"Devil John" Wesley Wright
"Devil John" Wesley Wright
Children of Bad John Wright.
Letcher County Kentucky
Letcher County, the ninety-fifth county in order of formation, is located
in southeastern Kentucky. It is bounded by Harlan, Perry, Knott, and Pike
counties in Kentucky and by Wise County, Virginia, and contains 339 square
The county was formed in 1842 from portions of Perry and Harlan
counties, and was named for Gov. Robert E Letcher (1840-44). The county
seat is WHITESBURG.
The terrain of Letcher County is rugged and
mountainous, with narrow but fertile valleys along the streams. Three of
the state's major rivers-the Cumberland, the North Fork of the Kentucky,
and the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy-all have headwaters in the county.
Resources are coal, oil, and timber. In 1987 farms occupied only 2 percent
of the land, with poultry and corn being the major crops.
Gap of Pine Mountain on the county's eastern border with Virginia placed
it on a pioneer trail into the state, but most of the first pioneers only
passed through, settling elsewhere.
In 1795 Peter Whitaker built a cabin
on what is now Whitaker's Branch. Nine years later George Ison II and his
family settled on Line Fork.
Other early settlers were Benjamin Webb of
Maryland, James Caudill of Virginia, and William Stamper of North
Carolina. By 1806 nearly every main creek area had been settled by one or
more families. By 1810 there were over one hundred different families
Between 1810 and 1840 the population grew rapidly.
Most people settled in the vicinity of Mayking, but the county seat went
to Whitesburg, two miles to the southwest.
The new county was visited by
Confederate and Union armies that passed through the strategic Pound Gap
during the Civil War. At Pound Gap, on March 16, 1862, Brig. Gen. James A.
Garfield and seven hundred Union troops defeated a Confederate force of
five hundred under the command of Gen. Humphrey Marshall.
took place in late 1863 near Whitesburg, and on June 1, 1864, John Hunt
Morgan's Confederate cavalry dislodged a Union force from Pound
Civil War violence was only a prelude to greater bloodletting in the forty
or so years after the Civil War in many of the counties surrounding
Letcher; Letcher County was less tumultuous, but some FEUDS reached it as
The Wright-Jones feud, which began in Knott County in 1886, carried
over to Letcher County, and continued until both clans called a lasting
truce around 1895.
Violence resurfaced in 1897 between the Wrights and the
Reynolds families, but by 1900 feuding was on the wane.
coal speculation by big business began in Letcher County. From 1903 to
1905 a great deal of the county's mineral rights were deeded by residents
to buyers that included Consolidation, Elkhorn, and South-East coal
The companies established the towns Of JENKINS, Fleming,
McRoberts, and Seco (South-East Coal Co.) and by November of 1912 had
completed the Lexington & Eastern Railroad (now CSX Transportation)
from Breathitt County to McRoberts.
Eastern European immigrants and
Afro-Americans from the Deep South worked the mines and built the
railroads. Some of the newcomers were highly skilled Italian artisans who
constructed fine stone bridges and houses.
Around 1898, John Fox,
Jr., first visited Letcher County, the setting of two of his best-sellers,
Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903) and The Trail of the
Lonesome Pine (1908).
The latter characterized "Bad" John Wright and
his feud. To honor the contribution of Fox to the mountain people, Kingdom
Come State Park was founded in 1962 in the southwestern part of the
With the coming of industry, the county surrendered some of
its isolation. But residents had become dependent upon mining and suffered
greatly during the Great Depression years.
A flood that swept the area on
May 30, 1927, heightened the misery. The Works Progress Administration
(WPA) created some employment, and World War II's industrial boom and the
demand for coal stimulated mining.
During the war, 174 county men were
killed in military action. Out migration from Letcher County was heavy;
between 1940 and 1950 the population declined by 1,007.
continued during the 1950s (9,420 fewer people) and in the 1960s (6,837
fewer). With the decline in the production of coal, the companies had sold
off their towns by the 1960s.
National attention focused on the county's
economic depression and the substandard living conditions portrayed by
Harry CAUDILL's Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1963).
Whitesburg lawyer, helped to inspire President Lyndon B. Johnson's WAR ON
In 1990 coal mining continued to be a mainstay of the
local economy. Most jobs in the county are in mining and quarrying,
wholesale and retail trade, services, or the county school system. There
are relatively few manufacturing positions.
The population of the
rural county was 23,165 in 1970; 30,687 in 1980; and 27,000 in
See William T Cornett, Letcher County, Kentucky: A Brief
History (Prestonsburg, Ky., 1967); I.A. Bowles, History of Letcher County,
Kentucky (Hazard, Ky., 1949).
CSA Vet, Pinkerton Man, Showman, Sheriff, Federal Marshal for SE
Kentucky and Western Virginia Bounty Hunter. Better known as: "John Wesley Wright", "Tall
Sycamore of the Elkhorn", "Bad John Wright", "Devil John" Wright
April 1844 - 30 January 1931
One of the most colorful men
in Eastern Kentucky history was a man known as "Devil" (or "Bad") John
Wright. John was a grandson of
Joel Martin Wright and also
Bates - two of Letcher County's pioneer families.
He (Devil John Wright) was the great
grandson of William Payne Johnson.. He was the son of Joel Ellis Wright
and Eliza Agnes Bates Wright.
John served as Sheriff of Wise Co.,
VA, and was at one time a Pinkerton Agent. It was from these years as a
lawman the John was given the nickname of "Devil John".
When tracking an
enemy or an outlaw, John never relented until he got his man...thus to be
chased by John Wright was to have the Devil himself at your heels.
