On July 13, after receiving the second letter in as many days from William Jones on behalf of the Clinton committee of safety imploring him to call out the state militia, Hiram Runnels replied. Refusing their entreaty, he told the committee he did not think he had “the necessary information to authorize such an extreme measure” and that he believed there was “ample power invested in the members of police” to contain the crisis, “if properly exerted.” Runnels wrote that he would “be happy to be placed in poss[ess]ion of such facts” as “would show the necessity of calling on the militia,” though he gave no indication of what sorts of facts could demonstrate such a necessity. In the meantime, he had decided “the best rule for my action is to exhort the proper authorities to the necessity of keeping up strong and efficient patroll service in every county and neighborhood.”1
The executive proclamation Runnels issued later in the day reflected that decision. Published widely in newspapers throughout and beyond Mississippi, the proclamation stated flatly that there was “a band of lawless base villainous whitemen traversing the country endeavoring to get up an insurrection among our slaves” and that “disclosures” had been made creating “the most serious apprehensions that a widely extended conspiracy is on foot.” Because the situation appeared “calculated to produce alarm and to call forth the vigilance and energy of the people,” Runnels urged “all good citizens” and every civil and military officer in the state “to suppress all such insurrectionary movements and to apprehend all suspicious persons and deliver them over to the proper authorities that they may be brought to condign punishment.” He particularly called on local boards of police to organize “active and efficient patrols” and ordered that the “arms of the State” be delivered “into the hands of the people for their defence” should it become necessary.2
Runnels’s proclamation is a peculiar document, to say the least. To begin with, it is not evident what prompted him to issue it, as nothing especially desperate or even especially notable had taken place in the days immediately prior to its issuance. No one from Madison County ever did launch an attack to try and take hold of Patrick Sharkey after the Clinton committee of safety acquitted him, and after hanging Ruel Blake on July 10 the Livingston Committee of Safety spent the next few days examining and in most cases releasing people who had been taken into custody while spotted “exploring the country.” With the intensity of the crisis fading, no good reason suggests itself to explain the proclamation except perhaps Runnels’s desire to make it appear that he was taking some kind of public action.3
Adding to the proclamation’s peculiarity—and strengthening the notion that Runnels crafted it mostly for the sake of appearances—is that it proclaimed nothing in particular. Runnels called for the organization of “active and effectual patrols” even though patrols were already riding all across the state. He authorized the state’s cache of weapons to be distributed among its citizens even though the citizens, in Jackson at least, had already taken every gun in the arsenal. He called for “all suspicious persons” to be turned over to the “proper authorities” yet left the meaning of the latter term deliberately vague, effectively sanctioning any extralegal committees—about which the proclamation said nothing—to keep acting as they chose. Mostly, the proclamation amounted to Runnels encouraging the “vigilance” of white Mississippians even as he acknowledged that fear of an uprising had already made them quite vigilant.
The hollowness of Runnels’s proclamation elicited open ridicule from Natchez Courier editor William Mellen, who wrote in an editorial that he had published the “silly document, simply because it is the Governor’s,” but then proceeded to lambaste it and its author alike. Mellen called the proclamation “injudicious, because it is calculated now to create an altogether unnecessary alarm”; “ill-timed, because, to have been of benefit, it should have been issued a fortnight ago”; and “useless, because all the measures which the Proclamation recommends, had been already taken.” In fact, Mellen considered the proclamation “injurious to every interest in the State—because the danger which might have existed, is, without reason, presumed to exist still.”4
Mellen could understand how events had taken the course they did in Madison County and thought the actions of its residents “perfectly justifiable.” They were afraid, they saw no signs that “the officers of the law” were going to do anything to alleviate their fear, and the duly constituted justices of the peace proved unable to exercise control “during a moment of an excitement.” But Mellen considered the governor’s behavior unfathomable. “What has the Chief Magistrate of Mississippi,” he asked, “been about for the last three or four weeks, that he has just given evidence of being awake? Why was he not upon the scene of action?” Ultimately, Mellen argued that if Runnels had issued a proclamation as soon as he heard what was happening in Madison County and had helped local magistrates execute the law, he could have both “prevented unnecessary alarm in other counties” and “quieted the troubled waters in Madison.” The only thing Mellen could say on the governor’s behalf was that at least he would always have “a shield against a charge of rashness!”5
Not everyone appreciated Mellen’s sarcasm. The Courier was a Whig paper, and editors of several Democratic papers saw Mellen’s criticism as an exercise in opportunism that dismissed the plight of whites in west-central Mississippi. From Gallatin, a town in Copiah County due south of Hinds, the editor of the Democrat thought Mellen’s piece “most insulting” evidence of a “persecuting spirit” rooted in the facts that the residents of Natchez had not felt the “great anxiety and probable peril” induced by the insurrection scare and that the proclamation had come “from a Democratic Governor.” The Democrat’s editor, sure that Mellen’s attack would backfire and redound to Runnels’s benefit, concluded that the Courier was a paper “whose columns have long been prostituted to the most degrading, selfish, and unprincipled purposes.”6
In Jackson, George Fall responded to Mellen in the Mississippian with similar invective and even harsher slurs. Like the editor of the Democrat, Fall asserted that Natchez was far enough from the counties that felt the fear of insurrection most acutely so as not to sense the “state of anxiety, hitherto unparalleled” that “pervaded the public mind.” But he claimed that in those counties the governor’s proclamation “has been warmly approved; it has quieted the alarm of many individuals, encouraged the county committees of vigilance and safety, and no doubt had a most salutary effect.” Writing that “the smiling buffoon of the Courier” would have pilloried the governor no matter what he did, Fall asked whether there was “ever a grosser or more disgusting and shameful evidence of party spirit” than Mellen’s criticisms. Brushing aside the attack of the New Hampshire–born Mellen, Fall concluded that the state executive would not be undone “by the simpering, snuffling Yankee, who is hired to assume the editorial blackguardism of the Natchez Courier.”7
Politically active men in Mississippi viewed nearly every event through a sectarian prism, and both George Fall and the editor of the Democrat were probably right that politics partially motivated Mellen’s savaging of Governor Runnels and his proclamation. But they were wrong that the white residents of Natchez had not considered their lives in jeopardy during the insurrection scare. And they were wrong that Runnels would survive and even thrive politically. Voters in Mississippi were not pleased with Runnels’s torpor during the crisis. Four months after it ended they turned him out of office and replaced him with a Whig chief executive named, of all things, Charles Lynch. Politics in Mississippi could be volatile and unpredictable—Lynch had identified himself as a Democrat just a few years earlier—but at least one Democratic operative thought he understood this particular turn. “The recent insurrectionary movements in this state,” he reported to party leaders in Washington, “lost us Madison and Hinds Counties, and injured us in several others.” There was just no getting around the fact that William Mellen properly called attention to the emptiness and especially the belatedness of Governor Runnels’s proclamation. By the time Runnels got around to taking a public position on the matter, the fear that there were white men prowling his state to provoke the enslaved to rebellion was moving toward its denouement.8
In Madison County, residents had hanged Joshua Cotton, William Saunders, Albe Dean, Angus Donovan, and Ruel Blake, nearly all of whom they believed were “ringleaders” of the conspiracy. Supposed confederates like Andrew Boyd and the Rawsons had managed to escape but had been so terrorized that they were unlikely to show their faces in the area again. About a dozen of the enslaved purported to be involved had been executed too, and surely the rest of the slave population was sufficiently cowed not to consider carrying off the plot without whites to instigate and organize it. Additionally, to the extent that a consensus ever had existed in Mississippi that the emergency demanded unquestioning acceptance of the methods used to contain it, the Patrick Sharkey affair and the Clinton committee of safety’s vow to defend him demonstrated that such consensus had fractured. Perhaps most important, while the belief that an insurrection was at hand persisted and even strengthened for several days after it was supposed to have begun on the Fourth of July, time passed with no sign that there was going to be one. If the conspiracy had been broken, if the slaves seemed disinclined to rebel, and if white men of standing in Mississippi were beginning to turn their suspicions on each other, perhaps it was no longer worthwhile running to ground every lead and every grievance.
