Monday, October 13, 2014

The One-Armed Fiddler

John E. Hale with infant children
October 13, 2014

Dear Constant Readers,

This is the seventh installment in an ongoing series of posts from which I hope will form the first draft of a book.  The working title for this book is, "Confessions of a Second Grade Failure."  It is a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee during the 1960s and early 1970s.

And don't forget - if you subscribe to receive my blog posts by email before October 15, you will automatically be registered in a contest to win a new Kindle reader from Amazon.  For more details about the contest and how to subscribe, please read this post.



P.S. Even though I do proofread my work before publishing on this blog, occasionally a grammatical error or misspelling will elude my notice.  I do have a more objective proofreader, my wife, Lynn, but she usually proofs it after it has gone out to you, the reader.  When I finish a blog, I transfer what I have written into chapters kept in a text document.  These blog posts help shape what I will soon submit to the literary agent.  So, if you find grammatical errors or misspellings, feel free to share them with me so that I may correct them.  Right now I am writing to generate material and content for the book, so I am somewhat less attentive to the polishing process that goes into finished material.  Thanks for your understanding and your participation.


Confessions of a Second Grade Failure

The One-Armed Fiddler

While my grandmother, Cora, was the patient nurturer in the family, my grandfather, John E. Hale, was the one more likely to lay down the law with his children. Cora told how one day Papaw gathered up all the boys in the family and took them out onto the front porch. Their house was just off the Norton Road near Main Street in Wise. They lived right at the center of town. The tallest building in Wise at that time was the county courthouse and the jail right beside it, which one could easily see from the Hale’s front porch. Papaw raised up the remaining stump of his right arm and pointed toward the jail saying, “Boys, you see that jail? I’ve got just one piece of advice - if you get yourselves in there, then you’re also going to have to get yourselves out.”

The reason for this warning may have been triggered by one of the Hale boys many pranks. Like the time they took the Mayor’s wagon apart, carrying all the pieces and rebuilt the wagon completely intact on top of the Wise Courthouse.

John Hale, in general, was strict with his children in matters of right and wrong. This was both a bent
Talton "Bad Talt" Hall
in his character, and also a result in his years as a lawman. In September 1890, he was appointed by Judge W. T. Miller as a “Special Policeman” for Wise County. He was also a member of the Home Guard in Big Stone Gap, a self-appointed group organized to police the town and bring order to the area. In both his capacity as a Special Policeman and a member of the Home Guard, he participated in the manhunt and capture of the infamous Kentucky outlaw, “Bad” Talt Hall. Hall, implicated in a number of murders over the years, was ultimately brought to justice after killing Police Chief John Hylton of the town of Norton, Virginia in 1891. After he was caught, he was tried, convicted and hanged in 1892.

Papaw also participated in the search and capture of fellow lawman gone bad, “Doc” Marshall B. Taylor, who was a second cousin of mine. He was also known as the “Red Fox.” This nickname came to be associated with Taylor because of red hair and beard, and also for his stealth in tracking down outlaws. Taylor was a mountain mystic and seer, who had studied the works of Swedish philosopher and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, and claimed to be able to commune with the dead and the heavenly host. He was also a part-time preacher (at times Methodist, other times Baptist), physician and herb doctor (hence his title, “Doc”), and he also served as a U. S. Marshal.

Notice that "Doc" Taylor seems to
be holding both a Bible and a gun.
One of Taylor’s responsibilities as marshal was to roust moonshiners in of the hills of southwestern Virginia and to put them out of business. In this capacity, as one could imagine, he made a number of enemies. One, in particular, was a moonshiner by the name of “Old” Ira Mullins, who had sworn to have Taylor killed, going so far as to put a $300 bounty on his head. Taylor decided to take matters into his own hands and kill Mullins first. On May 14, 1892, Taylor and two brothers, Calvin and Henan Fleming, lay in wait in Pound Gap (henceforth known as the “Killing Rock”), a break in the mountains between Virginia and Kentucky. Sadly, Ira was not alone as he traveled - he had his whole family with him. This did not deter Taylor and the Fleming boys. Shots reigned down upon the Mullins family, killing all but two of them - Ira’s young son, John, and Mullins’ daughter-in-law, Jane. Though Taylor and the Flemings attempted to disguise themselves, wearing bandanas tied around their faces, the two remaining members of the Mullins’ clan were still able to identify them.

After this massacre, Taylor went into hiding. Sheriff John Miller organized a posse of twenty-two men, including my grandfather. The manhunt lasted for several days. Taylor was finally captured after he snuck onto an outgoing train in Norton to Bluefield, West Virginia. He was apprehended there and brought back to Wise where he was placed into custody in the county jail. Ironically, Taylor’s cell was right next to Talt Hall, whom he, in his capacity as U.S. Marshal, had helped hunt down and arrest just a year previous. Not only did my grandfather participate in the manhunt for Taylor, he helped guard him as well. Grandpa was present the day that the jury found Taylor guilty of murdering the Mullins family, and he was also present when Taylor was hanged outside the Wise Courthouse.

