The not too well-known desperado

Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, Kid Curry and later John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, Al Capone, George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes, Kate "Ma" Barker are all criminals, who are known to most people. All of them, both at the time and later, were considered major criminal "desperados" who killed if they had to - and sometimes when they did not have to; and even if they didn't kill, they were often occupied by other crimes. However, there were other criminls, who caused the authorities many problems, even though they never became as well known as those I have mentioned here. This article is about one of these, lesser known villains. His name is probably not known to many Danes (or other Non-Americans), and in fact not to many Americans either - unless you are from his home turf. And that is what makes the story interesting for these pages, where I mostly (with a few exceptions) tell stories about lesser known people and events that did not get a large place in world history, and this is another one such story. And let me declare that it is certainly not a story with a "happy ending", so if that's what you are looking for, you got to look elsewhere. You have been duly warned.

The man this article is about, was named Otto Harrison Wood. In itself not a remarkable name - nor was his criminal career particularly remarkable. He didn't rob banks or trains and he wasn't a mass murderer either. Actually his crimes were rather uninteresting - at least in to begin with - such as as car thefts, bootlegging and other similarly rather petty crimes. What made him famous - and wanted - was his ability to escape from prisons. Ten times he managed to escape from a prison where he was incarcerated.

But let me begin with the beginning.

The boy who suffered from wanderlust

Otto Woods was born in 1894 in Wilkes County in western North Carolina. When he was four years old, his father died, leaving his mother in charge of Otto and his four brothers, three of whom were older than him and one was younger - the youngest was only two years old when his father died. The eldest brother was only ten, so none of the children could help their mother by getting a job and making money. According to the autobiography Woods later wrote, he felt, from a very young age, that he was different from his brothers: "I always wanted to get out and about and did not want to stay at home in the cabin". Ever since he was five years old, he loved to go out into the woods alone and explore hollow trees, streams and cliffs. Seven years old, he was sent to school, but school did not suit the freedom-loving boy. He refused to go to school, partly because he felt trapped when he was inside, but also because the other boys teased him with his tattered clothes. So after six months of schooling, the only formal teaching he ever got, and still only seven years old, he ran away from home! He boarded a train at the depot in North Wilkesboro, obviously without having a ticket, but he tricked the conductor into believing that he was travelling as part of a family, who was also on the train. When the train arrived in Winston-Salem, about 60 miles east of Wilkesboro, he got off the train. He spent some time walking around the town, which to him was very impressive and which made a big impression on the seven-year-old. When evening came, he passed a tobacco warehouse, where he persuaded a farmer who was delivering goods at the warehouse, to give him a meal. He was allowed to sleep in the farmer's wagon for the night, and the next day the farmer brought him to his home near Madison, about 30 miles northeast of Winston-Salem. Here he stayed for a few days, but then seven-year-old Otto had had enough of being in the same place, so he boarded a train once again at the station in Madison. This train was going to Roanoke, Virginia, 75 miles further north. In Roanoke, he boarded a train bound for Hagerstown, Maryland, more than 230 miles northeast of Roanoke and now three states away from his home. Unfortunately for Otto, he was spotted by the conductor on this train, so when the train stopped somewhere between Roanoke and Hagerstown, he handed Otto over to the police. They gave him some new clothes and a train ticket home - with an escort. When he had been reunited with his family, his mother informed the railway companies in the area of ​​the boy's wanderlust, asking them to make sure that Otto could no longer ride any train, so when he tried to sneak on board a train at the North Wilkesboro depot once again a short while later, he was caught by the conductor before the train even left the depot, and once more returned to his mother.

Otto goes to West Virginia

Otto then tried a new tactic, as staying at home and being sent back to school he would not, so he sneaked into a freight car where the chance of being discovered was less than in a passenger car, and when he was not discovered on the way to Winston-Salem (that was where the train from Wilkesboro went to), he used the same tactics to move on, and he managed to get all the way to Bluefield in southern West Virginia before being discovered by railway personnel. Otto was handed over to the police in Bluefield. However, when Otto told his name, the town's police chief, knew that Otto's had an uncle who lived in Vulcan, a town about 80 miles northwest of Bluefield, so he sent Otto to his uncle. This uncle ran a saloon in the town which was (and is) located in Mingo County, West Virginia, on the border of Pike County, Kentcuky, and by the time Otto arrived, the area was still the scene of the last remnants of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. This feud will be the theme of a future article. When the uncle sent a message to his mom, Otto was allowed to stay with his uncle - a stay that only lasted for a short while though.

