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John Wesley "Devil John" Wright
Letcher County Kentucky

Devil John Wesley Wright
Devil John Wesley Wright
John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA; 87 years of age; s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates. More about Devil John Wright.

Children of Bad John Wright.

Letcher County, Kentucky, 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 P 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 Jun 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 Nov 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 Apr 1844 - 30 Jan 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 & Martha Mattie Humphrey:

John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA 87 years of age, s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates.  John Wesley 'Devil John' Wright m. 14 Oct 1866 Cynthiana, KY to  Martha 'Mattie' Humphrey b 12 Mar 1835 Cynthiana, KY d 12 Mar 1924 Jenkins, Letcher Co KY age 89 years, buried Wyatt Cemetery, Dunham KY, d/o Jamisson Humphrey and Elizabeth Henry.  Children of John Wesley 'Devil John' Wright and Martha Mattie Humphrey;

1. James Henderson Wright b 23 May 1865 d 3 Aug 1928 m. 1st to Cora E Fleming d/o John N Fleming and Louisa Kelly.  James Henderson Wright m. 19 Feb 1887 to Laura Belle Whitaker. Cora E Fleming m. 22 Mar 1893 Letcher Co KY to James Everett Mullins b 8 Mar 1875 Pike Co KY d 13 Aug 1901 Letcher Co KY s/o William Mullins and Winnie Mullins.

Joel Wright b 1872 d 20 Dec 1921 Pike Co KY m. about 1909 to Susannah "Susan" Johnson b 1876 d 19 Mar 1952 Pike Co KY (Susan was blind) d/o Jeptha Johnson and Nancy Burke. Susan m. about 1900 to 1st Will Hall.

3. John Phillip "Johnny" Wright  b 7 Jan 1875 d 12 Sept 1898, killed by Henry Adams; m. 24 Dec 1890 Letcher Co KY to Mary Chaney Reynolds b 21 Mar 1875 Letcher Co KY d 14 Mar 1933, d/o William Henry Reynolds and Frances Matilda Baker. Mary Chaney Reynolds m. 2nd Tilden McFall.

Children of John & Serilda Austin:

John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA 87 years of age, s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates.  John Wesley 'Devil John' Wright m. Serilda Austin b 24 Sept 1837 NC d 17 Feb 1896 Wise Co VA, d/o Jessee Austin and Margaret Douglas. Children of John Wesley "Devil John: Wright and Sarilda Austin:

4.  Enoch F. Wright b l7 Feb l869 d 5 Aug l952 m. Louisa Warwick. Child of Enoch F Wright and Louisa Warwick;

I. Stella Ruth Wright (adopted by Myrtle Wright and Charles Meeks). Child; Diana Meeks m. Male Smith.

5. James Martin Wright (aka Joel Martin) b 29 May l872 d l Oct l950 m. Alice Johnson.

Sarilda Austiin m. Benjamin Wright b 1838 KY (d during the Civil War; killed by Alfred Killen); s/o John Wright and Mary Bentley. Child of Sarilda Austin and Benjamin Wright;

1. Margaret Wright b 1861 KY

Children of John & Mary Bentley:

John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA 87 years of age, s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates.  John Wesley "Devil John" Wright and Mary Bentley had the following children:

6. Flora Custus Wright b 27 Apr l876 m. Emmet Cantrell

7. Eliza "Liza" Wright b 29 Jun/Jul 1878 Pike Co KY d 26 Jan 1929 East Jenkins, Letcher Co KY m.  5 Apr 1901 to Henry Henry Melvin Samuel Vanover b 17 Dec 1877 East Jenkins Letcher Co KY d  5 Feb 1964 Pike Co KY, s/o Henry Vanover and Jane Bentley.

8. Alice Wright b 23 Sept 1881 (or 25 Oct 1881) m. 1st to Allen Burton; m. 2nd to John Houston s/o Nathaniel Houston and Mary Houston.

9. Easter Wright b 16 Feb 1884 d Oct 1987 age 103, m. 1st to Wade Ratliff s/o Samuel Ratliff and Mahulda "Hulda" Francisco. Child of Easter Wright and Wade Ratliff;

I. Marvin Woodrow Ratliff m. Unknown. Child;

i. Charles Marvin Ratliff m. Unknown. Children;

i.1. Sandy Kay Ratliff m. Male Kelly - Thanks to Sandy Kay Ratliff Kelly for submitting info on this family.

i.2. Charles Marvin Ratliff

i.3. Steven Barclay Ratliff

II. George Ratliff lm. Cora Lee Hall d/o Harmon Hall and Virginia Amburgey.

Easter Wright m. 2nd to James Bryant.

10. Elizabeth Wright b 10 Jun 1886 (or 10 Aug 1885) d 25 May 1971 m. Riley Mullins.

11. Samuel Preston Wright b 25 Oct l888 m. Mahala Branham

12. Myrtle Wright b Sept l892 d Jan l922 m. Charles Meeks

13. John Wright Jr. d in infancy.


Children of John & Ellen Sanders

John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA 87 years of age, s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates. John Wesley "Devil John" Wright m. Ellen Sanders b 28 Mar 1863 Pike Co KY, d 10 Mar 1948, Wise Co VA 84 years of age, buried John Wright Cemetery, Pound, Horse Gap VA, d/o Levi Greenville Sanders and Matilda Austin. (Levi Greenville Sanders  s/o Greenville "Granville" Sanders and Rhoda Potter) (Matilda Austin d/o Jesse Austin and Margaret Douglas). Children of John Wesley 'Devil John' Wright and Ellen Sanders;

14. Joel Ellis Wright b 29 Jun 1883, m. 3 Jan 1907 to Mary C Reynolds, b 15 Jul 1882 d 19 Nov 1961 at age 79 yrs 4 mos 4 days of age, d/o Joseph Coleman Reynolds and Mary Manerva Morgan.

