John Murrell (bandit)

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John A. Murrell
John A. Murrell, with a boyish face, in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, Nashville, from the only known, accurate portrait, of Murrell, made during his lifetime.
Born John Andrews Murrell
Lunenburg County, Virginia
Died November 21, 1844 (aged 38)
Pikeville, Bledsoe County, Tennessee
Cause of death pulmonary consumption (tuberculosis)
Resting place Smyrna First Methodist Church Cemetery, Smyrna, Rutherford County, Tennessee
Nationality American
Other names John A. Murrell, Murel, Murrel, Great Western Land Pirate
Ethnicity English
Occupation bandit, horse thief, slave stealer, burglar, camp meeting preacher, counterfeiter, river pirate, criminal gang leader, convict, carpenter, blacksmith
Known for Alleged, criminal mastermind behind the 1835 Murrell Slave Insurrection Conspiracy or "Murrell Excitement"
Movement Mystic Clan, Mystic Confederacy
Religion Methodist
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Mangham
Children John A. Murrell (son), Arthusy Murrell (daughter)
Parent(s) Jeffrey Murrell and Zilpha Andrews
Mystic Clan (Mystic Confederacy)
Founded by John A. Murrell
Years active 1830s
Territory Southern United States
Ethnicity European-American
Membership (est.) 452
Criminal activities house burglary, slave stealing, horse and cattle theft, stagecoach and highway robbery, counterfeiting, murder, insurrection

John Andrews Murrell also, known as John A. Murrell and commonly spelled as Murel and Murrel (1806 - November 21, 1844) was a near-legendary bandit and supposed criminal mastermind, operating in the United States, along the Mississippi River, in the early-mid-nineteenth century. John Murrell had his first criminal conviction, for horse theft, as a teenager and was branded with an "HT", flogged, and sentenced to six years in prison, being released in 1829. Murrell was convicted, a second and final time, for the crime of slave stealing, in the Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee and incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, Nashville, modeled after the 1820s Auburn penal system, from 1834 to 1844.[1]

Early life[edit]

According to Tennessee prison records, John Andrews Murrell was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia and raised in Williamson County, Tennessee. Murrell was the son of Jeffrey Murrell, an honest man and Zilpha Andrews and the third born of eight children. When incarcerated, his mother, wife and two children lived in the vicinity of Denmark, Tennessee.

Final prison time, later life, and death[edit]

While in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, John Murrell, as part of his reform, was required to work and learned the blacksmith trade. A decade in prison, starting in 1834, under the Auburn penitentiary system, of mandatory convict regimentation, through prison uniforms, lockstep, silence, and occasional solitary confinement, broke Murrell mentally and supposedly left him an imbecile. He spent the last months of his life, as a blacksmith in Pikeville, Bledsoe County, Tennessee. The Nashville Daily American newspaper mentioned a different account, of his last year of life, that, upon his release from prison, at 38 years old, he became a reformed man, a Methodist in good standing, was a carpenter by trade, boarding at the house of John M. Billingsly, of Pikeville[2]

John A. Murrell grave at Smyrna First United Methodist Church Cemetery, in Smyrna, Rutherford County, Tennessee

In a deathbed confession, Murrell admitted to being guilty of most of the crimes charged against him except murder, to which he claimed to be "guiltless."[3] John A. Murrell died on November 21, 1844, just nine months, after leaving prison, having contracted "pulmonary consumption", now known as tuberculosis. Murrell was buried in a plot at Smyrna First United Methodist Church Cemetery, in Smyrna, Rutherford County, Tennessee. Not long after, his corpse was dug up and stolen by grave robbers, for the valuable, souvenir, body parts. The Murrell skull was reportedly, displayed at country fairs for some years and is still missing, but one of his thumbs is in the Tennessee State Museum.[4]

Accepted claims[edit]

Accepted facts about his life include these:

  • He stole horses and at least, once, was caught with a freed slave living on his property. Murrell was also, known to kidnap slaves and sell them back to other slave owners. He was sentenced to ten years in a Tennessee prison for slave-stealing.[5] Murrell would be considered a conductor on the Reverse Underground Railroad.
  • Murrell was one of three brothers who were known to be petty thieves. Their father was a Methodist circuit preacher.
  • After Murrell died nine months after leaving prison, parts of him was dug up and stolen. His skull is still missing, but one of his thumbs is in the possession of the Tennessee State Museum.

