Remembering ‘Bad John’ Wright, famous lawman
Letcher County native and father of 35 was buried 90 years ago; denied killing dozens as part of his job in Ky. and Va.
By BEN GISH
Ninety years ago this week, many Letcher County residents were just reading the news that one of their most famous native citizens — “Bad John” Wright — had died in his sleep at his home near Pound, Virginia.
Funeral services for Wright, a nationally famous lawman who was also known as “Devil John”, were held at his home on Sunday, January 31, 1931. He had died four days earlier age 86 after a long illness.
Wright was believed by some to have killed as many as 30 outlaws but told The Mountain Eagle he had killed only four.
Among the estimated 2,000 mourners who attended Wright’s funeral was Mountain Eagle editor Nehemiah M. Webb, who founded the newspaper in 1907 and first met Wright when he was five years old.
“From the age of five years all the way down through a rugged and romantic career, the editor of The Eagle was never out of touch with John Wesley Wright, whose career at the actual age of 86 ended at his little mountain home near Pound, Va., last Thursday night,” Webb wrote of his relationship with Wright in a front-page story in the paper’s February 5, 1931, edition. “On the Sunday following his demise, in the presence of probably 2,000 people with old-time gospel and the old songs tuned to it ringing up and down the rugged hills and through the deep forests of pine, oaks and hemlock, and through which the keen crack of the long rifle of the deceased had so often awoke the echoes, the last curtains were drawn, the last obseques uttered and ‘earth to earth and dust to dust,’ like a thick pall, ended all.”
Wright joined the Confederate Army at age 16 in 1862 and later switched allegiances to the Union Army. He remained one of Central Appalachia’s most famous residents at the time of his death. Even the New York Times carried a large story about Wright’s illness and expected date with death on September 1, 1930. Headlined “‘Bad John’ Wright Waits Death in Bed,” the Times carried an Associated Press report — datelined Whitesburg, Ky., August 31, 1930 — that said:
“Bad John” Wright, former feudist who in later years was respected as an intrepid mountain peace officer, lies at the point of death today at his home in Wise County, Va., near the Kentucky border, unaware that his 41-year-old son, Sam, met violent death yesterday in Pike County, Ky.
“Bad John” earned the sobriquet by killing more than 30 men while serving in positions of authority in the border counties of Virginia and Kentucky. All his killings were within the law, his friends hasten to tell questioners, safe in the knowledge that the events of the famed Wright-Jones feud of 40 years ago have long since been forgotten.
The border patrolman, whose age is estimated between 86 and 96 years, was an intimate friend of John Fox Jr., the novelist, and provided him with much material for his books dealing with mountain life. “Devil Judd Tolliver,” one of the characters in the Fox novel “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” was a prototype of John Wright.
“Bad John’s” admirers hasten to add, however, that “Bad John” was not like “Devil Judd.” “Bad John” was not really bad, they say, citing his record as an enforcer of the law, whereas Fox’s famed character was depicted as a bloodthirsty two-gun man of the hills who killed for the mere fun of it.
“Bad John” in later years became more familiarly known as “Uncle John,” and has friends without number in Letcher and Pike Counties, Ky., and Wise County, Va. Sometimes he was called “the Tall Sycamore of the Elkhorn” because of his gigantic stature and his residence near Elkhorn Creek.
Until several days ago, when he was stricken ill, “Bad John” was active as a deputy sheriff of Wise County. He had previously served as sheriff, deputy and justice of the peace in several counties he patrolled.
The officer was a deadly enemy of “Devil Anse” Hatfield, principal in the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. “Devil John” was never able to capture “Devil Anse,” who died with his boots off in ripe old age. William R. (Cap) Hatfield, son of “Devil Anse” and last survivor of the feud, also died with his boots off in Baltimore several days ago, and “Bad John” seems destined to pass to the great beyond in the same fashion.
“Bad John’s” son, Samuel Preston Wright, was killed by Melvin Branham during a family quarrel in front of Sam’s home in Pike County, Ky., yesterday. Branham was also shot to death, but the coroner’s jury was unable to decide who killed him. The jury decided that Sam Wright was slain by Branham.”