1st Obituary of Mary C Reynolds
Mary d/o J. C. and Nerva Reynolds, b: Jul 15 1882 d: at age 79 yrs, 4 mos and 4 days; md: Joel WRIGHT, Jan 3 1907 (d: Nov 19 1961) he was the s/o John Wesley and Ellen (Sanders) Wright; no children. She leaves, two brothers, Billy, Pound, Va, Colman Reynolds, Washington; 3 half sisters, Mrs. George Rogers, Lexington, Ky, Manda Triplet, Washington, and Aggie Potter, Oak Hill, Ohio. Member of the Old Regular Baptist Church. (Source).
2nd Obituary of Mary C Reynolds

REYNOLDS, Mary was b: Jul 15 1882 d: Nov 19 1961; the dau of J. C. and Nerva Reynolds; md: Joel WRIGHT, Jan 3 1907; no children. She leaves 2 brothers, Billey Reynolds of Pound, Va and Coleman Reynolds of state of Washington. Member of the Old Regular Baptist Church.

15. Daniel S Wright b 23 May 1885 d 23 May 1964 m. Melvenia Mullins d/o Booker Mullins and Charlotte, Charity 'Chat' Wright. 

16. Healthy Wright b 2 May 1887 d 1939 m. John Benjamin Mullins (aka Benjamin Franklin Mullins) b 1883 Beefhide, Letcher Co KY d 1944 buried Devil John Wright Cemetery, Pound, Wise Co VA s/o Booker Mullins and Charlotte, Charity 'Chat' Wright. 

17. Ira Ellis Wright b 12 Jun 1889 Jenkins, KY d 7 Feb 1955 Huntington, WV m. 17 Oct 1917 to Martha Vermillion (divorced 8 Jun 1929). Ira Ellis Wright m. 30 Apr 1945 to 2nd Vianna Early, Ira Ellis Wright and Martha Vermillion had the following children;

i. Roby Raburn Wright

ii. Chester Wright


Children of John & Alice Harmon:

John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA 87 years of age, s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates.  John Wesley 'Devil John' Wright m. Alice Lee Harman b 4 Mar 1818 d/o Robert Graham Harman and Isabelle Waddill.  Children of John Wesley "Devil John" Wright and Alice Lee Harman;

18. Frank Wampler Wright b l Aug l894 m. Bertha Adams. Child of Frank Wampler Wright and Bertha Adams;

I. Frank Wampler Wright Jr b 21 Sept 1926 Stormking, Perry Co KY; m. 31 Aug 1947 New Iberia LA to Martha Jean Patterson b 7 Nov 1927 Smackover AR; d/o Joshua Thomas Patterson and Gladys Snider. Children of Frank Wampler Wright Jr and Martha Jean Patterson;

i. Frank T Wright

ii. Patty Wright m. Male Ball

iii. Richard Wright

iv. Elizabeth Wright m. Male Brown

v. Virginia Gayle Wright m. Male Weber (Thanks to Gayle for submitting information for this family by email, 9 Oct 2008).

19. Bertha Wright b 26 Jan l896 d 3l Jan l974 m. Willie Church

20. William Troy "Chid" Wright b 5 Aug l897 d l9 Apr l985 m. Belle Maynard

21. Conrad W. Wright b l0 Sept l899 d l903

22. Mallie Wright b about 1900

23. Elizabeth Wright b 8 Oct l90l d l902 age 2 years.

24. Clarence Wright b 24 Sept l903 d l0 Oct l979 m. Alta Mullins

25. Chester A. Wright b l0 Oct l905 d infancy

26. Carlous Ray Wright b 26 May l907 m. Ida Rutherford. Child;

i. Terry Wright -

27. Maudie Belle Wright b 27 Aug l909 d l987 m. Orville Bevins (Blevins)

28. Charles Roe Wright b 7 Feb l9l2 m. Belvia Gibson

29. Kedrick C. Wright b 7 Aug l9l5 d Jun l983 m. Eleda Robinette

Children of John & India Harmon:

John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA 87 years of age, s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates.  John Wesley 'Devil John' Wright m. India Harmon. Children of Devil John Wright and India Harmon;

30. Virgie Wright b Sept l895 d age l4/l5

31. Alma Wright b about l904

32. Jennie Wright

33. Rausy V. Wright b l898

Children of John & Margaret J. Austin:

John Wesley "Devil John" Wright (aka "Bad John") b 17 May 1844 d 30 Jun 1931 Pound Wise Co VA 87 years of age, s/o Joel Ellis Wright and Eliza Agnes Bates.  John Wesley 'Devil John' Wright m. Margaret J Austin. Children of Devil John Wright and Margaret J Austin;

34. Mahala E. Wright b about l866

35. Mack Jesse Austin (Wright) b about l872 d 1930 never m. Norma Jane Hunley. Child;

I. William Harrison Austin (Wright) b 1903 Nicholas Co WV

Mack Jesse Austin (Wright) m. about 1910 to Annie McCutcheon. Children of Mack Jesse Austin (Wright) and Annie McCutcheon;

I. William Austin (Wright)

II. Clifford Austin (Wright)


    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 (7th Battalion CSA Cavalry) along with his Uncles, Martin Van Buren Bates and Robert Bates, and served with them the rest of the war. The first man he killed was Little Rube Potter. Ruben "Little Rube" 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 a lot 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 at the same time.

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