Doctor, Mystic, Preacher, Lawman & Murderer

An abbreviated retelling of the story of my great-great-grandfather, Marshall Benton Taylor, and the massacre at Pound Gap.

Marshall Benton Taylor (aka Red Fox and Doc Taylor) was one of the most eccentric characters in the history of the Appalachian (pronounced App-uh-latch-un) region. He was born in southwestern Virginia in 1836 and grew up to became a doctor, using local herbs and plants to heal the sick. Taylor started following the teachings of spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg, declared himself to be a “seer,” and began holding séances in his home. He traveled the region preaching to the large crowds, who came to hear this charismatic and mysterious man. Taylor became so familiar with all the trails and hiding spots in the mountains that he had an unnerving ability to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quietly. This, along with his shock of red hair and red beard, earned him the nickname Red Fox.

Taylor was once brought to trial for the murder of a neighbor but was cleared of guilt due to lack of evidence—though his other neighbors swore he was responsible. After the incident, he began carrying around weapons—most infamously a Winchester rifle with rim-fire shells. In his later years, Taylor became a US marshall and a revenue agent, chasing down moonshiners and outlaws. In the process, he made an enemy of moonshiner Ira Mullins, who was paralyzed in an encounter with Taylor. Their feud continued, and Mullins put a $300 bounty on Taylor’s head.

Even though Taylor had been relieved of his duties as a marshall by this time, he found out Mullins would be bringing a load of moonshine across Pound Gap (a gap in the mountains between Jenkins, Kentucky, and my hometown of Pound, Virginia). Taylor hired two former confederate soldiers, and the three lay in wait. When the Mullins wagon came through, shots rang out, and five men and women lay gunned down, including Ira Mullins (see the original indictment against Taylor here).

The 56-year-old Taylor went on the run but was eventually caught on a train in West Virginia. He was brought back to Wise County, Virginia, where he was put on trial. One piece of evidence used against him in court was the rim-fire shells found at the scene of the crime. However, when Taylor’s rifle was examined, the shells were found to be center-fire. Upon closer inspection, it was found that Taylor had tampered with the plunger, causing the firing pin to hit the center of the cartridges instead of the rim. The jury convicted him of murder in the first degree.

The day of his hanging, Taylor insisted on preaching his own funeral from the second-story window of the Wise County courthouse wearing a white suit (see photo above) his wife had made for his hanging. He asked that his body not be buried for three days so that he could rise again like Jesus. Some speculate there was a conspiracy that helped him escape hanging, while others say Taylor is buried near his home in an unmarked grave in Wise, Virginia.

The legend of Red Fox echoed loudly in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. He was immortalized in John Fox, Jr.’s 1908 novel Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which was turned into a 1936 movie and a stage play—the official outdoor drama of the state of Virginia. More recently, the Red Fox character made an appearance in the 2014 movie Big Stone Gap (starring Ashley Judd), which also featured the song “Ballad of Red Fox.”