When Governor Runnels tardily revealed that he was monitoring the situation, the members of the Livingston Committee of Safety had already decided the worst of the crisis had passed and the occasion had about arrived for the committee to adjourn permanently. Committee members, however, did want to express gratitude to those who had stood by them. So on the same day that Runnels issued his proclamation they passed a resolution thanking the residents of Vicksburg and Warren County in particular “for their active, energetic, prompt and efficient conduct, respecting the recent alarms and difficulties that have threatened and disturbed the peace and quiet of the people of this county, and this State generally.” Vicksburgers had helped take Ruel Blake into custody and make sure that he came back to Madison for trial, and they had provided extra weapons when Governor Runnels had failed to supply them. But it was not just people in Warren County who deserved the committee’s recognition. Its members wanted to be sure to acknowledge the white citizens of Mississippi more broadly and to “fully and properly appreciate such acts of conduct among our people throughout the state generally.”9
The resolution the members of the Livingston Committee of Safety passed was cleverly calculated. It marked an effort to put the scare behind them, invest it with larger meaning as an event during which white Mississippians faced down a threat with courage and resolution, and paper over the divisions among them that had cost Hiram Perkins his life and nearly led to anarchy. It even tied together the insurrection scare and the gambling riot, which no one had seen before as anything other than discreet if coincidentally timed events, by praising Vicksburgers for “arresting and speedily bringing to condign punishment, those inhuman monsters who have been engaged in plotting and maturing such diabolical measures for the destruction of the lives of the innocent and virtuous.” Taken as a whole, the resolution enabled the Livingston committee to present itself as one group of actors in a much larger play in which Mississippians were “co-operators in a humane cause impelled by that imperious sense of duty in protecting the lives and virtues of our wives and daughters against the disgraceful and diabolical attempts of mercenary wretches.”10
But nothing could disguise how deeply troubled a place the insurrection scare had revealed frontier Mississippi to be. To a certain extent, that whites in Madison, Hinds, and other counties in central and western Mississippi would respond as they did to the prospect of a slave uprising is to be expected. Slaves composed a restless and discontented population whose efforts to undermine the regime that held them in bondage were systematic, surreptitious, and widespread. Constantly resisting their captivity and conceiving how they might end their subjugation, periodically the enslaved did actually conspire to overturn slavery altogether.
The revolt foremost in the minds of white Mississippians was the Southampton Insurrection, commonly known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which had broken out in Virginia in 1831. But scattered across the history of the Western Hemisphere stretching back more than two centuries were hundreds of instances of slave insurgency, and the most successful had occurred in West Indian colonies where the enslaved outnumbered their white captors. The Haitian Revolution that began in 1791 particularly haunted slaveholders in the United States, leading as it did to the overthrow of slavery in the French colony of Saint Domingue, the execution or exile of thousands of whites, and the establishment of a black republic. Slaves outnumbered whites in Haiti on the eve of that revolution even more dramatically than in most parts of frontier Mississippi, but in their desire to maximize the profits to be made from cotton, white settlers in Madison County and other places like it had imported slaves faster than they crafted interpersonal connections and organizational structures that could mitigate the enmity of the enslaved or at least tamp down its virulence. It was a truism of life under slavery in the United States that white southerners feared their slaves might rise against them. But in the Southwest, Americans had created ideal circumstances for the situation they dreaded most. The repercussions for the enslaved were bound to be fierce when any convincing evidence at all indicated that whites, in the words of one correspondent of Governor Runnels, were “sleeping over a volcano.”11
Nor is it especially startling that white settlers in Mississippi believed other white men were encouraging the enslaved to rebel. Slaveholders often saw economically marginal whites as shifty individuals with suspect racial loyalties whose status made them just as likely to subvert the plantation order as sustain it, and American history is replete with examples of white fears of slave rebellion accompanied by the belief that unreliable white people were complicit in the planning. In reality, relationships between lower-class whites and the enslaved were fraught with ambivalence, and while poorer whites commonly socialized and dealt economically with the enslaved, they rarely manifested a desire to overturn slavery itself. Moreover, those white people singled out as insurrectionists during the summer of 1835 were not universally or even mostly poor, and frontier Mississippi had little in the way of a plantation “order” to be subverted. Nevertheless, the wealth of the planters who sat on the various committees of safety depended on making such an order viable. Doing so entailed clearing the region of whites whose racial or economic solidarity seemed tenuous or ambiguous no less in places where order was already established. Arguably, doing so was part and parcel of making the plantation economy possible at all.12
But the paroxysm of violence that convulsed Mississippi in the summer of 1835 was the deadliest outbreak of extralegal violence in the slave states between the Southampton Insurrection and the Civil War. This was no ordinary insurrection scare, and we might ask why whites in Madison County and elsewhere in Mississippi believed at all in the particular plot Virgil Stewart warned of in his pamphlet. John Murrell, the scheme’s mastermind, was languishing in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. The notion that his incarceration had led his clan to advance the date of the uprising he supposedly conceived to July 4, as opposed to the December 25 date Stewart named, came entirely from the imagination of white Mississippians. Most dumbfounding, the story Stewart told in his pamphlet was incredible at best, preposterous at worst, and downright weird either way. The nagging questions about Stewart’s background, motives, and basic veracity had yet to become widespread public knowledge, but one would think a person did not need to know anything at all about Stewart to wonder whether he ought to swallow a tale as outlandish as The Western Land Pirate.
