The Murder of Uncle Bill and Little Andy Wright
By Ben Luntz
The Jas. Wright referred to above was actually James Johnson, and some of the other details are incorrect because at this time there was little information as to what actually had happened.
Samuel and Elijah Wright, who on the night of the shooting had escaped across the creek from their house and had remained hidden in the woods, later returned to the house and made preparations to go on the dodge. Together they had headed off through the snow while it was still dark. After they had covered about a mile Elijah decided to go to a neighbor and collect on an old loan. It was at this time that the two of them separated. Samuel went from here to Eli Branham’s house, which was on the banks of the Elkhorn River. Samuel told Eli that he was on the run and asked Eli to hide him. Mr. Branham agreed to do this, and Samuel lifted up a plank and crawled under Eli’s house. The next day around noon a search party came to Mr. Branham’s house and asked him about Samuel and he said that he knew nothing. They then searched the property and found Samuel under the floor. He was arrested and taken to the Whitesburg Jail. Two days later Elijah Wright was captured in Pike County at his brother-in-law’s house. Elijah had only been able to make it this far because both his feet had been frozen. Elijah and Sam Wright eventually were charged with manslaughter and received a 21-year sentence.
Letcher County was so full of so many people, who were so angry at Samuel and Elijah Wright that it was impossible for them to receive a fair trial there. When the case was appealed this, along with the circumstances of the encounter, were taken into account and the guilty verdicts were overturned. In fact, this was to become a rather well-known case because it led to the clarification of the procedures by which arrest warrants could be served on private residences. Details regarding this will be given below. After a couple of trials Sam and Elijah were freed and allowed to go about their business. At some point they moved over into Pike County were they continued to get into trouble.
Black Hawk, who had inadvertently shot Andy Wright, would be tried and sentenced to two years in prison for manslaughter. As several witnesses, including Black Hawk himself, had already testified in Elijah and Samuel Wright’s trials that Black Hawk had shot Andy Wright, it was a near certainty that he would be convicted. He was tried in November of 1887 and began his sentence on December 10, 1887, but he was fated never to return home. From the beginning of his sentence he began to have problems with the wound he had received from Samuel Wright’s rifle. The cause of his death is not clear from his prison hospital records. He died in prison on October 23, 1889. One source states that he had been frequently dunked in water by the guards as a form of punishment. The guards would hold him under water until he gave in, but the last time this happened he refused to give in and was drowned. He was only two months from being released. If this is true then Black Hawk was murdered by some of the prison guards. During this time there was a controversy about prisoners being severely mistreated at the State Penitentiary. Black prisoners were treated especially bad. As Black Hawk was dark skinned, this, along with references to him as being a negro in several newspaper articles, may have contributed to his mistreatment and tragic death. Two of these articles are shown below.
Reprint of an article from the January 29, 1886 Michell, South Dakota Daily Republican.
A Family Feud.
Lousiville, Ky., Jan. 28.–A Courier Journal special says: Meagre details of a triple tragedy in Letcher County, Ky., were received at Frankfort to-day. William Wright, an old man, Andy Wright, his son, and William Wright, colored, were killed by James, Samuel and Elijah Wright. On Wednesday night. The murderers have been arrested and the trial set for Friday.
End of article.
Reprint of an article from the February 6, 1886 Steven Point, Wisconsin Gazette.
James, Samuel and Elijah Wright murdered William Wright, an old man, Andy Wright, his son, and William Wright (colored) in Letcher County, Ky., on the 28th. The parties were relatives, and a family feud was the cause.
End of article.
The James Wright referred to in the above articles was actually James Johnson, and although he was present, he did not take part in the gun battle in which Uncle Bill and Little Andy were killed. The William Wright (colored) referred to in the above articles was Black Hawk Wright, who was also known as Black Bill, who was William Wright, the son of Andrew Wright and the nephew of Uncle Bill Wright. Black Hawk was seriously wounded in the gun battle but he recovered from those wounds. There were rumors back then as to the racial background of both Uncle Bill and Black Hawk, and these rumors were, no doubt, brought about partly because both men were dark skinned.
