Folk Artist Depicts County’s History of Violence

The Mullins Massacre, 1892.  I n the spring of 1892, five people out of a party of seven were killed and robbed by three masked men just inside the Kentucky-Virginia border.

The Mullins Massacre, 1892. In the spring of 1892, three masked men attacked and robbed a party of seven people just inside the Kentucky-Virginia border. Five of the party were killed.

"The Feud Series" by David Lucas is based on historical events in Letcher County, Ky.  As a boy growing up, Lucas  accompanied his grandfather to the post office where he listened to old timers talk about local feuds and "bad men."  After visiting the site of the violent Mullins Massacre several times, Lucas mind began to fill with images of the historic local conflicts. The self-taught Letcher County artist expresses these images in his depiction of the true events that occurred in Eastern Kentucky near the turn of the century.  His paintings, 21 in total, chronicle the people, places, and circumstances of the feuds in his native county.

Lucas's "Feud Series" is on display at The Filson in the second floor program room.  Stop by any time Monday through Friday, 9am-5pm to view the exhibit and tour the Ferguson Mansion for free.

Election Day on Rockhouse, 1914. On election day a heated argument over opposing candidates erupted into violence. Result: 4 killed and 2 wounded.

Election Day on Rockhouse, 1914. On election day a heated argument over opposing candidates erupted into violence, resulting in 4 killed and 2 wounded.

The Shooting of Sam Wright, 1921. Following an election, Delina Bentley spotted Sam Wright, brother of Bad John, and began to accuse him of not voting for a mutually-agreed candidate. Both men drew their guns and shot each other. They died within minutes of each other.

The Shooting of Sam Wright, 1921. Following an election, Delina Bentley spotted Sam Wright, brother of Bad John, and accused him of not voting for a candidate they both supported. Both men drew their guns and fired. They died within minutes of each other.

The Killing of Henry Vanover, 1887. Henry Vanover, the father-in-law of Cal Fleming, ran afoul of Ira Mullins over land. Ira paid Clifton and Tandy Branham to kill Vanover. Later Clifton was hanged at Wise for killing his wife in 1903.

The Killing of Henry Vanover, 1887. Henry Vanover, the father-in-law of Cal Fleming, ran afoul of Ira Mullins over land. Ira paid Clifton and Tandy Branham to kill Vanover. In 1903, Clifton was hanged at Wise, Virginia, for killing his wife.

Night Attack on Sam Wright, 1886. Instigated by W. S. Wright (killed in 1900) over the killing of a biting dog. Result: 2 killed, 1 wounded.

Night Attack on Sam Wright, 1886. Instigated by W. S. Wright (killed in 1900) over the killing of a biting dog. Result: 2 killed, 1 wounded.

Letcher County historian Ben Luntz, who added comments on the Lucas "Feud Series" to this blog post, has this to report regarding the "biting dog" incident/painting: "William S. Wright did not instigate the attack on Sam Wright's house. This was not an attack but an attempt to arrest Elijah and his brother, Sam Wright, for having cruelly shot Uncle Bill Wright's dog. The arrest attempt got out of control and a gunfight occurred. A William Wright did initiate the attempted arrest, but it was Uncle Bill Wright, who was William S. Wright's great uncle.
Battle of Boone Fort, 1898. In the late 1890's a local Ku Klux Klan was formed in Letcher. This group, supported by local politicians and other powerful people, got quite out of hand. After whipping one of "Bad John Wright's women", he and other laid an ambush on them.

Battle of Boone Fort, 1898. In the late 1890's a local Ku Klux Klan was formed in Letcher. This group, supported by local politicians and other powerful people, got quite out of hand. After whipping one of "Bad John Wright's women", he and other laid an ambush on them.

 

M. B. (Doc) Taylor. Hanged in Wise, Virginia for the murder of Ira Mullins (the Mullins Massacre) in 1893. Taylor lofts a very checkered career: doctor, preacher, mystic, and U.S. Marshal.

M. B. ("Doc") Taylor. Hanged in Wise, Virginia, for the murder of Ira Mullins (the Mullins Massacre) in 1893. Taylor was a doctor, preacher, mystic, and U.S. Marshal.

John W. (Bad John) Wright. A legendary figure in Eastern Kentucky, John was said to have killed 22 men. He was a feudist, U.S. Marshal, Pinkerton Detective, and an agent for coal companies. He died wealthy at the age of 89 in the 1930's.

John W. ("Bad John") Wright. A legendary figure in Eastern Kentucky, Wright reportedly killed 22 men. He was a feudist, U.S. Marshal, Pinkerton Detective, and an agent for coal companies. He died wealthy at the age of 89 in the 1930's.