Historians have long observed that Americans are particularly prone to believing in conspiracies, and social, cultural, and political life in the Jacksonian era was shot through with what Richard Hofstadter famously referred to as the “paranoid style.” Some Americans worried that the Masons were a secretive and aristocratic group that threatened constitutional government. Others feared the sinister influence of Catholics or Mormons, slaveholders or abolitionists, bankers or workers. Believing that treacherous forces machinating in secret explain the workings of the world or endanger its future is one way to make sense of baffling change, and Americans in the 1820s and 1830s lived in a turbulent time. Their society was becoming increasingly democratic and individualistic, their economic lives increasingly abstruse, and the traditional frameworks that structured society increasingly disaggregated. It was contradictory, perhaps, to maintain that mysterious cabals were plotting against the cherished liberties of the individual while also fretting that Americans had become too atomized to defend themselves against those whose power and influence derived in part from their organization. But the sources of American anxiety were contradictory too, and such presumptions and suspicions helped impart a measure of elemental coherence and clarity to the disorientations of the age.13
Not all conspiracy theories appeal to all people in all places, though. The ability of any given theory to gain popularity and acceptance depends on the cultural and social ground of the time and location where it takes root. Moreover, not every conspiracy theory merely or wholly reflects the irrational and paranoid delusions of those who believe in it. Sometimes there really are conspiracies. At the very least, beliefs in conspiracy are not infrequently based in some sort of reality, albeit usually a distorted version of it. And on closer examination the conspiracy posited by Virgil Stewart, while ridiculous on the whole, contained just enough verisimilitude to make it seem credible and astonishingly dangerous to white settlers on Mississippi’s cotton frontier.
Banditry in the Southwest had a lengthy history before John Murrell ever began his career of petty crime in western Tennessee and before Virgil Stewart ever published his pamphlet. Going back to the late eighteenth century the region had a reputation as an unsafe and morally degraded section of the North American continent lousy with highwaymen, pirates, and brigands. Capitalizing on dark and lonely stretches of water and road that provided perfect conditions for robbing traders and ambushing travelers, and acting without compunction thanks to the administrative and practical challenges of establishing reliable law enforcement on the frontier, criminals appeared as if from nowhere and then vanished back into the forest before their victims quite understood what had happened to them.14
Some of the most famously perilous routes for travelers, such as the Natchez Trace, had fallen into disuse by the 1830s, and the notoriety of the Southwest had begun to metastasize from its origins in reality into the Twainish mythology for which the American frontier is still renowned. The region had not seen a genuine confederacy of killers and thieves since the days of Samuel Mason, who spent several decades leading a band of about a dozen desperadoes in southeastern Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and the Mississippi Territory until 1803, when two of his own men turned on him, chopped off his head, and tried to claim a reward offered for his arrest. But legends die hard. The Southwest continued to be staggeringly violent. And especially along the Mississippi River and anywhere state boundaries came together, outlaws remained a considerable problem. Samuel Mason may have been long gone, but it was not necessarily far-fetched to believe an enterprising, charismatic, and ruthless villain like him could exist again.15
White settlers of frontier Mississippi did not even have to reach into the distant past to know that men with a frightful combination of charm, intelligence, and sheer criminal ferocity were real and lived among them. Alonzo Phelps was one of those men. His story is worth telling in some detail here because more than any other individual person, Phelps prepared Mississippians in 1835 to believe that John Murrell could be as nefarious as Virgil Stewart said he was. Born in New England in 1804, Phelps was already a murderer twice over when he appeared in the Southwest in the mid-1820s, and he proceeded to spend the late 1820s and early 1830s menacing the countryside from Vicksburg to New Orleans. By the time he was captured, tried, and sentenced to hang in Warren County for the 1833 murder of Owen Rhodes, Phelps had killed more than half a dozen men, assaulted or fought with dozens more, and committed an untold number of highway robberies.16
The infamy Alonzo Phelps achieved in Mississippi was attributable only partially to his extensive criminal catalog. Phelps seemed to be a creature encountered in fairy tales. Just under six feet tall and weighing around 165 pounds, Phelps was heavily muscled and extraordinarily strong. His long pointed chin, large mouth, small gray eyes, bushy yellow brows, deeply tanned skin, and the unkempt knots of curly dark red hair that stuck out in all directions from his head made him appear a sort of demon. The fact that he spent the bulk of eight years living outdoors in the forest, subsisting on stolen crops or on squirrels and other small game that he ate raw if too famished or rushed to take the time to cook them, only added to his reputation. It was not for nothing that among the nicknames Phelps acquired, one was simply “the wild man.”17
Enhancing Phelps’s stature as a nearly supernatural villain was his spectacular death. Phelps had no intention of expiring on the gallows, telling anyone who would listen that he planned instead to die “like a soldier.” The exact meaning of that became clear the day before his scheduled execution in March 1834, when Phelps requested that a minister be sent to his cell in the Vicksburg jail to provide spiritual solace. The jailor, Martin Anding, noticed while escorting the clergyman into the cell that Phelps had somehow managed to get hold of a small knife or a file and had sawed most of the way through the manacles around his wrists. Understanding that Phelps was trying to escape, Anding immediately backed out of the cell. He armed himself with a large butcher knife, asked a burly man named William Everett to accompany him, and returned with the intention of chaining Phelps more securely.18
But Anding and Everett were no match for Phelps. When they came back, Phelps was standing behind the cell door. His hands still fettered, he bashed Everett in the head with a lead inkstand wrapped in a stocking, then scuffled with Anding and snatched the knife from his belt. Anding, Everett, and the minister fled and locked themselves in an adjoining room as Phelps headed for the exterior door of the building. But it too was locked, giving Sheriff Stephen Howard, several deputies, and a small crowd time to assemble in the yard outside the jailhouse. On Howard’s signal the exterior door was broken down, and the first man through it found himself face to face with a knife-wielding Phelps. The man fell back wounded, the crowd parted, and Phelps stepped into the prison yard and began making his way toward the main gate. Howard clubbed him over the head with a rifle stock and the crowd began bombarding Phelps with brickbats, rocks, sticks, axes, and anything else they could find to throw at him, but still Phelps moved forward, slowly losing strength with each step. He had made it through the gate and started stumbling down the hill beyond it that led to the Mississippi River when someone hit him square with a brick in the small of his back. Realizing he could go no farther and in tremendous pain, Phelps began screaming for someone to shoot him. Stephen Howard obliged. He stepped out of the crowd and shot Phelps once in the back, sending him sprawling face-forward to the ground, where he died.19
The tale of Alonzo Phelps, however, did not end on a hillside by the Vicksburg jail. Ten days before his scheduled execution, Phelps had written to Governor Runnels asking for a postponement so that he might finish writing a document he described as “the history of the last nine years of my life.” Runnels refused the request, but Phelps completed the short book anyway, determined to shape not only the circumstances of his demise but also the way Mississippians would remember him. If Phelps’s crimes, appearance, and manner of death were not enough to distinguish him in Mississippi as a practically folkloric figure, the Confession of Alonzo Phelps, published in Jackson in the spring of 1834, surely was.20
