Archive for July 2nd, 2017

Corpses Strewn: The Murrell Excitement

Add comment July 2nd, 2017 Headsman

In 1835, Madison County in the U.S. Deep South state of Mississippi thrilled to the frightening rumor that its huge slave population was on the brink of insurrection.

As with many squelched servile revolts we have seen in these ghastly pages we have no conclusive evidence on the reality of the alleged plot … but we can certainly read the panic of the masters. They were, or became, acutely conscious of their vulnerability; Madison County’s* vast and wealthy plantations had one of the highest concentrations of slaves in the Union. An 1834 travelogue, not thinking of the prospects for a jacquerie, remarked on the “immense bodies of rich land” that were

all being converted into cotton fields, and negro quarters — leaving so sparse a white population, as to preclude the possibility of building up any thing like an interesting state of society. Many of the owners of those large plantations reside in the older settled parts of the State, and not a few of them in other States — leaving on a plantation containing perhaps, several sections of land, no white person except the overseer.**

This was the setup for numerous actual or almost slave rebellions, from the Caribbean to Nat Turner‘s rising in Virginia just four years before.

Spooked Mississippians took a page from the playbook of their Old Dominion brethren — exhausting patrols,* sleepless nights, vigilante justice. “I have not slept two hours in the twenty-four for six days and nights,” one planter wrote on July 9, “and have been on horseback more than four-fifths of the time” … and was scribbling in a rush for “I have to hurry to Clinton this morning.”†

The rumor seems to have been first put abroad by a Georgian adventurer named Virgil Stewart, who infiltrated himself into the company of bandit and slave-stealer John Murrell and got the latter arrested some months previous. Stewart circulated a pamphlet grandiosely titled “A history of the detection, conviction, life and designs of John A. Murel, the great western land pirate. Together with his system of villainy, and plan of exciting a Negro rebellion.” (Read it here.) This document is a principal source for the bloodbath that follows, along with “The History of Virgil A. Stewart, and His Adventure in Capturing and Exposing the Great ‘Western Land Pirate’ and His Gang, in Connection with the Evidence; also of the Trials, Confessions, and Execution of a Number of Murrell’s Associates in the State of Mississippi during the Summer of 1835, and the Execution of Five Professional Gamblers by the Citizens of Vicksburg, on the 6th of July, 1835″ (here) and “Proceedings of the Citizens of Madison County, Mississippi, at Livingston, in July, 1835, in Relation to the Trial and Punishment of Several Individuals Implicated in a Contemplated Insurrection in This State” (here)

Stewart purported to have obtained a confession from Murrell’s own lips to the effect that “The grand object that we have in contemplation, is to excite a rebellion among the negroes, throughout the slave-holding States. Our plan is to manage so as to have it commence every where at the same hour.” The outlaw certainly had a trenchant critique of the Slave Power.

We find the most vicious and wicked disposed ones, on large farms: and poison their minds by telling them how they are mistreated, and that they are entitled to their freedom as much as their masters, and that all the wealth of the country is the proceeds of the black people’s labor; we remind them of the pomp and splendor of their masters, and then refer them to their own degraded situation, and tell them that it is power and tyranny which rivets their chains of bondage, and not because they are an inferior race of people. We tell them that all Europe has abandoned slavery, and that the West Indies are all free; and that they got their freedom by rebelling a few times and slaughtering the whites, and convince them, that if they will follow the example of the West India negroes, that they will obtain their liberty, and become as much respected as if they were white, and that they can marry white women when they are all put on a level. In addition to this, get them to believe, that the most of people are in favor of their being free, and that the free States, in the United States, would not interfere with the negroes, if they were to butcher every white man in the slave-holding States.

With Stewart’s report as background, a white woman at a Beatties Bluff plantation reported overhearing her slaves murmuring in hushed tones about a rebellion. In a twinkle a vigilance committee was formed up to pursue this lead, and it appears to have grafted some themes from Stewart/Murrell — a coordinated holiday rising (Murrell had said Christmas, but here the focus fell on Independence Day), the leadership of white scofflaws (hence the “Murrell Excitement”) — and it recorded an erudite defense of its confessedly rough and extralegal behavior.

When, too, it is recollected, that all we hold most dear in this world was involved in the common danger, and calling for every manly energy in its defence, the odds will be found very great between the cold reasoning of statesmen and lawyers, and the vituperations of fanatics at a distance. But imminent and pressing as was the danger, the organization of a committee, chosen by the unanimous consent of their fellow-citizens, assembled on the occasion, and invested by them (however unclothed with the forms of law) with the fearful power of life and death, was the result.

… why was not the civil authority appealed to? … The civil authority was inadequate to this end in Madison county; for there is no jail in that county sufficient to contain more than six or eight prisoners, and even those very insecurely; and, whenever prisoners would have been despatched to any other county, a guard would have been required, which would have left many families defenceless; and it was unknown at what moment this protection might be required; besides, immediate example, and its consequent terror, without hope from the law’s delay or evasion, seemed, as in truth it was, indispensable to safety.

Already had many of the slaves marked out the victims of their lust or revenge; and no time to convince them of the fatal attempts of their rash enterprise was to be lost. If they had been permitted to commence it, though a failure must have eventually taken place, horrid would their momentary triumph have been. That the plot was headed by a daring band of villanous [sic] white men, there now remains no doubt, and the desperate evil required a prompt and efficient remedy, to the extent of the one resorted to by the citizens of Madison county, and carried into effect by the committee.

