He was, a newspaper in Wilkes County, North Carolina noted in 1913, “a bad one.” Another paper described him as “the black sheep” of his family. That was putting it mildly. Otto Harrison Wood, the county’s most infamous son, was a one-man crime wave. He was nine when he stole a bike and broke into a store, and he was in trouble with the law for the rest of his short life. He robbed stores and freight cars. He stole guns, automobiles and boats. He beat a man to death. Arrests and convictions barely slowed him down – he escaped prisons and bolted from chain gangs almost a dozen times.
North Carolina archivist and musician Trevor McKenzie explores Wood’s crimes and how he attained folk-hero status in Otto Wood, the Bandit, a deeply researched account that strives to establish the true story behind a crime spree that has been immortalized in a much-played and much-recorded bluegrass ballad with the same title as the book.
“Wood packed a lot of adventure into his short life,” McKenzie writes, and “achieved a semicelebrity status” from a crime spree that stretched from rural North Carolina to Ohio and Kentucky, and west to Texas and Missouri. The challenge for his biographer was to sort fact from fiction in this life lived fast and furious. He assembled newspaper accounts, prison records, oral histories and other sources, and his careful research exposes the “half-truths and embellishments” in Wood’s own version of his story, an autobiography written behind bars in 1926.
What put Wood on the path to a life of crime? Poverty does not seem to have been a factor – his family owned their farm – but Wood once claimed he had been “neglected and allowed to run wild” as a child. He continued to run wild the rest of his life, and not even being born with a clubfoot and losing his left hand at 18, after a hunting accident, could slow him down.
McKenzie offers an entertaining account of Wood’s rollercoaster criminal career, which turned deadly in 1923. A dispute with a pawnbroker in Greensboro escalated into a scuffle. Wood pistol-whipped the man, and the gun went off. The pawnbroker was wounded in the shoulder, but died of a fractured skull. Arrested in West Virginia, Wood stood trial on Christmas Eve and was sentenced to 30 years in prison at hard labor. A series of escapes, manhunts and recaptures followed, keeping him in the headlines.
The media and public reaction to Wood’s crimes is a major theme of McKenzie’s book. He became a media darling, charming the journalists covering his exploits even though he was now a convicted murderer. “He is a bad egg, a dangerous man,” one reporter conceded, “but somehow his engaging candor disarms criticism.” He became an unlikely poster boy for prison reform. And readers, McKenzie writes, ate it up, eagerly devouring front-page stories about the latest pronouncements and escapades of this “Southern Houdini,” North Carolina’s “favorite criminal.”
It was a time of celebrity crooks – Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd – and McKenzie shows how hoodlums such as Wood were transformed in the public mind from ne’er-do-wells to dangerous public enemies, and ultimately became folk heroes. Wood’s colorful career ended on the last day of 1930 as theirs did, in a hail of bullets in a final shootout with police.
Within a year of his death, a romanticized version of Wood’s story was told in the first of what became many songs in which he was “celebrated,” McKenzie notes, “as a roguish yet sympathetic character … a latter-day answer to Robin Hood and Jesse James.” The truth, as this engaging, thoughtful book shows, is far darker than the legend preserved for almost a century in music and lyrics.
Otto Wood, the Bandit: The Freighthopping Thief, Bootlegger, and Convicted Murderer Behind the Appalachian Ballads
By Trevor McKenzie
University of North Carolina Press
Published September 14, 2021