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When I received a request to find information in newspapers about a game warden in Wise County during the 1920s, I didn’t expect to find much. What kind of newsworthy activities would a game warden be doing? It turns out he was fairly active in Norton and I was surprised to find a number of hits in Virginia Chronicle for the person – J.L. Cox. At first, I found the usual entries such as mentions in the social sections about family visiting and children born, but as I made my way through the newspaper articles, I uncovered a whirlwind true-crime drama.

John Lee “Doc” Cox was a veterinarian in Wise County in the early 20th century. Ads for his practice dot the pages of Crawford’s Weekly through the 1920s. Reports of his duties as game warden indicate that he took the role seriously. He reported statistics on game activities, prosecuted cases involving game law, and stocked game in hunting areas.1

In addition to game warden duties, Cox also acted as county police officer and truant officer, duties he likewise took on earnestly, involving everything from serious crimes to trivial infractions. He went on moonshine raids and searched for people suspected of child abandonment.2 He was quoted in 1929 saying, “I’ve noticed up several citizens for neglecting their dog tax,” and in 1931, increased school attendance was attributed to his work as truant officer.3

As his law duties increased in Wise County, Cox became more prominent in local happenings and the latter half of the 1920s is when things started to get interesting. On January 1st, 1927 a front page headline reads, “We had to shoot or be shot.”4 The article describes how when two posses of officers went to arrest Grover Branham, a man with outstanding warrants, Branham, refused to surrender and threatened to shoot the officers. Instead, Cox and another officer fatally shot Branham.

Lawmen were often regarded with suspicion or outright disdain by locals who were doing what they felt necessary to survive. As Dave O’Neill, the Wise County Game Warden after J.L. Cox, recounted in his memoir,

“Many a game warden, in order to stay alive, gives the hard-core mountain poachers a wide berth. He enforces the law in perhaps ninety percent of his county, but he stays to hell out of the other ten percent. Or he makes “deals” with the bad boys, and polices them on their own terms.”5

While O’Neill was focused on game laws in his statement, it is not hard to imagine this mindset extended towards other laws, especially when the newspaper reported that the family of the deceased Branham threatened the officers with, “you’ll never get out of this holler alive.”6 Cox alluded to the difficulty of policing the area, stating that they had no choice but to shoot, and took a defiant attitude about his work, saying “some folks may criticize, but I’d like to know what they would have done had they been in our place.”7

O’Neill also stated in his memoir that Cox had developed a reputation as “a hard-living, hard-pushing, self-centered kind of a fellow with a habit of bowling over anybody that got in his way.”8 It seems Cox also had a fair concern over his reputation, disputing errors in the newspaper that reported on his activities. Two weeks following the Branham incident, another shootout in town involving Cox was reported. Cox was shot in the shoulder and the January 15, 1927 paper reports that he returned fire; however, the next week’s paper on January 22 issues a correction that Cox had not fired, another officer had.9 In between the issues, Cox had called the newspaper to dispute the article and set the record straight. Later in 1927, it was reported that Cox was involved in a car chase; he called the paper again, explaining that he knew the paper “would get out that I had something to do with the accident. Everything is packed off on me, it seems.”10

Another newspaper correction appeared in 1929, revising the previously reported fact that Cox “haled” a man delinquent on his dog tax to the “Squire” (the Justice of the Peace).11 Cox had  corrected the paper, stating that he did not “hale” him, he merely informed the Justice of the infraction. The newspaper stated, “Our mistake.”12

Yet another shootout occurred with a man named Murphy in late May of 1929. A June 1st article that covered the shooting stated, “there is a difference of opinion even among eye witnesses” as to how the shooting started.13 However, the following week’s paper took a step back, noting that, “knowing no more than we do about this affair, we think Doc acquitted himself brilliantly.”14 There is no phone call with Cox mentioned, but it is interesting that the paper seemed to be attempting to show Cox in a more favorable light. Or perhaps, it was intended to discredit Murphy. In any case, Murphy was later convicted and sentenced to a 5 year prison sentence in relation to the incident.15

It becomes clear that there were some folks in Wise County who really did not like Cox. In a report about a stolen car, it was theorized that

“whoever did it thought they were wreaking vengeance on County Officer J.L. Cox, whose Chrysler also is a maroon coupe, because of his unrelenting enforcement of prohibition, traffic, and game laws.”16

