The overflow crowd of spectators gathered in and around the two-story brick courthouse in Jackson, Tennessee, on July 24, 1834, had come to see Virgil Stewart as much as they had to see John Murrell. The reputation Murrell had developed during his residence in Madison County, the seriousness of the crime for which he was to be tried, the audaciousness of his jailbreak, and the elusiveness that enabled him to spend two months at large might have been enough by themselves to attract a sizable audience. But it was the promise of hearing Virgil Stewart describe his travels with Murrell that, in the words of the editor of the Jackson Truth Teller, “imparted an interest to the trial seldom if ever before witnessed in this community.” It was not every day that a person could be present at the prosecution of a criminal “master spirit,” and while the crimes may have been Murrell’s, it was the rumors about the stories Stewart had been telling that had made their supposed perpetrator a “far famed personage” whose “very name was associated with all that was bold and desperate in villany.”1
Indeed, John Murrell sorely disappointed those who expected him to evince the brazenness and brilliance the editor of the Truth Teller suggested he possessed. Old for his twenty-eight years, the pock-faced Murrell barely spoke during his trial, instead telling Judge Joshua Haskell “that by reason of his poverty he was unable to employ counsel” and leaving his defense to four court-appointed lawyers. Stewart, on the other hand, delivered testimony every bit as riveting and thrilling as anticipated. But Murrell’s trial neither redeemed nor vindicated Stewart. The jury convicted Murrell of stealing John Henning’s slaves, but throughout the trial and in its aftermath Stewart felt beset by critics who whispered about his past and questioned his honesty and motives. At the very moment he had hoped to establish his courage and integrity before a rapt audience, Virgil Stewart instead discovered skepticism and distrust.2
Ultimately, instead of garnering Stewart admiration and the laurels of a grateful populace, Murrell’s trial proved the occasion for his accumulated resentment, frustration, and sense of persecution to coalesce into a venomous rage. When he was not ambling about the Southwest wallowing in despair, Stewart spent the months following the trial writing a pamphlet that relayed an even more fantastical account of his travels with Murrell than any he had recounted before. In this version of the story, John Murrell was a merciless killer with hundreds of henchmen at his command, and Virgil Stewart was an intrepid and self-sacrificing soul slandered and victimized by Murrell’s omnipresent confederates for his role in exposing them and bringing their leader to justice.
To read Stewart’s pamphlet merely as an attempt to inflate his own importance and assail his detractors, however, is to miss the richer story it reveals about how Stewart had come finally to understand the socioeconomic realities of the southwestern frontier. Embedded in Stewart’s semi-delusional yarn about John Murrell, his devious collaborators, and their dastardly criminal conspiracies is a deeply cynical commentary on the very notion of self-fashioning that was purportedly one of the frontier’s great appeals. Rather than a place where men achieved success and prominence through hard work and virtuous deeds, Virgil Stewart’s frontier was a place where the so-called best men amassed power, status, and wealth selfishly and unjustly. It was a place where the most promising opportunities for common men to distinguish themselves and take their share of the spoils lay less in modeling their behavior after those at the top of the social and economic order than in mocking and undoing that order through trickery, deception, and theft.
Stewart’s pamphlet unmistakably reflects its author’s bitterness about his own failures and his unwillingness to assume responsibility for them. But it also reflects his broader disillusionment with the moral value of the path followed by most who rose to renown on the frontier. It is telling that in the pamphlet, Stewart claimed Murrell had revealed to him a plot to provoke the largest slave insurrection the United States had ever seen, during which Murrell and his associates would pillage the southern countryside. If part of Virgil Stewart still craved public approval for vanquishing the man he claimed was the greatest threat to property the Southwest had ever seen, part of him also thought the whole regime deserved to come crashing down.
Although no transcript of John Murrell’s trial survives, the report of the proceedings published in the Truth Teller, the information about the trial in surviving court records, and the description of events later provided by Virgil Stewart enable a rough reconstruction of what transpired. There is no doubt, for example, that Stewart’s testimony was virtually the only substantive evidence the state of Tennessee offered against Murrell. Responding to the questions of Alexander Bradford, solicitor general for Tennessee’s Fourteenth District, Stewart spent five or six hours over the course of two days relaying what the editor of the Truth Teller described as “incidents of a most romantic adventure, by which he had wound himself into the confidence of Murrell, and obtained from him a confession of his guilt.” Stewart detailed how he had set out looking for the slaves who had gone missing from John Henning, had crossed paths with Murrell, and had given Murrell the impression that he might be interested in casting his lot with criminals who worked the banks of the Mississippi River. Murrell, Stewart testified, responded positively to such overtures, invited Stewart to accompany him across western Tennessee and into Arkansas, and proceeded to tell Stewart not only that he had engineered the theft of Henning’s slaves but also that he had crafted “a splendid scheme of organized villainy [by] which he and others expected to amass a fortune.”3
Essentially, Stewart said that Murrell had described a large and well-coordinated slave-stealing ring. Murrell bragged about how simple it was to steal and resell the enslaved, how he had put together a network of several hundred thieves whose workings could never be detected and whose participants could never successfully be prosecuted, and how his singular talents would bring him tremendous wealth and the high regard of his outlaw colleagues. Murrell, Stewart attested, said “he thought negro stealing when properly directed entirely safe, and the sure road to fortune.”4
If all Stewart had to offer on the witness stand were the vague albeit extravagant boasts of a thief, his testimony would not have been nearly so arresting. But Stewart also related a series of anecdotes that he said Murrell shared with him, through which Murrell described how he had made himself so nettlesome to the slaveholders of Madison County and how his experience stealing slaves and committing other crimes had convinced him that the broader project he had conceived would work. According to Stewart, for example, Murrell gloated about avoiding imprisonment for his dealings with William Long’s slaves. Where Long and many others felt certain Murrell would go to jail for slave stealing, Stewart said Murrell told him he never worried for a moment. He was equally certain his bogus claim to have been securing Long’s slaves until Long could retrieve them would raise enough doubt that the judge in the case would impose no punishment more serious than a fine. The actual sentence of servitude, though unforeseen, hardly discomfited Murrell. On the contrary, he told Stewart, he was so confident that he would triumph on appeal that he responded to the verdict by winking at Long and sarcastically addressing him as “master Billy.”5
Stewart said that Murrell told him he recognized that even as asserting his innocence had gotten his more credulous neighbors to believe he was the victim of a vendetta by Long, his smugness in court had also aroused the ire of many local property holders. Determined to send him to jail, in the aftermath of the William Long affair they came to consider Murrell a likely perpetrator whenever anything in the area disappeared. John Henning, who lived two miles from Murrell, was especially vocal in his opinion that the entire Murrell family was a nuisance, a sentiment that made John Murrell angry enough to orchestrate the theft of Henning’s slaves and Henning angry enough to try and track Murrell down once and for all.6
Yet Murrell remained unconcerned that Henning would have any better luck than Long had had in incarcerating him, an attitude of indifference Stewart said Murrell explained by way of another story. Several months before stealing Henning’s slaves, Murrell said, he had come across an enslaved man named Sam while traveling in northern Alabama. Murrell knew Sam, who had once belonged to someone in Madison County but recently had been sold to an Alabamian named Eason. Murrell asked Sam how he liked his new home and his new owner and, when Sam responded that he disliked both, offered to ensure his safety if he ran away. Sam soon showed up on Murrell’s doorstep in Tennessee, and Murrell kept him hidden until Eason advertised Sam in the newspaper as a runaway. At that point, Murrell got one of his brothers and another man to take Sam to Mississippi. There, they sold Sam to one Thomas Hudnall, instructed him to run away, met him at a prearranged location, moved on, and sold him again. After running this scam multiple times over the course of seven weeks, Murrell’s brother and his accomplice finally returned to Tennessee with twenty-eight hundred dollars in cash, goods, and promissory notes. They left Sam in Texas with another criminal acquaintance and intended to carry out the con again sometime in the future.7
Concluding the story, Murrell told Stewart that even had Sam’s owner in Alabama managed to locate Sam and track down Murrell’s brother and his accomplice, the legal consequences would have been negligible for them and nonexistent for himself. In part, that was because he never personally stole anything. Rather, he acted primarily as a spotter and a manager of criminal ventures. Frequently masquerading in a black frock coat and broad-brimmed hat and pretending to be a Methodist minister, Murrell would scout for likely horses and slaves, delegate their thefts to someone else, and then share in the resale profits. Stewart said Murrell told him that sometimes he even delivered sermons in his disguise and had confederates steal horses belonging to audience members while he preached. In disguise or out, Murrell touted to Stewart a facility for getting other people to do his bidding that made him practically immune to prosecution.8
