John A. Murrell
By Lowell Kirk

An Early Tennessee "Terrorist”

         Since September 11, 2001 the attention of Americans has been focused upon the "War Against Terrorism" led by President George W. Bush. Most knowledgeable Americans know something of Osama Bin Laden and his "Al-Qaida" terrorist organization. Most Americans familiar with United States history also know something of the creation of a Tennessee born and bred terrorist organization that was known as the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan used terrorist tactics to achieve its ideological goals after the Civil War to prevent former slaves from becoming involved in political processes. Largely broken up by the Federal government by 1875, it reemerged in different form in the decade of the 1920s as a powerful social and political force. By the end of that decade it too was largely broken up by strong Federal interference, although there are still occasional events, which are associated with the Ku Klux Klan.

       Other American "organizations" that might be roughly fit in the term "terrorist" organizations was the Al Capone gang that controlled much of the criminal activities in Chicago in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s. The Capone gang did not seem to be motivated by religious or ideological goals. It was pure unadulterated greed and ambition for power and control which clearly motivated Capone's gang and other similar organizations. But like Osama Bin Laden's "Al-Qaida," and the Ku Klux Klan, it was the Federal government under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, which eventually broke up Al Capone's "terrorist" organization. True, Al Capone used terror and assassination tactics primarily against his rivals for power and control of crime and the general public had little reason to fear the Capone gang.

       Monroe County native Senator Estes Kefauver in the early 1950s headed up the Senate Rackets Committee in a "war" against organized crime. This "terrorist" organization was usually referred to by the term "Mafia" or the "mob." The leaders of the so-called "Mafia" were motivated by the same force, which motivated Al Capone. Like Capone's organization, fear, murder and assassination were tactics used primarily against "business" rivals and not the general public. But I seem to be digressing from my topic.

        I can't speak for other Tennesseans or Americans, but for most of thirty-two years as a history teacher, I knew nothing of what I now call the early Tennessee terrorist organization of John A. Murrell. In the past few years I have collected some information about this notorious Tennessean and have been reminded of John A. Murrell during the current "War against terrorism." No matter how significant or insignificant the actual acts of terrorist organizations, they all seem to have some common characteristics. One of those common characteristics is the spread of rumors and the unfounded fears, which exaggerates them as an organization out of any real proportion of which actually exists. The basis of any fear may in reality be only slight. But fear in the human spirit is real. Fear feeds the human imagination and exaggerates our human responses. That seems to have been the case with the history of the human responses to John A. Murrell, The Great Land Pirate of Tennessee.

       On May 1st, 1855, Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson opened his re-election campaign in Murfreesboro. His opponent was Meredith P. Gentry. Gentry represented the newly organized Know-Nothing Party who called themselves "Native Americans." Johnson said that the Know-Nothing party was an ally "of the prince of darkness--the devil, his satanic majesty." Then he compared the Know Nothing party members with the John A. Murrell gang. The Know-Nothings in the audience replied by shouting in unison, "It's a lie." When Johnson continued by stating, "Show me the dimension of a Know-Nothing, and I will show you a huge reptile, upon whose neck the foot of every honest man ought to be placed." (Tennessee, A Short History, p. 235) This was ten years after the death of John A. Murrell, yet by using this comparison, Andrew Johnson heard the cocking of pistols by the Know-Nothings in the crowd. In 1855 comparing someone to John A. Murrell could still bring out strong emotions.

