“My Nan belonged to the church,” Clifton Branham wrote in his memoirs in the weeks leading up to his hanging in Wise County, VA, in September 1903. “If I had been as good as she was I would have stayed out of trouble and been a lot better off.”
“I took up making moonshine along with two other men,” Branham wrote. “One is dead now and the other lives on the south side of Cumberland Mountain. We did very well for awhile but the revenue officers started getting pesky. We finally decided to move to the head of the Kentucky River.”
The new location was in a remote area but after some delays they were making as much of the illicit liquor as they were before.
“Our still was near Mark Venters and we often went to his house where we picked the banjo, played the fiddle and danced,” Clifton recalled. “We thought we were having the time of our lives.”
Bad times were lurking around the corner for Clifton however.
“Our lives were full of excitement,” he continued. “Clell Adams married a step-daughter of Mr. Venters. Clell was killed by a friend of mine by the name of Rant Smallwood. I had known him in school. Rant told me he got a hundred dollars and a .38 Smith and Wesson pistol for killing Clell Adams. We got along alright until he wanted to kill Franciscie who was also a friend of mine.
“I knew Rant was wrong. Another friend told me he thought Rant was getting dangerous. I knew that for myself. This other friend said it would be a good thing if someone killed Rant.”
Clifton was young and easily led to do the bidding of others.
“I decided to kill him myself,” he admitted in his writings. “I went to Mark Vanover’s house to get a gun. A woman asked me what I was doing with the gun and after I told her she took the gun away from me.
“I took my Spencer rifle and .44 caliber cap-and-ball Remington instead and went looking for Rant. I left the still and took the woods to Blaze Branch where I stayed the night with Wes Sowards. The next morning I took the brush again to the mouth of Dorton where I found Rant working on a church house.”
Clifton waited for a good opportunity to ambush Rant.
“Finally a Fleming boy came to me,” he wrote. “I asked him to have Rant come to me but when he told Rant I motioned for me to come to him. I went with the boy and once I got with Rant I ended up spending the night. Twice the next day I went squirrel hunting with Rant and looked for an opportunity to waylay him but he was too suspicious of me and didn’t give me a good opportunity.”
They slept in the same bed and Rant told Clifton that he dreamed of a large snake that had gotten on him and he fought to get it off.
“I knew I was that snake,” Clifton penned.
Later that day they decided to go and see Wes Sowards daughters. Before leaving Clifton cleaned and oiled his gun with Rant watching him the whole time.
“On the way to see the girls I would lag behind,” he wrote. “But Rant would say, ‘walk up here beside me Clifton because I believe you want to shoot me.’ I answered that he was a fool to think that, but he was right.
“After supper the Sowards went to bed leaving the two of us with their two girls talking in the kitchen. At about 8 or 9 o’clock I started to leave and walked around the house. I saw a small hole cut through the house and could see Rant sitting in a chair leaning up against the wall. I put the muzzle of my gun through the hole and pulled the trigger.
“Poor Rant jumped to his feet and then fell straight on his face. ‘Clifton Branham has kilt me,” he screamed.
Clifton left the area immediately and went back to his whiskey still. News came the following day that someone had shot Rant Smallwood and that he was hanging onto life by a thread.
“I went across Cumberland Mountain into Virginia when I heard that I was accused of shooting Rant,” Clifton recalled. “They said his friends were looking for me so I went to the store and bought powder, caps and lead, filling my pockets full of bullets.”
Branham traveled to Tazewell County, VA, and passed himself off as George Jones. After several months Granville Cox came and said Rant had survived the shooting and that things had settled down.
“I decided to return home to Nannie,” Clifton continued. “During my travels I fell in love with many girls, widows and married women. And they did with me. I always passed myself off as a single man.”
Unfortunately for Clifton it resulted in continual scrapes with the law and eventually his hanging.
Editor’s note: Clifton receives a life sentence and finds the Lord in Jadon’s From the Mountains next week.