Uncle Bill and Little Andy Wright
Nancy Wright Bays, Patricia Brashear, Nancy Clark Brown and Ben Luntz
Copyright: January 2007
The authors of this article have recently published the first historical account of the 1885 Jones-Wright feud. In this book there is a section which covers the tragic murders of Uncle Bill Wright and Little Andy Wright. These killings occurred shortly after the Jones-Wright feud had come to an end. Along with the details taken from the book on the 1885 Jones-Wright feud the authors possessed more information about Sam and Elijah Wright and this extra material was also added to this article.
Over the years there have been several brief accounts given of the events surrounding the deaths of Uncle Bill and Little Andy. Unfortunately, most of these were highly inaccurate and all of them had few, if any, actual details. Only two accounts, an article written in the Mountain Eagle by Burdine Webb, and an article written in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch were reasonably accurate. These articles did not give all the details of what actually happened and it is only now, over one hundred years after the killings, that a complete account is finally available. From a variety of sources that include documents, newspapers and official reports from the 1880s that have never been seen since that time, as well as sources directly related to Uncle Bill’s immediate family, a detailed account of the tragic killing of Uncle Bill and Little Andy has finally been written.
The events described in what follows occurred in the area of Letcher County, Kentucky that is now known as McRoberts. William and Nancy Wright lived in what was then known as Sheas Fork. They were known throughout their community for their kindness and generosity. William was referred to as Uncle Bill and Nancy as Aunt Nancy by those who knew them. William Wright was the youngest child of Joel and Susannah Wright. Joel and Susannah had moved to Letcher County, Kentucky from Virginia around the first decade of the 1800s, and they were the parents of the first generation of Wrights who were born and raised in that county.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy adopted the illegitimate son, Little Andy, of one of Uncle Bill’s sisters and also the illegitimate son, William S. Wright, of one of Uncle Bill’s nieces. By the mid 1880s, the adopted sons, William S. and Little Andy, had grown up and now had families of their own. They lived not far from Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy.
The hardships and difficulties brought on by the Civil War had faded somewhat by the 1880s, and by this time Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy had achieved some degree of prosperity and happiness. Sadly, evil was about to descend upon this happy place and take from it the kind presence of Uncle Bill, and also that of his adopted son, Little Andy.
The excerpt below is from an article written by Burdine Webb in the September 4th, 1941 edition of The Mountain Eagle. It gives us a view of the world in which Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy lived. They are mentioned in the article along with the tragic circumstances of Uncle Bill’s death. The time period to which Burdine Webb refers in this article is during the winter of 1885-86 when he was an eleven year old boy.
OF THE LONG AGO-
McRoberts of Today
by Burdine Webb
A few days ago I saw Wright’s Fork and the town of McRoberts that lies along its waters, Shea’s Fork, Chopping Branch, Tom Biggs and Bark Camp– but it was a different picture to that of the long ago when, as a barefoot, one-gallused boy I trudged along pebbled creeks to the old school house which stood exactly where The Consolidation office and the post office have quarters now, where two of my older brothers taught “the young idea” in the olden days, when settlements were scant in these parts. It was a house now and then, one on Shea’s Fork, the hospitable home of Uncle Bill Wright, one on Chopping Branch, one on Tom Biggs, one at its mouth, and one or two further up. Uncle Jess Wright, brother of Capt. John Wright of the old days, had his log cabin home on the extreme head of the creek, and like the home of Uncle Bill, it was a haven of rest. No one was ever turned away.
And I will remember, as long as I live, how that long, burdened table groaned with good things to eat.
It was “exhibition time” at the little school—the last day, a bleak December noonday, when a few recitations, a short talk from my brother, the teacher, a handful of patrons, and the term of school for that year ended. I recall recollections back from the haunts of the long past, and what Uncle Bill, the lone resident of Shea’s Fork said to Brother and I, “Dinner’s waiting for you and you’re going up to eat.” Yes, we went along, down the creek apiece, then up Shea’s Fork—it seemed a mile, along the zigzag creek, with tall, stately trees, proud monarchs of the forest clear down to the water’s edge—not a “stick amiss.”
Around Uncle Bill’s home was a clearing, a smaller cleared field, a pasture, an open top well in front of the house, a barn across the way. Inside there was a home of plenty, and the cleverness and hospitality of he and his wife, Aunt Nancy, attracted more than anything else. The very atmosphere breathed of their goodness. If two generous, saintly, God-fearing people ever lived it was these. That table—well, it would take a long, long waste of words to describe its fullness; fine poplar honey, fresh spare ribs, ham, fried chicken, pies, cakes and everything else that would attract the appetite.
From Aunt Nancy it was “...let me give you some of this and some of that” until I was forced to leave the table full to the larynx.