Elijah Wright would later tell of his encounter with the law on the night Uncle Bill and Little Andy were killed on Chestnut Patch. In an article in the St. Louis Dispatch written by Harry R. Burke, Elijah gave the year that this happened as 1880 and his age as 17. The actual date was in January of 1886 and Elijah was 23. This mistake was probably due to Elijah’s age and his state of intoxication when he was interviewed by Mr. Burke. Elijah states in this article that he killed two worthless dogs belonging to his mother. Testimony shows that one of these dogs belonged to Black Hawk and the other to Uncle Bill. In fact, there probably was just one dog that belonged to both Uncle Bill and Black Hawk. Elijah may have been referring to the original source of several dogs in that they may have come from a litter of pups belonging to his mother. Elijah fails to mention what led to the dogs being shot. He also states that Black Hawk was his younger brother when Black Hawk was actually his older brother. Other than some omissions and some distorted dates and facts, Elijah’s version of events fits fairly well with the testimony. It was actually Elijah who fired first at William S. Wright, who is referred to by Elijah as “Bill Lunce”. William’s reaction was to fire back but his first shot was a blank. It was in the next exchange that William actually fired a bullet. Elijah was correct when he said Black Hawk was intoxicated. Black Hawk and some of those who had been with him earlier had all been drinking.
Elijah and Samuel Wright, after serving nearly two years in jail for the killing of Uncle Bill, were released when their sentence of 21 years was overturned. This was an important case in that it clarified the conditions under which an arrest could be made when the suspect was at a private residence.
The decision noted that an arrest could be made by a law officer under the following conditions:
1. In obedience to a warrant.
2. If a public offense is committed in his presence.
3. A private individual may make an arrest if he has reasonable grounds to believe a felony has been committed.
4. A magistrate or judge may order a peace officer or private individual to make an arrest if the offense is committed in the presence of the magistrate or judge.
5. An officer must show the warrant if demanded and inform the person of the nature of the charge. In the opinion of the court the posse had no right to arrest Elijah Wright. The magistrate could not legally summon Pardue to make the arrest.
Since Magistrate J. M. Wright (Martin Wright, Bad John Wright’s brother) had not witnessed Elijah’s threatening behavior toward Uncle Bill, requirements 2 and 4 were not satisfied. Since Elijah had not been shown the warrant, requirement 5 was not satisfied. The tragic deaths of Uncle Bill and Little Andy would at least clarify an important legal question regarding the correct and legal procedure for arresting a suspect who is at a private residence.
Elijah and Sam Wright would go on to become notorious moonshiners. Sam Wright would continue getting onto trouble, but after growing old and finding religion, finally did settle down to a quiet life and lived his remaining life in relative peace. Elijah, on the other hand, never did settle down and for the rest of his life would be involved one mess after another. Below is a petition from Sam Wright to the governor in which Sam tries to convince the governor he was not guilty of selling whiskey.
Pike County -- Petition dated July 1889 -- To His Excellency S. B. Bruckner, Gov. of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
He says the facts in the case are these, that at the time the witness testified to getting the whiskey, that he was not the owner of the whiskey nor did he sell any to witness or anyone else and that the whiskey spoken of by the witness belonged to one Nan Branham who was there selling it but she got too drunk to attend to it and a friend of his (Samuel’s) wanted a pint and that he (Samuel) assisted in pouring a pint of whiskey into a bottle for witness as a matter of accommodation: that he (Samuel) did not sell witness any whiskey nor did he receive any pay for same: these facts he offered to prove before the trial court but the Court refused to allow him to do so. He says that he is a very poor man with a family and not able to provide an appeal in said case and that he is now confined in the Pike County Jail under said Judgement. And that his family is in need of his labor for their support. He therefore prays your excellency to have mercy on him and to pardon him from the sentence of said Judgement.
End of petition.
A few years later, during July of 1895, Elijah Wright would be arrested for moonshining in Floyd county, and it was at this time he attempted to escape. He knocked the jailer down and ran off but the jailer just as quickly popped back to his feet and shot Elijah in the back, a wound that nearly proved fatal. An account of this incident is given in the article shown below.
