John Murrell (bandit)

The tumultuous history of John Murrell (also spelled as Murel and Murrel), a legendary bandit operating in the United States along the Mississippi River in the mid-1800s, is almost in as much confusion as his name.

Table of contents
1 Accepted claims
2 Disputed claims
3 Modern Appearances
4 The Sources of Confusion
5 External link

Accepted claims

Here are some general facts that are accepted about his life:

Disputed claims

The disputed details about Murrell are more numerous and controversial than the known facts. Even today, his place of birth is in question: Some sources claim Williamson County, Tennessee, others say Jackson, Tennessee. Even more in debate is the location of his hideout and operations base. Once again, Jackson or [[Madison County|Madison County are bandied about, but other places include Natchez, Mississippi in an odd depression on a bluff called Devil's Punch Bowl, Tunica County, Mississippi, the Neutral Ground in Louisiana, and even the tiny Island 37, part of Tipton County, Tennessee. One record, a genealogical note,[1] even places him as far east as Georgia.

It is also said that Murrell, as a youngster, was caught stealing horses and had either the letters 'T' or both 'H' and 'T' branded on his thumbs to signify his status as a horse thief.

Even the dates of his escapades are in question. Some say he began to plot his takeover of New Orleans in 1841, while others say he was in operation from 1835 to 1857. In fact, a river feature in Chicot County, Arkansas called Whiskey Chute is named for his raid on a whiskey-carrying steamboat that was sunk after it was pillaged. It was named such in 1855. However, he is also claimed to have been born in 1791,[1] which would make him a very aging pirate, to say the least.

Dates of his final apprehension also swing wildly. They are placed as far afield as the early 1830s to the late 1850s, with some accounts having him ferried between multiple prisons and others saying he appealed as high as the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his innocence.

As for his death, it is said his head was removed from its burial site, and actually has a tombstone in Smyrna, Tennessee.

Modern Appearances

The Tennessee Historical Society has a traveling exhibit which features, among many other items, a preserved thumb which supposedly belonged to Murrell (although the veracity of this claim may be up to as much debate as that surrounding the Shroud of Turin.)

He was fictionalized in Episode 5 of Riverboat on U.S. television network NBC, and the episode first aired on October 11, 1959. In the show, he was a riverboat captain who planned to hijack another riverboat piloted by "Dan Simpson," and planned to do so by planting an alluring agent (played by Debra Paget) as a dancing girl on his vessel.

His escapades have also inspired numerous rumors about the location of his treasure. One claim is that it is buried in the Devil's Punch Bowl. Coin collectors say it is on Honey Island in Louisiana. (See external link below for details.)

To top it off, his ghost reportedly appears from time to time on the Natchez Trace. Once again, the Devil's Punch Bowl is said to be the site of the haunting of members of his gang.

The Sources of Confusion

There are several possible explanations for the legends surrounding Murrell. One, of course, is the simple growth and popularity of legend in the South in the mid-1800s. Another is that John Murrell was a fairly common name—a contemporary lived in Louisiana near Lake Bistineau at the same time and was a landowner of some repute, although there is no evidence that they are the same person.[1] A different note places another John Murrell as a settler along the Trail of Tears in Arkansas, once again, a contemporary.[1]

Another possibility is that he and his influence was truly as widespread as was claimed. Even at the lowest estimate of 1,000, his gang was numerous enough to cause havoc in a huge swath along the Mississippi. Being river-based, mobility would not be a problem, and in fact would be necessary to avoid posses.

A final, more remote possibility, is that he never existed. There are no firm birth of death records, or surviving records written by himself, which confirm his existence—only secondary sources.

The only thing, then, that is certain about the life of John Murrell is uncertainty.

External link


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