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Bill Thayer

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B. H. Crase

This webpage reproduces a section of
The History of Jenkins, Kentucky

published by The Jenkins Area Jaycees
Jenkins, Kentucky 1973

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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James Jackson
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of three men standing on a rail platform; a railcar can be seen behind them on the left, and the overhang of the entrance to the station behind them towards the right. The short thin man in the center is 'Bad John' Wright, wearing a dour expression; the other two men are senior management of Consolidation Coal Company.]

Bad John Wright​a

This is taken from the Courier Journal, an article by Joe Creason.

All that I know of Bad John Wright is what I've heard in Southeastern Kentucky. I have a feeling he is the most unusual Kentuckian of all.

John Wright lived in a remote corner of Letcher County in what today is Jenkins. It was he the author John Fox Jr. used as a model for his character, Devil Jud Tolliver, in the book, "Trail of the Lonesome Pine."​b

The mountain area around still abounds in John Wright tales. After the Civil War, one hears he served as a peace officer and later worked as a land agent when John C. C. Mayo was acquiring the acreage which became the vast holdings of Consolidation Coal Company. As a peace officer, Wright engaged in many a shoot-out; as a matter of fact, one story holds that his greatest regret is that he never quite broke even in this life, what with having sired 27 children, but having killed 28 men in gun battles. Old-timers recall hearing him tell about going once to serve a warrant on a notorious man who vowed he would never be arrested. He was sitting in the front room; that he remembered. Wright said, "When I walked in, he didn't say nothing, just whipped out his pistol and snapped the hammer down on the empty chamber. By then, I were getting kind of nervous, of course, so I yanked out my pistol and shot him. If that taught me anything, it were to never let no man to get the draw on me."

Bad John Wright owned and operated a saw mill at the foot of this hollow and the lumber from this plant was used to build the houses that are now in Wright's Hollow.

The following article is by Luther F. Addington on Bad John Wright. Mr. Addington lives in Wise, Virginia, and has written several books and articles on local history.

The author of this history spent much time with John W. Wright after he settled on Pound River to live out the declining days of his life. John Wright loved and always kept good horses. He became such an expert rider that the John Robinson Show hired him to ride for them before their great crowds. It was the fearless Devil John who made it possible more than a few times for circuit courts to convene in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky during the dangerous feud. Sometimes the judge who did not meet with the G‑43approval of the feuding tribe was routed from his bench, but when Devil John said, "Go ahead with your court, I'll be hanging around," procedure took a different course. Devil John, who wanted his neighbors to do the right thing, and would have the right thing done if it required bullets, reconciled many a brawl that rose between coal operators and the citizens when Eastern Kentucky began to hum with activity.

It was this self-made man whom John Fox depicted in the Trail of the Lonesome Pine as Devil Jud Tolliver. Bad John was asked if Fox ever came to see him. "Many times," he answered, glanced at me and then away at the distant hills. I suppose you knew quite well the Red Fox, I went on. "Yes," he answered, "Doc Taylor was a well-known character. He was cunning, you never know what to expect from him. "About how many men have you killed outside of war," I asked. "Seven," he replied positively, his keen eyes peering at me through his spectacles. He can see only out of the right eye; the left having been shot out by an adversary years ago. "Seven I have killed," he repeated, "and feel I have done my duty. Some killings had to be done in them terrible days just after the wear. There were too many horse thiefs and murderers. But I always gave a man a chance. Many a time I was shot at before I raised my gun." I suppose you practice shooting a great deal. "Every day," he came back, "I got so I race my horse, swing under his neck times in rapid succession each time and as I come to the top, place a bullet in the center of the tree along the road." How many did you carry? "One, just one — no use for more for by the time one was empty, I had my man or was ready to do something else." What kind of gun did you carry? ".38 usually, sometimes I carried my war gun which is a .34." He stated he got his gun off a dead man on the banks of the Mississippi. "I saw the man couldn't very well use it, and I needed it bad and, sir, she went on through the Civil War with me. Through several battles with the Indians in the West."

Devil John was Justice of the Peace for 16 years in the Eastern Hills of Kentucky and was sheriff for 8 years. For thirty years, he was a detective working in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. "Outside of the war, did you kill anyone before you became a detective," I asked. "One," he said, "I went with a high sheriff and his deputy to capture a man in West Virginia, a horse thief. The sheriff and his deputy boldly approached and busted in without using any tact. I was bringing up the rear — bang, bang, and two officers fell as I entered the door — bang, a ball splintered the door facing right close to my head. Then in a flash shot a bullet in the bed in the opposite side of the room — no shot was returned. Three dead men laid still in the cabin. I went outside, jumped on my horse, and went to tell the people of the community what had happened."

Then you became a detective shortly after that? "A few years after that I helped trace some rascals, and somehow my name began to be known far and near. A detective agency near in Richmond, Virginia offered me a job and I accepted. I worked for them some G‑44time until they treated me dirty, and I offered my resignation. They said they would not accept it. I got out my old gun and said, "Guess I'll resign the agency then" and they seemed willing to let me go. What was the trouble? "They put me on the meanest, hardest case and tried to keep all the reward money. But straight-way offered a job with an agency in Charleston, West Virginia. I went."

"One hair-raising adventure I had was once when I went with two county officers 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 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."

Thayer's Notes:

a The photo is not in the print edition of this book, but was taken by George McCoy and graciously supplied for this Web transcription by Mr. McCoy's niece Mary Kay Roark. For another photo of him taken the same day, see the McCoy interview.

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b The book is online at Project Gutenberg; in 1936, it was made into one of the earliest Technicolor movies (synopsis and cast at Internet Movie Database).

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Page updated: 24 May 06