Independence Day, 1835: the John A. Murrell conspiracy and the lynching of the Vicksburg gamblers in literature.
But this state of the public mind was characteristic of the period of time to which I now refer. It was contemporaneous with the Murrell excitement.... When the yellow fever prevails as an epidemic, every other disease seems inclined to run into it, and assume its type. So, during the Murrell excitement, every crime was connected with it. (169) - Ibredix, 1851 Now the bees know how to sarve out such chaps, for they have their drones too. Well they reckon its no fun, a making of honey all summer, for these idle critters to eat all winter - so they give 'em Lynch Law. They have a regular built mob of citizens, and string up the drones like the Vixburg gamblers. (34) - Thomas Chandler Haliburton, 1836
1835 HAS LONG BEEN RENOWNED AS AN EXTRAORDINARY YEAR FOR THE Mississippi, not least because November witnessed the birth of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Events in the summer had already ensured that Independence Day, 1835, would enjoy a long afterlife in memory. Violence spread along the river. In Madison County, Mississippi, particularly the towns of Beattie's Bluff and Livingston, paranoid terror gripped the population. It was widely believed that a criminal conspiracy masterminded by the (already incarcerated) outlaw John A. Murrell was about to result in a slave rebellion, timed to coincide with the upcoming national holiday. From the end of June to the middle of July, mob violence and vigilante justice held sway, resulting in "several dozen" deaths and lynchings (Penick 3). Itinerant whites--primarily steam doctors--were hanged alongside suspected slaves. As the Columbus (Miss.) Democratic Press described Murrell's plot, "A more diabolical attempt--a deeper laid scheme of villainy, was never brought to light.... White men ... have, with a fiend like madness, instigated the ignorant and generally contented African, to rise"(Niles' Weekly Register, August 8, 1835, 403).
In Vicksburg, tensions between the town and its itinerant community of gamblers were about to ignite. It began with a brawl, at the Fourth of July celebration hosted by the Vicksburg militia, between some of its members and a gambler (or a known associate of gamblers), Francis Cabler. After tarring and feathering Cabler, the militia resolved upon the formation of an Anti-Gambling Committee. Gamblers were given twenty-four hours to leave town. After the allotted period of time had passed, the militia and a civilian mob descended upon the "Kangaroos," the infamous waterfront district that took its name from a famous gambling-house that had burned down the year before. Breaking up roulette wheels and faro tables as they went, the militia found a group of individuals ensconced in Alfred North's coffee house. After an exchange of shots the militia stormed the building. One of its members, Dr. Hugh Bodley, was shot dead. Five men--labeled as gamblers--were seized and promptly hanged. Other river towns followed suit, exiling, though not executing, their own gambling communities. The Louisville Advertiserannounced that the "proceedings at Vicksburg have kindled a spirit throughout the lower country which is breaking forth at every point, and obliging the blackleg fraternity to make their escape with all haste" (Niles" Weekly Register, August 8, 1835, 401).
Connected by time and geography, the two events were conflated almost immediately. They have been linked together, ideologically and imaginatively, ever since. Without delay, the Madison County lynchers commended their colleagues in Vicksburg for "arresting and speedily bringing to condign punishment, those inhuman monsters who have been engaged in plotting and maturing such diabolical measures for the destruction of the lives of the innocent and virtuous" (Penick 147). In the aftermath, the terms "Murrell," "gambler," and "abolitionist" became essentially interchangeable. The Mississippian, for example, called on the army to clear the Arkansas morass, the alleged home of Murrell's headquarters, of "gamblers and abolitionists from the lower country" (Penick 155). The Lynchburg Virginian insinuated a similar connection, offering a "salutary caution ... particularly in reference to that vagrant crew ... who, being evidently without means of livelihood, subsist by roguery, and who are always ready to embark in any scheme of villainy which promises to supply their craving appetite for plunder" (Niles" Weekly Register, August 8, 1835, 405). Looking back on events in 1851, Samuel Hammett, writing as Philip Paxton, gave full expression to the assumed connection between the two groups. "The hanging of the gamblers at Vicksburg," he wrote, "occurred during the Murrell excitement, when it was known that the gamblers as a body belonged to, or were cognizant of, the conspiracy" ("Uses" 218).
It is not the intention of this article to revisit, re-scrutinize, and re-narrate in detail these separate outbursts of community violence. Indeed, James Lal Penick, in The Great Western Land Pirate: John A. Murrell in Legend and History, has provided enough of a definitive treatment of those events to make such an exercise essentially redundant. It is certainly worth asserting that, in essence, this article agrees with Penick's conclusions: that Murrell was, in reality, "an indifferent thief" who was expanded into extraordinary proportions by outright fabrications, probably told by Virgil Stewart, the man who had apprehended Murrell and whose testimony secured his imprisonment; that there was no Mystic Clan and no organized conspiracy; and that there was no connection between Murrell and the Vicksburg gamblers (8). Neither are the historical facts of that Fourth of July the main concern of this article. Rather, their literary representations are its focus--and for good reason. The violence in Madison County, if not in Vicksburg as well, was in large part a reaction to the first fictional treatment and aggrandizement of John Murrell: Augustus Q. Walton's (probably Virgil Stewart's) A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, The Great Western Land Pirate, published in the spring of 1835. This imaginary account and the chimerical conspiracy that it described were certainly more important than John Murrell himself in provoking the violent events of Independence Day, 1835. It is, therefore, the neglected literary history of these events, and the extraordinary persistence of their defining stories, that forms the focus of this article.
In the intervening one hundred and seventy years, the stories of John Murrell and the Vicksburg gamblers have been told and retold, and put to a number of different uses by a wide range of storytellers and commentators. As Tom Sawyer concluded, "The wronger a conspiracy is, the better it is" (Twain, "Conspiracy" 141). Both events became definitive touchstones, nationally and internationally. They entered the popular vocabulary and were often at the lips and pens of those writing about life on the Mississippi. Events were assessed and reassessed. The ghosts of Murrell and the gamblers were resurrected by story-hungry travelers; called upon to help fight a variety of arguments; enlisted to spice up popular narratives or to self-aggrandize those who dropped their names; and finally, transformed from folklore into myth. They took hold of the public imagination in a variety of media and still haunt the South to this day. For Penick, the manner in which the "legend has been perpetrated by popularizers and novelists ... is too sad a tale to dwell on for long" (168). But the popular reputation of these events has always been more important, and far more significant, than the bald facts. It is precisely there that this article will dwell.
