The Devil Came Down to Cumberland:
The Ballad of John Wright
By: Steve Robinson
Devil John Wright on horseback on the Cumberland Trail (circa 1896)
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the word around the Cumberland Mountains was simple: If Devil John Wright was after you; you had the devil himself on your heels. Devil John’s Christian name may not have been Devil to begin with, but his wild and restless lifestyle made him earn it.
Born in the Mountains of Letcher County Kentucky on the 17th of May, 1842 to poor parents, John Wesley Wright came into the world pink and healthy. He was the first son to Joel and Eliza Wright who migrated to Kentucky as second generation immigrants from England. Not much is known about his early childhood as far as education as opportunities in the hills of Kentucky in the 1800’s were scarce and men and women had to rely mostly on brawn and primal intuition to survive, but John did say that he had attended a few schools in his early childhood. But by and large his early education involved a gun for hunting and a hoe for gardening.
When John was but a young man, probably around 1862 (exact dates are not recorded or known and are only estimated by the family), he joined the Confederate Army against the Union in the Civil War. He trained at Fort Smith, Arkansas and fought for an unknown amount of time for the Confederacy until he was captured during a raid by Ohio regular Union troops in Kentucky in early 1863. He was then conscripted into the Union Army and fought alongside them. When John was asked why he changed sides during the war, he would only shrug and say that they didn’t give him much of a choice. Indeed, on his conscription papers, John and one other man were described as being replacements for fallen soldiers within the Ohio unit with the alternative of conscription being execution. Who could blame him?
During this time with the Ohio unit John was shot three times. Once in the stomach in Cynthiana, Kentucky which nearly killed him, once in the triceps of his right arm at the mouth of Boones Creek, Tennessee and once in the hip during a battle in Tennessee which forever gave him a ‘stiff’ walk that he was characteristically known for.
John served for 18 months in the Union Army and was honorably discharged in Columbus, Ohio in 1864. It was known that John was a fierce fighter on the battlefield and it was there that he honed his sharpshooting and killing instinct that made him a reputable man once he came back home to Letcher County.
The Robinson Circus and the Queen of England
After the Civil War, John traveled for a few years and learned the trade of husbandry and sold horses that he took from Kentucky all throughout the southern states. This gave him a hunger for seeing the world, but the nation was by and large very poor and John found himself hard pressed to find funds. So he found himself like so many men after the Civil war: looking for employment. But John had an ideal and found himself hunting down an uncle of his that was in a circus known as The Robinson Circus.
This uncle, known as Martin ‘Brother’ Bates, was known as a ‘Kentucky Giant’. He stood at 7 feet 4 inches and weighed over 400 pounds. Brother Bates was happy to see his favored nephew and took him in and gave him a job in the circus as a sharpshooter. John would ride bare back or saddled on any horse and shoot bottles off of barrels as the horse galloped. John would also do this while standing on the horse or even two horses at full gallop. He even had tricks that made him famous, such as doing a flip off the back of the horse while firing his pistols.
John Wesley Wright in the early 1880’s
His time with the Robinson Circus took him to many countries around the world and satiated his desire to travel and it took him to England where he got to perform in front of Queen Victoria and even met her in person.
Coming home and ‘Settling’ down
John eventually found his way back to the mountains of southeast Kentucky in 1865 and into the arms of his first wife, Mattie Humphrey. With Mattie, John fathered 3 children and established himself in Wise, Virginia where he would live out most of the rest of his days. John, however, would not find Mattie enough for his wild mannerisms and soon took another wife in 1869. And then another, and another and another and yet one more after that. All told, John had six wives and fathered 31 children (often with multiple wives in the same year). It was quite the joke to the family and to the community at large that John had ‘A wife for every mountain top’. But no one told that to John’s Face.
Because of John’s restless libido, his blood has been spread all over the south east of the United States and many claim him in their lineage and rightly do so. I claim him as my great-great father. His son, Carlos Ray Wright, was my great grandfather and also the 9th child (26th in lineage) of his 5th wife, my great-great grandmother, Alice Wright.
John wasn’t ashamed of his polygamy and he was a staunch protector of every one of his children. As he grew in stature throughout Wise County and the Cumberland’s, he grew in wealth and always made sure that all of his children were well taken care of. John always insisted that his Children attend school whenever it was available and told them that “a man couldn’t live by his hands alone” in this world.
