Madison County, Tennessee
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THE "MURRELL GANG"
John A. Murrell & Daniel Crenshaw
West Tennessee's Local Bandits
The state of society was generally rough, and the newly introduced laws frequently failed to command respect. The thief, the robber, the horse-stealer, the negro-runner, the highwayman, the burglar and the counterfeiter profited by the opportunity, and a reign of lawlessness began. But it was frequently tempered by lynch-law, and was overridden at times by superior force. It was the glory and the boast of a native Tennessean to have organized these scattered elements of recklessness and crime into a noble band of valiant and lordly bandits, as Murrell styled his following.Of the early life of Murrell little is known. It is known, however, that he was born in Middle Tennessee, and perhaps in Williamson County. At any rate he lived in that county not far from Bethesda, about ten miles from Franklin, to which place he moved prior to the year 1827. About this year he left for other fields of activity. His father was a Methodist preacher of good moral character. After leaving Williamson County Murrell lived for some time in what is now Chester County, West Tennessee.
There is a wide divergence of opinion as to what part Murrell played in the depredations and outrages which were committed by the band with which he was identified from this time until it was broken up in 1834-1835. Phelan says: Phelan's History of Tennessee. The distinguishing feature of his methods was their thoroughness. After the commission of an offense, nothing was stickled at to prevent detection. He knew no degrees in crime, and regarded murder as in no wise more heinous or repugnant than the theft of a watch. In article entitled John A. Murrell and Daniel Crenshaw in Tennessee Historical Magazine. Yet Mr. Park Marshall says: Murrell always positively denied that he or his gang ever committed a murder. No charge of murder in any definite form was ever brought to his door. Yet the prevailing belief in the minds of the people in many parts of the country, and to a great extent locally at the present time, is that Murrell and Crenshaw, particularly Murrell, were the leaders of the greatest band of highwaymen the country has ever known, and could with justice be described as the great land pirates of the Southwest. This mistaken notion had its origin in a highly fictional and long since discredited story contained in a small book published by one Vergil A. Stewart, which owing to its sensational character had a large sale and of course a very large number of readers.
Notwithstanding the divergence of the views with regard to Murrell personally and his methods and the character of his crimes, it is a certainty that he and his gang kept West Tennessee, North Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas in a ferment of alarm and distress for several years, especially with the favorite operations of horse-stealing and negro-running. While these hectic affairs were being carried on Murrell married and settled down, apparently at least, on a farm which he bought near Denmark in Madison County, Tenn. In reality it is supposed that he was carrying on the most extensive schemes of rapine and plunder through a sort of committee called the Grand Council of the Mystic Clan, including, it was thought, many men of standing and influence and the ramifications of which were widely spread. He was living at Denmark when, through the influence of Vergil A. Stewart, he was arrested. It is believed that Stewart was, at one time, associated with Murrell and that he endeavored to bring Murrell to justice to gratify his desire for revenge. Be that as it may, he failed to give the grand jury the name of any prominent man connected with Murrell. Nevertheless Murrell was convicted of negro-stealing in court at Jackson, and was sent to the penitentiary where he remained six years, at the end of which time he was pardoned on account of his failing health. He went to Pikeville and died near there not long afterward. In his Historic Blue Grass Line, Douglas Anderson tells of Murrell having been tried in Nashville on a change of venue, on May 25, 1825, on the charge of having stolen a horse from a widow in Williamson County. The verdict and judgment was that Murrell should serve twelve months' imprisonment; be given thirty lashes on his bare back at the public whipping post; that he should sit two hours in the pillory on each of three successive days; be branded on the left thumb with the letters H. T. in the presence of the Court, and be rendered infamous.
Mr. Anderson describes the branding from the statement of an eye-witness as follows: At the direction of the sheriff Murrell placed his hand on the railing around the judge's bench. With a piece of rope Horton then bound Murrell's hand to the railing. A negro brought a tinner's stove and placed it beside the sheriff. Horton took from the stove the branding iron, glanced at it, found it red hot, and put it on Murrell's thumb. The skin fried like meat. Horton held the iron on Murrell's hand until the smoke rose two feet. Then the iron was removed. Murrell stood the ordeal without flinching. When his hand was released he calmly tied a handkerchief around it and went back to the jail.