Beginnings: Reactions and Reconsiderations
Though 1834, dubbed the "Riot Year," had been notorious for public violence, it was 1835 that witnessed "the crest of rioting in the United States" (Prince 1). David Grimsted has concluded that in 1835 "there were 147 riots, 109 of them between July and October ... there were 46 proslavery riots (35 against abolitionists and 11 in response to insurrection scares) and 15 racial riots" (4). The lynchers in Madison County and Vicksburg were acting very much in the spirit of the times--indeed, came to be seen as representative of them. Hezekiah Niles, assessing the prevalence of extra-legal mob action in 1835, lamented: "The state of society is awful.... A bad feeling is getting up in several other places, and on many different accounts--but has burst out with the greatest force in Mississippi; where persons have been executed in an extraordinary manner" (Niles' Weekly Register, August 8, 1835, 380). By singling out Mississippi, Niles established a primacy for the Murrell conspiracy and the Vicksburg lynchings that would be echoed in the years to come. Cohee, writing in Harper's New Monthly in 1859, remembered well "the sensation with which the news of the hanging of the Vicksburg gamblers was received in the old States, and how soon the terms 'Lynch law' and 'lynching' became familiar as household words" (794). John Johnston, in the Catholic World in 1887, asserted: "The execution of the gamblers in Vicksburg about the year 1835 may be said to have inaugurated the practice of lynching on an extensive scale in the United States. The event startled the country and drew the attention of the whole world" (596). Indeed, when news reached London late in August, even The Timeswarned: "The treatment of the gamblers at Vicksburg will give some of our fashionable clubbists a crick in the neck" (The Times, August 25, 1835, 6).
The first and most important of the John Murrell publications was the History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, The Great Western Land Pirate, released in the early mouths of 1835 --after the real life Murrell had been incarcerated for slave-stealing, and a few months before his putative uprising. This is not the place for a dissection of the labyrinthine relationship between Murrell, his captor Stewart, and this extraordinary account. Whoever was responsible for the portrait of Murrell that appears in the History, however, succeeded admirably in creating a villain with the potential to fascinate--a perfect bogeyman for his place and time. Often presented as a dialogue between Stewart and Murrell, the narrative structure allowed the outlaw to speak to his audience directly. Boastful, witty, urbane; adopting the role of doctor, lawyer and, most notoriously, clergyman; luring away slaves, and placing himself at the head of a "Mystic Clan" that planned a slave revolution--Murrell emerged from the narrative fully formed as a consummate, charismatic villain carefully designed to play on the fears of the South. "Sir," he told Stewart, according to the History, "I am the leader of a noble band, of valiant and lordly bandits ... We design having our companies so stationed over the country, in the vicinity of the banks and large cities, that when the Negroes commence their carnage and slaughter, we will have detachments to fire the towns, and rob the banks" (Walton 27-31).
The account was not immediately swallowed whole. As the Arkansas Gazette asserted, early in June 1835,
As a specimen of composition, it is a miserable affair; but the rawhead and bloody bones character of its details is well calculated to excite popular interest and give it a wide circulation.... To the extraordinary disclosures made by Murrell ... we must oppose our scepticism. They are too incredible in themselves to be believed. (Penick 82)
Nonetheless, it circulated widely and, if Henry S. Foote is to be believed, it "awakened the most wide-spread excitement and alarm.... The people were apprehending that all the unnameable horrors of a servile revolt would soon blaze forth among them" (Bench 66). After all, memories of Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 were still very fresh. So too might have been Turner's assertion in his Confession: "It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th July" (Gray 11).
Events in Mississippi in July 1835 then served to give Walton's History a much greater plausibility. In the aftermath, the Lynchburg Virginian announced:
We have now before us a pamphlet containing a detailed account of the arrest of this daring freebooter, by Virgil A. Stewart, early in the year 1834, in the truth of which, however, so startling was its character, we placed but little confidence until that romantic narrative had been partially confirmed by recent events. We did not believe that such an incarnate fiend lived on the face of the earth. But we can no longer doubt its truth. (Niles' Weekly Register, August 8, 1835, 404)
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Thereafter, it seems that most crimes committed along the river were connected to Murrell. In Randolph, Tennessee, for example, "The crew of a flatboat had been murdered in cold blood ... The 'Murrell Clan' were charged with the inhuman and devilish act" (Williams 203). In 1836, H. R. Howard compounded the early expressions of the legend with the release of an updated (and slightly polished) edition of Walton's account, now called The History of Virgil A. Stewart, supplemented with accounts of the suppressed uprising, the lynchings in Vicksburg, and new references to abolitionists.
Four prominent public figures left revealing accounts of their reactions to (and, in two cases, later reassessments of) these events that reveal crucial ambivalences. Henry Foote played a contrary role in proceedings. He took a moderate line during the Murrell panic, and later asserted: "Never was there an instance of more extravagant and even maddening excitement amid a refined, intelligent, and virtue-loving people than that which I had the pain to witness in the counties of Central Mississippi in the summer of 1835" (Casket 251). But it seems that even a moderate like Foote could be caught up in events. One of the supporting documents in Howard's 1836 compilation was a letter from Foote in which he declared his "confidence in the developments made by Stewart" (Howard 262). Rhetorically, too, the spectre of 1835 emerged in 1848, when Foote famously warned Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire that if he dared to try and export abolitionism to Mississippi, "he would grace one of the tallest trees of the forest, with a rope around his neck" (Waldrep 40).
