The Great Western Land Pirate, Again

An Essay Occasioned by a Diary Entry of Private Tabler
by William Edward Henry

One of my Civil War websites allows me to consult an expert by email, so I recently wrote “Dr. N” as follows:
“In his diary entry on 7/10/1863, after Rosecrans’ Tullahoma campaign, my diarist [Private Edward Tabler] wrote, ‘This is where Murrel killed Wood and threw him over the precipice.’ He was writing on top of the Cumberland Mountain, about 7 miles from the modern-day site of the University of the South. It’s probably a literary reference.  Do you have any idea what he was talking about, or how I might find out?”

Dr. N replied:
“It sure is a good one.  I couldn’t find any references, even tangential. As you say, it may be a literary allusion to a penny dreadful of the times, or perhaps even to some then-famous crime. I did note that if you google murrel wood cumberland and tullahoma you get a lot of hits, including a Murrel Mansion.  But no references to tossing someone off a precipice.  Sorry I can’t be of help.”

Several times I have found that, even though Dr. N does not directly answer my question, he nevertheless gives me collateral help. So, I used the Google search engine, and found that seemingly everyone in the country - except me - knows about John Anderson Murrell, “The Great Western Land Pirate”, a bandit who made Jesse James look like an altar-boy!

Mark Twain immortalized Murrell (Murel) in his book, “Life On The Mississippi”. (See Chapter 29) But, when Twain tells the story that Tabler references, he doesn’t name the victim, as Tabler does. So I’ve been trying to find the source of Tabler’s notion that the victim’s name was “Wood”. I’ve found many sources that mention Murrell, including Faulkner, but no one names the victim!

Finally, I found a book written in 1930, “The Outlaw Years”, by Robert M. Coates. He devotes almost half his book to Murrell, and names the victim in the precipice story. He writes: “They were coming up through the Cumberlands, and here they fell in with a young trader; he was a willing talker. ‘Crenshaw soon knew all about his business.’ His name was Woods, and he was from South Carolina.”  Coates then relates the rest of the story in detail, but he states that Woods was alive when Crenshaw and Murrel threw him into a ravine. (See page 208-210 of the Pelican reprint.)

Unfortunately, as Coates admits, he does not identify sources or authors of quotations incorporated into his text. So I have been forced to guess which of his bibliography might be the source of the name of the victim of the precipice story. I’ve acquired two of the four likely books, but Woods’ name does not appear in them. “The History of Virgil A. Stewart, etc.” by H. R. Howard, tells the story this way: “Myself and a fellow by the name of Crenshaw gathered four good horses, and started for Georgia. We got in company with a young South Carolinian just before we reached Cumberland Mountain, and Crenshaw soon knew all about his business. He had been to Tennessee to buy a drove of hogs, but when he got there pork was dearer than he had calculated, and he declined purchasing. We concluded he was a prize. Crenshaw winked at me; I understood his idea. Crenshaw had travelled the road before, but I never had; we had travelled several miles on the mountain, when we passed near a great precipice; just before we passed it, Crenshaw asked me for my whip, which had a pound of lead in the butt; I handed it to him, and he rode up by the side of the South Carolinian, and gave him a blow on the side of the head, and tumbled him from his horse; we lit from our horses and fingered his pockets; we got twelve hundred and sixty-two dollars. Crenshaw said he knew of a place to hide him, and gathered him under the arms, and I by his feet, and conveyed him to a deep crevice in the brow of the precipice, and tumbled him into it; he went out of sight. We then tumbled in his saddle, and took his horse with us, which was worth two hundred dollars. We turned our course for South Alabama, and sold our horses for a good price. We frolicked for a week or more, and were the highest larks you ever saw. We commenced sporting and gambling, and lost every cent of our money.” (See pages 64-65 in the 1876 edition.)

A 1994 reprint by Dogwood Press, which professes to be a faithful reproduction of Virgil A. Stewart’s “A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, The Great Western Land Pirate etc. etc.” recounts the precipice story in essentially the same way, referring to the victim only as “a young South Carolinian” and “the South Carolinian”, never mentioning him by name.

My reason for pursuing this minutiae is to establish Tabler’s reliability in small details. The oldest accounts of the story do not specifically say that the victim was dead when he was thrown over the precipice, and do not name the victim. Since Tabler could not have read Coates’ later writing, and since it is highly improbable that Coates ever saw Tabler’s diary, it is almost certain that both relied on a third source, which I did not discover for a long time.

