The 1898 Gunfight Between Henry Adams and Johnny Wright
By: Patty May Brashear, Ben Luntz and Nancy Wright Bays
Copyright, December 9, 2011
There never was a good gunfight, if no one was wounded or killed then there was always a lot of anger and resentment left over in the aftermath. One thing, though, about a gunfight is the fact that people tended to remember the details of what went on before, during and after the incident. When someone prominent or well-known was killed the event tended to be remembered longer and in greater detail than was usual. Such was the case for the gunfight between Henry Adams and Johnny Wright. Each man was prominent locally in his own way. Henry Adams had a violent past and Johnny Wright was a son of Devil John Wright, who was, at that time, already known in the national newspapers as a “noted mountain detective, “ and would soon become even more well-known as the basis for the character, Devil Judd, in John Fox, Jr.’s famous novel, "The Trail of The Lonesome Pine".
Henry Adams had gained a great deal of notoriety by the time he had his armed encounter with Johnny Wright. He was known as a tough, dangerous and determined man. His brother, Clell Adams, was known as an evil, as well as a very dangerous man. Some of the oral history indicates that Clell liked killing men and enjoyed doing it. His tendency to violence led to his own violent murder in the 1880s. Henry Adams, like many others, was involved in moonshining throughout the 1880s and continued in this activity into the 1890s. The details of what exactly led to the hard feelings between him and another prominent moonshiner, Ira Mullins, aren’t known, but there was definitely a violent falling-out between them. During the late 1880s and early 1890s Dr. Taylor, a lay doctor who practiced medicine in the region of Wise County, Virginia and Letcher and Pike County, Kentucky, had his own conflict with Ira Mullins and this led to the massacre of Ira Mullins and his family. Dr. Taylor was tried for this massacre, found guilty and hanged. There were always rumors to the effect that Henry Adams had been involved in this shooting along with Dr. Taylor and the Flemings, and there are some personal accounts from the time that indicate that this was definitely the case. Whatever had been the case, there was no doubt that Henry Adams and Ira Mullins hated each other and that Henry Adams did not shed any tears when Ira Mullins was murdered. Stories that have been passed down tell of how Henry Adams went and dug down into Ira Mullins’ grave and placed there several sticks of dynamite, blowing the grave to smithereens, and sending Ira ‘s bones flying all over the place. This was hardly the act of someone already satisfied with the death of an enemy. Henry Adams had survived the 1880s and most of the 1890s at the time of his armed encounter with Johnny Wright, and he was, by any measure, a dangerous, clever and formidable opponent. He, like Johnny Wright, was also a family man, and both of them cared a great deal for their families.
Johnny Phillip Wright
Johnny Phillip Wright, born 19 August 1876, was a son of Devil John Wright and Mattie Humphrey Wright. He was married at the time of his death to Alice Johnson. Alice was a daughter of Tandy Johnson and Matilda Wright. Johnny Phillip Wright was her second husband. They married on 29 November 1897 in Letcher County, Kentucky. As Johnny Wright became a young adult he drank and caroused a great deal. He was frequently in trouble as can be seen from the court records. He was also involved in moonshining. Even before his encounter with Henry Adams in 1898 Johnny Wright had killed one man during a gun fight and wounded another. We see some of the details about this trouble in the two articles below.
Article from the September 11, 1895 Morning Times, Washington, DC.
KILLED HIS MAN
Son of a Noted Detective Fires With Fatal Effect.
Lexington, Ky., September 10.-John Wright, Jr., son of a noted mountain detective John Wright, was yesterday attacked at Pikeville by Frank Phillips and Barney Artrip, the former member of one of the Hatfield-McCoy factions. Wright killed Artrip and wounded Phillips, whose friends, it is feared, will feud with the Wrights.
End of Article.
Excerpt of an article from the March 13, 1896 Mountain Echo.
Johnny Wright, a notorious mountain outlaw, and son of John Wright, was arrested Friday by the Pike county officials, charged with killing a man on Big Creek, that county, in September 1895. He will be given quick justice next week in the March Term of the Pike circuit court, which is now in session in Pikeville.
Twenty U. S. Marshalls made a raid upon the shiners in certain sections of this county Friday. They succeeded in cutting up two stills belonging to Mrs. Martin Venters, a widow, on the head of the river. They also captured seven of the moonshiners and took them to Jackson, where they will have a hearing.
End of article.
Frank Phillips was an extremely dangerous man and had been one of the principle participants in the Hatfield and McCoy feud. He was known for getting drunk and then messing with people. One of his favorite acts was to make people dance by firing his pistol around their feet. It isn’t mentioned what, exactly, he did when he attacked Johnny Wright, but it is clear from the first article that he had met his match. Some insight into the circumstances behind the gunfight that happened between Henry Adams and Johnny Phillip Wright, as well as some of the events afterwards, can be seen in the following two sources.
Information from Nancy Russell and her cousin Charles.
We wish to thank Nancy Russell and her cousin Charles for being so generous and allowing us to use the following information that she sent to us.