Three months later, in the month of March, poor old, blessed Uncle Bill Wright answered the call, not by a natural death, but from a felon’s bullet that ended all, and the country mourned. I heard it said by every one, “No better man ever lived.” And in the same deplorable battle, “Little Andy” Wright died like Uncle Bill. “Little Andy” was his nephew. It was a mere, simple little dog fight, and Lige and Sam Wright, relatives of the two victims, angered, shot their rifles empty, leaving Uncle Bill and “Little Andy” dead in fifteen inches of snow. Lige was shot, but he recovered. And all this because of a simple dog fight, It is a sickening story, a dark and bloody tragedy, that I have regretted to reiterate—but I never think of Shea’s Fork without my mind reverting back to that dismal, heartless day in the long ago.
Today the only remnant that is left of the Uncle Bill place is the open top well. I stood beside it on my visit there, and thought, retrospective of Uncle Bill, Aunt Nancy, and their goodness. A tear to their precious memory.
Today the Fork is teeming with good people, quiet, contented, prosperous. You have only to mention Uncle Bill Wright and they know the story. ..........
End of article.
For the first time the details of the events surrounding the tragic killings described in Burdine Webb’s article are given below.
The murder of Uncle Bill and Little Andy.
From a variety of sources, newspaper accounts and documents we now have a fairly detailed account of the events surrounding the killing of William Wright (Uncle Bill) and Andy Wright (Little Andy).
The source and cause of the trouble that led to Uncle Bill’s and Little Andy’s tragic deaths was moonshine whiskey. Samuel and Elijah “Lige” Wright, Andrew Jackson Wright’s sons, had begun to drink heavily in the years following their father’s death. Along with this consumption of whiskey they also played a great deal of poker and, as a result, repeatedly lost their money.
Uncle Bill was uncle to the brothers: Samuel, Elijah, Black Hawk and Isaac Wright. He had always been close to their father and had always tried to help their family after their father’s death. Uncle Bill and his brother Andrew had served in the Confederate Army together in Caudill’s Regiment of the Kentucky Infantry. Already close, the hardship and dangers of war formed between them a much closer and lasting bond. Andrew had named his first son, who was born in 1847, after William. Andrew’s son, William, because of his dark skin, would later be known as Black Hawk or Black Bill. Note that the label “Black” did not necessarily mean someone was dark skinned. It was also used when someone had dark hair, dark eyebrows and dark eyes. This label was often used when there were two close relatives with the same first names. This was done to distinguish the two relatives.
After the death of Andrew Wright, who died of a fever, Uncle Bill had helped his nephews, Elijah and Samuel Wright, a great deal. There came a time, though, when he could no longer put up with Elijah and Samuel. For some time he had helped them with money and resources but finally had come to realize they were throwing a good deal of the money away on whiskey and poker. He would always help their families but he had decided to end his handouts to them. Samuel and Elijah did not take this very well and became angry with Uncle Bill. There was an incident during this time having to do with a hog that belonged to Uncle Bill, Ben Bentley and Andrew “Little Andy” Wright. Little Andy was Uncle Bill’s adopted son and nephew. Elijah Wright had found this hog on his land and had shot and slaughtered it without asking Uncle Bill and the others. Uncle Bill found out about this and demanded that Elijah pay for the hog. This resulted in Uncle Bill, Ben Bentley and Little Andy suing Elijah. The court rendered a judgment against Elijah Wright of $8.00, which was for that time the cost of a hog. Elijah Wright was angry about this lawsuit and said to Thomas Davis, “If they beat me in that hog suit the eight dollar Judgment should bear Ben Bentley, Uncle Bill and Andrew to hell.” Both Elijah and his brother had sworn that they would get even with Uncle Bill and the others.
All this trouble culminated in an incident between Uncle Bill and Elijah. One day while Elijah and Samuel Wright were out together they came upon Uncle Bill and his dog who were walking along the road toward them. When Elijah and Samuel met Uncle Bill, Elijah confronted Uncle Bill and demanded to know what he meant by taking him to court over the hog. Uncle Bill told him that he had the right to take him to court over the hog and recover his loss. A drunken Elijah then said to Uncle Bill, “Then I’ll kill your dog and you can bring a lawsuit against us for him.” He then leveled a rifle at Uncle Bill’s dog and shot it dead. Elijah and Samuel seemed to have felt that they had a right to sponge off of Uncle Bill and his refusal to let them continue doing this enraged them. After they shot his dog they headed on down the road away from Uncle Bill and came upon their older brother, William “Black Hawk” Wright, who, observing Uncle Bill mourning over his dead dog, asked them what they had just done. They told him and he told them they should be ashamed of themselves.
Soon after this incident Uncle Bill contacted the local Constable, Ira Mullins. By this time he had obtained a warrant of arrest for Elijah from the local magistrate. Ira, who had the warrant, was occupied at the time with official business but promised Uncle Bill that as soon as he finished with the trial he was attending, he would arrest Elijah Wright.
