Life History Of Otto Wood

A recent comment on our blog mentioned the “Ballad of Otto Wood.” Well, we don’t have the sound clip up yet (though the Southern Folklife Collection does have several versions of the ballad in their collection), but the NC Collection does have the Life History of Otto Wood: Inmate, North Carolina State Prison, 1926.


Wood, who had been in and out of jails since he was seven years old and was infamous for his numerous (successful) escape attempts, wrote his life history while serving a thirty-year sentence for killing a man in a pawnshop robbery in 1923. He thought that the book would help “some fallen mortal to a higher life.” Well, it may have helped others to a higher life, but it sure didn’t help him. Over the next four years he escaped from Central Prison, was wounded and arrested again during an attempted burglary in Indiana, returned to Central Prison, escaped again, and was finally killed on December 31, 1930, in a shootout with police in Salisbury.

I can’t wait to hear the ballad.

81 thoughts on “Life History Of Otto Wood”

  1. I believe the gun used in that shootout in Salisbury is owned by the Rowan Museum. Thanks, Jason.

      1. I have a question for you. I have always been told that my Grandfather was Ottos Dads Brother, mean Otto would have been my grandfather’s nephew. I don’t know if this is true or not. I have looked everywhere and I can’t find much on Ottos father. I will tell you that my Grandfather was named William Marcus Wood. Can you help me.

  2. My friend has this book, excellent condition. He loves it, I read it.
    He was offered $75 by a dealer but he said no. He may part with it
    for a relative but he would ask at least the 75 I would think.

  3. Wilkesboro nc has a news paper THE RECORD thay are selling THE LIFE HISTORY OF OTTO WOOD (the complete autobiography written while he was in prison) plus the new cd featuring the ballads of otto wood and tom dooley the book and cd is $6 at the office or @12.00 plus 2.50 shipping and handling by mail (the record p.o. box 1061 n.wilkesboro nc 28659 hope that helps

  4. Otto Wood was also my great great uncle. Laura I will find a way to contact you by phone. I hope to hear from you. Jason I have never heard of you but if Otto is connected the both of us, I hope to one day meet you. I will be checking this every so offten to see a hopeful response. I would really like to find out any information either of you two have.

  5. This is to Jason, David and Laura. Otto Wood was my grandfathers Uncle. I’m not sure what that makes me but I’d love to hear from any of you. My e-mail
    is I’ve been trying to amass some family history and would like to compare notes if you have any.

    1. Otto is my Grandma’s grandpa. Linda Brinkley was her maiden name. She has told me stories of Otto Wood as long as I can remember. She also has the book.

  6. Otto Wood was my Grandfather. He died before my mother was born. She had a twin brother. His name was Rubin Otto Wood. My mother is Ruby Olivia Wood. Their Grand Parents raised them after their mother died, Ceila Byrd. Ceila was married Robert Wood who was Otto’s brother that died in 1918 of the Bird Flu right before he was to go into World War I. Celia father is William Payton Byrd buried at Round Mountian Church off of Hwy 268. Many of the Byrd and Wood relatives are buried there. I have a copy of his book.

  7. My family has always told me that Otto Wood was a relative. I grew up in the Millers Creek area of Wilkes Co. My uncle had given me a copy of the autobiography many years ago. Still have it in my desk.

  8. I cannot claim to be a relative of Otto Wood but I will tell you what I know. What I say was told to me by my grandmother. My grandfather was in Salisbury on the day Otto Wood was killed. Supposedly the Rowan County Sherrif gave my grandfather the only unfired bullet from his hand gun when he shot Wood. I have also read Wood’s autobiography many years ago. The book and the bullet have long since been lost. All I can offer is what I was told many years ago. Wood came from the Wilkesboro area. This much I remember. I have actually stood on the street in Salisbury where the gunfight took place. The story was that NC Liscense plates were being sold in a building within a block where Wood was killed and the belief was that Wood intended to rob them. This was a cash business and Wood stood to gain a great deal of money. The story was that the Sherrif recognized Wood and approached him and said “Buddy let me see your arm.” Wood had part of one arm amputated. Wood yelled in response “Here’s my arm” and came up with a loaded gun. He died in the resulting gunfight.

