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The Hellbender John A. Murrell

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    Robert E. Howard had a powerful interest in the desperadoes of his native southwest. “I could fill a thick volume of such disconnected bits and still not exhaust my chaotic store,” he wrote to H.P. Lovecraft in June 1931. I’ve found that passion expressed again and again in his letters, and used them for material in a few posts I hope he’d have approved. There was “Murder Ranches and Gunmen,” “Silver and Steel – Bowie’s Mine,” and the recent two-parter on the lethal Hendry Brown, in his day one of Billy the Kid’s offsiders.

    REH certainly viewed with a blend of fascination and horror the career of John A. Murrell. His letter – the June 1931 missive mentioned above, to Lovecraft – describing it, contains some of his most eerie and evocative writing outside his horror stories. Perhaps even including those:

    John A. Murrell was a hellbender, in Southwest vernacular. He planned no less than an outlaw empire on the Mississippi river, with New Orleans as his capital and himself as emperor. Son of a tavern woman and an aristocratic gentleman, he seemed to have inherited the instincts of both, together with a warped mind that made him as ruthless and dangerous as a striking rattler.

    Time for a caution to the reader, concerning the difficulty of sorting out legend and exaggeration from fact. John Andrews Murrell became a legend of murderous evil. Perhaps a long bow has been drawn with regard to the number of his followers – more than a thousand, it was said – and his victims, at least a hundred of whom he was supposed to have killed himself. The man denied to the end of his days that he had ever been guilty of murder. He was certainly a systematic horse thief and slave stealer, and he operated along the notoriously bloody and crime-ridden trail of the Natchez Trace. Thus, how far he can be believed when he says he was never a killer, is problematic.

    Let’s start with the verifiable bit. He’d been born sometime in 1804 in Tennessee, third son of a completely respectable Methodist minister, Jeffrey Murrell – and you couldn’t, in those days, get much more respectable than being a Methodist. His mother Zilphia, nee Andrews, had been the daughter of a prosperous Virginia planter. Again, that was both genteel and accepted. She hadn’t been “a tavern woman” all her life; she inherited the inn from her parents. John A’s ancestors on both sides came from the state’s early landed families. Not a lawbreaker or ne’er-do-well in generations.

    The moral decline in the family began with Zilphia. She managed the inn (near Columbia, Tennessee), since her preacher husband was often away giving sermons. Jeffrey Murrell didn’t think his wife was decorous enough for a clergyman’s partner, it seems, since he commanded her (without much effect) to “quit walking the way she did, hips swinging and breasts undulating, and long thighs molding themselves against her skirt with each step.” That’s from the 1985 book, The Devil’s Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace, by Jonathan Daniels, and I’ve quoted it, naturally, for its salacious effect. As the cliche goes, “ … and now that I’ve got your attention … ”

    Poor old Jeffrey didn’t know the half of it. To put it bluntly, the voluptuous Zilphia was a bigger harlot than Rahab. She was also a thief to match any in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, and she taught her four sons to assist her. Male travelers with bulging purses were given the come-on by “Mom Murrell,” and she would whore with them while William, her eldest, or another son, took their coin, watches, and anything else worth having. They weren’t likely to complain later. It would have meant admitting in court that they’d paid the preacher’s wife for sex, and “Mom Murrell” would surely have denied it with a scandalized face, backed by her kids, well coached to appear wild with outrage at the slur on their mother’s honor.

    All Jeffrey Murrell’s sons turned out to be worthless. William was a mean, miserable lump of malice, and a coward besides. He deserted his wife and kids in the 1820s. She petitioned for divorce. Not-so-sweet William became a schoolteacher between 1820 and 1824, at Salem Church School in Houston County, Tennessee. After he’d whipped one of his young students, the boy’s mother hurled rocks at him with Biblical vim, and then came after him with a pitchfork. The craven William ran out of town. Having drifted to Maury County, he turned forger, for which he was caught, arrested and fined. What happened to him after that is unknown. It’s possible — but not confirmed — that he joined a counterfeiting ring in Arkansas.

    The second brother was James. He perjured himself on John’s behalf in 1823. The following year, he was charged with counterfeiting but acquitted. Maybe the siblings had the talent in common. Mark Twain, in Chapter 29 of his Life on the Mississippi, says that “Murel’s” gang was a highly organized group of “robbers, horse-thieves, negro-stealers and counterfeiters.” (Emphasis mine.)