1930 and early 1931 newspaper reports only record a few innocuous mentions about Cox’s health and family happenings. In June 1931 someone did succeed in stealing his car, but was quickly pursued and apprehended by Cox himself.17

Despite the apparent penchant Cox had for getting into shootouts, it was jarring to discover that less than a month later, Cox’s story ended. The July 4, 1931 headline reads, “$3,000 Bond for slayer of Dr. Cox.”18 The article below states that Cox “has met a tragic but not unexpected death.”19 According to Game Warden O’Neill’s memoir, Cox was going to serve a warrant to a man named Ted Carter for dynamiting fish in the Guest River, but Carter instead shot Cox, claiming self-defense.20 The newspapers of the time state that an argument ensued after Cox told Ted Carter to move his car, which was jutting out into the road. Carter and his father both claim that Cox had his gun halfway out of his holster, but at least one article states that the revolver was “still in its holster” when his body was recovered.21

Despite turning himself in and confessing to the killing, the case against Carter was dismissed.22 O’Neill writes that Carter went free as “it came to light that Doc Cox had been fooling with his (Carter’s) wife.”23 Whether that’s true or not, it was never reported in the newspapers. Whether it was really self-defense or if this dismissal was part of the mentality of looking the other way that O’Neill mentions, the truth has been lost to time. There was only one witness, who corroborated Carter’s story, and the case was closed.

Three of J.L. Cox’s seven children were sent to an orphanage in Richmond in 1932.24 In that same year, Ted Carter was arrested for abducting and assaulting a young woman.25 I have found no additional details regarding the later case against Carter.

Header Image Citation

Views at Intermont (Big Stone Gap), Wise County, Va.
Looking South from Stone Mt. at Gap. Powell’s Mt in Distance, 1887.

Library of Virginia Photograph Collection.


  1. Wise and Lee County Game Wardens Show Numerous Convictions”Crawford’s Weekly, November 1, 1930.
  2. Officer Kills Himself After Accidentally Shooting Another“, Crawford’s Weekly, May 1, 1926.
    Leave Baby with a Mission“, Crawford’s Weekly, August 12, 1926.
  3. Another Side“, Crawford’s Weekly, February 16, 1929.
    Dr. Cox Runs in 2000 Kids During Year“, Crawford’s Weekly, May 02, 1931.
  4. ‘We Had to Shoot or Be Shot’, Cox“, Crawford’s Weekly, January 01, 1927.
  5. O’Neill, David. “Excerpts from The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden.” In The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden, 1971.
    Excerpts from Dave O’Neill book submitted by his son Bill O’Neill.
  6. ‘We Had to Shoot or Be Shot’, Cox“, Crawford’s Weekly, January 01, 1927.
  7. Ibid.
  8. O’Neill, David. “Excerpts from The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden.” In The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden, 1971.
  9. Prominent Real Estate Man is Shot“, Crawford’s Weekly, January 15, 1927.
    Cox Denies“, Crawford’s Weekly, January 22, 1927.
  10. Dr. J. L. Cox Was Not With Officers in Chase“, Crawford’s Weekly, August 27, 1927.
  11. Another Side“, Crawford’s Weekly, February 16, 1929.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Dr. Cox and Murphy Out After Battle“, Crawford’s Weekly, June 01, 1929.
  14. Crawford’s Weekly, June 07, 1929.
  15. Wiley Murphy Gets Five Years in Pen“, Crawford’s Weekly, November 23, 1929.
  16. Dr. Geo. Botts Stolen Coupe Found Burned“, Crawford’s Weekly, May 10, 1930.
  17. Stranger Steals Dr Cox’s Car, Leads Officers Merry Chase“, Crawford’s Weekly, June 06, 1931.
  18. $3000 Bond for Slayer of Dr. Cox“, Crawford’s Weekly, July 4, 1931.
  19. Ibid.
  20. O’Neill, David. “Excerpts from The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden.” In The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden, 1971.
  21. $3000 Bond for Slayer of Dr. Cox“, Crawford’s Weekly, July 4, 1931.
  22. Ted Carter Goes Free in Cox Killing“, Crawford’s Weekly, August 22, 1931.
  23. O’Neill, David. “Excerpts from The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden.” In The Life and Times of a Mountaineer Game Warden, 1971.
  24. Go to Richmond“, Crawford’s Weekly, February 06, 1932.
  25. Two Accused Of Keeping Girl in Backwoods“, Crawford’s Weekly, June 11, 1932.
Annie Hatton

Reference Services Librarian

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