The hills of Kentucky still abound in tales of John Wright, a famous lawman from the late 1800s. Dubbed “Devil” by his enemies, John was always known to get his man.
Shortly before his death, a visitor to John’s cabin asked, “I’ve heard you killed thirty outlaws in your heyday, is that true?”
“Now, I don’t know.” John answered, “Hardly think I killed thirty. But I took a lot of fellows to board in jail and starved them to death. The people might be counting them.”
Wright was born on the Kentucky River near Kona in Letcher County, Kentucky on April 17, 1842. As a young man, he served in the Confederate Army. After the war, he toured the world as a trick rider and sharpshooter in a circus along with his uncle, Martin Van Buren Bates, who, at five-hundred pounds and seven feet eleven inches tall, performed as “The Kentucky Giant.”
John left the circus in 1869 and returned to Kentucky. He married Martha Humphrey, a girl who had tended to him when he was wounded during the war. He went on to become a sheriff with many admirers and enemies. His skills as a sharp shooter came in handy as a lawman. He was known to shoot criminals through his pocket without pulling his pistol out. The following is the story of one of the first criminals John ever caught:
One fall, a horse race was scheduled in Cynthiana, Kentucky. Some of the racehorses were brought in from Lexington the day before and stabled over night. Among these horses was one that was valued at one thousand dollars. The morning of the races, it was discovered that this horse had been stolen.
The local sheriff gathered a posse to pursue the thief. John Wright was among the volunteers. He rode with the sheriff down the Licking River, toward Cincinnati. The tracks of the racehorse were distinctive because its rear feet dug deep into the earth. When crossing streams and passing over sand, it was easy to follow the animal, but when it the struck the hard pike it was difficult.
In the middle of the afternoon, they found where the racehorse had left the pike and had cut across country, coming to the Ohio River a few miles east of Newport, Kentucky. There were the deep imprints of the horse’s hind feet where he had gone into the Ohio River. The thief had forced the racehorse to swim the river, which was now at high stage.
“Nothing else we can do, boys,” the sheriff told his men.
“Maybe not for you,” John said. “But for me—there is plenty to do. Sheriff, here’s where we part. ”
“Part?” the officer asked, puzzled. “What do you mean, man?”
“I mean I’m going after that horse.”
“Ford the river.” John reined his horse into the water and crossed to the other side where he took up at a farmhouse for the night.
Early the next morning, John resumed his chase. When darkness came upon him again, he was within a few miles of the Ohio River, near Huntington, West Virginia. Here, he spent the night with a man who gave him valuable information about the country through which he must pass. During the night John told his host that he would need a fresh horse on the coming day. After breakfast, and still before daylight, a fast horse was ready for him.
John tracked the racehorse to the Ohio River again just above Huntington, and swam the river, landing on the West Virginia side. The rest of the day, he traveled through this state, never having any difficulty following his man. The stolen horse was a fine looking animal with a white triangle on its black face. It attracted attention everywhere it was seen. At the end of the day, John was some miles closer to the thief, according to information gathered along the way. He traveled until late in the night, hoping to gain more ground.
John needed fresh horse every day if he expected to overtake the fast racehorse. So, he made a point to spend the nights with families who had horses.
At dark on the third day, John Wright was assured that his man was not more than five miles ahead of him. He rode on until nearly midnight, expecting the thief to take up somewhere for the night. But, seeing that his borrowed horse was lagging, he stopped to rest for a few hours.
The fourth morning he left a hospitable home, furnished with another fresh steed. By night, he had reached a farm near the West Virginia-Virginia border and had completely exhausted the animal.
At this point, he was about three hours behind his man and was glad to stop for a night’s sleep. He knew that soon the racehorse must begin to lag. In fact, he knew that the horse was already near exhaustion, but was being pushed by the thief. For three more days he followed his man over southwestern Virginia, into Tennessee, and back again into Virginia, ever gaining, but never catching him.
On the night of the seventh day, John Wright rode until late, as his information indicated that he was not more than an hour behind the thief.
The next morning, after finding yet another new horse, John rode at top speed for three hours, nearing the Cumberland Gap. He stopped at a small boarding house on the right of the road, where two men were talking in the yard.
“Did either of you see a feller ride by here on a big black horse with a three-cornered white spot in his face?”
"Yeah—” one of the men answered, “He just now passed. Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes ago.“
"Riding fast?” John wanted to know.
