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Among legendary characters associated with nineteenth-century Arkansas, John Andrews Murrell occupies a prominent place. Counterfeiting and thieving along the Mississippi River, Murrell was only a petty outlaw in a time and place with little law enforcement. However, he became a greater figure in legend following his death.
John A. Murrell was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, in 1806. His father, Jeffrey Gilliam Murrell, was a respected farmer who, with his wife, Zilpha Murrell, raised eight children. Shortly after John was born, the Murrells and other relations moved to Williamson County, Tennessee. However, Murrell’s father fell on hard times, and his sons, who were wild and errant, began to have trouble with the law. At the age of sixteen, Murrell, along with brothers William Murell and Jeffrey Gilliam Murell Jr., were charged with “riot” (disturbing the peace). In February 1823, Murrell was charged with horse theft. He languished in jail for several months before being tried and sentenced (after the fashion of that day) to thirty lashes, the pillory, branding, and one year in prison.
The elder Murrell died in 1824, leaving Zilpha to care for her wayward brood. She moved farther west through Tennessee, first to Wayne County, and, finally, to Denmark in Madison County. Murrell, who was released from jail in 1827, married Elizabeth Mangham, who bore him two children. Continuing to have brushes with the law, Murrell became a well-known troublemaker in Tipton, a village north of Memphis, Tennessee, as well as in the swamplands of eastern Arkansas—referred to locally as “the morass”—where outlaws headquartered at Shawnee Village, near present-day Joiner (Mississippi County). This vicious element preyed upon unsuspecting river traffic, struck counterfeit money, and aided and abetted horse and slave thieves. Murrell and his brother William were implicated in one such counterfeiting enterprise, while his brother Jeffrey was running stolen horses into Arkansas.
When John Murrell was suspected of stealing a slave in Madison County, Tennessee, in 1833, Virgil A. Stewart, a local resident, was employed to retrieve the slave. Stewart found Murrell and succeeded in ingratiating himself with the outlaw. Stewart accompanied him into Arkansas, where (according to Stewart), Murrell claimed to lead a large-scale criminal enterprise known as “the Mystic Clan.” Upon returning to Tennessee in February 1834, Stewart arranged for the arrest of Murrell. The following July, he testified at the trial of Murrell, who was convicted and sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
Murrell became a model prisoner, read the Bible, and learned the blacksmithing trade. When he contracted tuberculosis, he was granted early release in April 1844. He died in Pikeville, Tennessee, on November 1, 1844.
After his conviction, Murrell, who was just one of many minor criminals lurking along the Arkansas–Tennessee frontier, should have soon been forgotten. However, Virgil A. Stewart succeeded in elevating this petty thief to the ranks of one of America’s legendary criminals. In 1835, Stewart published A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel [sic], The Great Western Land Pirate, in which he presented a highly exaggerated (and often fanciful) account of his conversations with Murrell on their trip to Arkansas. According to Stewart (whom some suspected of actually being an associate of the outlaw), Murrell was talkative and full of braggadocio, not only admitting to many heinous crimes but alleging that his organization planned to incite a slave uprising across the South on Christmas Day 1835. As a consequence of widespread newspaper coverage surrounding Stewart’s inflammatory pamphlet, Murrell’s reputation soon reached sensational proportions. The fact that the appearance of this book coincided with the agitation of the newly formed American Anti-Slavery Society prompted a wave of hysteria among slaveholders. Murrell’s lawlessness was “so extensive in its operations and so scientific in its plans,” wrote the imaginative Stewart, that it reached from Texas to the East Coast. The author even provided a list of names of alleged members for each state, including twenty-four Arkansas families.
The association of Murrell’s name with Arkansas continued to grow after his death. His brother Jeffrey was killed in a saloon brawl in Columbia (Chicot County) by a man named Franklin Stewart, reportedly a relative of Virgil A. Stewart. In another ironic twist, Stewart’s brother, Tapley, was arrested as part of a counterfeiting ring in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1842. John A. Murrell’s name was also associated with streams, springs, trails, and hills in eastern Arkansas. While marking a trail for his gang members, Murrell reportedly notched an oak tree at a ford on the St. Francis River—the present-day site of Marked Tree (Poinsett County). Rumors of buried loot from Murrell’s robberies abounded. Indeed, author Mark Twain, who was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River some years after Murrell’s death, concluded from hearing these tales that Murrell ranked with the most infamous of America’s frontier outlaws: “[Jesse] James was a retail rascal; Murel [sic] wholesale.” Stewart, who was primarily responsible for the creation of this outlaw myth, died in Wharton, Texas, in 1854.
For additional information:Ball, Larry D. “Murrell in Arkansas: An Outlaw Gang in History and Tradition.” Mid-South Folklore 6 (Winter 1978): 65–75.
Penick, James Lal, Jr. The Great Western Land Pirate: John A. Murrell in Legend and History. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1981.
Larry D. Ball Jonesboro, Arkansas
Last Updated 7/18/2018
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