In any case, Stewart claimed, Murrell insisted he had found a loophole in the criminal law as it related to the chattel status of slaves that made schemes like the one involving Sam effectively foolproof. The key to stealing a slave successfully, Murrell told Stewart, was concealing the slave until the slave’s owner placed a newspaper advertisement describing his property as a runaway and offering a reward for the slave’s return. Murrell explained to Stewart that the advertisement amounted to a virtual power of attorney enabling whoever took up the runaway to act in a limited capacity as the slave’s owner. Should that person choose to treat the slave in his possession as a saleable asset rather than return the slave to the original owner, then the owner might file a civil lawsuit for breach of trust, but he would never be able to prosecute as a slave stealer the person who carried out the sale.9
Slave stealing could be a dangerous business, though, and conducting it in the “entirely safe” fashion that Stewart claimed Murrell argued it could be entailed more than using clever tricks, relying on intermediaries, and resorting to legal technicalities. Real caution called for disposing of incriminating evidence, and if the most tangible physical evidence of a slave theft was the slave himself, then covering one’s tracks required action more pitiless and depraved than that of a mere trickster. Stewart averred that Murrell told him he had let Sam live after he had allowed himself to be repeatedly sold largely because of their personal acquaintance and Sam’s willingness to participate in Murrell’s operations for as long as Murrell wished him to. But Murrell also said Sam’s was an unusual case.10
More typical was the fate that befell another enslaved man Stewart claimed that Murrell had told him about. Murrell persuaded the man to run away from his master in Tipton County and arranged for associates to meet him and conduct him down the Mississippi River. Murrell then traveled to Natchez, took possession of the slave, brought him to New Orleans via steamboat, and sold the man for eight hundred dollars. Days later, the man ran away again and some of Murrell’s comrades took him into a parish northwest of the city. There, Murrell donned his Methodist outfit, preached a sermon in which he proclaimed his desire to divest himself of slavery, and sold the man for seven hundred dollars to a Louisiana slaveholder named Higginbotham. The enslaved man then escaped from Higginbotham and traveled in the custody of some of Murrell’s collaborators northwest into Arkansas, where he was sold yet again, this time for five hundred dollars. Finally, after the man escaped a fourth time, Murrell’s partners killed him and tossed his body in a swamp.11
All of this was sensational testimony. The editor of the Truth Teller, unwittingly anticipating (and perhaps inspiring) Stewart’s later course of action, wrote that the tale of Stewart’s adventure, “if well written out and properly embellished, would form a legend in real life unsurpassed by any thing produced by fiction.” More astonishing still was Stewart’s assertion that Murrell started telling him these stories within hours of their meeting and hardly stopped talking during their time together. By Stewart’s reckoning, Murrell had told him about everything from his clash with William Long to the murder of the slave from Tipton County before the two had even reached Wesley, at which point they had been riding together for perhaps thirty-six hours.12
But if Murrell was garrulous he was not so indiscreet as to begin confessing his misdeeds immediately to a total stranger, or even to tell Stewart his name. Rather, Stewart claimed that once he had expressed his sympathy with those who flouted the law, Murrell started telling him about his illicit activities in the third person, pretending that they were the acts of a pair of especially clever brothers. Much as Murrell would broach the subject of thievery with John Champion and Matthew Erwin, he initially felt out Stewart obliquely, gauging his reaction to discussions of criminality as a way of figuring how much he could trust him. Only during their second day traveling together, just outside Wesley, did Murrell finally reveal to Stewart that the brothers in question were named Murrell, that he was the older and more designing of the duo, that he was on his way to rendezvous with those who were holding John Henning’s slaves on his behalf, that he was the leader of a gang of bandits, and that he had decided Stewart ought to join them.13
As Virgil Stewart described him, John Murrell was deeply impressed with himself, so much so that keeping him talking was mostly a matter of periodically expressing admiration for the “brothers” and their ingenuity. Nonetheless, even as Murrell filled Stewart’s head with stories of devilish deeds and daring plans, he had yet to explain how he stole slaves in the first place. From what Murrell had already told Stewart, his methods differed from those of a kidnapper who slipped away with an enslaved person like he might rustle a horse. Rather, for Murrell it was essential that slaves flee their masters of their own volition, because the repeated act of reselling necessary for maximizing profits required convincing performances before a series of buyers that no person abducted against his will could be relied on to deliver. Stewart had not wondered at Murrell’s success in luring away Sam, with whom he had a personal relationship, but how Murrell pulled off the crucial aspect of his larger scheme, which entailed prevailing on slaves to whom he was just another strange white man, remained a mystery.
But Stewart asserted that it was a mystery on which Murrell shed some light. He claimed that as he and Murrell left Wesley behind and continued on their way to Arkansas, Murrell offered to illustrate just how easy slave stealing was by cajoling the very next slave they came across into leaving his master. Soon enough, Stewart said, he and Murrell encountered an elderly enslaved man working by a roadside corncrib and Murrell struck up a conversation. After expressing his sympathy that the man had to labor outdoors on such a cold day, Murrell elicited the man’s admission that his owner was cruel and asked him whether he would not rather be free and wealthy than enslaved. The man responded enthusiastically, whereupon Murrell offered to steal him, sell him four or five times, give him half the money, and leave him in a free state. Once the man consented to the deal, Murrell told him to listen for pistol fire in the night. That would be the signal for him to come, along with several of his fellow slaves, to the end of the road, where they would find Murrell waiting with horses. Vowing to return soon, Murrell bid the man farewell. The entire exchange had taken less than fifteen minutes.14
None of the stories Virgil Stewart told on the witness stand was wholly implausible. Central elements of some of them can even be corroborated and likely did originate with Murrell. The story about Murrell mocking William Long in court could have been common knowledge locally or something Stewart heard about from John Henning or Long himself rather than from Murrell.15 But Thomas Hudnall actually was a planter in Mississippi who really did buy an enslaved man from an Alabamian named William Eason, and that slave really did disappear from Hudnall’s plantation just days afterward. Similarly, a slaveholder in Louisiana’s East Feliciana Parish named Willis Higginbotham did buy a slave from someone who gave the impression “that he was a professor of religion,” only to have the slave vanish two days later. Hudnall lived more than 100 miles from Virgil Stewart’s home in Yalobusha County, Higginbotham’s residence was more than 250 miles away, and neither of their misadventures in the domestic slave trade was a matter of especial public notice until after Stewart testified and then wrote about them in his pamphlet. It was only Stewart who said that the slave who left Hudnall’s plantation made his way to Texas and was named Sam, and it was only Stewart who claimed that the slave who absconded from Higginbotham’s possession ended up dead at the bottom of a swamp. Still, it is hard to imagine how he could have known any of the particularities of these frauds unless Murrell told him about them.16
Perhaps the least believable of Stewart’s stories was that Murrell had picked a slave at random and convinced him in a matter of minutes that a white man he had never seen before would deliver on promises of money and freedom. But Orville Shelby, a man who lived near John Champion on the Mississippi River, later reported that his wife had seen Stewart and Murrell when they passed through the neighborhood and told him that the two “had been among our negroes tampering with them, [and] offering to take them to a free state,” which suggests that Stewart may have exaggerated Murrell’s facility but accurately depicted his methods. Moreover, Murrell’s idea of exploiting the legal ambiguities of slavery to turn slave stealing from a criminal to a civil offense was ingenious. It was surely neither a coincidence nor solely Tennesseans’ concerns about abolitionism that moved the Tennessee legislature in the session following Murrell’s trial to make it a felony punishable by up to ten years in jail to “directly or indirectly tempt or persuade any slave or slaves, to leave his, her or their master or mistress’s service, with an intent or design to carry him, her or them out of this state, or with the intent or design to deprive the true owner thereof, or … harbor or conceal such slave or slaves for that intent or purpose.”17
Whether or not Virgil Stewart told the truth, John Murrell’s lawyers knew that they had to impeach Stewart’s testimony if they had any hope of getting their client acquitted. Rules of evidence were looser in antebellum southern courtrooms than they are in contemporary ones, and Judge Haskell would not peremptorily toss out Stewart’s information even though much of it was hearsay. But Henning’s slaves were still missing, and the prosecution had submitted no evidence that a crime had even been committed other than Stewart’s claim that Murrell had confessed to stealing them, which meant oppugning Stewart’s word was the soundest strategy Murrell’s counsel had at their disposal. Stewart’s testimony was damning, but if they could get the jury to question his credibility Murrell might walk out of the courtroom a free man.
Virgil Stewart, though, was not a man who liked having his word challenged. After four confusing, blundering, and rancorous years in the Southwest, the value of that word was uncertain at best, but Stewart knew that without it he would have practically nothing to show for his sojourn on the frontier. Defensive under the best of circumstances, Stewart could probably already feel the anger rising within him as Murrell’s lead attorney, Milton Brown, rose to conduct his cross-examination.
