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The Way We Were

Editor writes more on his encounters with ‘Devil John’

“Bad John” Wright posed on horseback for this undated photo, which is part of the University of Kentucky’s Jenkins Photographic Collection.

“Bad John” Wright posed on horseback for this undated photo, which is part of the University of Kentucky’s Jenkins Photographic Collection.

NOTE: In last week’s edition of “The Way We Were,” The Mountain Eagle carried a report on the 90th anniversay of the January 1931 death of famous Letcher County lawman and Civil War veteran John Wesley “Bad John” Wright. The former U.S. Marshal, also known as “Devil John,” was born near what today is the community of Kona and died at his house on the Virginia side of Pound Gap. This report by The Eagle’s founding editor, N.M. Webb, appeared on the front page of the paper’s February 12, 1931 edition, and was the second of two columns Webb wrote about his longtime association with Wright, whom Webb first met when he was five years old.

In the fall of the year 1903, we were passing down one of the ridges that leads from the Pine Mountain to where Jenkins is now located. We were talking of the killing of the Craft boys, which had occurred a few years before, not far from where we were, as well as some other sad things that happened around there in other days.

Finally, the killing of “Red Neck” George Johnson became a topic of conversation. John (Wright) said he knew positively who killed Johnson and why he was killed. He declared that Johnson was one of the worst men he had ever known — so bad that he would never have anything to do with him, and that he felt genuine relief when he viewed his lifeless remains and saw them buried.

In the conversation, I remember he stated positively that he knew nothing of the terrible bushwhacking battle near Pound Gap several years before in which several persons were shot and killed, and for engaging in it Doc Taylor was executed. He declared he knew nothing of the arrangement until it was all over.

When we arrived that evening at his home, which stood about where the John Smith marker is located in Jenkins and had partaken of a nice supper, he began to laugh and talk about the Battle of Daniel Hill, which was fought on the ford side of the North Fork of the Kentucky River on the other side of the spur below Kona. He said that was one of the funniest and least dangerous battles — if a battle it was — that he ever witnessed.

Said Wright, “My men and I stayed the night before at Bea Craft’s above the mouth of Millstone. That night the word came to us that Claibe Jones and his men from Knott and Floyd counties were on their way to arrest Talt Hall, Wash Craft, and my brother, Sam, who were charged with a crime committed over in that area. When that word reached us we began to pick a place and lay plans to lay a big bluff.

“Soon after daylight, Jones and his men, on horseback, dashed up the river road and went in the direction of my home on Elkhorn. We knew their efforts to find us over there would be futile and that they, in all probability, would soon return back down the river way. So, I told the boys we would carry out our plans and go up on the face of the hill leading to the top of Daniel Hill and await the Jones army.

“So, we hustled along the path leading through the timber until we reached the face of the hill overlooking the river. The face of the hillside was well-covered by large trees, and each of us picked one of these for our breastworks. Instructions were given to shoot down no man, but to fire so as to cripple their horses and especially get the mount of old Claibe Jones.

“After getting ourselves well placed and biding our time, we heard the rattle of their cavalry and the loud voices of the men coming. There were no less than 25 of them and less than a dozen of us. We were well stocked with arms and ammunition and knew we could shoot down the last one of them had we desired to do so. Like an onrushing windstorm the horses and riders plunged into the river. We waited till most of them were in the water or across the river in front of us when our guns let loose with a loud roar.

“That was in the days before moving picture shows, but here was one. Desperation seized the whole bunch. Horses plunged into the air and riders mumped into the water. Now and then, probably in spite of its rider, a horse ran down the road with our bullets following. Claibe, then an old man and rather fleshy, was firing point-blank into our hillside and rallying his men. We continued to pour the hot volleys into them. Soon, nearly every man was off his mount and seeking safety behind logs, riverbanks, and old fences, and one man threw away his gun, plunged into a deep hole of water and was gone for several seconds.

“At least 200 shots were fired before the whole bunch of horrified soldiers fled pell-mell down the river and out of view. Three poor old horses were shot down, two or three of their men were slightly wounded in the feet and legs. They never came back, and if I am not mistaken, that was the last time that Claibe Jones ever appeared in our valley.

“Did any of my men get hit in the battle? Yes, Talt Hall was hit in the shoulder by a stray ball that hit a tree near him and glanced. Only a few persons ever knew he was shot.”