        In reality, John A. Murrell may have been nothing more than a charismatic organizer and leader of a band of small time thieves and slave stealers. Certainly many of the outrageous criminal acts associated with John A. Murrell were committed by men with no real link to the Murrell Klan. Certainly many other stories associated with the "Murrell Clan" were pure myth, legend and fiction. But this man came to be known as the Great Land Pirate and the leader of the notorious Murrell Clan. In the 182O’s and 183O’s people who lived and worked along the Natchez Trace, the Mississippi River and its tributaries and middle and west Tennessee lived in fear of contact with members of the "Murrell Klan," It was reputed to have included hundreds of members, if not thousands. Some of the leading political and business leaders of the time were reputed to have been members of the Murrell Clan. Many law enforcement officers were also reputed to be Murrell Clan members. In the early 19th century frontier the line between the lawless and the law-abiding citizens was not always easy to distinguish. John A. Murrell himself boasted that half of the Grand Council of his Mystic Clan was made up of "men of high standing and many of them in honorable and lucrative offices." It was reported that when he was about to make a deathbed confession, one of those members exclaimed, "Great God, John, don't give us all away!" (Botkin, p. 196)

       The Grand Council of the Murrell Clan met, according to the legend, near a large sycamore tree in the thickest part of the forest in Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from the town of Randolph in West Tennessee. It was at this "Grand Council Tree" where the Clansmen formed their dark plots and concocted their hellish plans. One of the more newsworthy episodes happened about twelve miles below Randolph. It shocked the whole country. B.A. Botkin described it with the following words.

       "A most atrocious and diabolical wholesale murder and robbery had been committed on the Arkansas side. The crew of a flatboat had been murdered in cold blood, disemboweled, and thrown in the river, and the boat-stores appropriated among the perpetrators of the foul deed. The Murrell Clan was charged with the inhuman and devilish act. Public meetings were called in different parts of the country to devise means to rid the country and clear the woods of the Clan, and to bring to immediate; punishment the murderers of the flatboat men. In Covington a campaign was formed to that end, under the command of Maj. Hockley and Grandville D. Searcey, and one, also formed in Randolph, under the command of Colonel Orville Shelby A flatboat, suited to the purpose, was procured, and the expedition consisting of some eighty or an hundred men, well armed, with several day's rations, floated out from Randolph, and down to the landing where wholesale murder had been committed. Their place of destination was Shawnee Village, some six or more miles from the Mississippi. Where the sheriff of the county resided. They were first to require of the sheriff to put the offenders under arrest and turn them over to be dealt with according to law. To the Shawnee Village the expedition moved in single file, along a

tortuous trail through the thick cane and jungle, until within a few miles of the village, when a shrill whistle at the head of the column startled the whole line. Answered by the sharp click! click! click! of the cocking of the rifles in the hands of Clansmen. In ambush, to the right flank of the moving file, and within less than a dozen yards.

       The chief of the Clan stepped out at the head of the expedition, and in a stentorian voice commanded the expedition to halt, saying:

"We have man for man; move forward another step and a rifle bullet will be sent through every man under your command."

       A parley was had, when more than man for man of the Clansmen rose from their hiding places in the thick cane, with their guns at present. The expedition had fallen into a trap; the Clansmen had not been idle in finding out the movements against them across the river. Doubtless many of them had been in attendance at the meetings held for the purpose of their destruction. The movement had been a rash one, and nothing was left to be done but to adopt the axiom that "prudence is the better part of valor." The leaders of the expedition were permitted to communicate with the sheriff, who promised to do what he could in having the offenders brought to justice; but alas for Arkansas and justice! The Sheriff himself was thought to be in sympathy with the Clan. And law was in the hands of the Clansmen. The expedition retraced their steps. Had it not been so formidable and well known by the Clansmen, every member of it would have found his grave in the Arkansas swamp." (Quoted from Botkin, p. 214)

       The preceding may have been an exaggeration. However, one record that can be somewhat trusted is the 1831-1842 Tennessee State Prison Record Book, which contains the following record.

