Martha 'Mattie' (Humphries) Wright
Martha 11 March 1843 - 12 March 1924
Jenkins, Letcher County, Kentucky





Martha A. “Mattie” (Humphrey) Wright’s life was quietly lived in the shadow of her famous husband “Bad John” Wright.  Though Mattie remained in the background she was always there to cook and provide for John and their family, their many friends, neighbors, travelers, and business associates. One of the greatest compliments of a person’s life is the good witness of those who knew them. A number of people that remembered Mattie were interviewed after her passing and all spoke of what a very nice woman she was. 


With the many newspapers accounts, books, and other articles of her husband’s life, little has been written of John’s faithful help-mate. For the most part, all that has been known about Mattie is that John brought her to Letcher County from the “Bluegrass Region” of Kentucky.  Then after Mattie’s death, incorrect and misleading information has been written and passed on regarding how she met and married her legendary husband.  Through the diligent research of several people we now know the truth about Mattie and how the paths of these two crossed.


Martha A. “Mattie” Humphrey was born in Cynthiana, Harrison County, Kentucky to Jameson and Elizabeth (Henry) Humphrey.  Mattie’s birth date of March 11, 1843 is based on her age in the 1850 and 1860 Harrison County, Kentucky census records where she is shown as age seven and seventeen respectively.  Other records indicate that she was born a few years earlier.  Her death certificate gives her age as eighty-six when she died on March 11, 1924 and her tombstone has her birth date as March 12, 1835.


Mattie’s father Jameson Humphrey was a well known Harrison County, Kentucky land owner.  His farm was located in Cynthiana, Kentucky and it was assuredly at this farm where Mattie and John had their first meeting.  The Humphrey farmland was situated in the northern part of the famous Bluegrass Region. Cynthiana is the county seat of Harrison County and was established in 1793, and is located on the South Fork of the Licking River.    


The man that would later become Mattie’s husband had enlisted as a young man in the Confederacy and his war records state he was wounded in The Battle of Cynthiana. William Troy Wright gives a description of the battle and how his father was wounded which closely matches the accounts of the Keller Bridge Battle. The Battle of Cynthiana took place around the narrow old covered bridge that stood at the edge of the town, about a mile north in a meander of the Licking River. This bridge served the community for over 80 years after the war.  William Troy says his father was scouting when he came upon a band of sharp-shooting home guards near the town of Cynthiana. It became clear they could not take the bridge with grape and canister flying through the air from a howitzer and heavy rifle fire pouring from buildings across the Licking River.  An intense running fight took place, some men were hit by rifle fire, some drowned outright, but a few of them gained the east bank and dug in.  It was during this encounter that John was shot in the lower abdomen and the front of both thighs at a pretty close range. He managed to drag himself under the lap of a swamp wallow and lay in hiding until the band departed.


William Troy depicts the fight as taking place in the early part of the day and we know General John Hunt Morgan approached Cynthiana at dawn, on June 11,1864 to divide his force of 1,200 men into three columns and surround the town. He launched an attack at the Kellers Covered Bridge, driving the Union forces back towards the depot and north along the railroad, capturing the town. The Union forces drove the Rebels back, causing them to flee into town where many were captured or killed. The Rebels set fire to the town, destroying many buildings with almost all of the business section of the town destroyed by fire and heavy loss of lives on both sides. This was the second Battle of Cynthiana and was known as the Keller’s Bridge Battle. 


During this turmoil, John lay hiding in a ravine through that day and night, suffering from severe injuries, in pain, bleeding and without food, not more than two hundred yards from the scene of the previous day’s fight.  With only water from the river and no food for nourishment, the soldier’s chances of survival were bleak.  It was the next day before a farmer with a sled and ox searching for firewood discovered the wounded man. The farmer cautiously loaded him to the sled, concealed his body under firewood, then moved him to his home where he kept him out of sight in a blind cellar that was only accessible from the interior of the house.  Who was this farmer who risked his own life in order to save a stranger?  It is thought by many that the farmer was Jameson Humphrey and the young farm girl was none other than Mattie, later to be the wife of John W. Wright. During the long weeks of his recovery, the farmer’s young daughter and his family took turns nursing the severely injured soldier back to health.  The story has endured that this is how Mattie first met her future husband.


The Keller Bridge Battle took place June 11, 1864, the Civil War came to an end in 1865 and in 1866 John Wright made a return trip to the Bluegrass.  John was in Harrison County the second week of October. We know this is true because a marriage license was issued for John to marry Mattie on October 13, 1866 and we believe he was there at least a week or so before the marriage.


Their marriage bond gives information the marriage took place Oct 14, 1866 at her father’s house in the County of Harrison and State of Kentucky, in the presence of Adam Renneker, James D. Lafferty, and Thomas Lafferty by Wm. Conrad, Pastor of the Old Baptist Church at Twin Creek. Below is a copy of the license which is recorded at the Harrison County Court House:






The couple spent the first few years of their marriage in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky where John worked for Mattie's father while doing a little horse trading and some detective work.  All the time Mattie realized her husband missed the beautiful mountains he had grown up in and though they were happy together, she felt that he would be happier back in his mountains. No doubt for that reason, four years later Mattie, her husband and young family were living in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, listed as residents of Letcher County on the 1870 census.