However Stewart felt when Milton Brown started asking him questions, he was furious by the time Brown finished. Only thirty years old, Brown was already a lawyer of significant ability and local renown when he agreed to help defend John Murrell. Born in 1804 and raised in Ohio, Brown moved to Nashville at the age of nineteen and studied law with Felix Grundy, a member of the Tennessee legislature who had already served multiple terms in Congress and who would later become a U.S. senator and attorney general under Martin Van Buren. In 1832 Brown moved to Jackson, where he opened a law office, involved himself in the town’s temperance society, and attracted notice as a talented orator. While Brown would eventually be elected to Congress in his own right in addition to serving as a chancery court judge and as president of two different railroads, in 1834 he was still building his reputation. Some of Brown’s descendants would claim that he engaged in Murrell’s defense despite the warnings of friends and fellow lawyers that doing so would damage his future prospects. In truth, it was a good career move, and there were probably others who wanted the case besides Brown and the three additional attorneys Judge Haskell appointed. Win or lose, playing a prominent role in the widely noted trial of a nefarious criminal could only help an ambitious man like Brown establish a name for himself even beyond central and western Tennessee.18
Brown certainly took his job seriously. He spared no effort to cast doubt on Stewart’s testimony, attacking it from numerous angles. Brown tried using the convolutions of Stewart’s own story against him, suggesting that some of the things Stewart claimed Murrell said showed that Murrell knew Stewart was following him and would therefore never have divulged so much incriminating information. Bringing the implication that Stewart was a liar right to the surface, Brown pointed out that Stewart admitted to deceiving Murrell into thinking he was hunting for a lost horse and that he was interested in becoming an outlaw. A person willing to act so falsely, Brown proposed, would also be willing to speak falsely under oath. When he was not arguing that Stewart simply invented Murrell’s supposed disclosures, Brown tried making the case that Stewart and Murrell actually had been friends before John Henning’s slaves ever disappeared. Regardless of what Stewart may or may not have known about Murrell, Brown reckoned Stewart’s testimony a betrayal of friendship that marked him as untrustworthy.19
From a certain perspective, Milton Brown’s cross-examination need not have bothered Stewart. Brown’s arguments, after all, relied in some measure on suppositions that were mutually exclusive. Stewart could not both know Murrell well and lie to Murrell about his identity, nor could he both wholly invent stories and at the same time give away the secrets of a friend. Moreover, while the case against Murrell depended primarily on Stewart’s testimony, the prosecution did call other witnesses to testify to Stewart’s character. Ideally, their word would bolster the strength of his claims and allay the doubts Brown endeavored to raise in jurors’ minds.20
Its internal inconsistencies notwithstanding, however, Brown’s questioning stung. A few people in Tennessee knew about Stewart’s falling out with Matthew Clanton, but not many. Milton Brown was surely ignorant of the affair else he would have used it to gainsay Stewart’s testimony. Still, Stewart knew the ignominious feeling of being discovered acting duplicitously, and the fresh memory of that shame easily shaded into prickliness. Stewart later claimed, in fact, that only the intercession of several other men dissuaded him from giving Brown a beating in the street for having treated Stewart in what Stewart considered “an unwarrantable and dishonorable manner” on the witness stand.21
Moreover, Milton Brown was not the first person to speculate about the nature of Stewart’s personal association with John Murrell. Stewart would write in his pamphlet that he had seen Murrell only once in his life (and that from a distance) before following him on John Henning’s behalf, but even those eager to see Murrell in jail wondered otherwise. Members of the guard that took Murrell into custody repeatedly asked Murrell how he knew Stewart and under what circumstances. Murrell told them that he had never met Stewart before running into him near Estanaula and knew him only as Adam Hues. The guardsmen, including two of John Henning’s sons, believed Murrell. But that did not end skepticism from other Tennesseans about how Murrell and Stewart really knew each other. Madison County sheriff Mathias Deberry remembered that many people came out of curiosity to see Murrell while he was in custody, that they peppered Murrell with questions, and that “one of the most common topics of conversation” was Murrell’s relationship with Stewart.22
Deberry too believed Murrell when he said that the man calling himself Hues had been unknown to him before their travels together, and insisted as well that any number of “other respectable citizens who conversed with Murrell on the subject … were as firmly convinced of the fact that Murrell and Stewart were strangers.” Nevertheless, Stewart could not have been pleased that the very people he had hoped to impress by bringing Murrell to justice wondered for weeks whether Stewart was himself a criminal. If anything, they seemed to believe Murrell’s claims to have been unfamiliar with Stewart more readily than they believed Stewart himself. For Milton Brown still to be trying to tar Murrell and Stewart with the same brush months after Murrell’s arrest may speak merely to a strategic decision on Brown’s part to defend his client with every possible argument at his disposal. But it may also speak to the fact that Brown could tell that not everyone was convinced that Murrell and Stewart had been unacquainted before January 1834.23
The persistence of questions about Stewart’s relationship with Murrell is understandable. Stewart’s residence in Madison County had overlapped with Murrell’s by about a year. They had lived only a few miles apart, and while Murrell’s nearly unprompted blabbing to Stewart about his crimes might seem almost mindlessly imprudent, it would be somewhat less so if the two at least had been acquaintances before they met up near Estanaula. The suggestion that Stewart was a turncoat raised the question of motivation, of course, but Murrell’s defense had a ready answer for that. After the prosecution rested its case, Murrell’s lawyers called one of their only witnesses, a man named Reuben McVey, who swore that Stewart told him John Henning had offered him money to track down Murrell and bring about his conviction for slave stealing.24
By the time John Murrell’s defense rested on July 25, 1834, Virgil Stewart had delivered a story that entertained nearly everyone who heard it. But he had also endured an uncomfortable grilling by a skilled attorney and had been vilified publicly as a liar, a traitor, and a mercenary. One can only imagine Stewart’s bafflement and outrage when it became apparent how much damage Milton Brown had inflicted. Before the afternoon was even out it was clear that things were not proceeding as Stewart might have supposed, as the jury deliberated for several hours before informing Judge Haskell that they could not agree on a verdict.25
Haskell, not about to let Murrell get away so easily, sequestered the jurors and insisted that they try again the next day to reach a unanimous decision. This they managed to do, but Stewart could take little satisfaction in it. The original indictment against Murrell had contained eight criminal counts, and while the surviving record does not disclose what most of them were, it does indicate that the jury dismissed six of them. They found Murrell guilty of just two counts of slave stealing and recommended him to ten years’ hard labor in the Tennessee state penitentiary in Nashville, a prison term five years short of the maximum.26
The implication of such an outcome was obvious. Joseph Snodgrass, a juror for Murrell’s trial, commented privately once the proceedings ended “that it was the opinion of every man on the jury that Stewart had perjured himself.” Other jurors surely talked about the group’s deliberations after the fact as well, but even if Stewart never heard remarks like Snodgrass’s, lingering misgivings about his testimony were manifest. Despite acknowledging that Stewart’s story was “finely told,” for example, the editor of the Truth Teller also virtually admitted to thinking there was no way all of it was true, writing that Stewart “made too much effort at display.” And he was not the only doubter. Stewart’s testimony may have been lively, the editor continued, but in Jackson there plainly existed “difference[s] of opinion … as to the merit of the witness.”27
Stewart was not wholly without defenders. In late September nearly four dozen men from Madison County’s “most honorable and respectable class of citizens” decided to give Stewart some money as a “token of gratitude” for “the important and dangerous services” he rendered in capturing Murrell. Whether or not Stewart had ever sought a reward, these men believed him entitled to compensation “for the loss of time and expenses which were necessarily incurred by Mr. Stewart for the public good.” Even these supporters, however, conceded they had been moved to act not merely by a desire to recognize Stewart for “his courage” but also because two months after Murrell’s trial they still felt the need to “discountenance the odium which has been attempted at his character.”28
Though they never said as much, the men who pooled their financial resources for Stewart probably did so partially in the hope that a cash payment would make him go away. As soon as Murrell’s trial ended, Stewart had started telling a few of those he considered “his most intimate friends” that he intended to write and publish “a detailed history of this whole affair.” But none of them thought that was a good idea. Some tried deterring Stewart by claiming it was unwise and perhaps even dangerous for him to provoke John Murrell’s criminal colleagues any more than he already had by testifying against one of their own in court. That argument was disingenuous, though, and Stewart knew it, because he could tell that those who made it did not believe his story in the first place. “It was peculiarly mortifying,” Stewart recalled, “to meet with much incredulity from even those in whose faith and integrity he reposed the most entire confidence.”29
The fact was that John Murrell had not been convicted as a result of Virgil Stewart’s testimony at all. Murrell went to jail because property holders in his part of Madison County were so frustrated by his slipperiness that they were willing to use any convenient pretense to imprison him. As Joseph Snodgrass reported, even though he and his fellow jurors thought Stewart fabricated much of his testimony, they found Murrell guilty because “they were convinced if [he] had not committed the offence charged in the indictment, that he had committed many others for which he merited punishment, and that they should not be inflicting punishment on an innocent man.”30
Murrell also had the misfortune to be tried at a moment when residents of western Tennessee were particularly peeved by the kinds of banditry in which they were certain he was involved. In June 1834, just a month before Murrell’s trial, some fifteen armed men stole nearly everything off a flatboat “laden with flour and whiskey” that had run aground on a sandbar on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River a few miles south of Randolph. It was at least the second flatboat robbery committed at that spot in the previous year and a half, and it prompted irate Tennesseans to try and clear out the Arkansas canebrakes where they believed the robbers headquartered. About thirty men from Randolph raided a settlement called Shawnee Village, where they burned down some ramshackle cabins and arrested eight or ten people. The following day, forty or fifty armed men from Covington, just east of Randolph, embarked on a similar expedition. Over the course of the next week groups of west Tennesseans repeatedly traveled back and forth across the Mississippi, often carried free of charge by sympathetic steamboat captains. They took nearly two dozen men into custody, tied several others to trees and whipped them, and retrieved property they claimed had been stolen over the preceding years. John Murrell, sitting in jail waiting for his day in court, could not have participated in the flatboat plundering that touched off this series of assaults. But for anyone even thought connected to the “band of villains” that carried it out, the summer of 1834 was an especially bad time to be under indictment.31