But what did this infamous feud had to do with seven-year-old Otto Wood? Well his uncle ran a saloon, and in addition to being wealthy and legitimate businessmen, the Hatfield family also ran a lively and lucrative business of distilling and distributing "moonshine", which was part of the reason for the continuing eud with the McCoys. One of the regular Hatfield customers was the saloon, owned by Otto's uncle. "Moonshine" was at a fairly high rate in those days, even though it was about 20 years before the prohibition came into force in the United States, as this liquor could be sold without being taxed, and thus gave greater profits to the saloon owners - and the producers. Otto became good friends with one of the sons of the Hatfield family, and moved in with his family, where there was enough excitement to satisfy him, as the Hatfields let him participate in both the making and smuggling og moonshine, and he learned to play poker, which some members of the Hatfield family also excelled in. Otto even wrote in his memoirs that when he was ten years old he was an extremely skilled poker player. During his stay in West Virginia, he also learned to fight and use violence if he got into trouble. When he turned 11, he wanted to see his mother again, and he returned home to Wilkesboro and his family, four years after he had left.

Otto commits his first crime, gets a job and find a wife

Actually, the headline is not completely correct, as he was already involved in crime in connection with his participation in the moonshine business, but he was not in this on his own and his part was rather minor. And gambling was not banned in West Virginia at the time and there is no evidence of Otto Wood having conflicts with the law in this early period of his life. In 1905 he went home to visit his mother and siblings in Wilkes County, North Carolina, but only a few months later, when he had just turned 12 years old, he once more began to suffer from wanderlust, and he wanted to return to the more exciting life in West Virginia, but he had no money to pay for a train ticket, and he was afraid that he would get caught, if he tried to sneak on board a train without one. At that point, his criminal career started. As he knew that a boy, whose family lived next door to Otto's mother, owned a bicycle, Otto thought he could steal it and then ride the bike back to West Virginia. So he stole the bike, but unfortunately he did not get that far, because he didn't know how to ride a bike, and instead he had to just push it. He was therefore quickly overtaken and captured by the county sheriff, who imprisoned him in the local prison, which is now known as the Old Wilkes Jail in Wilkesboro (today part of the Wilkes Heritage Museum). Here he spent five months before going to trial, which was quite normal at the time, as the court only met twice a year, spring and fall. While incarcerated here, he and a fellow prisoner planned to rob a local hardware store when they got out of jail. They believe that such a robbery would provide them with firearms! When Otto finally was put on trial, the judge sentenced him to six months of forced labor (in a so-called chain gang) in the neighboring Iredell County. At that time he was still only 12 years old, and so small and slender that the foreman decided to let him go free and sent him home to his mother again.

Drawing depicting a "trapper" in a coal mine.

When he returned to Wilkes County, he continued to go through with the plan of robbing the hardware store, albeit without the fellow inmate who was still in prison. He actually managed to escape with as many firearms as he could carry, only to be caught again and sent back to prison. Again, he had to wait some months before he could his trial could begin, and since the judge was a kind man, he wanted to help Otto rather than punish him. He therefore delivered Otto into the care of his eldest brother, and instructed him to make sure that Otto did not get into further trouble. The brother did not believed it would be possible, but Otto was released despite his brother's reservations, and he later told that the brother, instead of helping him, did everything he could to make Otto's life miserable, while the brother in turn explained that he simply could not get Otto to behave properly. Otto himself sincerely believed that after being convicted of a crime, he would be unwelcome everywhere, so he set out to travel again.

From time to time he visited the Hatfield family in Vulcan and stayed with them for a few months, but when he was 15 years old he decided it was time for him to settle down and get a job. He got employment as a so-called "trapper" in a coal mine, where his task was to open hatches (trap doors) in the tunnels of the mine when the corfs, which were pushed and pulled by hand, had to pass from one mine tunnel to another. He had this job until he was 17, after which he got a job as a stoker at the Norfolk and Western Railroad. While working here he lost one of his hands, either in an accident on the locomotive; although another story tells that he lost it in connection with a hunting accident, while he worked as a stoker. In any case, his disability meant that he lost his job. So without a job and with only one hand left, Otto, known as a lady's man, decided to marry a girl from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, but that proved to be a mistake, as it cost him his next prison sentence.

The first escapes - and a new wife?