Melvin Branham, 36, shot Sam Wright in the head while Wright was attempting to break up a fight between his wife, Mahala Branham Wright, and a neighbor, Sarah Ray, in the front yard of the Wright home on Three Mile Creek, a few miles north of Jenkins, just inside Pike County. A day after the shootings, 21-year-old Henry Branham confessed to shooting Melvin Branham. Henry was Melvin’s cousin and Wright’s nephew. He is buried in a cemetery at the Kentucky State Reformatory, where he died nearly nine years after the incident.
Five months after the Associated Press report appeared in the New York Times and many other national newspapers, Mountain Eagle editor Webb was busy writing about the funeral of “Bad John” Wright and the conversations he’d had with the famous lawman over the years.
Webb, who considered Wright a friend and did not refer to him as “Bad John” or “Devil John,” wrote that the recently baptized former deputy U.S. Marshal had visited the Eagle’s office a while before his death and asked Webb to help him clear up what he felt were false news accounts about his life and career, including the number of men he had allegedly killed while enforcing the law. At the time, Wright, who was born near what is now Kona in May 1844, had been married seven times and was believed to have fathered as many as 35 children.
“Webb, I am so tired of reading and hearing of so many vicious and damning things printed and circulated about,” Wright told the editor. “You have known me ever since you were a child, and you know I have always been an average gentleman. For over 200 years my family has been an honorable one and in my old days I want the truth known. It is true, my life has not been what it might have been had my early surroundings been different.”
According to Webb, “the then-gray veteran halted a moment, took out his handkerchief, (and) wiped the moisture from his brow” and continued by saying: “I grew up a straight, honest and hardworking boy. I knew nothing of the evils and passions that enter into life and living. The Civil War came and found me in my early teens. My father, Joel Wright, was a noble man … but soon after the war started, we were robbed of everything on the place and he was forced to flee from home.
“When 17, I picked my way through the woods and came to Whitesburg to enlist for service under General Humphrey Marshall. I was fully determined to do my best for my sunny southland, and I have never regretted it.”
After being captured sometime after the deadly April 1862 Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April (“If carnage like that wouldn’t harden men’s souls what would?” Wright asked Webb), Wright was captured and, according to him, “forced into their army and made to take the oath.”
“Soon after the war ended, I found my way back into Kentucky,” Wright told Webb. “I married a fine young lady in the Bluegrass section (Martha “Mattie” Humphrey of Cynthiana) and took her to the mountains. We had two children. The youngest, a son, was killed several years ago and the other, also a son, is still living.”
Asked by Webb if it was true that he had killed dozens of men, Wright answered, “It is not. It is not. If I recall correctly, only four men have gone to their graves on my account and these were all in the performance of my duty. … Ordinarily, I always managed to get my man and bring him to justice. Often, when others were killed and murdered, I was accused of it. But my conscience was clear, and I gave no heed to the false reports.”
Wright told Webb that many of the false stories about him were the result of his longtime friendship with fellow Letcher County native and Confederate soldier Thomas Talton “Bad Talt” Hall, a former deputy U.S. Marshal turned outlaw who later became the first man to be legally hanged for murder in Wise County, Va. The hanging occurred in September 1892, seven months after Hall was convicted in the July 1891 murder of Norton, Va., Police Chief Enoch B. Hylton.
Although Hall was believed to have killed at least 20 men between 1866 and 1891, one of them, Henry Maggard, because he fought for the Union Army. “Bad John” Wright never attempted to arrest him or turn him over to authorities.
“Most of the stories related by Talton Hall before he was hanged at Wise … were unfounded,” Webb wrote. “Let it be known here that a lasting friendship did exist between these two men. It was John Wright who brought the body of Hall from Wise and he had it decently interred near his old home on the head of Elkhorn (at the Wright Cemetery in Dunham). The same is true of the body of (Dr. Marshall Benton) ‘Doc’ Taylor, who met a similar fate at Wise later.”