As a young man, Crenshaw was an associate of Murrell in Williamson County, and, contrary to the accepted belief, seems to have been the leader in the various escapades in which both, from time to time, were engaged. According to Park Marshall, in the article previously referred to, Crenshaw lived on land belonging to the mother of Thomas H. Benton and a large spring near one of the corners of this land was known as Crenshaw's Spring. Like Murrell, Crenshaw seems not to have practiced murder in carrying out his designs, either alone or in connection with Murrell. He was guilty of various offenses and crimes. In April, 1826, he was convicted of stealing a horse from R. C. Foster, of Williamson County, sentenced to imprisonment for six months and was branded. It is said that after Crenshaw was branded and was still standing on the block he bit the letters from his hand. John Bell, afterwards the eminent senator in Congress and candidate for President in 1860, was Crenshaw's attorney and, after his client had been convicted in the case spoken of, he withdrew his plea of not guilty in two other cases against Crenshaw and filed in each case a plea of benefit of clergy by which device Crenshaw secured immunity from the penalties in a case of forgery and in one of the horse-stealing cases. [Source: TENNESSEE THE VOLUNTEER STATE VOL 1]
Murder of Thaddeus Pope
Hanging of Milton McLean
Milton McLean had been convicted of the murder of Thaddeus Pope and sentenced to be hanged. Pope lived long enough to testify that there were no hard feelings between the two men. McLean had been tried, found guilty, had obtained a new trial; and his case had been reviewed by the Supreme Court. On January 7, 1876 a large crowd had gathered in fron of the jail to witness the pomp and ceremony of the occasion and the dignity and bravery of the prisoner.
Many also had come out of idle curiosity. The gallows had been erected at teh "hanging grounds" at the foot of Liberty Street one and one-half miles from the courthouse. Clad in a neat black suit, the prisoner walked between Rev. McNair an dDr. Slater to the wagon. He seated himself on his coffin with perfect nonchalance. Mayor King and the sheriff with the entire police force formed a circle around the wagon. Arriving at the grounds, the prisoner mounted the scaffold and said to Sam Brown, who made the scaffold, "I hope that you have done a good job." The carpenter answered, "I have done my best." McLean looked over the audience as coolly as if he were the chief marshal at a picnic.
The croud sang, the preacher read the scripture, the sheriff read the sentence, and at the appointed time, the prisoner stepped forward and assisted the sheriff in adjusting the rope around his neck. The black veil was placed over his head and the fatal drop took place. The doctors declared him dead of strangulation in twenty-five minutes. The body was placed in a walnut coffin and turned over to his wife and friends to be carried to Hardeman County for burial. [Jackson Sun - January 6, 1876 ]
Murder of Frances Sanders
The first murder trial began in October, 1826, and ended January 31, 1827, in conviction. The case was the State against Thomas Jameson, for the murder of Francis Sanders. Jameson was an objectionable suitor for the hand of Sanders’ daughter. The murder was committed for the purpose of securing the wished for prize. The prisoner was remanded to jail to remain till May 4, 1827, between 10 A. M. and 2 P. M., when he should be taken to a convenient place near Jackson, and there hung by the neck until dead. The execution was duly carried out about two miles from Jackson. A negro was also executed as an accomplice.
At the July term of the same year, James Wright, for the killing of West Ratcliff, was convicted of manslaughter and ordered to pay a fine of $25 and the cost of his prosecution, also to be branded on the thumb with the letter "M." The first case to the penitentiary after the passage of the penitentiary law, was William Morgan, convicted of horse stealing. He was convicted January 23, 1834, and sentenced for a term of three years, and was rendered infamous. A motion for a new trial, also a motion for arrest of judgment was overruled.