Another girl whom Otto had "courted" accused him of having broken his vow to marry her and of being the father of her child. Breaking a marriage vow was considered a criminal offense, so Otto was arrested, put to trial and sentenced to two years and two months in Virginia State Prison. From here, Otto made his first prison break, and later he called it the biggest mistake of his life. Despite being pursued for several days by law enforcement, he managed to escape across the Appalachians, and he traveled around Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico for about two years. While here, he began to dress like the locals and always appeared wearing two large revolvers in a gun belt. Unfortunately, he also got drunk from time to time, and he became involved in several shootings, but somehow always escaped unscathed from these, and none of them led to conflicts with the law, as his opponents weren't injured either! Two years later, he decided to travel east again, but in Portsmouth, Ohio, he was recognized, arrested and sent back to Virginia State Prison, where a judge added an extra year to his sentence for the escape.

However, he only "stayed" for three months; then he managed to escape once more, and he made his way to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here he got into trouble in connection with a card game in a billiard parlor. Otto, who as mentioned above, was an excellent poker player in spite of his young age, won all the other players' money, and when some of the other players drew their weapons to get Otto to give them their money back, it developed into a gunfight. When the shooting was over, Otto was - in his own words - "the only one left standing". The others had either fled or lay wounded on the floor; he had also been relatively badly wounded, but he could still stand. When he had recovered in the local hospital for some time, he was put to trial, but he was acquitted, when he claimed that the shooting had taken place in self-defense, and this was confirmed by those, who had witnessed the shoot-out. Since he appeared under a false name and no one recognized him and identified him as wanted, he was released. In his recollections he boasted happily that he had come out alive and had not himself killed anyone.

After the trial he left Tennessee and returned to West Virginia. In the town of Welch, he bought a car, and set about smuggling moonshine, and he married a 15-year-old girl from the town. The story does not mention a divorce from his first wife, so maybe (but not likely) he also committed bigamy. More about this in the epilogue. Already a few days after the wedding, he got into trouble due to the smuggling, and he fled to North Carolina with his new wife. Unfortunately, he had only paid the first installment on the car, and had "forgotten" to pay the rest of the debt, so the seller had notified the authorities in Welch, who had forwarded the message to the sheriff of Wilkes County. When Mr. and Mrs. Wood reached his mother in North Wilkesboro, the authorities therefore was present, ready to arrest him. However, he managed to flee into the woods, but he had to leave the car. Although on foot he managed to escape and got all the way to Winston-Salem, where he stole another car. He used this car to drive back to his mother's home to pick up his wife. However, it turned out to be a blatant mistake, as the police were still waiting for him! Again, he managed to escape. While the police searched for him in the woods, he sneaked back, took the car (and his wife) and drove to North Wilkesboro, where he stole another car. In that car and with the wife on board, he drove to Statesville in the neighboring Iredell County and from there the couple continued to Charlotte also in North Carolina, before continuing through South Carolina and Georgia to Florida. As the tires on the car began to wear out along the way, he stole the wheels from another car while the owner was sleeping.

After some time in Florida, the couple had spent all their money and traveled north again. When they reached Kentucky, Otto was again recognized and arrested, and he was sent to Chattanooga on a charge of unlawful intrusion and car theft. He complained in his memoirs that he was not given credit for leaving the first car (which he had also stolen) where he stole number two! This time he was sentenced to three years in prison, but already six months later he managed to escape again, and he returned to North Carolina. Unfortunately, the news of his escape had run ahead of him, and after only two weeks on the loose, he was arrested and sent back to Tennessee.

Once again he tried to escape, this time by hiding in an empty box that had contained canned food, which was now to be transported out of the prison along with other packaging, but he was discovered as soon as he crawled out of the box, and the police chased him with dogs. As they got closer, he slipped into a stable and stole a horse, on which he road off with neither saddle nor reins. When the police discovered that he was on horseback, they gave up the pursuit as they themselves were on foot. Again, unfortunately, things went wrong for Otto, because when he reached a town about 60 miles from Nashville, he was recognized and surrounded by a group of people, who demanded that he surrender. He did not want to give up though, so a fight broke out, and Otto was wounded, but not as badly as he pretended, but he was caught snd ws to be brought back to stand trial in West Virginia. When the train that was to take him back to West Virginia, where he stole the first car, arrived, he escaped once more; his time by knocking down the guard (who believed he was more severely wounded than was actually the case). In one of the train carriages, he found some clothes that one of the train staff had left behind, and wearing those clothes, he left the train again, and eagerly participated in the hunt for himself, as the other participants in the hunt believed him to be a "brake man" from the train. He managed to sneak aboard a freight train to Kentucky, and he reached as far as Hopkinsville, around 70 miles from Nashville before he was discovered by law enforcement officers.