However, the main reason the Murrell story was important in his day, is that the book by Virgil A. Stewart, exposing Murrell’s ambitions, caused a lynching panic in the South.

Abraham Lincoln referred to this panic in his speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838. He said, in part,

"In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers: a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single year before.  Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and  finally, strangers, from neighboring States, going thither on business, were, in many instances, subjected to the same fate.  Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every roadside; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest."

One might think that such consequences would demand the attention of American historians, but James Lal Penick, Jr. writes in his book, “The Great Western Land Pirate – John A. Murrell in Legend and History”, that “Even among professional historians, not one in five would recognize his name today.”  Then, in a review of Penick’s book, Michael A. Flusche, in the “American Historical Review”, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Oct.1982), pp. 1156-1157, writes “James Lal Penick, Jr. suggests that ‘not one in five’ (pp. 175-76) professional historians today would recognize the name of John A. Murrell, the subject of this intriguing book.  A closer estimate may be not one in fifty or five hundred, for the legend of John A. Murrell is now all but forgotten.”.

Flusche goes on to echo Penick’s thesis that Murrell’s life “was scarcely the stuff of which legends are made.”
Since Coates’ book there has been an avalanche of books and articles on the subject, as American historians scramble to install damage control.  But the reason for all the interest in the 19th Century and then again in the 20th is really very simple: Murrell, or his mouthpiece Virgil A. Stewart, raised a question which our myth-makers have never been able to answer – a question which is a thorn in their sides. 

The question goes like this : “What is it that constitutes character, popularity and power in the United States ?  It is property; strip a man of his property in this country, and he is a ruined man indeed – you see his friends forsake him; and he may have been raised in the highest circles of society, yet he is neglected and treated with contempt.”.
When you consider that ours is a capitalistic society, that we believe in Capitalism; that the original wording in the Declaration of Independence was not “... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ...” but rather “life, liberty and the pursuit of property ..” you can begin to see the gravamen of the Murrell/Stewart question.

Further indication that our historians missed the boat on the Murrell story is the fact that Tabler was not the only Illinois farm boy who was fascinated with Murrell.

Leander Stillwell, writing in 1916, on pages 82-83 of his book “The Story Of A Common Soldier”, relates the following incident:

Jackson, our objective point on this march, was the county seat of Madison county, and a portion of our line of march was through the south part of the county.  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.  My father had known, in his younger days, a good deal of Murrell by reputation, which was probably the moving cause for his purchase of the book.  When a little chap I frequently read it and it possessed for me a sort of weird, uncanny fascination.  Murrell’s home, and the theater of many of his evil deeds, during the year 1834, and for some time previously, was in this county of Madison, and as we trudged along the road on this march I scanned all the surroundings with deep interest and close attention.  Much of the country was rough and broken, and densely wooded, with high ridges and deep ravines between them.  With the aid of a lively imagination, many places I noticed seemed like fitting localities for acts of violence and crime.  I have in my possession now (bought many years ago) a duplicate of that old copy of Murrell we had at home.  I sometimes look into it, but it no longer possesses for me the interest it did in my boyhood days.

This wonderfully forth-coming confession underlines ten points of interest:
1.)  The inclusion of the Stewart book, in such a tiny log-cabin home library, indicates its relative importance to Leander’s father;
2.)  Stillwell’s spelling of the pirate’s name, “Murrell” instead of “Murel”, as it is found in the Stewart book, indicates that Judge Stillwell has done some further reading on “the great western land pirate”;
3.)  Stillwell’s ascription of the book to Stewart, rather than the ostensible author of the original book, “Augustus Q. Walton, Esq.”, indicates he has read at least the cover of his reprint;
4.)  If Stillwell’s father had heard “a good deal” about Murrell in his own youth, chances are that a good many people were similarly impressed, at the time, with the Murrell legend;
5.)  The boy Leander read the Stewart book often, not just once or twice;
6.)  Judge Stillwell, in describing his fascination as “weird, uncanny”, seems to not quite understand his interest in the book;
7.)  The book’s impression on the boy Leander was so strong, it determines his thoughts as he marches through Madison County, Tennessee, at age eighteen;
8.)  Stillwell’s fascination with the book motivates him, as an adult, to buy a reprint of Stewart’s book;
9.)  Judge Stillwell admits that, even in his retirement, he still sometimes looks into the book;
10.)  This retired Judge confesses that, even though the book no longer interests him as it did in his boyhood, he still looks into it sometimes.

Now, I suggest to my reader that the interest in Stewart’s book is misunderstood generally, and that the source of that interest is the real reason for the book’s neglect by American historians, and also the reason for the revival of interest in the Murrell legend in the early twentieth century.

