Monday, December 29, 2008

Devil John Wright by J. Frederick Quillen

This is part of a chapter that was sent to me about Devil John Wright. He was my great grandfather, William Jesse Wright's brother. He is probably in the Kentucky portion of the family, one of the most well known persons in the family. Many people in Eastern Kentucky trace a connection to him. He is known as a hero to many. He was a Devil to others. Others think of him as romantic because of his many women. I have never understood that view.

Let a woman have one man outside of marriage and she is a whore. And let her have a child out of wedlock even if the union was brought about against her will and she is damaged goods. John Wright is thought of as quite a ladies man. I do not think of him as a hero or a romantic figure.

I thought John learned to be hard and to take life in the Civil War. Then I read the accounting of the death of Reuben Potter. I know the general story goes that he was in service and heard that his children were without shoes and he deserted to take care of their needs. Not quite true. He joined one day and deserted the next. I have that story in its own blog. .

John helped the coal companies to steal the mineral rights from his family and neighbors. He wanted his uncle, Sam Wright's, mineral rights and Sam refused to sell. John threatened the lives of Sam's children if he did not sell. He didn't do the killing himself. He talked a nephew into doing the work and had Joel Wright and his wife Margaret Greer killed. Sam got 25 cents for his mineral rights.

I have a lot of stories that I have picked up from interviews with family. I am sorry that the article which follows is not complete. I would love to have the rest of the chapter and the entire book. I would would love to know who J. Frederick Quillen was and if he were a descendent of Elizabeth Wright and Henry Quillen.

This is not your typical story about John Wright.

. . . . .Devil John Wright by J. Frederick Quillen .

During the turbulent time of the Federal Union’s War against the Southern States to the beginning of the 20th century, one of the wildest and most lawless areas of the civilized world was the high-mountain country along the border between Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.

The country was torn by personal squabbles, shifting alliances, and deadly feuds among individuals, families, and local governments – one day’s law enforcement officers and bounty hunters might well be the next day’s outlaws and bushwhackers. Physical confrontations, killings and murders were common occurrences.

Wise County was the worst – men such as Talt Hall and Doc Taylor rampaged across the mountains, yet they were gifted with warm eccentric, engaging personalities and, by the time they were hanged, they had evolved into folk heroes.

But the blackest heart of all the Wise County bad men apparently possessed no redeeming qualities – John Wright was a cruel and evil man, who well deserved his popular title, Devil John Wright.

John Wright was an inveterate liar and braggart. What little good that may have existed in his tortured soul was smothered by his own grandiose self-promotion and by his cruel, shameless deeds.

John Wright was born in Letcher County, Kentucky, sometime around 1842-1844. His mother was a Bates, a family which included a myriad of colorful characters. The famous giant, Captain Martin “Baby” Bates, was John Wright’s uncle.

Shortly after the Civil War began, John Wright joined the loosely-organized Confederate forces in the area and soon ended up riding with Lt.-Colonel Clarence Prentice and his 7th Battalion Confederate Calvary, a mixed bag of Virginia and Kentucky intellectuals, criminals, mountain men and misfits.

Wright claimed that he was a scout and courier for the Confederates. In later life, he was fond of relating numerous heroic adventures during his time in the service. He claimed to have been wounded several times and proudly exhibited scars on his body. He attributed his pronounced limp to an encounter with the Yankees.

It is known that John Wright was both an organizer and patron of the infamous wartime brothel at Castlewoods. After Castlewoods’ chief pimp, Sid Cook, was killed by a homeboy on leave from Confederate service, irate citizens burned the whorehouse, and John Wright fled to his parents’ home, taking one of the prostitutes with him. John’s father, however, forbade his son bringing the whore into the home, so John set her up in a nearby cabin. The kindhearted whore, Mattie, subsequently gave birth to several of his children – she was, by all accounts, a good woman and a loving mother, but she was badly mistreated by John.

John Wright’s career shifted continuously from outlaw to law officer to bounty hunter; sometimes he wore 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.

Wright avoided fair fights and preferred “to get the drop” on his adversaries and to shoot first and ask questions later. Whether in a fair fight or foul, Wright was a crack shot. He also had a flair for the dramatic. He boasted: “I could shoot from a galloping horse – Indian style, by swinging down the opposite side of the horse holding on to the mane with one hand and firing my pistol from under the horse’s neck.”

