George Wallace McCurry
Moonshine, Murder, and Mountain Feuds
There are a lot of interesting family stories to tell and endless fascinating characters in my family tree to talk about. This story is about George Wallace McCurry who became famous in Yancey County North Carolina and surrounding states. He was part of the generation that was born in or around the Civil War. They had no part in the war, but they grew up and lived in the harsh years right after the Civil War in the South known as Reconstruction. In this region, like many others in the South, the war continued in many ways. It began an economic depression that went on in the Appalachian Mountain region of Western North Carolina until the 1970’s. When the Great Depression hit in 1929 most people in this region couldn’t tell the difference from their everyday life. The Southern Appalachian Mountain region was known for feuds going back to before the American Revolution. The Civil War fueled blood feuds in this region for generations.
At that time in history if you supported the Democrat Party you supported the South and if you supported the Republican Party, you supported the North in the War and for years. This hostile political environment carried on for generations and after a while I think most people forgot why they originally supported one party or another, they just did because their family had for generations. A split in political views could tear a family apart and it led to many killings and feuds. Some were minor and some made the history books. They also shaped our culture and history for many years.
Before the Civil War in Yancey County North Carolina families and neighbors came together to help each other, comfort each other, and socialize together as a community. After the war communities as well as families were split. It was a very complex time in American history that is hard to sum up quickly and easily, especially considering people from different ethnic and social backgrounds as well as regions experienced it different. The story I am going to tell is that of my family in Western North Carolina, specifically in and around Yancey County. There were lots of issues besides family and neighbors fighting on opposite sides of the war. The home front was a war of its on that has not been talked about enough although in recent years there has been more of a focus on it. I will talk about it more in another article. To sum it up most able-bodied men were sent to war. The ones who refused or went and deserted were called bushwhackers and other names. They had to hide out and survive without being captured by the home guard, which were local military police, or a unit of soldiers from either side of the war. There was estimated to have been 100,000 bushwhackers in the Appalachian Mountains. They lived off the land, they lived off family that tried to help them, but most raided local farms and took what they wanted. Most farms were run by the women left behind, as well as children and elderly or disabled who could not fight or serve in the home guard. Many terrible stories are still told in this region about what the people left at home went through, but countless other stories were either lost or no one survived to tell. The home guard itself had a bad reputation for mistreating families of soldiers who fought for the North or deserted the Confederate Army. The worst in this area that affected this region for generations was the massacre of Shelton Laurel, where old men and young boys were rounded up to be taken to prison but were all lined up and killed a short distance from their homes.
George McCurry was born in 1861. Little is known about him until he started making the news in 1885 for getting shot and stabbed in a shootout, except he comes from a family of early pioneers in North Carolina and Virginia. His family openly made liquor. Some claimed it was illegal moonshine liquor, but George disputed that and claimed he paid his taxes. During the Civil War a tax was placed on liquor that has been there since. The claims seem to be politically motivated and its hard to know what the truth was. Most people in this region at that time sold liquor illegally because it was too hard to make a profit if you claimed all you made and sold. Some just refused to pay any tax and operated illegally deep in the mountains. Several shootings and stabbing’s involving George McCurry took place in the late 1800’s, including a gunfight in 1894 with federal revenue officers who confiscated one of his liquor stills.
To understand this story, you need to understand how serious politics were in the region during this period. Within a few years of the end of the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan was formed and began a reign of terror across the South. Yancey County was no different. Most people think of the KKK as terrorizing the black community, but they terrorized the white community as well, especially after the Kirk Holden War, which was the first and only war by a state against the KKK. Governor Holden of North Carolina published a proclamation in 1870 listing horrible acts committed by the KKK and offering a reward for the capture of the people responsible. Governor Holden also promised support from the militia and hired Colonel George Washington Kirk to raise a militia. Several of my family enlisted including California John Wilson. Governor Holden declared several N.C. counties in a state of rebellion and sent the militia to suppress it. In the end multiple members of the KKK were arrested and charged with crimes. Democrats in the N.C. General Assembly filed a lawsuit against Governor Holden and Impeached him, making him the first Governor in American history to be Impeached. This only emboldened the KKK. In Yancey County supporters of the Republican party were not safe. Many citizens of, both white and black, of Yancey and surrounding counties were targeted on a nightly basis by the KKK. In 1871, months after the Kirk-Holden war, 6 members of the KKK in Yancey County were arrested and charged with highway robbery, burglary, rape, and murder, including the murder of an infant child. Unfortunately, the intimidation tactics of the KKK worked and almost all new black voters didn’t vote as well as most white republicans by 1870. This led to a Democrat majority and the successful impeachment of Governor Holden as well as a slap on the wrist for most KKK members charged with crimes. After the Kirk-Holden war most crimes committed by the KKK against the black community went unpunished altogether. Since justice was almost impossible to get unless you were white and a part of the Democrat party, many people took the law into their own hands and ignored unfair laws.
