls and connects the
city of Louisville with Jeffersonville, Indiana, while
the other joins the western portion of Louisville with
the thriving city of New Albany. Across the canal
from the island, on the south, lies the city of Louis-
ville with its near 200,000 population, its broad
avenues, its palatial buildings.
   In the very midst of all this profusion of beauty
and all this hum and buzz and rush of commercial
and social life, lies the dingy, sleepy old town of
Shippingsport with its three hundred or four hundred
people, all unheeded and unheeding, uncared for and
uncaring. There are five or six fairly good houses,
and all the rest are poor. There is a good brick
school-house, built and kept up by the city of Louis-
ville, of which, since i842, Shippingsport is an incor-
porated part. There is one dilapidated, sad looking,
little old brick church, which seldom suflers any sort
of disturbance. On the north-east shore of the island
directly over the rushing waters stands the pictur-
esque old mill built by Tarascon in the early part of
the century. It utilizes the fine water-power of the
" Falls" in making the famous Louisville cement. Part
of the inhabitants are employed as laborers in this
mill, and part of them derive their support from fish-
ing in the river, for which there are exceptional oppor-
tunities all the year around in the shallows, where



the rushing waters dash, with eddying whirl, against
the rocky shores of their island.
   There are, at this time, some excellent people in
Shippingsport, who faithfully maintain spiritual life and
good moral character amid surrounding apathy and
immorality.  ", For except the Lord had left unto
them a very small remnant, they should have been
as Sodom, and they should have been like unto
   And yet, Shippingsport was not always what it
is now.  Time was when it boasted the aristocracy
of the Falls. "The house is still standing," says a
recent writer in Harper's Monthly Magazine, "where
in the early part of the century the Frenchman, Tar-
ascon, offered border hospitality to many distinguished
guests, among whom were Aaron Burr and Blenner-
hasset, and General Wilkinson, then in command of
the armies of the United States." He might have
added that Shippingsport was once honored with a
visit from LaFayette, and later also from President
Jackson.  But in other respects also Shippingsport
was, in former years, far different from what it is
to -day. In business importance it rivaled the city of
Louisville itself. In that early day, before the build-
ing of the canal, steamboats could not, on account of
the Falls, pass up the river except during high water,
so that for about nine months in the year Shippingsport
was the head of navigation. Naturally, it became a
place of considerable commercial importance, as the
shrewd Frenchman who first settled there saw it was
bound to be. Very soon it attracted a population of
some hundreds, and grew into a very busy little mart.




",Every day," says one of the old citizens still living,
"steamboats were landing with products and passen-
gers from the South, or leaving with products and
passengers from Kentucky and the upper country."
The freight which was landed at Shippingsport was
carried by wagons and drays to Louisville, Lexington
and other places in Kentucky and Indiana.  This
same old citizen, Mr. Alex. Folwell, declares that he
has seen as many as five hundred wagons in one
day in and around the place. There were three large
warehouses and several stores, and what seems hard
to believe, land sold in some instances for Ioo per
   The canal was begun in 1824, the first spadeful
of dirt being taken out by DeWitt Clinton, of New
York. During the next six years from five hundred
to a thousand men were employed on it. They
were, as a general thing, a rough set. Sometimes,
while steamboats were lying at the place, the unem-
ployed hands would annoy the workmen on the canal
so that gradually there grew up a feeling of enmity
between the two classes which broke out occasionally
in regular battles.
   In i830, when the canal was finished, the days of
Shippingsport's prosperity were numbered. Thence-
forth steamboats, independent of obstructions in the
river, passed on up through the canal, and Shippings-
port found her occupation was gone.  The better
classes lost no time in removing to other places, and
only the poorer and rougher classes remained. Many
of the workmen who had been engaged in building
the canal settled down there to live; unemployed and