When not killing, bushwhacking, capturing, robbing, or swindling his fellow man, John Wright’s leisure time was given over to sloth, alcoholism and the practice of cruelty. Vicious savageries were inflicted upon his several wives and whores, upon his many children, and even against his farm animals and horses.

He was overly fond of liquor and stayed drunk a good deal of the time. Wright supervised a profitable moon shining business, whose day-to-day operation of the stills and barrel houses were supervised by two of his elder sons, James and Joel. The Wrights were also known for their excellent peach and apple brandy.

In the cold winter months, John Wright spent most of each day in bed, with a mound of covers pulled over his head, occasionally rousing from his drunken stupor to spit out orders to the members of the household. And, woe to the woman or child who did not jump fast enough – it was said that you could instantly identify a member of Wright’s household by the horrendous bruises, cuts and scars upon the victim’s face and arms. It was rumored that he had beaten to death at least two of his female companions and an unknown number of his children.

John Wright was dishonest and stingy. He would hire workers to labor upon his large, prosperous farm, then refused to pay them or pay only a fraction of what he had previously agreed. He bragged that he worked from sunup to sundown; but, in later years, a son bitterly complained, “If that old devil ever hit a lick at a snake, I never seen it. He was as lazy and triflin’ as they come.”

John Wright disliked farmers and he abused common working people; he fawned over professional men – judges, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc. He was addicted to telling greatly inflated and exaggerated stories of his exploits to the well-to-do, and they, in turn, created a glowing legend of John Wright.

The story Wright told of the treasured pistol he constantly wore at his side is a good example of both his flights of fancy and his extreme conceit. He claimed that the legendary Frank and Jesse James, having heard of Wright’s fame, traveled to Wise County to seek his advice and friendship. The James boys supposedly presented the pistol to John Wright in appreciation for his words of wisdom and encouragement. At other times, with equal fervor, Wright claimed that he took the pistol from a Yankee laid low on the banks of the Mississippi.

Even by mountain standards, Wright went to horrible extremes in his cruelty to animals. He delighted in arranging for animals to tear each other apart – cockfighting was a favorite, but he also set dogs against dogs, dogs against bulls, and even dogs against hogs.

Wright especially loved to torture pigs and hogs. While area farmers and stockmen humanely killed swine with a shot or a quick heavy blow to the head, John Wright slicked the flesh open with a knife or hatchet and gleefully watched as the animal ran around the farm squealing in intense pain, until I finally dropped dead from loss of blood. In another barbarous amusement, he would heat an iron or poker until red hot, then ram the iron into the animal’s ….

And that is all that was sent to me from the excerpt from the book containing a chapter on John Wright. I would love to see the rest of the chapter. I would love to see the entire book. I would also like to figure out who J. Frederick Quillen was – where he fell in the Quillen family and if he were a descendent of Elizabeth Wright who married Henry Quillen. If you know more about the book or Mr. Quillen, please let me know.


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  8. You can send your comments to me. Identify yourself and send them to me at

  9. Will you then post my comments for others to read? I feel this is the correct way to handle this.

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  15. I can't post what I don't have.

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  18. i am only 13 and i have heard many stories about him. turns out im related to him!!!!

  19. After reading some of these comments, am I to wonder is any of these stories are true?

    I think it's really cool that so many people are descendants of him, it means I have a ton of relatives! I guess that's what happens when a dude has 30 some kids...

    My great great grandfather was John's son, Samuel Preston. Apparently he got shot and killed, after conceiving a child with his neighbors wife, in front of my great grandfather when he was only a child. My grandmother has so many colorful stories of her back-home relatives, I'm not sure whether to be ashamed or entertained!

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  21. Well let me just say I am new to ALL this information!! I appreciate all the time and effort all of you have put into this!! Whether we want to believe the stories of our ancestors or not, its still great to see "Legend has it..." I have been searching for this Wright side of my family for 3 years now, and I cant believe I never came across this Blog until a few days ago!! I am the great great great granddaughter of George Wright, the first son of Samuel W. Wright and Elizabeth Adams. It appears to me that George married into the Benedict family and never took a glimpse back to his Wright family. This resulting in my current family never quite knew where we had come from. I find the stories of "Devil" John horrible and embarrassing to the whole Wright family, but it does not define who we are today. Once again I thank all of you that have shared your stories from the Wrights and I hope to meet some of you soon!!

    Heather Wright