Natchez Trace Bandits: John A. Murrell, A Vintage Vignette

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Natchez Trace Bandits: John A. Murrell
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
February 3, 2011

Of the river pirates and the Natchez Trace bandits, the Harpes were apparently motivated by their desire to inflict merciless cruelty in tortures of their victims. Mason was operated from profit motives, wanting other people's money, and killing was seen in his mind to preclude his own capture and punishment. A later and far more ominous Trace bandit was motivated by almost incomprehensible power lust, needing the wealth of others in the attempt to accomplish his sinister goals.

John A. Murrell was born in 1804 in Tennessee, probably about 50 miles south of Nashville on the Natchez Trace near the town of Columbia. His father owned a tavern along the trace, so John grew up familiar with the pioneer road and its travelers. He was also aware of frontier justice, wherein there were more than half a dozen offenses that carried a death penalty in early (sometimes “kangaroo”) courts, often carried out by “Judge Lynch”. Until the 1830s, death penalty crimes included murder, rape, arson, forgery, manslaughter, slave stealing, selling a free person into slavery, and a second offense of horse stealing. In spite of knowing the consequences, Murrell committed all of these crimes against early settlers and travelers. Yet, he eluded suspicion for years by pretending to be a sophisticated, educated, and wealthy landowner. His exploits and deceptions are detailed, along with graphic descriptions of crimes by the Harpes and Mason, as well as other river and Trace bandits, in the book “Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates (1930).

In his own words, Murrell and his siblings were taught “as soon as we could walk” to steal from travelers by his mother, who operated the inn when his father left her to manage the business. By age sixteen Murrell was regularly stealing horses in Mississippi and stole even his family's treasury for a trip to Nashville. There he met Harry Crenshaw, a thief and murderer who had sailed with the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte of Barataria. Crenshaw educated Murrell even further, and they embarked upon a long sweep of horse stealing and murder through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. As they turned toward New Orleans to spend their bounty, the journey took them through a town where rumors of an impending slave revolt had given alarm to the citizens. Everyone was armed at all times, and nobody bothered with two travelers, as they watched for marauding slaves. Not only did Murrell take the opportunity to commit robberies and murders that would be blamed on the slaves, he got an idea that festered for years before he implemented a grandiose plan of similar nature.

In New Orleans, Murrell quickly squandered his money on prostitutes and gambling. He left for Natchez with only his horse and clothes. There he encountered a man named Carter who taught him how to spout scriptures and sermons. Murrell's new disguise became that of a Methodist circuit riding preacher, holding camp meetings where he passed counterfeit currency and sold stolen slaves and robbed only a few men directly. However, his habit was still to eliminate witnesses, so his robberies always led to murder of the victims. Returning along the Trace to Tennessee, Murrell subtly added to his disguises. He married, built a home, developed friendships, and studied precepts of law and order, knowing how easy it was to hoodwink people. Still he passed counterfeit, stole slaves, sold them, then stole them again to resell them elsewhere – all the while pretending to be a Methodist minister that people could trust. He transitioned into the genteel manners and dress of a Southern plantation owner, while simultaneously agitating with Northern abolitionists to eliminate slavery.

Around 1829 Murrell and Crenshaw set up an “Underground Railroad” to take stolen slaves (who had been promised their freedom) west into Texas and Mexico, where they intended to sell them. However, on their first attempt, the slaves all died or escaped along the way. Considering the additional threat of Indian attacks, they abandoned the idea for a time. However, Murrell evolved the concept into a more elaborate scheme and built a “Conspiracy Clan” network of about 2,000 outlaws to foment a general rebellion of slaves along the Trace and the river. The plan was to simultaneously have slaves kill all of the white people on Christmas Day, 1835. The first target was to be Natchez, but New Orleans was reserved for Murrell himself, who planned to become head of an empire after looting and plundering the region during the turmoil. Of course, it all failed. Murrell was arrested for horse theft in July 1834, imprisoned, became an invalid and imbecile, and died at an unknown place and time. His organization tried to move up the scheduled uprising to July 4, but it was discovered and prevented by armed citizen groups. That event directly led to the river towns finally purging outlaws from their shorelines and establishment of more law and order along the Trace, which itself was already doomed by steamboat commerce and the clearing of lands. The day of the Trace outlaw was closing rapidly, with Murrell as its last notorious leader. Such was the environment that our pioneers had to survive and set right.

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