    As for James, he apparently decided to straighten out. He headed for Louisiana and married, in 1827, Mary McBride, a blacksmith’s daughter. I suppose we can hope he treated her well, if only from fear of her father’s muscle. At least she got a handsome man. The Murrells were a strikingly good-looking family. The notorious John had a splendid appearance, and his sister, Leanna Murrell (one of three or four girls) was both a beauty and a superb dancer.

    That’s by the way, though.

    The youngest brother, Jeffrey junior, proved another complete no-hoper. He “was arrested in Williamson County in 1828 on charges of keeping a whorehouse.” (The Life of John A. Murrell by Gordon P. Bonnet.) A female reprobate named Polly Staggs was charged beside him. Later in 1828 Jeffrey married a Mary Staggs – perhaps Polly’s sister, or Polly herself under an alias. Then he turned to fencing stolen goods, but he doesn’t seem to have been collared by the law again.

    John, the Murrell who acquired the most dreadful record, was trained as a thief while still small, like his brothers. Growing older, he grew worse. He was first arrested in 1822, when he would have been about sixteen. Along with William and James he was charged with “riot.” They were supposed to have entered and damaged the house of a man named Thomas Merritt, making truculent threats. The following year, John graduated to stealing a horse, a form of crime that was to become one of his specialties later. This animal was a mare that belonged to a neighbor. James testified under oath that John had been with him, asleep in their room, when the crime occurred. He was caught in the lie. Released on bond into the custody of his father and uncle, John failed to appear in court, which left his relatives holding the bag.His unfortunate father was seventy-four and feeble by then. William Shumate, the neighbor whose mare had been stolen, harassed him vindictively. Zilphia was assaulted, it’s said. We can probably save our sympathy where she’s concerned. In time (three years after stealing Shumate’s mare) the absconding John was captured and stood trial in Nashville. He was given thirty lashes, six hours in the pillory, one year’s jail, and also sentenced to be branded with the letters “HT” (Horse Thief) on his thumb. The branding may not have been carried out, though one biographer claimed to have witnessed it. But a later, detailed description of the “western land pirate” says nothing about an HT brand on his thumb.

    John A. Murrell was released from jail in 1827. He married Elizabeth Mangham, a farmer’s daughter with a reputation as a brazen trollop, in 1829. No doubt they were compatible; it’s what John was used to.

    John also became friends around then with a rogue named Daniel Crenshaw, who to quote REH, was “a thief, a reaver, a slayer.” Birds of a feather began flocking together, drawn by Murrell’s boldness and charisma, organized and made successful by his devilishly inventive wits. Jail and flogging had evidently inspired him to become a lot more adroit at avoiding capture.

    It’s been mentioned already that the Murrells were handsome, and John’s looks were as splendid as his nature was shocking. He was partial to fine clothes and fine horses to go with his appearance. He obtained all he wanted, in the way he’d learned in his childhood. The influence of his band, and its operations, extended from end to end of the Natchez Trace – from Nashville, Tennessee, down to Port Gibson and Natchez on the mighty Mississippi. It was a wild, grim wilderness where anything might happen and robbery was common, often accompanied by murder.

    At this point I’ll give the floor briefly to Robert E. Howard:

    It was the wilderness that bred Mason, the Harpes and John A. Murrell. Just as the gloom and silence of the New England hills brought forth the lurking shadows in the souls of the Puritans, so the grim deeps of the wilderness brought forth the slumbering atavism and primordial instincts of inhabitants, and made ordinary men into monstrosities from whose foul and abhorrent image the mind shrinks aghast.

    And what a grisly fantasy was John A. Murrell’s imperial dream and what a strange and ghastly empire he planned! Surely in that man slept the seeds of greatness, overshadowed by the black petals of madness.

    The shadow of John A. Murrell and the shadow of the threat of his outlaw empire still hovered over the pine woods and the river lands in the 1850’s when my great-grandfather, Squire James Henry, came west along the Wilderness Road with fifty head of fine cattle, a drove of horses, and five big wagons loaded with his family, slaves and belongings.