As Uncle Bill was afraid of Elijah he wanted Elijah to be arrested as soon as possible. The whole community had by now heard of the incident and everyone was upset with Elijah Wright, especially Black Hawk, who was furious over Uncle Bill’s dog being killed and, while drunk, had stated that he wanted to kill Elijah. As previously mentioned, a warrant of arrest had been issued against Elijah Wright for disturbance of the peace. On the evening before the tragedy Dr. William H. Pardue had been deputized by the local magistrate so that he could go ahead and take some local men and arrest Elijah Wright that night. Dr. Pardue thought it best to take along as many of Elijah’s close relatives as possible and headed out with the intent of doing just that.
That evening, January 13, 1886, William S. Wright had gone over to Little Andy Wright’s house to summon some men to a corn husking. While he was there Dr. Pardue (also spelled Pardo) arrived and summoned him and Little Andy to go with him to arrest Elijah Wright, who they knew to be staying at Samuel Wright’s house. Already present at Little Andy’s when Dr. Pardue arrived were: Uncle Bill, Little Andy, Madison Collier, Samuel Hall, Isaac Wright, Magistrate J. M. Wright and William Anderson. When William S. Wright had arrived at Little Andy Wright’s house, Black Hawk was mad as hell about what had happened. He and some others had been drinking as well. This greatly concerned Dr. Pardue. At this point they were unable to keep Black Hawk and his group from going with them, though some time and effort was made to do this. Dr. Pardue gave Black Hawk a Phoenix rifle loaded with a blank cartridge in case Black Hawk acted rashly. Dr. Pardue and William S. Wright stayed with Black Hawk and kept an eye on him. Dr. Pardue picked William S. Wright for this task because William knew Black Hawk and got along with him fairly well. Black Hawk was six feet tall and weighed a solid two-hundred pounds. Others joined this group and eleven men, all armed except for Uncle Bill and Samuel Hall, headed out on that bright, snowy, moonlight night. Magistrate J. M. Wright went along to help keep Black Hawk and his bunch from beating-up Elijah. J. M. Wright had heard Black Hawk’s threats regarding Elijah and he was determined that Black Hawk would not be able to carry out these threats. There was just over a foot of snow on the ground as this outraged, inept and disorganized delegation stomped its way to Samuel Wright’s house on Chestnut Patch. Dr. Pardue and J. M. Wright had taken various precautions to prevent things from getting out of hand, but, as we shall see, things did indeed get out of hand. The eleven men who went to Samuel Wright’s house that night to arrest Sam and Elijah Wright were: Dr. Pardue, Uncle Bill Wright, Little Andy Wright, William S. Wright, Jesse Wright, Isaac Wright, Black Hawk Wright, J. M. Wright, Madison Collier, Samuel Hall, and William Anderson.
Had no one been killed or harmed in what was to follow it would have been darkly comedic, but as two would die and one would be seriously wounded, it turned out to be a senseless and tragic disaster. Earlier that day James Johnson had met up with Elijah Wright over on Beefhide Creek in Letcher County. James, a young man in his early twenties and a relative to Elijah and Sam, was going through a drinking and carousing phase in his life, and had been running around with a wild crowd . After they met, James and Elijah headed over to Samuel Wright’s house. There, along with Samuel, they left on foot. Some time later, as they were walking along, Elijah told Samuel and James that Ira Mullins had a warrant of arrest for him. On hearing this Samuel told Elijah, “Go home with me and they cannot arrest you as long as you’re with me, I have an old gun and when she barks they know what to do.”
Elijah agreed to stay at Samuel’s house that night and the three of them walked back to Samuel’s. By this time they were somewhat intoxicated and on reaching the house it wasn’t long before all of them went to bed. Samuel, his wife and children slept in the beds, while Elijah and James slept in their clothes on the floor. James laid down in front of the cabin’s main door and Elijah laid down back a way from there just in front of the fire place. Samuel, on going to bed, had donned his long flannel night gown and cap, he fell into a drunken slumber at his wife’s side.
Dr. Pardue’s delegation had by now reached within 150 yards of Samuel’s house. Here, they decided to split up into two groups, one going to the main door of the house and the other going to the lower door. Uncle Bill and Samuel Hall went over and stood at the corn crib which was about 25 feet from the cabin.
As the crowd approached the cabin Black Hawk and some of the others were yelling and talking so loud that it awakened Samuel Wright’s wife and children. She vigorously shook her husband, trying desperately to awaken him. With much effort she finally aroused him from his alcoholic haze.