On July 24, 1834, was ended a suit that was well known throughout the State. It was the suit of the State against John A. Murrell, for negro stealing. Whether guilty or not guilty, he was accused of almost every crime known to the criminal calendar. The jurymen in the well known case were Joseph Hogg, Chas. Robertson, J. G. Snodgrass, Henry Tate, Samuel Lancaster, Granderson Spurlock, David Robertson, John Rodgers, David McKnight, A. H. Morrow, Jacob Sneed and James Elrod. Murrell was sentenced to the penitentiary for a term of ten years. He was defended by Milton Brown, All motions for new trial and arrest of judgment were overruled. Elizabeth Murrell, sister of the above was convicted of larceny and sentenced for one year, but was recommended for mercy and received a nominal fine.
The third legal hanging in Madison occurred about 1838. It was a man named Reiley, for the murder of a man named Willis. The killing occurred about ten miles east of Jackson, and the execution followed in due time and form. The court of 1838 sent S. R. Smith and Burwell Clark each to the penitentiary for three years, for forgery, B. W. H. Medares three years for larceny. A very exciting suit, in which money, talent and social influence were involved, was the suit of J. L. Tarbutton against W. M. Price, for the seduction of his daughter. The case was begun in April, 1837. The best legal talent was employed in the suit. It was taken to Haywood County, where it was compromised. The plaintiff recovered $1,000 and costs. The suit of Sanders vs. Stores in a case of ejectment, lasted from 1840 to 1848; also the suit of Cole vs. Sanders. The case grew out of the purchase of a negro by the former from the latter. It was alleged that Sanders had sold the plaintiff an unsound negro. The case lasted from 1844 to 1848. In May, 1859, A. Williams was found guilty of "rape" and was sentenced to the penitentiary for twenty-one years. The last court before the war was held in May, 1861, with Judge Read presiding. The jury summoned consisted of J. W. Sharp, A. B. Goodwin, B. Withers, Thomas Campbell, W. H. Brown, F. G. Gibbs, J. B. Cole, J. P. Thomas, J. M. Greer, W. M. Tidwell and Henry Glen. In 1849, August 23, Adam Huntsinan, before mentioned, died. A committee consisting of Henry Brown, Judge John Read, Samuel McClanahan, A. W. O. Totten, Micajah Bullock and Melton Brown drew up suitable memorials. David Reid died August 27, 1858. A memorial of his death was also spread upon record. The courts were reopened after the war by Geo. W. Reeves as judge; G. G. Perkins, sheriff, and Sion W. Boon, on November 20, 1865. In 1866 Wm. R. Bond received his commission as judge, and Wm. F. Tally, attorney-general.
Numerous suits followed soon after the war, some of which sprang from bitterness and were engendered by the war. Happily these difficulties soon passed away. On April 25, 1874, Milton McLoed shot and killed Thaddeus Pope. McLoed was arrested, tried, convicted, and on January 7, 1876, was executed before an immense throng. The stoicism manifested by the defendant throughout the entire proceedings was remarkable. On July 13, 1876, Millard Filmore Wilson (colored) murdered Capt. Newton C. Perkins, and on the anniversary of his crime was executed. Judge Milton Brown died in October, 1882. He was born in Lebanon, Ohio, in 1804, and came to Jackson some time after the organization, and shone like a meteor for more than half a century. His name vividly calls up recollections of Martin Huntsman, Read, Haskell, Caruthers, McClanahan, Totten, Scurlock, Stephens, Bullock, Miller and many others. The bar of Jackson has long been represented by an eminent class of attorneys. Being as it is, a central point for West Tennessee, a vast amount of litigation has been had before it. Fifty trials for murder seem large, yet it is not, compared with other portions of the country, and the area embraced in its range. No morbid desire induced this statement, but it simply stands as a truth. The criminality of these offenses ranges from the greatest to the most trivial. [The Goodspeed Publishing Co., Nashville TN, 1886]
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