And then John Wright added: “The Jones-Wright feud was never the terrible thing it was pictured to be. Several of the men who were supposed to be directed by me were wanted back in Knott and Floyd, as I have said, and did not want to go over there until the fever against them had somewhat subsided.

“… Several years after the Battle at Daniel Hill, Sam Wright, Wash Craft and others surrendered to the officers of the law, were taken to Prestonsburg, tried in the circuit court, and beat their cases. That ended it all.”

One day John Wright remarked to me, “You want to know how many men I have been forced to kill? Well, sir, outside of what I did in the Civil War, to tell the actual truth, only four men are dead from the effects of my shooting. I was a good shot. When I looked through the sights of my gun or pistol and fired there was no missing my mark.

“I never liked shooting at random; I liked to take aim and fire. On the battlefields when I could do so I always picked something to hit, and I hit. How many men I killed during the war I don’t know, nor do I care.”

Continuing his talk at the time mentioned, John said, “Like all my generations on each side of my family, I have been a great admirer or women.”

Referring to his wife, Mattie, who was then out in the yard near their house working with some rose bushes and giving no heed to our conversation, he said she “is the noblest of all women I have ever known. Long years ago her health gave way and her life has been a clouded one. In all my rambles, I have kept here in mind and returned to her to find her the same kind of devoted mother that she always is. No matter how gloomy or hard life has been to her, she has seldom if ever complained.”

I said, “But John, when you had so many women scattered around on your farm, how did you keep the other men away?” He laughed a hearty laugh and declared, “Well, I simply drew the line and had other men to toe it.” I asked,” How many children have you.” He answered, “Not as many as they say — about 20 I think.”

At this point, Alex Bentley called to John from the old road above the house. He arose and walked down the way. I left soon for Camp Goodwater.

Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since 1907.

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 12, 1931

Twenty-two men have been tried during the current term of Letcher Circuit Court and convicted of charges ranging from chicken stealing to murder. All 22 have been transported to the state penitentiary in Frankfort. s

John Burns, about 30, was shot and killed in Cumberland last Saturday night by Bob Turner, about the same age. The trouble, it is said, was brought on by Burns having taken Turner’s wife and living with her. s

Work will start soon on the new Presbyterian Church, to be erected behind the courthouse in Whitesburg. s

A Mayking man died after being hit by an L&N train at Ermine Monday morning. The victim, J.H. Wiggington, about 40, moved here from Ohio. He leaves behind a wife and five children.

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 13, 1941

The bridge at the railroad crossing near Neon Junction collapsed a few days ago and is causing much inconvenience in reaching Neon, Fleming, Hemphill and McRoberts. Motorists are compelled at present to detour to Haymond and then across the hill to Fleming. s

On the war front it seems that things are boiling down to where almost anything can happen. Italy seems to be on the verge of collapse while Hitler is threatening Gibraltar and the Balkans. Wendell Wilkie has returned from Britain and states that British defeat will mean war for Uncle Sam. s

Felix G. Fields announces his candidacy for county judge. s

Whitesburg High School’s Yellowjackets were crowned Big Sandy Conference Basketball champions with their victory in the conference tournament, which finished last Saturday in Paintsville. Whitesburg downed Betsy Layne 37 to 30 in the finals of the event. s

From The Mountain Eagle’s sister publication The Neon News:

FRIDAY FEBRUARY 14, 1941

On Thursday, the whole town of Fleming as well as hundreds of citizens throughout the county were shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of Dr. G.W. Thornbury, who had practiced dentistry in Fleming for several years. His body was found pierced with five bullet wounds from a .38 caliber pistol. He died in the room where he practiced dentistry and from appearances had slept on a couch in the same room the night before his death. s

“A big timber job is starting up in the head of Indian Creek,” writes Democrat News correspondent Miss Anna Tolliver. “Mr. Henry Sergent Jr., sold all of his timber to Steve Caudill, and it’s now being cut. A mill will be brought in soon, and lots of people here plan to get jobs.” s

Through the courtesy of the Bentley Theatre in Neon, the Seco P.T.A. is sponsoring a play entitled “No Time for Comedy” on March 5 and 6. s

On February 17, all the bands of the Jenkins school system will appear in concert at Jenkins. This concert will consist of special offerings from each of the four instrumental groups now organized in the Jenkins system. These are the Advanced Band, Intermediate Band, Beginning Band, and a beginning band in the McRoberts school.

