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John Murrell (bandit): Wikis


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John Murrell (also spelled as Murel and Murrel)(1806?-1844), a near-legendary bandit operating in the United States along the Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. Convicted for his crimes in Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee, Murrell was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary from 1834 to 1844.[1] According to prison records, he was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia and raised in Williamson County, Tennessee. When incarcerated, his mother, wife and two children lived in the vicinity of Denmark, Tennessee. Shortly after release from prison, Murrell died of "pulmonary consumption" (probably tuberculosis) in Pikeville, Tennessee. In a deathbed confession, Murrell admitted to being guilty of most the crimes charged against him except murder, to which he claimed to be "guiltless."[1]


Accepted claims

Accepted facts about his life include these:

  • He stole horses, and at least once was caught with a freed slave living on his property. He was sentenced to ten years in a Tennessee prison for slave-stealing.[2]
  • Murrell was one of three brothers who were known to be petty thieves. Their father was a Methodist circuit preacher.
  • A young man named Virgil Stewart, in 1835, wrote an account, thought to be fictitious, of the history of John Murrell 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.
  • After Murrell died nine months after leaving prison, parts of him were dug up and stolen. His skull is still missing, but one of his thumbs is in the possession of the Tennessee State Museum.

Disputed claims

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,[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 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 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. However, he is also claimed to have been born in 1791 [2]. 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.

Modern appearances

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 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 Murrell and the Harpe Brothers in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, 1956.


  • Penick,James L. (1982). THE GREAT WESTERN LAND PIRATE: John A. Murrell in Legend and History. University of Missouri Press.  
  • Wellman, Paul L. (1964). SPAWN OF EVIL. Doubleday & Company.  

External links



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