Justified – How Real Is Justified’s Version of Harlan County?

Justified PodcastRight around the end of season 2.0 of The Walking Dead, we got an email from one of our listeners, Ted.  We were talking about covering some new shows, and Justified was mentioned as a front runner.  Well, Ted is a newspaper reporter from central Kentucky, and he grew up in Harlan County, the very place in which Justified takes place.  He offered to give us the inside scoop on the real life characters and events that inspired Elmore Leonard and later Graham Yost when crafting their tales.

Flash forward a month or so later, and after a frantic full on Justified marathon, Jim and I were ready to sit down and start podcasting for the new season.  But I remembered Ted’s offer and shot him some questions.  I thought you might be interested in the answers!

A.Ron:  It’s my understanding that the character of Mags Bennett was based on a real life crime lord (lady?).  Can you fill me in on the details?

Mag Bailey's bootlegging establishment. The "real" Mags Bennett.

Ted:  Yes, the character of Mags was based on a true to life bootlegger in Harlan. Her name was Mag Bailey. She mainly sold beer and liquor on a road leading to Evarts, which is where the show claims Raylan went to High School. The business was run by her sons. Rumor has it that she helped to put the local judges and lawyers through law school, as well as paying off local authorities in order to stay opened. The show referred to her as Mags, though the “s” was left off in reality, the establishment was referred to as Mag’s. The show replaced the name Bailey with Bennett, which is also a prominent family in Harlan, though they made their riches through the coal business legally. Many of the people in Harlan work for the Bennett’s in some form.

I myself never met Mag before she died around a decade ago, though I have been through her drive through window with some friends in High School to get a few pints of cheap liquor.

Ted was kind enough to enclose a photo he snapped of “Mag’s Place”, which is off to the side over there.  Shoot, spray paint “traitor” on the front of it and it’s just about the spitting image!  Very cool!

A.Ron: Something I’m also curious about; it appears that Arlo has a family cemetery in his front yard.  Is that common in that part of Kentucky?

Ted:  In some parts of the county, it is common to see graves near a family home, though not so close, usually on a hillside near to the home, and has fallen out of practice in the last 50 years or so. However many of these sites are still maintained.

A.Ron: Anything else you want to mention?

Ted: The portrayal of redneck criminals isn’t too far fetched. I had classmates in high school with Nazi tattoos and was forced to say goodbye to my best friend at the age of 20, when he died of an OxyContin overdose. My grandfather was dispatcher for the state police post in Harlan during the 70s, during the time portrayed in the Oscar winning documentary entitled Harlan County, USA as well, seeing many of the darker parts of the county first hand.

During the early part of the century the county was known as bloody Harlan, though it has re-earned that name as pills have taken hold of much of the community over the past couple of decades.

Thanks, Ted!  Ted has graciously offered to field any more questions we might have, and I’m going to extend that offer to you as well.  If you have something you’d like to get his input on, Let us know!  You can emailTweet, orFacebook us to get our attention, and we’ll pass on any questions you might have.