John joined the Confederate Army in the Civil War prior to his
17th birthday. He remained in the service throughout the war. After the
war John and his Uncle Martin Van Buren Bates
joined the Robinson Circus.
John performed as a trick rider and sharp shooter and Martin as "The
Kentucky Mountain Giant".
There are three men who have to be
mentioned when discussing the life of John Wright: Talton "Talt"Hall, son
of Dave Hall from Floyd Co., was the best friend of "Devil John."
Talt Hall was
wanted for numerous murders, but even though most of John's life was spent
as a lawman, he made no attempt to arrest him.
Jones of Beaver Creek had a life long feud with "Devil John." Each had
their own gang of men and would often raid the others" home.
There is a
story of both planning a raid for the same time in the middle of the night
and on the way unknowingly passing each other in the dark.
Marshall Benton Taylor,
more commonly known as "The Red Fox," was
a herb doctor and delivered many babies throughout the mountains.
Taylor also had a dark side and was the central figure in the murders of
the Ira Mullins family. These murders which are referred to as "The Pound
Gap Massacre," took place at at a site known today as "Killing Rock,"
which is located in Wise Co., VA just across the KY state line.
Several books and numerous newspaper articles have been written
about "Devil John" Wright. The character Devil Judd Tolliver, in the novel
"The Trail of the Lonesome Pine"
by John Fox, Jr., was based on John
Devil John Wright of the Cumberlands" is a complete history of
his life written by his son, William T. "Chid" Wright.
John had 35
children by several different women. At this time the only marriage record
that has been found is one for John & Martha "Mattie" Humphrey dated
l4 Oct l866 (Cynthiana, KY Courthouse File #5869).
It has been reported
that he married Ellen Sanders shortly before he was baptized in July l929.
Wives and Children of Devil John Wright
Humphrey | Serilda Austin
Austin * | Mary Bentley | Ellen Sanders |
India Harmon *
Children of John & Mattie:
- James Henderson Wright born May l870 died 3 August l928 married lst Laura
Whitaker, married 2nd Cora Fleming Mullins
- Johnny Philip Wright born l9 August l875
died l2 Septeomber l898 married Mary Chaney
Reynolds, the daughter of
Henry Reynolds and Frances Matilda Baker. Mary Chaney Reynolds married 2nd
- Joel Wright born l870
Children of John & Serilda Austin:
- Enoch F. Wright born l7 February l869 died 5 August l952 married Louisa Warwick
- James Martin born 29 May l872 died l October l950 married Alice Johnson.
Children of John & Mary Bentley:
- Flora Custus Wright born 27 April l876 married Emmet Cantrell
- Liza Wright born 29 June l878 married Sam Vanover
- Alice Wright born 25 October l88l married (1st) Allen Burton and married
(2nd) John Houston
- Elizabeth Wright born l0 August l885 died 25 May l97l married Riley Mullins
- Easter Wright born l6 February l884 married (1st) Wade Ratliff and married
(2nd) James Bryant
- Samuel Preston Wright born 25 October l888 married Mahala Branham
- Myrtle Wright born September l892 died January l922 married Charles Meeks
- John Wright Jr. died in infancy.
Children of John & Ellen Sanders
- Joel E. Wright born 29 June l883 married 3 January 1907 to Mary C
Reynolds, daughter of
Reynolds and Mary Manerva Morgan. Mary C Reynolds was born 15 July
1882 and died 19 November 1961.
- Daniel S. Wright born 23 May l885 died 23 May l964 married Melvina Mullins
- Healtha Wright born 2 May l887 died l939 married Ben Mullins
- Joel "Ira" E. Wright born l2 June l889 died February 1955 married Martha
Children of John & Alice Harmon:
- Frank Wampler Wright born l August l894 married Bertha Adams
- Bertha Wright born 26 January l896 died 3l January l974 married Willie Church
- William Troy Wright born 5 August l897 died l9 April l985 married Belle Maynard
- Conrad W. Wright born l0 September l899 died l903
- Mallie Wright born about 1900
- Elizabeth Wright born 8 October l90l died l902 age 2 years.
- Clarence Wright born 24 September l903 died l0 October l979 married Alta Mullins
- Chester A. Wright born l0 October l905 died in infancy
- Carlous Ray Wright born 26 May l907 married Ida Rutherford
- Maudie Belle Wright born 27 August l909 died l987 married Orville Bevins
- Charles Roe Wright born 7 February l9l2 married Belvia Gibson
- Kedrick C. Wright born 7 August l9l5 died June l983 married Eleda Robinette
Children of John & India Harmon:
- Virgie Wright born September l895 died age l4/l5
- Alma Wright born about l904
- Jennie Wright
- Rausy V. Wright born l898
Children of John & Margaret J. Austin:
- Mahala E. Wright born about l866
- Mack Jesse Wright born about l872
information on these two women and their children came from interviews
with a number of elderly Letcher County, KY residents.
Devil John Wright's
Service in the Civil War
WRIGHT, JOHN "DEVIL JOHN": Co. _. Previously served as a member of the VSL.
Mentioned on p. 20, PRSWVA recollections of David W. Austin, and may have a
member of the VSL, and recalled: "John Wright went into the war about the middle
He joined the Rebels and served with them the rest of the war. The first
man he killed was Little Rube Potter. Potter had been in the army and heard his
family was starving and had no shoes to wear during the winter. So he came home
without leave, and the guard was sent after him.
John Wright was a member of the guard.
When they got near Potter's home, Potter saw them coming and knew they were
after him. He was making home - made shoes for his children. He jumped up and
tried to get away.
But as he jumped the fence near the house, John Wright shot
him and he died from the wound. John killed alot of other men, but I don't think
he was ever punished for any of the killings. John Wright married or lived with