Filson Historical

16 comments on “Folk Artist Depicts County’s History of Violence

  1. Kelly S.

    How long will this exhibit be up? I’d love to see it, but i live outside Louisville and am not sure when I will be there.

    Reply
  2. admin

    Kelly, the exhibit should be up for at least another month or two. At this point, we don’t have a set date for changing the exhibit. Just to be safe, call me (Sarah-Jane)at the Filson, before you plan on coming in. I’ll confirm for you if the “Feud Series” is still up. Hope you get the opportunity to come by and see the exhibit!
    SJ

    Reply
  3. Ben Luntz

    I do not wish to take anything away from the excellent works of art produced by this fine young man. It is gratifying to see someone show such an interest in the past as he does. It is, however, important that some historicaly inaccurate information posted below some of these paintings be corrected. I would also like to say that the violence depicted in these works does not represent the nature of the vast majority of the people who lived and worked in Letcher County, and I am sure Mr. Lucas would agree with this. I don’t believe he is ganeralizing the violence to all who lived there but is only highlighting some of the acts of violence that happpened long ago over a period of several decades and a fairly large region. The people of Letcher and surrounding counties were, for the most part, good, decent and caring people who lived good and productive lives, who were devoted to and worked hard for their families.
    The first depiction considered is the one under the picture titled “Night Attack on Sam Wright. Instigated by W. S. Wright (killed in 1900) over the killing of a biting dog.

    The original source for this information was the Ku Klux Klan, which went to great pains to assassinate the character if W. S. Wright. Sam Wright’s house was not attacked as stated. A gun battle did occur when Sam Wright, and his brother, Elijah Wright, resisted arrest. While this attempted arrest was badly handled badly and ineptly, and grew out of control, it was not an attack. The reason for the arrrest was that Elijah Wright cruelly shot the dog of his Uncle, Bill Wright. Elijah and Sam were the sons of Andrew Wright, a brother of Bill Wright. Bill Wright was a good and generous man, and after the death of Sam and Elijah’s father in the late 1870s did all he could to help Sam and Elijah’s family. Besides helping their mother, who had been widowed, he helped Elijah and Sam a great deal with money, food and other types of assistance. he had been very close to his brother, Andrew, and was more than happy to do this. Both Sam and Elijah Wright drank a great deal and played cards, and after covering their losses many times their Uncle, Bill Wright, was forced to cut them off. Sam and especially Elijah, grew bitter about this, and began to verbally harass Uncle Bill Wright. During this time Elijah had taken one of Uncle Bill’s hogs and slaughtered it for his own use without telling or asking Uncle Bill Wright. Uncle Bill owned this hog in partership with another man and both Uncle Bill Wright and the other man sued Elijah Wright in court for the loss of this hog. Elijah lost the case and had to pay them for the hog. This made Elijah Wright even more bitter and one day, when he, highly intocxicated, encountered Uncle Bill Wright on the road, he started harrassing Uncle Bill. This harrassment led to Elijah shooting Uncle Bill’s dog. This was done out of pure spite and was an extreme act of cruelty to a man who had generously helped him and his family many times. Uncle Bill was greatly frightened by this and was devastated by the loss of his dog. After shooting the dog Elijah walked away, leaving Uncle Bill on the road crying. This was a selfish, cruel act done by a selfish and self-obsessed alcoholic and gambler.
    Uncle Bill went immediately and obtained a warrant for Elijah Wright. The arrest of Elijah Wright was deligated to Dr. Perdue, who was deputized to carry it out. It was Dr. Perdue who led the group who went to Sam Wright’s house to arrest Elijah Wright, not W. S. Wright. This particular, intentional distortion by some members of the Ku Klux Klan of this incident has been carried down to the present day. It was Dr. Perdue who summoned W. S. wright and several other men to go to Sam Wright’s and arrest Elijah Wright.