    They were in Murrell’s country, and though he had recently been released from prison and his planned slave-uprising had been nipped in the bud, his name was still one to conjure shudders. And in the sunset they came to a wild, frothing river, lashed to frenzy by the flooding rain, and saw, on the other side, a man sitting on a log beneath the forest branches. Something about his posture fired grisly recognition in the mind of a man traveling with the wagon-train and he paled and cried out that it was John A. Murrell who sat on the opposite bank.

    It was probably a family tradition that REH’s great-grandfather had encountered Murrell as he travelled west into Texas. REH says it happened in the 1850s. It’s possible, but what finally happened to Murrell and when he died is obscure. The account REH gives describes the man by the river as a prematurely aged, demented wreck.

    Before that, though … well, Murrell was dreaded as not even the Devil was dreaded in those parts. At this nice safe distance it could be as well to take his legend with salt. As Lowell Kirk reminds us:

    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.

    We can bet on it. Legend and folklore always exaggerate. Probably every bloody crime committed by every gang along the Natchez Road in the years 1820 to 1835 was later attributed to Murrell’s “Mystic Clan.” Still, his grisly misdeeds were real enough, and I can’t regard them as exactly “small time.” There were many kinds of pioneers in the youthful U.S.A. Murrell proved a pioneer of organized crime.

    The Randolph Recorder declared in 1834 that:

    Murrell has long been known in this state as a dangerous and desperate freebooter, and the chief of a clan of counterfeiters, horse and negro stealers, stretching from near the mouth of the Ohio several hundred miles down the Mississippi valley through Arkansas, into the interior of Mississippi and Alabama. The clan consists… of no less than several hundred. (Quoted by Gordon P. Bonnet in The Life of John A. Murrell.)

    The following year, in Athens, Tennessee, a book was published dealing with his evil career. The author was Augustus Q. Walton, ghost-writing it for Virgil Stewart, a former member of Murrell’s Council. Its resounding title was, A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, the Great Western Land Pirate, Together with His System of Villainy, 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 Virgil A. Stewart, the Young Man Who Detected Him: To Which is Added a Biographical Sketch of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart.

    Captain Marryatt’s A Diary in America has a section dealing with Murrell that seems to be based on Walton’s 1835 account, as (directly or indirectly) was Chapter 29 of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. It’s interesting that in any source, the crimes attributed to Murrell’s (or Murel’s) “Mystic Clan” include counterfeiting as one of the major activities. In the early United States of America, counterfeiting was an immense problem. Any person making a transaction in paper currency always had to worry whether the bills he was getting were true or phony. Printing processes were crude, and regional banks issued their own currency bills without Federal regulation. Counterfeiters could, and did, produce fake money in the names of banks that didn’t even exist, passing it to the unwary, and like moonshiners, they could practice their art in the boondocks. If Murrell had professional printers and engravers among his henchmen, he could have created his own cash in large amounts, as well as plundering goods, gold and livestock.

    One of his tricks was to pose as a travelling preacher and hold a congregation riveted with his fiery sermons. Murrell was probably far better at it than his father, since the son was both more intelligent and a consummate humbug. Outside the church, his gang would steal the best of the horses tethered there. Most accounts of his career observe tongue-in-cheek that his own horse was never among those stolen, but I suspect it often was. A cunning rogue like John A. would have the forethought to look like an innocent victim himself, and his gang would restore his splendid horse to the chief later. After his first spell behind bars, he was able to stay out of jail for years despite his depredations, and he didn’t do that by being simple.

    Another specialty of his was stealing slaves. The usual method was for him to approach a slave yearning for freedom with a tempting proposition. The slave would run off, and Murrell would take him (or her) under his wing. He’d hide the escapee for a time. Provided the black co-operated while Murrell took him to another town (or state) and sold him again, he would be emancipated in earnest in some free state, after the scam had been repeated several times, and given a stake in silver dollars.

    What Murrell would actually do was murder the runaway, once his description began to be circulated too widely, and sink the corpse in a river or swamp. To make sure the body stayed submerged, Murrell and his boys would disembowel it and stuff the abdominal cavity with rocks. After a while the catfish and turtles would reduce it to bones. This was his preferred way to dispose of white victims of his robberies as well. His basic precept was, “Dead men don’t talk,” and he followed it consistently.