Despite the fact that the two policemen, who had identified him, drew their weapons and ordered him to "stick his hands in the air", he managed to escape and he returned to Welch in West Virginia, where his wife waited for him.

More arrests, more escapes - and a new girlfriend?

When he arrived in Welch, he was immediately arrested again, as there was an active arrest warrant for him for the theft of the car he had originally bought to transport moonshine but had failed to pay This time he was sentenced to five years in West Virginia's State Prison. When the verdict was so harsh, it was not so much because of the car theft, but mainly because of his past merits. With the six years he already "owed", he now had the prospect of spending the next eleven years in prison, so his only option was to try to escape again. The only way to escape was by climbing over the wall, where guards armed with rifles patrolled day and night, but together with a fellow prisoner Otto actually managed to get unnoticed over the wall using a ladder they had found in the prison yard. This was January 1919, and Otto was now 25 years old, and it was his fifth escape from a prison. The two prisoners were chased for about 15 miles, wearing only very little clothes, and the weather was extremely cold. At the same time, they also had to cross the Ohio River, and that did not improve their situation. The accomplice, James Borders, who was only 18 years old and who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison for second-degree murder, was caught 30 days later in West Virginia while Otto Wood managed to get back to North Carolina.

Wilkes County Jail, where Otto Wood was imprisoned both as a child and as an adult, is one of the few prisons he did not escape from. The prison is today part of the Wilkes Heritage Museum.

Otto arrived in North Carolina just as the Spanish Flu was at its height in the state, and he actually helped and assisted many, who were sick from the disease, while at the same time he started distilling moonshine in the mountains of Wilkes County. He then smiuggled the moonshine to Winston-Salem, where he sold it for $20 per gallon. It went well for six months, then he was discovered and arrested again and placed in the Wilkes County Jail, where he had spent five months as a child after the bicycle theft. While in the custody of the Wilkes County authorities, they discovered that a bounty had been placed on his head in three different states, and when West Virginia offered the largest bounty, they decided to send him there. He had a girlfriend at this time (see the epilogue for more on Otto's relationships) who swore she would help him escape. Already while he was still in the Wilkes County Jail, the girl smuggled a gun into the jail and gave it to him, but at the same time she persuaded him not to use it, promising to accompany him to West Virginia, which she actually did. She talked the prison officer who was to accompany Otto into letting her come along, and in exchange she would make sure that Otto behaved properly along the way.

She asked Otto to give her back the gun, she had given, but he refused as he believed that he would be able to escape, when the train reached Roanoke, Virginia. In Winston-Salem, the guard promised that if Otto would agree to behave properly, he would not lock him up in the local jail until the train they were to continue on,was to depart at 4.45 the next morning. This offer surprised Otto so much that he handed over the gun and did not actually made any attempt to escape. When the party reached West Virginia, the guard, E. W. Athey, who had accompanied Otto, contacted the director of the prison, and the two agreed to make a request to the state's governor to pardon Otto for the sentence he was to serve in West Virginia, as the only crimes he had committted in that state was one single case of car theft and a broken marriage vow. If the governor agreed to it, Otto would be sent to Tennessee to serve the time he owed for the crimes he committed in stat state, and that's how it ended. Otto was pardoned in West Viginia and sent to Tennessee, but when he arrived there, he was told that he would now serve all the 36 months he owed - that is, no reduced sentence for good behavior, and the guards did their part to make his time in prison as uncomfortable as possible.

After a while, Otto began to receive letters from the girl who had accompanied him to West Virginia and who had meanwhile given birth to his child. For some reason, Otto did not in his autobiography mention the names of any of the women, he was associated with, nor did he tell how he escaped from the state prison in Tennessee, but he nevertheless told that it was the information about the child that had made him worried enough to break free again. After escaping, he once more began making moonshine, which he -as before - smuggled to Winston-Salem and sold there. When he had made enough money, he, the woman and the child traveled to Texas, and he told in his memoirs that his time with his girlfriend and the child was the happiest time in his life. For thirteen months they traveled around, but they never stayed more than a week at the same place out of fear that someone would recognize Otto. Unfortunately, he made a mistake when he and his girlfriend captured three Mexicans, who were wanted for murder and kidnapping, and "handed" them over to the sheriff in El Paso. This meant that the local newspaper wrote about the heroic feat on its front page, but unfortunately they also brought a photo of Otto, so before he could get the bounty, he had been recognized and they had to flee to Arizona.