        "John A. Murrell was received in the Penitentiary August seventeenth one thousand eight hundred and thirty four; he is five feet ten inches and a half in height and weighs from one hundred and fifty eight to one hundred and seventy pounds; dark hair, blue eyes, long nose and much pitted with small pox; tolerably fair complexion; twenty-eight years of age. Born in Lunenburgh County, Virginia and brought up in Williamson County, Tennessee, his mother, wife and two children reside in the neighborhood of Denmark about nine miles from Jackson, Madison County, Tennessee. His wife's maiden name was Mangham; her connexion reside on the waters of South Harpeth, Williamson Co., Tenn. His brother Wm. S. Murrell, a Druggist, resides in Cincinnati, Ohio; he has another brother living in Sumpter County, S. Carolina; he has a scar on the middle joint of the finger next to the little finger of his left hand and one on the middle finger of the same hand; a scar on the inside of the end of the finger next the little finger of the right hand; has generally followed farming; was found guilty of Negro stealing at the Circuit Court of Madison County and sentenced to Ten years confinement in the jail and penitentiary House of the State of Tennessee." (1831-1842 Prison Record Book, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, TN)

       According to the November 23, 1844 issue of the Tennessee Democrat, a Columbia newspaper, Murrell was released from prison in April 1844. He died of pulmonary consumption in Pikeville, Bledsoe County in November 1844. On his deathbed he reportedly acknowledged that he had - been guilty of almost every crime charged against him except murder. Regarding murder, he declared himself "guiltless."

        While Murrell had been in prison he reportedly talked freely but regretfully of his crimes. Before his death he became a member of good standing in the Methodist Church. He was buried in a graveyard near old Smyrna Church. His grave was dug at an angle of 45 degrees to the usual east and west line. A few nights after the burial the grave was violated, and his head was found to be severed and taken away. The body was reburied and has remained undisturbed since the reburial.

       Much of the story of John A Murrell's criminal career came from a book written by Virgil A. Stewart who had been a member of the clan. Stewart had many quotes from the great rogue, many of which he probably created himself. Murrell was born about 1804 in Virginia but very early in his life his father moved to Williamson County resided about a mile east from the Ridge meeting house, a Presbyterian Church on the Franklin and Lewisburg pike. In 1877 an observer wrote about this site:

       "We stood, recently, on its bare and lonely summit. Tall, precipitous and wood hills bound it on the east; on the north the same range of hills, with their bare southern slopes, seamed with gullies and ravines and dotted with patches of sedge, and interspersed with thickets of briers and thorns, presents a bare and uninviting prospect. South, lies the basin of Rutherford Creek. Looking west and south spreads out a lovely smiling valley, on which rich and fruitful bosom repose the neighboring villages of Thompson Station and Spring Hill. The hill on which we stood for half a century has borne the name of the celebrated freebooter. A few scattered hearthstones and wild rose vines now alone mark the birthplace of John A. Murrell. The place where the celebrated bandit chief was born, and played around these scattered hearthstones, in boyish innocence (and prattled by his father's side, and bowed his curly head upon a fond mother's knee) looks dreary and desolate. It is a hill of broom sedge and thorny thickets, a covert and walk for foxes; like the birthplace of other great criminals, it seems to be avoided; as a habitation by man, and blighted by the hand of Providence, and made desolate. (Columbia Herald and Mail, 13 April 1877)

       Now as to Murrell "bowing his curly head upon a fond mother's knee," the traditional legend goes like this. (I quoted from book The Devil's Backbone,  p.240)

       "Tradition, or fiction built high above tradition, presents the Murrell mother as a woman married to an itinerant preacher who only waited for his absence to make money as eager whore and avaricious thief. Preacher Murrell, it was said, left her to preach the gospel, fearful that otherwise he "would be after her all the time like a boar during the rutting season." When he was at home he tried to break her of "walking as she did, hips swinging and breasts undulating, and long thighs molding themselves against her skirt with each step." When her husband was away she made theft for her son easier because the traveler he robbed was "so weary from the sport she had given him on his bed...that he probably would have slept through an earthquake." (The Devil's Backbone, p. 240)

