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John A. Murrell (also spelled as Murel and Murrel) (1806?-1844), a near-legendary bandit operating in the United States along the Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. Convicted for his crimes in the Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee, Murrell was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, modeled after the Auburn penal system, from 1834 to 1844.
According to prison records, John Andrews Murrell was born in Lunenburg County, Virginia and raised in Williamson County, Tennessee. Murrell was the son of Jeffrey Murrell and Zilpha Andrews and the third born of eight children. When incarcerated, his mother, wife and two children lived in the vicinity of Denmark, Tennessee. While in the penitentiary, Murrell learned the blacksmith's trade, lived in Pikeville, Tennessee, and died there of "pulmonary consumption" (probably tuberculosis). In a deathbed confession, Murrell admitted to being guilty of most the crimes charged against him except murder, to which he claimed to be "guiltless."
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Accepted facts about his life include these:
A young man named Virgil Stewart, in 1835, wrote an account of a Murrell sponsored slave rebellion plot sponsored by highwaymen and Northern Abolitionists. The account was thought to be fictitious. The account was published as a pamphlet called "A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life And Designs of John A. Murel, The Great Western Land Pirate; Together With his System of Villany and Plan of Exciting a Negro Rebellion, and a Catalogue of the Names of Four Hundred and Forty Five of His Mystic Clan Fellows and Followers and Their Efforts for the Destruction of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart, The Young Man Who Detected Him, To Which is Added Biographical Sketch of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart."
Stewart wrote this so-called "confession of John Murrell" under the pseudonym of "Augustus Q. Walton, Esq.," for whom he invented a fictitious background and profession. Some historians assert that Stewart's pamphlet was largely fictional, and that Murrell (and his brothers) were at best inept thieves, having bankrupted their father over the years for bail money.
However, many of the claims made in the pamphlet were believed at the time in some parts of the South, and led to the "Murrell Excitement". During this time, there was increased tension between the races and between locals and outsiders. On July 4, 1835, there were disturbances in the red-light districts of Nashville, Memphis and Natchez and twenty slaves and ten white men where hanged after confessing to complicity in this plot. On July 6, in Vicksburg, an angry mob decided to expel all professional gamblers from the town, based on a rumor that the gamblers were part of this plot. Five gamblers barricaded themselves inside their den, refusing to come out, and shot a widely-respected doctor, killing him. All five were hung.
The following claims were originally derived from Stewart's "History of the Detection, Conviction, Life, and Designs of John A. Murel...." (see above):
Mark Twain, in his novel Tom Sawyer, has Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn seeing "Injun Joe" finding "Murel's" treasure and then after "Injun Joe"'s death by starvation, Sawyer and Finn find the treasure again.
The Tennessee Historical Society has a traveling exhibit which features, among many other items, a preserved thumb which supposedly belonged to Murrell.
He was fictionalized by Jorge Luis Borges in The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell, written between 1933 and 1934 and published in A Universal History of Iniquity in 1935. It is speculation that Borges adapted the last name from Twain; and as Twain did not have a first name for the bandit, Borges used Lazarus, many believe as an allusion to the Bible character of the same first name who was raised from the dead by Jesus, symbolizing a second life (which, in a purely ironic way, Borges' Lazarus Morrell provided for the slaves he freed).
He was fictionalized in Episode 5 of Riverboat on U.S. television network NBC, and the episode was first broadcast 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.
He was fictionalized in Episode 20, Season 2 of The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1958) titled Pirate on Horseback. In the episode, Jim Bowie pretends to be a criminal in order to gain Murrell's trust, played by Donald Randolph. Murrell is presented as the leader of "The Brotherhood," planning to overthrow the U.S. Government, and receives his guidance from Heaven.
He was fictionalized as a featured character both in Robert Lewis Taylor's The Travels of Jamie McPheeters and on the 1963 television showed based on it, where he was portrayed by James Westerfield.
In the 1940 film Virginia City, Humphrey Bogart portrays a bandit named John Murrell, although the action in that story takes place at the end of the Civil War, more than twenty years after the death of the real Murrell.
Sow the Seeds of Hemp, a 1976 novel by Gary Jennings, is a fictionalized account of the pursuit of John Murrell by Virgil Stewart, told from Stewart's point of view.
American novelist John Wray's second novel, entitled "Canaan's Tongue" (2005), uses Murrell and his bandits for an allegorical look at the United States, belief, and power.
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.
Walt Disney's Davy Crockett has Crockett and Mike Fink fighting off an attack by a Murrell-type outlaw, who is referred to as Samuel Mason, and joined by the Harpe Brothers in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, 1956.