Occasionally, Wood tried to do good deeds, such as on the way to Arizona, the family drove through the so-called Texas Panhandle. Along the way, they saw a car tire lying in a ditch and Otto stopped and brought it with him. He handed it over to the owner of an auto workshop, who had had a number of tires stolen. Unfortunately the owner was convinced that Otto was one of the culprits, and he informed the sheriff. Otto decided to say goodbye to his girlfriend and the child, so equipped with a canteen of water he headed into the desert in the direction of San Antonio with two Texas Rangers on his heels. However, he ambushed them and held them up, taking their water and firearms in addition to one of their horses. He instructed them to treat the girl and the child properly, otherwise he would return when they least expected it. Instead of continuing to San Antonio, however, he turned around to see if the girl and child were OK. His stolen horse ran off though, and returned to the barn where it was normally stabled. The sheriff was notified, and he and five deputy sheriffs and the two Texas Rangers set off to arrest Otto. However, he discovered them and managed to escape in a car he had stolen. It developed into a car chase that only stopped when Otto's car crashed into a prairie dog hole, where it got stuck, forcing him to flee on foot in the dark. He wandered around in the desert for three days before finding a ranch, and close to the ranch a parked car, in which a young couple was engaged in what young people occasionally do in cars. He interrupted their venture and forced them to drive him to San Antonio, where he was to meet his girlfriend, who was about to give birth to their second child, but she had been detained by the authorities. However, she was released before giving birth and returned to her family in West Virginia, while Otto once again returned to his mother in North Carolina.

Arrested for murder

To be able to support his girlfriend and the now two children, Otto had to raise money, so once again he started making and transporting moonshine. For that purpose he had to have a car, so he he went to Portsmouth in Ohio and stole one there, but it did not go well. Within an hour, he had been caught by the police and arrested for car theft. He went to trial yet again and was sentenced to two years in Ohio State Prison. This time he chose to serve the sentence and he after having served 19 months, he was released due to good behaviour in June 1923, now 29 years old. He went to West Virginia when he wanted to see his girlfriend and his two children, but she was no longer living with her parents. She had traveled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she lived with one of Otto's older brothers and his family, so Otto also travelled to Winston-Salem and visited them there. When he left, he took his girlfriend and youngest son back to West Virginia, while the eldest son was left with his brother, but he promised to return each month to visit the boy, and he kept that promise until it went seriously wrong.

In October 1923, he visited the boy again, but now he was short of money, so he drove to Greensboro east of Winston-Salem to pawn his watch in a place where he was not known. 14 days later, he returned to redeem the watch, but the owner of the pawn shop claimed he had no records of a pawned watch. Otto, who had seen him register the loan, knew it was a lie, so a few days later, in early November, he returned to the pawn shop and demanded to redeem his watch. The pawnbroker again denied having received the watch as security for any loan, and ordered Otto out of the store. Otto did not want to leave, however, so the pawnbroker, a man named Kaplan, took a walking stick and tried to hit Otto with it. Otto drew his gun and hit the pawnbroker in the head with it. It made the gun go off, and the bullet touched Kaplan's shoulder. Otto wanted to flee town, so he forced a man named De Vane, whom he surprised in De Vane's car, to drive him out of town. 3 miles away he ordered the man out of the car, and took an overcoat, which was in the car. Here the stories become so slightly different. Otto explained that he had found some money in the coat, while De Vane explained that Otto had threatened him with the gun to hand over $ 100. Otto left Greensboro and drove back to West Virginia, where he settled in the town of Bramwell. Less than two weeks later, on November 11, he was arrested for the murder of A. W. Kaplan, which surprised him a lot, as he did not know the man was dead. He spent 60 days in the local county jail before being transferred to Greensboro. To make sure he did not ran off once more, he was chained with double foot shackles, his hands were tied behind his back and he had a rope around his neck the entire trip.

The local Greensboro newspaper had described Otto Wood as a "notorious killer and desperado", so most people in town were sure he was guilty before the trial even went to court, and he was the big topic of conversation throughout the state. The newspaper could tell that thousands of people came to the city to see this desperado in the city's prison, and Otto wrote in his memoirs that he believed there had been at least 20,000 and that just as many had been rejected. Although there had been two customers in the store who could confirm that Otto had struck Kaplan in self-defense, none of these were called as witnesses. However, the judge did not believe that the murder was premeditated, and in his speech to the jury recommended that they should find Otto guilty of manslaughter or, in the worst case, "second-degree murder". The jury chose the latter, and the judge sentenced Otto to 30 years in prison to be served in North Carolina Central Prison in Raleigh. Before he was transferred to prison, however, he got his beloved watch back.