Dr. Pardue, Black Hawk, Andy Wright and William S. Wright made their way to the main door as the others went to the lower door. This was done to separate Black Hawk from the other drunks. As Dr. Pardue and Andy Wright approached the main door, Black Hawk pushed his way on past them up to the door. William S. Wright remained at Black Hawk’s side while he did this. Black Hawk and William S. Wright were now standing at the front door. It was at this point that a strange and disconcerting thing happened. Black Hawk somehow sensed that all was not right with his Phoenix rifle, and unexpectedly grabbed William S. Wright’s rifle from him and gave William the blank-laden Phoenix rifle. Black Hawk then pounded on the door and yelled in a loud and angry voice, “By G-d, Black Hawk is here! Open the g-d damn door.” To which Samuel Wright replied, “If you want the door opened, damn you, open it yourself.” Black Hawk again ordered the door opened and Samuel again refused. This parlaying went back and forth for awhile until Black Hawk got sick of it and kicked the door down with his foot. The door shutter fell into the house on top of James Johnson, who awakened and rolled to the side where he found refuge under the nearest bed.
By this time Samuel and Elijah were standing back in the cabin in front of the fireplace facing the main door with their guns pointed and ready to fire. Elijah fired first at William S. Wright, who reacted by pulling the trigger on his blank-laden Phoenix rifle. After this dud and another shot at him from Elijah, he pulled his pistol and fired, again at Elijah. This time with a real bullet. This bullet passed through Elijah’s shirt. Just as this exchange was occurring Samuel Wright fired at Black Hawk, hitting him in the upper thigh. In answer to this, Black Hawk returned fire at Samuel. Black Hawk, now wounded, screamed out to the rest of the men, “Rush up boys, I can’t stand this hell!” But before the boys could rush up a frantic Samuel Wright yelled from within the cabin, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot into my house any more, you have killed one of my children.” To this appeal Dr. Pardue reacted by ordering all his men to fall back away from the house and give the woman and children time to get out. This was exactly what Samuel had wanted Dr. Pardue to do and he and Elijah took full advantage of it.
During this interlude Elijah yelled to Samuel, “Load your gun and load quick cause they’re loadin’ outside!” Samuel, shaken by the turn of events, dropped his gun stick and couldn’t load as fast as he wanted. He finally did retrieve his gun stick, reloaded and then went outside.
As Dr. Pardue and his men fell back toward the corn crib Black Hawk unexpectedly grabbed Dr. Pardue’s double-barreled shotgun. At the same time, Andy Wright was running to the corn crib. He was only a few steps in front of Black Hawk, when Black Hawk raised his shotgun and fired. Black Hawk then yelled, “By g-d, I have got one of them!” William S. Wright then screamed, “Why are you shooting your own men!” Little Andy lay dying in the snow with fatal wounds to his head and neck.
Just following this catastrophe some of the men at the crib saw Samuel Wright, barefooted and in his night clothes, at the end of the cabin. Samuel had his rifle raised and was pointing it in the direction of the crowd at the crib. Samuel Wright and several members of the crowd fired at once. Following this exchange Samuel disappeared back into the cabin and there was a groan out by the crib. The groan came from Uncle Bill, who was now lying wounded on the ground. Uncle Bill was heard to say, “I am shot. Sam has shot and killed me.” Uncle Bill was shot just below the ribs on the right side of his chest. He was taken to J. M. Wright’s cabin where he died at 10:00 AM the next morning on January 14, 1886. Andy died soon after he was shot and was left lying that night where he had fallen so that they could attend to Uncle Bill. They returned the next morning and removed Little Andy’s frozen body from the snow. They had to pry him from the frozen ground.
An early account of this tragic incident is given in the newspaper article shown below.
Reprint of an article from the February 3, 1886 Wolfe County, Kentucky Hazel Green Herald.
A Mountain Massacre.
A special from Frankfort to the Courier Journal, under the date of January 28, says: “Scant particulars of a terrible tragedy, which occurred last Wednesday night in Letcher County, have just reached this city. This afternoon Senator J. E. Caudill, who resides at Manchester Clay County, received a letter from a friend at Whitesburg, county seat of Letcher, in which some of the facts of the murder are alluded to. William Wright, who was an old man, and Andy Wright were shot and instantly killed, and Black Bill Wright was shot through the thigh and mortally wounded. The killing was done by Samuel Wright, Elijah Wright and Jas. Wright. The letter, which was from a prominent citizen of Whitesburg, said that all three of the murderers had been arrested and were in jail at Whitesburg. Their trial is set for tomorrow, and it is believed that the three men will be hanged.
The affair seems to have been the result of a feud in the family, as both slayers and slain were of the same name. Senator Caudill and several of the mountain members of the Legislature are acquainted with the Wright family which resides in the northeastern part of Letcher County., about 15 miles from Whitesburg. They, however, know very little of these people. It seems to have been a cold-blooded assassination, as it occurred at night, and the men who lost their lives were surprised at their home before they could offer any resistance. Letcher County is greatly excited over the slaughter. Whitesburg is 100 miles from any railroad.
End of article.