Nancy Russell’s information:
“Yes, Grandpa Adams did kill Devil John’s son. Grandma’s story goes - ‘she was a little girl coming home from school after a gully washer of a rain. They came to the creek which was too high for them to cross. About the time they reached the creek they noticed a group of men on horses on the other side of the creek. One of them picked Grandma up and took her across the creek. He asked her who she was and she said Sarah Adams, Henry Adams’ daughter. The man asked, “ Where is your daddy?” She said, ‘he killed Johnny Wright and we ain’t seen him since.’ She told her mother about the incident to which her mother replied, ‘You little fool, that was Devil John and he was looking for your daddy."
Grandpa Adams was a fugitive for a period of time; running from Devil John who was a Kentucky sheriff at the time. Grandma’s mother died when she was 8 years old. Relatives divided the children up at the cemetery. It was 25 years before she seen one of her brothers. Eventually Grandpa went to prison, but eventually got out and remarried. Nancy Russell’s cousin Charles said, “that grandma said it (the cause of the trouble) was because Henry Adams was having an affair with Johnny’s wife and Johnny came to kill Henry Adams and he killed him in self-defense.
In the above information, Grandma is Sarah Ann Adams Wright, born 7 April 1890 at Jewell, Kentucky, was the daughter of Henry Adams and Eliza Jane Mullins. Sarah Ann stayed one winter with the family of cousin Charles and this is when she told cousin Charles the above details of what happened. The first school she attended was at Cane Branch. (Note that census records indicate that Sarah was born ca. 1885. Also, Jewell was an early name for Shelby Gap.)
Information from Joe Mize’s research: The following is information from the late Joe Mize’s papers. Joe Mize was always very generous with any information he had uncovered in all his research. We remember him with deep respect and are thankful he left us this information.
Joe’s information: “Henry Adams (Booker Mullins’ sister’s husband). He was big and fat. He killed Henderson “Hen” Mullins. His rifle was a 45-20 cl. He called his rifle “Bone Crusher.” He killed 6 or 7 people. Henry Adams shot and killed Johnny P. Wright, son of Devil John Wright and Mattie Humphrey Wright in Jenkins. They were both riding horses and Adams shot Johnny from under his horses neck–this information came from Marvin “Moon” Mullins, Pulaski County, Kentucky.
Tape recorded by Bonnie Caudill 1984 - Frank Wright, son of Johnny Wright (Goose Creek Frank).
Frank stated his father and Henry Adams were seeing the same lady friend and were jealous of each other. Johnny had been to see the lady who lived on Beefhide in Pike County, Kentucky. Henry Adams was hidden behind a tree and shot him. Frank stated that love of whiskey and women was a big factor in his father’s death.
Since this gun fight was such a news sensation locally, there were several other good sources from which we have obtained additional information, and from this wealth of information we have been able to piece together a fairly detailed account of what happened on the day Henry Adams shot Johnny Wright to death in a gun fight. This is the first time a detailed account of this gun fight has ever been published.
Below is a newspaper account of the gunfight from the time:
Article from the September 24, 1898 Spout Spring Times.
Henry Adams killed John Wright in Letcher county over a drink of whiskey.
End of article.
Henry Adams and Johnny Phillip Wright had some previous trouble that dated all the way back to the early 1890s. At one point Johnny Wright had tried to arrest Henry Adams over something, and in 1891 Johnny Wright had told some people that Henry Adams had cut up his still. It isn’t known who told Johnny this, but it was apparently not true. On hearing what Johnny was saying about him, Henry Adams looked Johnny up, and when he located Johnny he assured him he had not done anything to his still. This settled the trouble between them at the time, and throughout the 1890s they did not have any more trouble. During the remaining part of the 1890s Henry Adams would encounter Johnny Wright at various places including Devil John Wright’s home. During all these encounters they had been on friendly terms. As late as the summer before the gun fight, Henry Adams, while at his father’s store, had encountered Johnny Wright there and they were, at that time, still on friendly terms.
Sometime during late 1898 Henry Adams began to have an affair with Johnny Wright’s wife, and this would lead to a great deal of bitterness between the two men. Trouble between the two men became inevitable and this culminated in the tragic September 12, 1898 gunfight between the two men.
Henry Adams had some troubles of his own prior to the day of the gunfight. His children had suffered from a serious fever and Dr. Maynard (of Pike County) had attended to them for a time during the worst part of their illness. Dr. Maynard had to attend to other patients and when he left Henry Adams’s cabin he told Henry to mail him a note in a few days and let him know how the children’s recovery was progressing. (All the children but one recovered. The one child died shortly after the September 12, 1898 gunfight.)
