About John A. MURREL. by W.E. McELWEE.
While the once famous criminal, John A. MURREL, may never have been a resident of Roane county yet some of his clan figured in its criminal records, about the year 1830. Austin L. GREEN, then about 19 years old and another boy were on their way to church, at what was then and still is known as Little Emory church. Something near a mile before reaching the church there was a fork in the road, the right hand passing around a knob of ridge and intersecting the valley road at Buchanan's forge, at the place where the Clack's Gap road bridge now spans little Emory. Two horsemen, by coming up this road, had avoided passing the church where a congregation had assembled, and met GREEN and his companion at this intersection of the roads. They at once proposed to swap horses with the young men. Their horses were much jaded and they offered such inducements to trade that GREEN became suspicious and rode on. On arriving at the church he informed a number of men of his suspicions and a posse formed and went in pursuit. The men were overtaken, arrested and committed to Kingston jail. They proved to be NORTH and WALTON two of MURREL'S most trusted men. Investigation showed that the horses had been stolen in Anderson county from a Mr. SHIRREL. It appeared that they had started to accompany MURREL on a trip from Madison county to Baltimore and changed their plan. MURREL went to Baltimore to organize a clan in Maryland, while these two men turned back at Black's ferry on Clinch river and were to go to South Carolina to organize a clan and were to be joined by MURREL. It was the purpose of MURREL to organize a clan of thieves in each State south of Ohio river, in which purpose he finally succeeded. The members of the clans reorganized each other by signs and passwords. Property stolen in one state would be sent to another to be sold or otherwise disposed of. At the end of the year there was a general reckoning and each clansman got his prorata of the sales of the stolen property. The principal things stolen, at first, were horses but afterwards they stole many negroes. Their plan of management was to have a man in each locality. He would have a time set with another clansman several miles away to bring a horse to him. He would then steal some neighbors horse at night and take it to his confederate clansman returning before day. As he would be at home when the loss was discovered and would probably aid in the search for the stolen horse he would no be suspected. The confederate would pass the horse to another and this would be continued until the horse was safely beyond pursuit when it would be sold and the money turned into the general treasury for division. It simply meant death to be caught dealing dishonestly with each other and strange to say it was seldom necessary to inflict the penalty. But stranger still that in all the years of MURREL'S criminal procedure there was no one, of his more that five hundred clansmen, scattered throughout twelve States that gave any clue to the secrets of the organization. Even after MURREL'S arrest, trial and conviction there was but one man, Virgil A. STEWART, who dared to tell of MURREL'S crimes and the secrets and workings of the order.
The place of MURREL'S birth is not well established. STEWART said he was born in Middle Tennessee. NORTH said he was born in Simpson Co., Ky., and came to Tennessee when a small child. If he was born in Sequatchie Valley as WALTON said then he was born in Roane county for all that valley was a part of Roane county at that time, that is in 1804. His father was a blacksmith and seems to have been an honest man. He tried to teach John A. and his brother his trade but met opposition from their mother who taught them the arts of thief and in this they became adept. Some years ago we went into the little frame house in Pikeville and stood in the room where this wonderful thief and multimurderer died and wondered if the mother who stared him on his life road of crime, could have seen the end of her first born, should she have aided him to become a thief and a murderer or prided in the life that made him execrated by all mankind. Even now as we shall follow his career from the first conception of his great scheme of devastion and robbery of southern cities to his grave four miles above Pikeville, where his headless remains lie in a grave, cut north and south and separate from all others the thought comes: Did the body of the monster who lies ill that grave contain a human soul? (To be continued.)
The Rockwood Times, Rockwood, TN, Thursday, 14 Sep 1905, Vol. XXV, No. 26.
About John A. MURREL. by W.E. McELWEE. ---As no locality would take pride in having been the birth place of MURREL we will not search any record to prove he was born in Sequatchie valley, at the time it was included as a part of the territory of Roane county. That valley takes no pride even in being his burial place.