First escapes from North Carolina Central Prison

One of the prison guards perceived Otto as a dangerous desperado, mostly on the basis of the newspaper writings, and he treated him accordingly, which caused Otto to threaten him with various accidents, if he did not stop. Otto, however, did not act out his threats, but instead began planning another escape, and like on a previous occasion, together with a fellow prisoner, a certain John Starnes, and they managed to escape in the prison physician's car. They had somehow obtained a gun, though nobody today knows how they managed to get hold of it. By threathening to use the gun, they forced the foreman of the prison's chair factory to drive them through the gate. They drove to downtown Raleigh (the prison was outside town in those days), where they hijacked another car. This one belonged to an African American, who was afraid that he had been kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan, so he was definitely not cooperative, so in order to get him to cooperate, the two fugitives had to constantly threaten him with the gun. After a few miles, the car broke down, so the two escaped prisoners tied their "victim" to a tree; until they managed to get the car started again, after which they left him there - however visible from the road. Outside Durham they left the car and hijacked another car and forced the driver to drive them to Winston-Salem. Otto wanted to pick up his girlfriend and the kids, and then drive to Roanoke, Virginia, and they actually managed to get out of town, and by various detours, among others, via Danville, Virginia, they actually got to Roanoke, where John Starnes' home was, but they had hardly gotten inside his home before a police force on motorcycles joined by several other emergency vehicles reached the house. The two fugitives ran towards the railway line, but did not get very far before they were surrounded by several people; Otto wrote in his memoirs that there were about 2,000, but that is most likely an exaggeration. Anyway, Otto and Starnes were captured and taken back to the North Carolina Central Prison. This escape caused Otto to loose the sympathy he had had in some circles, and his girlfriend apparently turned her back on him as well.

After being returned to prison, Otto endured it for approximately 20 months before he escaped again, this time hidden in a closed railway freight car filled with concrete pipes. Over the past 20 months, his now ex-girlfriend had married another man, and Otto was afraid he would abuse the children as he was a drunkard. When the train car had left the prison, Otto smashed a few planks so he could get out. He stayed in the Raleigh area long enough to sneak aboard a train bound for Selma, Alabama. However, he didn't get that far, because near Wadesboro he accidentally bumped into two railway detectives. He managed to escape, but he had to leave his coat and hat. From Wadesboro near the South Carolina border, he made his way back to Winston-Salem, where he managed to say a brief goodbye to his children, before continuing to West Virginia. After a brief stay here, he returned to Wilkes County, North Carolina. On December 25, 1925, he was arrested in Mooresville in Iredell County and was returned to Central State Prison. During this stay in the prison in Raleigh in 1926 he wrote the autobiography from which I have most of Otto's personal accounts in this article. Other information comes from newspaper articles, court records and various online websites. In the autobiography, he wrote, among other things, a warning to others that it was better to endure hard times for a period, and then keep your freedom, than to do what he had done and lose it forever. And he added, taught by experience: "It is not as easy to evade the law as it was twenty years ago, because of the International Criminal Bureau [a predecessor of the FBI], which has offices in all states." He also explained that new methods of using fingerprints and photographs of prisoners, made it almost impossible to remain at large, and his moral was: "It does not pay off to escape punishment, but it is better to endure it, than to flee, be brought back and have to start all over again".

However, he did not follow his own advice, as on November 22, 1926, he escaped prison again. This time, he managed to get all the way to the Midwest, from where he sent letters to newspapers in North Carolina, offering to return to Raleigh, against a promise of better treatment in the prison, but the governor did not want to negotiate with him. To raise money, Otto tried to rob a pharmacy in Terre Haute, Indiana, but the pharmacist shot him in the chest. Had he not carried a bag of coins in his vest pocket, the shot would have been fatal, but as it were, he was just wounded, but got arrested again and sent back to Raleigh. Back in prison he was placed in a cell on the death row with armed guards outside around the clock. After 26 months, he got ill with a serious lung disease that gave him a severe cough, and his health deteriorated rapidly. When a new governor, Oliver Max Gardner (who would later become US Secretary of the Treasury (from 1946 to 47), visited the prison and saw how ill Wood was, he ordered the prison management to move Otto back to the regular part of the prison. Here he recovered, and when he proved to be a model prisoner, he was given responsibility of the prison shop, where he sold sweets, cigarettes and the likes to the other inmates.

