Born at Upper Falls in Kanawha County, William Edwin ‘‘Riley’’ Wilson (November 10, 1882-October 6, 1952) became West Virginia’s best-known raconteur. He earned a law degree from Washington and Lee University and then went into practice with Fred Carr. Sam Chilton, Wilson’s close associate, claimed that Wilson hardly ever practiced law, taking few if any cases for decades at a time. Wilson was best known for his wit and his storytelling.
Riley Wilson’s best stories came out of rural West Virginia, often provided by a brother who practiced law in Lincoln County. Riley was in demand around the country as an entertainer and toastmaster. He traveled with Anna Held’s theater show on the vaudeville circuit, made national radio appearances, and was considered one of the finest storytellers of his time. Riley published at least two books, including Reach Me the Tin and From Philadelphia, Pa., to Charleston, W. Va., Via Nome, Alaska. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1920, and later served Franklin Roosevelt’s administration as a member of the National Bituminous Coal Administration.
Wilson became seriously ill while attending the 1949 inauguration of President Truman and died in 1952. The ‘‘Mattie Appleyard’’ character played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1971 movie version of the Davis Grubb novel Fools’ Parade was based in part on Riley Wilson.
This Article was written by Bil Lepp
Last Revised on November 19, 2010
Chilton, Sam. Interview by author. ca. 1970.
Wilson, Riley. From Philadelphia, Pa., to Charleston, W. Va., via Nome, Alaska. Charleston: Rose City Press, 1932.
Wilson, Riley. Reach Me the Tin. Charleston: Rose City Press, 1932.