The Legend of Hiram Wilson
Moonshiner, Gunslinger, and leader of one of Western North Carolina's most feared and notorious gangs
Hiram Wilson was born in Yancey County N.C. in 1870. He is a third cousin three times removed to Cody and Austin Bradford, owners of Howling Moon Distillery. Hiram Was one of the most feared and wanted outlaws of his time and led the largest and most notorious gang's in the region. Hiram is in the middle of picture above. To look at him it's hard to imagine he was one of the deadliest outlaws of his time. He committed around the same number of murders as Billy the Kid. Today Billy the Kid is famous and Hiram Wilson has been lost to time like several other outlaws from this region who were a bigger deal in their day. Hiram Wilson made headlines all across America and made the front page of the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and Washington Post and had multiple paragraphs telling his story on the front page. Billy the kid only had a few sentences in the obituary section of the New York Times when he died. The difference is Billy the Kid went out in his prime and in a blaze of glory like Jesse James. Hollywood and novels made him famous later. Only a few relatives have passed down the stories for generations of these other major characters in history. It's a little more complicated than that. People didn't talk to outsiders, talking in general could get a family member killed or arrested and they needed the income for survival. Growing up hearing some of the stories and being told we came from generations of outlaws, I found some of it hard to believe. You would think more people would know about these people, but in the late 1800's this region had a higher murder rate per capita than anywhere else in America and Yancey County was listed with 2 other counties in other nearby states as producing more moonshine that the rest of the country. Most families made a little moonshine on the side, others made a profession out of being an outlaw. The quiet mountain towns don't seem like a place that was wilder than the wild west, but over a decade of research including oral histories, books, news articles, and court documents as well as proof from other documentation of faked deaths and name changes tell another story that was harder to believe than the stories that started me down this path and much closer to home that I ever understood.
Yancey County North Carolina has always been a secluded place and most news never even made it out of the county in the 1800's, especially deep in the hollers and far from town where almost all of my family lived. Burnsville didn't get its on newspaper until the 1890's. Where I live now, on the land my family settled over 200 years ago, two cousins were shot by an ex sheriff deputy who had a feud with my family. The ex deputy shot first and killed my cousin Carmen Cooper and shot my other cousin Sam Bradford in the gut, which later caused him to die. It took 3 days for word of the shooting to get to the small town of Burnsville and that was in the 1920's. The ex deputy went on the run, but was caught and went to trial. He was found not guilty. This was a common issue in this region from the Civil War until the mid 1900's. That's why during that time period in this region there were gangs made up of family and neighbors that protected each other. This had been going on since the wars for Scottish Independence with the lowland Scot's, who later became the majority of the Scot's Irish by force on the orders of King James because of the threat they posed to England. When they left Ireland and helped beat the British in the American Revaluation the new American government mistreated them and the American Government became the new enemy. It started in 1796 with the first rebellion in American history, the Whiskey Rebellion, that took 10,000 troops led by President George Washington to put down and turned into a gorilla style war deep in the Appalachian Mountains for almost 200 years. The system of gangs used in these mountains to fight law enforcement was basically the same as the clan structure of the Scottish that lived along the border with England. They did not have formal clans like the highland Scot's. Hiram Wilson was one of the last to fight this way. He as well as others in the area led to North Carolina becoming the first state to enact state wide prohibition in 1908. Soon the nation followed and the rise of the mob and gangsters followed with more violence and murders than before. While people everywhere were trying to make moonshine to meet the demand after prohibition, Yancey County led the state in moonshine production and my family was right in the middle of it. Soon trains and cars would replace wagons to get moonshine to markets. While the history of NASCAR goes back to the fast drivers running moonshine and outrunning the law, our family had been in the business for generations and had a large network. Cars were useless in these rough mountains at that time so how did we make and distribute more moonshine than most any other place in America? They loaded it on trains, usually in tankers to hold liquid. From the back woods train depot's like the one in Lost Cove in Yancey County, moonshiners sent their shine across the nation. It has been said a lot of it went straight to Al Capone.
