OLD MAN WRIGHT RIDES INTO EXILE
So as to Git Away From Trouble, This Settler of the Hills--Fighter and Killer--Sits Astride His Mare and Goes Slowly Down to the Valleys.
By HARRY R. BURKE
Of the Post-Dispatch Staff
PIKEVILLE, KENTUCKY--Old Man Lige Wright packed his traps in the saddlebags and gingerly pulled himself across the back of his good bay mare. He rode out then through Osborn Gap and into Virginia slowly. For Old Man Lige Wright was doing the hardest thing he had ever done. He was running away from trouble.
Back of him was a lifetime of warfare. And ELIJAH WRIGHT was essentially a man of peace. He feared no one. He told no lies. And he paid his debts. There were notches on his gun--speaking figuratively--but that was Lige Wright's misfortune. The luckiest unlucky man that ever lived! Twice he had been condemned to spend his life in the penitentiary. Once he had been sentenced to hang by the neck until he was dead. And in Virginia--whither now he was going--Elijah Wright had served to the full a life sentence for murder. For in the Commonwealth of Virginia, eighteen years in prison is, constructively, a life term. His debt to the Commonwealth had been paid in full.
Four years ago at the door of the penitentiary, the Commonwealth of Virginia had given Elijah Wright a suit of clothes and a bill and sent him out to face life's battle. And he had gone back to his native Kentucky hills to begin once again. There trouble had come upon him--trouble that was not of his own seeking, though the moonshine liquor that brought it on had been. And now he was going into voluntary exile. It was not that he was afraid. In the old man's face you could read the fearlessness of an eagle. There was no man lived who could say that Old Man Lige Wright was afraid. He had leaped too often to meet death face to face.
His right hand, which gingerly held the reins as the bay mare ambled through the gap, was still stiff from a deep cut between forefinger and the stub of what at one time had been his thumb. This cut was a mark left by the butcher knife when he seized it as his enemy lunged that night last March. And as he rode into exile Old Man Lige Wright thanked God that those enemies from behind had knocked him senseless with his own gun--taken while he wasn't looking from his saddlebags, wounding him so sorely that he rode even now in a dizzy haze and sometimes saw double as images danced before his eyes. He thanked God that the blow had prevented him from seizing that murderous knife and turning it against the wielder.
"A sorry lot," he muttered. "They entreated me cruel."
They had thought him dead. But there was life in the old man yet. "He'll be dead before morning," the Deputy Sheriff had said when he was called in at Ran Speer's cabin just above the forks of Long Fork in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky. But Elijah Wright didn't die. Down in the Methodist Hospital at Pikeville he had been won back to life by the skill and care of Dr. Adam Osborne.
"You ought to leave this country, Uncle Lige," the doctor had said as the old man won back strength. And Elijah, looking on him with those dumb-hurt eyes, answered:
"You're a young man, son, and I'm old. But after I git back up Shelby Creek I'll ask your paw, and whatever he says I'll obey him. But I don't like to run out of this country like I was skeered. I never took it on myself to obey any man before, But if he says "Go, I'll go."
And so it was Squire Osborne, the doctor's father, who, as Justice of the Peace, upholds the law over 250 square miles of Kentucky mountain country, that passed the sentence of exile.
"There's men in these bills is afeered of you, Uncle Lige," he said. "And they'll bushwack you if they git the chanst. I don't guess you've got no call to be skeered of a brave man. But the cowards ....... "
"I ain't afeerd of no man," Lige Wright answered.
"But, there's bound to be trouble," the Squire continued, "and your friends .... "
"i don't aim to worry my friends none," Elijah said, his thoughts turning to the offer the Squire had made before this happened to furnish him land and finance his crop for farming. "I don't sim to worry them none. I'll do what you say, Squire."
And he kept his word, so that Shelby Creek breathed easier as the old man rode out, through the mountains. From his mountains, where the poplar, walnut, and oak budded in tender green. Where the rhododendron was almost ready to burst into bloom.