By this time she had given birth to the first two of their children, James, who was born in Cynthiana and Joel who was an infant. Their son John Phillip, "Little John", would be born about three years later. John and Mattie had five children but only two, James and Johnny Phillip, lived to be adults. In addition to the three sons, they also had two girls.  The children were buried at the Dunham Cemetery and that is probably why Mattie is buried there, near her children. There was an old cabin near the cemetery affectionately known as Mattie's house and there are a number of graves there that are unmarked in the cemetery. Over the years this stone became damaged by weather and time.  The Letcher County Historical Society has placed a new tombstone in this cemetery.



Mattie's Old Stone                                                         Mattie's New Stone






In 1923 Mattie fell and broke her hip and was bed-fast for some time. Nurse Sally Nolan Baker was paid $150.00 a month for her job as a camp nurse at Dunham for the Consolidation Coal Company in Jenkins and she recalled nursing Mattie, the wife of Bad John Wright.


Nurse Baker said,  "She lay in a homemade bed and I rode a horse to her house to nurse her, since we all rode horseback in those days."


Mattie’s step son William Troy ‘Chid’ Wright said in his book “Devil John Wright Of The Cumberlands” that he thought Mattie only went back home once after their move to Letcher County and that one of her brothers came to visit her one time. As far as he knew these were the only visits she had with her family after she and John moved to the mountains. However, though it can’t be documented, Mattie must have kept in good contact with the rest of her family in Harrison County. Nadina Osborne remembered hearing that when Mattie died a lot of flowers for her funeral came by train from Cynthiana.

It must have been very difficult for such a young girl to leave all that was familiar, home, family, and friends to begin a completely new life so far away with her husband. Her love must have been very deep-seated to have taken such a step. She could easily have remained in the Bluegrass and maybe convinced her husband to do the same, but her choice was to go to the mountains, not because she had to, but because she chose to.  Her love for her husband must have been strong.

Mattie’s parents, Jameson & Elizabeth (Henry) Humphrey, were the parents of seven children which are listed in Jameson’s will dated April 15, 1885 and produced in court on April 26, 1897.  Jameson Humphrey was born January 8, 1801 in Virginia and died April 13, 1897 in Harrison County, Kentucky at the age of 87. His funeral was under the direction of the Whaley Funeral Home and he was buried in Family Cemetery.

His children as listed in the will are:  Nancy A. Humphrey,  B. F. Humphrey, Jamimia J. Buzzard, Mattie Right, Eliza Crofford, J. H. Humphrey and Joseph Humphrey.  The will instructs that his land be divided with each child receiving a parcel of the land.  Mattie Right was given Parcel No. 2 which consisted of 17.85 acres which is listed in the Division of Property papers recorded August  23, 1897.  Each of the seven children also received $75.54 from the sale of his personal property as shown in the Appraisement & Inventory and Settlement of Property papers recorded Nov. 12, 1897 and a Sale Bill with the final settlement recorded on June 10, 1898.


According to the amount of land distributed in Jameson Humphrey’s will, he owned about 110.23 acres.  The breakdown of the division of land for each child as per will went as follows:


                Nancy A. Humphrey                  15.00 acres

                Mattie Right                                17.85 acres

                Eliza Crofford                             15.72 acres

                Jamimia J. Buzzard                    15.00 acres

                B. F. Humphrey                        15.00 acres

                Joseph Humphrey                    17.00 acres

                James H. Humphrey                 14.66 acres



The information from these documents gives us the proof that Martha A. “Mattie” (Humphrey) Wright was indeed the daughter of Jameson & Elizabeth (Henry) Humphrey of Cynthiana, Harrison County, Kentucky and tells us that she was a young farm girl when John Wright met her and fell in love with her. It is an easy transition to see this young girl of the Bluegrass become the adult woman of the mountains, sitting on her porch with the scarf she always added to her attire around her neck.






They lived mostly in the community of Jenkins, Letcher County, Kentucky until Mattie's death in 1924 and by then John had sold most of his holdings and retired from his work with the coal operations.  After Mattie's death, her husband moved just across the mountain to Wise County, Virginia where he lived until his death in 1931.



























Sources of Information:

1850 and 1860 Harrison County, Kentucky Census

Certificate of Marriage for John Wright & Martha Humphrey

Death Certificate for Mattie Humphrey Wright

Will of Jameson Humphrey

Division of Property of Jameson Humphrey

Appraisement & Inventory and Settlement of Property of Jameson Humphrey

Final Settlement Papers

Harrison County Public Library

On site assessment of Cynthiana, including Kellers Bridge, Humphrey Farm area, Battle Grove Cemetery



                                                    The material is copyrighted © 2007 by   Nancy Wright Bays,   Patty May Brashear 

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