The Coming of the Devil
John’s main source of income was through farming and husbandry of horses, but his restless ways took him into the arms of the law. His first ventures as a lawman was as a deputy Marshall and would bounty hunt at any and every opportunity. Mostly because it would get him away from his wives and farms and let him travel. During this time which started around 1871 and in fact, ever since he came home from the Circus and Civil War, he was building a reputation for himself as a man not to be crossed. John was known to be fair and would remain so all his life, but he would also not hesitate to draw his gun on you. Because of this, he was surnamed ‘Devil’ or ‘Bad’ John Wright, but Devil he likened to and kept.
John would say that he never liked killing a man but instead, liked to bring them home and hand them over to the law. An exact count of how many men John had killed over the years is not known, but it was very many as rumors go.
In the 1890’s, the law of the land in Southeast Kentucky and Southwest Virginia was simple: there wasn’t any. Men killed, raped and robbed without consequence. Everywhere except on Devil John Wright’s land. Although he did his bounty work, he never wanted a career in law enforcement. John was a firm believer in having good morals and following common laws, but to be a man of the law himself?
Devil John’s Colt .44
John had many battles with miscreants who dared to tread on his territory in the Cumberland Mountains, including Doc Taylor and the Ku Klux Klan of which he disliked because of their secrecy and there are even more tales to his feats of justice that always pointed that John was a fair and just man. And so this reputation inevitably led him to become Sherriff of Wise County Virginia in 1896. This was as much for John to show to his great family and community that not only was he their father, but also their protector and keeper of the peace. The Civil War may have hardened Devil John for this part of his life, for he was ruthless when he needed to be and none was ever know to escape his sights.
Later Life, Conversion and Death
Devil John would continue his rambling killing ways well into his early seventies. He was a known drinker and gambler and loved to make his own brandy, which he deemed the only good thing that an apple was for. But he also was a lover of his wives and children and took good care of his workers who tended his lands. John also was a lukewarm man of the Christian faith. He would often go to church with his first wife when the mood struck him and was a very simple man of prayer. But he always insisted that his children go to church and not take after his ways.
But that all changed in March of 1925 when his first wife, Mattie, passed away. This seemed to change Devil John and he began to go to church more regularly and on a warm morning on July 24th, 1929, Devil John finally decided to shed the skin of his former life and became a man of God. In Fairview, Virginia on that July morning, he was baptized in front of over 2000 people. Most people came because they loved John. But there were those who came just out of curiosity to see if it would really happen and even others who were sworn enemies of Devil John to see if they could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
It happened and John did change his ways. He retired back to his favorite farm in Wise and watched his children’s families grow and play with his grandchildren. He became fiery about his devotion to the Christian faith and he did keep true to his word. He retook his Christian name of John Wesley Wright and dropped Devil for good. He also dropped his fire arms and never fired one again.
John Wright in Wise Virginia (circa 1925)
But this change would be short lived. On a cold, snowy day on January the 30th, 1931, John Wesley Wright passed away at his home at the ripe age of 87 with his second wife and a few of his children by his bed side. The doctor who attended him said it was his heart that failed him.
John was buried two days later in Wise and thousands attended his funeral. Tears and brandy were spilt at the services that followed as the legend of this man was told by dear friends and family.
One testimony was given at his funeral by an unknown man who fought alongside John during the Civil War and knew him all his life summed him up quite well:
“He got his man safe if he could. If he could not, he used lead. He was never known after having captured a man to let him get out of his sight. Never did he strike a man or permit anyone of (his) allies to mistreat a man that he had under arrest. He believed in turning them over to the law and letting the law run its course.” (Devil John Wright, pg. 254)
Wright, William T. Devil John Wright of the Cumberland’s
1932, 254 pages. Publisher William T. Wright (2nd print 1970)
This book was written by John’s son William, known to the family as Uncle Chid. He paid to have it self published in 1934 and gave many to not only my line of family to John, but to many other lines as well.
Potter, Annette. "Annette Potter Family Geneology." 1995. Web. 2010.
This was an interesting article by a woman who claims Devil John in her bloodline.