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 15, 1951

A 21-year-old, Pineville, W.Va. cavalryman has revealed how he and a Neon companion escaped an enemy roadblock and fought their way back to allied lines in South Korea after being pinned down by fire for 30 minutes. Private First Class Robert L. Green related the story of the near capture of the two to members of his unit, the 8th Cavalry Regiment, after he and his assistant driver, Pfc. Burkich Griffith of Neon, returned to friendly lines. The two men had been jockeying their Jeep over several miles of reported guerilla territory and were returning to the frontlines. As the Jeep rounded a curve, the two were greeted with hail of automatic weapons and small arms fire. They abandoned their vehicle and took cover. A friendly tank entered, drawing the gunfire and allowing the two men time to crawl back to their Jeep. Meanwhile, the tank had pulled into position where it could direct fire on enemy positions. Green and Griffith saw their chance and made a dash through the blockade. s

A special request that persons do not call the fire department after the siren has sounded was issued by Fire Chief Remus Day. Day said that at least 60 calls were received at the department after the truck had left to put out a brush fire in the Upper Bottom on Tuesday. Day said persons who call to learn of the location of a fire are hindering the fire department. s

A request for state aid on approximately 97 miles of Letcher County roads will be presented to the state by the county, Judge Robert Collins said. Judge Collins said that he and County Attorney J.L. Hays will go to Frankfort in the near future. Included in the request are 8.6 miles of road for blacktop surfacing, 37.1 miles for general construction with stone or rock; and 53.6 for the State Highway Department to take over and maintain. s

“The Outlaw” starring Jane Russell is playing this week at Isaac’s Alene Theater.

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 16, 1961

Voting machines will be used throughout Letcher County in the May 23 primary election. Fiscal court voted Tuesday to purchase 11 additional machines from the Shoup Voting Machine Co. The county already has 21 machines, so that with the new purchase there will be enough for use in each of the county’s 31 precincts — with one to spare in case of emergency. s

Officials of Southern Bell Telephone Co. told members of the Whitesburg Community Development Association the firm would be glad to remove hazardous telephone poles from Whitesburg’s Main Street if someone will pay them $10,000 to do it. The company’s attitude met with cool reception from the citizens present at the meeting. s

The Letcher County Board of Education is considering requiring all teachers at Whitesburg Grade School to have degrees or to be working toward them in order to hold their jobs. Dr. B.F. Wright, board chairman, said he understood all grade school teachers must have degrees in order for the high school to quality as a comprehensive school, the highest state rating offered. s

Airman Third Class Gary Bates, son of Mr. and Mrs. Bates of Premium, recently arrived at Oxan Air Force Base in Korea. Airman Bates attended Whitesburg High School.

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 11, 1971

School children in the lower end of the county have been told that unless they pay a 25-cent entry fee each time they come in, they will no longer be allowed by Calvary College to use the institution’s gymnasium for recreation. The children had been using the gym free of charge since the beginning of the school year last August. The facility is rented from Calvary by the Letcher County School Board for $5,000 a year. Gerald W. Partin, the college’s athletic director, explained that the contract covers only school activities, and that non-school use of the gym is not included. A number of parents in the Blackey area reported that their children were forced to come home since they didn’t know about the newly instituted fee. s

A group of West Virginia coal miners has called on the legislature to revise the state’s laws so that coal operators will be charged with first-degree murder when miners die in accidents caused by uncorrected safety violations. The Black Lung Association, an organization of miners formed in 1968 to push for improved health and safety, said it would present a number of recommendations to the state legislature when the 1971 session convenes. s

“Oliver”, the winner of six Academy Awards, will play this weekend at the Alene Theatre in Whitesburg. s

Airman Henry W. Day, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jack F. Day of Neon, has graduated at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, from the Air Force air freight special course. He was assigned to Nha Trang AB, Vietnam. Airman Day is a 1970 graduate of Fleming-Neon High School.