Virgil Stewart had been extremely useful to those who wanted to see John Murrell in prison because his testimony attached Murrell, however tenuously, to a particular criminal act. But once the trial ended, no one had any further need for him. When he was still around months later and still insisting that he was going to publish his whole ridiculous and potentially embarrassing story, something had to be done. If he needed money that badly, it was easier just to give it to him. Those who took up contributions for Stewart failed to realize, however, that he could not be deterred by money. For Stewart, moving to the frontier had always been about achieving personal prominence as much as gaining financial security, and perhaps more so. Reuben McVey was right that John Henning had offered Stewart money for his pursuit of Murrell. In fact, after Murrell had been arrested Henning offered Stewart a gift of new clothes to replace the ratty ones he had worn every day for several weeks while riding with Murrell. But Stewart had refused it all, and the cash bounty Henning’s fellows in the “respectable class” were now trying to give him reeked of a payoff. He took the money. But he could tell he had been used, and he saw now for the second time that Madison was no better place to make his destiny than Yalobusha had been. He left the next day. County residents would hear from him again, though. And they would know that Virgil Stewart would not tolerate being cast aside.32
Some psychological turmoil already plagued Virgil Stewart as he headed out of Madison County, but his mental condition declined precipitously during the ensuing months, even compared with its dismal state when he had left the county after John Murrell’s jailbreak. Then, George Saunders had found a disconsolate Stewart praying for forgiveness and divine guidance. Now Stewart was wretched, and he became increasingly erratic and unstable. First he rode east into Perry County, where he spent several days at the home of someone who had expressed interest in buying Stewart’s land in Mississippi. Stewart planned to continue northeast from there through Nashville and on to Lexington, Kentucky. But he changed his mind and went south instead to Columbus, Mississippi, where he hoped to find boat passage to Mobile. Failing to find transportation, he then headed west across the state toward the Mississippi River, intending to get to Natchez and eventually to New Orleans.33
Somewhere along the way he fell ill, and by his own account he became so delirious that he lost track of time or even exactly where he was. In late October, however, he was in west-central Mississippi staying at the home of a farmer named James Moore. Stewart told Moore he planned on leaving the United States altogether for Europe, most probably for France, but apparently he altered his plans yet again, because he never even got to New Orleans. Instead, when he reached Natchez sometime during the last few days of October, he arranged for the commission merchant firm of Arthur, Fulton, and Company to receive any items sent to him and forward them to a spot where he aimed to settle on the Red River in northwestern Louisiana. By November 1 he had moved south about seventy miles down the Mississippi to the Louisiana town of St. Francisville, from which he wrote a letter to Saunders asking his former neighbor to ship anything he had left behind in Yalobusha County to Natchez. It is unclear whether Saunders ever followed through on Stewart’s instructions. If he did, the packages could not have been delivered to Stewart anyway. Rather than go to northwestern Louisiana, he boarded a steamboat and rode fifteen hundred miles up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Cincinnati, where he stayed until March 1835.34
Perhaps the illness Stewart claimed to have contracted accounts for the “fits of delirium” he reported enduring. The frenzied pace of his travels about the Southwest, however, and the wild careening of his plans for the future from expatriation to Europe to settlement in Louisiana to steamboat voyage to Cincinnati suggests less a man who was physically unwell than one who had been overtaken by a sort of mania. Not only did Stewart evidence remarkable vigor. He also never stopped thinking about and working on the manuscript describing his experiences with John Murrell, and he began both publicly and privately to demonstrate the kinds of grandiosity, delusions, and unalloyed fabulism that would characterize the story that manuscript told.35
In the middle of November the Randolph Recorder received a curious letter describing “a bold attempt to assassinate” Stewart that had taken place more than a month earlier. According to the letter, which the paper described as written in a “cramped and prolix” script and signed by “John G. Brown,” Stewart had ridden only about fifty miles from Madison County when three armed men rushed from the woods and ordered him to dismount. Stewart refused and discharged his pistol at one man who raised his shotgun to fire, killing him. A second man shot at Stewart with a rifle but missed, while the third man trained his weapon on Stewart only to lose his aim when Stewart flung his pistol and hit the man in the forehead. Stewart, the letter continued, then jumped from his horse intending to stab the third man with a dagger, but the second man struck Stewart in the back of the head with his rifle before Stewart was able to do so. Stewart managed to stumble back to his horse and escape through the trees, taking a rifle shot to the left arm as he rode away. Concluding the letter, “John G. Brown” wrote that he had last seen Stewart in Louisiana “confined in all probability to his death bed” from the lingering effects of his wounds.36
The injuries described by “John G. Brown” could explain the discomfort and indisposition Stewart said he experienced during the final months of 1834. But that presumes he actually incurred them. In fact, it is impossible to believe that this assassination attempt ever took place or that anyone other than Stewart himself wrote the letter to the Recorder. For one thing, the author of the letter claimed to have written it “on board a steamboat among a dense crowd,” which is precisely where Stewart, miraculously improved and on his way to Cincinnati, would have been at the time it was penned. Moreover, the style and the phrasing of the letter closely parallel the somewhat more elaborate version of the story that would appear in Stewart’s pamphlet, with the wording matching precisely in numerous instances. For his part, the editor of the Recorder, F. S. Latham, found the story implausible, writing that he was “disinclined to believe a word of it.” Similarly, about a year later, nearly four dozen people who lived on or near the road where the attack supposedly occurred signed a statement saying that no one in the area had even heard of a fight like the one the letter described until Stewart published his account of it. Concluding that the entire affair was a product of Stewart’s imagination, the statement asserted that “no unprejudiced man … could read the story without feeling satisfied of its utter want of truth.”37
The letter to the Recorder was the first time Stewart trotted out the attempted assassination story in print, but it was not the first time he experimented with telling it. James Moore would later sign a statement saying that Stewart had told him “of his rencounter with three assassins near Tennessee river” as he “lay sick” at Moore’s home just weeks before the story appeared in the newspaper. Moreover, Stewart told Moore that the assailants had belonged to “the band of villains whom his adventure and trip with Murrell to Arkansas had exposed, and which they were trying to prevent being published.” As he was both ill and being pursued by these “banditti,” Stewart said he had decided to “put his papers into the hands of a friend to be made public.” In the meantime, he intended to disappear until the danger had passed and the public was “sufficiently aroused to a sense of the extent and designs of” Murrell’s men.38
The story Virgil Stewart told James Moore was no more probable than the contents of the letter from “John G. Brown.” Indeed, Moore’s statement drew attention to holes in Stewart’s story, as Moore mentioned Stewart’s being sick and his saying he had been ambushed, yet he neglected to mention a gunshot wound, head trauma, or specific injury of any kind at all. But the things Stewart said to Moore did suggest how far Stewart had advanced in his thinking about his pamphlet because they pointed clearly, if in broad strokes, toward what would appear in the final product: the story of Stewart’s travels with Murrell and their aftermath, including details about the reach and plans of Murrell and his confederates more explosive than anything Stewart had mentioned at Murrell’s trial; the displacement of ultimate authorship onto a third party who would make Stewart as significant a character in the adventure as Murrell himself; and the framing of the entire series of events such that Stewart simultaneously could be hero and victim, bravely and single-handedly exposing Murrell as a menace to society even as Murrell’s agents lurked everywhere to destroy him.
Though Stewart’s story became increasingly unlikely, he himself had not become completely irrational. On the contrary, his attempt to compile the last few years of his life into pamphlet form was perfectly explicable. For one thing, he needed the money. Nothing indicates that Stewart had managed to sell any of his Yalobusha land by the end of 1834. He had not held any particular job for several years before that, and the cash he had been insulted to take when he left Tennessee could only have gone so far.39 Selling things was the one kind of work for which Stewart had shown any aptitude, and the appetite of American consumers for sensational literature, especially stories about crime and criminals, was voracious in the early nineteenth century. Given how little else he had going for him, Stewart would have been foolish not to try hawking his story in print.40
Also impelling Stewart to publish his story were the concerns about character and status that had preoccupied him from his first days in the Southwest. Stewart had been raised in a southern society that placed a premium on a code of honor in which a white man’s standing and self-regard depended largely on his public reputation. Yet the defining signifiers of honorable masculinity eluded Stewart, as he had neither the property holdings that indicated autonomous wealth, the household in which to act the patriarch, nor the slaves over whom to exercise mastery.41
On the turbulent frontier where thousands of ambitious men jockeyed to demonstrate their independence and boldness, the aggressive and visible displays of manhood entailed by honor were all the more important. In particular, a man could compensate for material uncertainty with verbal combativeness and a hair-trigger willingness to respond violently to slights and insults. Stewart’s ineptitude showed here as well, as he reacted to Matthew Clanton’s accusations of theft with self-abasement and to Milton Brown’s intimations that he was a liar with spluttering indignation. Insofar as he had made a name for himself, Stewart had become known as a man who deserved pity more than respect and who had a habit of slinking away like a coward when confronted with questions about his integrity.42
But Stewart had come to understand that establishing a reputation as an honorable man mostly meant presenting a convincing appearance as one and that by writing his pamphlet he could publicly recast his entire life as he chose. In this version he could make himself into the boundlessly courageous and morally principled man of his imagination, and his critics into connivers and criminals who deserved contempt if not reprisals. Whether the story was entirely true was less important than whether he could convince readers to believe it. By successfully reframing his every action and decision, Stewart could persuade doubters that they had been wrong about him. And he would finally receive his due.