“Just poking along. Horse must of been tired.”
John spurred his horse into a fast gallop for two miles.
At last he was within sight of his man. A tall rider sat erect on the famous horse. The horse was walking, the reins hanging loose.
At the sound of John’s coming, the leisurely rider turned quickly. But apparently he did not suspect the traveler was after him.
When John rode up, the man swayed over to the left of the road and John came up beside him. “Howdy,” John said, smiling broadly.
“Morning,” the tall man answered. He looked at John’s horse, and frowned. "Why you been ridin’ so hard?” he asked.
“Been after a doctor for my wife, ” John replied without hesitation. “She’s bad off.”
The tall man looked around, “Where’s the doctor?”
"He’ll be right along. Had to splint a broken arm before he could come.”
They rode on in silence for a moment, the eyes of the tall man never leaving John for an instant.
“Say, that’s a fine horse you’ve got,” John said. “Where’d you get such an animal?“
The tall man’s eyes flashed, "Traded for him,” he said.
“Want to trade him?”
“I ain’t trading none,” the man said.
John moved his hand to the butt of his revolver.
“If your wife’s so poorly, why ain’t you going faster?” the man asked, eyeing John closely.
"Can’t you see my horse is worn out?”
“Listen, Mister, I want to trade for that horse,” John bantered. “I’ve got money to pay the difference.
"Didn’t I tell you I ain’t trading none?”
John pulled his reins and stopped. “If you’d get down and look my horse over you might change your mind,” he said.
The thief had stopped simultaneously with Johns movements.“Say—what’re you trying to pull?” The tall man’s left hand was near the butt of the revolver and John watched every movement.
“Well, I’ve come a long way to get that horse. If you must know—” John ducked over the side of his horse as the crack of the pistol split the air. and There was a burning sensation above his right ear.
The thief swung off his horse on the opposite side. John, knew that if he dropped to the ground, his opponent would shoot him in the lower parts and if he straightened up on his horse, he would be shot in the head. So, he hung to the pommel of the saddle with his left hand, his foot in the stirrup, his mind worked as it never had worked before. He had nowhere to go! Then he had an idea.
Sticking his revolver down under the horse’s belly, John aimed as well as he possibly could and fired.
For a brief second, John waited for return fire. There was deathly silence. Then, he heard staggering steps, followed by a thud on the ground.
Confident that he had gotten his foe, John dropped to the ground and saw the tall figure lying, his head near the racehorse’s front feet. The man was weakly raising his gun, aiming it at John’s head. But he was too late. A second shot from John’s revolver finished the man and finished the long and exhausting chase over five states.
John relieved his victim of his personal belongings. A new Colt’s .38 revolver was taken from the strong grip of the man’s left hand, the lock half drawn back by the deathly grip. From the holster he pulled another, just like the first, but older. He worked these and found that they had been well cared for and were in perfect condition.
Then he searched the pockets, and found a roll of something tied in a bandanna handkerchief. Greenbacks! Yellow twenties, green twenties, tens, fives—over seven hundred dollars! He shoved the roll into his pocket and finished the search.
John Wright then began his long trip back to Cynthiana. If he could have come from Cumberland Gap down the old Wilderness Trail, hundreds of miles could have been saved. But he had to retrace his steps all the way back in order to deliver the borrowed horses to their owners. Twelve days were spent in returning. He let the racehorse rest two days during the trip, fearing that such strain might injure him permanently.
The owners of the borrowed horses greeted him with a welcome when he returned their mounts, unhurt. He paid each of them from the thief’s money for the service.
On the afternoon of the eighteenth day after he had left Cynthia, John rode into town, leading the famous horse. A crowd gathered along the streets, following them and applauding.
The sheriff told John to come into his office and receive the necessary papers for his reward for capturing the criminal. The owner of the horse had put up the reward.
“I’ve already got my reward, ” John said.
“Who paid you?” the sheriff asked.
“The thief paid you?”
John showed his roll of currency, minus what he had given the owners of the animals he had ridden.
“The thief paid his own reward,” he said
"You’ve earned it,” the sheriff said. “And for my part, you may keep it.”
1) Bad John Wright - The Law of Pine Mountain, by Phillip K. Epling
2) The History of Jenkins, Kentucky, published by The Jenkins Area Jaycees
Jenkins, Kentucky 1973
Next week’s issue features an Appalachian folktale.
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