Hiram Wilson was one of the best documented cases of how those gangs operated as well as one of the last. He was the end of an era in these mountains and the wild west. After 4 murders and countless other crimes the Governor of North Carolina offered a reward for the capture of Hiram Wilson. After raising it several times with no luck because people would not turn him in and they often hid him. He kept the revenue agents and local officers from going into his territory and tearing up moonshine stills and killing, beating, raping, or stealing from local farmers that were poor and only doing what they had to to survive. Hiram Wilson, like the gangs before him in our family went to war with the law. Most people dont know this, but at this time in history many federal revenue agents were criminals their selves. The idea by our government at the time was it took a criminal to catch a criminal. That is usually what caused the abuse of power and abuse of local's. What has caused that and the news of his death in a shootout made the front page of the New York Times, They wreaked havoc from the Mountains of Western North Carolina to Colorado. His gang of outlaws from Yancey County, N.C. and surrounding areas consisted of a lot of his relatives as well as relatives of a gang from Yancey County, N.C. that terrorized Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee a generation earlier during the Civil War and shortly after. The earlier gang was led by John and Easom Bradford and included California John Wilson. All three were cousin's to Hiram Wilson. Stories about those family members will be posted soon. They were all related to Cody and Austin Bradford. One of our condensers we use today at Howling Moon was our 2nd great grandfathers and comes from the same side of the family that is related to Hiram Wilson. The condenser is well over 100 years old. The oldest family Moonshine Still we have came from our great grandfather who was the nephew of John and Easom Bradford and was associated with Hiram Wilson's gang. Our Moonshine heritage runs deep and generations of secrets being passed down hundreds of years is what sets us apart from every other distillery large or small.
Hiram Wilson made the cover of the New York Times in 1906 when he was reported killed in a gunfight. He also made headlines in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and everywhere between N.C. to Fairbanks Alaska. Hiram was reported to be killed in two different gunfight's, but both times reappeared to everyone's surprise. 20 years before Hiram was reported killed in the New York Times, Billy the Kid's death was reported on page 5 in a short paragraph after the weather report. Hiram was reported killed on the front page of the New York Times in a 6 paragraph story. Hiram Wilson truly was a legend in his own time.
Hiram was a noted Gunslinger, Moonshiner, and leader of a notorious gang. One of the last great desperado's in american history, he was one of the last gunslingers in the likeness of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Lewis Redmond. One newspaper wrote, “With one stroke of the hand he loads his empty revolver, and with what seems a single finger pull he empties it again. As he has said that no man can take him alive, those who are duty bound to go after him, and who meanwhile know his capability, hesitate just a little.”8
In the year 1889 at the age of 19 Hiram shot and killed Erwin Honeycutt in a gunfight. He killed him in a way that became his signature. “One ball struck Honeycutt in the forehead and another in the breast.”5 Most of the killings attributed to Hiram Wilson had the same two gunshot wounds. The trial went on for three years. “…the trial attracted great attention. The case was removed to Haywood (county), and there was almost a riot by Wilson’s friends.”1
In 1893 Hiram enlisted in the Army. Hiram returned from the Army and went back to making moonshine. In 1902 Hiram Wilson shot and killed his brother and N.C. State Senator Zeb Wilson. “Deplorable occurrence at Hiram Wilson’s distillery, in Yancey County. State Senator Zeb Wilson of Burnsville was shot and instantly killed by his brother, Hiram Wilson…The cause of the shooting was an argument about a horse trade, which so angered Hiram Wilson that he drew his gun and fired. Hiram Wilson…has the reputation of being a high tempered and impulsive character.”9 Hiram was acquitted and went back to making moonshine.
