Robert E. Howard had a powerful interest in the desperadoes of his native southwest. “I could fill a thick volume of such disconnected bits and still not exhaust my chaotic store,” he wrote to H.P. Lovecraft in June 1931. I’ve found that passion expressed again and again in his letters, and used them for material in a few posts I hope he’d have approved. There was “Murder Ranches and Gunmen,” “Silver and Steel – Bowie’s Mine,” and the recent two-parter on the lethal Hendry Brown, in his day one of Billy the Kid’s offsiders.
REH certainly viewed with a blend of fascination and horror the career of John A. Murrell. His letter – the June 1931 missive mentioned above, to Lovecraft – describing it, contains some of his most eerie and evocative writing outside his horror stories. Perhaps even including those:
John A. Murrell was a hellbender, in Southwest vernacular. He planned no less than an outlaw empire on the Mississippi river, with New Orleans as his capital and himself as emperor. Son of a tavern woman and an aristocratic gentleman, he seemed to have inherited the instincts of both, together with a warped mind that made him as ruthless and dangerous as a striking rattler.
Time for a caution to the reader, concerning the difficulty of sorting out legend and exaggeration from fact. John Andrews Murrell became a legend of murderous evil. Perhaps a long bow has been drawn with regard to the number of his followers – more than a thousand, it was said – and his victims, at least a hundred of whom he was supposed to have killed himself. The man denied to the end of his days that he had ever been guilty of murder. He was certainly a systematic horse thief and slave stealer, and he operated along the notoriously bloody and crime-ridden trail of the Natchez Trace. Thus, how far he can be believed when he says he was never a killer, is problematic.
Let’s start with the verifiable bit. He’d been born sometime in 1804 in Tennessee, third son of a completely respectable Methodist minister, Jeffrey Murrell – and you couldn’t, in those days, get much more respectable than being a Methodist. His mother Zilphia, nee Andrews, had been the daughter of a prosperous Virginia planter. Again, that was both genteel and accepted. She hadn’t been “a tavern woman” all her life; she inherited the inn from her parents. John A’s ancestors on both sides came from the state’s early landed families. Not a lawbreaker or ne’er-do-well in generations.
The moral decline in the family began with Zilphia. She managed the inn (near Columbia, Tennessee), since her preacher husband was often away giving sermons. Jeffrey Murrell didn’t think his wife was decorous enough for a clergyman’s partner, it seems, since he commanded her (without much effect) to “quit walking the way she did, hips swinging and breasts undulating, and long thighs molding themselves against her skirt with each step.” That’s from the 1985 book, The Devil’s Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace, by Jonathan Daniels, and I’ve quoted it, naturally, for its salacious effect. As the cliché goes, “ … and now that I’ve got your attention … ”
Poor old Jeffrey didn’t know the half of it. To put it bluntly, the voluptuous Zilphia was a bigger harlot than Rahab. She was also a thief to match any in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, and she taught her four sons to assist her. Male travelers with bulging purses were given the come-on by “Mom Murrell,” and she would whore with them while William, her eldest, or another son, took their coin, watches, and anything else worth having. They weren’t likely to complain later. It would have meant admitting in court that they’d paid the preacher’s wife for sex, and “Mom Murrell” would surely have denied it with a scandalized face, backed by her kids, well coached to appear wild with outrage at the slur on their mother’s honor.
All Jeffrey Murrell’s sons turned out to be worthless. William was a mean, miserable lump of malice, and a coward besides. He deserted his wife and kids in the 1820s. She petitioned for divorce. Not-so-sweet William became a schoolteacher between 1820 and 1824, at Salem Church School in Houston County, Tennessee. After he’d whipped one of his young students, the boy’s mother hurled rocks at him with Biblical vim, and then came after him with a pitchfork. The craven William ran out of town. Having drifted to Maury County, he turned forger, for which he was caught, arrested and fined. What happened to him after that is unknown. It’s possible — but not confirmed — that he joined a counterfeiting ring in Arkansas.
The second brother was James. He perjured himself on John’s behalf in 1823. The following year, he was charged with counterfeiting but acquitted. Maybe the siblings had the talent in common. Mark Twain, in Chapter 29 of his Life on the Mississippi, says that “Murel’s” gang was a highly organized group of “robbers, horse-thieves, negro-stealers and counterfeiters.” (Emphasis mine.)
As for James, he apparently decided to straighten out. He headed for Louisiana and married, in 1827, Mary McBride, a blacksmith’s daughter. I suppose we can hope he treated her well, if only from fear of her father’s muscle. At least she got a handsome man. The Murrells were a strikingly good-looking family. The notorious John had a splendid appearance, and his sister, Leanna Murrell (one of three or four girls) was both a beauty and a superb dancer.
That’s by the way, though.
The youngest brother, Jeffrey junior, proved another complete no-hoper. He “was arrested in Williamson County in 1828 on charges of keeping a whorehouse.” (The Life of John A. Murrell by Gordon P. Bonnet.) A female reprobate named Polly Staggs was charged beside him. Later in 1828 Jeffrey married a Mary Staggs – perhaps Polly’s sister, or Polly herself under an alias. Then he turned to fencing stolen goods, but he doesn’t seem to have been collared by the law again.
John, the Murrell who acquired the most dreadful record, was trained as a thief while still small, like his brothers. Growing older, he grew worse. He was first arrested in 1822, when he would have been about sixteen. Along with William and James he was charged with “riot.” They were supposed to have entered and damaged the house of a man named Thomas Merritt, making truculent threats. The following year, John graduated to stealing a horse, a form of crime that was to become one of his specialties later. This animal was a mare that belonged to a neighbor. James testified under oath that John had been with him, asleep in their room, when the crime occurred. He was caught in the lie. Released on bond into the custody of his father and uncle, John failed to appear in court, which left his relatives holding the bag.
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