       Back to records, in 1823 Murrell was fined by the court for "riot." In 1825, he was arrested for gambling. In 1826 he was tried for horse stealing twice. On the second time he was sentenced to a year in prison. According to Virgil A. Stewart, Murrell was a ready killer and robber who disposed of bodies by filling their abdominal cavities with stones and sinking the bodies in streams. Murrell loved fine clothes. "And his recollections of high times in whorehouses from Nashville by Natchez to New Orleans capture forever the picture of those pleasure places. He had no poetic concern with "still unravished brides of quietness." Still, his statement of frolic and "high fun with old Mother Surgick's girls almost creates an eternal frieze of wanton middle-American girls in the gay and obscene positions of harlotry. (The Devil's Backbone. p 241)

       In 1845 the Police Gazette was established as a rowdy scandal sheet. Much of Virgil Stewart's book was rewritten and published by the Police Gazette, which is where the term, Great Western Land Pirate, was first applied to Murrell. All of the stories about Murrell agree that his slave stealing began in a small way. Murrell would promise a slave to lead him to freedom if the stolen Negro would let Murrell sell him once or twice on the way. After the stolen slave had been sold and stolen again so often that he might be recognizable, Murrell would kill him and dispose of the body by filling it with stones and dumping it in the river. Once he dealt with an entire slave family, mother father and children in such manner. Murrell obviously possessed some skills in organizing other rogues such as himself, building up his organization into what he called the Mystic Confederacy. He worked out deals with various 'fences' to sell his stolen loot, horses or slaves. According to Stewart, whose book was published in 1835, just before Murrell was sent to prison, Murrell planned a great slave rebellion in the southwest. Then in the panic that was sure to occur, Murrell calculated that he and his associates could loot plantations and whole towns.

     Obviously due to the intense Southern fears of the current abolitionist movement of the time, this plan as revealed by Stewart stirred up memories of the Nat Turner rebellion that had occurred in Virginia in 1831. Murrell, of course, was already on his way to jail for ten years. But on June 30 a vigilante organization seized several suspected Negro rebels who admitted, under beatings and lashings that they had planned a revolt for July 4. On July 2, the suspected slaves were hung. Shortly thereafter two white men were seized. Joshua Cotton and William Saunders, both "steam doctors" of anew therapies then in vogue, were charged in Mississippi with involvement in this Murrell backed slave insurrection.

     Newspapers in towns from Nashville to Natchez told of sensational and frightening stories of the revolt. Joshua Cotton admitted that he was a member of Murrell's gang. He implicated some other white men from Hinds County and Warren County, Mississippi and declared that the planned rebellion "embraced the whole slave region from Maryland to Louisiana and contemplated the total destruction of the white population of all the slave states." Cotton and Saunders were sentenced to be hanged by the vigilante jury. Saunders claimed to be innocent until the rope on a makeshift gallows silenced him forever. But Cotton publicly confirmed his guilt and warned the people to beware. He named other men. It seems unlikely that Murrell ever had planned such an insurrection, but Mississippi saw much violence tear through the state before the fear of a slave insurrection subsided. Terror and indignation at abolitionists rode the roads between Natchez and Nashville. It was the time when lynch law was the answer to the mostly unfounded fears of a slave insurrection.

        The Murrell Clan's reputation for far reaching terrorism was obviously expanded greatly by the exaggerations first published by Virgil Stewart in 1835. The sensational tabloid press, especially the Police Gazette, further enhanced the legend of the Murrell Clan. But it seems to me that the connection of the Murrell Clan to a widespread fear of a slave insurrection deserves so much of the credit for turning a small time rogue and slave stealer into the legendary big time terrorist leader. In the decade of the 183Os, Abolitionism was considered to be the ultimate evil in the slave-holding South. John A. Murrell lived less than forty years. The last ten years he spent in prison. In the last seven months of his life he became a member in good standing with the Methodist Church as he engaged in the trade of carpentry. As Shakespeare once wrote of men, the good that men do is often interred with their bones. Only the evil lives after them. In John A. Murrell's case, it was afar more evil reputation than even he deserved.      -Lowell Kirk  2002


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