John A. Quitman was acting governor of Mississippi in 1835. Situated in Natchez he followed Vicksburg's lead and organized the "Adams County Anti-Gambling Society" which "rounded up a number of gamblers, whipped them severely, and ordered them to leave town" (James 259). Writing to his brother, Quitman concluded, "The excitement that existed in the upper part of this state last summer, like most other excitements about Negro insurrections, was more that of indignation than fear" (Claiborne 138). Historian John F. H. Claiborne, who edited Quitman's life and correspondence in 1860, was vehement in his denouncement of both Stewart--"a notorious scamp"--and the supposed conspiracy: "The whole 'plot,' and its tragical consequences, may now be regarded as one of the most extraordinary and lamentable hallucinations of our times" (138). But Quitman's involvement with the gamblers had a strange second act. In 1836, he led the Natchez Fencibles to Texas. Whilst in San Augustine, he encountered a "gang of gamblers," including some of those he had helped to expel from Mississippi. A standoff led to a friendship, and later, according to Quitman, one of the gamblers "saved my life" (145, 152). Even stranger, this apparent fact mirrored contemporary fiction. In a posthumous volume of Davy Crockett's memoirs, attributed to Richard Penn Smith, Crockett encountered a Mississippi gambler, Thimblerig, who "had luckily made his escape a short time before the recent clearing out of the sleight-of-hand gentry." Thimblerig resolved to reform, followed Crockett to Texas, and died heroically at his side at the Alamo (287).
Seargent Prentiss was absent from Mississippi during the violent summer. When he returned in September, he wrote to his mother and sisters that the town was "uncommonly quiet":
There is no danger of any further difficulties, and unfortunate as was the necessity of taking the strong measures which were adopted to rid the place of a gang of ruffians who had infested it for years with impunity, yet the result is most excellent.... There is hardly an individual in the State, who does not approve of the course taken by the citizens of Vicksburg. The excitement growing out of the insurrection of the slaves has subsided.... It ought certainly to serve as a warning to the abolitionists. (162)
Though supportive of the lynchings, he perhaps consciously avoided the word "gambler." Prentiss himself was famed for his betting propensities. In his account of these flush times, Joseph Baldwin memorably described him: "He bet thousands on the turn of a card and witnessed the success or failure of the wager with the nonchalance of a Mexican monte-player .... Starting to fight a duel, he laid down his hand at poker, to resume it with a smile when he returned" (199-200). Condemnation of the Vicksburg gamblers was, therefore, no indication of a more general condemnation of gambling or of a profound respect for the rule of law.
It was precisely the preservation of the law that concerned another lawyer--Abraham Lincoln. In an address to the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum he found "the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country" to be an "ill-omen." "Abstractly considered," Lincoln felt, "the hanging of the gamblers at Vicksburg, was of but little consequence. They constitute a portion of population that is worse than useless in any community." However: "When men take it into their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn someone, who is neither a gambler nor a murderer." Worse: "By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice" (1:108-11).
One man agreed. In September, a letter was sent to Hiram Runnels, the Governor of Mississippi: "I am the aged and distressed father of John Hullum, who, with four others, fell a victim to the fury of a relentless mob at Vicksburgh, on the 5th day of July last." Seeking to "bring the culprits to justice" Hullum was also keen to explode the distinction made between "the professional and the occasional gamester." According to Hullum, "there is no part of the United States where the despicable vice is so generally practised": "These are startling truths, and I allude to them not to palliate the offence, but to show that the recent crusade at Vicksburgh was not so much the result of a deep and abiding sense of justice and virtue, as it was of wicked hearts, bad passions, personal revenge, and a reckless spirit of insubordination to the laws" (Niles' Weekly Register, November 28, 1835, 219-220).
For the countless travelers who embarked on a journey along the Mississippi, particularly in the antebellum years, the mob justice of 1835 provided an important source of anecdote. Initially, it was Vicksburg, not Murrell, which featured most prominently. Diaries and letters not intended for publication reveal the prominence of the dead gamblers in the journeys, and minds, of a range of travelers. Passing through Mississippi in his journey from Virginia to Texas soon after the lynchings, William Fairfax Gray stayed at an establishment on the road to Clinton. He described the proprietress: "Mrs. Cowan is a little deranged at times, but now tolerably rational.... Had a brother concerned with the Vicksburg gamblers, which is said to have aggravated what was before an unsettled state of mind" (34). James D. Davidson traveled to Vicksburg in 1836 and described the town in his diary as "the famous Vicksburg of lynching memory." Arriving at the height of flush times, he also found the town in a "phrenzy ... run mad with speculation" and "full of Strangers" (Kellar 355-56). Thomas Taylor, writing to his wife from a stateroom in the steamboat taking him to Natchez in 1847, noted that they had just passed Vicksburg--"the celebrated headquarters of villainy" (Bronner 516).
Published accounts also demonstrate the long-lived prominence of these events in river gossip, and the eagerness with which travelers seized upon them to invigorate their narratives. Itinerant actors seemed particularly fond of the story. William Grattan Tyrone Power, traveling along the Mississippi in 1834, was shocked at what he found at Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Writing in 1836, he produced an account of the gamblers that seems to bear the imprint of the Murrell revelations: "The Legs are associated in gangs, have a system perfectly organized, and possess a large capital invested in this pursuit; they are seldom alone, always armed to the teeth, bound to sustain each other, and hold life at a pin's fee." Power warned (probably with the benefit of hindsight), "The people themselves, will, no doubt, one day interfere to abate this terrible scourge ... the retribution will be awful" (2:197-200). In his memoirs, fellow actor and Western impresario, Solomon Smith, narrated a story in which, traveling on a steamboat in 1835, he outwitted a pair of professional gamblers: "My friend Hubbard recollected he had urgent business at Vicksburg and left the boat. It so happened that the stranger who had played with us also disembarked at the same burg, where they met with a singular accident, being promiscuously hung, a few days afterward, by a mob!" (112). Similarly, in his biography of comic actor Dan Marble, Falconbridge could not "pass over the fate of the gamblers on the river," and inserted a lengthy retelling into his narrative (118).
