Clifton Branham 

The last man to hang in Wise County, Virginia

By: Jay Potter



My Grandfather's name was Johnny Martin Johnson and he was born on March 14, 1888 and died November 08, 1960. He was married to Frances Elkins, born 1896, the daughter of William and Elizabeth (Branham) Elkins.  Grandfather John Martin Johnson died of Cancer in 1960 and Grandmother Frances died of old age in 1981.  Grandmother was Clifton Branham's cousin, so Clifton often stayed with my Grandmother's mother Elizabeth Branham and her Husband William Elkins  for her cooking.  In fact, Clifton Branham lived part of his life on Cabin Fork about three miles from my home.



                               Johnny Martin Johnson and Frances Elkins Johnson                                                  Levi Potter, born 1817

                                     Picture from the Jay Potter Collection    


My father was Jay C. Potter Born 1929 - 2010, a son of Joe Coleman Potter born 1895 -1965 and Elizabeth (Potter) Potter born 1889 - 1959. My mom is Ruby (Johnson) Potter and she was born in 1929.  My Grandparents on Mother's side were called Grandma and Grandpa, but on Dads side, we called Joe Coleman Potter Pa and Elizabeth Potter was Little Mommy.  I have three Great Grand Grandparents that were children of Benjamin Potter: Levi, Isaac and Martha Patsy Potter.  (Benjamin Potter's father was Abraham Potter 1745. NWB) 

Grandpa John Martin Johnson's brothers were George Johnson, who was born April 23, 1901 and died September 30, 1981 and Thomas Johnson, born 1899. Grandpa had several sisters also. Grandpa lived on Three Mile Hollow, which is about three miles south of Dorton, Pike County, Kentucky. My Great Grand Grandfather Levi Potter is buried at The William Potter Cemetery, so called Murdered Man's Cemetery, in Jenkins, Letcher County, Kentucky.  Levi,  the son of Benjamin & Susannah (Hollingsworth) Potter, was born 05 Jun 1817 and died 20 Feb 1898. He married Sarah Cantrell, born 05 Apr 1810 and died 20 Jun 1890.   

You have read about Murdered Man Cemetery in some of the other articles. The original land for this cemetery was deeded by Levi Potter's son, my Great Grandfather William, as a two acre lot to be designated as a cemetery. My family called it the "William Potter Cemetery" and I first heard it called "Murdered Man Cemetery" last year. There is a lot of violence connected with the place; you have the Mullins Massacre, William Potter who was killed when kicked by a mule in 1919, My aunt Delia Potter Collier and Uncle James Potter were killed in car wrecks and their brother and sister Mary Bell and Daniel Potter were killed by a drunk driver back in the 1930's. My Great, Great, Great Uncle Lafayette Bentley who was hung as a spy, has a Civil War tombstone there although he is buried somewhere near there. Various  other people were killed and buried there. Most of them are my relatives, including three Great, Great, Great grandparents and two Great Grandparents and two Grandparents along with aunts, uncles and cousins. 

Alexander Lafayette Bentley was buried in the old Bentley Cemetery in town but a hotel was built over this grave by the coal company. For this reason his stone was set at the Murdered Man Cemetery.  NWB

I can no longer ask my family about Clifton since all the older members of the family that knew him well are gone.  I can, however, comment on my memories of how Grandma felt about him. Grandmother would have been a greater source of information if only I had known then what I know now, I would have written down many of her stories. My mother, Ruby Johnson Potter born 1929 is now my main source of information on Clifton's death since my grandmother died at the age of 85 back in 1981. Grandmother talked about Clifton Branham a lot and in looking at the dates Grandmother would have been only seven years old when he was hung. My mother told us he was friendly with her family.   

She told many true stories but I have long since forgotten many of them. One story mother told was when she accidently shot my mother in the leg with a shotgun and had to pick out the pellets. They were home one night together and heard someone beating on a can in the yard so my Grandmother took the shotgun and my mother who was a young girl lead with a lantern to see who it was. They saw no one outside but did find a can. When they got back into the house my Grandmother went to un-cock the shotgun and had it pointed into the fireplace when it accidently went off. The pellets bounced back and hit my mother in the legs. She still has a few pellets in her legs even today.  