    That he suborned slaves to run from their masters may be one reason he was regarded with such particular horror. The Harpes and others had been brutal murderers. This was the slave-holding south, however, and a slave-stealer on a big scale – whatever his motives – threatened the very basis of society. Nat Turner’s ferocious rising had taken place in 1831, precisely while Murrell was building his criminal organization, and while it didn’t come close to succeeding, it killed for all time the beloved myth that slaves were content in slavery and well suited to it. New laws forbidding slaves to be educated, or to gather in groups, had been passed immediately after. The slave revolts of the late eighteenth century, in the sugar islands, were remembered also; the revolts led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe.

    Slave risings were a nightmare of every white man in the slave states. The horror the mere thought of one carried with it is strongly portrayed in REH’s story, “Black Canaan.” The whisper, “Trouble on Tulorosa Creek!” takes the narrator back to his home town as quickly as he can get there, remembering the bloody slave rising of a previous generation. If anything, “Black Canaan,” powerful though it is, it understates the strength of feeling and the stark dread the masters felt when the blacks seemed likely to revolt. Murrell helped slaves escape, which made him akin to abolitionists in the slave-owner’s minds. Actually, the demise of slavery was the last thing he wanted; it provided his income as surely as if he’d been a blackbird skipper in the Bight of Benin. But emotion cut across logic like the slash of a Bowie knife. Murrell went down in popular legend as the would-be promoter of a vast and bloody slave insurrection.

    True or not true?

    Well, according to contemporary newspaper stories, official reports, formal confessions and testimony from Murrell’s own close associates, especially Virgil Stewart, the situation was this:

    His “Mystic Clan” numbered over a thousand. His Grand Council devised planning and policy, and carried out a good many of the more desperate and profitable crimes that called for brains. The others, as Stewart said, would be trusted with “nothing except that which they are immediately concerned with. We have them to do what we are not willing to do ourselves. They always stand between us and danger. For a few dollars we can get one of them to run a Negro or a fine horse to some place where we can go and take possession of it without any danger: and there is no danger in this fellow then; for he has become the offender, and of course he is bound to secrecy. This class is what we term the Strikers.

    Stewart quoted Murrell as once saying to him that “ … in the State of Georgia. I made my way … to Williamson County, the old stomping ground. I robbed eleven men but I preached some fine sermons, and scattered some counterfeit United States paper among my brethren.” It’s pretty sure that not all the men he robbed survived the experience. Murrell and his close henchman Daniel Crenshaw once met a friendly young fellow on the road who’d been to Tennessee to “buy a drove of hogs,” but the price being higher than he’d expected, he decided against buying, and set off for home with the cash money still on him. He talked too freely to these two affable charmers, who soon knew he was flush, and Crenshaw gave Murrell a wink. “I understood his idea,” Murrell remarked. The youngster ended in a ravine by a cliff. Murrell and Crenshaw caroused and gambled on his twelve hundred dollars until it was gone.

    At another time, Murrell’s “Mystic Clan” attacked a flatboat, looted its cargo, and murdered every one of the crew, tough though flatboatmen were. A band of eighty or a hundred men went out after the killers, and after going on flatboats to the town of Shawnee, they set out through the canebrakes. They walked into an ambush. Murrell’s gang had known about their movements. Some of the “Clan” had probably been at the very meetings where the means of bringing them to justice were discussed. The expedition was forced to turn back. It was considered at the time that if it hadn’t been large and well armed, and led by a prominent man, they would all have died as the flatboat crew had died, with their bodies being sunk in an Arkansas swamp. Instead, Murrell’s “Clan” settled for making them retreat without one prisoner. The expedition failed, it was thought, partly because the local sheriff had been one of Murrell’s agents.

    Like Pretty Boy Floyd in a later time, Murrell was credited with every violent crime in the region. Quite a number of places are said to have been his main refuge or hideout. The Devil’s Punchbowl in Tunica County, Mississippi, is one, and Island 37 in Tipton County, Tennessee, is another. (Mark Twain mentions that as one of the gang’s “principal abiding places.”) There was also the “Neutral Ground” in Louisiana.

    Murrell began laying his most ambitious scheme in 1835. This was the great conspiracy to “excite the negroes to rebellion” across several states in all the large plantations, take New Orleans, burn numerous towns, and plunder all that vast region. Those who confessed later were pretty consistent in saying that the object of the exercise was not to free Negroes, but to carry out wholesale looting under cover of the spreading insurrection. That would indicate that Murrell hadn’t gone completely crazy. He didn’t imagine, for instance, that such a state of affairs could last, or that he could conquer New Orleans and hold a number of states for more than the briefest time. We’ll never know what his ultimate plans were. Perhaps he meant to have a ship waiting at a convenient port. He might have headed for Europe and retirement, with vast wealth, when the revolt had been crushed and his dupes were suffering the consequences.