Taylor, a self-taught physician, preacher and deputy U.S. Marshal and federal revenue agent known as the “Red Fox,” was hanged at age 58 in Wise County on October 27, 1893, for his role in the May 14, 1892 ambush murder of five members of the Ira Mullins family at a rock near Pound Gap now known as the “Killing Rock.”
Taylor, who lived in Letcher County for a while after studying medicine under a relative in Lee County, Va., had been sworn enemies with Ira Mullins since the two were involved in an earlier shootout at the Wise County Courthouse after Taylor tried to arrest Mullins for hauling a wagonload of moonshine whiskey through the Town of Wise.
Wright’s funeral was held at his home at Horse Gap on the Pound, Va., side of the Kentucky-Virginia border. Among the mourners was his daughter, Alice June, who traveled from Pennsylvania for the service. Her life was also reflected by one of the characters in John Fox Jr.’s, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. The novel, which was among the nation’s top 10 bestselling books for 1908 and 1909, was adapted into a motion picture in 1936, starring Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray (“My Three Sons”), and Sylvia Sidney, who played the character based on Alice June.
Writing in his February 5, 1931 column headlined “Personal View of John W. Wright,” Webb recalled the last time that Wright visited the offices of The Mountain Eagle, then located behind the Letcher County Courthouse.
“At this point the courthouse bell pealed upon the air,” Webb wrote. “He pulled off his glasses, wiped them, put on his hat (and) remarked, ‘Webb, I have probably talked more to you than any other man about my private life and when I am gone, I want you to write the truth of it.’ I promised him, as I had often done before, that I would.”
Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since 1907.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 2, 1911
Letcher County Sheriff Louis Cook will sell three tracts of land whose owners owe 1910 property taxes to the county and state. Among the properties to be auctioned to the highest and best bidder in front of the courthouse on January 6 is a 187.95-acre tract at Kingscreek owned by Union Coal & Coke Company, originally sold by George Hogg and Mahala Hogg to American Coal and Coking Company in December 1905. Taxes owed are $440.20. Also up for auction is a 634-acre tract on Long Branch of Linefork owned by Polly Stamper. Taxes owed are $26.33. The auction will conclude with the sale of 400 white oak trees sold to C.J. Little by George Hogg of Kingscreek in August 1904. Taxes owed on the trees is $89.98.
Whitesburg attorneys Hale and Cook have dissolved their partnership but will continue to occupy the same office as before.
Kingdom Come citizens traveled to Stonega, Virginia and returned with 5,000 pounds of dynamite to be used by the men building the new railroad.
Whitesburg officials and residents are debating whether the new Lexington & Eastern Railroad depot should be located on the upper end of town on property owned by Ira Fields or on the lower end of town on the Watson Caudill farm. Others, including Mountain Eagle editor Nehemiah Webb, are demanding that the depot be built downtown.
Mountain Eagle editor Nehemiah Webb writes that the coming of the new railroad will turn Whitesburg into the “residence of a clean class of citizens including railroad managers, business managers or mining operations, and the headquarters for businessmen of all sorts. In a few years it will be a new Whitesburg, without the poolroom, the billiard table or the saloon.”
The first new town to spring up as a result of the new railroad extension is Colly, located at the mouth of Craft’s Colly. “We suggest Glenwood for the name of the new town to be built at the mouth of Colly,” says an editorial comment in The Mountain Eagle. Meanwhile, 114 building lots in the new town will be sold at auction in March.
More than 20 Slavs, or natives of Poland, arrived Tuesday and went on down to the river to work on the railroad.
A three-year-old Millstone boy died from severe burns he suffered last Thursday after his father, Maye Hampton, threw a few grains of blasting powder into the fire burning in his home. Mr. Hampton was also badly burned but is expected to survive.
N. Starkey of Pikeville, the manager of the Eastern Kentucky Home Telephone Company, this week purchased the Whitesburg Telephone Company’s lines and the Letcher County Home Telephone Company’s lines up the river to Baker.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 5, 1931
About 2,000 people attended the funeral of Letcher County native John Wesley Wright. Also known by the nicknames of “Bad John” or “Devil John,” Wright was one of Letcher County’s most colorful native citizens and a former deputy U.S. Marshall and sheriff who was feared by criminals across southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. The funeral service for Wright, who died January 28, were held Sunday at his home at Horse Gap on the Pound, Va., side of the Kentucky-Virginia border. Wright was a friend of nationally acclaimed author John Fox Jr., whose novel “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” featured the character “Devil Judd Tolliver” based on the life of “Bad John” Wright. (See related story, this page.)