Read as autobiography, Phelps’s Confession is a breathtakingly bleak chronicle of life among the southwestern white underclass. By his own account Phelps had few friends, no family, no steady employment, and no home. He developed fleeting attachments to several women, forged tenuous personal connections with numerous men, worked sporadically at a variety of jobs, and briefly enlisted in the army. But he rarely stayed in one place longer than a few months and had neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to make real plans for a future. He got involved in so many brawls and altercations and could be turned in for reward money in so many jurisdictions that he could trust no one, and he committed so many robberies in part because for every one that brought a windfall there were many that netted him only enough money to survive for a couple of days or weeks. Once, Phelps became so fond of a woman that he considered settling down with her and opening a roadside grocery and timber stop, but his efforts to help her leave her abusive husband ultimately led to the murder for which Phelps was sentenced to hang. By and large, Phelps led an aimless, cruel, destitute, and sad existence consisting of a series of bloody confrontations punctuated by rare and ephemeral stretches of peace and contentment.21
But to read the Confession solely as a saga of wretchedness is to miss its point and its significance. Phelps framed his exploits throughout as matters of honor, acts of self-defense, or actions undertaken on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. Casting himself as a sort of “social bandit” who stole from the prosperous, aided the penniless, protected the vulnerable, and championed the weak against the strong, Phelps clearly hoped people would be telling stories about him long after his demise, writing that dying at age twenty-nine meant his fame had not “become as fully established, and as widely diffused, as I have heretofore desired it to be.” Had he lived to be forty, he assured readers, he would have successfully established himself as “the most celebrated Robber that modern times have produced.”22
Befitting someone who bragged about being a prolific criminal while claiming his crimes were planted in noble soil, Phelps emerges from the Confession as an ambiguous and contradictory figure. On the one hand, he reveled in his own lewdness. Phelps frequented prostitutes whenever he had the opportunity and the means, claimed that at one brothel the madam worried that his behavior and language were so foul that he would corrupt the morals of its residents, alluded to having acquired a venereal disease, and wrote poetry so vulgar the printers of the Confession excised it from the published text. On the other hand, Phelps professed an abiding affection for women, asserting that like most “personages who have been considered worthy to figure upon the pages of history” he had “ever been a devoted worshipper at the shrine of Venus,” and he became indignant or lashed out with chivalrous rage whenever he encountered or even heard about someone mistreating a woman.23
Phelps took delight in boasting about his capacity for violence and relished the gory details of his crimes. Of the men he killed, he described cutting out the heart of one, clubbing another with such force that the man’s “brains spouted from his brain-pan, and bespattered my clothing,” and slowly “ringing and twisting” the head of a third until he detached it from the man’s body. At the same time, Phelps cultivated refinement and erudition, insisting that while a blackguard he was no ignoramus. Though lacking much formal education, Phelps claimed to have read on his own “more extensively than most men.” He considered himself especially knowledgeable in “history and moral science” but also believed he was “somewhat better versed in scriptural lore than most of the ministers of the gospel whom I have encountered in my travels” and that he had “attentively examined every work that has fallen in my way in opposition to the Christian system.” Never eschewing the chance to scandalize readers, Phelps added that he had “as little respect [for Christianity] as either Voltaire or Tom Paine.”24
The most notable tension running through the Confession was that Phelps gleefully touted his assaulting and stealing from people but also insisted that he adhered to a certain ethical code. He rifled the pockets of those he killed and considered robbing nearly anyone he met on the road. But he maintained that he “never was willing to kill any man, merely for money,” and he often spoke with or at least tried visually to size up potential targets in an effort to determine their station in life. Guided by the precept of “robbing the rich to feed the poor, and stripping the miser of his useless hoards to succor the helpless,” Phelps unhesitatingly took what he wanted from those he thought could spare it, let pass those who appeared to need the cash they had, and claimed he gave away the bulk of his spoils “to distressed persons whom I casually met.”25
To no class of people did Phelps extend more compassion than the enslaved, however, and for no class of people did he bear greater enmity than slave traders. Phelps gave money or food to runaway slaves he encountered in the forests, and on one occasion he sawed shackles off of two runaways chained together and told them which roads led north toward freedom. By contrast, when Phelps discovered that a man he was robbing traded professionally in slaves, he stole everything the man had and berated him, saying that not even he would stoop to profit by driving “human cattle to market” and denying his “fellow men of all chance of ever seeing their wives and children again.” When the man replied that if he “did not buy and sell negroes, others would,” Phelps sneered: “and if I did not rob you of your cash, some other person might.” If his Confession is to be believed, Alonzo Phelps saw race as meaningless. No one was more friendless than a runaway slave, no one deserved what was in his pockets less than someone who bought and sold others for a living, and nothing was more hypocritical than a moral order in which the same people who felt “furious indignation” toward Phelps when he stole “a pitiful sum of money” would have gladly accepted a reward for returning “poor slaves to the custody of an unfeeling master.”26
Whether or not we can believe Phelps’s Confession is another matter. Phelps engaged in much self-aggrandizement and probably told some outright lies, but few of the specific incidents he described are implausible, and several Mississippi newspaper editors thought his account largely accurate. The main prosecuting attorney in Phelps’s murder trial, Sargent S. Prentiss, had no patience for the notion of Phelps as a magnanimous and charitable outlaw and scoffed in court at his efforts to be thought of as “the Rob Roy of the Mississippi.” Phelps, however, liked that moniker so much that he adopted it as the subtitle of the Confession. Ultimately, Phelps’s truthfulness is less important than his talent for self-promotion. Crafting a narrative laced with social criticism and abounding with violence, sex, and other elements likely to horrify and thrill readers, Phelps forged a personal mythology so successful that poems about him were still appearing in Mississippi newspapers six years after his death.27
While it is impossible to say just how many copies of the Confession of Alonzo Phelps actually sold, Phelps’s influence on the insurrection scare that broke out a little more than a year after his death was substantial. In the most general sense, Phelps exemplified the kind of itinerant, poor, malevolent, and bloodthirsty white man whose disrespect for property rights and especially for slavery presented the kind of obstacles to the establishment of a plantation economy that someone like Joshua Cotton supposedly did. No matter how many Mississippi planters may have read and remembered Phelps’s Confession, though, one reader mattered more than any other, because Alonzo Phelps was unmistakably among the leading inspirations for John Murrell as Virgil Stewart depicted him in The Western Land Pirate.