THURSDAY FEBRUARY 12, 1981

Local officials in eastern Kentucky are wondering this week how county government could survive if the Reagan administration follows through on its proposal to abolish the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration. The two agencies, which provide money for many projects in eastern Kentucky, are targets of Reagan budget cutters. If the two agencies are disbanded, local government in eastern Kentucky would lose a prime source of funds. Several officials are worried that projects already started, such as a water system in Fleming-Neon and a sewer system at Jenkins, would be affected by the cuts. s

An air freight service pilot died when his plane crashed as he attempted an emergency landing at the Whitesburg Municipal Airport. The plane was flying from New York to Gatlinburg or Sevierville, Tenn. s

Many parts of Letcher County were without power Tuesday night as the result of a severe windstorm and rainstorm which struck late Tuesday night and was followed by near-blizzard conditions on Wednesday. s

Letcher County’s jobless rate was 14.1 percent last month. s

Mr. and Mrs. Alex Hall of Ermine celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 13, 1991

The last two schools in the Letcher County School System to vote on school-based decision making have turned it down. Teachers at Beckham Bates Elementary voted 15-2 against the system, and teachers at Fleming- Neon Elementary voted 12 to 11 for the council but the question requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass. District-wide, 193 teachers voted against school-based decision making, and 136 voted for it. Only two of the county’s 14 schools adopted the new system, West Whitesburg Elementary and Hemphill Elementary. s

The City of Fleming-Neon may become a casualty of the war in the Persian Gulf. City officials have been hoping that the federal Soil Conservation Service would dredge Fleming-Neon’s creeks to stop flooding and build a reservoir to supply water to the city. With the military costs of the war in the Middle East at nearly $1 billion a day, Mayor Rick Bevins is afraid the project won’t be done. “That’s just according to how much money they end up taking over to Saudi Arabia,” Bevins said. “That could cancel everything.” s

Police are searching for at least two persons in connection with the early morning burglary of the John B. Adams Store at Isom. The incident occurred about 3:30 a.m., Monday. Sheriff Steve Banks said the burglars broke glass doors at the store and opened the cash registers, but found no money in them. They took at least two leather jackets and possibly some boots, said Banks. An alarm sounded in a neighbor’s home when the burglars broke the glass, and the neighbor called the sheriff’s department. s

Appalshop is assembling a presentation of photos and mementos of area men and women now serving in the Middle East. Families of men and women in service are being asked to share their family stories for a display, titled “Family Ties”.

WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 14, 2001

A hillside collapsed into a silt pond on a Premier Elkhorn Coal Co. strip mine Sunday, sending a torrent of water through the community of Dunham. No one was injured in the spill, but some homes had mud and water up to their porches before the water receded. The pond was the Number 2 sediment pond on Premier Elkhorn’s Job 35. s

Letcher County’s magistrates want to turn the county’s Swannee Industrial Site at Isom back into a working coal tipple. District 4 Magistrate Nolan “Junior” Banks made a motion at a fiscal court meeting to invite Nally & Hamilton Coal Co. and any other company interested in running coal through the old tipple to come to the March meeting of the fiscal court. Nally & Hamilton has reportedly been lobbying state officials to get the site for its use already. The county paid $140,000 for Swannee at a bankruptcy auction in December 1999 with the intention of using it to attract manufacturing jobs to Letcher County. s

What the Clinton administration gave to coal miners, the Bush administration — with the help of a federal judge — has taken away. The judge agreed February 9 to grant a limited stay of new federal rules that are aimed at making it easier for coal miners to receive black lung benefits. Black lung claims will still be processed under the new rules instituted by the Clinton administration during the stay, but nofinal decisions will be made.

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Letcher County student Bettina Vanover of Deane, a center on the University of Virginia’s College at Wise women’s basketball team, leads the Appalachian Athletic Conference in blocked shots. She has blocked 48 shots this season and is averaging 1.71 blocks a game.

WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 16, 2011

School buses in Letcher County and elsewhere in the state could become rolling posterboards for advertisers under legislation passed by the Kentucky House.The measure would give school districts the option of selling advertising space on the exterior sides of school buses. Money generated from the ads would stay in the district, and the local school board would decide how to use it.

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The Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department is looking for the owner of a lost horse found on Arthur’s Loop on Blair Branch on February 7. Lt. LaShawna Frazier, an equine investigator in the sheriff ’s department, said the owner has until February 23 to claim the horse or it will be considered abandoned and will be given away.

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