Dr. Thomas Anderson Cook died at his home at Democrat last Saturday night, apparently of a ruptured appendix. He was 65. Dr. Cook, a graduate of the old Hospital College of Medicine at Louisville, was one the best-known physicians in three adjoining counties at the time of his death. Although he had been in poor health for the last few years, Dr. Cook continued to see patients in his him.
McRoberts High School has been named a Class A high school by the Kentucky Department of Education.
The Bradley Burkhart Post of the American Legion in Jenkins has been reinstated by the national organization and is now back in operation.
Public Square Service Station in Whitesburg is offering 10 sizes of Goodyear tires at prices ranging from $4.75 to $12.05 each.
The A&P Food Store has hamburger meat on sale at 20 cents for two pounds. Two pounds of spareribs are on sale for 25 cents.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 6, 1941
Candidates for county offices include Cossie Quillen for county court clerk, and Johnny Adams for jailer.
Mr. Dee Mitchell, Group Manager for the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co., announced the opening of the new telephone exchange at Neon on January 29. The new system is dial operated and will service approximately 120 exchange subscribers in and around the City of Neon and will be connected with the network of long distance lines of the Bell System.
School here closed Friday, January 31. It ended at a very good time, for whooping cough was getting well spread and quite a few children were already having to miss, due to the epidemic.
Chad Mullins, Whitesburg, senior at Berea College, has been elected president of the Agriculture Union for the second semester. Chad, son of Mr. and Mrs. W.W. Mullins, was graduated from Whitesburg High School with the Class of ’37. While attending high school he served as president of his local F.F.A., and was a member of the basketball team.
From The Mountain Eagle’s sister publication The Neon News:
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 7, 1941
All Legionnaires, as well as other interested World War veterans, are urged to attend a mass meeting to be held on February 15 at Jenkins. The meeting is being held for the purpose of inaugurating American Legion Post No. 66’s campaign to register and classify its members and other interested World War veterans for voluntary national defense service in the event of an emergency. It is part of a nationwide movement and comes as a result of a proclamation by National Commander Milo J. Warner and State Commander James T. Norris.
“Mr. Edd Taylor, of the Army, visited his parents Mr. and Mrs. Bill Taylor during the recent holidays,” writes Haymond correspondent Mrs. J.H. Miller. “He has served a three-year term in the Army and before returning home he reenlisted for another three-year term. He is stationed in Maryland. He was called back to service earlier than he expected. The purpose of the recall was to make him corporal of his outfit. Hats off to young Edd Taylor.”
“Mr. J.L. Bentley of Rockhouse, who has been wearing a mustache for 52 years, had it cut off last week,” reports the Neon Locals news. “He says he is 70 years old, but he now looks like a young man.”
“Escape” starring Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor and “Woldo’s Last Stand” with Our Gang are playing this week at the Jenkins Theatre.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 8, 1951
Approximately 700 to 800 miners are out of work in 18 Letcher County truck mines, one operator estimated yesterday. The mines were closed indefinitely February 1, the date on which the new $1.60 pay increase for United Mine Workers miners took effect. Reasons for the closing, given by the same operator, were the new pay increase and the ample supply of “low-bill” coal already on the market.
“Only two days remain to purchase motor vehicle licenses,” County Court Clerk Charlie Wright said yesterday. Wright said that only 938 cars, 255 trucks and 18 farm tags have been sold.