The records at the penitentiary at Nashville show MURREL to have been a tall and rather handsome man. His portrait taken in prison by Grosvenor and Telfer in 1836, bears out the description in the prison "Record Book." The portrait is in profile. The outlines of the face are regular and clear cut. The hair being close shaven adds to a natural high and receding forehead. The nose is straight, lips thin, round chin and deep heavy set jaws. The neck is disproportionately large as compared to his head which is round and rather small. He is shown in his shirt sleeves with a very broad turndown collar, which was probably the fashion of the prison garb at that time.
The court is sentencing him said, "No country, in any age, has produced a more formidable banditti, so extensive in its operations and so scientific in its plans as the clans of which you appear by the testimony to be the leader and master spirit. Villainy has been reduced to a science and an organized system of thefts, robbery and murder has been carried forward by adept in crime, bound together by most terrible and revolting oaths and known to each other by grips and secret signs."
MURREL professed to believe that the various pursuits by which men accumulated money, were equal, if tested by a fair rule to determine their honesty. They were all simply different ways and means of getting for themselves the property of other people. Traders claimed that they only took the profits on their deals, but it was plain they simply divided values, each party to the transaction trying to get the biggest share. All business was carried on by buying for less than the thing was worth and uelling it for more than it was worth. The only difference between trading and thieving was that a trader took part of the property or value from his customer and a thief took all. He had been taught this by his mother when, as a boy, she sent him to steal certain articles pointed out by her and he seems to have believed it fully. In a trail of one of his clansmen before a Justice of the Peace in Tipton county MURREL appeared as a lawyer and argued to the Esquire that, it was not an act for which a man could be imprisoned to steal. It was trued that it was sometimes done but wrongfully. Suppose said MURREL I take your horse, what have I done? Simply taken your property and left nothing for it. Suppose I buy your horse on a credit and never pay for it, what have I done? Simply taken your property and left nothing for it. The result of my act is the same, the only difference is the manner in which it is done. Or suppose I buy your horse and pay part down but never pay the balance agreed, or that you sell me and unsound horse at the price of a sound, we have taken something without equal compensation. The principal is the same. The difference is we have taken part while a thief takes all. The acknowledged remedy at law for one is civil suit for damages, it should be so in the other. The result of the trial was a judgment for the value but the thief kept the horse. The owner appealed the case but the thief was never seen in those parts again. MURREL seldom did the stealing or committed the murders himself. It was done at his direction by his clansmen. He ofttimes assumed the guise of a traveling minister, stopping in a neighborhood to hold protracted meetings, and acquainting himself with the stables in which the best horses were kept. He was thus able to give directions to his clansmen how to proceed and the horses were ofttimes taken before protracted meeting was ended.
At that period of time the commerce of the country was by "overland travel." Goods were hauled from seaport towns to inland markets by wagons and stock was driven over the dirt roads. A favorite class for the clan to rob were the stock traders from Kentucky. Members living in the Southern states would inform themselves about these traders, how much stock they sold, the probable amount of money they would receive and their route of travel. This information would be sent ahead of them on their return and they would never be heard of again. It mattered little what road they traveled the result was always the same. This is no matter of surprise when we remember how completely MURREL had covered the country with his organized band. (to be continued.)
The Rockwood Times, Rockwood, TN, Thursday, 21 Sep 1905, Vol. XXV, No. 27.
About John A. MURREL. by W.E. McELWEE. ---At the time of his last arrest and trial in Jackson, Madison county, for stealing two negroes from Parson HENNING, at whose house he had been staying, while holding a protracted meeting it came our in the evidence and the names were given of sixty clansmen in Tennessee, forty-seven in Mississippi, twenty-eight in Alabama, thirty-two in Georgia, thirty-five in South Carolina, thirty-two in North Carolina, sixteen in Florida, thirty-two in Louisiana, twenty-five in Kentucky, twenty-one in Virginia, twenty-seven in Maryland and forty-six in Ark. Besides these there were twenty-two whose business it was to travel from place to place to carry orders, give information and gather and distribute proceeds of stolen property. Besides those whose names were given and which still stand upon the trial records in Madison county, there were hundreds of letters of others, no doubt, whose names were not obtained, but [torn] of whom lived on the proceeds distributed or the property stolen and robberies and murders committed. The detection and conviction of those outlaws was well nigh impossible. When an arrest of one was made any number of them would come forward as witnesses in his behalf [torn] plausible evidence that he could not be convicted. MURREL had not [torn] his clansmen from the lower classes but among men of good standing in their community. Many of them occupied positions of truse, th [torn] every effort to fill the Sheriffs [line is torn] if a member was tried before one of their justices [torn] would be acquitted and if by some other justice he was bound [torn] at court, the friendly Sheriff would allow him to escape. The shrewdness of MURREL and his power of persuasion was something wonderful. In illustration we will relate an instance.