That Stewart was in central and western Mississippi in the fall of 1834 as he was writing his pamphlet tells us only that he would have heard about Alonzo Phelps and had the opportunity to read the Confession. Several details, however, indicate that Stewart both read and directly lifted specific elements of it to make John Murrell a more credible villain. Like the Murrell of The Western Land Pirate, Alonzo Phelps considered affecting the disguise of a Methodist minister to gull people into giving him money. John Murrell spoke of visiting a house of prostitution in New Orleans run by a woman known as “old mother Surgick,” an obvious reference to the brothel proprietress named “Mother Sedgwick” in Phelps’s account. Most tellingly, Phelps described numerous instances when he disposed of murder victims by gutting them, removing their entrails, and sinking their bodies to the bottom of rivers, a signature technique of Stewart’s Murrell.28
None of these particulars was necessarily unique to Alonzo Phelps or his Confession. Southwestern settlers were often skeptical of men purporting to be Methodist preachers; Phelps wrote that Mother Sedgwick was a woman “of extensive notoriety”; and he did not originate disembowelment as a method of body disposal. Clinching the notion that Virgil Stewart had Alonzo Phelps on his mind when he developed the character of John Murrell is that Stewart made Phelps himself a minor but vital character in The Western Land Pirate.29
According to Stewart, Murrell said that he and Phelps first met when Phelps and a man named Haines robbed him in New Orleans but returned Murrell’s money and joined him for a night of revelry on discovering that Murrell was a fellow thief. That night proved seminal for Murrell, and he remembered it as “the commencement of my greatness, in what the world calls villany,” because amid the drinking and fornicating Phelps and Haines also gave Murrell the names of every significant participant in the criminal underworld of New Orleans and the entire lower Mississippi Valley. Using that list of names as a guide, Murrell soon began recruiting members for his “mystic clan” and developing his plan to instigate a slave rebellion.30
In truth, there is no evidence that Phelps and Murrell ever met or knew each other, though Stewart both included Phelps on the inventory of clan members he provided in The Western Land Pirate and cleverly denoted Phelps’s first name as “Soril”—a nickname referring to Phelps’s sorrel red hair that he noted in the Confession was “frequently applied by my associates.” Phelps’s presence in The Western Land Pirate was more than just a touchstone that lent credence to Stewart’s narrative, however. Stewart also used Phelps as a benchmark to make Murrell seem more vicious than Phelps at his worst. According to Stewart, when Murrell spoke about Phelps he acknowledged that he was “a noble fellow among the negroes; he wants them all free, and he knows how to excite them as well as any person.” But Phelps was too humane for Murrell. “He has been in the habit of stopping men on the highway and robbing them, and letting them go on,” Murrell told Stewart, “but that will never do for a robber: after I rob a man he will never give evidence against me; and there is but one safe plan in the business, and that is to kill.”31
The differences between Alonzo Phelps and John Murrell help explain the dread Stewart’s pamphlet instilled among white Mississippians as much as their similarities do. Virgil Stewart’s John Murrell was Alonzo Phelps stripped of his pretenses to being a latter-day Robin Hood. Murrell was thoroughly selfish, merciless, and misanthropic, his sympathies for the enslaved nothing more than an affectation used to advance his own ends. Moreover, where Phelps was a loner who lacked the drive to make long-term plans, Murrell was organized and ambitious and had spent years carefully building a criminal syndicate. It might be inconceivable that anyone could effectively command and coordinate the activities of more than one thousand men arrayed over nearly one million square miles of territory as Stewart alleged Murrell said he did. But Stewart’s presentation of a southwestern landscape whose criminal elements sometimes worked together to maximize their effectiveness was nonetheless another credible component of his pamphlet.
Alonzo Phelps, for example, noted that he had declined to join “a band of pirates” who worked the rivers around New Orleans and described how he and a man named Charles Bill briefly joined forces “in the business of robbing on the highway.” In addition, as the case of Samuel Mason and his men suggests, organized gangs of criminals could be more durable than the roving bands of highwaymen and aimless freebooters whose attacks unnerved travelers and made hair-raising copy in the newspapers. Indeed, there was a tantalizing if enigmatic coda to the insurrection scare of 1835 suggesting that if the criminal organization depicted in Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet had just enough plausibility to terrify slaveholders, it also had just enough to give slave stealers the idea to animate it.32
Maybe all that Joshua Cotton, William Saunders, and Albe Dean did together was sell Thomsonian medicines. Maybe the stories told to the Livingston Committee of Safety about Cotton and Andrew Boyd collaborating to steal slaves, about Cotton and Dean using the pretense of hunting for horses to speak with plantation slaves, and about Saunders never seeming able to account convincingly for his whereabouts could all be explained away or were lies procured from witnesses under duress. Then again, maybe not. If steam doctoring was a perfectly legitimate way to make a living, it was not an especially lucrative one, and it enabled a nomadic lifestyle that could be a fine front for shady activities and criminal associations. Nothing conclusively indicates that Cotton, Saunders, and Dean had anything other than an aboveboard business relationship, that they stole slaves, or that they even knew who John Murrell was. But it is not unreasonable to wonder whether their steam doctoring disguised more illicit pursuits.
The story of the brothers John and William Earl elevates such questions at least a step beyond the realm of conjecture. The Earls lived in Warren County, having moved there in 1834 from the Kingston area of Adams County about fifteen miles southeast of Natchez. Joshua Cotton named the Earls in his confession as being among his co-conspirators, but they had remained peripheral figures in whom patrollers and vigilance committees showed little interest and whose connection to the alleged plot was indeterminate. Until the evening of July 15, when half a dozen men from Warren County rode into Livingston with the Earls in tow, intending to turn them over to the village committee of safety for examination. With the committee no longer meeting regularly and most people who lived in and around the village having gone back to their homes, Livingston was relatively deserted, so the Earls were placed in the jail for safekeeping.33
It would not be a peaceful night. Unwilling to wait until the committee could reassemble in the morning, a small party of men gathered at the jail and began questioning the Earls, demanding information about the insurrection plot. The brothers were tight-lipped, conceding that they had heard of the conspiracy, that they were acquainted with Andrew Boyd, and not much else. But their interrogators remained convinced they knew more. So they took William Earl, the older of the two, out of his cell and tried scaring him into confessing his involvement and providing the names of his associates. When threats and harassment failed to elicit information, they began whipping him, but Earl gave them nothing. Finally, they stripped him naked, laid him facedown on the ground, dragged a feral cat by the tail across his already bruised and lacerated back, and poured hot sealing wax directly into his wounds.34
Whether this sadistic treatment gave its perpetrators the results they wanted is unclear. A resident of Madison County wrote to the Natchez Courier that William Earl told his tormentors only “a few lies” while they abused him before begging them to stop with a promise that “he would next morning, when he would be more composed, make a full confession of his connexion with the conspirators and of the conspiracy, and of all other villany, in which he was concerned.” Thomas Shackelford, however, claimed that Earl made a series of valuable disclosures on the spot. Among other things, Earl supposedly admitted that he, his brother, Andrew Boyd, Joshua Cotton, William Saunders, George Rawson, William Donley, and two other individuals known only as Samuels and Lofton were all complicit in a slave uprising that was to have taken place on the Fourth of July, and that John Earl and Andrew Boyd in particular had spent three weeks riding plantation districts recruiting “as many negroes as they could.”35