Reprint of an article in the July 29, 1895 Marion, Ohio The Marion Daily Star.
TRIED TO BREAK JAIL.
One Kentucky Criminal Killed,
One Mortally Wounded and One Recaptured.
Sergeant, Ky., Ky., July 29.–James Moore, James Cisco and Elijah Wright, notorious desperadoes and moonshiners, who were arrested a week ago, attempted to break out of jail at Prestonsburg, and a desperate fight ensued between them and the guards. Wright and Cisco were mortally wounded, and the other was recaptured. None of the keepers were wounded.
Wright was a member of the gang that in the winter of 1886 succeeded in killing two of the best citizens in the mountains of eastern Kentucky–William Wright, Sr., their uncle, an old and worthy citizen, and Andrew Wright, a peaceable and well-to-do citizen, both residents of Boone’s Fork, in Letcher county. By some means, though, they all managed to evade justice on trial and were set at liberty.
End of article.
It turned out that Elijah Wright was not mortally wounded in this escape attempt and he would recover from his wounds.
On an election day during the late 1890's Elijah shot George H. Hunt in Elkhorn City. George Hunt and Andrew Monroe Wright, Elijah’s younger brother, had voted and just after this, while riding on their horses away from the voting place, they had a disagreement. They had both been drinking and when they dismounted they began to argue. This escalated and George Hunt pulled a Barlow knife and lunged at Monroe. Elijah then jumped in and ordered George Hunt back. George ignored Elijah and Elijah shot him. George survived this attack after having given his death bed testimony against Elijah. George would later give the bullet that had been removed from him to Elijah. Elijah was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary. This incident, happening as it did on election day, would cause the county to vote itself dry.
Elijah Wright and his various troubles show up in the court records during the late 1890's and early 1900's. On April 28th, 1899 we see Elijah has been charged with shooting and wounding another . On January 24th, 1900 he was charged with selling spiritus liquors. On January 24th, 1900 a Pike County jury found Elijah guilty of shooting and wounding another and he was sentenced to prison. On January 30th, 1900 Elijah is taken to the penitentiary in Frankfort to serve either one or two years. His sentence was commuted on February 11, 1900 and he was released from prison.
On October 5th, 1903 an indictment was filed against Samuel Wright for a “Breach of Peace”.
In 1905, some years after Elijah had escaped the Wrath of the Law and several incarcerations, he turned, for a time at least, to religion. But as in all things Elijah turned his mind to, he would have strong theological opinions. The combination of liquor and theological debate can be quite lethal and so it proved to be for Newton Ramey. Elijah was convicted to two years in the penitentiary for killing Mr. Ramey on John Moore’s Branch near Elkhorn City over an argument about religion. Elijah claimed it was about something else. He began his prison sentence during September of 1905 and was released on March 15, 1907 when his sentence was commuted.
Below we see a petition requesting a pardon for this killing.
Petition: To His Excellency Augustus E. Wilson, Governor of Kentucky:
We, the undersigned citizens of Pike County, Kentucky, respectfully petition and request your Excellency to pardon Elijah Wright, who was convicted and sentenced to the Penitentiary at the May Term of the Pike County Circuit Court, 1905, for the killing of one Newton Ramey. We are familiar with the circumstances surrounding the killing of Ramey. Elijah Wright and Newton Ramey became involved in a difficulty, hot words were exchanged between them; they came to blows, and in the fight which followed, in which hands and feet were used, Elijah Wright kicked Newton Ramey, from the effects of which kick Ramey died some three months after he received the injury.
Elijah Wright is now a citizen of the State of Virginia, and he desires a restoration of his rights of citizenship, a full and unconditional pardon. We believe that the ends of public justice have been fully met, and that Wright has suffered the full penalty for his act, and that is meet that the said Elijah Wright be granted a full and unconditional pardon, and we respectfully petition Your Excellency to grant the said Elijah Wright a full and unconditional pardon.
End of petition for pardon.