  9. My g-grandmother was Alice Ann Staley, sister of Ellen Staley Wood. We heard the story of Otto Wood ever since I can remember from the older generations. I would love to know more about Otto’s immediate family. I know he had a sister named Mozelle who lived to be over 100 years old. Can anyone tell me anything else about his siblings? His arm is reportedly buried on our family cemetery in Wilkes in the family plot.

  10. My Great Grandfather, Chief Rankin (he was the Chief of the Salisbury Police, not a sherrif), was the man who shot Otto Wood. I was also told that he approached Otto Wood and asked him to show his hand. Otto pulled out a loaded gun and forced his way into the police car. Chief Rankin somehow got out of the car, and a gunfight ensued. I was told the gunfight lasted for hours before Wood was eventually shot. My grandmother said that she remembered picking glass shards out of her father’s hair that night from the car and shop windows. There is a plaque in downtown Salisbury where the fight took place. I’ve also read the original newspaper article from Salisbury, which corroborates this story.

  11. Otto Harrison Wood was my 3rd cousin. His mother, Amelia Ellen Staley Wood was my Grandfather’s (Treliss Edgar Call) aunt. My mother was 10 years old when Otto died (she will be 90 yrs. old June 22, 2010) and remembers him coming to her parent’s house in Coaldale WV. She said he kept his bad hand tucked inside his bibbed overalls. My family and I have been going to his grave consistantly for the past 5 years in Coaldale WV. We were there yesterday cleaning the gravesite and putting flowers on his and Aunt El’s graves. They are buried side by side with one tombstone. My e-mail address is if anyone would like to exchange information. I would love to know all I can about Otto.

  12. Rita Loney, you were talking about Otto’s sister Mozelle. Well She happened to be my great x2 grandmother. She had several children. Her husband statred a mining supply business in a little town called Coaldell WV. I’ve heard a few of her stories about Otto. Also from my grandmother, her daughter, Lena. She lived to be 104. She died in Bluefield Wv, at Bluefield Regional Medical center. She loved her brother and wouldn’t say much, except that he was like a Robin Hood type person. There was always some dispute between the offical stories and what her stories to me were. Don’t know much about Otto, but I know more about Mozelle.

  13. Okay…I think I need to get with many of you to do my family tree. My Grandfather (Thomas Lee Hayes also known as “pug” as a young boy) was Otto’s cousin. Grandpa passed away last year but if you asked him he always knew who Otto was even with Alzheimer’s. My grandfather’s other cousin’s (Wanda and Frankie) had a copy of the orginal book and it is now lost. 🙁

  14. Hello all I am Otto’s great grand daughter. My grand father is Ruben Wood and my Father is Ruben Dennis Wood. My family has a copy of the book, which maybe the actual book he wrote, I’m not sure. It has been many years since I have seen it, but I know either my mom or sister has it… I don’t really know many people from my family on this side. If any one would like to contact me they can at

  15. Del Slifer and Maggie Wood, Ruby Olivia, and Ruben Otto Wood was my 1st. cousin. Their mother Ceila Byrd Wood was my aunt. Her parents William Peyton Byrd, and Mary Elizabeth Byrd Byrd was my grandparents. My father John Thomas Byrd was the youngest of their 12 children, all born in Wilkes County, North Carolina. I remember both Ruby and Ruben as a child and young boy. Ruben lived in the High Point area where he was brought up.

  16. A stage play about the life of Otto Wood will be presented at The Record Park in North Wilkesboro in June 2011. The play is based on his autobiography and interviews conducted by The Record, the newspaper in North Wilkesboro, N.C.
    We’d love to hear more about Otto’s family. Several of the interviews conducted (mostly in 2004) were with relatives. Notably, a cousin, Thurmond Sparks (now deceased), had many interesting stories from his childhood memories of Otto.

