Bushwackers, Gangs and Nightrider Stories
 Weakley County, Tennessee

John A. Murrell  - Notorious Outlaw
 Compiled by Joe Stout from various sources

Strange as it may seem, the American people are attracted to books, papers, and movies which relate the exploits of an out-law or a desperado. One of the most fascinating figures of over a century and a half ago operated in several states bordering Tennessee. His name was John A. Murrell.

From a typewritten paper kept with the Meridian Church books:

"Tradition says that John Murrell, the notorious horse thief 'preacher' and his band of thieving gangsters, paid old Meridian a visit in the early history of the Church.

One of the Whickers of extinct Old Jonesborough, was instrumental in the eventual capture of John Murrell. Murrell was a polished speaker of very genteel manners and, as a "preacher" he went over big with the Church crowds. He had a cruel and sacrilegious system of stealing but like most of the devils schemes, quite clever. He would work the congregation up into emotional heights and, while preaching at his loudest his henchmen on the outside would steal all the best horses, and at the close of the service the 'Reverend' John Murrell would feign surprise at the absence of the horses.Of course, his own horse was not stolen, ever."

Because of this practice of preaching while his gang stole from the congregation this earned him the nickname "Reverend Devil."

This excerpt from the Dowland papers by Robert Gallimore:

"John Murrell operated in this section in his heyday. There are a lot of stories told about John A. Murrell and his gang, and especially about his preying upon the wagon trains that in those days moved out of that section of the country (Dover ) and east of there and wended their way on down to Hickman, Ky.

I understand that once or twice he preached at Meridian. This was about the only house of worship in this section of Weakley County in those days."

Mark Twain wrote this about John Murrell. "When he traveled, his usual disguise was that of an itinerant preacher; and it is said that his discourses were very 'soul-moving'--interesting the hearers so much that they forgot to look after their horses, which were carried away by his confederates while he was preaching."

John A. Murrell was born in Middle Tennessee in 1804. His dad was a Methodist preacher, and he was gone a lot. John did not seem to respect his father, but rather his mother, who taught him and the other children to steal. She would hide from his father what they had stolen.

Murrell's name first appeared in the court records of Williamson County in 1823 when he was fined fifty dollars for "riot," at which time three Murrells, one of which was the infamous John A., were bound in a sum of $200 to keep peace. Two years later he was in court for gaming. Later he was indicted for stealing a black mare from a widow in Williamson County. The case was taken to Davidson County on change of venue where he was convicted, flogged until he bled, branded on the thumbs, H T. In those days this branding indicated Horse Thief. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison. Later on, after moving to Jackson, Tennessee he formed a group of outlaws that he called the "clan."

Denman Yocum, Esq, was a famous outlaw out west on the Chisholm trail. Squire Yocum was born in Kentucky around 1796. As a fourteen-year-old, he cut his criminal eyeteeth with his father and brothers in the infamous John A. Murrell gang who robbed travelers along the Natchez Trace in western Mississippi. At first Murrell was reputed to be an Abolitionist who liberated slaves and channeled them along an "underground railroad" to freedom in the North. Actually, his gang kidnapped slaves, later selling them to the sugar cane planters of Louisiana. He controlled the activities of some 2,500 river bandits along the Mississippi.  Murrell started a plan that would make him king of the black men in the south. His plan was to organize a union for Negro slaves who at a given time would free themselves from slavery by combat. But, when the battle plans were almost completed, Murrell was caught plundering a boat and sent to prison. When John Murrell was released from prison, ten years later, his health was broken and all of his former acquaintances were dead or had fled from that area.

John Murrell was probably the most ruthless outlaw to ever roam the South. In Mark Twain's book "Life on the Mississippi" he refers to Frank and Jesse James as retailers in the outlaw business and John Murrell as the wholesaler.

There is a tradition that Island 37, on the Mississippi River was one of the principal abiding places of the once celebrated 'Murrell's Gang.'