On September 12, 1898 Henry Adams left his cabin on foot just after 12 noon. He later said that he was on his way to Ore Knob in Pike County to mail a letter to Dr. Maynard. At about 2 o’clock he walked past the home of William Vanover. This was a tippling house where you could walk in and order an alcoholic beverage. For some reason Henry Adams stopped at Mr. Vanover’s residence. Outside in the yard, Johnny Wright and several other men were standing about. Henry spoke to all of them and all of them, except Johnny Wright, acknowledged him. Just after saying hello to everyone Henry Adams entered the house, and shortly after this, Johnny Wright turned and also walked into the house. Inside the house Mr. Vanover poured Johnny Wright a bottle of brandy and Johnny, pouring out some of the brandy in a cup, handed it to Henry Adams and told him to have a drink. At first Henry Adams told Johnny Wright that he didn’t want a drink but Johnny insisted. Mrs. Vanover, who was also in the house and was concerned that Johnny Wright might get enraged, motioned to Henry Adams to take the drink. Henry Adams then took the cup offered by Johnny Wright and acted as if he were drinking from it. He later stated that he had not actually taken a drink. The two men began to have words. Mr. Vanover became so concerned about this that he escorted Johnny Wright to the door. At the door Johnny Wright tried to go back, saying he had something he wanted to talk to Henry Adams about, but Mr. Vanover convinced him to leave the house and go home. Shortly after Johnny Wright was taken out to the door by Mr. Vanover, Mrs. Vanover had told Henry Adams to leave the house because there might be trouble. Henry Adams immediately left the house and outside encountered another man, he asked the man what he thought was the matter with Johnny Wright. He and the man walked down the road until they were about a hundred feet from William Vanover’s house and the two of them were standing there when they saw Johnny Wright out in front of Mr. Vanover’s house mount his horse and head down the road in their direction. Henry Adams, who was kind of under a bank, was down the road from Johnny Wright. There was a tree near that same side of the road and as Johnny Wright came down the road toward them Henry Adams positioned himself so that the trees trunk was between him and Johnny Wright. Johnny Wright saw this and took it as threatening behavior on Henry Adams part. Henry Adams took Johnny Wright’s demeanor as he rode toward him as threatening. As Johnny Wright came up to where the tree was he stopped his horse and began to dismount on the side of the horse opposite to the tree and Henry Adams. As he was dismounting he pulled his pistol out of his holster, and just as he was doing this Henry Adams had done the same with his 45 Colt revolver. As this was going on, the man who Henry Adams had walked down the road with said to both of them, “Boys, don’t have no trouble now.” Just as he was dismounting, Johnny Wright asked Henry Adams why he was getting behind the tree. Just as Johnny Wright dismounted he looked under his horse’s neck in the direction of Henry Adams, who was now partly behind the tree. At this point Henry Adams stepped closer to the tree and fired a shot at Johnny Wright. Johnny Wright, who had just been shot, staggered forward and raised his face toward Henry and was shot by Henry again. This was followed by a third shot into Johnny Wright after which Johnny staggered up the road a short distance toward the Vanover house and then sank down onto the road, dying within only a few minutes. Immediately after this third shot Henry Adams ran across Elkhorn Creek and then into the woods. He was now on the dodge and it would be a while before he gave himself up to authorities.
At some point while Henry Adams was on the dodge he wrote a letter to Pike County Judge Auxier telling the judge that he was ready to give himself up. This led to Henry Adams being arrested and tried in Pike County Circuit Court for the killing of Johnny Wright. Given that Henry Adams was also wanted in Virginia for murder, probably the killing of Henderson Mullins, it was little surprise that he was found guilty of murdering Johnny Wright and sentenced to twenty-one years in prison. He was later released from prison, something that was not uncommon at that time. If you had the money it was not difficult to purchase a pardon. Henry Adams was convicted in the January 1899 term of court and entered the state prison on April 6, 1899. He was pardoned on May 8, 1901. His trade was listed as a carpenter. He was 37 at the time of his conviction. He weighed 172 pounds, was five feet, six and one half inches tall, and had black hair.
After Henry Adams returned from prison it was probably necessary for him to make enough money to pay off the pardon. The only way he could make that much money was to return to his old profession of moonshining. Below we see mention of his return to that profession.
Article from the July 14, 1905 Big Sandy News:
Mayking, Ky., July 11.-A desperate moonshiners’ battle was fought in the mountains of the Elkhorn creek in this county today. Alvin Centers was shot dead and Henry Adams was fatally wounded. Deputy Marshal Albritton Potter led the revenue men on the raid, which had been planned for a month. Centers and his crew fired upon the officers when at close quarters and double quick they returned the fire. For fifteen minutes a desperate battle was waged in which Centers was killed on the spot. Adams cannot live. Both men have been hunted down by the officers for months. Adams served a sentence in the Kentucky penitentiary for murder.-Courier Journal
End of article.
Henry survived this battle and lived many more years during which he continued to practice and made make money doing what he had done for so long already, moonshining.
Henry Adams died at Whitesburg, Letcher Co., KY on February 12, 1935. The cause of death was a combination of asthma, tuberculosis, and pneumonia.
The material on this webpage holds a copyright © December 9, 2012
By: Ben Luntz, Patty May Brashear and Nancy Wright Bays
Back to Index Page
Wright Roots-Bates Branches