The Story of John Joseph Wright M. M.
This blog post was written by Richard Nelson, a volunteer at Trafford Local Studies
In the course of research into the lives of men from Trafford who were awarded medals for gallantry in the First World War, the name of John Joseph Wright, Royal Engineers, was discovered in the Altrincham, Bowdon and Hale Guardian of 31st August 1917. He had been awarded the Military Medal for bravery in action on the 19th and 20th July.
Having searched for the usual sources for a First World War soldier and having found his army discharge documents, medal rolls and information about where he had lived and when he was born, an internet search on his name identified that he was commemorated in Brooklands Cemetery, Sale. A visit located the above headstone. It is easy to imagine how intrigued the researcher was by the inscription on the stone and how overwhelmed by the desire to find out more.
John Joseph Wright was born in Egremont in Cumberland (now Cumbria) in the later months of 1895, the son of Henry and Bridget Wright. He was living in Main Street in Egremont at the time of the 1901 census but, by this time, his father had died and his mother had married Robert Hannah, a carter. He was educated at Bookwell School in Egremont and still in Cumbria in 1911, living at Town End, Haile, Beckermet as a farm servant for Joseph Mumberson. John and his mother moved to Broadheath, near Altrincham, about 1914 and John took up employment as a machine driller at Linotype, Broadheath, one of the largest employers in the area. His address at the time of the Military Medal award was 1, Place Road, Broadheath.
Army Discharge documents show that on 11th November 1915 he joined the 5th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment at Chester. He arrived in France on 7th May 1916, having transferred from the Cheshire Regiment to “N” Special Company, Royal Engineers. This was one of the companies trained in chemical warfare, the speciality of “N” Company being flame throwers or “projectors”. He was appointed Lance Corporal on 12th May 1917. On 17th September that year he received the Military Medal for saving an officer under fire and preventing the destruction of an ammunition dump, and a month later was appointed Corporal. In June of 1918 he was promoted to Sergeant. In late August 1918 he was wounded accidentally in his right hand whilst on duty and admitted to hospital, rejoining his unit on 24th October, a few days before the war came to an end. He remained in France until 12th February 1919 when he returned to the UK and was transferred to the army reserve.
John moved back to Altrincham and lived with his mother at 26, Weldon Road, Broadheath, returning for a while to his former employment at Linotype. In 1921 he decided to emigrate to the U.S.A., and sailed from Liverpool to New York on “Celtic” on 9th February 1921, arriving ten days later with Chicago as his intended destination. He found a job in Chicago but lost his employment through sickness and fell upon hard times.
The events of John Joseph Wright’s murder and trial of his assailants were well reported in the press at the time, both in the USA and in the UK (including the Altrincham Guardian). The court case was important in establishing a precedent in U.S. law as photomicrographs, which magnify the base of shells and identify strike patterns, were used by Luke May, one of America’s first criminologists, to establish Thomas Harrison Groves as the man guilty of firing the fatal shots.
The reports tell that on 19th September 1930 about twenty five transient men or “drifters”, were congregated at Shelby, Montana, an intersection where the Great North Railway lines that run North to South and East to West cross. These men were awaiting an opportunity to get a free ride on a freight train south towards Great Falls. Wright was amongst these men as were Harry E. Miller and Groves. Miller and Groves stayed aloof from the crowd that had gathered around a fire to await a train. John Joseph Wright, who was hard of hearing, was one of this crowd.
When the train arrived three of the men boarded a gondola car in the centre of the train and Wright went ahead towards the engine, saying that he was going to ride in a narrow space in the rear of a similar car loaded with timber. Miller and Groves also boarded the train and began to rob the men at gunpoint and the three who had boarded with Wright were forced to jump from the train, though one, C.O. Dorris, an experienced railroad man, re-boarded. When the train stopped at Dutton, Dorris went forward to the lumber car where he found Wright huddled in the end of the car, dead. One bullet had penetrated his heart, another his head. Dorris informed the conductor who notified the authorities.
Wright had been wearing two pairs of overalls when he was murdered in cold blood. In the pocket of the inner pair was found a small package wrapped in silk. It contained his Military Medal, two other medals bearing his name, a passport and various letters and his demobilisation papers.
Groves and Miller, who left the train when it stopped at Conrad, were arrested when they were seen and reported by the owners of a ranch, 45 miles from Conrad, who had heard of the events on the radio. They were retained in Cascade County Jail and came to trial on 1st December 1930.
Guilt was established by comparing the marks on the bottom of bullets used with others fired by Groves’s gun. Descriptions of the men given by the other riders on the train and an agent of the Great Northern Railway from Shelby supported this evidence. Groves and Miller were both convicted of the robberies and of murder. They were sentenced to imprisonment, with hard labour, for the rest of their lives.
Wright’s body was interred in the soldiers’ plot, Highland Cemetery, Great Falls, Montana.
He was given a military funeral, courtesy of the Veterans of World War One Movement, in recognition of his distinguished war career. He is commemorated with other members of his family in Brooklands Cemetery.
1901, 1911 Censuses, Electoral Rolls, Broadheath, Absent Voters List 1918, Electoral Rolls, Broadheath, Absent Voters List 1918, Army Discharge Documents, Medal Roll Index Cards and Medal Rolls, Birth Registration, G.R.O. 4th Quarter 1895, Whitehaven, 10b 625, Passenger Lists, Altrincham, Bowdon & Hale Guardian, 31 Aug 1917, p.5, Altrincham, Bowdon & Hale Guardian, 16 Jan 1931, p.7, Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 11 Oct 1930, p.5, London Gazette, 17 Sep 1917, p.9613, The Choteau Acantha, 25 Sep 1930, p.1, The Big Timber Pioneer, 18 Dec 1930 p. 1, http://montananewspapers.org/, Nottingham Evening Post, 10 Oct 1930 p.6, The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), 30 Nov 1930 p.18, Lancashire Evening Post, 10 Oct 1930, p.5, State v. Miller, Montana Supreme Court, 21 Mar 1932, http://www.courtlistener.com, Popular Science, Feb 1932, www.libertyellisfoundation.org, www.gravestonephotos.com, www.reubique.com, http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-corps-of-royal-engineers-in-the-first-world-war/the-special-companies-of-the-royal-engineers-poison-gas/