    His delusion lay in the belief that his insurrection would survive to properly begin. No slave revolt in the old south ever lasted beyond the planning stage. Spies, finks and stool pigeons were everywhere. So were the slave patrols, the dreaded “pattyrollers,” who were hard to evade; surveillance was close, to put it mildly. Only Nat Turner’s revolt ever got off the ground, and that because it was not planned in advance. Instead it was a spontaneous outbreak of fury and violence. Denmark Vesey’s projected rising in Charleston, Carolina, on the other hand, just because the freedman Vesey was preparing the revolt with care, involved letting others into his confidence one by one. It was necessary, but it led to disaster. He was betrayed, as he was sure to be. The situation in the slave-holding south wasn’t dissimilar to that in Tsarist Russia, where the Tsar’s ubiquitous undercover police, the so-called “White Terror,” were efficient and implacable. “When three sit down to conspire,” said the peasants sourly, “two are police agents and the third a fool.”

    Murrell’s scheme was also betrayed.

    Virgil Stewart took credit for exposing the menace in his 1835 pamphlet with the resounding title, ghost-written by his friend Walton. He claimed to have infiltrated the “Mystic Clan” originally to trace three stolen slaves, property of Parson J. Henning. I suspect Stewart was in fact a genuine member and as much a criminal as any of the rest, but decided this particular scheme was just too big and monstrous for him. (Always supposing the spectacular revelations he and others made had real substance.) In any case Virgil Stewart was widely accepted as the undercover hero who exposed Murrell’s plot. He’d promoted himself as such in his ghost-written pamphlet about “the Great Western Land Pirate.”

    Once the furious, fear-ridden backlash of arrests, lynchings and shootings began, other men threw off highly colored confessions like confetti at a wedding. Joshua Cotton, a quack doctor who belonged to Murrell’s Grand Council, said on July 4th 1835, “I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet. Blake’s boy Peter had his duty Assigned him, which was, to let such negroes into the secret as he could trust, generally the most daring scoundrels; the Negroes on most all the large plantations knew of it; and from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the fourth of July, and it would have been tried tonight ( and perhaps may yet) but for the detection of our plans.”

    Slaves were interrogated under the lash, and hanged when they confessed, all down the sparsely populated Mississippi Valley. The terror of the planned revolt was so great that many white men were lynched or legally condemned on the testimony of black slaves; not usual procedure in the south. Joshua Cotton and his friend Saunders, also one of the inner council and an intended captain of the revolt, were hanged. Before they died they implicated one Albe Dean, who went to a gibbet on their testimony, as did others; A.L. Donovan, Reuel Blake, and Lee Smith. It was only the beginning. “For years the trees in the South were filled with men hung for their part in John Murrell’s … scheme to incite slave revolt and take over of the governments of several states.”

    Credit for exposing the conspiracy rightly belonged less to Stewart than to a black slave named Tom Brannon. A plaque erected by the Florence, Alabama historical board reads:

    John A. Murrell, known as the ‘Great Western Land Pirate,’ was captured near this site in the winter of 1834. He was said to have killed over 400 people, including many kidnapped slaves. His arrest was brought about thought the clever maneuvering of Tom Brannon, a local African-American slave.

    Tom Brannon was born near Nashville. A cotton planter called Ricks owned him first, when he was a young boy, and later he was sold to James Irvine, a building contractor in Florence, Alabama. Tom Brannon as an adult was a skilled brickwork mason. That made him worth several thousand dollars, the cause of Murrell’s interest in him. The master bandit approached this valuable slave in 1831, with his usual offer to help him abscond and gain freedom. Brannon was too shrewd to trust Murrell; the Negroes had their own grapevine, and many of them probably knew about the frequent fate – or at least the disappearance – of slaves Murrell “helped” to “escape.”