Honor was hardly the only value system informing the lives of southern men, however.43 Understanding Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet solely or even primarily within that regionally distinctive framework overlooks both the complexities of experience in the Southwest and the ways many young strivers in the United States would have recognized Stewart’s vexed state of mind. Worries about identity, reputation, and appearances were conspicuous throughout antebellum America, as the increasingly fluid and individualistic socioeconomic environment was confusing and alienating even as it could be exciting and rewarding. With traditional mores of questionable application, certain knowledge of whom to trust impossible to acquire, and the fear of failure looming everywhere as the marketplace coldly determined a man’s worth, intense scrutiny defined social interactions, and self-consciousness dominated the psyche. The risks of losing oneself in this world were great.44
The story Virgil Stewart would tell was a product of these sorts of tensions and ambiguities. The very act of writing was a way of rooting himself, projecting a stable sense of his own identity, and grounding his vertiginous experience on the frontier such that his authoritative narrative account of that experience was its own virtue. No one who credited the tale of his travels with John Murrell would deny that Stewart had earned the right to be renowned and that respectable men in the Southwest ought to be showering him with praise, fame, and fortune. At the same time, though, it did not take an especially careful reader to see the current of bile and ill will flowing just beneath the surface of Stewart’s pamphlet. Discouraged about his life, envious of others’ accomplishments, and ready to blame anyone but himself for his troubles, Stewart had reached the conclusion that none of those who had achieved success in the Southwest really deserved the rewards they had reaped. Perhaps the difference between the slave stealer who acted a confidence man and the slaveholder who acted a self-made man was not so great after all.45
In the early spring of 1835, copies of A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, the Great Western Land Pirate began appearing in western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas, and elsewhere in the lower Mississippi Valley. Eighty-four pages long and printed in Cincinnati, the pamphlet was written ostensibly by someone named Augustus Q. Walton. But Virgil Stewart himself was almost surely the actual author. Walton was merely a pseudonym.46
After a short preface promising that the story of John Murrell’s villainy and capture would “amuse and entertain the reader,” Stewart began The Western Land Pirate (as the title commonly came to be abbreviated) by establishing some context for those unfamiliar with the Southwest or its criminals. He described an epidemic of horse and slave thefts in the region that had “become a matter of the greatest concern to persons whose capital is invested in property of that kind, there being no security of its safety,” and wrote that the members of a “mysterious banditti” who bore responsibility for a “great number of outrages” had managed to elude punishment for years. But, he continued, the disappearance of the slaves belonging to John Henning would prove their undoing, leading as it did to the apprehension of Murrell, their “leader and master spirit,” and to the exposure of their “awful deeds” and “their more awful plans and designs.”47
To a certain extent, the body of the text that followed these “introductory remarks” trod the same ground Stewart had covered at Murrell’s trial. Stewart detailed his pursuit of Murrell on Henning’s behalf, delineated the path he and Murrell traveled together, described their interactions with other people along the way, and recounted the anecdotes that Murrell allegedly had relayed to him on their ride. Stewart made clear that Murrell had admitted to stealing Henning’s slaves, and he included an account of Murrell’s prosecution and sentencing for that crime.
Yet a great deal set The Western Land Pirate apart from even the fanciful testimony Stewart had provided nearly a year earlier. For starters, Stewart’s language and writing style in The Western Land Pirate made his appearance on the witness stand seem tranquilizing by comparison. Stewart employed prose so melodramatic and bombastic that its sheer silliness would make most modern readers laugh out loud. But it neatly captured the inflated tone of romantic adventures and dark criminal biographies that were immensely popular in the antebellum era.
In Stewart’s telling, John Murrell was no small-time irritation to his neighbors or even an unusually dangerous and pesky crook. He was, rather, a “destroyer of the lives and happiness of man” whose “villainous feats have never been surpassed by any who have preceded him.” A “depraved” person who “knew no law but his rapacious will” and who reveled in the “splendor of his horrid crimes,” Murrell had “steeled his heart against all of the human family, except those who will consent to be as vile as himself.”48 By contrast, Stewart himself was not merely someone willing to do John Henning a favor by following Murrell, nor even merely a singularly brave man. He was also a person of “untiring perseverance” and “possessed of an inordinate share of public spirit.” Equipped with “nobleness of heart” and “a firm nerve,” Stewart was “respected and esteemed in every country where he has lived by its best citizens,” “governed by high and honorable motives,” and “one of those young men who is devoted in his friendship, generous in his sentiments, and true to his country.” Even Murrell himself could sense that his companion was “a young man of splendid abilities.”49
The Western Land Pirate nodded to conventional moralism. Murrell was a man who “cared for neither God nor devil” and assumed a clerical costume for the sake of committing robberies. Stewart, in contrast, asserted that his own survival showed “the power and protection of our Creator to those who look to him for support and defence.” But pious lessons were not the primary appeal of sensational adventure and crime literature, and Stewart was not stingy with graphic details and spooky atmospherics that shocked readers and stirred their emotions. The Murrell of The Western Land Pirate swore profusely and bragged about swamp animals eating the corpses of slaves he and his partners murdered, and Stewart frequently called attention to the eeriness that seemed to suffuse his surroundings. Recalling the day he met and began traveling with Murrell, Stewart noted how the smoke rising from the cabins of the small settlement of Estanaula mixed among the trees “and seemed to wrap all nature in deep mourning.” Later, as evening approached, Murrell and Stewart rode through a cluster of poplars in which “the mingled rays of light and darkness … were highly calculated to produce superstitious notions.” Stewart “began to feel as though he was on enchanted ground,” his mind filled with “strange phantoms.” Finally, after the sun had set, Murrell suggested they stop and rest “until the queen of the night blesses us with her silver beams,” he and Stewart remounting their horses only “when the moon began to make the sleet glisten on the surrounding trees.”50
It was less style than content, however, that distinguished The Western Land Pirate from Stewart’s previous versions of his story. Stewart had altered and amplified the story almost constantly from the first time he told it such that it evolved from Murrell’s stealing two slaves to his leading a sizable organization of slave stealers. But the account in The Western Land Pirate transcended the imaginative into the realm of the bizarre. Here, Murrell’s organization, which he referred to as his “clan” and which Stewart sometimes referred to as the “mystic clan” or the “mystic conspiracy,” had more than one thousand members and a formal structure designed to preclude revelation of its existence. The majority of the clan comprised individuals whose jobs consisted mostly of moving stolen horses and slaves from place to place. Known as “strikers,” they ran the greatest risk of getting caught but would do just about anything for a few dollars. A smaller number of clan members composed the “grand council.” These men were more valuable than the strikers, in part because they could be trusted to “keep all their designs and the extent of their plans to themselves,” and in part because Murrell claimed at least half of them were “men of high standing; and many of them in honorable and lucrative offices.” If anything about the existence of the clan should “leak out by chance,” the grand councilors could “crush it at once, by ridiculing the idea,” their presumed respectability settling the matter for fearful members of their communities.51
Virgil Stewart lacked the high standing or lucrative office many grand councilors held, but he claimed Murrell wanted to make him one nonetheless. In The Western Land Pirate, Murrell promised to put Stewart “on the high road to fortune,” and when he and Stewart crossed the Mississippi River, they made their way to the “council house” of the clan located at the base of an enormous cottonwood that towered above every tree in the forest. Once there, Murrell presented Stewart to his fellows, announcing that he had brought “a counsellor of my own making,” whereupon Stewart learned the secret hand signals he would need to identify himself to fellow clan members in the future.52
And Stewart learned so much more. When reading The Western Land Pirate, in fact, one wonders what Murrell chose not to reveal to Stewart, for he seems literally to have offered his entire life story. He told Stewart that although his father “was an honest man I expect, and tried to raise me honest,” his mother encouraged her children to steal. Murrell said he committed his first theft at the age of ten and by the age of twenty had begun associating with more experienced criminals. In their company he ranged ever farther from home, stealing horses and slaves, passing counterfeit money, learning how to impersonate a preacher, and robbing and killing travelers on the road. He also became “a considerable libertine,” gambling, drinking, and “rioting in all the luxuries of forbidden pleasures” with many different women.53
