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John A. Murrell: Terrorist of the Trace?

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Justin Bendell

on 14 November 2012

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Transcript of John A. Murrell: Terrorist of the Trace?

John A. Murrell:
Fictional Outlaw or
Terrorist of the Trace?

"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."

- Written by Mr. Virgil Stewart under the alias, Augustus Q. Walton, Esq. WHAT IS THE NATCHEZ TRACE?

The Trace is an historic path that extends 440 miles diagonally from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS.

It was the only reliable land link between the eastern U.S. and the trading ports of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Common cultural reference-point in Southern literature. Faulkner, Welty, Nordan, et al. refer to the Trace. Historian Lowell Kirk writes:

The Murrell Clan's reputation for far reaching terrorism was . . . expanded greatly by the exaggerations first published by Virgil Stewart in 1835. . . [The] connection of the Murrell Clan to a widespread fear of a slave insurrection deserves so much of the credit for turning a small time rogue and slave stealer into the legendary big time terrorist leader. Is John A Murrell the same as the outlaw James Murrell in Welty’s “A Still Moment”?

“A dark man, who was James Murrell the outlaw, rode his horse out of a cane brake and began going along beside Lorenzo without looking at him. He had the alternatively proud and aggrieved look of a man believing himself to be an instrument in the hands of a power, and when he was young he said at once to strangers that he was being used by Evil, or sometimes he stopped a traveler by shouting ‘Stop! I’m the Devil!’” (Welty 192) I examine two questions:

Is Welty's James Murrell a fictionalized John Murrell?

Is the real John Murrell a fictionalized John Murrell? Eudora Welty's "A Still Moment" features three historical characters--Lorenzo Dow, "James" Murrell, and John Audubon, sharing a sublime moment on the Natchez Trace.

"A dark man, who was James Murrell the outlaw, rode his horse out of a cane brake and began going along beside Lorenzo without looking at him."

(Welty 192) Is John A. Murrell and Welty's outlaw
James Murrell the same man? Welty admits to reading "Murrell's diary" prior to writing "A Still Moment," but she doesn't say which Murrell. I haven't been able to track down any Murrell diary but the only historically significant Murrell is the outlaw John. Fictions inside of fictions. As Lee Sandlin writes, “It was a credulous age. One reason people were so quick to believe in the Murrell excitement was that they were eager to believe in anything, no matter how strange, as long as it was bad news.” (Wicked River, p. 202) In Conclusion WRITING CAN BE DANGEROUS.
ALL HISTORIES ARE SUSPECT.
USE WORDS WITH CARE. Victor H. Thompson writes that Welty "creates a version of John Murrell...consistent with that given by Coates in The Outlaw Years"

But Coate's text is based on the following text. . . This brought all sorts of people down the Trace, including: itinerant preachers, highwaymen (including John Murrell), "Kaintucks," and peddlers.

In 1809, Meriwether Lewis, American hero and Governor of the Louisiana Purchase, died by gunshot at Grinder’s Stand near Hohenwald, TN. At the time it was ruled a suicide, but the jury is still out.

With advent of steam-power in the early 1800s, the Trace became obsolete. It is now a Parkway managed by the National Park Service. All sorts of people used the Trace: Native Americans, itinerant preachers, highwaymen (including John Murrell), and "Kaintucks."

In 1809, Meriwether Lewis, American hero died by gunshot on the N.T. At the time it was ruled a suicide, but the jury is still out.

Steam-power made the Trace obsolete. It is now a black-topped Parkway managed by the National Park Service. Stewart claimed John Murrell led an outlaw
group called the Mystic Confederacy, slave-stealers and ruffians, who aimed to spark a "great Negro rebellion."

As Jonathan Daniels writes, "how much of this conspiracy was real and how much conjured up by abolitionist activity and Southern fears can only be conjectured." (250-51) Stewart's fear mongering foment panic, leading to riots and lynchings out of fear of an insurrection. His book caused more harm, perhaps, than John Murrell, who was sent to prison for ten years on petty theft charges and not charged with a single murder.
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