    Three years later, we can suppose, Tom Brannon heard rumors of Murrell’s grand project by the same means. Perhaps he didn’t want Florence, Alabama, to be among the towns that would burn and be looted if the land pirate’s design succeeded. He found a way to approach Murrell and tell him he’d changed his mind, now wished to run off, and hoped Murrell’s offer still applied. It did. The skilled bricklayer was no less valuable now than he had been three years previous. Brannon told his master about Murrell’s proposition, and James Irvine in turn told a circuit court clerk, William Garrett. Both Irvine and Brannon knew the man and trusted him.

    When Brannon received word that Murrell was waiting, the court clerk was attending a revival meeting at the First Methodist Church. Brannon hurried there and stepped unobtrusively down the aisle, looking for Garrett, as the preacher was warming up and the “Hallelujahs!” had scarcely begun. Outside the church, Garrett heard that Murrell meant to combine his meeting with Brannon with a second errand – obtaining a wagon-load of grain to supply his bandits, from men named Rom and Randall. Garrett found them, and ordered them to delay taking the grain to the rendezvous, so that he’d have time to gather a posse.

    Randall didn’t comply. Afraid of the notorious “land pirate” (who wouldn’t be?) he delivered the grain without delay – and warned Murrell the law was about to descend. Tom Brannon was supposed to meet him in a tavern just west of Florence, near the Waterloo Road Bridge, but when Brannon arrived, Murrell had already left.

    His mistake was in trying to drive away on the slow-moving grain wagon. Maybe he was too confident in his fearsome reputation and the high-level connections he had. This time, he’d miscalculated; his current project was too intolerable, socially and politically. He was caught. As they used to say on that old British crime show, The Sweeney, “You’re nicked, son.”

    And everybody, including Virgil Stewart – once Murrell was behind bars – started blabbing.

    Stewart’s friend Walton wrote and published his famous pamphlet about “the Great Western Land Pirate”. Highly placed men declared it was exaggerated nonsense and even wrote counter-pamphlets. Tom Brannon got the unconscionably cheap reward of a hundred bucks. Murrell’s former dark immunity may have remained with him to a degree. He wasn’t tried for murder, or for fomenting a revolt, but for slave harboring. He drew a sentence of ten years. It began on August 17th, 1834.

    A decade in prison reduced the handsome, dreaded Murrell to a husk of his former self. He’d contracted jail tuberculosis and was reported by the Tennessee Democrat to have died only seven months after his release. If so, he’d have been long buried by the time REH’s great-grandfather, Squire James Henry, came along the Wilderness Road in the 1850s. There are conflicting stories, though, and the Democrat might have erred. Regardless of the precise year, Robert E. Howard’s description of Murrell in his final condition in this world is vivid, harrowing, and most likely accurate.

    His face was worn and lined and prematurely old. From beneath wispy white hair, pale, glassy eyes stared through the Squire and far, far beyond him. A rifle lay by the log, like a forgotten bauble. There he sat, in a cloud of lost dreams and dim red visions, the King of the Mississippi – who had worn his crown and pressed his regal seat only in mad visions – the monarch that was to be, in that mad, black kingdom of death and destruction, whose plan was conceived in insanity and crushed in blood and terror. His face was old beyond the ken of men, his eyes were those of a ghost – and his slim white hands that had ripped so many shuddering souls from their fleshly bodies, lay limp on the log that was his final throne.

    And so the curtain of iron laughter rings down on the red comedy, and the gods cut the string on which their puppet dances, flinging him into the pit of lost desire. And the red dream of glory and power and gilded empire ended on a rotting log by a nameless river where frogs croaked from the mud and the rain dripped drearily from the shaking branches, black against the sunset. Something about the thing slightly awed the wild Irish planter, and without a word he reined away, gesturing for the wagons to follow. They took up the long westward trek again, lumbering away through the trees; and still John A. Murrell sat upon his log, hearing naught, seeing naught, lost in the shadows of old dreams, and night fell over the wilderness.

    The notorious land pirate died in Pikeville, Tennessee on November 1, 1844 and was buried in the Smyrna Cemetery, located in Cold Spring, Tennessee. The cause of death was pulmonary consumption. On his death bed, he acknowledged he was guilty of almost everything that had ever been charged against him except murder. Soon after he was buried, grave robbers — supposedly two doctors — dug up the body and decapitated it. It seems that there was still a reward for Murrell’s skull.

    Originally, a large rock slab was used to cover the grave, but today a tombstone reading “John A. Murrell” marks the grave.


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