One news article from 1892 explains how serious the situation was in Yancey County in the decades following the Kirk-Holden War. George W. Sanders was running for office on the Democrat ticket. He planned to visit Mitchell and Yancey County, N.C. He was warned that no Democrat was welcome to speak in Yancey County after all the issues the Democrats and KKK had caused. He decided he would not be scared away and decided to speak anyway. The article described Yancey County as having, “…the worst element of lawbreakers in the entire state.” While Mr. Sanders was speaking at the Courthouse in Burnsville, a large group of Republicans, led by Bud Parot, gathered outside. Bud Parot was considered a noted desperado and for a time was an outlaw. Soon after the speech began, “…there was a commotion at the door of the court room.” Bud Parot entered the courtroom armed with a big knife and began to curse Mr. Sanderson and swore he would kill him. A fight ensued and Bud Parot was thrown outside. “As soon as the door was opened the Parot gang rushed to his assistance; pistols were fired, knives were drawn and a desperate fight raged on…” . The Democrats gained control and Mr. Sanders began to finish his speech again, but the Republicans regrouped and forced their way in again. Parot was shot twice in the body and killed, while a Democrat named Phillips was cut so badly he died shortly thereafter. Multiple other men were killed. “More than a dozen men were seriously injured with bullets or knives.”
At this time the region had one of the highest murder rates per capita. Yancey County had 5 murder cases on the docket at one time according to a newspaper in July 1898, when George McCurry hit the peak of his fame as an outlaw and desperado. News articles claimed that Yancey County was getting a bad reputation for murders, and it was getting attention outside of the region. The Asheville Daily Gazette reported in 1899 that there were 7 murders in 4 days in Yancey County. There were very few news reports from Yancey County before the late 1800’s when the first newspaper came to town. The reports coming out of Yancey County shocked many people across the nation. The violence had been part of the culture since our ancestors first settled these mountains, but it rarely got reported. By the late 1800’s the stories of the mountain outlaws were captivating and scaring people.
. In 1897 George McCurry and several of his family members were reported to local law enforcement for selling moonshine. Shortly following the accusations, the McCurry’s confronted the person who they felt was behind reporting them for making illegal moonshine. Jerome McCurry, who was a younger brother of George McCurry was shot and killed by Sid Peterson on Jacks Creek in Yancey County. Peterson admitted he killed Jerome, but he claimed self-defense. The McCurry’s felt that they would not get justice through the legal system and the feud between Sid Peterson and his friends and the McCurry’s began.
Soon after the murder someone shot several bullets into Sid Peterson’s house. The McCurry’s were blamed. Soon after that George McCurry and several family members were accused of going to Sid Petersons house and killing his mule and shot and killed a mule that Dan Young was riding on. Dan Young was Sid Peterson’s brother-in-law. Then they burnt down Sid Peterson’s house and his corn crib, which is what they stored dried corn in before they milled it into corn mill. Sid Peterson escaped and the McCurry’s searched for him. Later George admitted that if he had found Peterson, he would have killed him. Peterson sent word through friends who knew where he was that he agreed to come out of hiding and turn himself in to face trial for the murder of Jerome McCurry if his safety could be guaranteed. In the end both George McCurry and Sid Peterson were arrested and went to trial, although George McCurry went on the run and terrorized the region, while eluding capture for almost a year.