In time, Murrell told Stewart, he traveled the entire southern portion of the United States committing crimes and meeting a variety of highwaymen and thieves. During those travels he was struck by the notion of forging these associates into what would become the “mystic clan.” Soon after completing this “grand circuit,” he gathered about a dozen of his closest allies together in New Orleans. Over the course of three days they gave life to the clan and agreed to recruit men to carry out a “grand object” that would provide “an inexhaustible fortune to all who would engage in the expedition.” On December 25, 1835, Murrell told Stewart, the clan would “excite a rebellion among the negroes throughout the slaveholding states.” As Murrell explained the plan, he and his men would coordinate the activities of the slaves enlisted for the rebellion such that it would begin everywhere at precisely the same time. Then, “while all is confusion and dismay,” strategically stationed clan members would “fire the towns and rob the banks” all across the South. By the time the rebellion had been quelled, they would be gone, their “pockets replenished from the banks, and the desks of rich merchants’ houses.”54
Ever since that meeting in New Orleans, Murrell told Stewart, he had spent the bulk of his time making yet another tour of the South, laying the groundwork for the operation and establishing “emissaries over the country in every direction.” He said he thought the clan would have more than two thousand members by the time of the insurrection, and before the end of his and Stewart’s ride together Murrell provided the names and states of residence of nearly five hundred of them. Stewart had been hinting for more than a year that he had a list of those affiliated with Murrell. In The Western Land Pirate he finally delivered it, publishing every name he said Murrell gave him.55
Long before he did that, though, Virgil Stewart obviously had become the repository of a great deal of information about a massive criminal conspiracy, and he claimed that once clan members became aware that John Murrell’s latest recruit was a spy, they endeavored to kill him and to sully his reputation so severely that no one would believe a word he said. Accordingly, while the bulk of The Western Land Pirate centers on Stewart’s ride with Murrell, most of the last twenty pages turn instead toward “the efforts of John A. Murel and his friends, for the destruction of the life and character of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart.” Those efforts culminated with the assassination attempt in the woods of Perry County, but Stewart wrote that they began soon after Murrell’s arrest. Stewart claimed, for instance, that when he first returned to Yalobusha County after Murrell’s capture, he heard “rumors” about armed and “rather suspicious characters” who were “passing through the country” looking for him. Weeks later, he recalled, he became violently ill after drinking a cup of coffee Ann Vess prepared for him, making him wonder whether she had tried to poison him.56
But he discovered the full scope of the forces arrayed against him only on the following day. Stewart claimed that as he rode home after scouting some land he encountered a man named George Aker, who flashed one of the secret hand signals of the clan. Immediately on his guard, Stewart returned the gesture and gave Aker to believe his name was Tom Goodin. At that point, Aker informed him that the grand council had settled on a plan to assassinate Stewart and “disgrace him too,” which would result both in Murrell’s release from prison and in suspicion falling away from clan members whose names Stewart possessed. Aker said that a clan member had paid “an old man and his wife” one hundred dollars to poison Stewart, but their lack of success had prompted an impatient council to give Aker two hundred dollars “to despatch the d———d traitor.” If he failed, Aker continued, the council intended to have some Arkansans accuse Stewart of passing them counterfeit money, whereupon Stewart would be extradited and susceptible to kidnap and execution in the Morass. Finally, no matter who managed to kill Stewart, the council had agreed to give “the fellow with whom [Stewart] lives … one thousand dollars to raise a charge against” him. Aker never mentioned the man’s name, saying only that he was a “confidential friend of Stewart’s,” “that they have frequently done business for each other,” and that he was “a good friend to some of our clan.” But he was “a big fish” and “any thing he says will be believed.”57
Thinking quickly, Stewart told Aker he had been unaware of the council’s plans but that he had met Stewart and needed only an opportunity to get him alone to carry out the murder himself. An excited Aker gave Stewart one hundred dollars “to help me get his scalp,” and the two parted ways. As he rode away Stewart “began to reflect on the dangerous condition he was in; he saw himself surrounded by enemies who were plotting against his life.” He wrote that Aker’s information convinced him that Ann Vess had indeed poisoned him, and even though Aker had not said the “confidential friend” bribed to malign Stewart was Matthew Clanton, Stewart suspected it had to be. For days afterward he fell into a “deep melancholy,” “thought of the devoted friendship which he had borne to Clanton and his interest,” and resisted “believing that Clanton would be hired for so base a purpose.” When Clanton accused him of theft, however, Stewart knew for certain he “was the man whom George Aker had alluded to, for the matter had then been fairly demonstrated by the charge made.”58
Stewart wrote that he then left Yalobusha County because he thought it necessary to “go out of the influence and power of his enemies” and that before he left he told Clanton “that whenever he was convinced that he had acted dishonorably towards him, to publish it to the world; but cautioned him of the bad consequences of being too premature in his conclusions and engagements.” Stewart discovered, however, that he could not escape the hounding of Murrell’s clansmen and realized that the knowledge that he might reveal their names did not intimidate them. Instead, when he returned to Tennessee he felt himself “surrounded with a legion of devils and slanderers, whose fate depended on his destruction.” During and after Murrell’s trial, clan members and sympathizers were everywhere. They might have been too afraid to testify on Murrell’s behalf “now that their names were on a list.” But Milton Brown, Stewart wrote, was “nothing more than the organ through which the venom of a detestable and piratical clan of villains were vented,” while those who later discouraged him from publishing The Western Land Pirate were “private agents of the clan, who came in the garb of friends.” Yet Stewart could not be put off. Writing his pamphlet was “the performance of what he conceived to be his duty, undaunted by all the fictions of horror and death which they were capable of presenting to his imagination.”59
The Western Land Pirate is a document that resists a straightforward reading. Strictly from a literary perspective, Stewart modeled his story primarily on lurid tales whose popularity rested in large measure on their bloodiness and the wickedness of their protagonists. One needs to read only so much about John Murrell’s cavalier and remorseless attitude toward murder, his penchant for disemboweling his victims and replacing their entrails with stones so that they would disappear beneath the waters into which they were tossed, and his desire to see the “cities and towns” of the Southwest “one common scene of devastation, smoked walls and fragments” to take the point. Yet clichés and conventions of other genres with appeal to antebellum readers shaped The Western Land Pirate as well.60
Stewart drew in part, for example, on stereotypes from middle-class advice literature. Though not nearly so didactic as the etiquette guides and sentimental fiction geared mostly to young men and women in American cities, the tale of Murrell’s departure as a young man from an honest path of industry and frugality leading inevitably to imprisonment and a life wasted might be read as homiletic nonetheless. Stewart said as much, contending in The Western Land Pirate that Murrell’s fate ought to serve as a “warning to others who may be posting the road which leads to misery and degradation, and convince them of the final justice of their Creator, before their consciences are for ever steeled to his reproofs by progressive crimes.”61
Also influencing The Western Land Pirate was the emerging genre of southwestern satirical writing. Stewart’s Murrell may have been a scoundrel and even a sociopath, but he was not without a roguish sense of humor that calls to mind the comic sensibilities of the many frontier authors who contributed to William T. Porter’s popular newspaper, Spirit of the Times. Murrell disguised himself and deceived people as much for sport as for profit, he found just about anyone wealthy or respectable to be fair game, and his schemes could be in the service of his own amusement rather than his greed. He liked an ironic turn of phrase, such as when he told Stewart how he had acted the minister and “preached like hell for a neighborhood of Methodists,” and the juxtaposition of brutal and random violence with lighthearted gaiety, such as when he described how he and a friend “frolicked” and acted “the highest larks you ever saw” with money stolen from a man whose body they threw off a cliff.62
It is hard to say how many readers would have laughed at the stories Stewart told, some of which were disturbing even by frontier standards. But the fact that his narrative used a hodgepodge of literary formulas raises the question of whether the tales The Western Land Pirate comprises were even true. There is indeterminacy here too, as one cannot separate fact from fiction with total precision. This is particularly so regarding the obscene number of crimes Murrell supposedly confessed, most of which were committed against anonymous men in unnamed and lonely places. Nonetheless, if Stewart encrusted some essential facts with an overlay of hyperbole and improbable flourishes when he testified at John Murrell’s trial, much of the material making its debut in The Western Land Pirate was almost certainly a succession of outright lies.