The Honourable Charles Augustus Murray, passing through Natchez in 1836, simply reported that "Judge Lynch ... compelled some hundreds of the most notorious characters to leave the place at a few hours' notice" (2:177). Geologist George Featherstonhaugh, who found the lynching "highly characteristic of the manners of the part of the country it concerns" (linking the event to Mississippi's later repudiation of its debts), expressed his shock at allegedly witnessing "Mr Vick, after whom the place was called," board their steamboat and himself sit down "to faro with ... swindlers, and in the course of a very short time, gambling" (2: 247-50). Frederika Bremer's account of events, written long after the lynchings, demonstrated the misinformation that persistent river gossip spread. "Wicksburg," according to Bremer, had given the "band of desperate gamblers and adventurers ... eight days" to vacate the city, after which the citizenry "hanged the one who was the worst of the set" and set the rest adrift on the Mississippi. This, Bremer believed, "occurred last year" (2: 446). By 1854, the melodramatic story told to Frederick Piercy, "full of pathos," highlighted the degree of sensational populism that had surrounded the events in the popular press. In Piercy's account, a mother had dispatched her younger son to retrieve his gambler brother, "covered in shame," from Vicksburg. The two were reunited, but the mob seized them both as gamblers, and "both were hung" (44). After the war, the famous siege of Vicksburg eclipsed earlier events as the definitive traveller's tale. The lynchings, however, retained some notoriety. Edward King toured the postwar South and paused in Vicksburg to tell, sympathetically, the story of the gamblers: "Vicksburg was once the scene of a terrible popular vengeance. A number of gamblers ... having shown fight and killed one or two townsmen ... were themselves lynched, and buried among the bluffs" (King 289).
By far the most significant traveller's account of the Mississippi lynchings appeared in both parts of Frederick Marryat's Diary in America (1839). Novelist Marryat knew a good story when he heard one and gave extended accounts of both the Vicksburg lynchings and Murrell and his "deeds of horror." He circulated to a wide audience, verbatim, "portions of Murers confessions to Mr Stewart" taken from Walton's History(DiarySecond262-73). So prominent were the events in Marryat's account that the Southern Literary Messenger took offence: "In giving these disgusting and horrible details to his readers, he surely does not mean to insinuate, that such atrocities are frequent, even in the region of bowie-knives and street rencontres" (John Blair Dabney, 268).
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Marryat's treatment of the events of 1835 were particularly vital as a source for Mark Twain when he was composing his own account of travel on the river. Both lynching events feature in Life on the Mississippi (1883). The Vicksburg hangings appear only briefly. Almost fifty years after the event, they still provided matter for conversation. The talk "drifted ... into talk about the lynching of the gamblers in Vicksburg half a century ago" (Twain, Mississippi312). In the manuscript, Twain added that this "once-famous" episode "made that town to be mightily respected by that gentry for many a year afterward" (Twain, Cox ed. 266). John Murrell merited extended treatment (largely by way of a lengthy quotation lifted directly from Marryat's account--according to Twain, "a now forgotten book"). Comparing him with the outlaw of the day, Jesse James, Twain fervently ruled in favor of the earlier lawbreaker: "James was a retail rascal; Murel, wholesale ... What are James and his half-dozen vulgar rascals compared with this stately old-time criminal, with his sermons, his meditated insurrections and city-captures, and his majestic following of ten hundred men, sworn to do his evil will!" (Mississippi 312-13).
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"Pity we haven't got half a dozen Vicksburgs in Texas!" declared famous Texan Big-Foot Wallace approvingly (Duval 275). But such approval was not widespread, and in the antebellum years the events in Mississippi featured prominently as brickbats in the debates surrounding both slavery and gambling. They also found their way into more unlikely arguments. Three examples are illuminating. In Far West, Missouri, in June 1838, Sidney Rigdon, a member of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, made a fiery speech denouncing dissenting members of his church: "I will assist to ... erect a gallows on the square of Far West and hang them up as they did the gamblers at Vicksburgh, and it would be an act at which the angels would smile with approbation" (Brodie 217). The dissenters fled in fear of their lives. In 1855, Andrew Johnson declared, on more than one occasion, "I would as soon be found in the clan of John A. Murrell as in a Know-Nothing Council" (Brownlow 65). Taking their cue from this, the Know-Nothings accordingly attempted to prove that Johnson himself was a known associate of "Murrell men" and had pardoned them at every opportunity (Brownlow 70-71). For James Simmons, the question at hand was theological: "If God makes all His creatures pure and good, and we are as first made, who made Caligula, John A. Murrell, and some of our contemporaries, such as we all wot of?" (Simmons 263).
Murrell, as portrayed in Walton's first account, was no abolitionist. Unsurprisingly, the anti-slavery movement wasn't swift to claim him as one of their own. Others, however, were keen to try and foster a connection. In their biography of their father, William Lloyd Garrison's children noted of the Murrell conspiracy, "The abolitionists were not accused (as an association) of having any hand in it, but were of course vaguely connected with it" (Phillips 1: 485). But Angelina Grimke, writing in the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy, made it clear that such accusations had been made (and, in the process, highlighted her own doubts about the entire episode):
With regard to those white men, who, it was said, did try to raise an insurrection in Mississippi a year ago, and who were stated to be Abolitionists, none of them were proved to be members of Anti-Slavery Societies, and it must remain a matter of great doubt whether, even they were guilty of the crimes alleged against them, because when any community is thrown into such a panic as to inflict Lynch law upon accused persons, they cannot be supposed to be capable of judging with calmness and impartiality. (33)
For anti-slavery campaigner George Thompson, arrested for attempting to help a group of slaves escape in 1841, the association between Murrell and abolitionism was profoundly felt. At his trial the States Attorney "made a short speech, venting out his hatred to abolitionists--classed them with Mormons, yea, with the notorious land pirates, John Murrell's gang, holding us up as terrible creatures" (Thompson 75). But both Murrell and Vicksburg, however, were also frequently invoked by anti-slavery campaigners and interpreted in a variety of ways. Unfortunately for Elijah P. Lovejoy, the anti-abolition crowd that he addressed shortly before his death in November 1837 rather took him at his word: "Why should I flee from Alton? Is this not a free state? ... You may hang me up as the mob hung up the individuals of Vicksburg!" (Stowe 344).