The Jas. Wright referred to above was actually James Johnson, and some of the other details are incorrect because at this time there was little information as to what actually had happened.
Samuel and Elijah Wright, who on the night of the shooting had escaped across the creek from their house and had remained hidden in the woods, later returned to the house and made preparations to go on the dodge. Together they had headed off through the snow while it was still dark. After they had covered about a mile Elijah decided to go to a neighbor and collect on an old loan. It was at this time that the two of them separated. Samuel went from here to Eli Branham’s house which was on the banks of the Elkhorn River. Samuel told Eli that he was on the run and asked Eli to hide him. Mr. Branham agreed to do this, and Samuel lifted up a plank and crawled under Eli’s house. The next day around noon a search party came to Mr. Branham’s house and asked him about Samuel and he said that he knew nothing. They then searched the property and found Samuel under the floor. He was arrested and taken to the Whitesburg Jail. Two days later Elijah Wright was captured in Pike County at his brother-in-law’s house. Elijah had only been able to make it this far because both his feet had been frozen. Elijah and Sam Wright eventually were charged with manslaughter and received a 21-year sentence.
Letcher County was so full of so many people, who were so angry at Samuel and Elijah Wright
that it was impossible for them to receive a fair trial there. When the case was appealed this, along with the circumstances of the encounter, were taken into account and the guilty verdicts were overturned. In fact, this was to become a rather well-known case because it led to the clarification of the procedures by which arrest warrants could be served on private residences. Details regarding this will be given below. After a couple of trials Sam and Elijah were freed and allowed to go about their business. At some point they moved over into Pike County were they would become known as notorious moonshiners.
Black Hawk, who had inadvertently shot Andy Wright, would be tried and sentenced to two years in prison for manslaughter. As several witnesses, including Black Hawk himself, had already testified in Elijah and Samuel Wright’s trials that Black Hawk had shot Andy Wright, it was a near certainty that he would be convicted. He was tried in November of 1887 and began his sentence on December 10, 1887, but he was fated never to return home. From the beginning of his sentence he began to have problems with the wound he had received from Samuel Wright’s rifle. The cause of his death is not clear from his prison hospital records. He died in prison on October 23, 1889. One source states that he had been frequently dunked in water by the guards as a form of punishment. The guards would hold him under water until he gave in, but the last time this happened he refused to give in and was drowned. He was only two months from being released. If this is true then Black Hawk was murdered by some of the prison guards. During this time there was a controversy about prisoners being severely mistreated at the State Penitentiary. Black prisoners were treated especially bad. As Black Hawk was dark skinned, this, along with references to him as being a negro in several newspaper articles, may have contributed to his mistreatment and tragic death. Two of these articles are shown below.
Reprint of an article from the January 29, 1886 Michell, South Dakota Daily Republican.
A Family Feud.
Lousiville, Ky., Jan. 28.–A Courier Journal special says: Meagre details of a triple tragedy in Letcher County, Ky., were received at Frankfort to-day. William Wright, an old man, Andy Wright, his son, and William Wright, colored, were killed by James, Samuel and Elijah Wright. On Wednesday night. The murderers have been arrested and the trial set for Friday.
End of article.
Reprint of an article from the February 6, 1886 Steven Point, Wisconsin Gazette.
James, Samuel and Elijah Wright murdered William Wright, an old man, Andy Wright, his son, and William Wright (colored) in Letcher County, Ky., on the 28th. The parties were relatives, and a family feud was the cause.
End of article.
The James Wright referred to in the above articles was actually James Johnson, and he did not take part in the gun battle in which Uncle Bill and Little Andy were killed. The William Wright (colored) referred to in the above articles was Black Hawk Wright, who was also known as Black Bill, who was William Wright, the son of Andrew Wright and the nephew of Uncle Bill Wright. Black Hawk was seriously wounded in the gun battle but he recovered from those wounds. There were rumors back then as to the racial background of both Uncle Bill and Black Hawk, and these rumors were, no doubt, brought about partly because both men were dark skinned.
Elijah Wright would later tell of his encounter with the law on the night Uncle Bill and Little Andy were killed on Chestnut Patch. In an article in the St. Louis Dispatch written by Harry R. Burke, Elijah gave the year that this happened as 1880 and his age as 17. The actual date was in January of 1886 and Elijah was 23. This mistake was probably due to Elijah’s age and his state of intoxication when he was interviewed by Mr. Burke. Elijah states in this article that he killed two worthless dogs belonging to his mother. Testimony shows that one of these dogs belonged to Black Hawk and the other to Uncle Bill. Elijah may have been referring to the original source of the dogs in that they may have come from a litter of pups belonging to his mother. Elijah fails to mention what led to the dogs being shot. He also states that Black Hawk was his younger brother when Black Hawk was actually his older brother. Other than some omissions and some distorted dates and facts, Elijah’s version of events fits fairly well with the testimony. It was actually Elijah who fired first at William S. Wright, who is referred to by Elijah as “Bill Lunce”. William’s reaction was to fire back but his first shot was a blank. It was in the next exchange that William actually fired a bullet. Elijah was correct when he said Black Hawk was intoxicated. Black Hawk and several of those who had been with him earlier had all been drinking.