"He's a great old warrior," said my friend Squire Osborne, when I confided my desire to meet Elijah Wright. "No man ever looked too big for him to defend himself. He'd tell the truth whether he took a Bible oath or not, and hit wouldn't make no difference if the truth would stretch the neck of Elijah Wright. He never owed a penny that he didn't pay. And there ain't a man in these hills that would do a honester day's work than him."
It was fighting' stock that Lige Wright came from. Over at Wise, Virginia, is the patriarch of his family, his cousin Old Man John M. Wright, as the mountaineers say. Last fall four prohibits, on agents came upon John M. Wright as he rode across the mountains.
"Any good likker in those saddlebags, Uncle John?" they asked.
"Gentlemen," he answered, according to the story. "I don't guess it's any of your business what's in them bags. I can give you a drink, thougb."
"We don't want a drink of whisky," they answered. "Let's see what's in them bags."
"Have you a search warrant, gentlemen?'" The old man's tones
"Then, gentlemen, if you try to see what's in them saddlebags hit will take a whole lot more time tendin' to dead men than you-all can spare from your duties for Uncle Sam."
And he rode on...untouched.
Sometimes he's called "Bad John" down here. And half-jokingly they say that old John M. has his private graveyard. But he confided to a friend:
"I'm as sure of heaven as I am of sittin' here. I never stole nothin' I never cheated no widders nor orphans. I aim't a liar. I never meddled none. I've always paid every cent I owed. Some says I'm a bad man and have done right smart of killin'. But the Lord put me here in a mean tough country and the Lord knows them fellers ought to been killed."
Fearlessness, a respect for law, honesty, a sense of honor, a rough-hewn theory of justice; that is the Wright code.
It was that rough-hewn theory of justice made Elijah Wright a killer--a bad man.
Four days before I saw him he had lain in his brother Booker's cabin up Burke Branch and friends thought he would die. Now his strength was coming back and he had ridden the bay mare down to the farm of the nearby preacher and Deputy Sheriff, to get his gun again. He now rode back, exhausted by his journeying, to stop at Squire Osborne's and it was there I met him.
Once powerful, now he was bent and broken. His frame was crooked and stooped. Every movement proclaimed his weakness. He seated himself in the splint-bottomed chair as though he had come to stay forever. And he sat there, hunched over, silent, as a bald eagle sits hopelessly in the wire cage at a zoo.
Eagle-like were bis features. A high forehead, a long angular nose, nostrils sensitively moulded, his mouth firm yet curved, his chin rugged and strong. And after a while he talked for the first time in his life. "My livin' is useless now to me," he said, "maybe I can make it useful to some young man." And so he told his story.
"I was raised right," he said, "but hit didn't do no good. My mammy tried to keep me outen trouble but after my paw died, I'd got to totin' a pistol, and once she made me leave it at home. But Burr-head Bentley got to pesterin' my brother that day an' I took hit up and I busted his head with a rock. Folks wanted him to law me. But he wouldn't. He said he was goin' to get square himself. I sent him word that was the kind of a man I liked. I was just a goslin' of a boy then. Seventeen, I didn't have sense enough to be askeered."
He was 17, too, when the Wright fight of 1880 made history in the Kentucky mountains, and put Elijah Wright, for two years, in the shadow of the penitentiary. He had killed two wuthless dawgs belonging to his mother. His brothers resented it. They complained to Martin Wright, a cousin who was Justice of the Peace. And Martin, instead of issuing a warrant, headed a posse to take Lige. "Black Hawk Wright, Elijah's youngest brother bitterly had declared that somebody was going to be killed when Lige was arrested, and that he didn't like Lige anyway.
Eleven men were in the posse that surrounded Sam Wright's cabin in Chestnut Patch, at the upper end of what is now McRoberts, Kentucky, that January night and of the eleven all but three were Elijah's kinfolks--two brothers, some cousins, some uncles. Within the little cabin were Sam and his family, Elijah and a man named Johnson. It was 11:00 o'clock when suddenly they were aroused by pounding and a shout; "Damn you, open that door," according to the story of the fight as it is told in the Kentucky Supreme Court Reports.