I suggest the reason is property. Why was Murrell portrayed as a thief, robber and murderer?  Why was he said to be plotting a slave insurrection ?  He wanted property. Why did the regulators lynch so many victims?  They were the property-holders in the community, and were protecting that property, when they felt the legal law enforcement officers were unable to protect it.  Why did so many southerners lump Murrell and abolitionists together?  Because they saw abolitionism as a threat to their property. Slaves were property. The slave has no property.  The slave does not own even his own body. When a slave revolts, he is trying to regain the property of his own body. When the slaver enslaves a slave, he is extending the concept of property to the body of a human being. When an abolitionist tries to end slavery, he asserts that it is morally wrong to extend the concept of property to the body of a human being.

The Civil War was simply a struggle over property.

We should stop being dazzled by talk of freedom and emancipation, talk of preserving the Union. We need to focus on property.

It should be obvious that I am not introducing any new idea – when St. Paul said, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy, 6:10), he was simply talking about the love of property. Notice that he said it was the root of ALL evil. Do we believe that?

Evidently, some have doubted it. Witness Samuel Butler and Mark Twain, who claimed that the want of money is the root of all evil. Again, they weren’t talking about currency only, but property in general. Do we believe that the lack of property is the root of all evil?

Many have claimed that America is a Christian nation. Certainly many involved in the Civil War claimed to be Christians, even that the Christian God was on their side!

Well, Jesus of Nazareth definitely did not think that the mere lack of property was the root of evil. When he said, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink.” (Mth. 6:25), he was talking to all people, certainly not excluding those who lacked property.

So, there is this tension, not only in America, but in all Christian nations, between Jesus’ view of property, and the dominant view of almost all societies, but especially American society.

Murrell/Stewart, or Stewart/Murrell – it makes no difference – claimed that the possession of property determines character and respectability in America, and there is enough evidence to support that view, so that many readers have been weirdly fascinated by Stewart’s little book, and historians have been glad to forget it.

That is also the real reason the Murrell story was resurrected in the twentieth century: Coates’ motive for reviving the Murrell legend has not been examined – could that expatriot have had Marxist leanings?  Could he have been using the Capitalist/Christian tension, in the classic Hegelian/Marxist technique, to attack America at its sore point? There is good evidence that this is the case.

And what was Penick’s motive for expending so much effort in researching the Murrell story?  He tells us that he did not simply want to reduce Murrell to an unsuccessful thief, but that he really wanted to detail just how the legend developed. Can any rational person believe this? What would be his motive for wanting to expound that process ?

I think Penick did not realize what disturbed him in the Penick legend. He began with the notion that Murrell was nothing but a cheap crook, and was puzzled why, if that were so, such a legend would grow. Penick’s entire effort was really directed at discovering the power that drove the development of the legend, its lapse, and it’s revival. In this, he failed.

The power of the Murrell legend is the same power as that of development of Christianity, to a lesser magnitude of course – and antithetical, which was the power of the word.  It was what Jesus said, and his example which embodied that word, that powered Christianity. In the same way, it was the power of what Murrell/Stewart or Stewart/Murrell said, and Murrell embodied, that drove the development of the Murrell legend.

What the Murrell legend said was this: in America, property determines character and respectability. And the legend goes on to say, that since property determines character and respectability, then it makes no difference how you get that property!

I maintain that the legend’s logic, given the first premise, is unassailable. I say that  IF property determines character and respectability, then it makes no difference how that property is obtained.

Look at how people revere those who have inherited wealth. Look at how people practically worship royalty, even in this supposedly democratic country. Look at how the wealth of some of our most respected families was founded on property gotten by violence to moral and legal standards. Look at how our justice system treats the wealthy, as opposed to how it treats the poor. Look at how our race obtained most of the land in our nation. Look at the violent history of our union movements.

I am not saying that I am convinced of the Murrell legend’s thesis, but I am saying that it’s argument is powerful enough to have disturbed those who have dealt with it. The Murrell legend is the story of a little anti-Christ, and therefore is not to be held in contempt!

One final note: through the auspices of GOOGLE ANSWERS, I was able to get copies of the sources which Edward Tabler must have read, in order to have the idea that Murrell’s victim at the Cumberland Mountain precipice was named “Wood”.  Their researchers told me how to get copies of the “National Police Gazette”, and the book which followed,  by the editors of that magazine, titled, “The Life and Adventures of John A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate.”