For someone who claimed Murrell gave him “a short history of his life,” Stewart knew remarkably little about the basic details of Murrell’s biography. Stewart wrote that Murrell said he “was born in Middle Tennessee,” when in fact he was born in Virginia. Stewart wrote that Murrell told him he had spent most of the five years before their meeting making two separate circuits of the entire South, covering thousands of miles as he traveled the East Coast from Maryland to Florida, ranged the interior from Kentucky to Texas, and even headed down into Mexico before going back to Tennessee. Moreover, on the rare occasions he was at home, Stewart’s Murrell liked to spend weeks at a time “among the girls of my acquaintance, in all the enjoyments that money could afford.” Putting aside the grueling toll so much travel would have taken on him, one wonders what Murrell’s wife made of his near-constant absence and his philandering. But there is no indication that Stewart knew Murrell even had a wife. Nor does he appear to have known that Murrell had two children by 1834 or that he had been totally bankrupt as recently as 1833.63
Turning from Murrell’s past to his present and his plans for the future, it is not merely odd that Stewart would say nothing for more than a year about the “mystic clan” or the plans of its leader to launch a slave insurrection. It is absurd. Stewart wrote that he withheld “the horrid confessions, designs, and life of Murel … from even his best friends” and that he had divulged only information that “was connected in some way” to the theft of John Henning’s slaves because he wanted to be sure Murrell would get “a fair trial before the legal representatives of his country.” Thus, if Stewart is to be believed, he brooked a rhetorical pummeling on the witness stand, a false accusation of theft, multiple attempts on his life, and the derision of nearly everyone he talked to because he did not want “the minds of the people … [to] be prejudiced to unreasonableness against Murel.” Moreover, he considered the administration of “law and justice” so vital that he kept his mouth shut about a confederacy of more than one thousand criminals plotting to spark an uprising that would result in millions of dollars of property damage and the deaths of hundreds of people, and did so for a man “he knew to be of the basest and most corrupt principles.” In Stewart’s telling, these choices demonstrated his “nobleness of heart, and magnanimous feelings.” They also demonstrated that he thought his readers extremely gullible.64
There was no “mystic clan” headed by John Murrell, or by anyone else, for that matter. Some of the names on Stewart’s list of clan members did belong to actual criminals. Among clansmen from Missouri was one “Col. S. W. Foreman.” This was Stephen W. Foreman, a counterfeiter who had escaped from a St. Louis jail only to be captured in Arkansas on suspicion of involvement in the flatboat robbery that had prompted Tennesseans to try and clear out the Morass in the spring of 1834. Among “transienters” in the clan who lived in no particular state was “Soril Phelpes,” a reference to Alonzo Phelps, who had been convicted and sentenced to hang in Mississippi for murder, also in the spring of 1834. “R. Tims” of Tennessee was probably Reuben Tims, who would be arrested for horse theft in 1835, and clansmen from Arkansas included members of the Barney, Bunch, and Lloyd families, around all of whom swirled accusations of robbery, counterfeiting, slave stealing, and general disreputableness.65
But Stephen Foreman was regionally notorious, and Alonzo Phelps was so famous that he had acquired a popular sobriquet, “the Rob Roy of the Mississippi.” Anyone who picked up a newspaper would have known their names, and anyone who listened to local gossip would have been familiar with the others. As the editor of the Arkansas Gazette noted after reading The Western Land Pirate, Stewart’s list of clan members included a number of “known and long suspected rascals.” That Stewart invented out of whole cloth most of the hundreds of names on the list is nearly self-evident. With the exceptions of Foreman, Phelps, and a few others, Stewart enumerated clan members almost solely by last name. He added a first initial about half the time but was never more specific than that, and many of the surnames were so generic as to be found practically anywhere in the United States. His roster of Kentucky clansmen, for example, comprised “three Forrows, four Wards, two Forsythes, D. Clayton, R. Williamson, H. Haley, H. Potter, D. Mugit, two Pattersons, S. Goin, Q. Drantley, L. Potts, four Reeses, [and] two Carters.”66
Stewart would later account for the list’s skimpiness by claiming that he did not have enough paper to transcribe it in greater detail, having used most of the notebook he carried to surreptitiously record the things Murrell said in a kind of journal whose pages Stewart stuffed into his hat for safekeeping. Although this excuse provides the amusing image of Virgil Stewart trying to keep Murrell from noticing that Stewart’s hat teetered atop a growing pile of crumpled papers, it was too convenient. In any case, it was not just the imprecision of his catalog of names that suggests Stewart invented the mystic clan. It was that to the extent an organization of southwestern criminals actually existed in the 1830s, it only dimly matched Stewart’s description.67
Newspaper editors liked to refer to southwestern bandits as forming themselves into “gangs,” but in fact they seem to have been affiliated with one another loosely and provisionally and without any singular or hierarchical leadership. The confession of Willis Watson opens a rare window onto the workings of the southwestern underworld. Arrested for counterfeiting in Missouri in the fall of 1834, Watson provided information about nearly twenty men who he claimed were engaged in criminal activities in the region. “The counterfeit money,” Watson disclosed, was made in Arkansas by John and William “Merrill,” by whom he surely meant John Murrell and his older brother. Ten other men were “co-partners” with the Murrells, and Watson believed one had also stolen several slaves and horses. Another man who had “always received and befriended” the Murrells and their partners “and received money of them” sometimes “shows and tells what negroes will go with them, and where to get horses.” Among four others who were “friendly also,” one knew how to counterfeit and a second had passed some phony bills. At least three other men, meanwhile, had “had an interest in the business, but quit it,” and a fourth had “been a grand villain, but has quit.”68
Watson’s confession indicates that networks of criminals in the South-west could be geographically extensive. The men he described moved slaves, horses, and counterfeit money from western Tennessee and eastern Arkansas down to the Gulf of Mexico. But their range basically followed the Mississippi River and was not nearly so far-reaching as to cover the whole South. In addition, Watson detailed circumstances in which criminals were related less in terms of relative degrees of authority and power in a syndicate than with regard to the different skills and specialties they possessed, and he explained that a life of crime could be a temporary one that men might and not uncommonly did abandon at some point. In short, John Murrell probably did steal slaves and horses, make and pass counterfeit money, and associate with others who did the same. It is even likely that he did so regularly and for long enough that he might be said to have been part of a “gang.” But he was no mastermind, and he led no clan.
Without the thread of the “mystic clan” holding them together, other significant elements of The Western Land Pirate unravel. No plot to steal the wealth of the South existed, and no criminal cabal was coordinating a diversionary slave rebellion. In the wake of Murrell’s trial, people in Tennessee began asking questions about Virgil Stewart, and as reports of why he really had left Mississippi became more widespread, Stewart became progressively more mortified, more desperate to turn threats to his reputation back on those who he felt threatened it, and more inclined toward vindictiveness. But Matthew Clanton had not been given a thousand dollars to spread lies about Stewart, and Ann Vess had not tried to poison him. Milton Brown was not an operative retained by Stewart’s enemies, and no one was trying to assassinate him.69
Sometimes Stewart hinted in the text that all was not as it seemed in The Western Land Pirate. When he described introducing himself into Murrell’s company by pretending to be a horse hunter as “ventur[ing] a trick,” an astute reader might wonder whether the portrayal of Murrell as one of the most vicious men in the world was the more extensive hoax. When Stewart noted how traveling with Murrell reminded him of “all the old superstitious stories that he had heard or read in his whole life,” he intimated that what lay before the reader itself comprised fable as much as fact. And when Stewart wrote of telling Murrell that he would “look back to the hour of our meeting, as the fortunate era when my importance and victories were to commence,” he gestured toward the streak of opportunism running through his life that never let reality stand in the way of his expectations.70
Perhaps the only clear truth to be found amid the hackneyed convolutions of The Western Land Pirate is the puzzlement and anger of its author at how things worked on the frontier and how dismally his ventures there had turned out for him. Virgil Stewart had come to the Southwest thinking he could make himself into the person he wished to be, only to find that he had no firm idea who that person was. He had tried living in several places and earning money at several occupations, but nothing translated into anything steady or particularly promising. He wrote The Western Land Pirate in an effort to give his story shape and coherence, but the fact that he had become a drifter with no family and few friends was unavoidable. It was no wonder he tried on many selves. Virgil Stewart was also Adam Hues and Tom Goodin and Augustus Walton, and he was probably John G. Brown too. One moniker was no better or worse than any other, and there was some sorrow mixed in with the dissembling when Stewart replied to John Murrell’s asking how he called himself by saying “I seldom ever have a name.”71
In Stewart’s own mind, at least, he had tried hard to show himself worthy of something better than his background. Personally lacking resources and social prestige, he sought out those who had them in the hope that they would see his potential and escort him toward the station he believed he ought to inhabit. Yet his time in the Southwest had taught him that what you had was not only more important than who you were but that it made you who you were; that it was pointless to curry favor with others because they would do nothing for you; and that selfish disregard was the only reasonable approach to surviving in an environment without room for sentiment. As Stewart explained his personal philosophy to Murrell in The Western Land Pirate, “we are placed here, and we must act for ourselves, or we feel the chilling blasts of charity’s cold region; and we feel worse than that, we feel the power of opulent wealth, and the sneer of pompous show; and, sir, what is it that constitutes character, popularity and power in the United States? Sir, it is property; strip a man of his property in this country, and he is a ruined man indeed—you see his friends forsake him; and he may have been raised in the highest circles of society, yet he is neglected and treated with contempt. Sir, my doctrine is, let the hardest fend off.”72