Murrell operated in seven or eight neighboring states but considered Madison County, TN his home. He kept the corral near Hickman County, Kentucky, but sent his horses to Jackson and the surrounding country to be sold. He made big money stealing slaves, telling each one of his plan to resell them three or four times, and then divide the money with them and let them escape to the free North. When the slave became too well known, that is, after he had been re-stolen and resold several times and too many advertisements appeared in the newspapers for him, then Murrell would select some quiet spot in a lonely road, kill the slave, "de-bowel him," fill the cavity with rocks, and dump him into some convenient stream. It seemed that the secret of the desperado's success was his "thoroughness" with which he destroyed condemning evidence.

Murrell made the mistake of stealing two slaves from Rev. John Henning. Virgil A. Stewart, a friend of the Hennings' wormed his way into Murrell's confidence. He took the oath of allegiance to the clan, obtained a list of this Mystic Clan from Murrell himself, and then managed the arrest of the great "Land Pirate. This arrest occurred at Florence, Alabama. He was confined in prison in Brownsville, and placed on trial in Jackson in July and August, 1834. This resulted in his conviction and a sentence to confinement and labor in the penitentiary for ten years. The crime charged against him was Negro stealing.


A notice of the trial that appeared in the National Banner and NashvilleWhig shows how wide-spread the interest was in this desperado of MadisonCounty:

"This notorious public offender John A. Murrell has been lately tried before Judge Haskell at Jackson, and convicted of Negro stealing and sentenced to confinement in the penitentiary at hard labor for ten years. He belonged to the organized band of Mississippi robbers and thieves, who have lately infested the coast between Memphis and Randolph, principally the Arkansas side."

Murrell was convicted of Negro stealing, but not of murder of which the star witness, Stewart, was accusing him. The Madison County Court record of July 29, 1834 reads:

"After due trial, the court passed the sentence according to the verdict of the jury and the law of the land-that the said defendant John A. Murrell convicted as aforesaid do undergo confinement at hard labor in the Penitentiary house of the state for a term of ten years.  The Sheriff was ordered by the court to take the defendant to jail and to the Penitentiary as soon as possible. He was received August 17, 1834. In April 1837, his case was appealed to the Supreme Court and Murrell was brought to Jackson for trial on appeal by J. S. Lyon, the Sheriff of Madison County. William Yerger and J. W. Chambers defended him but the conviction was affirmed and he was returned to the penitentiary where he remained until he was discharged from the Nashville Penitentiary April 3, 1844."

While Murrell was in prison the editors of the Paris, TN paper and the Nashville Banner relate that Virgil A. Stewart had an attempt on his life near Paris. More than one attempt was made to assassinate him. Stewart had to leave the Southern States as a consequence.

After Murrell's release from prison, he then went to Pikesville, in Bledsoe County, and followed the blacksmith trade until his death on November 3, 1844.

The following is an abstract from a newspaper article in 1844:

DIED--In Bledsoe County, on Sunday, the 1st, of pulmonary consumption, John A. MURRELL, the notorious land pirate. On his death bed, he acknowledged he had been guilty of almost everything that had ever been charged against him except murder--of this charge he declared himself guiltless. - McMinnville Gazette.

It seems there was a reward offered for Murrell's skull after his death. The story goes that grave robbers dug up the body and decapitated it. A large rock slab used to cover the grave, but today a tombstone reading "John Murrell" marks the grave.  Presumably the body stills rests in the Smyrna graveyard.

Submitted by Joe Stout

Frontier Times, January, 1978
Historic Madison chapter 27
The Tennessee Whig, Jackson, TN.
Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain
Phelan, History of Tennessee
History of Virgil Stewart by H. R. Howard (N.Y., 1836),
Banner and Nashville Whig, August 12, 1834.
Madison County Minute Book 1834.
The West Tennessee Whig, Jackson, TN, 1844
Dowland Papers


BACK to Gangs and Bushwhackers Page

RETURN to Weakley County Home Page

Editing and Webpage by MaryCarol