Elijah and Samuel Wright, after serving nearly two years in jail for the killing of Uncle Bill, were released when their sentence of 21 years was overturned. This was an important case in that it clarified the conditions under which an arrest could be made when the suspect was at a private residence.
The decision noted that an arrest could be made by a law officer under the following conditions:
1. In obedience to a warrant.
2. If a public offense is committed in his presence.
3. A private individual may make an arrest if he has reasonable grounds to believe a felony has been committed.
4. A magistrate or judge may order a peace officer or private individual to make an arrest if the offense is committed in the presence of the magistrate or judge.
5. An officer must show the warrant if demanded and inform the person of the nature of the charge. In the opinion of the court the posse had no right to arrest Elijah Wright. The magistrate could not legally summon Pardue to make the arrest.
Since Magistrate J. M. Wright (Martin Wright, Bad John Wright’s brother) had not witnessed Elijah’s threatening behavior toward Uncle Bill requirements 2 and 4 were not satisfied. Since Elijah had not been shown the warrant, requirement 5 was not satisfied.
The tragic deaths of Uncle Bill and Little Andy would at least clarify an important legal question regarding the correct and legal procedure for arresting a suspect who is at a private residence.
Elijah and Sam Wright would go on to become notorious moonshiners. Below is a petition from Sam Wright to the governor in which Sam tries to convince the governor he was not guilty of selling whiskey.
Petition dated July 1889.
To His Excellency S. B. Bruckner, Gov. of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The undersigned petition states that at the July term 1889, of the Pike Criminal Court held for Pike County, he (Samuel Wright) was convicted under a charge of unlawfully selling spiritus liquors and fined $104.00. He says that he is not guilty of said selling.
He says the facts in the case are these, that at the time the witness testified to getting the whiskey, that he was not the owner of the whiskey nor did he sell any to witness or anyone else and that the whiskey spoken of by the witness belonged to one Nan Branham who was there selling it but she got too drunk to attend to it and a friend of his (Samuel’s) wanted a pint and that he (Samuel) assisted in pouring a pint of whiskey into a bottle for witness as a matter of accommodation: that he (Samuel) did not sell witness any whiskey nor did he receive any pay for same: these facts he offered to prove before the trial court but the Court refused to allow him to do so. He says that he is a very poor man with a family and not able to provide an appeal in said case and that he is now confined in the Pike County Jail under said Judgement. And that his family is in need of his labor for their support. He therefore prays your excellency to have mercy on him and to pardon him from the sentence of said Judgement.
End of petition.
A few years later, during July of 1895, Elijah Wright would be arrested for moonshining in Floyd county, and it was at this time he attempted to escape. He knocked the jailer down and ran off but the jailer just as quickly popped back to his feet and shot Elijah in the back, a wound that nearly proved fatal. An account of this incident is given in the article shown below.
Reprint of an article in the July 29, 1895 Marion, Ohio The Marion Daily Star.
TRIED TO BREAK JAIL.
One Kentucky Criminal Killed,
One Mortally Wounded and One Recaptured.
Sergeant, Ky., Ky., July 29.–James Moore, James Cisco and Elijah Wright, notorious desperadoes and moonshiners, who were arrested a week ago, attempted to break out of jail at Prestonsburg, and a desperate fight ensued between them and the guards. Wright and Cisco were mortally wounded, and the other was recaptured. None of the keepers were wounded.
Wright was a member of the gang that in the winter of 1886 succeeded in killing two of the best citizens in the mountains of eastern Kentucky–William Wright, Sr., their uncle, an old and worthy citizen, and Andrew Wright, a peaceable and well-to-do citizen, both residents of Boone’s Fork, in Letcher county. By some means, though, they all managed to evade justice on trial and were set at liberty.
End of article.
It turned out that Elijah Wright was not mortally wounded in this escape attempt and he would recover from his wounds.
On an election day during the late 1890's Elijah had shot George H. Hunt in Elkhorn City. George Hunt and Andrew Monroe Wright, Elijah’s younger brother, had voted and just after this, while riding on their horses away from the voting place, they had a disagreement. They had both been drinking and when they dismounted they began to argue. This escalated and George Hunt pulled a Barlow knife and lunged at Monroe. Elijah then jumped in and ordered George Hunt back. George ignored Elijah and Elijah shot him. George survived this attack after having given his death bed testimony against Elijah. George would later give the bullet that had been removed from him to Elijah. Elijah was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary. This incident, happening as it did on election day, would cause the county to vote itself dry.
