The Murder of Uncle Bill and Little Andy Wright
Over the years there have been several brief accounts given of the events surrounding the deaths of Uncle Bill and Little Andy Wright. Unfortunately, most of these were highly inaccurate and all of them had few, if any, actual details. Only two accounts, an article written in the Mountain Eagle by Burdine Webb, and an article written in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and other newspapers were reasonably accurate. These articles did not give all the details of what actually happened and it is only now, over one hundred years after the killings, that a complete account is finally available. From a variety of sources that include documents, newspapers, eyewitnesses, and official reports from the 1880s that have never been seen since that time, and sources directly related to Uncle Bill’s immediate family, a detailed account of the tragic killing of Uncle Bill and Little Andy has finally been written.
The events described in what follows occurred in the area of Letcher County, Kentucky that is now known as McRoberts. William and Nancy Wright lived in what was then known as Sheas Fork. They were known throughout their community for their kindness and generosity. William was referred to as Uncle Bill and Nancy as Aunt Nancy by those who knew them. William Wright was the youngest child of Joel and Susannah Wright. Joel and Susannah had moved to Letcher County, Kentucky from Virginia around the first decade of the 1800s, and they were the parents of the first generation of Wrights who were born and raised in that county.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy adopted the illegitimate son, Little Andy, of one of Uncle Bill’s sisters and also the illegitimate son, William S. Wright, of one of Uncle Bill’s nieces. By the mid 1880s, the adopted sons, William S. and Little Andy, had grown up and now had families of their own. They lived not far from Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy.
The hardships and difficulties brought on by the Civil War had faded somewhat by the 1880s, and by this time Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy had achieved some degree of prosperity and happiness. Sadly, evil was about to descend upon this happy place and take from it the kind presence of Uncle Bill, and also that of his adopted son, Little Andy.
The excerpt below is from an article written by Burdine Webb in the September 4th, 1941 edition of The Mountain Eagle. It gives us a view of the world in which Uncle Bill and Aunt Nancy lived. They are mentioned in the article along with the tragic circumstances of Uncle Bill’s death. The time period to which Burdine Webb refers in this article is during the winter of 1885-86 when he was an eleven year old boy.
OF THE LONG AGO-
McRoberts of Today
by Burdine Webb
A few days ago I saw Wright’s Fork and the town of McRoberts that lies along its waters, Shea’s Fork, Chopping Branch, Tom Biggs and Bark Camp– but it was a different picture to that of the long ago when, as a barefoot, one-gallused boy I trudged along pebbled creeks to the old school house which stood exactly where The Consolidation office and the postoffice have quarters now, where two of my older brothers taught “the young idea” in the olden days, when settlements were scant in these parts. It was a house now and then, one on Shea’s Fork, the hospitable home of Uncle Bill Wright, one on Chopping Branch, one on Tom Biggs, one at its mouth, and one or two further up. Uncle Jess Wright, brother of Capt. John Wright of the old days, had his log cabin home on the extreme head of the creek, and like the home of Uncle Bill, it was a haven of rest. No one was ever turned away. And I will remember, as long as I live, how that long, burdened table groaned with good things to eat.
It was “exhibition time” at the little school—the last day, a bleak December noonday, when a few recitations, a short talk from my brother, the teacher, a handful of patrons, and the term of school for that year ended. I recall recollections back from the haunts of the long past, and what Uncle Bill, the lone resident of Shea’s Fork said to Brother and I, “Dinner’s waiting for you and you’re going up to eat.” Yes, we went along, down the creek apiece, then up Shea’s Fork—it seemed a mile, along the zigzag creek, with tall, stately trees, proud monarchs of the forest clear down to the water’s edge—not a “stick amiss.”
Around Uncle Bill’s home was a clearing, a smaller cleared field, a pasture, an open top well in front of the house, a barn across the way. Inside there was a home of plenty, and the cleverness and hospitality of he and his wife, Aunt Nancy, attracted more than anything else. The very atmosphere breathed of their goodness. If two generous, saintly, God-fearing people ever lived it was these. That table—well, it would take a long, long waste of words to describe its fullness; fine poplar honey, fresh spare ribs, ham, fried chicken, pies, cakes and everything else that would attract the appetite.
From Aunt Nancy it was “...let me give you some of this and some of that” until I was forced to leave the table full to the larynx.
Three months later, in the month of March, poor old, blessed Uncle Bill Wright answered the call, not by a natural death, but from a felon’s bullet that ended all, and the country mourned. I heard it said by every one, “No better man ever lived.” And in the same deplorable battle, “Little Andy” Wright died like Uncle Bill. “Little Andy” was his nephew. It was a mere, simple little dog fight, and Lige and Sam Wright, relatives of the two victims, angered, shot their rifles empty, leaving Uncle Bill and “Little Andy” dead in fifteen inches of snow. Lige was shot, but he recovered. And all this because of a simple dog fight, It is a sickening story, a dark and bloody tragedy, that I have regretted to reiterate—but I never think of Shea’s Fork without my mind reverting back to that dismal, heartless day in the long ago.