"The Murrell Excitement"[edit]

A young man named Virgil Stewart, in 1835, wrote an account of a Murrell sponsored slave rebellion plot sponsored by highwaymen and Northern Abolitionists. The account was thought to be fictitious. The account was published as a pamphlet called "A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life And Designs of John A. Murel, The Great Western Land Pirate; Together With his System of Villany and Plan of Exciting a Negro Rebellion, and a Catalogue of the Names of Four Hundred and Forty Five of His Mystic Clan Fellows and Followers and Their Efforts for the Destruction of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart, The Young Man Who Detected Him, To Which is Added Biographical Sketch of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart."

Stewart wrote this so-called "confession of John Murrell" under the pseudonym of "Augustus Q. Walton, Esq.," for whom he invented a fictitious background and profession. Some historians assert that Stewart's pamphlet was largely fictional, and that Murrell (and his brothers) were at best inept thieves, having bankrupted their father over the years for bail money.

However, many of the claims made in the pamphlet were believed at the time in some parts of the South, and led to the "Murrell Excitement". During this time, there was increased tension between the races and between locals and outsiders. On July 4, 1835, there were disturbances in the red-light districts of Nashville, Memphis and Natchez and twenty slaves and ten white men where hanged after confessing to complicity in this plot. On July 6, in Vicksburg, an angry mob decided to expel all professional gamblers from the town, based on a rumor that the gamblers were part of this plot. The gamblers resisted, and as a result, 5 gamblers were hanged by the mob.

Disputed claims[edit]

The following claims were originally derived from Stewart's "History of the Detection, Conviction, Life, and Designs of John A. Murel...." (see above):

  • He was known as a "land-pirate", using the Mississippi River as a base for his operations. He used a network of anywhere from 300 (Stewart estimate) to 1,000 (as quoted in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi) to 2,500 (as some newspaper reports claimed) fellow bandits collectively known as the Mystic Clan to pull off his escapades. Many of these were members of cultural/ethnic groups such as the Melungeons and the Redbones. He was also known as a bushwhacker along the Natchez Trace.
  • To cover up his misdeeds, he played the persona of a traveling preacher. Twain's work and others say he would preach to a congregation while his gang stole the horses outside. However, the accounts are unanimous that Murrell's horse was always left behind.
  • Just before he was apprehended, he was about to spearhead a slave revolt in New Orleans in an attempt to take over the city and install himself as a sort of potentate of Louisiana.
  • The disputed details about Murrell are more numerous and controversial than the known facts. Even today, his place of birth is in question: Some sources claim Williamson County, Tennessee, others say Jackson, Tennessee. In any case, it is clear that he grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, just south of Franklin.
  • Even more in debate is the location of his hideout and operations base. Once again, Jackson or Madison County are bandied about, but other places include Natchez, Mississippi in an odd depression on a bluff called Devil's Punch Bowl, Tunica County, Mississippi, the Neutral Ground in Louisiana, and even the tiny Island 37, part of Tipton County, Tennessee. One record, a genealogical note,[2] even places him as far east as Georgia; in fact Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett makes it clear there was a lawless district in that town named for him, "Murrell's Row" in the 1840s. Because Murrell has come to symbolize Natchez Trace lawlessness in the antebellum period, it's understandable that his "hideouts" (whether there were any hideouts or not) have been said to have been located at most of the well-known areas of particular lawlessness along the Natchez Trace.
  • Some say he began to plot his takeover of New Orleans in 1841, although he was in the sixth year of a ten-year sentence in the prison at Nashville at the time, and Stewart had already published his account of Murrell's plot in 1835. Others say he was in operation from 1835 to 1857; he was in prison for ten of those years, and died of tuberculosis in 1844 shortly, after leaving prison and taking up a quiet life as a Christian and blacksmith.
  • A river feature in Chicot County, Arkansas called Whiskey Chute is named for his raid on a whiskey-carrying steamboat that was sunk after it was pillaged. It was named such in 1855. However, he is also claimed to have been born in 1791.[6] We know from Record Group 25, "Prison Records for the Main Prison at Nashville, Tennessee, 1831-1922," that Murrell was born in 1806, most likely in Williamson County, Tennessee.

In popular culture[edit]

Mark Twain in his novel Tom Sawyer has Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn seeing "Injun Joe" finding "Murel's" treasure and then after "Injun Joe"'s death by starvation, Sawyer and Finn find the treasure again.