First candidate to announce for the unexpired term of County Judge was Judge Robert B. Collins, present County Judge. Mr. Collins was appointed to the office upon the death of Judge G. Bennett Adams in 1950. Adams was elected County Judge in 1950. M. Sgt. Dalton D. Pigman, Station Commander of the local U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Recruiting Service, announced the enlistment of five men in the Regular Army. Three of the men are prior service men and enlisted in the grade of Private E-2. They are James E. Marcum, Whitesburg; Billy R. Kendrick, Neon; and Billy Sexton, Isom. Lewis Joseph, Premium, and Isaac D. Caudill also enlisted.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 9, 1961
The Letcher County Board of Education plans to ask Letcher County voters to approve a special tax for school building purposes, perhaps even before the May primary election. If the tax is approved, school board members said, the school system can have all the new buildings it will need, perhaps within two years. Buildings being tentatively considered are gymnasium buildings at Fleming-Neon and Letcher high schools, a new high school building for Whitesburg, new grade schools in the Millstone and Mayking areas, a new grade school to take care of pupils from Whitco, Sandlick and Cowan, another grade school to take care of pupils from Roxana and Hotspot, and an addition to Eolia School.
Fourteen cases of infectious hepatitis have been reported here recently, the Letcher County Health Department said. Hepatitis is a disease which strikes the liver. The particular kind found here is transmitted through personal contact.
The Whitesburg City Council heard lengthy arguments Tuesday as to whether a pinball machine classified as a gambling machine by the federal government should be classified as just another pinball machine insofar as the city is concerned. The argument centers around machines which up until last week were in operation at Yellowjacket Café and Rainbow Grill. The machines in question were removed from the restaurants by Steve Napier, Cumberland, operator of the firm which had installed the machines, after he was informed by City Police Chief Burl Combs and policeman Eddie Howard that the town council would not license the machines for operations within Whitesburg.
Whitesburg High School students Sharon Reynolds and Frankie Day were voted the best-looking students on the school campus.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 4, 1971
The building which formerly housed Sharon Heights Hospital at Jenkins will be converted into a home for older persons under terms of a $142,700 contract signed yesterday. The contract signing climaxed two years of efforts on the part of the Letcher County Community Action Council and its chairman, Bill Craft.
The U.S. Bureau of Mines reported last week that various illegal operating procedures killed 38 coal miners at the Finley mines, but the Bureau report does not assess with whom and where responsibility for these illegal procedures lies. The report, in fact, offers little new information regarding the December 30 blast and answers almost none of the basic questions which have been raised regarding both the fatal explosion itself as well as federal and state enforcement of the 1969 Mine Health and Safety Act.
Congress Carl D. Perkins charged this week that the administration of President Nixon “wants to write off the Appalachian Regional Commission and abandon its program to the member states.” The Perkins statement came after the Nixon budget proposals failed to make any provision for continued funding of ARC.
U.S. Air Force T/Sgt. Felix O. Venters, son of Mrs. Belvia J. Bentley of Neon, has been decorated with the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in Vietnam. He is stationed at Reese Air Force Base, Texas since his return from Vietnam.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 5, 1981
The building of a new US 23 and a new US 119 are two long-promised projects conspicuously missing when Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. announced a $1.1 billion road program which will cover the next five years. Only three road projects, totaling $3.3 million, are planned for Letcher County during this time. They are surfacing of the 2.3-mile Whitesburg Bypass, now under construction; the $591,000 replacement of the bridge over the old L&N Railroad tracks in east Whitesburg; and the construction of a $400,000 access road to the Ben’s Branch housing project in east Jenkins.
The federal Office of Surface Mining says it will hire a contractor to stabilize a mudslide, restore the stream channel and revegetate the area on Paces Branch, where a slide occurred. The slide, which is estimated to be 20 feet deep and 150 feet long, has blocked the road leading to the homes of Doyle Callahan and his father-in-law Chester Cornett. OSM says the Paces Branch situation is one of three major problems in eastern Kentucky it is trying to solve.
The Jenkins Employees Independent Union says it will appeal a decision by Letcher Circuit Judge F. Byrd Hogg which says Jenkins Mayor James F. “Chum” Tackett acted within the power vested in a mayor when he laid off seven of the union’s 13 members near the end of last year.
A woman coal miner from West Virginia has accepted a $360,000 settlement from a Kentucky manufacturer of underground shuttle cars for injuries received when the shuttle car she was driving collided with the mine wall and damaged her arm extensively. Her attorney is Joseph A. Yablonski of Washington, D.C.
