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Generation X: Helen Horne & Mitchell Clayton Penley

Mitch & Kinnie Wagner

Mitchell Penley and Kinnie Wagner

The Kinnie Wagner my Dad knew loved nothing more than to be among his family. Long after Nancy Penley Wagner’s death, Kinnie maintained special relations with his mother’s side of the family. My Dad is Mitchell Clayton Penley, born in Kingsport, Tennessee, February 7, 1925, just a few months before the famous shootout between Kinnie Wagner and the Kingsport lawmen. His memories of Kinnie Wagner are entrenched with those of his own childhood. Mitch’s father, Rufus Penley and his brothers privately counted themselves as friends and family of Kinnie Wagner.

As Kinnie’s legend grew, many stories circulated that were not true. Many a man related enlarged or purely false tales of meeting up with Kinnie to enhance their own reputation. The exaggerations and lies added to the danger for everyone involved. One should realize that the people who knew Kinnie best talked the least, for the mutual protection of Kinnie and themselves.

My Dad knew Kinnie Wagner well, and is still entranced by the enigma of his life. One has to wonder what great accomplishments could have been Kinnie’s if just small details had been different. If only his incredible strength, marksmanship, intelligence and charismatic personality could have been channeled into a positive military career or a university degree. Great politicians have not come close to his popularity with the common man. He charmed his captors and his captives. Mitch said that he did not have a raw nerve in his body, he was smooth as silk, and feared nothing. If we had turned him loose against the enemy in World War II he could certainly have come home a hero.

Mitch Penley was taught early on by his Dad Rufus Penley not to use the name Kinnie or Wagner. Rufus wouldn’t let his sons Luther and Mitch use the real Wagner name even at home, for fear that they would slip up in public. The family name for Kinnie was John Brown, and Ruf told the boys over and over that if they were ever pressed for details about their companion, to just say he was John Brown, their Daddy’s friend. The boys complied without fail, knowing this name protected not only their revered and infamous cousin Kinnie, but themselves as well.
Mitchell Penley remembers family gatherings at Grandma Priscilla Price Penley’s old farm where Kinnie would show up. Priscilla’s deceased husband, Sam Penley was Kinnie’s great uncle. The family gathered there often during the depression, and if anybody could find ammunition, target shooting was always one of the favorite events for all the Penley boys. Kinnie stated that he learned to shoot from hunting and target shooting with his family, not from his stint with the carnival.

Mitch Penley can judge marksmanship, as he was quite a marksman himself, skills learned from his family on that mountain were later put to use on the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima fighting with the Fourth Marine Division in World War II. But among all the sharpshooting marksmen Mitchell Penley met on that mountain, island hopping in the Pacific, or in thirty years working security at Cape Canaveral, none have ever compared to the incredible eye of Kinnie Wagner. Mitch says that in all the hours he spent watching Kinnie shoot, he never saw Kinnie miss a target. Dad watched Kinnie drive nails into fence posts with a 22 rifle from across the yard at Grandma Priscilla’s, a distance of maybe 50 feet. He shot sycamore balls off the tree as fast as he could pull the trigger, never missing a chosen target.

It was important to Kinnie that his relatives understood that he had not stolen the gold watch. Mitch remembers his Dad Rufus, and Kinnie himself relating the true story on that watch. Mitch remembers it as though someone had given Kinnie the watch to hold temporarily for them. But it has been around sixty years since he heard the story, and Mitch says that it may have been as Kinnie later related to the news reporters, that the watch was secretly planted on him in Mississippi.

Granddad Rufus and his brother Malcolm Penley took up for Kinnie. They believed that he got a raw deal on the first arrest and after that, events just spun out of control. Kinnie gave Rufus a 38 Smith and Wesson special to keep for him. Mitch remembers it was hidden in the house for many years, but in spite of frequent begging, his dad would never let him fire it, not even once. Rufus would clean and care for the gun, but would never let the boys fire the weapon. Mitch asked about the gun after the war, thinking maybe his dad would finally let him fire the gun, but his dad told him it was gone. Rufus never would specify what happened to the gun.

Uncle Luther went into the Army after Pearl Harbor. Mitch tried to join around the same time, but was refused because of his age, and his parents refused to give consent for him to go early. Uncle Luther left his fine 1937 Plymouth in brother Mitch’s care. Rufus didn’t drive, so Dad drove Rufus and Kinnie Wagner around to a lot of local events and family gatherings. If Kinnie heard that someone had bragged about him or lied about knowing him, Kinnie liked to see them face to face. A local deputy had bragged about knowing Kinnie Wagner, and vowed to catch him cold.