Elijah’s sentence was eventually commuted even though his request in the above petition was initially turned down. After being released from prison for the murder of Mr. Ramey it would only be about a decade before Elijah was in much more serious trouble. It was toward the end of the first decade after 1900 that Elijah would kill again. This time his crime was committed in Virginia and in that state he did not have the connections that existed on the Kentucky side of the border. Elijah and some others were at a corn shucking on the farm of Patton Wills. They were working in the fields. Out in the field Will Cyphers was one of those working with Elijah. There were some boys working out in the field as well. Will Cyphers began to smart off to the boys, trying to start a fight, and since the boys had been drinking this was not a difficult thing to do. Elijah got on to Will Cyphers for this and Will grew angry with Elijah. This argument between Will and Elijah grew into an altercation during which Will Cyphers pulled a 38 Smith & Wesson pistol on Elijah. When Will pulled out the pistol Elijah jumped at Will. As Elijah came forward Will fired and the bullet passed through Elijah’s shirt. Coming forward Elijah grabbed the pistol from Will and then shot Will with the pistol. Will Cyphers died instantly.
After the first trial for this killing Elijah won a new trial because some evidence had not been admitted during the first trial. Elijah was found guilty of murder in the second trial and sentenced to life in prison. The verdict stated that since Elijah had already disarmed Will Cyphers, he was guilty of shooting an unarmed man. Elijah would serve nearly 14 years for this murder. He was released early in 1922 for good behavior. He had spent much of his time in prison taking care of the hounds used in searching for escaped prisoners. Below, we see a letter written by Elijah Wright to his sister while he was serving his time in the Virginia prison for the murder of Will Cyphers.
1920 letter from Elijah Wright to his sister, Mrs. Mary Vance -- State Farm -- 10/12–20
My Dear Sister,
I will answer your most welcome letter just received. I was awful glad to hear from you for I had begun to think you were all dead. Sister, I am well as could be expected and I hope this will find you all well. Sister you wanted to know what my occupation was. I am tending to Blood Hounds, taking care of them and etc. Sister, you wanted to know how long I would have to stay. I can’t tell you, I have an 18 year sentence; and have been here most eleven years. Sister, I don’t know of anything you can do for me. But, however, If you was to think of anything to do it will be very much appreciated. I am getting along right well. At present we have a new Supt. Just Elected, and I think Him every inch a Gentleman. So I hope to hear from you again soon for it was quite a surprise and also a joy to get your letter.
So I will close with much love. I am your brother, as ever, Elijah Wright
Lassiter, Va. -- # 9033 -- State Farm
End of letter.
Nancy Wright Bays, Patty Brashear and myself are greatly indebted to Mrs. Daisy Wright Nowlin, the grand daughter of Elijah Wright’s sister, Mrs. Mary Vance, for sharing this letter with us and allowing us to share it with others. Because of her friendship with Nancy Wright Bays and Patty Brashear she was willing to share this remarkable letter.
In 1926 we find Elijah in trouble again. By now he is an old and aged man, only a shell of what he had once been. The years of drinking, carousing and prison had taken their toll. Elijah had returned to his old home on Long Fork and had, before long, become caught up in a fight to the finish during which his right thumb had been severed. This was the result of his having grabbed at a butcher knife which had been thrust toward him. He had also been pistol-whipped so badly that as the Sheriff looked over him as he lay unconscious in Ran Speer’s cabin above Long Fork, the Sheriff felt sure old Elijah would not survive. While Elijah lay there in the cabin his brother dug the hammer of a gun out of his head with a Barlow knife. The hammer had been left in Elijah’s head after he had been forcefully struck with a gun during his beating. From the cabin Elijah was taken to the Hospital in Pikeville, and to everyone’s surprise, recovered. The doctor attending Elijah, Dr. Adam Osborne, urged Elijah to go and talk to Squire Osborne, Dr. Osborne’s father. Dr. Osborne assured Elijah that Squire Osborne would advise him what to do. Elijah did this and Squire Osborne advised Elijah to leave, otherwise he might be shot from ambush. Seeing the wisdom of this advice Elijah left.