The Tennessee Historical Society has a traveling exhibit which features, among many other items, a preserved thumb which supposedly belonged to Murrell.

He was fictionalized by Jorge Luis Borges in The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell, written between 1933 and 1934 and published in A Universal History of Iniquity in 1935. It is speculation that Borges adapted the last name from Twain; and as Twain did not have a first name for the bandit, Borges used Lazarus, many believe as an allusion to the Bible character of the same first name who was raised from the dead by Jesus, symbolizing a second life (which, in a purely ironic way, Borges' Lazarus Morrell provided for the slaves he freed).

He was fictionalized in Episode 5 of Riverboat on U.S. television network NBC, and the episode was first broadcast on October 11, 1959. In the show, he was a riverboat captain who planned to hijack another riverboat piloted by "Dan Simpson," and planned to do so by planting an alluring agent (played by Debra Paget) as a dancing girl on his vessel.

He was fictionalized in Episode 20, Season 2 of The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1958) titled Pirate on Horseback. In the episode, Jim Bowie pretends to be a criminal in order to gain Murrell's trust, played by Donald Randolph. Murrell is presented as the leader of "The Brotherhood," planning to overthrow the U.S. Government, and receives his guidance from Heaven.

He was fictionalized as a featured character both in Robert Lewis Taylor's The Travels of Jamie McPheeters and on the 1963 television showed based on it, where he was portrayed by James Westerfield.

Sow the Seeds of Hemp, a 1976 novel by Gary Jennings, is a fictionalized account of the pursuit of John Murrell by Virgil Stewart, told from Stewart's point of view.

American novelist John Wray's second novel, entitled "Canaan's Tongue" (2005), uses Murrell and his bandits for an allegorical look at the United States, belief, and power.

His escapades have also inspired numerous rumors about the location of his treasure. One claim is that it is buried in the Devil's Punch Bowl. Coin collectors say it is on Honey Island in Louisiana. (See external link below for details.)

To top it off, his ghost reportedly appears from time to time on the Natchez Trace. Once again, the Devil's Punch Bowl is said to be the site of the haunting of members of his gang.

Walt Disney's Davy Crockett has Crockett and Mike Fink fighting off an attack by a Murrell-type outlaw, wearing a mustache, who is referred to as Samuel Mason, and joined by the Harpe Brothers in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, 1956.

Murrell's treasure forms the central motive in the 2015 Aaron and Adam Nee film Band of Robbers, loosely based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

See also[edit]


  • Block, Lawrence. Gangsters, swindlers, killers, and thieves: the lives and crimes of fifty American villains. Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 0195169522, 9780195169522.
  • Burroughs, Stephen. Memoirs of the notorious Stephen Burroughs. C. Gaylord, 1835.
  • Botkin, B.A. A Treasury of Mississippi River folklore: stories, ballads & traditions of the mid-American river country. Crown Publishers, 1955.
  • Hall, Elihu Nicholas. Anna's War Against River Pirates and Cave Bandits of John A. Murrell's Northern Dive. Unpublished manuscripts in S.I.U. Rare Book Collections. Revised and published as Ballads From the Bluffs. 1948.
  • Henry, Hollow Meadoes. The police control of the slave in South Carolina. Vanderbilt University, 1914.
  • Penick, James L. The great western land pirate: John A. Murrell in legend and history. University of Missouri Press, 1981.
  • Phares, Ross. Reverend Devil: Master Criminal of the Old South. Publisher Pelican Publishing, 1941.
  • Sandlin, Lee. Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. Pantheon, 2010.
  • Smith, Thomas Ruys. "Independence Day, 1835: The John A. Murrell Conspiracy and the Lynching of the Vicksburg Gamblers in Literature," The Mississippi Quarterly*. Volume: 59. Issue: 1-2. Publication Date: Winter, 2005.
  • Stewart, Virgil A.. The history of Virgil A. Stewart: and his adventure in capturing and exposing the great "western land pirate" and his gang... Harper and Brothers: Nashville, TN, 1836.
  • Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Harper, 1883.
  • Walton, Augustus Q. History of the Detection, Conviction, Life, and Designs of John A. Murel. BrayBree Publishing, 2013 (1835).
  • Wellman, Paul L. Spawn of Evil. Doubleday and Company, 1964.
  • National Police Gazette, eds. "The Life and Adventures of John A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate," National Police Gazette. H. Long and Brother, 1847.

External links[edit]