Clifton Branham was born about the year 1861 on Cabin Branch in Letcher County, Kentucky, the son of John Calhoun Branham (1818) and Mahala (Mosely) Branham (1822). He was 40 years old at the time of his death September 25, 1903 and was known to be a  farmer, trapper, woodsman, preacher and twice a murderer.   

Clifton's mother Mahala was born November 22, 1822, Hawkins County, Tennessee and died December 12, 1912, Dickenson county, Virginia. According to family history, Mahala was half Cherokee Indian, living in a Cherokee Village when she met John Calhoun Branham and soon afterward they married. John Calhoun Branham (1818) was a son of William Branham (1796) and Charity Gibson (1804). Mahala (Mosely) (1822) was a daughter of John Henry Mosley (1780) and Rebecca Jones (1812). Nancy's father Tandy Layne Branham was born May 20, 1831 in Russell County, Virginia, a son of Tandy Layne and Millie Branham.  Tandy died September 25, 1863 Wise County, Virginia, also of a tragic death, killed by Union Troops during the Civil War. Nancy's mother was Martha Elizabeth Roberson born 1824 Russell County, Virginia, a daughter of William "Dr Billy" Robinson and Hannah Hutchinson.

{Of course there are connections between this family and others we have been writing about. Tandy Branham's daughter Martha Jane "Patsy" Branham was born December 1, 1853 in Russell County, Virginia and died December 11, 1934 Clintwood, Dickenson County, Virginia. She married December 31, 1874 Wise County, Virginia to William Jefferson "Crippled Billy" Fleming, born December 9, 1846 Russell County, Virginia, died June 30, 1921 Dickenson County. He married Martha Jane (Patsy) Branham December 31, 1874 in Wise County, Virginia. Martha was born on December 1, 1853 in Russell County, Virginia. She died on December 11, 1934 in Dickenson County, Virginia. "Crippled Billy" was a first cousin to Henan and Calvin Fleming involved in the Pound Gap Massacre. As surely as they were related to the Fleming family, Nancy J. Branham's brother, John Henry "Gooseneck" Branham was involved in the shootout during the capture of the Fleming brothers at Boggs, Webster County, West Virginia. John Henry Branham was born in 1864 in Wise County, Virginia and died January 14,1894. He married June 22, 1885 to Nancy Hall, born October 18, 1865 Wheelersburg, Scioto, Ohio, the daughter of John A. Hall and Sarah Franklin. Nancy Hall married 2nd to an Adams and 3rd to William Renfro. Granville Cox 1876 in Wise County, Virginia, also part of the posse to arrest Fleming Brothers was the husband of Millie Branham, born May 1861 in Kentucky, a sister  to Clifton Branham. Granville Cox, Clifton and Tandy Branham were members of the famous Big Ed Hall posse that attempted the arrest of the outlaws, Henan and Calvin Fleming.  Both Cox and the Branham brothers had been called as witnesses for the Mullins defense in the Killing Rock Massacre. Henan Fleming was born June 24, 1865 in Dickenson County, Virginia. Henan married  September 8, 1887 in Dickenson County, Virginia to Catherine Vanover, a daughter of Henry & Sarah Jane Bentley Vanover. Catherine was born in November of  1869 in Pike County, Kentucky. She died about 1926 in Camden, Webster County, West Virginia. NWB}

Clifton Branham grew up on the Pound River and was in various scuffles in Kentucky. He lived for a time at Dorton during the Civil War. Clifton's father and two of his brothers served in the war. His father was captured and was a prisoner at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. His mother moved the family to the north of Cumberland Mountain for a while, near Elkhorn CreekWhen his father returned he bought a piece of land on Owl Branch where they built a cabin. Clifton soon began to think that his father was not doing him right, and at the age twelve years he left home and went to live with his brother and sisters in Johnson County, about 80 miles distant. He walked through the cold of winter in what began as rain, falling into a freezing creek at one time, then walking through snow. In his memoirs he speaks of this and being turned away from shelter at the farms where he asked for help. It is difficult to imagine a child of twelve walking a three night trip alone but Clifton early on learned the ways of a man.

About the age of sixteen Clifton went to visit his cousin Martin Branham who was a neighbor to Tandy Branham. Tandy had been killed in the war, and left a widow and seven children, one of which was Nannie Branham and when Clifton saw her he said she was the prettiest girl in the world. She was the same age as Clifton and he made it up in his mind to have her or die.  