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 6, 1991
Dr. Shelba Proffitt, a Whitesburg native, is a key person in the research leading to the development of leading-edge technologies to identify and intercept missiles. Dr. Proffitt is the first female member of the Senior Executive Service, an elite group of federal employees at the U.S. Army Strategic Defense Command, and the new director of the command’s Advanced Technology Directorate. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Profftt of Tillie, and was graduated from Whitesburg High School in the 1950s. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics from Centre College in Danville; a master’s degree in management from the University of Alabama in Huntsville; and a doctorate in research and development from the Southeastern Institute of Technology in Huntsville, Alabama.
Letcher County’s unemployment rate fell nearly 1.5 percentage points in December.The Cabinet for Human Resources said the December unemployment rate in the county was 8.3 percent, down from 9.7 percent in November.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals has overturned a Fayette Court ruling against South East Coal Co. which sent the company into bankruptcy and forced the layoff of more than 400 miners last fall. The appellate court ruled for South East in a suit filed by Kentucky Utilities Co in a coal-buying case that could cost the utility millions of dollars.
“Misery” and “Look Who’s Talking” will play this week at Whitesburg I & II.
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 7, 2001
It’s not 1974 all over again in Letcher County, but an increase in the demand for coal mined here is creating a level of excitement that has been missing for years. Spotmarket coal prices have more than doubled since summer from $18 a ton to “the high 30s” now, and many companies are looking to increase production to meet the new demand. Companies which were laying off workers a year ago are now having a hard time finding enough experienced miners to meet the new production demands.
Some Letcher County residents, upset about the move by Columbia National Resources Inc. to condemn property here for a natural gas pipeline, are asking the Kentucky General Assembly to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again. As the General Assembly convened for its first-ever annual session, residents here were asking members of the legislature to approve a bill filed by State Rep. Howard Cornett that seeks to take away the right of eminent domain from companies building oil and gas transmission lines. The bill would not affect companies building service lines to a local community but would prevent companies building lines to areas outside a community from taking the right-of-way for those lines in court condemnation proceedings.
Natisha Cee Johnson, Anthony Duty, Richard McIntosh and Michael Danery Combs have been selected to receive the 2001 Roy R. Crawford Scholarships given by Elkhorn-Hazard Coal Land Corporation.
The National Wild Turkey Federation will hold a Women in the Outdoors program March 17 at Dry Fork. Planned classes and activities include archery, fishing, wild turkey hunting, shotgunning and sporting clays.
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 9, 2011
Local official hope representatives from the Kentucky Public Service Commission and Kentucky Power Co. will explain why power bills were abnormally high this winter during their trip to Letcher County next week. The PSC and the Letcher Fiscal Court are holding a “home energy workshop” in the Letcher County Circuit Courtroom. “The key for this really is to find ways for people to reduce energy consumption in the long-term because that is where the savings are,” Andrew Melnykovych, director of communications with the PSC, said.
A Mountain Eagle editorial says of the meeting scheduled between county residents and the Kentucky Public Service Commission and Kentucky Power Co., “While their willingness to leave their offices in Frankfort to come to Whitesburg to speak with homeowners about ways to conserve energy is to be commended, the Kentucky Power Co. and PSC also need to take the time while here to address the real reason people are so upset — the PSC’s approval of two Kentucky Power rate increases totaling 31 percent in four years.”
The Jenkins Independent School Board held a special called meeting to address problems with heat in several classrooms. Supt. Deborah Watts told the board that heat pumps serving several classrooms in the middle high school building have failed and need to be replaced. Mike Sparkman of Lexington architectural firm Lucas Schwering told the board the best course is to replace the heat pumps and to install electric space heaters as a temporary source of heat. He said by the time the work is finished, it will be time to start switching over to air conditioning so having the heat pumps ready will be the best course.
Dalton Seals, an eighth-grade student at Letcher Elementary School, won the Letcher County Public School District spelling bee. Ashley Benton, a seventh-grade student at Whitesburg Middle School, placed second, and Alexis Lewis, a seventh-grade student at Arlie Boggs Elementary School finished third.