Today the only remnant that is left of the Uncle Bill place is the open top well. I stood beside it on my visit there, and thought, retrospective of Uncle Bill, Aunt Nancy, and their goodness. A tear to their precious memory.
Today the Fork is teeming with good people, quiet, contented, prosperous. You have only to mention Uncle Bill Wright and they know the story. ..........
End of article.
For the first time the details of the events surrounding the tragic killings described in Burdine Webb’s article are given below.
The Murder of Uncle Bill and Little Andy.
The source and cause of the trouble that led to Uncle Bill’s and Little Andy’s tragic deaths was moonshine whiskey. Samuel and Elijah “Lige” Wright, Andrew Jackson Wright’s sons, had begun to drink heavily in the years following their father’s death. Along with this consumption of whiskey they also played a great deal of poker and, as a result, repeatedly lost their money.
Uncle Bill was uncle to the brothers: Samuel, Elijah, Black Hawk and Isaac Wright. He had always been close to their father and had always tried to help their family after their father’s death. Uncle Bill and his brother Andrew had served in the Confederate Army together in Caudill’s Regiment of the Kentucky Infantry. Already close, the hardship and dangers of war formed between them a much closer and lasting bond. Andrew had named his first son, who was born in 1847, after William. Andrew’s son, William, because of his dark skin, would later be known as Black Hawk or Black Bill. Note that the label “Black” did not necessarily mean someone was dark skinned. It was also used when someone had dark hair, dark eyebrows and dark eyes. This label was often used when there were two close relatives with the same first names. This was done to distinguish the two relatives.
After the death of Andrew Jackson Wright on November 13, 1978, who died of a fever, Uncle Bill had helped his nephews, Elijah and Samuel Wright, along with their families, a great deal. There came a time, though, when he could no longer put up with Elijah and Samuel. For some time he had helped them with money and resources but finally had come to realize they were throwing a good deal of the money away on whiskey and poker. He would always help their families but he had decided to end his handouts to them. Samuel and Elijah did not take this very well and became angry with Uncle Bill. There was an incident during this time having to do with a hog that belonged to Uncle Bill, Ben Bentley and Andrew “Little Andy” Wright. Little Andy was Uncle Bill’s adopted son and nephew. Elijah Wright had found this hog on his land and had shot and slaughtered it without asking Uncle Bill and the others. Uncle Bill found out about this and demanded that Elijah pay for the hog. This resulted in Uncle Bill, Ben Bentley and Little Andy suing Elijah. The court rendered a judgement against Elijah Wright of $8.00, which was for that time the cost of a hog. Elijah Wright was angry about this lawsuit and said to Thomas Davis, “If they beat me in that hog suit the eight dollar Judgement should bear Ben Bentley, Uncle Bill and Andrew to hell.” Both Elijah and his brother had sworn that they would get even with Uncle Bill and the others.
All this trouble culminated in an incident between Uncle Bill and Elijah. One day while Elijah and Samuel Wright were out together they came upon Uncle Bill and his dog who were walking along the road toward them. When Elijah and Samuel met Uncle Bill, Elijah confronted Uncle Bill and demanded to know what he meant by taking him to court over the hog. Uncle Bill told him that he had the right to take him to court over the hog and recover his loss. A drunken Elijah then said to Uncle Bill, “Then I’ll kill your dog and you can bring a lawsuit against us for him.” He then leveled a rifle at Uncle Bill’s dog and shot it dead. This cruel act was done purely out of spite, greatly upsetting and hurting Uncle Bill. Elijah and Samuel seemed to have felt that they had a right to sponge off of Uncle Bill, and his refusal to let them continue doing this enraged them. After they shot his dog they headed on down the road away from Uncle Bill and came upon their older brother, William “Black Hawk” Wright, who, observing Uncle Bill mourning over his dead dog, asked them what they had just done. They told him and he told them they should be ashamed of themselves.
Soon after this incident Uncle Bill contacted the local Constable, Ira Mullins. By this time he had obtained a warrant of arrest for Elijah from the local magistrate. Ira, who had the warrant, was occupied at the time with official business but promised Uncle Bill that as soon as he finished with the trial he was attending he would arrest Elijah Wright.