In January of 1898 the Asheville Gazette reported, “Not since the days of "Redmond, the Outlaw," has there been reign of terror in western North Carolina, as has existed in the counties of Yancey and Madison for the past few months. Brief accounts of several…acts of lawlessness by George McCurry and Baxter Shelton have been published in Gazette…Hardy Merrell…called the Gazette office last night and reported that he had information that Shelton was still in the vicinity of Shelton Laurel, accompanied by a band lawless men and defying the officers of the law who have warrants for his arrest. It is reported that this band of outlaws are well equipped with arms and are perpetrating various acts of lawlessness within the vicinity they live…It is also reported that in Yancy county the notorious George McCurry is still engaged in open violation of the revenue laws and defies any and all officers to disturb him in his operations. It is reported on good authority that Baxter Shelton has shot six men since Christmas…”
In February of 1898, The Messenger reported, “…deputy sheriff of Yancey County succeeded, after a desperate effort, in capturing and safely lodging in jail the noted desperado, George W. McCurry, who has for a long time bid defiance to the officers of the law. The number of indictments against McCurry are many and embrace most all the offences in the criminal code from, house burning, injury to property, selling liquor, down to simple assault. It will be remembered that in the late Peterson and McCurry killing, in Yancey County, that the dwelling of S. S. Peterson was burned at night alter the killing. George McCurry is now indicted for that burning. George has long been a terror, not only to Yancey County but to many counties in western North Carolina and adjacent parts of Tennessee, having lately given "Uncle Sam's" officers a scare they have not yet entirely recovered from.” Another article in the Norfolk Virginian claimed George McCurry was charged with two murders as well.
George McCurry denied most of his charges except a few shootings in self-defense. The newspapers had made George McCurry and his family out to be outlaws, moonshiners, desperados, and dangerous people. In jail awaiting trial for his numerous charges, George got to tell his side in an article from an Asheville newspaper. George was noted by the reporter as being rather large and muscular, but he didn’t look like the outlaw he was accused of being. George defended his character and reputation and stated he worked hard to survive. After admitting to being in several altercations that he claimed were because of drinking he began to tell several stories. He said he was in a shooting with a man named William Baumgarner. George claimed Baumgarner pulled a gun on him first and he had to defend himself. George was the only one hit by a bullet in that incident and he claimed he went to trial over it and was found not guilty. Then he claimed he had a fight with a man named Bill Edwards and four other men who attacked him and one another person he was with. He claimed everyone pulled their guns and started shooting at each other. Bill Edwards was hit by a bullet and George McCurry was accused of that as well and was arrested, although he claimed he could not be sure who’s bullet hit Edwards. George claimed he was accused by many to be a murderer but denies it. He claimed that there was prejudice against him and that’s why he was accused of everything when others were involved. Then he admits he had been arrested before for moonshining, but he claims he made his liquor legally and that the charges were based on false information.
George claimed the charges for arson were not true and he claimed he knew who did it. George said the person who burnt down Sid Peterson’s house was the son of another man he claimed Sid Peterson killed. George said the person Sid Peterson killed was a long-time friend of Peterson, but this friend changed from Democrat to Republican. It led to constant arguments between the two until one day Peterson killed his friend in a heated argument. I have no way of knowing what all the facts were. It’s hard to imagine none of the charges were true. George decided he didn’t want to say anymore, and the interview ended unfortunately. If he talked more there may have been other stories, he had to tell that are lost to time now.
George McCurry was caught with pistols in his jail cell. This led to a mistrial because he was considered so dangerous and there was so much local interest, including 200 people who came to see his trial, he was moved to Asheville to stand trial again. George McCurry was found not guilty, and part of the reason was based on the belief that the accusations were politically motivated. Soon after Sid Peterson was found not guilty as well on grounds of self-defense. During the time of George McCurry’s arrest and trial in 1898 his family moved to Tennessee, which was just a few miles from where the shooting took place. In 1899 they returned to Jacks Creek and it was alleged they brought 50-60 gallons of moonshine with them. Shortly after their arrival there were two shootings in one day in the area close to the McCurry home. Liquor was blamed for both shootings and the McCurry’s were accused of selling the liquor to the people involved. A part of the McCurry clan continued to make moonshine, but they moved further away from town. Some moved to the same holler my family lived and made moonshine for generations. The last McCurry I know of who moonshined for a living died 20 years ago. He was my cousin as well as George McCurry’s. The last killing, I am aware of involving a feud with the McCurry’s was in the 1950’s. By the end of the 1890’s George McCurry’s time as one of the most feared outlaw’s in the region was coming to an end, but my great grandfather, Wiley Bradford, his brothers, and their our cousin Hiram Wilson’s story had just began.