The final time of Otto Wood

Otto gave his word that he would not try to escape as long as Gardner was governor, but that promise lasted only six weeks, as on July 10, 1930, he escaped again. He managed to stay free for almost six months; how he escaped and where he hid during those months is not known, as it happened after he had written his autobiography, but he may very well have been hiding with his girlfriend or maybe with his late brother's wife. He was declared an outlaw and a $275 bounty was imposed on his head. Not a huge sum if you consider that the bounty for Jesse James around 50 years earlier was $5,000. On the other hand, the bounty for Billy the Kid, also 80 years earlier, was only $500, and the bounty for catching three criminal boys who had escaped from an reform school in Indiana in 1917 was only $25 per. boy.

The next time we know anything of Otto's whereabouts is December 31st, 1930. On that day he was in Salisbury, North Carolina. The police chief, R. Rankin, had received a tip that Otto was in town and together with Assistant Chief of Police, J.W. Kesler, he started looking for the fugitive, and it didn't take them long to find him. Around 2 pm they saw him walking on a street in town (East Innes Street, if someone should feel the urge to look up the place) with a male companion. Rankin stopped the police car and shouted to Otto that he should surrender. Otto Wood would not, however, and asked what Rankin wanted. The police chief asked him to show him his hands, and then Otto knew that he had been recognized, as he had only one hand. Wood and his companion jumped into the back seat of the police car and ordered the two officers to drive them out of town, but the police chief threw himself out of the car, causing Otto to do the same, and then it evolved into a shooting match  between Wood and the two policemen. Otto's companion would not shoot at the police, although Otto urged him to do so, but a total of 11 shots were fired. Otto Wood had fired four rounds and the two police officers seven in total. During the shooting, Otto had been mortally wounded; his one leg was hit and bleeding profusely and he had also been hit in the face. Neither of the two policemen was hit. Otto was taken to the local hospital, where he took his last breath a few minutes after arriving. The body was transferred to a local funeral home, where it was cleaned and made up before being sent to his mother, Amelia Ellen Wood, who now had moved to West Virginia. Since Otto Wood was famous in the area, a number of citizens donated enough money to pay for transportation from Salisbury to West Virginia, but before the body was dispatched, thousands of people had gathered in front of the undertaker's shop to catch a glimpse of North Carolina's most infamous criminal.

When a newspaper summarized Otto's crimes, car thefts were the predominant one, and the newspaper explained that even though he was convicted of killing the pawnbroker in Greensboro, he always claimed himself that it was not the blow to the head with the gun that had killed Kaplan, but that he must have died from other causes. As the newspaper wrote, Otto Wood had escaped from several prisons in various states, but he had always returned to North Carolina, his home state, and that he managed to escape from the North Carolina Central Prison four times. It proved to be one too many, as the newspaper put it. The editor of a Yadkin County newspaper, who visited the funeral home and saw Wood there, wrote that the body had a bullet hole in the jaw and that proved the police chief's shooting skills, but that otherwise Wood looked like in his youth even though his age and the deprivation he had suffered, of course, had left some traces. The newspaper article ended by concluding that Wood probably would have had a completely different life, if he had had the love in his childhood that he had so obviously missed. Otto Wood was killed at the age of 36.


Shared gravestone for Otto Wood and his mother at Mount Tabor Cemetery in Mercer County, West Virginia.

Since Otto Wood does not mention in his autobiography the names of the women he was associated with , it is a bit unclear who he is referring to when he talks about his wife, his girlfriend, "the girl" and others. It is thus unclear whether he actually married the first woman, the one who was indirectly to blame for his first prison sentence for breaking his marriage vows to another woman, with whom he was supposed to have fathered a child. We don't know either, if he actually was the father of this child and what later happened to it. Maybe nothing became of the wedding, or maybe the woman filed for divorce, when he went to jail.

All in all it's rather difficult to keep track of Otto's family life. In the autobiography he tellss that he later married the 15-year-old girl from Welch in West Virginia, but at no point does he mention that they should have been divorced, and at some point he returns to her in Welch af another stay in prison At the same time, however, he mentions the "girlfriend" who helped him escape and with whom he travelled to Texas, and with whom he, according to his own statement, fathered two children. My guess is that Wood form time to time uses different terms about the same woman, so the girl from Welch is the same as the girlfriend who helped him escape. Whether they were legally married, or whether it was a so-called "common law marriage", which occurred when two people had lived together in a marriage-like relationship for an extended period, or whether Wood simply called her his wife without them being married, is uncertain. They may have been married, but in that case they must have been divorced at a later time, because according to the autobiography, she turned her back on him and married someone else around 1926, so at that time, they can't have been married.