    This attempted arrest did grow out of control and there was a dangerous exchange of gun fire. Neither Sam or Elijah Wright were wounded in this exchange. Uncle Bill Wright, who stood back from the house unarmed, was shot in the chest during the armed exchange by Sam Wright and died a few hours later. Little Andy, Uncle Bill’s adopted son, was accidently shot and killed during the armed exchange by Black Bill Wright, Sam and Elijah Wright’s brother, who had gone there to help arrest his own brothers.
    This incident was in no was a feud, and to characterize it as such is incorrect. There is much more about this incident, too much to go into here. Uncle Bill Wright was in his 50s when he was shot. he was W. S. Wright’s great uncle.
    The next depiction considered is the one under the painting titled, “Battle of Boone Fork, 1898.
    This battle happened in November of 1899 and Bad John Wright was not in this battle and was not involved in it in any way. It was not one of his women who was beaten by the Klan. One of the women beaten was possibly involved with Bad John Wright’s brother and it was he who had paid the Klan to beat her because he was angry with her.
    W. S. Wright was the man who led this attempt to arrest these Klansmen, who he had been told would be in the general vicinity of the mouth of Boone that night. With W. s. wright were two of his adult sons and several other men. This is stated in writings by Mr. Lucas’ grandfather, John Lucas, and it is not correct that Bad John Wright had anything to do with this battle.
    At this point Bad John wright was not an active participant in the attempted to arrest and pursue the Klan. Later, in January of 1901, nearly a year after W. S. Wright was assassinated by the KKK and Mrs. Jemima Hall and her son were murdered by the KKK, bad John wright joined and led the pursuit and struggle against the KKK in Letcher County. Before his death, W. S. Wright was the leader of the effort to stop the KKK. On January 1900, about one and a half hours before the assassination of Williamm Goebel, William S. Wright was brutally assassinated by the KKK. he was shot from ambush from the left. Two bullets entered his body. One of the bullets, an explosive bullet, entered his head just behind and slightly below the left ear, and just before it exited his head it exploded, blowing off the right side of his face. My grandmother and father ran to W. S. Wright, her husband and my father’s father, and saw the result of the vicious and brutal assassination. The Klan later spread the story around that she carried his brains home in her apron.
    W. S. Wright was a good and honorable man who did all he could to prevent some very bad people from victimizing people who did not have the means to protect themselves. For his efforts he paid the ultimate price, death. A little over a year after his death his 18 year old son was also assassinated by the KKK while attempting to arreat the Klansmen who killed his father, Mrs Jemima Hall amd her son. Both W. S. Wright and his son, Willie Wright, have been accepted to the National Law Enforcement memorial in honor of their great sacrifice in their struggle against the Ku Klux Klan.
    By showing these pictures you have hit upon a sensitive nerve, because some of these depictions tend to play to a negative stereotype about the mountain cultural, and in my case, their captions perpetrate some of the more scurrilous slanders against my family. I don’t hold Mr. Lucas to balme for this because he is simply repeating the stories he has been told, but I would hope that you would consider listing the more accurate histroical facts behind these picture along with the captions that presently exist. This is very personal to nme because it was my grandfather and uncle who were brutally murdered by the klan and it was my family who suffered greviously in the years following from both the murders and the cruel character assassination that followed. There is with in us to this very day and deep and enduring sense of loss and pain due to incidents portrayed in some of these paintings. It would, in my view, be only fair for our story to be told so that viewers will not be left with a skewed version of events that so devastated my famil
    Some of the events shown in these paintings are not remote and distant in time because the pain and devastation caused by some of these incidents still exist today.