That William Earl lied and that he provided information are not mutually exclusive propositions. The insurrection plan Earl purportedly described, which was to have begun in Madison County and moved southwest with the goal of reaching Natchez, was suspiciously similar to the one whites had beaten slaves into divulging at Beattie’s Bluff. Earl could have heard about the plan, the details of which had been circulating through west and central Mississippi by this point for more than two weeks, and then admitted his own involvement under pressure, or perhaps his interrogators fed him the information. Alternatively, Shackelford may have simply fabricated Earl’s “confession” after the fact. At the very least, Shackelford’s assertion that Earl started talking without having been subjected to “any fear or compulsion” was nonsense. The text of Earl’s admission as Shackelford recorded it, in fact, consists mostly of a series of rambling and repetitive declarations that read like they came from a man so far out of his mind with pain as to be unable to maintain his train of thought or form coherent sentences, and willing to say or agree to anything a questioner wanted him to say.36
Still, for all that Earl’s supposed confession trod what had become familiar ground, there were names in it that had never surfaced before in anyone’s testimony to the Livingston Committee of Safety. It was hard to know what to make of that, but the full complement of committee members would never get to hear William Earl talk about it. When Earl’s inquisitors were through with him, they returned him to jail, and sometime during the night, he stood as high as the chains fixing him to the floor of his cell would allow, tied one end of a handkerchief to a rung of a ladder, and fastened the other end around his neck. Then he sat back down. When guards came to retrieve him on the morning of July 16 he was dead.37
John Earl, however, was still very much alive, and he wanted to stay that way. He appeared nearly jubilant on hearing of his brother’s death, claiming that even the limited information he had provided the previous evening was damaging enough that William would have killed him had both of them been released. Now that his older brother was gone, he was ready to talk. The Livingston Committee of Safety reconvened, and John Earl told its members that he had first met Andrew Boyd in the fall of 1834 and that Boyd stole slaves. Moreover, he said that Boyd recently had gone on trial for slave stealing in Warren County and that he, Earl, had been strong-armed by his brother into providing Boyd with a bogus alibi that got Boyd acquitted. Earl asserted further that the man identified by his brother as Lofton had told him a slave insurrection was going to begin on the Fourth of July and asked him to join an organization known as the “Domestic Lodge,” whose members included Lofton, Boyd, Saunders, Cotton, Albe Dean, Ruel Blake, William Donley, William Earl, John McKnight, and someone John Earl knew only as Scrugs. Contrary to his brother’s statements, John Earl claimed that he had refused to join the group and that he was afraid of it, saying that his brother “told me he would shoot me or any one else who would divulge any thing.”38
Among the oddities attending to the Earl brothers and their experience in Livingston is how and why they ended up in the village in the first place. The Madison County correspondent of the Natchez Courier reported that a committee in Vicksburg had sent the Earls to Livingston on the presumption “that more proof of their guilt could be obtained here, than at Vicksburg.” A few weeks after the Earls arrived in Livingston, however, a Warren County man who signed his name “HUMANITY” wrote to the Vicksburg Register stating that the residents of Vicksburg would never have hauled “their own criminals from county to county” for trial and that there was no committee in Vicksburg that might have ordered such a thing. Rather, “HUMANITY” claimed, “a few unauthorised individuals” effectively kidnapped the Earls and brought them to Livingston on their own accord, hoping the brothers might never return to Warren County.39
That was about right. The Natchez Courier correspondent replied to “HUMANITY” with his own letter to the Vicksburg Register and admitted that there was no formal committee in Vicksburg. Rather, the Earls had been conveyed to Madison by “five or six highly respectable men of Warren County, who had organized themselves into a committee for their own safety,” believing “they were surrounded by such a set of scoundrels, had they attempted to have tried [the Earls], some personal or pecuniary injury would have been offered them.” One wonders why those “scoundrels” would have been any more forgiving of abduction and rendition than a local trial. A less generous way of putting things was that a few people from Warren County thought the Earls a squirrelly pair, could see no way to get rid of them through legal means, were uncomfortable personally dispatching them through extralegal means, and concluded that the folks in Livingston might do the dirty work for them instead. Thomas Shackelford said as much in a rare moment of candor, claiming that “several respectable citizens” of Warren County heard that Joshua Cotton had named the brothers in his confession, “and believing the Earles to be rascals, from the course in relation to Boyd … determined on bringing them to Livingston and have them tried.”40
When it came to the Earls, though, the Livingston Committee of Safety failed to administer the kind of justice it had been doling out since the beginning of July. William Earl committed suicide before he ever got a hearing, and after listening to John Earl’s testimony, committee members found him guilty of “aiding and abetting the negroes in the late contemplated insurrection” but decided neither to sentence nor punish him. Instead, they sent a transcript of his trial back to Warren and waited for a reply. This too was curious. Committee members in Livingston had never been squeamish or hesitant about whipping or hanging people they decided were involved in the insurrection plot, no matter where they came from or where they lived, and the committee had never bothered soliciting anyone else’s opinion as to what to do.41
If anything, considering how the residents of Vicksburg had dealt with Truman North and the men in his house, they would seem among the least likely people from whom the Livingston Committee of Safety might need approval before taking action. Still, bringing the Earls to Madison County was irregular even by the standards of extralegal justice, and the members of the Livingston committee did not want to see a reprise of what had happened at Patrick Sharkey’s plantation or outside the committee room in Clinton during and after his trial. After those debacles, they would think twice about executing a resident of another county before they were sure it was what those claiming authority in that county wanted.
That hesitation proved wise, as people in Warren were not unanimous in their opinions about the Earls. On July 20, word reached Vicksburg that William Earl had been tortured and that John Earl had been found guilty of involvement with the insurrection plot, whereupon city residents met and appointed a six-person guard to retrieve the brothers. The guard carried a series of resolutions passed at the meeting, including one absolving “the good people of Madison” of any responsibility for how the Earls had been treated and reaffirming their approbation of “the zeal and devotion” residents of Madison County “displayed in the cause of public safety” during “these troublesome times.” Nonetheless, when the retrieval party discovered that William Earl was in fact already dead, at least one of its members was disturbed enough to speculate publicly that Earl had been murdered and to assert that what had happened to the Earls was too cruel even “for savages.”42
After his guards returned John Earl to Warren County, they apparently let him go home and continue on with his life. Perhaps they thought he had already been through enough of an ordeal, or they may have believed his claims that his brother had goaded him into his misdeeds. Whatever its motivation, the leniency shown to John Earl prevented those who provided it from carefully examining the admissions he made to the Livingston Committee of Safety. There is some irony in this, because those admissions pointed toward a more believable explanation of the actual connections among at least some of the men suspected of involvement in the insurrection plot than outlandish theories about John Murrell and his plans.43
Throughout Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet and the insurrection scare of 1835, the criminal syndicate masterminded by Murrell was always called the “mystic clan” or simply “the clan.” What, then, was the “Domestic Lodge” to which John Earl referred? Moreover, who were those other men he mentioned whose names had never before been connected to the conspiracy? Any number of fraternal organizations and secret societies called their basic organizational units lodges. The term carried with it more sinister connotations in the first half of the nineteenth century than it does today, and Earl could have stumbled on it in a frantic mental scramble to identify the league of criminals to which Livingston committee members already believed he belonged. The names Earl and his brother provided, meanwhile, need not have originated with them at all. Given the events of the preceding weeks, names like Cotton, Saunders, Dean, and Blake would have come up during any interrogation. The others could have been their Warren County analogs—people whose behavior or attitudes made them locally disreputable, and whose names the men who initially brought the Earls to Madison offered the residents of Livingston as likely confederates of the brothers. Some prompting backed by torture and fright took care of the rest.