Some sources maintain that the mother of his children was a woman named Celia Byrd, born in 1898, which fits very well with the fact that she should have been about 15 years old when she met Otto Wood around 1913, when she was 15 and he was 19. Unfortunately, other sources disagree! They claim that Celia Byrd Wood was married to Robert Wood, Otto's older brother, who died in 1919, and it was not until 1930, after his final escape that she married Otto. Another difficulty is, that Otto mentions two sons, while other sources mentions at least one daughter.

My own theory goes like this. Otto met (and maybe married) the 15- year old girl from Welch and had two children with her, both sons. She was the one who travelled along with him and their son, and who later became the mother of a second son. As the couple was most likely legally married these sons got their mother's last name, and as we don't know that, they are rather impossible to trace. She was also the "wife" who moved in with his brother's family around 1919, just before the brother passed away. At that time the brother's wife, Celia Byrd Wood was pregnant with her first child. This child, a girl named Pansy was born later in 1919, some months after her father's death, and most sources agree, that she was the daughter of Robert Wood. Around 1923, during one of his times out of jail and while he lived with his "wife" and youngest son in Welch, he visited his oldest son, who still lived in Celia Wood's household. At that time Celia may have fallen in love with him, or at least they had sex and she got pregnant. In 1924 she gave birth to another daugher, Lillian. All records agree that Lillian's father was "unknown", but I believe the it was Otto, and this would account for the sources, who claim that he actually had a daughter. Maybe because of him being unfaithful or because he was sent to jail for murder, the girl (or rather now woman as she must have been around 28) left him and married another man. As there is no talk of divorce, they probably were never legally married. In the six "unknown" months after his last escape, I believe that he was with his late brother's wife. During this period she got pregnant again, and she may very well have married Otto, some time before he was killed. In March 1931, a few months after Otto's death, she gave birth to a son, Ruben Otto Wood, and all sources agree, that Otto Harrison Wood was his father - but this son he never lived to see.

Otto Harrison Wood is buried at Mount Tabor Cemetery in Mercer County, West Virginia, with his mother, while Celia Byrd Woods is buried at Round Mountain Baptist Church Cemetery in Hays, Wilkes County, North Carolina, not far from where Otto,  Robert and their brothers (and maybe also some older sister's - the sources do not agree here) lived with their mother. Celia's children are also buried in North Carolina; Pansy and Ruben in the same cemetery in Gaston County and Lillian in a cemetery in Greensboro. Lillian was the last of Celia's (and maybe Otto Wood's) children to pass away in 2008.

In February 1931, less than two months after Otto Wood's death, a group called The Carolina Buddies recorded a song "
Otto Wood: The Bandit", which was later re-recorded by several others, among them the famous singer and bluegrass musician from Wilkes County, "Doc" Watson. Listen to Doc's version here. This song never gained the same popularity as other songs about criminals and crimes, such as The Ballad of Frankie Silver or especially Tom Dooley, which the Kingston Trio made famous in 1958. Also a play has been written about Otto Wood.

The lyrics of Otto Wood, The Bandit goes like this:

Step up, buddies, and listen to my song
I'll sing it to you right, but you may sing it wrong
All about a man named Otto Wood
I can't tell you all, but I wish I could

He walked in a pawn shop a rainy day
And with the clerk he had a quarrel, they say
Pulled out his pistol and he struck him a blow
And this is the way the story goes

They spread the news as fast as they could
The sheriff served a warrant on Otto Wood
The jury said murder in the second degree
And the judge passed the sentence to the peniteniary

Otto, why didn't you run?
Otto's done dead and gone
Otto Wood, why didn't you run
When the sheriff pulled out his 44 gun?

They put him in the pen, but it done no good
It wouldn't hold the man they call Otto Wood
It wasn't very long till he slipped outside
Drawed a gun on the guard, said, "Take me for a ride."

Second time they caught him was away out west
In the holdup game, he got shot through the breast
They brought him back and when he got well
They locked him down in a dungeon cell

He was a man they could not run
He always carried a 44 gun
He loved the women and he hated the law
And he just wouldn't take nobody's jaw

He rambled out west and he rambled all around
He met the sheriff in a southern town
And the sheriff says, "Otto, step this way
'Cause I've been expecting you every day."

He pulled out his gun and then he said
"If you make a crooked move, you both fall dead
Crank up your car and take me out of town."
And a few minutes later, he was graveyard bound

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