Fugitive slave Henry Watson's story offered a different perspective on gambling in Vicksburg. Working as a hotel waiter in a neighboring Mississippi town, he "learned to gamble, in order to gain money from those who had the chance of making more than I made. In this wicked business I was very expert." When the gamblers were lynched in Vicksburg, the "excitement" spread to Watson's town. Characterized as one of the principal gamblers, Watson was sentenced to "sixty lashes, to be received at the public whipping-post"--after which, he "resolved never to gamble again" (Watson 26-27). Such an account would not have surprised Ebenezer Davies, an anti-slavery minister based in Guyana, who described Vicksburg as a "place, like nearly all other places in this region ... deeply stained with deeds of violence and blood" (101). Another minister, this time an American, was less immediately concerned with slavery, but having averred that "the Murell men ... pervaded the entire State," he described the lynching of the gamblers and their "burial in unhallowed graves" as a "tragedy" and another symptom of the disregard for life demonstrated by the "reign of the duello" in the South (Hutchison 53-54).
Richard Hildreth was the author of what is generally considered to be the first anti-slavery novel written by an American--The Slave; or, Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836). In the wake of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Hildreth released a revised edition of the novel, in which the titular hero returns to the South to rescue his wife and child. Hildreth set this return visit in 1835--in large part, it seems, so that he could make comprehensive narrative use of the lynchings. When Archy arrives in Vicksburg, for example: "an appalling prospect met my eyes: five men hanging by the neck, just swung off, as it would seem, from an extempore gallows, and struggling in the agonies of death." From there, Archy travels to Madison County, which he finds "excited to a pitch of terror." Hildreth's account is remarkable for the scepticism with which he treats the conspiracy. Archy converses with a local planter who "had great doubts.., whether there was, in fact, any plot, and whether the whole thing was not a chimera of the imagination" (Slave 352-58). Just as compelling was Hildreth's interpretation of events in a non-fiction anti-slavery work, Despotism in America. Gambling in the South, he asserted, "is next to universal." This was a direct result of slavery: too many men "had much leisure on their hands." Since slavery "deprives a large portion of the people of their natural occupation," many men become professional gamblers. To earn enough to live, the gamblers "are compelled to play false." And it was cheating, in his opinion, which led to the Vicksburg lynchings (Despotism 153-54).
The use of these events to articulate sectional differences persisted up to and beyond the Civil War. As far as Andersonville prisoner John McElroy was concerned, "Murrell and his band ... left germs behind them ... that developed into horse thieves, counterfeiters, and later into guerrillas and bushwhackers" (35). A witness before the Joint Select Committee "appointed to inquire into the condition of affairs in the late insurrectionary states" revealed that a Mr Sheets in Alabama had denounced the Ku Klux Klan "as assassins, and murderers, and thieves ... He had compared them to Murrelrs gang" (Report Joint Select Committee 2:876). Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, the so-called "Fighting Bishop," was said in his itinerant missionary days to have faced down "robbers, gamblers, and cut-throats, the former members of Murrell's gang" (Pollard 593).
The debate surrounding gambling was equally hard-fought. Lecturing the student members of the Anti-Gambling Society at Transylvania University in November 1835, Charles Caldwell had much to talk about. Assessing the events of the summer, he informed his audience that gamblers had conspired with "horse-thieves, robbers and rebellious slaves to spread conflagration and havock through the south." The South, he warned, hosted "the principal hotbeds of gamblers; and, from the character of their population, such felons and vagabonds are dangerous to their peace" (Fabian 28-31). For Caldwell, Vicksburg was justified in the actions that it had taken. But gamblers, even those who wrote to condemn their former profession, were not inclined to agree.
Jonathan Green, gambler turned anti-gambling campaigner, repeatedly returned to the events in Vicksburg in his writings. As far as he was concerned, gambling, not gamblers, was at the root of the problem: "I have no doubt that as many as three fourths of all the citizens of Vicksburg were more or less addicted to gambling ... all these evils being occasioned by tolerating and encouraging Mr Hoyle's scientific amusements." Green then narrated a story about the vigilante murder of a faro dealer in Arkansas--"brother to the notorious land-pirate of Tennessee" (Gambling 150-52). For John O'Connor, self-proclaimed wandering vagabond and a defender of gambling and gamblers, there were many important distinctions to be made. Writing as "John Morris," he blamed both the media and Murrell for giving gamblers a bad reputation: "When it was desirable to give to some atrocious villain a deeper tinge of infamy, he was stigmatised as a gambler.... Stewart's pamphlets ... were the precursors of every sort of persecution to the gamblers." The leader of the lynchers in Vicksburg, O'Connor, claimed, was a "brute ... a debased and drunken sot." In fact, he insisted, none "of the four strangled unfortunates were gamblers, as the press of that day, and long afterwards, boldly asserted." As far as O'Connor was concerned, the true gamblers in Vicksburg "were quiet and orderly in all their habits, and the soul of probity in all their dealings" (Morris 337-45).