Yet John Earl’s story does have elements that lend themselves to an alternative reading. The court papers of Andrew Boyd’s slave-stealing trial have not survived, but John and William Earl probably did lie to exculpate him. That the two admitted having done so does not necessarily indicate it was true, but it was something that would have happened publicly and predated the brothers’ arrival and mistreatment in Livingston. Moreover, Boyd and Joshua Cotton did have a personal connection, and maybe even a criminal one. All the way back on June 30, before the Livingston Committee of Safety even existed, when William Saunders was asked to account for himself and his associations he asserted that Cotton and Boyd had colluded to steal the slaves for which Boyd had been tried, and other than those of his ostensible business partners Cotton and Albe Dean, Boyd’s was the only name Saunders offered. It was widely rumored that Boyd and Cotton frequently pretended to be siblings, and after being acquitted on the slave-stealing charge in Warren, Boyd had supposedly been headed for Livingston to reconnoiter with Cotton when he learned that Cotton was already in custody and made his own escape through the swamp. Tying Cotton, Boyd, and the Earls together more firmly still was Cotton’s naming John and William Earl in his confession. By the time the Earls showed up in Livingston it had become accepted fact that Cotton was an insurrectionist, and we might dismiss the Earls giving his name as the result of coercion. But the best explanation for Cotton having offered the names of the Earls is that he already knew who they were.44
If we accept that Cotton, Saunders, Boyd, the Earls, and perhaps some of the other men whose names emerged during the Livingston investigations knew one another and may at times have worked in criminal concert, it is not unthinkable that they might have tried to create an organization like the “Domestic Lodge” mentioned by John Earl. Like other southwestern migrants, criminals sought opportunities for economic gain, and when they located one they took it. John Earl claimed Lofton first approached him about joining the Domestic Lodge in March 1835, which was precisely when Virgil Stewart began distributing The Western Land Pirate. The timing may be coincidental, but Stewart’s was a work that could speak to people’s fantasies as well as their fears. Surely it is not hard to imagine some balefully disposed individuals coming across Stewart’s pamphlet, reading about John Murrell’s mystic clan and its designs on the wealth of the Southwest, and thinking it ingenious to build an outlaw gang on that model.45
In Livingston, both Earl brothers demonstrated a flick of the wrist and a secret handshake they said was the “sign” of the Lodge, and John Earl echoed an assertion William Saunders had made before his death that some members of the group intended to rob James Ewing, a commission house agent they knew to be on his way from New Orleans to Madison County. No incipient and miniaturized version of Murrell’s mystic clan, however, could be complete without using the pretense of orchestrating a slave uprising to create unease among whites and encourage unrest among blacks. That a genuine plot existed in 1835 for a gang of white robbers to collaborate with the enslaved in a massive region-wide rebellion on the Fourth of July is highly improbable. That some slaves in Madison County heard rumors of such a thing not only by eavesdropping on their masters but also from white men creeping about plantations and representing themselves as the plot’s operatives may have been a case of life imitating art.46
In the end, we cannot know whether John Earl’s Domestic Lodge was a total fiction, a pipe dream, or a fledgling copy of the mystic clan. The story of the insurrection scare of 1835, like all histories and perhaps more than most, is open to different readings of the available sources and different trajectories of plot. Given the fragmentary evidence and the biases of those who produced the bulk of it, crafting any narrative in which everything that seems like a revealing clue fits together to yield a neat and tidy account is beyond our ken. If anything like the Domestic Lodge ever existed, though, it did so only briefly. Invented in March 1835, just four months later several of its originators were dead or dispersed, and no one bothered pursuing those who remained behind. By the third week of July, the murderous energy of the white settlers of frontier Mississippi was spent, at least for the moment. As the Madison County correspondent of the Natchez Courier observed, whether or not anyone else got arrested barely mattered anymore. “I think the internal danger has passed,” he wrote, “and we need apprehend none from the disbanded and scattered villains, who have infested this part of the country. … The excitement has entirely subsided, and the countenances of our careworn citizens, have again assumed their wanted cheerfullness.”47
Ultimately, for whatever credible conclusions we might draw about how Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet reminded white Mississippians of the wildest bandits on the old frontier or inspired the formation of an inchoate criminal confederacy that came unraveled before it was knit, Thomas Shackelford showed anyone who read the proceedings of the Livingston Committee of Safety that he compiled exactly what about Stewart’s pamphlet so spooked him and his fellow settlers. To the proceedings Shackelford appended the section of The Western Land Pirate in which John Murrell described his insurrection scheme, ostensibly to illustrate what Joshua Cotton had meant when he confessed to “trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrel as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet.” But the plan as Murrell supposedly explained it to Stewart took up just one paragraph, while the excerpt Shackelford reprinted went on for nearly three pages, most of which said little about what was supposed to happen during the uprising. Instead, the core of the extracted material consisted of Murrell detailing how he and the members of his clan managed to persuade the enslaved to participate in the plot in the first place.48
According to Stewart, Murrell claimed that the success of his plan did not depend on enlisting every slave in the United States. Rather, he had clan members approach only “the most vicious and wicked disposed ones, on large farms, and poison their minds, by telling them how they are mistreated.” Clan members were to tell potential rebels that they deserved their freedom as much as any white man and that their bondage was the consequence of “power and tyranny” rather than racial inferiority. Likely recruits were to be reminded that their hard work and degradation made possible the luxurious lives of their masters and that it was wrong for “all the wealth of the country” to be “the proceeds of the black people’s labor” even as they received none of it.49
To encourage hesitant slaves to be resolute, clan members were to tell them that Europe had abolished slavery; that West Indian slaves had achieved their freedom through violent rebellion; that slaves everywhere were already in on the plot; that thousands of southern whites were ready to die to help the enslaved revolt; that northern whites would not interfere if southern slaves “were to butcher every white man, in the slave holding states”; and that if they were bold enough to fight for their freedom they would “become as much respected, as if they were white.” Promised a share of whatever spoils the clan acquired while plundering the countryside and of being ushered to freedom in Texas should the plan fail, the “blood thirsty devil[s]” who agreed to join the conspiracy were to start subtly sowing rebelliousness among the rest of the enslaved population, getting “the feelings of the negroes harrowed up against the whites, and their minds alive to the idea of being free.”50
