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
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
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 (1806 – November 21, 1844), the "Great West Land Pirate," also known as John A. Murrell and commonly spelled as Murel and Murrel, was a bandit and criminal operating in the United States, along the Mississippi River, in the 19th century. 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. He was 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 in Nashville from 1834 to 1844.[1]

Life and death[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 and Zilpha Andrews and was the third born of eight children. While incarcerated, his mother, wife, and two children lived in the vicinity of Denmark, Tennessee.

While in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, Murrell, as part of his reform, was required to work as a blacksmith. A decade in prison 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, 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, and lived at a boarding house in Pikeville[2]

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 interred at Smyrna First United Methodist Church Cemetery, in Smyrna, Tennessee. After Murrell died, parts of him were dug up and stolen by grave robbers. Although the corpse had been half-eaten by scavenging hogs, the head was separated from the torso, pickled, and displayed at county fairs.[4] His skull is missing, but one of his thumbs is in the possession of the Tennessee State Museum.[5]*

Accepted claims[edit]

Accepted facts about his life include stealing horses, for which he was branded. He was also caught with a freed slave living on his property. Murrell was known to kidnap slaves and sell them to other slave owners. He received his 10-year prison sentence for slave-stealing.[6] Murrell would be considered a conductor on the Reverse Underground Railroad.

Murell grave at Smyrna, Tennessee

"The Murrell Excitement"[edit]

In 1835, Virgil Stewart wrote an account of a slave rebellion plot sponsored by highwaymen and Northern Abolitionists. The account was thought to be fictitious. The account was published as a pamphlet[7], and Stewart wrote the pamphlet 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 were hanged after confessing to complicity in this plot. On July 6 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 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]

Murrell was known as a "land-pirate", using the Mississippi River as a base for his operations. He used a network of anywhere from 300[8] to 1,000[9], and even as much as 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. The location of his hideout and operations base has been in question. Possibilities are Jackson County, Tennessee; Natchez, Mississippi, at Devil's Punch Bowl; Tunica County, Mississippi; the Neutral Ground in Louisiana; and even the tiny Island 37 on the Mississippi River. One record, a genealogical note,[1] 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 era, it is 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.

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. 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 thereafter.

A stream 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.[10] 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]

  • 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. The episode was first broadcast on October 11, 1959. In the show, he was a riverboat captain who planned to hijack another riverboat 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 novel entitled Canaan's Tongue uses Murrell and his bandits for an allegorical look at the United States, belief, and power.
  • His escapades have 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.
  • His ghost reportedly appears from time to time on the Natchez Trace. The Devil's Punch Bowl is said to be the site of the haunting of members of his gang.
  • German author Friedrich Gerstäcker used accounts of Murrell's operations for his books Die Regulatoren von Arkansas (The Arkansas Regulators) of 1846 and Die Flusspiraten des Mississippi (The Mississippi River Pirates) of 1847.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Inmates of the Tennessee State Penitentiary 1831-1850 Pt. 2: L - Z and Misc., Tennessee State Library and Archives
  2. ^ "Interesting Facts about John A. Murrell", Nashville Daily American Newspaper, January 1, 1876.
  3. ^ Kirk, Lowell. John A. Murrell: An Early Tennessee "Terrorist”. The Tellico Times.
  4. ^ Wyatt-Brown,Southern Honor, p.45
  5. ^ Phillips, Betsy (October 24, 2011). "One Thumb Up! Severed 200-Year-Old Thumb Sticks Out at the Tennessee State Museum". Nashville Scene. Retrieved 2013-09-17. 
  6. ^ The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture: John Andrews Murrell 1806-1844[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ "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."
  8. ^ Stewart estimate
  9. ^ as quoted in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2003-10-04. Retrieved 2003-08-28. 


  • 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.
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. Oxford University Press, New York, 1982, ISBN 0-19-503119-9, 978-0-19-503119-5.
  • 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]