    Benjamin F. Luntz

    Reply
    1. Kristie Lana (Reynolds) Davis

      Dear Mr. Luntz, Thank you for taking the time to write about these events. and I commend the artist for his efforts. The victims should be remembered. We can learn from this even today as families would rather have a picture of their relative remembered as the vibrant people they were rather than their grusome death. I hope we can someday have pictures and stories about them when they were living. But the history is also important to know about. A picture states a thousand words. I have searched for a photograph of Jemima Hall and her son Sherwood Reynolds but have not found one yet. Can anyone tell me who Sherwood Reynolds’ father was? I am so sorry/sad for the pain these families and many other’s endured. My family also lived during these events but it was so long ago my heart is broken for all sides. I have been searching newspaper articles etc recently to discover more about the so called Reynolds /Wright Feud. Although you did not mention names the men accused of the murder of WS Wright and Jemima Hall were my father’s cousins. Of course everybody tells their own side, their own accounts, their own feelings about the events. I don’t know if ever we will know. I recently saw a movie “the Hatfields and the McCoys” and it gives me a sense of pain for all those families living in that time period. The movie makers did their best to depict the story but I am also sure that families felt pain….or were upset about some of the accounts depicted. Well My father was born in 1892 to Joseph Coleman Reynolds and Joseph’s second wife Hortense. My grandmother Hortense was born 1860 and first married to Judge Solomon Emory Baker and had several boys with him. She was a young servant when she had her baby boy Irven Baker living in the house of Henry C Bates the nephew to the Kentucky Giant Martin Van Buren Bates in 1880. Rachel Lee Bates was Hortense’s mother and my great grandmother. Hortense is buried in Lexington Kentucky and her last husband Joseph Reynolds is buried here in Washington State…. When Joseph Reynolds’ nephew Noah Reynolds writes about going to their uncle Morgan T Reynolds place…. Morgan was a sherriff and school teacher and was my father’s older 1/2 brother. When they talk about going to Uncle Joe Reynolds place…that would be my grandfather’s place. My father born in 1892 Millstone Kentucky by grandfather b. 1848 Virginia. I was born in the 1960s in Washington State…, my father died when I was 9 years old. My father was a kind man he would have been a young boy when all this went on. We were raised to be kind loving and without prejudice. Joseph and Hortense Reynolds went to Crowder Oklahoma by 1910 but similiar happenings were going on there. I am trying to piece the puzzle but Hortence’s half brother James Bates the sherriff there was shot by the one armed postmaster there in Oklahoma. Also Hortense’s son with Judge S E Baker, Henry Baker, was also a policeman and “soda pop proprietor” and was shot by FBI in a Booze raid in Louisville KY. Oh the stories I am sure were very hurtful at the time. I am grateful to learn pieces of them. Will never know all of the stories or even the full truth in any of these events. As I learn about the hard times of our ancestors ….my heart aches. I am grateful for the life we have now. I wish I could shake your hand and hug your family when I hear of the hurts they suffered. But today many of us have the opportunity to live in a free beautiful country forged by our ancestors. I hope our ancestors would be happy that we NOW live in peace….the feuding over. The Artist trying to make sense of the accounts and record them to his own interpretation….has put in so much effort I commend him and I commend your comments. I am just learning of the history … I have not seen the artists’ work as they are not posted here today 2015…as for the victims, I pray for peace as we remember them. I would like to see some artwork of them in thier lives before or photos of them if anyone has them. May God Bless you. and your families. Sincerely Kristie Lana (Reynolds) Davis sldavis@nwi.net

      Reply
  4. ben luntz

    Last night I sent a comment regarding certain historical inaccuracies in some of the captions below the paintings shown in this exhibit. Some of these captions were especially hurtful to my family in that they continue to perpetrate slanderous claims made against my grandfather after he was assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan in Jan of 1900. For nearly a century we remained silent about these things because to have said anything in the past would have caused serious trouble for our family. For a century we had to repeatedly hear these things said and written about my grandfather and our family, and were not able to reply. I ask you, how would you feel if your grandfather and uncle had been brutally murdered by the Klan for having opposed the Klan and then they were viciously and cruelly slandered by the Klan and its sympathizers in order to free the murderers who had taken the life of your family members?
    Mr. Lucas, in writing some of the captions below his paintings, did not do this intentionlly, but by repeating claims that have been handed down, and that are untrue about my grandfather, he has unwittingly and unintentionally helped perpetuate these false claims. I do not wish to take anything away from what Mr. Lucas has accomplished. I know he and his family must be very proud of his work.
    If possible, I would like to be able to write out more detailed and accurate versions of these events in question, and would like to have these posted, if possible, along with the captions I found to be inaccurate and slanderous to my grandfather, W. S. Wright. I do not intend to name any of the Klansmen who murdered my grandfather or anyone who was in the Klan, I only wish to tell what actually happened.
    There were six mudered victims of the Letcher-Pike County KKK:

    1. William S. Wright, 44, assassinated on January 30, 1900
    2. Mrs. Jemima Hall, 49, shot in the head by Klan as they invaded her home during November 1900.
    3. Sherwood Reynolds, abt 18, Mrs. Jemima Hall’s son, who was shot to death by the Klan during the November 1900 home invasion as he tried to defend his family from the Klan.
    4. Willie Wright, 18, the son of William S. Wright, shot from ambush during April of 1901 while he was attempting to arrest some of the Klansmen for the murder of Mrs. Jemima Hall and her son.
    5. John Swiney, abt 21, a young man who opposed the Klan. He was captured by the Klan in April of 1901 hung from a tree and then shot numerous times. This happened just over the line in Pike County.
    6. Jesse Brashear. less than 20 years of age, a young African American man who was playing a banjo at a party for white kids in Whitesburg. He was shot to death in December of 1902 by a single Klansman while playing his banjo.

    Letcher County also had a young African American man named Leonard Wood lynched in late 1927. This lynching was facilitated by the local Klan. At the time both the county sheriff and county judge were prominent members of the KKK.They did not personally take part in the lynching but allowed it to happen and knew it was being planned.