  17. My grandfather was made what he was by circumstanse of life…He was truely a “Robinhood” of his time…I hate that people don’t look behind the man or his family…If you knew the real story, you would think differently….Kathy Wood Choate his grand daughter…..I am alive and well……………………………………………and Maggie wood knows NOTHING….she has not even met her real grand father, and has never known anything about her family…I am her Aunt whom IS the REAL grand daughter..Who is she to clam ANY THING!! HEAR ME MAGGIE??? I SEE YOU!!!!

  18. I am amazed at the relatives I never knew I had…I am the Grand daughter of Henry “Otto” Wood..My Dad was Reuben Otto Wood..I have been researching my Grand Dad’s life since I was a child in the 1960’s..I would love to hear from any one who has any info., clips, stories, anything….ESPECIALLY his original book!!! You can contact me at or 843-303-2630…If any one has any info..on my Grand Ma “Ceila “Byrd” Wood, that would be appreciated also…Thanks Kathy

  19. I am directing the stage play about Otto Wood this summer. I would love for Ottos family here to be able to join us for opening night/weekend of the show. Would love to see what you think. He truly WAS a Robinhood of the time. And in reading his autobiography, he reminds me of alot of my family. He was a person with a good heart, no matter how tough he was on the outside. We have a FB page dedicated to him- please check it out and leave some stories for us! 🙂
    Thanks! Heather

  20. Also, if any of you men folk related to Otto would like to be IN the play, it would be great to have you!

  21. I am somehow related to Otto Wood, how, I’m not for sure. My grandmother’s mother before she was married was Beatrice Wood. At all of my family reunions, they talk about him a lot.

  22. My dad is a 4th cousin to Otto. He might want to be in or attend the play. When is it? Thanks. Roger Marsh

  23. Doc Watson sang a song about my Grand Father Otto Wood. It is really good! My sister sent it to me on a CD.


    1. Do you know who Otto’s father was then? I would love to know that. Someone is wanting to link a grave that I manage in to Otto’s mother Amelia, and I would like to have more information before I consent.

  25. I just found a copy of this book. Evidently, my great-grandmother owned it. The front and back cover is off of the book (I still have them with the book) and all of the pages are there.

    I never knew about Otto until tonight.

  26. I am working on a family history and my 87 year old mother recently told me that she believed that her grandmother Sarah Staley Johnston (1854 – 1931) was a sister to Otto’s mother. I was hoping someone might be able to confirm for me that Otto’s mother had a sister named Sarah… Thanks…

  27. I have a copy of “Life History of Otto Wood” It is not the same as the above book, it is older. The cover is a different photo and also says “PRICE 50”
    The book is from 1931 and is stapled together.

  28. Otto Wood was also my great great uncle and I would love to get a copy of the Ballad of Otto Wood on a 45 rpm as well as a copy of the book.

  29. Hello All!
    I’m Maggie Wood the great grand daughter of Otto Wood. Last year my aunt Kathy Wood posted about how she did not like how I have posted a message on here about being Otto’s great grand daughter. Well I just ran across it and would like to say that it is sad thing when blood can feel such hatred toward their own family. Well shame on her, but she can not help it, because she is a crazy lady. I wish peace to be among all of us, family or not. I have enjoyed reading every ones post and hope to read more.

    Maggie Elizabeth Wood

  30. i am related to otto but i dont know how i think im a cousin and i am doing a bio shoe box on otto and i was needing some infromation out of his book

  31. Hi I sang the song Otto Wood last night at a show with my fiddle player, we play old time music over here in the UK. Ive been singing the song Otto Wood since the late 60s early 70s, got it off a Doc Watson LP. Just been reading all the comments and stuff writen on this site about Otto Wood fasinating,gonna read it all again. I have three recordings of this song one by the Red Fox Chasers 1928/31 writen by Cranford and Thompson which is nothing like the song that Doc did or the version by the Alberarle Ramblers, can some body help me on this. Im a bit history hungry on this.