As Uncle Bill was afraid of Elijah he wanted Elijah to be arrested as soon as possible. The whole community had by now heard of the incident and everyone was upset with Elijah Wright, especially Black Hawk, who was furious over Uncle Bill’s dog being killed and, while drunk, had stated that he wanted to kill Elijah. As previously mentioned, a warrant of arrest had been issued against Elijah Wright for disturbance of the peace. On the evening before the tragedy Dr. William H. Pardue had been deputized by the local magistrate, J. M. Wright, so that he could go ahead and take some local men and arrest Elijah Wright that night. Dr. Pardue thought it best to take along as many of Elijah’s close relatives as possible and headed out with the intent of doing just that. (According to some of Dr. Pardue’s descendants, he was one of the personal physicians to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Dr. Pardue was also a well-respected man in the community. Dr. Pardue was a real physician and had been educated at a medical college.)
That evening, Wednesday, January 13, 1886, William S. Wright had gone over to Little Andy Wright’s house to summon some men to a corn husking. While he was there Dr. Pardue arrived and summoned him and Little Andy to go with him to arrest Elijah Wright, who he knew to be staying at Samuel Wright’s house. Already present at Little Andy’s when Dr. Pardue arrived were: Uncle Bill, Little Andy, Madison Collier, Samuel Hall, Isaac Wright, Black Hawk Wright, Magistrate J. M. Wright and William Anderson. Isaac and Black Hawk Wright were Elijah’s and Sam’s brother. When William S. Wright had arrived at Little Andy Wright’s house, Black Hawk was mad as hell about what had happened. He and some others had been drinking as well. This greatly concerned Dr. Pardue and Magistrate J. M. Wright. At this point they were unable to keep Black Hawk and the others who were intoxicated from going with them, though some time and effort was made to do this. As a precaution, Dr. Pardue gave Black Hawk a Phoenix rifle loaded with a blank cartridge in case Black Hawk acted rashly. Because Black Hawk was considered the most volatile of the group, Dr. Pardue and William S. Wright stayed with him and kept an eye on him. Dr. Pardue picked William S. Wright for this task because William knew Black Hawk and got along with him fairly well. Black Hawk was six feet tall and weighed a solid two-hundred pounds. Others joined this group and eleven men, all armed except for Uncle Bill and Samuel Hall, headed out on that bright, snowy, moonlight night. Magistrate J. M. Wright went along to help keep Black Hawk and his bunch from beating-up Elijah. J. M. Wright had heard Black Hawk’s threats regarding Elijah and he was determined to keep Black Hawk under control. There was just over a foot of snow on the ground as this outraged, inept and disorganized delegation stomped its way to Samuel Wright’s house on Chestnut Patch. Dr. Pardue and J. M. Wright had taken various precautions to prevent things from getting out of hand, but, as we shall see, things did indeed get out of hand. The eleven men who went to Samuel Wright’s house that night to arrest Sam and Elijah Wright were: Dr. Pardue, Uncle Bill Wright, Little Andy Wright, William S. Wright, Jesse Wright, Isaac Wright, Black Hawk Wright, J. M. Wright, Madison Collier, Samuel Hall, and William Anderson.
Had no one been killed or harmed in what was to follow it would have been darkly comedic, but as two would die and one would be seriously wounded, it turned out to be a senseless and tragic disaster. Earlier that day James Johnson had met up with Elijah Wright over on Beefhide Creek in Letcher county. James, a young man in his early twenties and a relative to Elijah and Sam, was going through a drinking and carousing phase in his life, and had been running around with a wild crowd . After they met, James and Elijah headed over to Samuel Wright’s house. There, along with Samuel, they left on foot. Some time later, as they were walking along, Elijah told Samuel and James that Uncle Bill had a warrant of arrest for him. On hearing this Samuel told Elijah, “Go home with me and they cannot arrest you as long as you’re with me, I have an old gun and when she barks they know what to do.”
Elijah agreed to stay at Samuel’s house that night and the three of them walked back to Samuel’s. By this time they were somewhat intoxicated and on reaching the house it wasn’t long before all of them went to bed. Samuel, his wife and children slept in the beds, while Elijah and James slept in their clothes on the floor. James laid down in front of the cabin’s main door and Elijah laid down back a way from there just in front of the fire place. Samuel, on going to bed, had donned his long flannel night gown and cap, he fell into a drunken slumber at his wife’s side.
Dr. Pardue’s delegation had by now reached within 150 yards of Samuel’s house. Here, they decided to split up into two groups, one going to the main door of the house and the other going to the lower door. Uncle Bill and Samuel Hall went over and stood at the corn crib which was about 25 feet from the cabin.
As the crowd approached the cabin Black Hawk and some of the others were yelling and talking so loud that it awakened Samuel Wright’s wife and children. She vigorously shook her husband, trying desperately to awaken him. With much effort she finally aroused him from his alcoholic haze.
