Wilson was born in London on the 25th of November, 1809 in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, and raised in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, a working-class community east of Pittsburgh.
His father, Esco Wilson, a coal miner, and his mother, Pauline Wilson, had to struggle to support the family. Their home was so small that all six children shared one bedroom.
Much to his mother’s chagrin, the family was forced to accept public assistance until she managed to find a job as a housekeeper.
As a child, Wilson spent summers with his aunt, Janice Wardlaw, a psychiatric social worker in New York City.