  32. Hi my name was Mary Ann Wood. I was Reuben Dennis Wood’s first wife. We married in 1971. We were married for 5 years. We had a daughter Pamela Anastasia. I remember Rueben Otto Wood very well. He and his wife Kathleen would talk often about Otto Wood. And I always wondered about the stories I heard. Although Rueben was not around much when he did come home…much was said. I remember his twin Ruby too. Kathleen was faithful to Reuben she did not believe in divorce and so…even through the years that she was alone she would pray and believe for her husband. Before he died he did accept the Lord Jesus into his life. Prayers are answered in mysteries ways. Before Kathleen died..she was in the hospital and my daughter and I went to visit her where we found out that all of her daughter-in-laws had come to see her before her death. Even if Dennis could not forgive and still be friends his mother was able. She was delighted that her first granddaughter came to see her. Rest in Peace Kathleen and Rueben. You are remember.

  33. I was born Pamela Anastasia Wood. I am Otto Wood’s great grand daughter. I am the first grand daughter of Rueben Otto Wood. I remember my grandpa getting into trouble for always giving me candy when I was real little and I believe that was learned from his father by giving candy to kids in brown sacs. Kindof cool

  34. I would just like to thank Stacy and Mary Ann for the kind words and also thank you for keeping my family close in their hearts and in their memory.

    This week, I found a copy of the book that my great grand father wrote and for the first time I read it. Only wishing that I had only read it, way before now. As I read the book, Otto reminded me of my-self. As I am always on a mission, wanting to go some where and my family always asking me why can I not stay home for very long, as I am always on the go. I have also found my-self in trouble with the law, but lucky never been in prison or jail (It is as if trouble finds me, even when I am hiding from it).

    I have also had many close calls to death (I have been thrown from a SUV going 80 mph flipping 8 times, with me being thrown from it after the 6th roll and it landing less than five feet from me, which I walked away.) Also as I read the book Otto also reminded me of my own father (Ruben Dennis Wood) Otto called his children his “little babies”, as my father always called me and my sister his little babies.

    I think this is a great book, which should be read in prisons, jails, and addiction clinics or any one else who could take advise from a man who lived 82 years ago and knew what he was talking about. As my great grand father had a message to send out, which is a warning letter to all who has found their-self in a desperate situations and for the public to hear his side of the story and most of all for his children, for he hoped that they would learn from his mistakes..

    I have listed some very important quotes from Otto’s book, which have great meaning to him as well as to me.

    “If it shall be the means of helping some fallen mortal to a higher life, I will feel amply repaid for the effect required in it’s preparation.”
    Otto Wood

    “Tracing my course in life from early childhood down through the years lead me to the conclusion that honesty is the best policy and evading the law a grievous blunder”
    Otto Wood

    “Love is kind and long suffering”
    Otto Wood

    “Even a harden criminal responds to kindly treatment”
    Otto Wood

  35. “A greater desire still is that all my little children, learning of the fate of their father, may profit by his mistakes. It is my earnest hope that they receive the right sort of training and grow to manhood and womanhood under influences which will point to the better things in this life and eternal happiness in the life to come”
    Otto Wood

    I am Maggie Elizabeth Wood, great grand daughter of Otto Wood. I am proud to say I am in my second year of college, my major is Intelligence Studies, with the hope to make a difference in the world.. Intelligence is past, present and the future.

    I will always keep his words in my mind and in my heart.

  36. There are a lot of you who claim to be kin to Otto Wood. There can not be a possible way that all of you are cousins. I do not know if my family is kin to the Otto Wood family or not. I was in a Motor Cycle Club when I ran across my first cousin on my Father’s side. After hanging with him awhile, he comes up with this old magazine article that tells all about Otto Wood. This stuff lines up. Since he is dead now, and I have no way to retrieve the magazine, I have no way to say what magazine it was. Am I your cousin? too? Paul Wood

  37. I have a copy of the life history of Otto Wood…. my dad past away recently, & I found this publication in the bottom of his cedar chest. I believe it is one of the original copies… it is dated 1931, and it is stapled together. The cover is a very dark green, and is missing the back cover, but is in pretty near pristine condition. I would consider selling it, but would like to find out what it is worth first. If anyone has any information, please feel free to respond.