Of course, even as Murrell promised the enslaved the liberty, wealth, status, and vengeance their masters denied them, he did not care sincerely about their suffering or their freedom. Stewart wrote that Murrell admitted that the pledges made to recruits were lies and that he recognized that most slaves would have to be tricked or pressured into rebelling. Most were not even supposed to be told about the insurrection until the night it began, at which point the clan’s “black emissaries” would invite fellow slaves to secret gatherings, ply them with alcohol, reveal the plan, and announce that revolts were taking place across the country. Murrell foresaw that the enslaved would thus “be forced to engage, under the belief, that the negroes have rebelled every where else, as in their own neighborhood, and by those means every gathering or assemblage of negroes will be pushed forward even contrary to their inclination.” But Murrell took no chances. Slaves were also to be told that anyone “refus[ing] to fight would be put to death.”51
Though ventriloquized through John Murrell’s explication of how the insurrection he envisioned was supposed to work, Virgil Stewart’s anger and sense of grievance are no better disguised here than anywhere else in The Western Land Pirate. By way of Murrell, Stewart projected his own craving for respect onto the enslaved and expressed his resentment toward wealthy people who he felt did not deserve their riches. Stewart’s fear of humiliation and of being exposed as a liar and a fraud transmuted easily into wrath and a persecution complex that were barely sublimated by his having Murrell trumpet his own indifference toward the consequences of what was to be his greatest scheme. “I am confident that I will be victorious in this matter,” Stewart claimed Murrell told him, “and I will have the pleasure and honor of seeing and knowing, that my management has glutted the earth with more human gore, and destroyed more property, than any other robber who has ever lived in America, or the known world.” In Virgil Stewart’s mind, America had betrayed its promise to give him the life he wanted, and those who managed to acquire the country’s benefits were to blame. Part of him wanted to see it all burn.52
But we ought to look past Stewart’s psychological intertwining with the character of John Murrell he created and pay attention, as Thomas Shackelford did, to the substance of Murrell’s recruitment message and strategic vision. When we do, we can see that planters in Madison County and elsewhere in Mississippi responded so viscerally to Stewart’s pamphlet because through Murrell, Stewart pinpointed a fundamental insecurity attendant to the state’s economic order that was simultaneously more abstract and more concrete than the generic threat of a slave insurrection. It hardly required great insight to recognize that the social conditions of the cotton frontier allowed for the possibility of slave resistance on a large and coordinated scale, or even that white criminals could help organize that resistance. The demographic imbalance, the antagonism between masters and slaves, the harsh labor regime, the unformed institutions, and the nascent state of most farms and plantations combined to create circumstances in which formal surveillance and more subtle mechanisms of control alike were flimsy. Anyone could see how a rebellion might smolder in the breach.
But Virgil Stewart’s John Murrell saw an especially artful and insidious way of stepping into that breach. Thanks to his extensive experience in stealing them, Murrell grasped that the enslaved were both the most valuable and the most uncertain form of property present on the cotton frontier, that the humanity that made them so prized was also what made them so hard to control, and that he could profit handsomely by appealing to slaves’ very human desires for freedom. For years, on a small scale, he had used that incisive understanding of how slavery forged the connection between the social and economic contingencies of the developing plantation order and capitalized on the fact that southwestern settlers were not always scrupulous about having clear title to everyone in their workforce. Now he intended to use that understanding as the linchpin of a plan to steal everything those settlers had and undo slavery altogether.
Ironically, in some important ways Murrell was not so different from the planters he saw as his sworn enemies. Both sought to manipulate the enslaved for their own selfish and avaricious ends, and both understood they needed the cooperation of the enslaved to get their enterprises to work. Murrell, in fact, characterized the varying criminal projects he detailed for Virgil Stewart, including his planned uprising, as opportunities for “speculation,” and prospective cotton planters were nothing if not speculators when it came to their slaves. But John Murrell and southwestern planters were less the same than they were mirror images of one another, and in that lay the most tangible connection of all between the slave insurrection scare and the gambling riot that made Mississippi so harrowing a place to be in the summer of 1835. Professional gamblers exploited what residents of Vicksburg feared were their basest impulses toward greed and embodied their deepest anxieties about the prospects for a correspondence of speculative capitalism and moral respectability. John Murrell and his mystic clan of slave stealers created analogous yet more specific and cataclysmic challenges. By exploiting the multivalence embedded in human capital, they called into question whether speculative capitalism on the cotton frontier could be sustainable at all.53
Southwestern planters often worried that slave traders sold them damaged or delinquent goods whose value they could not accurately assess, and they understood that any slave who saw a way to satisfy his hunger for liberty was an unsteady asset and an enemy of their profits. But John Murrell was preternaturally talented at locating the most rebellious of slaves and then using their rebelliousness to serve his own ends. He was a slave stealer one step ahead of the slaveholder, a master more in tune with the enslaved than their putative actual masters, and a better speculator than even the shrewdest planters. These were not wholly dissimilar men whose coexistence was completely impossible. Damaging enough when he persuaded one slave to run away only to be resold to some other white person, if John Murrell had hundreds of associates everywhere in the slave states methodically and systematically using the same techniques to get the enslaved to do their bidding at will, then property rights in slaves could never be safe or trustworthy. And if that was true, the economic promise of the cotton frontier could never be fulfilled. It could rebound from the trauma of even an extensive slave rebellion. But unrestrained slave stealing would leave slaveholders with nothing but their debts and would doom them all to financial oblivion.
George Fall, the editor of the Jackson Mississippian, saw precisely how disastrous a threat like that posed by Murrell could be for the future of the Southwest, whether or not it was as real as planters in Madison County seemed to think. In an editorial published as the insurrection scare subsided, Fall wrote that other newspapers had vastly exaggerated the danger of an uprising. “We live in an adjoining county to that where the plot was first discovered,” Fall asserted, “and are convinced from all we can learn, that not one negro in every five hundred ever dreamed of, or was in the slightest degree connected with it.” He assured readers that the conspiracy grew mostly out of a small cluster of plantations and owed itself to the machinations of “a few degraded and lawless white men,” all of whom had since been hanged as a lesson to those “who are disposed to tamper with our slaves.”54
Tellingly, though, even as Fall downplayed the scare he stressed that slavery in the Southwest was absolutely secure. Professing to be worried less about Murrell’s plot than that “a stranger would suppose … that the whole white population of the State had narrowly escaped massacre and death, by the rising of savage and infuriated blacks,” Fall had his priorities straight as he sought especially to put at ease anyone considering moving to or spending money in Mississippi. “We can assure those who are disposed to emigrate hither,” Fall concluded, “that they have nothing more to fear in Mississippi from insurrectionary movements among the blacks. … Property and life are as safe here as in any of the States where slavery exists, and recent occurrences should not prevent emigration to our State, or deter capitalists from investing their funds in our Stocks; for we repeat the assurance, that they can do so with as much security and profit as ever; and that our negroes, uninfluenced by base and designing white men, are as orderly and obedient as the negroes of any State in the Union.”55