Elijah Wright and his various troubles show up in the court records during the late 1890's and early 1900's. On April 28th, 1899 we see Elijah has been charged with shooting and wounding another . On January 24th, 1900 he was charged with selling spiritus liquors. On January 24th, 1900 a jury found Elijah guilty of shooting and wounding another and he was sentenced to prison. On January 30th, 1900 Elijah is taken to the Penitentiary in Frankfort to serve two years.
On October 5th, 1903 an indictment was filed against Samuel Wright for a “Breach of Peace”.
In 1905, some years after Elijah had escaped the wrath of the Law and several incarcerations, he turned, for a time at least, to religion. But as in all things Elijah turned his mind too he would have strong theological opinions. The combination of liquor and theological debate can be quite lethal and so it proved to be for Newton Ramey. Elijah was convicted to two years in the penitentiary for killing Mr. Ramey on John Moore’s Branch near Elkhorn City over an argument about religion. Elijah claimed it was about something else. Below we see a petition requesting a pardon for this killing.
To His Excellency Augustus E. Wilson,
Governor of Kentucky:
We, the undersigned citizens of Pike County, Kentucky, respectfully petition and request your Excellency to pardon Elijah Wright, who was convicted and sentenced to the Penitentiary at the May Term of the Pike County Circuit Court, 1905, for the killing of one Newton Ramey. We are familiar with the circumstances surrounding the killing of Ramey. Elijah Wright and Newton Ramey became involved in a difficulty, hot words were exchanged between them; they came to blows, and in the fight which followed, in which hands and feet were used, Elijah Wright kicked Newton Ramey, from the effects of which kick Ramey died some three months after he received the injury.
Elijah Wright is now a citizen of the State of Virginia, and he desires a restoration of his rights of citizenship, a full and unconditional pardon. We believe that the ends of public justice have been fully met, and that Wright has suffered the full penalty for his act, and that is meet that the said Elijah Wright be granted a full and unconditional pardon, and we respectfully petition Your Excellency to grant the said Elijah Wright a full and unconditional pardon.
End of pardon.
Elijah was turned down and would, before long, be in even greater trouble. Toward the end of the first decade after 1900 Elijah would kill again, this time in Virginia. Elijah and some others were at a corn shucking on the farm of Patton Wills. They were working in the fields. Out in the field Will Cyphers was one of those working with Elijah. There were some boys working out in the field as well. Will Cyphers began to smart off to the boys, trying to start a fight and since the boys had been drinking this was not a difficult thing to do. Elijah got on to Will Cyphers for this and Will grew angry with Elijah. This argument between Will and Elijah grew into an altercation during which Will Cyphers pulled a 38 Smith & Wesson pistol on Elijah. When Will pulled out the pistol Elijah jumped at Will. As Elijah came forward Will fired and the bullet passed through Elijah’s shirt. Coming forward Elijah grabbed the pistol from Will and then shot Will with the pistol. Will Cyphers died instantly.
After the first trial for this killing Elijah won a new trial because some evidence had not been admitted during the first trial. Elijah was found guilty of murder in the second trial and sentenced to life in prison. The verdict stated that since Elijah had already disarmed Will Cyphers, he was guilty of shooting an unarmed man. Elijah would serve nearly 14 years for this murder. He was released early in 1922 for good behavior. He had spent much of his time in prison taking care of the hounds used in searching for escaped prisoners. Below, we see a letter written by Elijah Wright to his sister while he was serving his time in the Virginia prison for the murder of Will Cyphers.
1920 letter from Elijah Wright to his sister, Mrs. Mary Vance.
My Dear Sister,
I will answer your most welcome letter just received. I was awful glad to hear from you for I had begun to think you were all dead. Sister, I am well as could be expected and I hope this will find you all well. Sister you wanted to know what my occupation was. I am tending to Blood Hounds, taking care of them and etc. Sister, you wanted to know how long I would have to stay. I can’t tell you, I have an 18 year sentence; and have been here most eleven years. Sister, I don’t know of anything you can do for me. But, however, If you was to think of anything to do it will be very much appreciated. I am getting along right well. At present we have a new Supt. Just Elected, and I think Him every inch a Gentleman. So I hope to hear from you again soon for it was quite a surprise and also a joy to get your letter.
So I will close with much love. I am your brother, as ever,
Lassiter, Va. # 9033
End of letter.
We are greatly indebted to Mrs. Daisy Wright Nowlin, the grand daughter of Elijah Wright’s sister, Mrs. Mary Vance, for sharing this letter with us and allowing us to share it with others.
In 1926 we find Elijah in trouble again. By now he is an old and aged man, only a shell of what he had once been. The years of drinking, carousing and prison had taken their toll. Elijah had returned to his old home on Long Fork and had, before long, become caught up in a fight to the finish during which his right thumb had been severed. This was the result of his having grabbed at a butcher knife that had been thrust toward him. He had been beaten so badly that as the Sheriff looked over him as he lay unconscious in Ran Speer’s cabin above Long Fork the Sheriff felt sure old Elijah would not make it.