Nancy J. Branham was born November 1861, at Pound, Wise County, Virginia, a daughter of Tandy Layne Branham (1831). Nancy died December 1902 at Pound, Wise county, Virginia.  On May 23, 1880 in Wise Virginia, Nancy took Clifton Branham 1861-1903 to be her husband, the man who would later take her life. Clifton later married to Haley McCurry born 1865. Nancy had three children by Clifton: Ida (1881), George T. (1883) & Elizabeth (1886).   

Not long after their marriage Clifton began making moonshine whiskey. He cut a large chestnut tree to make the tubs and had a good place to put the still.  Clifton enjoyed playing music and they often went to his house to play the violin, pick the banjo and dance; all the while making a large measure of moonshine. When the revenuers got close he decided to leave the area and moved to the head of the Kentucky River. 

Another corn whiskey runner, Ira "Bad Ira" Mullins, moved to Elkhorn Creek and settled on land Henry Vanover claimed. When Vanover told Ira he was on his property, Ira Mullins and his wife, Louranza, started planning to get rid of Henry Vanover

Though he claimed to be at home with his wife and family that day, it is thought that Clifton Branham ambushed, shot and killed Henry Vanover on June 18, 1887, while he and his wife were working in their garden at Rocky Hollow. Clifton was arrested, tried and given a ninety year term in prison for this murder but Governor Beckham granted him an conditional pardon, April 1, 1902, after about a dozen years in jail.  He always denied this killing, saying, "I got some money for the killing, but I did not kill Henry Vanover."

During this time in state prison Clifton saw the error of his ways and began preaching and reading the Bible to his fellow inmates. When the governor heard this he pardoned Clifton and told him to go home to his wife and children who lived in Virginia. He tried living with her again but they could not get along well together so he left to ramble through the hills, staying with relatives and friends. He rode across the mountain to return to his home on Bold Creek in Wise County, Virginia, saying he wanted to visit the grave of his young daughter that had died. He stopped short of the state line at his son-in-law's where his wife Nancy was staying, but getting there he learned his other daughter had married and a dispute arose between Branham and his son in law. In the fight that ensued, Clifton drew his gun, sticking it in his son in law's face, and as they struggled fired a shot.

His blind wife Nancy Branham, who had come out to find out what the ruckus was about thought the shot had stuck their daughter. Nancy said, "You have killed my child and I will have your neck broke for it."

They struggled and Clifton fired a shot that left the lifeless body of his wife on the ground.

At her death on December 12, 1902 Clifton, as was his custom, rode back across the mountain.  Clifton had grown up and had family in Pike County, down on Shelby Creek south of Virgie at a place called Dorton. When conditions got too hot in the Wise area, he would cross back over the border to Beefhide and the Dorton area in Kentucky till the legal process cooled off.   

In Clifton Branham's last confession he admitted that at the tender age of 14 years he took deliberate aim and shot at a Mrs. Fleming, and at another time shot at John Fleming, but missed them. He claimed he meant to kill them for abusing his sister. He said he beat another woman and threw her over a cliff, leaving her for dead, but she recovered and he premeditatedly shot to kill Rans Smallwood, but failed. Clifton had gone home with Rans Smallwood and stayed all night. Rans told him that he had "dreamed that a large snake got on him, and that he could not get it off." Of course, Clifton knew that he was that snake. The next day they went squirrel hunting twice, during which time Clifton watched for the opportunity to kill him, but all failed. That afternoon went to Wes Sowards' to see his girls. They oiled their guns before they started and Rans watched him all the way.  When he stepped back behind, Rans said, "Clifton, walk up to my side, for I believe you want to shoot me." 

Later at Mr. Sowards' and along after supper, the old folks went to bed, leaving Smallwood, the girls and Clifton in the kitchen talking. Clifton said he had to go, but went around the house where he found a small hole cut through the wall. He could see Smallwood sitting just opposite him in a chair leaned up against the wall. Clifton put the muzzle of his gun through the hole and fired what he thought would be a fatal shot.  Rans jumped to his feet, then fell on his face and said, "Clifton Branham has killed me." Clifton left that same night and went back to the head of the Kentucky River, but news came the next day that though someone had shot Smallwood, he was still alive.