"Damn you, open hit yourself if you want hit open," was the answer, and the door was kicked in--so the court record tells--the "shutter falling on Johnson," who thus disappears from the story.
"They scrushed the door offen hits hinges," 01d Man Lige Wright said, fixing his hearer with frank blue eyes, "and we come up a-shootin', but they'd been whoopin' hit up with corn likker before they come, an' hit would be hard to say who shot first.
A 32 owl-head pistol was what I pertended to use and brother Sam had had an old cap and ball rifle--'hawg rifle', he called em. They was Bill Lunce, he was a cousin of Wright blood, too--and he shot at me with a needle rifle. I was between him and the fireplace, and the flames tbar was the only light we had to shoot by ceptin' the moonlight on the snow outside. His first bullet went through my shirt and come out about eight inches back. Hit shot the wind outen me, and burned my hide, and I fell back, and caught myself on one knee right thar on the hearth."
"The room was filled with powder smoke and the flicker of flames an' the flash of the guns and the screamin' of Sam's woman and ther kids. An' Sam and I was shootin' just the best we could.
Reporter, who cried out, "For God's sake stop shootin' into this house," and his words were heard above the screaming of his wife and the cursing of his kin-folks as he added, "You've already killed my children."
"Doc" Perdue, who was a lawyer and a preacher, and one of the three not of the Wright clan, persuaded the others to fall back, and the attacking party retreated to the corn-crib down the hill.
"And we after them," continued Lige, stealin' around the corner of the cabin, Sam on one side and me on t'other. And from the corn-crib they started shootin' again.
"Sam got in the corner of the chimbley and one of his balls drapped Uncle Bill Wright, who was the only unarmed man among 'em. And "Black Hawk," my brother, he killed Cousin Andy Wright--fer they were all m..ed up--and he was takin' him for me."
"After that they moved out, taking Uncle Bill with them down to Martin Wright's cabin, where he died. And Sam and me hid out in the bresh that night, across the creek, and next morning we seed them come along and prize Cousin Andy loose from the snow, for he'd frozen thar, and then we lit out for Elkhorn City and give ourselves up."
Sam Wright was found guilty of murder for killing his Uncle Bill and Elijah was named as an accessary. Both were sentenced to the penitentiary for life. Followed a long legal battle, after which the Supreme Court freed both. And the case is famous in Kentucky annals, for they were freed because the attacking party had no warrant and the Supreme Court in its decision fixed once and for all the status of a Kentucky officer who seeks to invade a home without a warrant for arrest.
Twenty-three months they spent in jail awaiting the court's decision. Twenty-three months and the court declared they were innocent. The wrong was righted. "And I came out of thar," said Elijah Wright, "flint-hard."
Then tragedy threatened his life in the shooting of George Henry Hunt of Elkhorn City, the time Gilbert Bentley wanted a license to sell whiskey there in 1894.
Picture the election day. Three of four hundred people, perhaps, who had ridden in to the polls, their mules and saddlehorses tied to the brush along the creek...Rough men, in blue denim and spurred boots, with broad black slouch hats. There was a flat of 60 acres at Elkhorn City, from which the mountains rose, and on the flat, beneath a cedar tree, the polls were placed. Nearby a prohibition-ist--who is now Judge Childress of the Circuit Court at Pikeville--was proclaiming the evils of drink. At Gilbert Bentley's house was a barrel of whiskey. It flowed freely. Everyone who wanted a drink, got it. That was the way of elections then.
"And I verily believe," said Judge Childress, "that the liquor folks could have carried the day."
After a Life-time of Fighting, He is Now a Man of Peace. Leaving an Unruly
Ex-istence in the Kentucky Highlands, He is Going to Virginia to Seek a Quieter, More Peaceful Land.
Monroe Wright, Lige's brother, was there and so was George Henry Hunt, and both had voted and were riding away when one shouted something to the other, and there was an exchange of words and a disagreement and both men dismounted to "take hit up." George Henry Hunt drew his Barlow knife and started for young Wright. Lige Wright stepped between them.
"You stand back, George Henry," he shouted.