After a long and troubled life during which he had been imprisoned at least four times, Elijah Wright would meet his end in a tragic manner. According to some sources, Elijah, who had been involved in the killing of his own uncle, was murdered by one of his own nephews. Below is a newspaper account of Elijah’s death.
Reprint of an article from the March 12, 1931 Pikeville, Kentucky Pike County News.
Lige Wright, Noted Bad Man, Found Dead at Foot of Cliff.
THOUGHT TO HAVE FALLEN OVER WHILE IN A STATE OF INTOXICATION.
SERVED 29 YEARS IN PENITENTIARIES.
TWICE SENTENCED FOR LIFE; ONCE TO HANG, TRIED SUICIDE ONCE.
Elijah (Lige) Wright, 68, cousin of Bad John Wright, was found dead Monday morning about 10 o’clock, lying at the foot of a high rock cliff, over which he had fallen.
Wright, who is said to have been staying at –?– his brother, started over the mountain from Lick Branch, on Shelby Creek, to Beefhide, last Sunday afternoon. He had with him a boy, one of his nephews. The boy stated that on the way, Elijah drank a pint of liquor and became rather intoxicated. The boy further stated that Wright threatened to kill him, and that he became afraid of Wright and ran off and left him.
When Wright failed to show up at his intended destination Sunday night, a party was sent out to look for him the next morning. They found him about 10 o’clock, lying at the foot of the cliff. He had met almost instant death when he fell over the high precipice, striking on his head.
Most Noted Bad Man
Elijah Wright is probably one of the most noted bad men of this section of the country. He is said to have served about twenty-nine years all told in penitentiaries during his life.
Elijah Wright was first sentenced from Letcher Circuit Court about the year 1881 for the killing of his brother, Black Hawk Wright. (Elijah actually was involved in the killing of Uncle Bill and Little Andy and had nothing to do with the death of Black Hawk. These killings occurred in January of 1886, not in 1881.) He received a life sentence, but after serving only a few years, the case was reversed and he was turned out.
His second sentence in the penitentiary was for the shooting of George Henry Hunt, about the year 1891. For this he served five years.
A few years after his return he killed another man. This time it was Newton Ramey, for which he received another five year sentence.
At Haysi, Virginia, he was convicted of killing Bill Ciphers and sentenced to hang. Wright tried to kill himself then, by cutting his own throat with a small pocket knife. His knife, however, was not long enough and the jailor found him lying on the cell floor, badly cut, but still living. He was cared for and recovered from his attempted suicide. The Court of Appeals reversed his sentence and gave him a life sentence instead. A life sentence in the state of Virginia is only eighteen years, and after serving his time out, “Lige” came back over into Kentucky.
Was Badly Shot Up.
Besides serving these twenty-nine years in state penitentiaries he has also been in a great many other troubles. While in jail in Prestonsburg on a liquor charge he attempted to escape and was very badly shot up by Jailer Hall.
Elijah Wright probably has one of the longest records of sentences served in state penitentiaries, a total of over twenty-nine years. Twice was he sentenced to life in the penitentiary, serving one of them; once he was sentenced to hang; attempted suicide once; badly shot up once; and yet he lived to meet death in an entirely different manner.
Although but a cousin to Bad John Wright, “Lige” seems to be a much more notorious character for John Wright was at least partly justified in his killings while “Lige” has been convicted and received sentences for most of his killings. His friends have always known him as a dangerous character.
Elijah Wright is survived by one son, Everett Wright, of Haysi, Va., three brothers, George Wright and Monroe Wright of Elkhorn City and Booker Wright of Shelby Creek; also four sisters; Mrs. Cleresa Adams of Praise, Mrs. Mary Wright of Matewan, W. Va., Mrs. George Mullins and Mrs. Freelon White, both of Beefhide.
Elijah Wright is a brother to the late Samuel D. Wright, who died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Fred Cereske, of Williamson, West Virginia., about two weeks ago after an illness of nearly two years. A total of three Wrights have now gone over the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” within the last few weeks.
End of article.
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