Popular accounts: "rawhead and bloody bones"
At the beginning of Herman Melville's The Confidence Man (1857), a peddler jumps aboard the steamboat Fidele. He
hawked, in the thick of the throng, the lives of Measan, the bandit of Ohio, Murrel, the pirate of the Mississippi, and the brothers Harpe, the Thugs of the Green River country, in Kentucky--creatures, with others of the sort ... leaving comparatively few successors; which would seem cause for unalloyed gratulation, and is such to all except those who think that in new countries, where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase. (2-3)
As a French commentator declared, "a clever writer could make much of the life of Murer"; many have tried (Chasles 178). Popular fiction accounts of the events of 1835 proliferated in the nineteenth century, developing the "raw head and bloody bones" aspects of the events of Independence Day--particularly Murrell's story--to provide amusement for thousands of readers, very reader of American newspapers during any one of the last twenty-five years," described one commentator in the 1850s, "must remember Vicksburg, so rich has been the fund of material it has supplied for the circulating libraries of 'horrable murders,' duels, affrays and executions, by all sorts of 'summary process'" (0liver P. Baldwin 151). Even a guidebook to the River Hudson, warning travellers of a growing number of riverboat gamblers in the East, retold the story of the Vicksburg gamblers. During the Civil War, journalist Thomas Knox, imprisoned on a Mississippi steamboat by William Tecumseh Sherman for revealing details of Union operations, was kept amused by a "sympathizing friend" who sent in a copy of the 'Adventures of John A. Murrell'" (256). And Illinoisan soldier Leander Stillwell, marching through Tennessee, was reminded of the vivid stories of his youth:
This region had a singular interest for me, the nature of which I will now state. Among the few books we had at home was an old paper-covered copy, with horrible wood-cuts, of a production entitled, "The Life and Adventures of John A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate," by Virgil A. Stewart. It was full of accounts of cold-blooded, depraved murders, and other vicious, unlawful doings. (82-83)
The first significant popular portrait of Murrell was also one of the most fascinating--and forgotten. Capitalising on the immediate sensation surrounding the conspiracy, prolific dramatist Nathaniel Harrington Bannister premiered Murrell, The Western Land Pirate at the American Theatre in New Orleans in December 1835, taking the titular role himself (Smither 118, 255). (1) Putting Murrell on the stage was a logical development. In Stewart's description, Murrell, with his disguises and his eagerness to perform, was already an intensely theatrical villain. Bannister's play appears to have gained some early popularity and was revived in 1837. It became far better known, however, in an adaptation by Charles Burke, which toured America in the 1840s and 1850s. Burke seems to have added both the subtitle "the Yankee in Mississippi" and the character of Ichabod Crane, which he performed to much acclaim (Ireland 2:501). It was the last role that he played before his death in 1854. As theatre historian Joseph Ireland recorded in 1866, its memory persisted: "'Murrell, the Land Pirate,' with Charles Burke as Ichabod Crane, has ... been played, with great applause, in almost every city of the union" (2:205).
William Gilmore Simms was also swift to realise Murrell's fictional potential. In Richard Hurdis (1838) and The Border Beagles (1840), Simms used some of the elements found in Walton's History to construct popular adventure novels that were, however, rather ambivalent in their presentation of Murrell. Simms's outlaw is a romantic figure, begrudgingly admired throughout both novels. In Richard Hurdis, the titular hero plays the role of Virgil Stewart and infiltrates outlaw Clement Foster's (John Murrell's) "Mystic Brotherhood" by masquerading as a riverboat gambler. Though the officers of the law finally attack and disperse the gang, Foster escapes, floating downriver on a cotton bale: the "clever scoundrel ... laughed good-naturedly... pulled his hat with a polite gesture" (402). Perhaps following Bannister's lead, a version of Richard Hurdis--A venger of Blood, or Richard Hurdis and the Idiot Girl--appeared on the stage in Philadelphia in 1838 (Wilson 65). Simms returned to the character of Foster in Border Beagles, but here the outlaw was less fortunate in his fate. Captured by officers of the law, Foster and his associates are dragged off by a mob and lynched: "hurried into eternity without a moment's grace--their prayers drowned--their convulsions mocked in the frantic joy and the exulting shouts of the populace." "Foster," Simms wrote, "died as he had lived, a brave fearless man" (494-95). By ignoring the given facts of the conspiracy, showing a grudging admiration for his charming villain, and, perhaps most importantly, displaying an evident distaste for Lynch law, Simms struck a different note from his populist contemporaries. Edgar Allen Poe noted that both books "excited very general attention and curiosity ... although disfigured by some instances of bad taste" (2:272). Simms was certainly susceptible to some penny-dreadful tactics. He wrote a new preface to an 1855 edition of Richard Hurdis, and claimed: "I knew Stuart [sic], the captor of Murrell, personally; and had several conferences with him, prior to the publication of his narrative" (11).
Though influential, Simms's accounts were not as significant as one of their less respectable successors. After the accounts circulated by Walton and Howard, the most important popularisation of the Murrell myth appeared in 1847--in the National Police Gazette. The appearance of The Life and Adventures of John A. Murrell in the pages of George Wilkes's popular New York periodical (and later in a single volume that went through a number of editions) spread his story to a national audience. (2) (Undoubtedly, it was this narrative to which Thomas Knox and Leander Stillwell referred to in their memories of the war.) This Murrell was a "genius" of crime, who, by "studying brigandism as a science ... waged against law and order" (National Police Gazette iii). It also claimed to be telling the absolute truth. As well as embellishing its sources and transforming Howard's compilation into a highly readable narrative, the Gazette included evocative visual images of Murrell-slave stealing, murdering, escaping prison--that swiftly became iconic. It is probably little coincidence that soon after the Gazette's account appeared, John Banvard included a self-aggrandising encounter with "a party of the Murrell robbers" in promotional material for his giant moving panorama of the Mississippi River (9).
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
In his remarkably numerous appearances in antebellum popular fiction, particularly in the wake of the Gazette's account, Murrell was cast as a definitive villain--either a reference point to establish the severity of crimes, a fitting opponent for a hero, or a mark against which other outlaws were seen to measure themselves. (3) In 1840, for example, in his picaresque "History of an Adventurer," George Dabney included an episode detailing his hero's role in an early altercation with "John Murrell ... the greatest rascal in all these parts"--in the years before his name "had been signalized by the multitude and atrocity of his crimes" (264). In The Female Land Pirate; or Awful, Mysterious, and Horrible Disclosures of Amanda Bannorris (1847), set in Vicksburg, the titular heroine told the story of her "career of voluptuousness." Her husband "followed gambling for a living"; then the Murrell gang involved them in "schemes of deeper villainy" (Bannorris 15-16). James Copeland, a real river criminal, was captured and hanged in 1857. He narrated his story to a local doctor before his execution. Alongside tales of arson, robbery and bloodshed along the Mississippi, Copeland outlined his initiation into a robber "Clan": "I was taught their mode of secret correspondence, by means of an alphabet or key, invented by the notorious Murrell, of Tennessee" (Pitts 37). And in the 1850s, the Cincinnati publisher U. P. James advertised the story of fames Wellard, Companion of John A. MureL. (4) Most extraordinary was Murrell's appearance in the (surely) fictitious memoirs of another outlaw--the outlandish David Theodosius Hines. Hines claimed to have met Murrell--and was unimpressed: "I disliked his mode of operations. There was a want of manliness in it and self reliance.... He was no gentleman" (Hudson 343-53).