broken-down steamboatmen gravitated to the place
where they always had such good times; shiftless
and thriftless poor people from other places came
flocking in as to a poor man's paradise. Within
easy reach of Louisville, the place became a resort
for the immoral young men, the gamblers and all the
rough characters of that growing city.
   Such was the place to which Steve Holcombe's
parents removed from Central Kentucky in i835, the
year of his birth; and, though coming into the midst of
surroundings so full of moral perils, they did not bring
that strength of moral character, that fixedness of moral
habit and that steadfastness of moral purpose which
were necessary to guard against the temptations of
every sort which were awaiting them.
   The father, though an honest and well disposed sort
of man and very kind to his family, was already a
drunkard. His son says of him: "My poor father had
gotten to be a confirmed drunkard before I was born,
and after he had settled at Shippingsport, my mother
would not let him stay about the house, so that most of
his time was spent in lying around bar-rooms or out on
the commons, where he usually slept all times of the
year." It is not surprising that as a consequence of
such dissipation and such exposure he died at the early
age of thirty-three, when his son Steve was eleven
years old. Dead, he sleeps in an unmarked grave on
the commons where formerly he slept when drunk and
shut out by his wife from his home.
   Mrs. Holcombe, the mother of Steve, a woman five
feet ten inches in height and one hundred and ninety
pounds in weight, was as strong in passion as in phys-




ical power. " When aroused," says her son, "she was
as fierce as a tigress and fearless of God, man or devil,
although she was a woman of quick sympathy and
impulsive kindheartedness toward those who were in
distress, and would go further to help such than almost
any one I have ever known." She was a woman of
more than ordinary mind, though entirely without
education. In the government of her children she was
extremely severe. "Though my father," says Mr. Hol-
combe, "never whipped me but once in my life, and
that slightly, my mother has whipped me hundreds of
times, I suppose, and with as great severity as frequency.
She has, at times, almost beaten me to death. She
would use a switch, a cane, a broom-stick or a club,
whichever happened to be at hand when she became
provoked. She whipped me oftener for going swim-
ming than for anything else, I believe. If I told her
a lie about it she would whip me, and if I told her the
truth,she would whip me."
   From neglect and other causes little Steve was very
sickly and puny in his babyhood, so that he did not
walk till he was four years old; but from the beginning
his temper was as violent as his body was weak, and
from his earliest recollection, he says, he loved to fight.
At the same time he had his mother's tenderhearted-
ness for those who were in distress. Once a stranger
stopped for a few days at the tavern in Shippingsport,
and the roughs of the place caught him out on one
occasion and beat him so severely that he was left for
dead; but he crawled afterward into an old shed where
little Holcombe, between five and six years old, found
him and took him food every day for about two weeks.



   The boys with whom he associated in childhood
were addicted to petty stealing, and he learned from
them to practice the same. When about seven years
old his mother, on account of their poverty, provided
him with a supply of cakes, pies and fruits to peddle
out on the steamers while they were detained in passing
the locks of the canal. Instead of returning the money
to his mother, however, he would often lose it in gam-
bling with the bad boys of the place, and sometimes
even with his half-brothers, so that he seldom got home
with his money, but always got his beating.
   At eight years of age he played cards for money
in bar-rooms with grown men. At ten he began to
explore those parts of the river about the falls, in a
skiff alone looking for articles of various kinds lost in
wrecks, that he might get means for gambling. This,
together with the fact that his hair was very light in
color, gained for him the distinction of the "Little
White-headed Pirate."
   In I 842 Shippingsport was taken into the city of Louis-
ville, and a school was established, which he attended
about three months during this period of his life,.and he
never attended school afterward. The brown-haired,
black-eyed little girl who afterward became his wife,
attended this school at the same time. Her parents
had lately removed to Shippingsport from Jeffersonville,
Indiana. They were people of excellent character and
were so careful of their children that they would not
allow them to associate with the children of Shippings-
port any farther than was necessary and unavoidable.
But, notwithstanding these restrictions, their little Mary
saw just enough of Steve Holcombe in school to form a