Sometime in 1942 or early 1943, there was a community event at the Bell Ridge School, and Mitch wanted to see the trophy case where his Tri-County basketball trophy was displayed. (Dad and the Bell Ridge team had won the big championship in 1941.) They saw the deputy’s car parked outside, and Kinnie wanted to prove that this deputy had never met him, and wouldn’t recognize him. While there, they talked with different friends and relatives in the crowd, and Kinnie made a point of walking up and talking directly to the deputy, just to prove that the man was a liar. What nerve! Anyone there could have just said his name outloud, and that would have been it...........but not one person let on that Kinnie Wagner was in the school.

On another night, most of the community was invited up to Uncle Worley Penley’s house for a “molasses stir off”. Kinnie was in town but on the run, and it was a perfect way for him to mingle with the relatives and friends, but safe because he could disappear into the darkness if trouble came. So, Mitch drove him there and back. Uncle Worley was renting the John Mead farm at that time, near the old Mountain View School. Kinnie stood surrounded by his Penley cousins. People who knew who he was worked their way through the crowd to speak to him, maybe shake his hand if they hadn’t seen him in a while, and circulate back out. If you had asked who he was, you would have been told, “just a guy named John Brown”.

One night Kinnie Wagner showed up at Rufus and Stella’s home just as Mitch was leaving. Kinnie wanted to go somewhere, but Dad said he was going courting to his girlfriend’s house. Kinnie said, “Take me along Mitch, I’ll visit with her mother.” And he did.

On or near Halloween in 1942, Mitch and Kinnie were driving back from Grandma Pricilla Penley’s farm. As they cut off on the old road near the Mountain View School, they spied a roadblock. At the instant the obstruction came into view, before Dad even fully perceived it, Kinnie swung himself out of the stopping car. Dad still can’t comprehend how Kinnie got out of the car so fast, but Kinnie was on the ground, in the dark, telling Mitch to proceed on through, and if everything was all right he would meet him down by the school. When Mitch got closer, it was just a pile of cedar brush piled in the middle of the road. Mitch cleared the debris out of the road and drove on. Kinnie had circled around through the brush, and met him down by the school.

Mitch now believes some kids probably piled the cedar up there as a Halloween trick, and they probably were hiding in the bush, laughing as they watched him clear it. But it was clear that Kinnie feared a roadblock or a trap, and Kinnie’s reaction rattled Mitch a little. It could have been a close call, but it was just a reminder that in addition to the lawmen looking for Kinnie, there were also rewards offered for his capture.

A good new rifle was hard to find during the war, but there was one for sale at a store in Kingsport. Kinnie wanted that rifle, and Mitch Penley went and bought it. Tales circulated quickly in old Kingsport. Kinnie, ever protective of his family, paid a personal visit to the store owner, and told him to forget that he’d ever sold the gun to anyone.
When Kinnie Wagner was caught outside of Bristol in 1943, there was a picture in the Bristol newspaper of the arrest. There in plain view was that rifle, leaning up against the police car.

That picture sent chills through the family. It could easily have been Mitch arrested with Kinnie that day. Mitch, now just barely past his eighteenth birthday, went directly to the recruiting office, and made the next draft notice for the Marines, just as he had already attempted before his birthday. Kinnie honored his family to the end, and never divulged to the authorities where he got the gun or who had aided and transported him. No one ever came looking for him regarding the gun, just another close call. By April of 1943, Mitchell Penley was a U.S. Marine.

On December 2, of 1945 Dad came home from the Pacific. Either that day or the next, Mitch was standing in the yard with the family in Morrison City (now part of Kingsport). A car pulled up, and out stepped Kinnie Wagner, home on furlough from the Mississippi prison. Dad has never forgotten Kinnie’s exact words. My grandmother, Stella Penley said, “Mitch just got home from the Marines.” Kinnie responded, “Yeegads, Mitch, we came in on the same boat, didn’t we?” My grandmother, Stella Penley said, “Mitch just got home from the Marines.” With that Kinnie walked over to the six foot tall, 180 pound lean leatherneck, and picked him up in a hug, clear off the ground as if he were a baby, set him down, and patted him on the back to say welcome home. Yes, all legendary stories of incredible strength aside, Kinnie Wagner was one strong man.

Rufus and Stella Penley would never have stood for their son hanging out with a criminal element, but Kinnie Wagner was not included in that group. Mitch once asked Kinnie how many men he had killed. Kinnie Wagner looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Mitch, I never fired on any man who wasn’t already firing at me.”

My Dad, Mitchell Clayton Penley, was the son of Rufus Penley, grandson of Samuel Penley, great grandson of Hiram Penley. Kinnie was also descended from Hiram Penley. Kinnie’s mother, Nancy Clinton Penley was the daughter of Civil War veteran William T. Penley who was the son of Hiram Penley.

written by KarenPenley as told by Mitchell Penley
as told by Mitchell C. Penley on February 14, 1999