The series on Murrell in the Gazette began Saturday,  September 12, 1846, and continued every week until the conclusion on Saturday, April 24, 1847. The paper sold for four cents for each number. The first issue which contained the passages relevant to my research was Saturday, October 3, 1846. On the front page was a large engraving, titled “Murrell Running a Slave.” The engraving showed Murrell on a white-faced black horse, with a Negro riding behind, on the same mount. The relevant passage reads, “In crossing the Cumberland mountains they fell in with a young South Carolinian trader, who had been to Tennessee to buy a drove of hogs, but who, having found the animals too much advanced in price, had declined a purchase, and was now returning home with all his money in his pocket.” Notice that the South Carolinian is not named at this place in the story.

The story is continued the next week, Saturday, October 10, 1846.  On the front page is a large engraving titled, “Murrell and Crenshaw Murdering the South-Carolinian.” The engraving is the one made famous by subsequent authors, in which Crenshaw is carrying the victim by the shoulders and torso, while Murrell brings up the rear, carrying the victim’s feet and legs. The relevant passage reads, “The unsuspecting trader obeyed the treacherous direction; but, alas! unhappy man, just as he was about to express his admiration of the scene that was doomed to be his parting view of the beauties of this earth, the deadly bludgeon, swung by the ruthless hand of Crenshaw, crushed deep into his skull, and he reeled from his saddle to the ground a dead man.”. Two things should be noted here, first, that the victim’s name is still not mentioned; and second, the victim was dead before he was thrown from the precipice, just as Edward Tabler indicated in his diary, and contrary to the way Coates told the story.

In this version of the story, some of the victim’s friends recognize his horse, now in the culprit’s possession, and to explain this fact, Murrell refers to the horse, “He’s a noble animal; a noble animal!” and then, “I prize him above all the rest, and well I may, for he cost me a good round sum. I bought him from a young Carolinian trader, in Nashville, who had come on to Tennessee to buy a drove of hogs – his name, I believe, was Woods; yes, Woods.” This is the only time that the victim’s name is mentioned in the article.

It is possible that Tabler got his story, naming Woods, from this article in the National Police Gazette, but I suspect that he got it from a book published by the Gazette editors in 1847.

Before we consider that book, let us for the moment assume that this was Tabler’s source, and judge how accurately he referred to the incident. First, I notice that he left off the letter “s” of the victim’s name, calling him “Wood” instead of “Woods”.  A minor point, perhaps, but what about his statement that Murrell killed the victim, when actually Crenshaw struck the fatal blow? Well, as a counter-balance to that criticism, we noted that the engraving’s title did say, “Murrell and Crenshaw Murdering the South-Carolinian.” And, Murrell did help to kill the poor man, and did help to throw him off the precipice. Also, he did get it right – that Woods was dead before he was thrown off the cliff.  In my opinion, I’d say Tabler was a pretty good reporter, in this case, at any rate.

Now let’s examine the relevant passages in the book, “THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF JOHN A. MURRELL, THE GREAT WESTERN LAND PIRATE, WITH TWENTY-ONE SPIRITED ILLUSTRATIVE ENGRAVINGS.” On page 21, appears the famous engraving, described above, but this time the title reads, “MURDER OF WOODS, THE SOUTH CAROLINIAN”. In every other respect, as far as I have examined it, the story here is the same as in the magazine – with this important exception – in addition to the second mention of the victim’s name, this version also names him when he is first introduced. The relevant passage here reads, “In crossing the Cumberland mountains they fell in with a young South Carolinian trader, named Woods, who had been to Tennessee ...”  Etc., Etc.

Thus my long search came, I believe, to an end. I feel certain that Tabler’s source was the 1847 book, which was printed when Tabler was seven years of age.

So that no interested reader will have the difficulty I had in finding that book, I give here the exact Library of Congress reference:

LC Control Number: — 18000347
Type of Material: — Text (Book, Microform, Electronic, etc.)
Personal Name: — Howard, H. R.
Main Title:  — The life and adventures of John A. Murrell, the great western land pirate,
                                 with twenty-one spirited illustrative engravings.
Published/Created: — New York, H. Long & Brother, 1847
Description: — 126 p. illus 22 cm.
Notes: — Wright I, 1237.
Subjects: — Murrell, John A.–Fiction
LC Classification: — PS2014.H153 L5 1847
Other System No.: — (OcoLC)6799461
CALL NUMBER: — PS2014.H153 L5 1847 Copy 1
Request in: — Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room(Jefferson LJ239)
Status:  — Not Charged