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"Devil John" Wesley Wright

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 miles.

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.

The Pound 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 living there.

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.

Other skirmishes took place in late 1863 near Whitesburg, and on June 1, 1864, John Hunt Morgan's Confederate cavalry dislodged a Union force from Pound Gap.


The 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 well.

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.

In 1885, 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 companies.

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, The 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 county.

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.

The trend 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).

Caudill, a Whitesburg lawyer, helped to inspire President Lyndon B. Johnson's WAR ON POVERTY.

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 1990.

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
17 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 John Wallis 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.

Claborne "Clabe" 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.

Marshall 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 Wright.

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

Martha "Mattie" Humphrey | Serilda Austin | Margaret Austin * | Mary Bentley | Ellen Sanders | Alice Harmon | India Harmon * |
Children of John & Mattie:
  1. James Henderson Wright born May l870 died 3 August l928 married lst Laura Whitaker, married 2nd Cora Fleming Mullins
  2. Johnny Philip Wright born l9 August l875 died l2 Septeomber l898 married Mary Chaney Reynolds, the daughter of William Henry Reynolds and Frances Matilda Baker. Mary Chaney Reynolds married 2nd Tilden McFall.
  3. Joel Wright born l870

Children of John & Serilda Austin:
  1. Enoch F. Wright born l7 February l869 died 5 August l952 married Louisa Warwick
  2. James Martin born 29 May l872 died l October l950 married Alice Johnson.

Children of John & Mary Bentley:

  1. Flora Custus Wright born 27 April l876 married Emmet Cantrell
  2. Liza Wright born 29 June l878 married Sam Vanover
  3. Alice Wright born 25 October l88l married (1st) Allen Burton and married (2nd) John Houston
  4. Elizabeth Wright born l0 August l885 died 25 May l97l married Riley Mullins
  5. Easter Wright born l6 February l884 married (1st) Wade Ratliff and married (2nd) James Bryant
  6. Samuel Preston Wright born 25 October l888 married Mahala Branham
  7. Myrtle Wright born September l892 died January l922 married Charles Meeks
  8. John Wright Jr. died in infancy.

Children of John & Ellen Sanders

  1. Joel E. Wright born 29 June l883 married 3 January 1907 to Mary C Reynolds, daughter of Joseph Coleman Reynolds and Mary Manerva Morgan. Mary C Reynolds was born 15 July 1882 and died 19 November 1961.
  2. Daniel S. Wright born 23 May l885 died 23 May l964 married Melvina Mullins
  3. Healtha Wright born 2 May l887 died l939 married Ben Mullins
  4. Joel "Ira" E. Wright born l2 June l889 died February 1955 married Martha Vermillion

Children of John & Alice Harmon:

  1. Frank Wampler Wright born l August l894 married Bertha Adams
  2. Bertha Wright born 26 January l896 died 3l January l974 married Willie Church
  3. William Troy Wright born 5 August l897 died l9 April l985 married Belle Maynard
  4. Conrad W. Wright born l0 September l899 died l903
  5. Mallie Wright born about 1900
  6. Elizabeth Wright born 8 October l90l died l902 age 2 years.
  7. Clarence Wright born 24 September l903 died l0 October l979 married Alta Mullins
  8. Chester A. Wright born l0 October l905 died in infancy
  9. Carlous Ray Wright born 26 May l907 married Ida Rutherford
  10. Maudie Belle Wright born 27 August l909 died l987 married Orville Bevins (Blevins)
  11. Charles Roe Wright born 7 February l9l2 married Belvia Gibson
  12. Kedrick C. Wright born 7 August l9l5 died June l983 married Eleda Robinette

Children of John & India Harmon:

  1. Virgie Wright born September l895 died age l4/l5
  2. Alma Wright born about l904
  3. Jennie Wright
  4. Rausy V. Wright born l898

Children of John & Margaret J. Austin:

  1. Mahala E. Wright born about l866
  2. Mack Jesse Wright born about l872


    *The 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 of it.

    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 several women...."


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