strange liking for him, as he did also for her-an attach-
ment which has lasted through many and varying
experiences up to the present. At that time he had
grown to be "a heavy set little boy," as Mrs. Holcombe
describes him, and was "very good looking," indeed,
"very handsome," as she goes on to say, "with his
deep blue eyes and his golden hair." She did not
know that she was in love with a boy who was to
become one of the worst of men in all forms of
wickedness, and as little did she know that she was in
love with a boy who was to become one of the best of
men in all forms of goodness and usefulness. Nor did
he foresee that he was forming an attachment then and
there for one who was to love him devotedly and serve
him patiently through all phases of infidelity and wick-
edness, and through years of almost unexampled trials
and sufferings, who was to cling to him amid numberless
perils and scandals, who was to train and restrain his
children so as to lead them in ways of purity and good-
ness in spite of the father's bad example, who was to
endure for his sake forms of ill treatment that have
killed many a woman, and who was in long distant
years to be his most patient encourager and helper in a
singularly blessed and successful work for God and the
most abandoned and hopeless class of sinful men, and.
to develop, amid all and in spite of all and by means of
all,one of the truest and strongest and most devoted of
female characters. A singular thing it seems, indeed,
that an attachment begun so early and tested so
severely should have lasted so late. And yet it is
perhaps at this moment stronger than ever it was


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   Notwithstanding young Holcombe's lack of religious
instruction and his extraordinary maturity in wicked-
ness, he declares that at times he had, even before his
tenth year, very serious thoughts. He says:
   -I always believed there was a God and that the
Bible was from God, but for the most part my belief
was very vague and took hold of nothing definite.
Hence, nearly all my thoughts were evil, only evil and
evil continually. I am sure, however, that I believed
there was a hell. When a child, I used to dream, it
seems to me, almost every night, that the devil had me,
and sometimes my dreams were so real that I would
say to myself while dreaming, 'Now this is no dream;
he has got me this time, sure enough.' I remember
that one text which I heard a preacher read troubled
me more than anything else, when I thought about
dying and going to judgment.   It was this: ' And
they hid themselves in the dens and rocks of the
mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall
on us and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth
on the throne.' I always had a fear of death and a
dread of the future. The rattling of clods on a coffin
filled me with awe and dread. When I thought about
my soul, I would always say to myself, I I am going to
get good before I go into the presence of God; but now
I want to keep these thoughts out of mind so I can
do as I please and not have to suffer and struggle and
fight against sin-till I get consumption. When I get
consumption I will have plenty of warning as to death's
approach and plenty of time to prepare for it.' But I
had gotten such an admiration for gamblers and such a
passion for gambling that I had a consuming ambition




to become a regular blackleg, as gamblers were called
in those days. I made up my mind that this was to be
my business, and I began to look about for some way
to get loose from everything else, so I could do nothing
but gamble, with nobody to molest or make me afraid."
   It is hard enough for a boy to keep from doing
wrong and to do right always, even when he has
inherited a good disposition, enjoyed good advantages
and had the best of training.  But our little friend,
Steve Holcombe, poor fellow, inherited from his father
an appetite for drink and from his mother a savage
temper. To balance these, he had none of the safe-
guards of a careful, moral or religious education, and
none of those sweet and helpful home associations
which follow a man through life and hold him back
from wrong doing.
   Thus unprepared, unshielded, unguarded, at the tender
age of eleven years he left home to work his own way in
the world. No mother's prayers had hitherto helped him,
and no mother's prayers from henceforth followed him.
No hallowed home influences had blessed and sweetened
his miserable childhood and no tender recollections of
sanctified home life were to follow him into the great
wicked world. On the contrary, he was fleeing from his
home to find some refuge, he knew not what, he knew not
where. He was going out, boy as he was, loaded
down with the vices and hungry with the passions of
a man. He did not seek employment among people
that were good or in circumstances encouraging to
goodness, but just where of all places he would find
most vice and learn most wickedness-on a steamboat.
One knowing his antecedents and looking out into his