For several scattered days ahead, we’ll follow this desperate committee’s prompt and efficient remedies.

As a postscript, Murrell made master criminal Cooperstown to the extent that treasure hunters still pursue his supposed deposits. Mark Twain dwells on “Murel’s Gang” as a “colossal combination of robbers, horse-thieves, negro-stealers, and counterfeiters” in Life on the Mississippi, rating him much the more impressive outlaw than the likes of Jesse James: “James’s modest genius dreamed of no loftier flight than the planning of raids upon cars, coaches, and country banks; Murel projected negro insurrections and the capture of New Orleans.” Humphrey Bogart played Murrell (or a fictional version of Murrell who lived long enough to figure in Civil War adventures) in the 1940 film Virginia City.

* There are 19 Madison Counties in the United States; Madison County, Mississippi is not the one with the bridges.

** As quoted by Edwin A. Miles, “The Mississippi Slave Insurrection Scare of 1835,” The Journal of Negro History, Jan. 1957.

† Quote from the National Intelligencer, July 29, 1835

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1835: A white man at Vicksburg and two black men at Livingston, and five slaves at Beatties Bluff

Add comment July 2nd, 2017 Headsman

The first casualties of the Murrell Excitement, a purported slave rising in Madison County, Mississippi, were strung up by vigilance committees on this date in 1835.

Having been alerted to rebellious talk by slaves on a Beatties Bluff plantation, a vigilance committee organized itself and interrogated every slave there.

Events were moving fast, and those in the middle of them had all they could do to keep up with developments — as can be seen by this staccato letter from Canton, Mississippi in the center of Madison County. It was reprinted widely in the U.S. in late July; we’re quoting here from the July 25, 1835 Baltimore Gazette And Daily Advertiser.

Canton, Mississippi
July 3, 1835.

I have to inform you the disagreeable news that the negroes are about to rise upon the whites. It come out about two weeks ago; the whole country is in alarm — There have been meetings throughout the state, to adopt measures to find out the ringleaders and to appoint patrols. We are out patroling every night. — Last night I was in company to ride about the country to the plantations to see if every negro was at his home. There was a white man taken up at Vicksburg concerned with the negroes; they called a court together, and brought him in guilty and HUNG him right off. There have been three more white men taken up, but they have not had their trials yet.

In Livingston a town twelve miles from here, they gave a negro six hundred lashes, before he would discover any thing; then he informed them that the blacks were to rise on the Fourth of July. The jail here is full and they are bringing more and more in every day. We have a meeting here to day to form a volunteer company, to be ready at a minute’s notices and we are prepared with guns and ammunition.

Whilst I am writing this, there is a large meeting here to adopt resolutions to protect the citizens; also to send on to the Secretary of War to send a company of soldiers to protect the citizens of the County. — They hanged two negroes yesterday at Livingston, and they have about fifteen more that they are going to hang. We had four brought in here this morning to examine, and expect they will hang one of them.

The Court has just adjourned. They tried three blacks and flogged them all. To one of them they gave two hundred lashes! There were three white men at the head of the insurrection, that have run away. They have one in jail. They took him out yesterday, and gave him Lynch’s law, and that is thirty-nine lashes in this country. They expect to hang him.


Meanwhile, at Beatties Bluff, interrogators on July 1-2 harrowed the slaves with scourges. A letter from one of their number described the transaction with the first man to crack, a blacksmith named Joe. We do not know for a fact whether there was any slave plot, but if one reads it from the perspective of Joe’s likely innocence it presents as an archetypical feeling-out dialogue between torturer and prey, each party half-guessing at the other’s direction so as to steer a story to its acceptable destination.

We then called for a rope, and tied his hands, and told him that we were in possession of some of their conversation, and that he should tell the whole of it; after some time he agreed that, if we would not punish him, he would tell all that he could recollect. He said he knew what we wanted, and would tell the whole, but that he himself had nothing to do with the business. He said that Sam had told him that the negroes were going to rise and kill all the whites on the 4th, and that they had a number of white men at their head: some of them he knew by name others he only knew when he saw them. He mentioned the following white men as actively engaged in the business: Ruel Blake, Drs. Cotton and Saunders, and many more, but could not call their names; and that he had seen several others. He aso gave the names of several slaves as ringleaders in the business, who were understood to be captains under those white men.

Joe appears to have managed this frightful situation with aplomb and “was set at liberty”; however, on his evidence, other slaves were brought in: an aged preacher named Weaver (“no offers of lenity could shake his courage, and he remained steadfast under the torture of the lash, when even his executioner was nigh to fainting with his task”); a man named Russell (“all was mystery with him” until, prompted, he made a statement “in all particulars, precisely like the one made by Joe”); a handsome youth called Jim who offered more white man’s names and claimed that the slaves intended “to slay all the whites, except some of the most beautiful women, whom they intended to keep as wives”; and “a boy” — presumably a child — called Bachus who confirmed same.

“After getting through with these examinations, Jim, Bachus, Weaver, Russell, and Sam, were all put to death by hanging.”

A tense albeit perhaps dramatized narration of the violent interrogations and summary executions can be found in chapter 29 of The Life and Adventures of J. A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate, which is also the source of the illustration above, and of the parenthetical quote about the preacher Weaver.

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