The events of 1835 were influential in the more general conception of early organised crime, particularly on the river. Joseph Holt Ingraham told a tragic tale of a father trying to find a son lost to gambling--"the most notorious gambler or 'sportsman,' in the South, who from his influence with the different bands that infested the West, from Louisville to New Orleans, was called 'Prince Frank'"--only to kill him in the course of vigilante action (73). In Friedrich Gerstaecker's The Pirates of the Mississippi, the Stack Island gang--working in conjunction with the gang of one "Morell"--carry out "numberless cruelties" along the river. To combat the Stack Island robbers, the local citizenry are driven to vigilantism. The Vicksburgers are their role models: "Yes; we saw that at Vicksburg.... What did the magistrates do there? Nothing! The townsfolk were obliged to act for themselves" (iii, 235-36). Similarly, in his Cincinnati mystery novel, Emil Klauprecht imagined a far-reaching organisation of river thieves, clearly based on the Murrell Clan, called the "Tunnel Rats" (Klauprecht 214). Jonathan Green's Secret Band of Brothers, first published in 1847, was a clear attempt by the reformed gambler to try and repeat Virgil Stewart's success. His dramatic revelations about a mysterious "fraternal band of land pirates" and gamblers seem to have been modeled entirely on the "Mystic Clan" (23).
After the war, Murrell and his gang starred in at least one Beadle dime novel (Edward Willet's Ned Starling; or, The Marauder's Island ), and his conspiracy was clearly the inspiration for other tales of crime along the river--like Mayne Reid's The Land Pirates; or, The League of Devil's Island, A Tale of the Mississippi (1879) (Johannsen 1: 88, 260). But it was also clear that the importance of Murrell as an explicitly literary figure was starting to rival the importance of the man--or the man-myth--himself. Edward Eggleston--who himself used Murrell as a touchstone in a number of works--described the way in which a character, fallen into a life of crime, had had his youthful imagination "inflamed" by outlaw histories. He was "the victim of ... such novels as 'The Pirate's Bride,' 'Claude Dural,' 'The Wild Rover of the West Indies,' and the cheap biographies of such men as Murrell"-just like Tom Sawyer (Hoosier207).
Twain made it clear that these popular representations of the river's undercurrents filtered into the consciousness of those living along the Mississippi. As Tom Sawyer, with his yellow-back reading tastes, asserted: "Murrel's gang used to be around here one summer" (Sawyer 252). Twain made significant fictional use of the Murrell legend in the unfinished "Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy" (1897-1902), in a way that was intimately concerned with the conflicting meanings of the conspiracy. The story satirically dramatised the type of community paranoia that must have led to events like the Mississippi lynchings of 1835. To create some excitement, Tom Sawyer decides to "get up a conspiracy." For best effect, the form it takes is designed to "get the people in a sweat about the ablitionists," since "for more than two weeks past there was whispers going around about strangers being seen in the woods over on the Illinois side" (141-42). Tom founds a secret band--the "Sons of Freedom"--complete with a hierarchy, secret symbols, passwords, and inflammatory broadsides. But according to a local detective, "the Sons of Freedom was a sham." In fact, this was the work of "Burrell's Gang." This revelation "made them fairly shudder.... He said there was six members of it right here in town, friends of you all." Moreover, "Burrell was in this town this minute, in disguise and running a shop ... Old Miss Watson fainted and fell onto the cat when she heard that." Of course, as Huck knew, "it was just rot and rubbage--clean, straight foolishness, but them people couldn't see it" (200-01).
Folklore into Myth
By the twentieth century, the events of July 1835 were no longer employed as a symbol of sectional difference: the Murrell story increasingly took on the patina of picturesque myth; the hanging of the Vicksburg gamblers faded into memory, supplanted by memories of the Civil War. Penick concludes that by "1900, Murrell had become a minor figure in the folklore of the Old Southwest" (170). Certainly, local folklore surrounding Murrell and his Mystic Clan developed its own life. Recording the folklore of Arkansas, for example, Fred Allsop included the memories of Miss Agnes Watson:
I waited in the yard of a country home while the tire of our automobile was being repaired on a hot summer afternoon.... The legend of the Lone Pine was then related by the old man, and his story proved to be a lengthy one about the notorious John A. Murrell and his gang of highwaymen, whose exploits were well known. (301-02)
If the turn of the century saw a slight slow-down in the frequency of Murrell's textual appearances, the old outlaw was still afforded a great deal of attention. In 1897, Martha McCulloch Williams produced an extended treatment of the Murrell myth in Harper's, and Eugene Deveaux had a character remember a slave from childhood in the following way: "old Isaac ... who made brooms and baskets for us, and could always tell us big tales about Dempsey, or Murrell.... Everybody knows about John Murrell, the highwayman" (Deveaux 434). In 1911, Vaughan Kester gave a romantic Murrell the starring role in a novel-length reworking of the conspiracy.