  38. I amazed at how many relatives are here that have no connection to OTTO WOOD.
    there were actually 3 brothers, James A. Wood(my grandfather) who married Esker Hayes. Otto Wood (married Rushie Hayes and had 2 children Jack Wood and Pearl Wood), and the 3rd brother was Luther Wood(who lived in West Va.). Rushie and Esker were sisters. Rushie died young and Esker & James (Otto’s brother) raised Pearl & Jack. Jack had one daughter(Patricia & was married to Hattie Wood). Pearl was married to Paul Brinkley(lexington) and had 3 daughters & 1 son(all live in Davidson County). My daddy was Otto’s nephew(leonard wood) and I remember the stories my Mom & Dad told me about Otto. My grandfather James died the year I was born. He was a very strick man. He tried numerous times to help Otto but Otto loved his life and did not want to change. My grandmother(Esker) told me stories as a child about Otto.

  39. There are a lot of Wood and Hayes families in Wilkes County but not all Wood families are any kin to Otto Wood. My grandmother had several brothers & sisters and all but one brother moved to Forsyth and DAvidson Counties. Avery HAyes stayed in Wilkes area. My mom told me ran a ‘hotel’ in one of the Wilkesboro’s. I never knew a lot about my grandfather(James) and Otto’s parents. I know there Dad must have died when they were young. I know James was the oldest and tried to help their Mom with his brothers. Otto talks in his book about his brother & also he talks about Rushie( he calls her the girl) that was who he had the 2 children with.

    1. I am descended from Samuel Wood and Elizabeth Nale from Wilkes County. My Grandmother said we were not related to Otto Wood. I am wondering just what connection Otto had to Wilkes County.

  40. Yes, Otto Wood had two children, Jack Wood and Pearl Wood. Jack had one daughter, Patricia, who is my mother. Jack died of cirrhosis. My mother is 62 and i’m 27. I’m Otto’s great grand-daughter. The only living descendant from his son’s side other than my mother.

    Pearl’s side is bigger… but I’d rather not reveal their information without their permission as it seems Otto put us into hiding for a reason.

    However, I rather the truth be told if so many are interested in the story. I think perhaps the autobiography being made according to Otto’s own statements ‘ to benefit his two babes ‘ and the fact the money hasn’t gone there is why this element of the story remains such a mystery as well. 🙂

  41. Otto Wood had two more children that were twins born in March 28 1930 a boy and girl of which he didn’t know about before his death. The girl is my grandmother Ruby Olivia Wood. Her twin brother Rubin Wood died in the early 1980s. They are originally from the Wilkes county area but raised in high point.

  42. I am also another one of Otto Wood’s great grandchildren. I believe there is more of us, then a lot of us realizes. My name is Maggie Wood, Ruben Dennis Wood is my father. And his father, my grandfather is Ruben Otto Wood (the twin boy that was mentioned in the post above.) I still live in High Point and my father just moved to Kernersville. I have an older sister, Samantha Wood East and the list keeps going on. 🙂 My grandfather died in 1981, a year after I was born. I have found internet records that say Otto’s father’s name was Thomas Wood and his mother’s name was Ellen Staley Wood. And Otto’s grandparents names are Ruben Wood and Nellie Johnson Wood. I wish I could find more about the Wood family; like, what country did we come from and when did we arrive in America and does our family history go all the way back to the first known Wood? I heard that we are German, but I really have no idea. I enjoy reading about my great grandfather Otto and see what people have to say about him, even though sometimes it’s not very nice. Maybe, some more of us will be able to shed some more light on the Wood family genealogy.

  43. I am also a great grand daughter of Otto. My grandfather was his son Ruben. My father is Dennis wood. I am a sister to Maggie and Samantha wood.

