Sad to say, not all of our ancestors were as heroic as Captain Hubbell in the previous posts or as honorable. We all are aware that there might be a skeleton somewhere in the closets of the past and today, I’m looking at one such man.
John Murrell was a famed thief and slave-trader who used Logan County, KY to form his vast underground “army.” The following is taken from a newspaper article published in 1973.
“A holding or staging area for what has been described as “perhaps the largest underground army ever seen in this county” was a cave between Russellville and Adairville later to be known as the Laymon Collier property.
“The cave was a favorite haunt in the early 1800’s of one John Murrell and his co-hurt, Harry Crenshaw, both rogues and robbers along the Natchez Trace.
“Murrell was the leader of the gang whose daring and methods of operation garnered their frame of a sort throughout the country. For this reason, more is known about Murrell than about Crenshaw.
“Murrell was born near Columbia, Tennessee, the son of a tavern owner whose mother taught him to steal before he was 10 years old. As the operator of the tavern, Murrell’s mother would linger in the room of a guest long enough to spot valuables and when the guest retired for the night, young Murrell would steal into the room and take everything in sight. He was an accomplished lock burglar before he reached his teens.
“Finally, Murrell left the family and true to the creed taught him by his mother, emptied the family coffers of its last $50 for the trip.
“In Nashville, he formed a working agreement with Crenshaw, who was already known up and down the Trace as the scum of the earth.
“For several years they traveled the Trace employing a fairly simple, but brutal method of operation. They would waylay a stranger, strip him of his clothes and valuables and then split the stomach cavity and fill it full of rocks and throw the body into the nearest river.
“The use of Mefford’s Cave in Logan County was to reach its peak when Murrell was in his mid-twenties.
“One Murrell method that was to bring him fame all along the frontier and in the cities of the East involved coaxing a slave to desert his owner, under the impression that he was being helped to freedom.
“Once away from his owner, the slave would be sold and sometimes resold as many times as possible before the owners got together to compare notes, as they sometimes did. In these cases, the slave would be done away as quietly as possible.
“Murrell’s slave trading actually was a method adopted from “horse trading,” in which a horse would be stolen, resold and re-stolen again. The cave was the central point ford “storing” slaves and horses or transferring them to other areas where they could more safely be sold.
“The cave is located off the Millerstown Road and was well adapted to Murrell’s use, since at least in those days, it was fairly well secluded and provided reasonably dry quarters, protected from the colder weather and the elements.
“The cave had been used as early as 1818 by settlers and travelers. A powder mill at which saltpeter taken from the cave was processed for gunpowder was establish near there about that time by a John Mefford. Exactly when Mefford mined ford saltpeter, is obscured in history, but the mill, located some distance away, was in operation on that date as proved by county records. The mining, if it followed the pattern elsewhere, was done by slaves.
“Slaves may have been used as a convenience of mine owners, but it is possible that they were also used because the mixing of the saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur to form powder was a dangerous process which the owners preferred not to attempt themselves. Once mixed, the ingredients were put into a grinder. Sometimes the friction caused by the grinding set off an explosion.
“The gunpowder made in this fashion was unpredictable and more than one settler was faced with a touchy situation if it failed to ignite at a critical time when the settler was facing an outlaw or even a deranged buffalo.
“The range of the Murrell operation can be seen by the fact that he frequented Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina and Illinois, widely separated points in those days.
“Murrell often disguised himself by claiming to be a Methodist preacher. He may have chosen this disguise because he had some knowledge of the “Great Revival” preachers of Logan County, where the movement started.
“But he added another ingredient, while he played at being a preacher, his cohorts were outside the church making off with the choice horses of the worshippers.
“Murrell’s first encounter with the law came in Nashville where he was accused of stealing a widow’s horse. He was sentenced to have HT (horse thief) branded on his left thumb, to receive 30 lashes and spent 12 months in jail.
“It is believed that Murrell hatched a plan ford a slave uprising while in jail. The plan was designed to put Murrell firmly in control of the entire southeastern United States.
“The slave rebellion actually got underway in 1835, but Murrell did not remain free to see it reach a conclusion. One of his gang members, Virgil Stewart, went over to the side of the prosecutor, presumably to save his own skin, but he claimed to have joined the gang specifically to get evidence against Murrell. Whatever the truth, it was Stewart’s testimony that did much to convict Murrell of slave stealing. Much of what is known about Murrell is in a biography written by Stewart.
“Murrell’s scheme not only failed him, but many of his gang members were hanged by citizen committees in the Southeast.
“Murrell spent 11 years in jail and was released in 1845. While in jail he was stricken with tuberculoses, which eventually claimed his life at Pikeville, Tennessee.
“In the end he was a failure, unwanted anywhere, lonely and without money to sustain himself.”
For further information on John Murrell you might want to check the following sites:
“The Reverend Devil”: http://www.sabine.k12.la.us/fhs/Murrell.htm
John A. Murrell – Notorious Outlaw: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tnweakle/johnAmurrell_outl...
John Murrell – Bandit: http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/John-Murrell-(bandi...
© Copyright 25 Nov 2008, Sandra K. Gorin
Next week – Famous Women in Kentucky History Up to 1920.