John Murrell was always trouble, but he and his criminal network terrorized much of the south in ways that no organized crime figures have before or since. Called the “Great Western Land Pirate,” the facts of his life are dramatically conflicted among biographers, but he nevertheless caused total chaos from the mountains of Tennessee to the edges of Texas in his criminal career in the 1820s and 1830s.
John Andrews Murrell was born sometime between 1800 and 1806. His father, a Methodist circuit-rider preacher, raised the growing family in eastern Tennessee shortly afterward. Murrell was the third of eight children, and as his father’s ministry required him to ride the long, dangerous distances from one church to the next each week, he saw very little of his father growing up.
He was in trouble with the law at a young age. He was convicted as a teenager of causing a riot in which he threatened a Tennessee man. In 1826, he was convicted of stealing a horse and sentenced to be branded for the crime instead of imprisonment, as penitentiaries were still rare. By his early twenties, he was posing as a Methodist preacher, traveling from one place to another along the Mississippi River basin. He mastered small cons to talk people out of their money and stole whatever he could.
His robberies became increasingly daring, and he developed a network of thieves that became known across the south as the Mystic Clan. Estimates put the strength of this organization at more than 500 people. One of his hideouts was in East Arkansas where he ran a counterfeiting ring and sold stolen horses. Murrell also resorted to stealing slaves, often telling them he would help them escape only to sell them to someone else. In the mid-1820s, he began holing up in an area called the Neutral Strip, a stretch of land along the Sabine River in western Louisiana where the United States had only recently settled a land dispute with Spain. As such, it was still a relatively lawless area. Murrell supposedly hid his ill-gotten gains in the caves near the Sabine River, now the Texas border. He and his men were known to venture into Texas on occasion.
In 1834, he planned to incite a major slave uprising across the south. In the chaos, he and his Mystic Clan aimed to loot and steal as much as they could, including slaves and horses. Word spread quickly and panic set in. Before it could be set into motion, Murrell was arrested in Tennessee and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in the state penitentiary for slave theft. In the meantime, the plans for the insurrection continued, causing riots in Nashville and Memphis in July 1835. Alleged conspirators were arrested in New Orleans and Alabama. Thirty people were hanged for threatening a rebellion, including 20 slaves.
Murrell was released from prison in April 1844. Reportedly, he lived the life of a model citizen as a blacksmith after his release. The official record is that he died after a prolonged illness in November in the small community of Pikeville, Tennessee, admitting to all his crimes but the killings with his last breaths. He was allegedly buried at the Methodist cemetery in Smyrna where his body was later dug up and dismembered. Parts of his body, including his head, were supposedly displayed at county fairs across the south for the next several years. The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville displays what they claim is his thumb.
But others insist that the ending for one of the south’s most notorious figures was not so simple or mundane. Stories circulated for years that Murrell managed to slip away once again, perhaps to Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, or even England, where he lived for many years more on his looted bounty. Others claim that surviving members of his gang turned on him and killed him. No reports of any further crimes attributed to him were reported, and no evidence definitively points to him living after 1844. However, the Mystic Clan continued to operate into the 1850s, including a raid on a steamboat in Chicot County carrying barrels of whiskey resulted in not only the loss of cargo but the sinking of the boat itself. Locals still refer to the scene of the sinking as “Whiskey Chute.”
The real story of John Murrell may be disputed for some time. While it was comparatively easy for any individual to disappear and start a completely new life at that time, it was also quite common for people to succumb to illnesses at young ages. Murrell’s story had a considerable impact on a young Samuel L. Clemens, who grew up near the Mississippi River in Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s and was better known to the world as Mark Twain. Stories about Murrell’s stolen treasure played a prominent part in his 1876 novel Tom Sawyer. As the years have rolled by, Murrell’s legend continues to be retold, though often more as myth than fact.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Dr. Bridges can be reached by email at email@example.com.