He had a brother who lived in Tipton county. MURREL went to see him and made the acquaintance of a negro named Sam whom he persuaded into an agreement to run away. After MURREL had been gone a month one of his men took the negro one night to another clansmen and returned before the day. In this way the negro passed from one to another till he reached the Mississippi river. Here he was given to a man who was waiting with a skiff to take him to Natches. Here they waited at the house of a friend till MURREL, who came by steamer, arrived. MURREL took the negro on the boat with him to New Orleans. On the way down a passenger recognized MURREL and told the Captain saying at the same time that no doubt the negro was stolen. The Captain took possession of the negro and arrest MURREL but did not confine him. On arriving at New Orleans MURREL leaped to the guard of another boat and escaped. He went to some of his associates and sent one to ascertain when the boat was to start on its return trip. He then went to the Mayor and got a writ of replevin for the negro. The officer served it just as the boat was rounding out and it left with the passenger who identified MURREL on board. At the trial MURREL exhibited a bill of sale and proved by two men that they were present and saw Mr. SIMPSON, as MURREL called himself by the negro. The captain could introduce no proof as his witness was gone. The negro was therefore given to MURREL who immediately indicted the Captain for holding him in false imprisonment. He was found guilty and sent to jail.
Two of MURREL'S men took passage on the boat and at first opportunity knocked the informant overboard and he was drowned.
MURREL gave the negro particular instructions, then sold him for eight hundred dollars. A few nights afterward a clansman stole him again and took him up the country to where MURREL was awaiting them. Here MURREL stole two fine horses and he and Sam made their way to the northern part of the state. Here he turned preacher and began a protracted meeting stopping with Elder HICCOMBATAN. He explained that he had become possessed by inheritance of some negroes but had religious scruples on the subject and had been south to sell them but Sam was so much opposed to being sold and was such a splendid fellow he was taking him back home again. Sam had been coached and pretended to fall in love with one of the HICCOMBATTAN'S negro girls. Before meeting closed he had persuaded HICCOMBATTAN to buy him which he did, paying seven hundred dollars for him. After MURREL was gone a clansman took the negro across the Mississippi river where MURREL sold him again for five hundred dollars. MURREL now instructed a friend to steal the negro, kill him and bury him in the swamp, lest the negro should tell and thus put men on the track of MURREL. The friend reported that he put the negro where "there was no voice save that of the frogs singing above him a funeral dirge." Hundreds of negroes were stolen and after being sold a few times were murdered to prevent them from becoming tired of that kind of procedure and informing one to whom they were sold, of the secrets of the clan.
As before said MURREL was most probably born in Tennessee but just where is not certain but he grew up in middle part of the state. His father died when he was about twelve years of age. MURREL always said of his father that he was an honest man and tried to raise him honest, but his mother was true grit and learned him and her other children to steal almost as soon as they could walk and would hide things for them. After MURREL had arrived at the age of fourteen he prepared himself with burglar tools. The first haul he made was opening a peddlers trunk from which he got a bolt of lenen, also one of fine cloth. His mother had clothes made for the family. After entering a few stores in adjoining counties he began horse stealing. He quickly saw the necessity of having the aid of associates. The first line established by him was from Nashville to Tuscaloosa. The next was from Nashville to Savannah. The first man in the killing of which he was engaged was on this route, and at the falls in Cumberland county near the station of Ozone. He and a man by the name of CRENSHAW had stolen four horses off of the range near Nashville and started over the route toward Savannah with them. Before reaching the Cumberland mountains with them they fell in company with a man from South Carolina. (To be continued.) Note: The next issue is missing.