"But he never let on that he heerd me," explained Uncle Lige, "and I told him again, but he wouldn't obey. So I just jabbed him with my pistol and the bullet went clean through him."
George Henry fell and Gilbert Bentley and Orville Cure rushed him into Bentley's cabin. They though to take his dying statement for the courts. He was placed on oath.
"George Henry," they said, "who killed you?"
"Lige Wright killed me," he said.
"And how did he do it?"
"He did hit with his blue-steel .45."
That statement was in evidence when they tried Lige Wright for the shooting. Somewhere in Pike County's archives it is said to be yet today. But Lige was sentenced to but two years in prison for George Henry quite recovered. He presented Elijah with the bullet that had pierced him and was one of the first to ask a pardon for the man who had shot him. They have been good friends ever since.
And the shooting turned the trend of the election. "It wasn't my speech," says Judge Childress. "But after the shooting Elkhorn City voted dry."
His two years in prison taught Lige Wright a lesson. "I'll carry no more guns," he said. It was the other fellow's gun that got him sentenced to hang. It was in the fall of 1903 and there was a corn-shuckin' at the farm of Patton Wills, in Dickinson County, Virginia. They had been working in the field of corn--Will Cyphers, Lige and group of boys.
"They was just young fellers who didn't know no better than to fight," Old Man Lige Wright explained to me, "and Will Cyphers was a-aigin' 'em on. They'd been some likker to drink and them boys was quarrelsome enough. And hit seemed pretty small business gettin' 'em into a fight."
"We was walkin' along the road between two fences goin' back to the cabin. I didn't like what Will was doin' Finally I says, Will, I say you're afixin' to get them boys in right smart trouble and they'll have to pay out a lot to fines and maybe go to jail."
You're a liar," he says, "And maybe you want to take hit up, and he pulled out his .38 Smith & Wesson."
"Sometimes I wish I could be aferred, but I ain't. I lookeddown the barrel of that revolver. He was only eight or nine steps away. I give a jump for hit. And he fired."
"The ball hit me just like that Bill Lunce fired. Went through my shirt, right at the waist, and burned the hide and took my breath. So I staggered back, and then made another jump, and afore he could pull the trigger I had gripped the chamber of his revolver with my right hand, so hit wouldn't turn none.
"He must a-been a-thinkin' so hard about pullin' the trigger he didn't have no sense about anything else. And I just reached with my left hand and gripped his fingers, about the revolver's butt, and they wasn't any power in them and they came loose.
"So I had the gun. And without thinkin'--for there wasn't time to think--I just turned hit on him and shot him--daid."
The old man was silent again.
Self-defense, or murder? Two juries could not decide. In Clintwood Courthouse Old Man Lige Wright was tried again.
"By a fool way a speakin'," he said, "they tried me from the cradle to the grave. Every fight I was ever in they told about. Every time I'd shot, or been shot at. And they sentenced me to hang."
The very bitterness of the prosecution of this Kentucky bad man was his salvation. Because all that evidence had been admitted, the Supreme Court gave him a new trial. Again he was convicted. He had disarmed his enemy and was not in danger the jury held. His sentence was for life.
"And I didn't have no money nor no sperit to appeal," he concluded simply.
Eighteen years in the Commonwealth of Virginia constitutes a life sentence. Lige Wright, with his good-time allowance served 13 years eight months eleven days. More than 10 years was spent on the Virginia Prison farm where he had charge of the bloodhounds. A trusty, he was sent with them unattended, all over the State. But despite the breaks of travel the time was long. "I promised the Lord," he said to me, "that I'd come back here where I was raised and never have no trouble any more."
But trouble had come. The old man looked back on the hills Kentucky where he was born.
"A sorry sort of men," he said, recalling his assailants.
His head still bothered where his brother with a Barlow knife, had dug out the hammer of his gun, which the blow they struck him left in there. "As ill as a copperhead," he added, musing.
And Lige spurred up the horse. His good bay mare went into a canter to carry him far down out of the hills--into his exile.
Sunday Magazine--St. Louis Post Dispatch--May 9, 1926