John Murrell (bandit)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
John A. Murrell
John-A.-Murrell-Portrait.jpg
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.
BornJohn Andrews Murrell
1806
Lunenburg County, Virginia
DiedNovember 21, 1844 (aged 38)
Pikeville, Bledsoe County, Tennessee
Cause of deathpulmonary consumption (tuberculosis)
Resting placeSmyrna First Methodist Church Cemetery, Smyrna, Rutherford County, Tennessee
NationalityAmerican
Other namesJohn A. Murrell, Murel, Murrel, Great Western Land Pirate
Occupationbandit, horse thief, slave stealer, burglar, camp meeting preacher, counterfeiter, river pirate, criminal gang leader, convict, carpenter, blacksmith
Known forAlleged, criminal mastermind behind the 1835 Murrell Slave Insurrection Conspiracy or "Murrell Excitement"
MovementMystic Clan, Mystic Confederacy
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Mangham
ChildrenJohn A. Murrell (son), Arthusy Murrell (daughter)
Parent(s)Jeffrey Murrell and Zilpha Andrews
Mystic Clan (Mystic Confederacy)
Founded byJohn A. Murrell
Years active1830s
TerritorySouthern United States
EthnicityEuropean-American
Membership (est.)Alleged members:[1][2]

Approximately 400 in Grand Council (Southern states representatives)[3]

Up to 650 Strikers (soldiers)[4]
Criminal activitieshouse burglary, slave stealing, horse theft, cattle theft, highway robbery, counterfeiting, murder, slave insurrection
No known accurate portrait of John A. Murrell from life exists of him in his later years. From an artist's interpretation of his older physical appearance found in historical records.
Murell grave at Smyrna, Tennessee
The hanging of five gamblers in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1835 was in response to the rising regulator activity against criminals in the region following the arrest of Murrell known as the "Murrell Excitement"

John Andrews Murrell (1806 – November 21, 1844), the "Great Western 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.[5]

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 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.

Punishment and imprisonment[edit]

John A. Murrell had his first criminal conviction, for horse theft, as a teenager and was branded on the base of his thumb with an "HT" for horse thief, 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.[5] 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[6]

Death[edit]

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".[7] 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.[8] His skull is missing, but one of his thumbs is in the possession of the Tennessee State Museum.[9]*

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.[10] Murrell would be considered a conductor on the Reverse Underground Railroad.

"The Murrell Excitement"[edit]

In 1835, Virgil Stewart wrote an account of a slave rebellion plot sponsored by highwaymen and Northern Abolitionists. On Christmas Day, 1835, Murrell and his "Mystic Clan" planned to incite an uprising in every slaveholding state by invoking the image of the Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave rebellion in history.[11] In rising up against Southern whites, the slaves involved in Murrell's conspiracy would cause enough chaos to allow Murrell to take over the South, with New Orleans as the center of operations of his criminal empire. Stewart's account of his interactions with Murrell was published as a pamphlet,[11] and Stewart wrote the pamphlet under the pseudonym of "Augustus Q. Walton, Esq.," for whom he invented a fictitious background and profession. The validity of the pamphlet has been debated since its publication. 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 Murrell's 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 the plot. The gamblers resisted, and as a result, five gamblers were hanged by the mob.[12] Similar panic surrounding Murrell and his conspiracy spread throughout the South long after his death, with cities from Huntsville, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana creating committees dedicated to identifying Murrell's conspirators and potential signs of slave rebellion.[13]

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[14] to 1,000,[15] 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.[16] 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]

  • In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe finds Murel's treasure, which Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn claim in the end.
  • 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 the movie Virginia City (1940), being played by Humphrey Bogart as the leader of a gang of "banditos" during the American Civil War of the early 1860s.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Forging Southeastern Identities: Social Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and Folklore of the Mississippian to Early Historic South". Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. 2017. p. 214.
  2. ^ Stewart, Virgil A. (1836). "The history of Virgil A. Stewart: and his adventure in capturing and exposing the great "western land pirate" and his gang, in connexion with the evidence; also of the trials, confessions, and execution of a number of Murrell's associates in the state of Mississippi during the summer of 1835, and the execution of five professional gamblers by the citizens of Vicksburg, on the 6th July, 1835". New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. pp. 116–118.
  3. ^ Stewart, Virgil A. (1836). "The history of Virgil A. Stewart: and his adventure in capturing and exposing the great "western land pirate" and his gang, in connexion with the evidence; also of the trials, confessions, and execution of a number of Murrell's associates in the state of Mississippi during the summer of 1835, and the execution of five professional gamblers by the citizens of Vicksburg, on the 6th July, 1835". New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. p. 54.
  4. ^ Stewart, Virgil A. (1836). "The history of Virgil A. Stewart: and his adventure in capturing and exposing the great "western land pirate" and his gang, in connexion with the evidence; also of the trials, confessions, and execution of a number of Murrell's associates in the state of Mississippi during the summer of 1835, and the execution of five professional gamblers by the citizens of Vicksburg, on the 6th July, 1835". New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. p. 54.
  5. ^ a b Inmates of the Tennessee State Penitentiary 1831-1850 Pt. 2: L - Z and Misc., Tennessee State Library and Archives
  6. ^ "Interesting Facts about John A. Murrell", Nashville Daily American Newspaper, January 1, 1876.
  7. ^ Kirk, Lowell. John A. Murrell: An Early Tennessee "Terrorist”. The Tellico Times.
  8. ^ Wyatt-Brown,Southern Honor, p.45
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture: John Andrews Murrell 1806-1844[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ a b "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."
  12. ^ Rothman, Joshua D. (2008). "The Hazards of the Flush Times: Gambling, Mob Violence, and the Anxieties of America's Market Revolution". The Journal of American History. 95 (3): 651–677. doi:10.2307/27694375. JSTOR 27694375.
  13. ^ Rothman, Joshua (2012). Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. p. 271.
  14. ^ Stewart estimate
  15. ^ as quoted in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Missing or empty |url= (help)

References[edit]

External links[edit]