Born in 1894, the midwife who delivered young Otto Wood placed splints on his legs to keep them from turning inward. She later regretted the gesture of compassion saying, “If I had known he was going to spend his life running from the law I would not have attempted to fix his feet.”
Wood hopped his first train at age 7 and stayed with relatives in West Virginia. His Hatfield kin, yes those Hatfields, taught the young lad what they knew best: how to gamble, feud and fight and make moonshine.
When he returned to Wilkes County he added another category to his resume: burglary. He once stole three guns from the local hardware store, and sold them to a passing wagoner. When the man left his wagon, Wood stole them back and then sold them again to an old woman in the country, before promptly stealing them back for the third time.
His penchant for theft landed him on a prison chain gang, but the foreman felt sorry for him and sent Wood home because he was barely 14 years old.
What followed was the most stable period of his life, working nearly 6 years for the railroad, but hard luck caught up with Wood. After losing his left hand in an accident he was charged with seduction…or the felonious attempt to corrupt a young woman with the promise of marriage. Wood was 19 at the time of his incarceration and this episode led to the first of his 10 prison escapes across several states.
In one successful attempt, Wood folded himself into a dry goods box leaving the prison yard on the back of a truck. In that escape he later knocked out a 250-pound prison guard, grabbed onto the caboose of a passing train, disguised himself as the brakeman, and actually joined in the search for himself!
Upon his re-incarceration in North Carolina, Wood discovered how to work newspaper reporters to his advantage. He told the warden, through the press, that if he did not get a square deal, he would be compelled to leave. The Warden replied, if you think it’s that easy, go ahead. And the Houdini of Cell Block A did just that.
During one prison stay, Wood wrote a short autobiography where he remarked that crime doesn’t pay and that he was finished with running away, but he couldn’t take his own advice.
After giving the North Carolina governor his word about staying put, Wood slipped off again prompting a local newspaper to refer to it as Wood’s annual vacation.
After his 10th escape, the police chief of Salisbury, North Carolina received a tip that Wood was in town. He approached Wood on a downtown street. The chief said, “Let me see your left hand” and Wood pulled out a .45 pistol with his right hand and said, “Here it is dammit!” In Wild West fashion, Wood died in the shootout at the age of 36.
In Depression-era folklore, Wood joined other outlaws like Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger. Legendary performer Doc Watson rerecorded the song “Otto Wood, the Bandit” in the early 1960s putting him back in the spotlight. He’s also back on the run, so to speak, in an annual outdoor summer theatre production in North Wilkesboro!