After the murder of Henry Vanover, there was another killing which received much more attention. A short time after his arrival in Kentucky Clifton hired himself out to kill a man named Anderson Moore who lived on Beaver Creek, Floyd County and was quite wealthy. Moore's neighbor, John McCurry, was not satisfied with the land boundaries and claimed a few more acres than Anderson understood it to be. A shooting war soon came about when McCurry claimed that Anderson had shot his livestock and burned his barn. Both Moore and McCurry were fearful for their lives and had to stay hidden to keep from being shot. Anderson was not a large man, about 5'8" tall and he always carried his Winchester rifle.  

One day Andy Holt took a shot a McCurry and another fellow who were crossing the creek below Anderson Moore's house. McCurry was carrying his gun across his chest and the shot hit the gun right about where it would have hit his heart. The bad blood between them made it impossible for McCurry to stay at home with the only solution as he saw it, being the death of Moore. McCurry had heard of the well credited reputation of Clifton Branham, reputed to be a very bad man and began to plot the death of his neighbor. Clifton didn't know the man he was to kill so McCurry hired two relatives Monroe and Nelson Moore, who were about 24 years old to point him out to Branham. He promised the men $60.00 in cash, a high powered rifle and one of his daughters Haley, Lila, and Lily for each of the men. They waylaid their quarry on Beaver Creek in Floyd County March 1902, by hiding up in the mountains with their high powered rifles. The shot hit Anderson in the groin and he quickly bled to death as Clifton robbed him of $200.00..  

Anderson Moore was buried at Beaver Creek. His enemies hated him so badly that they shot up his grave the same night that he was buried firing volley after volley of shots into the grave and threatened his wife, Lurany.  With a trio of friends heavily armed Branham paraded the country along Beaver Creek, defying arrest for several days. At length, just as Branham was boarding a train at White House in Johnson County, for the west. The Sheriff surprised Branham and effected his capture sending him to Lexington jail to prevent mob violence. There were several conferences between the Kentucky and Virginia officials. With his crimes catching up with him, Clifton was lodged in the Floyd County, Kentucky jail. Virginia authorities prevailed upon the governor of Kentucky for the right to bring him back to Virginia and the Kentucky governor agreed, saying that his home county had a wide reputation for hanging men anyhow and since Branham needed to be hanged he should be brought back. In August he was tried and convicted, given the death sentence.

Nelson and Monroe Moore appeared before the Grand Jury and were fined $100 apiece on each of two counts of Conspiracy with a Deadly Weapon. On April 14, 1903 they were both tried and convicted of Arson.  Nelson was taken to the Pen at Frankfort for 2-1/2 years at hard labor and Monroe received one year at hard labor. When John McCurry came to trial for his part in the murder, on April 14, 1904, the jury found him "Not Guilty", but John McCurry met his fate in a gruesome killing. Someone waylaid him while he was walking along the road carrying a crosscut saw on his shoulder. He was shot; the bullet hit the saw and plunged it through his body, decapitating him.

Big Stone Gap, Va.. September 2S.—

Clifton Branham paid the penalty of wife murder today at 'Wise. Before going to the gallows, he made a speech of some length, claiming that he was Justified in the killing) by the circumstances. He appealed to those present for an Endorsement of his deed and about three hundred of the crowd agreed with him.  At 1:37 p. m. the drop fell and in twenty-eight minutes he was pronounced dead, his neck being broken by the fall. Branham was 4O years old. He had served a term In the Kentucky state prison, but before his full time was out Governor Beckham pardoned him. Soon after his pardon he killed his wife, for which he paid the penalty today. A large crowd was present to witness the hanging.

The trial commenced and concluded at the July term, 1903, of the Wise County court. Judge W. S. Matthews presiding. Clifton was ably represented by Hon. R. P. Bruce, J. F. Alley and J. A. Hughes. The jury was composed of twelve good and competent men, who patiently heard the evidence, and after deliberation, returned with a verdict finding him guilty of murder in the first degree. When Judge Matthews pronounced sentence on Branham, he said: "You're a mean man, Branham. You're dangerous to society. You've killed three men and your wife. On next Friday, September 25, 1903, you'll hang by the neck until you're dead".