future could easily have foreseen his career in vice and
crime, but would hardly have predicted for him that
life of goodness and usefulness which now for eleven
wonderful years he has been leading.
   He was employed on a steamboat which ran on
the Tennessee river, and his first trip was to Florence,
Alabama. His mother did not know what had become
of him. He was employed in some service about the
kitchen. He slept on deck with the hands and ate
with the servants. Hungry as he was for some word
or look of sympathy which, given him and followed
up, might have made him a different character, nobody
showed him any kindness. The steward of the boat
on the contrary showed him some unkindness, and
was in the act of kicking him on one occasion for
something, when young Holcombe jumped at him
like an enraged animal and frightened him so badly
that he was glad to drop the matter for the present
and to respect the b6y for the future.  On this trip
he found five dollars in money on the boat, and
was honest enough to take it to the steward for the
   When he returned home from this trip, strange to
say, his mother so far from giving him a severer beating
than usual, as might have been expected, did not punish
him at all. She was probably too glad to get him back
and too afraid of driving him away again. But nothing
could restrain him now that he had once seen the world
and made the successful experiment of getting on in
the world without anybody's help. So that he soon
went on another trip and so continued, going on four
or five long steamboat runs before he was fourteen




years of age, and spending his unoccupied time in
gambling with either white men or negroes, as he
found opportunity.
   After he was fourteen years old he went on the
upper Mississippi river and traveled to and from St.
Louis. On the Mississippi steamers of those days gam-
bling was common, not only among the servants and
deckhands, it was the pastime or the business of some
of the first-class passengers also. Sometimes when
a rich planter had lost all his ready money in gambling,
he would put up a slave, male or female, that he might
happen to have with him, and after losing, would
borrow money to win or buy again the slave. Profes-
sional gamblers, luxuriously dressed and living like
princes, frequented the steamers of those days for the'
purpose of entrapping and fleecing the passengers.
All this only increased the fascination of gambling for
young Holcombe, and he studied and practiced it with
increasing zeal.
   About this time, when he was in the neighborhood
of fourteen years of age, his mother, awaking all too
late to his peril and to her duty, got him a situation
as office-boy in the office of Dr. Mandeville Thum, of
Louisville, hoping to keep him at home and rescue
him from the perilous life he had entered upon.
Dr. Thum was much pleased with him, took great
interest in him, and treated him with unusual kind-
ness. He even began himself to teach him algebra,
with the intention of making a civil engineer of the
boy. And he was making encouraging progress in
his studies and would, doubtless, have done well, had
iie continued.




   During the time he spent in the service of Dr.
Thum, he attended a revival meeting held by the
Rev. Mr. Crenshaw, at Shippingsport, and was much
impressed by what he heard. He became so awak-
ened and interested that he responded to the appeals
that were made by this devoted and zealous preacher
and sought interviews with him. He tried his level
best, as he expresses it, to work himself up to a point
where he could feel that he was converted, a not rare,
but very wrong, view of this solemn matter. But he
could not feel it. While, however, he could not get
the feeling, he determined to be a Christian, anyhow, a
rarer and better, but not altogether correct, view of the
subject either. For a week or ten days he succeeded
in overcoming evil impulses, and in living right, but he
was led away by evil companions. Soon after this he
tried it again, and this time he succeeded for a longer
time than before in resisting temptations and follow-
ing his sense of right, but was one day persuaded to
go on a Sunday steamboat-excursion to New Albany,
with some young folks from   ';Aippingsport, which
proved the occasion of his fall. On returning home
he and two other boys went part of the way on foot.
They heard a man, not far away, crying for water, and
Holcombe's quick impulse of sympathy led him to pro-
pose to go to the relief of the sufferer. When they
found he was not so bad off as they thought, the two
other boys began to abuse and mistreat the stranger.
He was an unequal match for the two, however, and
as he was about to get the best of them, young Hol-
combe knocked the poor man down, and they all
kicked him so severely over the head and face that