The State of North Carolina wanted him to pay for the murder’s he was acquitted for. He was convicted of violating Watts’ law, which was a new law at the time that was aimed at cracking down on distilling in N.C. “He was sent to Raleigh in chains with a guard of fifteen men to prevent rescue.”1 He stayed in the prison only about a year, being pardoned on the petition of Yancey County people. He then went back to distilling.”1 He was pardoned by N.C. Governor Aycock. This experience must have changed the way Hiram felt about going through the legal process. He never went into custody that easy again during his prime.
Hiram was reported shot to death several times, but always showed up alive to everyone’s surprise. His death was reported on the front page of the New York Times. Another paper reported “Noted Bandit Shot to Death”7 It was then reported, “Gossip killed him, but he wouldn’t stay dead. Letter received from Wilson says he is living and doing extraordinarily well.”10
Hiram was captured several times, but he always made a daring escape in a manor Hollywood couldn’t make up if they tried. “Hiram Wilson Free Again – Yancey County Bad Man on Warpath. The spectacular capture and equally spectacular release give mountain folk something to talk about-Officers on the track of Desperado, but blood will doubtless be shed before he is again taken”8 Hiram was lured into a trap set up by Unicoi County Tennessee Sheriff Love and his posse, so they thought. The article went on to explain the incident, “Hiram Wilson, Yancey’s notorious desperado, strangely fortunate and doubly defiant now that he is leader of a gang no less desperate than himself…the prisoner was taken to Loves station, where Sheriff Honeycutt of Yancey County, awaited the party, and there the officers were exchanging congratulations upon the success of their enterprise, when another and larger party, flourishing Winchester rifles and dangerous looking shot guns, broke upon them. A moment later the sheriffs were empty handed and too dazed for comment upon the affair…The Tennesseans predict a veritable reign of terror; for Wilson and his followers are cutthroats of the worst type. For twenty years he has proved master of Yancey County.”8
Next he and his gang rode to Colorado where he committed another murder and was arrested. North Carolina and Colorado fought over who would get to hang him. Hiram had other plans and made a daring escape from prison by shooting his way free. He was reported shot to death by the prison guards. After this he disappeared from the record for almost a decade. No one knows where he went or what he did for those eight years. One can only assume that he didn’t stay out of trouble. He must have gone somewhere out of reach of the newspapers. One can only assume he was waiting for his statute of limitations to run out since he was wanted for murder and many other crimes in multiple states. Either way he turned up in North Carolina in 1916.
The fear of Hiram Wilson was known nationwide as was his moonshine. The New York Times wrote, “He was acquitted and returned to Yancey to resume illicit distilling, which had been his means of livelihood. So great was the fear of him that he conducted a still openly in his yard.”1 Another wrote, “Men knew that they went up a dangerous proposition when they tackled Hiram Wilson, and so men said a heap and did but little. Then too his friends were fairly numerous…there were multitudes always ready to keep him appraised of the movements against him.”8 “What will be his end” one newspaper ask, “Anybody knows that, all things duly considered. It is likely to be bad…Wilson's equal may develop at any time…until his fate is definitely settled the current story will necessarily be not so much of what has been, as of what is about to be.”8 Age didn’t seem to slow him down. In 1941 he was out one night with two friends and got into an argument with one of them. That friend turned up shot to death. He had two bullets in his mouth and one in his chest. The only witness refused to say Hiram killed his friend. His story was that it was an accidental shooting. The witness said he took the gun from Hiram and pointed it at Hiram in an attempt to shoot him, but accidentally shot the other friend that Hiram happened to be in an argument with. He shot him twice in the mouth and once in the chest. It’s hard to believe the man was killed on accident with Hiram's signature gunshot pattern. Hiram may not have been the best friend or brother to have. In 1942 at the age of 72 he was convicted over the shooting, but they could only get him with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill because of the witness testimony. Once again he avoided a murder conviction. He was given a six month suspended sentence on the condition that he leave the state in 48 hours for a period of five years. At 87 years old natural causes finally settled that debate over how Hiram Wilson would meet his end. Hiram might have been too good at what he did. He never went out in a blaze of glory and the legend of Hiram Wilson faded into time.