My mother said that Clifton combed his hair and fixed his clothes before he was taken out to the scaffold, then just before he was hanged he played "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" on his guitar. Grandma was remembering what her mother, my Great Grandmother Elizabeth Branham Elkins, had told her and it appears she was accurate on the better part of it.  Since Elizabeth was a first cousin to Clifton Branham she should have known quite a lot about him. My Grandpa would have been older, about 15 years old at the time of the hanging and probably had gone with his Dad, William Johnson, to the hanging. As in written accounts at the time and in handed down family information they all say Clifton was calm and not afraid to meet his death which agrees with what my mother told me.  Grandfather was a young man when he attended the hanging of Clifton Branham and there was a great assemblage of people at the Hanging in Wise.  It was September and the cool of fall was beginning to set in.         

On September 25, 1903, at Wise court house, Wise County, Virginia, Clifton Branham was led from the jail, to the scaffold nearby. Several people and groups had met with Clifton, prayed with him and from his own lips heard him say he was ready to meet his Maker. The mountaineers came down from the mountains by the hundreds to witness the hanging and by noon day some 3,000 people had arrived.  It was  truly a most solemn event, a man awaiting his time with the grim reaper.

Clifton's wife was in tears with her arms around her husband and he was trying to console her as strong men turned from the heartrending scene. With mental agony the crowd waited as a man approached his death. The minister prayed, the black cap was adjusted, then the wretched man ask for a moment to pray. Quietly he committed his soul to God. The lever was drawn and Clifton Branham was ushered into eternity, becoming the last man to be hanged in Wise County, Virginia.

His last request being that his friends take him to Dickenson County for interment, Clifton's body was hauled back to Dickenson County by family members in a horse-drawn wagon. People came out of the hills all along the road to try to catch a glimpse of the body going by. Clifton had allegedly requested to have a wake and said on the third day he would arise from the dead. When the third day came, naturally everyone anxiously waited near his homemade coffin, but the third day passed without incident. Clifton Branham was laid to rest in an unmarked grave high on a knoll in the family cemetery at the head of Pine Creek, ending another story of violence and blood-shed in the Cumberland's.


The Atlanta Constitution

September 26, 1903 

About Three Hundred of Crowd Agreed with Him That He Was Justified In Killing His Wife

Big Stone Gap, Va.. September 2S.— Clifton Branham paid the penalty of wife murder today at 'Wise.

Before going to the gallows, he made a speech of some length, claiming that he was Justified in the killing)

by the circumstances. He appealed to those present for an Endorsement of his deed and about three

hundred of the crowd agreed with him. At 1:37 p. m. the drop fell and after twenty-eight minutes he was pronounced

dead, his neck being broken by the fall. Branham was 4O years old. He had served a term In the Kentucky state prison,

but before his full time was out Governor Beckham pardoned him. Soon after his parda.1 he killed his wife,

 for which he paid the penalty today. A large crowd was present to witness the hanging.



                                                             Clifton's body was brought to this house after the hanging.




                                                                                                                          Newspaper accounts from the collection of Marlitta Perkins                                      




Sandusky Evening Star Sept 26, 1903


He Killed His Wife -- Attended the Hanging of Branham

He Said Because She Was Unfaithful-Crowd Approved—Accidental Discharge of Pistol.

 Bristol. Tenn., Sept. 26.—The Salvation Army Brigade which Friday wound up its mountain tour through counties isolated from the railroads, with active participation in the hanging of Clifton Branham, a self-confessed murderer and mountain outlaw, at Wise Court House, Va., held a street meeting at Wise in the morning, which was attended by 2500 persons. In the afternoon they participated in the ceremonies incident to the hanging. Branham was allowed to address a mass of mountain humanity a short time before he stepped upon the scaffold. He maintained that he had shot his wife because on returning from fourteen years' imprisonment in Kentucky, he had found her untrue to him. Reaching the end of his narrative, he called upon the thousands who listened to indorse or censure his action in killing the woman who had been unfaithful. No hands were raised when he called for expressions of censure. When he called upon them to indorse his act, several hundred hands were lifted into the air. The pistol of the guard fell  to the ground while Branham talked, shattering the guard's leg and almost causing a panic.  


Story By: Jay Potter

December 2010

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