While Elijah lay there in the cabin his brother dug the hammer of a gun out of Elijah’s head with a Barlow knife. The hammer had been left in Elijah’s head after he had been forcefully struck with a gun during his beating. From the cabin Elijah was taken to the Hospital in Pikeville and to everyone’s surprise recovered. The doctor attending Elijah, Dr. Adam Osborne, urged Elijah to go and talk to Squire Osborne, Dr. Osborne’s father. Dr. Osborne assured Elijah that Squire Osborne would advise him what to do. Elijah did this and Squire Osborne advised Elijah to leave, otherwise he might be shot from ambush. Seeing the wisdom of this advice Elijah left.
After a long and troubled life Elijah Wright would meet his end in a tragic manner. According to some sources, Elijah, who had been involved in the killing of his own uncle, was murdered by one of his own nephews. Below is a newspaper account of Elijah’s death.
Reprint of an article from the March 12, 1931 Pikeville, Kentucky Pike County News.
Lige Wright, Noted Bad Man, Found Dead at Foot of Cliff.
THOUGHT TO HAVE FALLEN OVER WHILE IN A STATE OF INTOXICATION.
SERVED 29 YEARS IN PENITENTIARIES.
TWICE SENTENCED FOR LIFE; ONCE TO HANG, TRIED SUICIDE ONCE.
Elijah (Lige) Wright, 68, cousin of Bad John Wright, was found dead Monday morning about 10 o’clock, lying at the foot of a high rock cliff, over which he had fallen.
Wright, who is said to have been staying at –?– his brother, started over the mountain from Lick Branch, on Shelby Creek, to Beefhide, last Sunday afternoon. He had with him a boy, one of his nephews. The boy stated that on the way, Elijah drank a pint of liquor and became rather intoxicated. The boy further stated that Wright threatened to kill him, and that he became afraid of Wright and ran off and left him.
When Wright failed to show up at his intended destination Sunday night, a party was sent out to look for him the next morning. They found him about 10 o’clock, lying at the foot of the cliff. He had met almost instant death when he fell over the high precipice, striking on his head.
Most Noted Bad Man
Elijah Wright is probably one of the most noted bad men of this section of the country. He is said to have served about twenty-nine years all told in penitentiaries during his life.
Elijah Wright was first sentenced from Letcher Circuit Court about the year 1881 for the killing of his brother, Black Hawk Wright. (Elijah actually was involved in the killing of Uncle Bill and Little Andy and had nothing to do with the death of Black Hawk. These killings occurred in January of 1886, not in 1881.) He received a life sentence, but after serving only a few years, the case was reversed and he was turned out.
His second sentence in the penitentiary was for the shooting of George Henry Hunt, about the year 1891. For this he served five years.
A few years after his return he killed another man. This time it was Newton Ramey, for which he received another five year sentence.
At Haysi, Va., he was convicted of killing Bill Ciphers and sentenced to hang. Wright tried to kill himself then, by cutting his own throat with a small pocket knife. His knife, however, was not long enough and the jailor found him lying on the cell floor, badly cut, but still living. He was cared for and recovered from his attempted suicide. The Court of Appeals reversed his sentence and gave him a life sentence instead. A life sentence in the state of Virginia is only eighteen years, and after serving his time out, “Lige” came back over into Kentucky.
Was Badly Shot Up.
Besides serving these twenty-nine years in state penitentiaries he has also been in a great many other troubles. While in jail in Prestonsburg on a liquor charge he attempted to escape and was very badly shot up by Jailer Hall.
Elijah Wright probably has one of the longest records of sentences served in state penitentiaries, a total of over twenty-nine years. Twice was he sentenced to life in the penitentiary, serving one of them; once he was sentenced to hang; attempted suicide once; badly shot up once; and yet he lived to meet death in an entirely different manner.
Although but a cousin to Bad John Wright, “Lige” seems to be a much more notorious character for John Wright was at least partly justified in his killings while “Lige” has been convicted and received sentences for most of his killings. His friends have always known him as a dangerous character.
Elijah Wright is survived by one son, Everett Wright, of Haysi, Va., three brothers, George Wright and Monroe Wright of Elkhorn City and Booker Wright of Shelby Creek; also four sisters; Mrs. Cleresa Adams of Praise, Mrs. Mary Wright of Matewan, W. Va., Mrs. George Mullins and Mrs. Freelon White, both of Beefhide.
Elijah Wright is a brother to the late Samuel D. Wright, who died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Fred Cereske, of Williamson, W. Va., about two weeks ago after an illness of nearly two years. A total of three Wrights have now gone over the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” within the last few weeks.
End of article.