  44. The comments from Linda Wood is the truth here. Linda I have been trying to find you! James A Wood and Esker Hayes Wood were my great grand parents. Flora Wood Raxter was my grandmother. Otto Woods children were raised with my grandmother and all her brothers. I am trying to find relatives since so much family history is gone! So if somebody could help me figure out where to look that would be great. I have a copy of the book that was copied on paper when i was a kid, many years ago. I have heard the story of Otto all my life. I really want more family info,

  45. Otto wood was my great-grandfathers first cousin. I would love to have a copy of his book if anyone is willing to sell one. I have searched all over the Internet and have been unable to find a copy. Please contact me by email and let me me know. I am in millers creek and wilkesboro often since my family still lives there. Thanks so much!

  46. My great grandmother gave him a warm bed and a hot meal just 2 days before he was killed,there’s a picture somewhere in my family with him(Otto) my great grandmother,and my two eldest great uncles

  47. Why are so many people so determined that Otto could not have had other children from other women? When in his book he states that he got another woman pregnant. Put it together, he probably had many women and many children.

  48. The More the Merrier!

    I believe we all would like to have some kind of connection to Otto, a part of our childhood stories, which is not a fairy tale.

    God Bless

  49. Linda Wood – I would love to make contact with you. I am working on my family tree. Esker and Rushie were my grandfather’s aunt (Thomas L Hayes son of Lindolph “LD”). I was hoping you could help me in piecing this all together. We have been told Beulah that lived with Pauline (Hayes) and Clay Austin was Rushie’s (and possibly Otto’s). I also saw on Rushie’s death certificate her last name was Austin (so she remarried?)

    I am glad you help explain that Jack and Pearl lived with Esker and Jimmy.

  50. Barbara Smith – You can contact me too as I have been trying to work on the family tree.
    My dad’s Aunt (Virginia who married John Roy Hayes – Son of LD is 97 and remembers Otto) and we have been trying to talk to her via phone on a regular basis to get information.

    My dad remembers his Aunt Myrtle (who knew Otto well) tell him stories about Otto and the family. 🙂

  51. I have a question, Otto’s dads name was Thomas. We no that but my question is this Does any one know If Thomas Otto’s dad had any brothers ? Reason I am asking is that My GrandFather was Mark Wood without the “s” My family has told me that My grand father Mark was Thomas’ (Otto’s dad) brother. The reason that My Grand father added the “s” To his name was because Of the crimes Otto had done. He didn’t want anyone to know that Otto was his Nephew. Can anyone help me with this. Just wanna know if its True or Not I have no idea. My grandfather (Mark) I know was Born In Wiles county and moved to Alexander. Where he meet My grandmother who was 20 years younger than he was. I was Born In Iredell County.

  52. my brother is ricky woods who posted on here as well I,ve been told that otto was my grandpa brothers boy I do know grandpa had a brother named tom so if theres anyone out there that thinks we may be related let me know

  53. I am one of Otto Wood’s Grand Sons. My mother and her twin brother were born March 28, 1931. Celia Byrd is their mother and my Grand Mother. Celia was not married to Otto and was Otto’s brother Robert companion before he died of bird flu in 1918. So Otto Wood was killed in Salisbury 3 months before the were born. I heard a lot of stories about Otto threw the years from my mothers older sisters.

  54. Not sure if I am of any realation, but as I am working on my family tree Otto Wood is a finding.. I am the grandchild of James A. Wood son Of Thomas (Tom) Wood & Ellen Wood my father Roy Wood is son of James A. Wood & Nellie G. Wood… Any information would be great?

    1. Did you ever get the information you were seeking? I am trying to find out who his father was and who his mother Amelia (Ellen) was married to.

  55. My aunt was Celia Byrd Wood.Her sister Nealie Cordelia Byrd Staley was my mother.I remember my 1st cousins Rueben and Ruby.We would go to High Point often.

  56. I knew a Don wood in Davidson N. C. county that said he was kin to him that moved Rowan County N.C. county in Salisbury and he looked just like him Otto Wood . As shown in this computer story above.

  57. I just recently restored the cemetery where Otto Woods is buried at. His headsone is in great shape

  58. How is Otto related to the Hatfield’s?
    My grandfathers sister is Celia. My great grandparents are William Peyton Byrd and Mary Elizabeth Byrd Byrd. Mary is also related to the Staley’s of Wilkes County.

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