Dr. Pardue, Black Hawk, Andy Wright and William S. Wright made their way to the main door as the others went to the lower door. This was done to separate Black Hawk from the other drunks. As Dr. Pardue and Andy Wright approached the main door, Black Hawk pushed his way on past them up to the door. William S. Wright remained at Black Hawk’s side while he did this. Black Hawk and William S. Wright were now standing at the front door. It was at this point that a strange and disconcerting thing happened. Black Hawk somehow sensed that all was not right with his Phoenix rifle, and unexpectedly grabbed William S. Wright’s rifle from him and gave William the blank-laden Phoenix rifle. Black Hawk then pounded on the door and yelled in a loud and angry voice, “By G-d, Black Hawk is here! Open the g-d damn door.” To which Samuel Wright replied, “If you want the door opened, damn you, open it yourself.” Black Hawk again ordered the door opened and Samuel again refused. This parlaying went back and forth for awhile until Black Hawk got sick of it and kicked the door down with his foot. The door shutter fell into the house on top of James Johnson, who awakened and rolled to the side where he found refuge under the nearest bed.
By this time Samuel and Elijah were standing back in the cabin in front of the fireplace facing the main door with their guns pointed and ready to fire. Elijah fired first at William S. Wright, who reacted by pulling the trigger on his blank-laden Phoenix rifle. After this dud and another shot at him from Elijah, he pulled his pistol and fired, again at Elijah. This time with a real bullet. This bullet passed through Elijah’s shirt. Just as this exchange was occurring Samuel Wright fired at Black Hawk, hitting him in the upper thigh. In answer to this Black Hawk returned fire at Samuel. Black Hawk, now wounded, screamed out to the rest of the men, “Rush up boys, I can’t stand this hell!” But before the boys could rush up a frantic Samuel Wright yelled from within the cabin, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot into my house any more, you have killed one of my children.” To this appeal Dr. Pardue reacted by ordering all his men to fall back away from the house and give the woman and children time to get out. This was exactly what Samuel had wanted Dr. Pardue to do and he and Elijah took full advantage of it.
During this interlude Elijah yelled to Samuel, “Load your gun and load quick cause they’re loadin’ outside!” Samuel, shaken by the turn of events, dropped his gun stick and couldn’t load as fast as he wanted. He finally did retrieve his gun stick, reloaded and then went outside.
As Dr. Pardue and his men fell back toward the corn crib Black Hawk unexpectedly grabbed Dr. Pardue’s double-barreled shotgun. At the same time, Andy Wright was running to the corn crib. He was only a few steps in front of Black Hawk, when Black Hawk raised his shotgun and fired. Black Hawk then yelled, “By g-d, I have got one of them!” William S. Wright then screamed, “Why are you shooting your own men!” Little Andy lay dying in the snow with fatal wounds to his head and neck.
Just following this catastrophe some of the men at the crib saw Samuel Wright, barefooted and in his night clothes, at the end of the cabin. Samuel had his rifle raised and was pointing it in the direction of the crowd at the crib. Samuel Wright and several members of the crowd fired at once. Following this exchange Samuel disappeared back into the cabin and there was a groan out by the crib. The groan came from Uncle Bill, who was now lying wounded on the ground. Uncle Bill was heard to say, “I am shot. Sam has shot and killed me.” Uncle Bill was shot just below the ribs on the right side of his chest. He was taken to J. M. Wright’s cabin where he died at 10:00 AM the next morning on January14, 1886. Andy died soon after he was shot and was left lying that night where he had fallen so that they could attend to Uncle Bill. They returned the next morning and removed Little Andy’s frozen body from the snow. They had to pry him from the frozen ground.
An early account of this tragic incident is given in the newspaper article shown below.
Reprint of an article from the February 3, 1886 Wolfe County, Kentucky Hazel Green Herald.
A Mountain Massacre.
A special from Frankfort to the Courier Journal, under the date of January 28, says: “Scant particulars of a terrible tragedy, which occurred last Wednesday night in Letcher County, have just reached this city. This afternoon Senator J. E. Caudill, who resides at Manchester Clay County, received a letter from a friend at Whitesburg, county seat of Letcher, in which some of the facts of the murder are alluded to. William Wright, who was an old man, and Andy Wright were shot and instantly killed, and Black Bill Wright was shot through the thigh and mortally wounded. The killing was done by Samuel Wright, Elijah Wright and Jas. Wright. The letter, which was from a prominent citizen of Whitesburg, said that all three of the murderers had been arrested and were in jail at Whitesburg. Their trial is set for tomorrow, and it is believed that the three men will be hanged.
The affair seems to have been the result of a feud in the family, as both slayers and slain were of the same name. Senator Caudill and several of the mountain members of the Legislature are acquainted with the Wright family which resides in the northeastern part of Letcher County., about 15 miles from Whitesburg. They, however, know very little of these people. It seems to have been a cold-blooded assassination, as it occurred at night, and the men who lost their lives were surprised at their home before they could offer any resistance. Letcher county is greatly excited over the slaughter. Whitesburg is 100 miles from any railroad.
End of article.
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