    Sincerely,

    Benjamin F. Luntz

    Reply
  5. ben luntz

    I want to provide additional information regarding one of the incidents portrayed in Mr. Lucas’ paintings. This is a written account from Mr. Lucas’ grandfather. This account is about the Battle of Boone Fork referred to in one of the captions under one of the pictures. In this caption it states that Bad John Wright was in this battle, but from Mr. Lucas’ grandfather you can see that there is no mention of Bad John Wright and that the leader of the men against the Klan was Bill Wright, (William S. Wright) The account is as follows:

    “One of the most notable raids was made upon the Kentucky River, above the mouth of Boone Creek at the home of Della Craft, where it was said they were running a house of ill fame, where they (the Klan) whipped Della Craft.”

    Further on he writes in describing what the Klan did to women:
    “….and sentenced to so many lashes with a beech limb, the subjects was sometimes whipped standing, and sometimes laying down, and it is reported that when the Executioner struck these women standing they would jump plum across the room, and wet all over themselves…….After this job the Kluxers started back down the river and home. They ran into an ambush at the mouth of Boone Creek, where Kona is now. The ambush was laid by one Bill Wright, his sons, and Pete Holbrock, and his friends. Bill Wright and his side was behind an embankment along the road that went up
    Boone Creek, and when the raiders came to the ford in the river they had to dross going towards Daniel’s Hill, Wright and his men fired on them, and the raiders returned fire, and took shelter behind some big poplar logs that was in the river to be floeated out, and so the battle raged.”

    Sincerely,

    Benjamin F. Luntz

    Reply
  6. Mark Johnson

    This is Mark Johnson, teacher and coach at Jenkins High School. I would love to have more information regarding the first painting shown above. My great grandfather, Talton Hall, was one of the victims murdered at the rockhouse creek election in 1914.

    Reply
    1. admin

      This excerpt from the Hazard Herald was originally published August 6, 1914.
      “In a fight over on Rockhouse on election day four men were killed outright and one badly wounded. Talt Hall, Dunk Quillen, Marion Hall, and Albert Hall are dead, and Dance Hall was shot in the arm. The wife of Albert Hall was badly wounded. The trouble came up over a school trustee election.”

      Submitted by Ben Luntz.

      Reply
  7. Chris Lowe

    It is quite refreshing to read an honest account of events surrounding my Great Great Grandfathers death in the line of duty. I have sorted through many web pages that were clearly written with an agenda.
    If anyone has information to share , lowe_chris@msn.com

    Reply
  8. ben Luntz

    Chris,

    I have more information for you but your email address:
    lowe chris@msn.com, isn’t working.

    Sincerely,

    Ben Luntz

    Reply
  9. Candye Sweeney Irick

    Mr. Luntz,
    Do you have any more information about 5. John Swiney, abt 21, a young man who opposed the Klan. He was captured by the Klan in April of 1901 hung from a tree and then shot numerous times. This happened just over the line in Pike County.

    Reply
  10. Gloria Wright Wright

    I enjoyed reading these historic accounts of my ancestors. Thanks so much for posting this info. My dad was Jeff (Junior) Wright, son of Jeff Wright, son of Solomon Wright, (King?). My maternal grandparents were Ernest and Sarah Lewis Bentley Hall from Rockhouse in Letcher County. So funny about the bobbed hair…we are attending church at Thorton right now!

    Reply
  11. stuart f wright

    i am doing research on my family which migrated to illinois in 1831 which were thomas samuel levi and william whom were the sons of robert wright and was wondering if there is any relation to this imformation of john wright and sam wright that is being comented on robert was a son of william wright the 2nd whom migrated to ky fom virginia my email is stuwright@live.com thank you

    Reply
  12. stuart f wright

    also the family of wrights i mentioned came to bourbon county ky around 1792 from culpepper and lancaster countys in virginia the four sons of his that came to illinois three stayed in illinois and thomas returned to ky levi william and samuel stayed in illinois

    Reply
  13. admin

    Mr Wright,

    The Filson librarians would be happy to assist you with your family research, or at least give you a few leads. Please email our research account, research@filsonhistorical.org, with specific questions you may have.

    All the best,
    Sarah-Jane

    Reply
  14. Tonya Meade

    My great grandfather is McCreary Mack Yonts he was convicted in 1901 for the murders of Jemima Hall and her son Sherwood Reynolds. He was later pardoned by Gov. J.C. W. Beckham in 1906 for the murders. I am researching this event and would like any input someone may have. The court records of the trial have been lost and I am interested in finding out more on the KKKK of Letcher county at that time.
    Thank you,
    Tonya Meade

    Reply

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