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Real-Life Outlaw Otto Wood Went Viral In The Thirties

Otto Wood Mugshot

True-life outlaw Otto Wood went viral in 1931 — one year after he was killed in a fatal shoot-out with a North Carolina sheriff. How does one go viral in the 1930s? For Otto Wood, it happened partly through newspaper accounts that laid the groundwork for a massive funeral and his subsequent commemoration through a ballad that’s still played today.

Plenty of Wood’s life set him up for his eventual fame. He grew up in the hills around Wilkesboro, North Carolina and lost a hand in a childhood accident. He spent time with the Hatfields of southern West Virginia in the early 1900s, and later became a famed moonshiner.

Legend has it Wood eventually ran into trouble with the law after an incident involving a pawn shop and a family watch.

Here’s how folk icon Doc Watson told it, on his album “Legacy” with David Holt, released in 2002.

“He had pawned his grandfather’s watch, needed some money real bad,” Watson said. “And he pawned it to Mr. A.C. Kaplan, who had a pawn shop in Greensboro, North Carolina. And he promised he’d be back in a short time to redeem the watch. And he had supposedly had a 30 day grace period, according to the agreement. But he went back in about 10 days and the old boy had sold his watch. And he [Wood] was really angry, flew into a rage, and there happened to be one of those old antique pistols … He snatched it up, hit the man over the head with it a little too hard. And he was sentenced for 2nd degree murder.”Wood subsequently escaped from the Raleigh prison where he was sent. In Watson’s telling, he “whittled a gun out of a cake of soap,” jabbed it into a guard’s back and coerced him into driving him away.

But it was his shootout with a sheriff in Salisbury, North Carolina, that entrenched his name in pop culture history.

“The sheriff who had been looking for him, Sheriff Rankin, saw him walking along the street, pulled over and told him to get in the car,” said North Carolina musician Holt, who often performed with Watson. “Otto got in the car and [then ] … opened the back door, rolled out on the ground, and pulled his gun. Rankin got out the front door and shot Otto across a Model A body. Otto shot at Rankin but he missed him, just nicked his ear. And Otto got hit right in the face and died. So that’s a pretty dramatic ending.”

The local newspaper reported that as many as 20,000 people attended Wood’s funeral and filed past his casket. Locals also raised money to send his body home to his mother in Coaldale, West Virginia.

A year later, in 1931 Walker Kid Smith wrote “Otto Wood the Bandit” and recorded it with the Carolina Buddies.

The chorus goes, “Otto, why didn’t you run? / Otto’s done dead and gone / Otto Wood, why didn’t you run / When the sheriff pulled out that 44 gun?”

The single sold a couple thousand copies. But one of them landed in the hands of Doc Watson. He recorded it for his 1965 album, “Doc Watson and Son,” which hit at the height of the ‘60s folk boom. Doc Watson went on to become an icon of the folk and Americana movement over the late 20th century.

And “Otto Wood the Bandit” was emblazoned into the American songbook. Musicians have been singing about Otto Wood ever since. Like “Slim” Smith, Norman Blake, Barbara Scott and JP Harris.

West Virginia musician Chance McCoy produced and played fiddle on the Harris version. McCoy and Harris didn’t get a chance to play the tune a lot together, especially once the pandemic brought live music to a halt. But they did tour together, and McCoy got to see a crowd in Germany respond to “Otto Wood.”

“We played a house concert in an apartment in Berlin, and I can remember that people were standing on the furniture,” McCoy said. “I remember playing that song, and this room full of 200 Berliners was singing along to ‘Otto Wood.’ I don’t even know if they understood a word, but it’s a good tune.”

So, as someone who’s been playing and singing this song for years — why does Chance McCoy think Otto Wood didn’t run?

“For Otto Wood, he had to end it somewhere,” McCoy said. “It certainly wasn’t going to be spending his life in prison. I think for him, the adventure was over, and he knew it. And it was better to go out in a blaze of glory than to fizzle out in a jail cell.”

David Holt has a different answer. Why didn’t Otto Wood run?

“I think he was trying to run — just the car was too short across and they shot him right in the head,” Holt said. “He was pretty bold, you know. He felt like the people knew him. People liked him. People weren’t afraid of him. So he’s like a minor celebrity. I think actually at the end, he was trying to get away from Sheriff Rankin. It just didn’t work. He would have run one more time.”

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.

This Folkways story originally aired in the May 20, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.