Penick was certainly correct, however, in attributing a new "expansionist phase" of the legend to one significant book (Penick 171). In 1930, at the suggestion of Malcolm Cowley, Robert M. Coates, New Yorker art critic and author of a dadaist novel, returned to the source material and retold the stories of the most notorious antebellum criminals who congregated around the Mississippi. Over half of his The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace was devoted to Murrell and the conspiracy (including the hanging of the gamblers). Coates's embellishment of the early accounts enjoyed significant popularity. His Murrell was a fin de siecle figure: "He ... perceived that the old days of wanton banditry were nearly ended." And at the downfall of his conspiracy, the "day of the Land Pirates was done," soon to be forgotten, along with "the background of wilderness and lonely striving that had bred them--the dark passions, the bitter abnegations, the solitary lives and the wild convocations of those early days" (220,300-02). Coates's work became the standard source for most future accounts of Murrell. To it, in large part, can be attributed the ongoing twentieth-century resurrection of the events of 1835. Writing a short portrait of the outlaw in 1933, Jorge Luis Borges (coming to the story through Twain s Life on the Mississippi, where Murrell s first name is never given) invented an appropriate soubriquet for this "Cruel Redeemer": "Lazarus" (Borges 7). As a continuing trope, particularly in Southern literature, Murrell and his crimes were elevated from the penny-dreadful realm of popular fantasy to approach the quality of myth. (5)
Most significant was the resurrection of these stories in the work of two Mississippians. Clearly inspired by Coates's account, William Faulkner returned repeatedly to the symbolic possibilities of the Murrell conspiracy As in the first of the sections linking the stories in Big Woods, the outlaw continually featured in his work as one of the "vanishing avatars" of "the old brave innocent tumultuous eupeptic tomorrowless days" (6). In A Fable (1955), in the extended story of the stolen racehorse, Murrell is used as a touchstone of what Faulkner describes, only semi-ironically, as "the old fine strong American tradition of rapine" (821). In Requiem For a Nun (1951), Murrell is again evoked, in the company of other legendary robbers, in a description of a jailbreak in the early days of the Yoknapatawpha County courthouse: "the breakout left behind ... a kind of gargantuan and bizarre playfulness at once humorous and terrifying" (476). But arguably, it was indirectly in the character of Thomas Sutpen, appearing unheralded in Mississippi in the 1830s with his veritable army of slaves, that Faulkner's reinterpretation of Murrell found its most resonant expression. In The Unvanquished(1938), Sutpen is described as "underbred, a cold ruthless man.... all believed he robbed steamboats, either as a card sharper or as an out-and-out highwayman" (470). And, most significantly, in Absalom, Absalom!(1936), Sutpen's reputation clearly owes a great deal to the stories of the land pirates as retold by Coates: "there were more men than women even who pictured him during this absence with a handkerchief over his face and the two pistol barrels glinting ... if not something performed in the lurking dark of a muddy landing and with a knife from behind" (35-36).
Eudora Welty was also able to successfully liberate the potential of Murrell's mythical capital. As she wrote about her first novel, The Robber Bridegroom (1942), that owed as much to the Brothers Grimm as it did to the history of the Natchez Trace, "The line between history and fairy tale is not always clear ... And it was not from the two elements taken alone, but from their interplay that my story, as I hope, takes on its own headlong life" ("Fairy Tale" 309). Welty employed the same approach in her portrayal of "James Murrell" in "A Still Moment." The story unites itinerant preacher Lorenzo Dow, ornithologist John James Audubon, and outlaw Murrell in a moment of unexpected communion, in the presence of "a solitary snowy heron" ("Still" 195). Welty's inspiration came in removing these historical contemporaries from their own immediate stories and bringing them together, ahistorically, to develop their emblematic possibilities. Though taking as much from fellow outlaw Joseph Thompson Hare as from John Murrell, the land pirate that Welty evoked was imaginatively compelling--a figure finally worthy of myth, and indelibly connected to a sense of place:
His incessant deeds were thick in his heart now, and flinging himself to the ground he thought wearily, when all these trees are cut down, and the Trace lost, then my Conspiracy that is yet to spread itself will be disclosed, and all the stone-loaded bodies of murdered men will be pulled up, and all everywhere will know poor Murrell. (196)
Though it can't quite be argued that "all everywhere" know the story of poor Murrell and the Vicksburg gamblers, it should be apparent that the events of Independence Day 1835 penetrated much further into the imagination and the literary history of America--particularly the conception of the South--than has previously been recognized. In far-reaching ways, both events were subject to continual amplification, interpretation, and application. Their meaning has always been in flux--and continues to be so. In 2005, John Wray's Canaan's Tongue reinvigorated Murrell for the new millennium, clearly drawing on Twain and Borges for inspiration. Wray's portrait of "Morelle" and the Island 37 Gang is liberated from concerns for historical accuracy and reimagines the "Redeemer" and his sinister, far-reaching "Trade" in Civil War America and beyond. And so the journey continues. From travelers, to debaters, to popularizers and myth-makers: what these definitive historical events and, perhaps more importantly, their far-reaching longevity in print have to tell us still remains to be fully explored. Welty's Murrell took "Destroy the present!" as his guiding mantra (Welty, "Still" 192). The print histories of John Murrell, his conspiracy, and the hanging of the Vicksburg gamblers are ample testimony to the persistence of the past.
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(1) It was long believed that this play, in common with most of Bannister's work, was lost to time. However, I have recently identified a manuscript in the Harvard Theatre Collection, "Murrell, the Pirate," as a draft of Bannister's play. A more thorough study of this play and its performance history is currently in preparation.
(2) There has been some confusion over the authorship of this important volume. Many library catalogues, for no clear reason, list H. R. Howard as the author. Internal evidence makes it entirely clear that the volume is the work of the editors of the National Police Gazette--most likely George Wilkes himself.
(3) Alongside the nineteenth century appearances discussed here, see also references to Murrell and his band of outlaws in: Morris; Paxton, A Stray Yankee in Texas; Greeley; Adams; Bigelow; Ransom; O'Connor; Creecy; Desmos; Silvervale; and, most significantly, A. L. Stimson's novel, throughout which Murrell himself appears.
(4) Taken from the endpapers of Emerson Bennett's Rosalie Du Pont; or, Treason in the Camp (Cincinnati: U. P. James, 1853). It has not been possible to find any further information about this volume.
(5) Significant twentieth-century renderings of John Murrell, many of them indebted to Coates, include: Lytle; Phares; Kroll; Nye; Breihan; Daniels; Wellman; Jennings; Garrett (a book about treasure hunting, one of the areas still keeping the Murrell myth alive); and, most recently, Block. It is also worth nothing that Humphrey Bogart played a half-Mexican John Murrell in Warner Bros' Virginia City (1940); John Murrell appeared in an episode of the 1950s television series Riverboat; and that in the Disney television series, Davy Crockett and Mike Fink fought off a band of river pirates.
Thomas Ruys Smith
University of East Anglia
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|Author:||Smith, Thomas Ruys|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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