When writing my memoir God Blessed Texas and Me Too, I had time to dig deep-down in my roots. It didn't take long to find out that both sides of my family tree have some pretty amazing characters. Most of you reading this blog have heard me talk or write about my Seals side (Jimmy Seals "Seals & Crofts", Dan Seals, Troy Seals, Chuck Seals, Baby Seals, etc). But this blog is about a particularly interesting man that goes way back in my Mom's bloodline. He was so special, that me and my good friend, Gordon Kennedy wrote a song about him. It's just a demo but hopefully you'll get where we're headed. You can listen to it
near the bottom of this page.
The man I'm talking about is the famous Kentucky lawman, “Devil” John Wright. The story goes that John was a U.S. Marshal for about forty years in the late 1800s, from around 1870 to 1910 in Letcher County Kentucky and Southwest Virginia. His nickname was attributed to him by his enemies. They would say, to have lawman John Wright tracking you, was like having the Devil himself at your heels.
There were other nicknames associated with him such as, “The Tall Sycamore” and “The Law of Pine Mountain”. Several books and numerous newspaper articles have been written about “Devil John” Wright over the years. The character Devil Judd Tolliver, in the novel “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” by John Fox, Jr., was based on the life of John. It later became a movie. “Devil John Wright of the Cumberlands” is a history of John’s life that was written by his son and I’ve personally read the book, “Devil John Wright His Life and Times” by Philip Kent Church.
Some say John had 35 children by several different women. Others say it was 27. One story holds that his greatest regret he had was that he never quite broke even in his life, what with having 27 children, but having killed 28 men in gun battles. I’d like to say that he had a good reputation but he didn’t. I found one article written by J. Frederick Quillen that said he shifted continuously from outlaw to law officer to bounty hunter; sometimes hewore all three hats at once. A man of strong persuasion and fearsome temper, violent men gravitated toward him.
He frequently formed gangs, which operated first on one side of the law, then on the other. Wright, to whom loyalty meant nothing, would “apprehend” members of his own gang if the reward was substantial. At times, Wright signed on with the hated Pinkerton Detective agency. He even worked for the Yankee coal-mining companies, strong-arming the local citizens into selling their beloved land (or mineral rights) for little or nothing.
They say that “Devil” John was somewhat of a hero to outlaw Jesse James. According to the book “The Mountain, The Miner, and the Lord and Other Tales from a Country Law Office, Harry M. Caudill said that Jessie gave John a gift after escorting Jessie and his gang safely through Eastern Kentucky to Cumberland Gap. It was a pretty pearl-handled pistol.
One of my favorite stories about John is this one. It was taken from the Courier-Journal, an article by Joe Creason. “One hair-raising adventure I had once when I went with two
county offers to capture a horse thief. He was a bad man. Finally, I located him in a shoe shop. The officer with me took weak knees and would not go in with me. But I went in. The man was stooped over a bench in which lay a gun. My gun was in my pocket. I didn’t mean for him to take me as an officer, and he didn’t until I said I want you. Then he flung his hand to his gun and shot twice. Luckily he missed. I didn’t have time to go out with my gun--so I shot through my pocket and got my man. Some of the people accused me of murdering the man and brought me to trial. Two men who were working in the shop swore that the thief shot himself. When I came to the stand, I explained just how it was and showed the hole in my trousers and was acquitted.”
The redeeming and most soul-stirring part of John’s legendary tale was stated in Marshall Myers’ book “Only in Old Kentucky: Historic True Tales of Cultural Ingenuity”. She wrote that “Devil” John Wright died peacefully in his home on January 30th, 1931, after being baptized several years before, an event that drew visitors from all over the region.
Who wouldn’t want to go see “The Devil” get baptized, right? It’s comforting to know that God took John’s wild and ornery past and turned it around in the end. I’ve given him a new nickname, “Angel” John Wright. I hope to meet you in heaven someday John.
John Wesley “Devil John” Wright (1844-1931)
1st cousin 4x removed
Joel E. “Ellis” Wright (1817-1879)
Father of John Wesley “Devil John”
Joel Martin Wright (1788-1834)
Father of Joel E. “Ellis”
Hiram Wright (1816-1880)
Son of Joel Martin
Phoebe A Wright (1846-1913)
Daughter of Hiram