John Murrell (bandit)

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John Murrell
Born 1806?
Lunenburg County, Virginia
Died 1844
Pikeville, Bledsoe County, Tennessee
Nationality American
Other names John Andrews Murrell, John A. Murrell, Murel, Murrel
Occupation bandit, horse thief, slave stealer, camp meeting preacher, counterfeiter, criminal gang leader, convict, blacksmith
Known for Alleged, 1835 Murrell Slave Insurrection Conspiracy or "Murrell Excitement"
Movement Mystic Clan, Mystic Confederacy
Mystic Clan
Founder John A. Murrell
Years active 1830s
Territory Southern United States
Ethnicity European-American
Membership 445
Criminal activities House burglary, slave stealing, horse and cattle theft, stagecoach and highway robbery, counterfeiting, murder, insurrection

John A. Murrell (also spelled as Murel and Murrel) (c. 1806-November 1844), was a notorious bandit who operated along the Mississippi River in the United States in first half of the nineteenth century.

Early life, criminal pursuits, and imprisonment[edit]

John Andrews Murrell was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, but was raised in Williamson County, Tennessee, according to Tennessee prison records. He was a son of Jeffrey Murrell and Zilpha Andrews and the third of eight children. As a child, Murrell and his brothers were petty thieves. Ironically, their father was a Scots Irish Presbyterian (or in some versions Methodist church) circuit rider. According to legend, their mother was a former prostitute who taught her sons their evil ways in their father's absence.[1]

Murrell is known to have stolen horses, and at least once he was caught with a runaway slave living on his property. He was known to kidnap slaves and sell them to other unsuspecting slave owners. He was also accused of plotting a massive slave revolt in 1835, though this may well only have been an attempt to secure them to sell. It was for slave stealing that he was sentenced to ten years in prison in Tennessee.[2] Murrell would be considered a conductor on the Reverse Underground Railroad. Captured and convicted in the Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee, he was imprisoned in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, modeled on the Auburn penal system, from 1834 to 1844. At the time he was in prison, Murrell's mother, wife and two children lived near Denmark, Tennessee. While in prison, Murrell learned the blacksmith's trade.

Later life and death[edit]

Time in prison broke Murrell mentally and left him an imbecile. He spent the last months of his life, as a blacksmith in Pikeville, Bledsoe County, Tennessee. John A. Murrell died in November 1844, just nine months after leaving prison, having contracted "pulmonary consumption" tuberculosis. His corpse was dug up by grave robbers and his body parts stolen. 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.[3]

The "Murrell Excitement"[edit]

In 1835 Virgil Stewart, who was the chief witness against Murrell,[2] wrote an account of an alleged Murrell-led slave rebellion plot, financed by highwaymen and Northern Abolitionists. It was published as a pamphlet titled "A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life And Designs of John A. Murell, 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 his "confession of John Murrell" under the name "Augustus Q. Walton, Esq.," for whom he created a biography. Most historians view Stewart's pamphlet as fictional, since Murrell and his brothers were inept as thieves, having bankrupted their father, who tried to make up for their misdeeds.

However, the pamphlet was widely believed at the time, especially in the South, and caused the "Murrell Excitement". It definitely increased tensions between the races and between locals and outsiders. On July 4, 1835, there were coordinated actions in the red-light districts of Nashville, Memphis and Natchez; twenty slaves and ten white men were hanged after they confessed to complicity. On July 6, an angry mob in Vicksburg gathered to expel all professional gamblers from the town, since a rumor claimed they supported the plot. Five gamblers barricaded themselves inside a building, refusing to come out. They shot and killed a widely-respected doctor. They were eventually overcome and all five were hanged.[4]

Disputed claims[edit]

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

  • 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.
  • His place and date of birth are 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. He is claimed to have been born in 1791.[5] 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.
  • 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 1845 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.

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.

In the 1940 film Virginia City, Humphrey Bogart portrays a bandit named John Murrell, although the action in that story takes place at the end of the Civil War, more than twenty years after the death of the real Murrell.

He is fictionalized as the murderer James Murrell in the Eudora Welty short story, "A Still Moment," published in The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943).

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, who is referred to as Samuel Mason, and joined by the Harpe Brothers in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, 1956.


Further reading[edit]

  • Rothman, Joshua D.: Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
  • Block, Lawrence. Gangsters, swindlers, killers, and thieves: the lives and crimes of fifty American villains. Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 0-19-516952-2, ISBN 978-0-19-516952-2.
  • 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.
  • H. R. Howard (ed.), The History of Virgil A. Stewart, and His Adventure in Capturing and Exposing the Great "Western Land Pirate" and his Gang. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836.
  • Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Harper, 1883.
  • 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.
  • "Prison Records for the Main Prison at Nashville, Tennessee, 1831-1922", Record Group 25.

External links[edit]