The day of the hanging for "Doc" Taylor, aka Red Fox
Since Taylor was an ordained preacher, he asked for and received permission from the court to preach his own funeral sermon and to offer communion before he was hung. He preached for over two hours to a large gathering of people. When he finally offered the sacrament, no one came forward to partake of the elements except his wife, Nancy. He also requested that his wife make him a new linen suit to wear to his hanging - a completely white suit, symbolizing Taylor’s belief in his own inward purity. She also made him a white hood, instead of the traditional black one, which was to be placed over his head when he was hung. His last request before death was that his body not be buried immediately, but rather to lie in state in his family home for three days. Why three days? Why, of course, he predicted that in three days time, he would rise out of his wooden coffin, fully restored and prepared once again to preach the Gospel. After his hanging on October 27, 1893, per his instructions, Taylor was laid to rest in his white suit and his coffin placed in his home for three days. To no one’s surprise, he remained dead. Taylor’s body was then taken to the woods on a ridge overlooking Wise and buried in an unmarked grave.

First Edition, 1908
In 1908, the Appalachian author, John Fox, Jr. published a novel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was made into a movie in 1938, starring Henry Fonda. It was also later transformed into an outdoor drama, which has been performed each summer in Big Stone Gap for over fifty years, and become the official state outdoor drama of Virginia. My grandmother never saw the production itself. She said that she didn’t need to because she already knew the story by heart.
based in part on the stories of “Bad” Talt Hall and “Doc” Taylor. It was one of the top-ten bestsellers in the U.S. both in 1908 and 1909. The main character in Fox’s novel was none other than John “Jack” Hale - “Jack” was my grandfather’s nickname. Though the character is a composite and fictional, he is based to some degree on Papaw. Fox and my grandfather were close friends for many years. They had served together in Home Guard in Big Stone Gap and participated together in the hunts for Hall and Taylor. Mamaw said that Fox would drop by the house every now and then to visit with Papaw, often staying overnight. It was during these times together sharing memories and tales of Wise County that Fox gathered stories and background for his novels.


My grandfather was born July 2, 1862 in Whitesburg, Tennessee to Samuel Lane Hale and his wife, Catherine Brewer. Mamaw told us that Papaw’s earliest memory was of his father lifting him up to sit atop the split rail fence of their farm so that he could see soldiers marching back to their homes following the Civil War. Dressed both in the Blue and the Gray, the Hales and other families from east Tennessee fought on both sides of the conflict.

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Hale family suffered economically during this tumultuous period, only to face the national depression in the early 1870s. When coal was discovered in southwest Virginia, many Tennesseans left their homes to start over. in 1880, Samuel and Catherine Hale moved their entire family - all twelve children - to Powell Valley, Virginia, with Big Stone Gap at its south end and the city of Norton to its north.

One of many of my grandfather’s talents was as a mechanic. With the right tools, he could build just
about anything. A fellow from Wise County, Morgan E. Lipps, wrote an article for the Kingsport Times-News about an early incident with my grandfather in 1885 in Powell Valley. Lipps was in his yard near the main road when, in the distance, he saw a man’s head high up in the air. The man was riding something, but it didn’t look like any horse he had ever seen: “That outlandish contraption rolled right up to our gate and sure enough it was part man and part wheels tangled up together... The man part was John Hale, son of Sammy Hale.” In hindsight, Lipps said that the thing that my grandfather was riding was a bicycle, but back then, he had no words for what it was. He said, “This man Hale evidently had found an old buggy wheel and one off a discarded wheelbarrow. He had joined the two together with some sort of frame with the buggy wheel in front with a makeshift saddle mounted high up. John was riding that thing big as Jake.. It was the first bicycle ever manufactured in Wise County and the first one rode.”

John, like his father, Samuel, and his grandfather, Thomas, before him, was apprenticed in art of
John E. Hale displaying many of the fiddles and furniture
he crafted by hand.
woodworking and cabinet making. He was much more than just a planing mill operator, he was also a craftsman of fine, intricate furniture and varied musical instruments, both before and after he lost his right arm. People from all around the region sought him out to build furniture for their homes. Likewise, musicians requested instruments of many types - fiddles, mandolins, banjos. Papaw loved playing these instruments too, especially the fiddle. Even without his right hand to hold the bow, Papaw would simply insert his stump between the wood stick and the hair, sawing away. One of his favorite tunes was “Turkey in the Straw.” He would take his fiddle with him on social occasions, like when he and some of the town’s men gathering at the jail to guard prisoners. Papaw would serenade them with a tune.

As much as John was known for his furniture and instruments, he was even more well-known for giving
William Jennings Bryan
them away - and to whom he gave them away. He particularly admired American leaders and fellow inventors. He gave one of his violins to Thomas Edison. More than one piece of his furniture was sent to Presidents and remained in the White House during their terms. But the man he admired most and who was the recipient of my grandfather’s generosity was William Jennings Bryan, the great Democratic orator. Grandpa sent Bryan a beautiful, handcrafted rocking chair while he was serving as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. My grandfather attached a note to the chair which read, “From a One-armed Mechanic. Bryan sent a gracious response of thanks, which made John very happy. Over the years, he received many such letters of thanks and appreciation for the gifts that he sent.

John E. Hale just prior to his death in 1943.
Following a long trip to California to visit his oldest son, Kingsley, Papaw returned to Wise County a very sick man. Cora and his family cared for him, but age and ill health had taken its toll. John Hale died on October 20, 1943 in the home that he and Cora build. He was buried in a hand-crafted coffin, made from Papaw’s favorite wood - black walnut. He was buried in the Wise County Cemetery, not far from his house. He was buried beside two of his children with his first wife, Burnith and Timothy, both of whom had died in childhood. His grave is not far from his old colleague and nemesis, Doc Taylor, whose grave is now marked.


  1. Really fascinating! - Carol H.

    1. Carol, thank you so much for your comments - both in this post and previous ones. I really do appreciate what you think of my writing and storytelling. Keep it coming! Peace out!