Throughout The Western Land Pirate Virgil Stewart expressed great admiration for John Murrell when in his company, claiming that “his vanity was his accessible point” and that flattery helped persuade Murrell to reveal his secrets. But Stewart’s fawning reflected his personal preoccupations so consistently that it cannot be accounted for merely as palaver to gain Murrell’s confidence. Stewart’s hostility toward the privilege bestowed on elites by virtue of their wealth surfaced again and again. He applauded Murrell’s boasting that he and his “company of rogues” stole without repercussions, saying that “if they have sense enough to evade the laws of their country, which are made by the wisest men of the nation, let them do it. … It is just as honorable for them to gain property by their superior powers, as it is for a long-faced hypocrite to take the advantage of the necessities of his fellow-beings.” To Stewart’s way of thinking, the men who merited admiration were those whose cunning was more striking than their riches, and he told Murrell he considered him among them, pronouncing that if Murrell were “placed in a situation to make a display of his talents, [he] would soon render the name and remembrance of an Alexander, or a Jackson, little and inconsiderable, when compared with him: he is great from the force of his own mental powers, and they are great, from their station in the world; in which fortune, more than powers, have placed them.”73
Virgil Stewart would never have acknowledged genuinely esteeming John Murrell. But that he saw the appeal of men like him—who took what they wanted, thrived thanks to their wits rather than their money, inverted the laws designed to protect the propertied, and undid the supposed assurance of appearances—seems undeniable. In keeping with his tendency to try and win the approval of older men who might guide his path, Stewart repeatedly spoke of his desire to be molded in Murrell’s image. Agreeing to follow Murrell into Arkansas, Stewart said that he had “no doubt but I should learn many things under so able a teacher as I expect you are.” The following day he said that he wanted Murrell to “make a man” of him and that he imagined Murrell as “the genius of some master spirit of ancient days” who was “sent as a guide to protect and defend me before all which may oppose.”74
That the John Murrell of The Western Land Pirate served as a mouthpiece for the disdain Stewart had come to feel toward everything he had seen and everyone he had met in the Southwest is most plainly indicated in the speech Stewart claimed he gave to the grand council of the mystic clan. Asked by the clansmen in Arkansas to whom Murrell introduced him “to give them his opinion concerning their negro war, and what he conceived to be their faith,” Stewart began humbly and with deference to Murrell, saying that he felt himself ill-equipped to speak “as all my ideas have been received from our honorable dictator, and I should deem it presumption in me to offer any amendments to the present deep and well arranged plans and purposes of his majesty.” But Stewart warmed to his subject, telling those gathered that he believed the members of the mystic clan to be “absolved from every other power or obligation to either God or man.” It made no sense for them to be “surrounded with every thing needful for our comfort and enjoyment” and to “stand supinely by and see others enjoy and make no provision for ourselves, because an established religion and moral custom, which we neither believe nor respect, forbids us from choosing the mode of providing.” By Stewart’s reckoning, every living creature on earth, including man, was “falling a victim to each other.” The only realistic thing to do was “live the lords of our own wills, rioting in all the luxuries which the spoils of our enemies and opposers will afford.” The world was a harsh place, and only hard-heartedness paid off. “If I live in hell,” Stewart told Murrell, “I will fight for the devil.”75
It is easy to criticize Virgil Stewart for his attitude. He never succeeded as he might have wished, but he also never put in any sustained effort that might have brought success. Instead, he expected that things would just happen for him, and he abandoned one place and one plan after another when they did not happen fast enough. He cut corners by stealing from and lying to those who otherwise liked and might have been willing to help him and then begrudged them for the odium he had brought on himself. Stewart’s response to ignominy might be explained as a product of living in a society that placed a high value on honor, but that would be too exculpatory. In truth, Stewart was a narcissist whose insecurities bred an overblown sense of his own importance and an eagerness to be appreciated that left him vulnerable to coming undone and lashing out when criticized. Such a constellation of personality traits lent itself well to the atmosphere of paranoia that ran through Stewart’s life and the pamphlet alike. In The Western Land Pirate John Murrell proclaimed that the desire for vengeance ultimately motivated his slave insurrection plot. “I look on the American people as my common enemy,” Stewart wrote that Murrell told him. “They have disgraced me, and they can do no more; my life is nothing to me, and it shall be spent as their devoted enemy.” But little in Murrell’s experience, either in reality or as detailed in the pamphlet, justified the intensity or the scope of such animosity. Virgil Stewart, on the other hand, had nothing but rancor for a nation he felt had turned its back on him.76
Stewart lacked the reflective capacity to see that many of his wounds were self-inflicted, but he was not entirely wrong about the Southwest. Economic status and identity were easily conflated, wealth did go a long way toward dictating a person’s reputation, and the affluent condescended to the impoverished and even to those of more moderate means in ways that ran against the grain of the frontier’s promise of white male equality. Moreover, Stewart saw the flimsiness and hypocrisy of the foundation on which the entire social and economic edifice of southwestern expansion rested. There was a reason why he fantasized about a wholesale slave insurrection as the greatest plot a bandit might ever engineer. All the region’s potential riches and the standing of its most prosperous people depended on slave laborers. They produced the cotton that made the land valuable. They were chattel more treasured even than cash. And their bodies underwrote the elite pomp and presumption that Stewart coveted and loathed all at once. Were the enslaved to revolt, all would be chaos, all would be worthless, and the high and mighty would be laid very, very low.77
Virgil Stewart was not well educated and gave few signs that he was particularly bright. He sold some copies of The Western Land Pirate in the spring of 1835, but if he truly thought the pamphlet would revive his reputation or that people would take it seriously, he experienced yet another letdown. In Tennessee, the editor of the Jackson Truth Teller thought Stewart’s work had a “rawhead and bloody bones character” that was “well calculated to excite popular interest and give it a wide circulation.” He hesitated to doubt Stewart’s “veracity and honest intentions,” particularly with regard to “the historical part of the pamphlet” that substantially duplicated Stewart’s testimony at John Murrell’s trial. But on the whole he thought The Western Land Pirate a badly written “miserable affair,” considered “the extraordinary disclosures made by Murrell” beyond what Stewart recounted on the witness stand to be “too incredible in themselves to be believed,” and concluded “that the leading motive of the author of this edifying history, is to speculate upon the natural love of the marvellous, which has ever characterized mankind.” Believing that “no good” could come of that, “but on the contrary much harm,” the editor felt obliged to state his “decided disapprobation of the pamphlet.”78
Others were even less kind. In Mississippi, a Vicksburg editor saw no reason to “give credit to the ‘Land Pirate.’” In Louisiana, a writer from Baton Rouge thought the pamphlet to be of a “most preposterous style” that “was of itself sufficient to destroy all pretensions to credibility.” And in Arkansas, the editor of the Gazette managed to read only “some ten or a dozen pages” before he “threw it down as a catchpenny affair and a bait to catch gulls with.” Comparing the language of the pamphlet to “that which we generally find used in gallows confessions,” he failed to see why he ought to waste his time on the rest.79
Matthew Clanton, of course, had a more personal stake in the reception of The Western Land Pirate. Accused of venality and collusion with criminals, Clanton feared that his own reputation would suffer if Stewart’s narrative went unchallenged. As significantly, Clanton had mostly stayed silent about his dealings with Stewart for nearly a year only to have Stewart defame and spread falsehoods about him. It was galling and it was infuriating. It so gratuitously compounded Stewart’s original betrayal that Clanton now saw his erstwhile friend and neighbor for the petty and malicious spirit that he was. And Clanton was not going to stand for it. In May 1835 thirty-seven men from Yalobusha County signed and published a statement in Clanton’s defense, certifying that he was “a gentleman of high standing in society, esteemed among us as an honest, correct, high-minded man, incapable of the baseness with which he is charged.” Not content to stop there, they attested that they knew Stewart too and shared “the deepest conviction that he is a base young man, whose word is entitled to no credit, entirely unworthy of the countenance and respect of honest men.” Finally, the signers revealed Stewart’s motive for vilifying Clanton, explaining that Clanton had charged Stewart “with stealing money and goods from him, while attending to his business … in the fall of 1833, the truth of which charge none of us entertain a doubt.”80
Less than a month later, in June 1835, a grand jury in Yalobusha County indicted Stewart for larceny and Clanton filed a libel suit against him. The final volley of Clanton’s counterattack, however, came in early July when he published a pamphlet of his own titled A Refutation of the Charges Made in the Western Land Pirate, against Matthew Clanton; together with an exposition of the character of Virgil A. Stewart, its author. In it Clanton described what had transpired between the two men from the moment they met until Stewart left Yalobusha County, and he enclosed affidavits from George Saunders and others supporting his version of events. He systematically dismantled the claims Stewart levied against him in The Western Land Pirate by pointing out inconsistencies and impossibilities, accused Stewart of trying “to raise his character … by blackening mine,” and absolutely eviscerated Stewart personally.81
Clanton called Stewart a “rogue,” a “calumniator,” and a “liar.” He asserted that “a man of his character would just as soon say one thing as another,” claimed that in Yalobusha he had “heard of no man base enough to avow himself” Stewart’s friend, and suggested that if Stewart really believed the things he wrote, he “ought to be sent to a mad house.” Clanton dared Stewart to sue him for slander if he took exception to his charges or assertions and openly doubted Stewart’s courage to do so. In the end, Clanton regretted ever having pitied Stewart. With hindsight, he wrote, he should have given Stewart the “good flogging” he deserved. Now he hoped only that Stewart might “go forth into the great desert of human infamy, to perish and die by the stench created by his own offences.”82
Clanton was right that Stewart lacked the nerve to file a lawsuit against him, but after being granted a change of venue for his larceny trial because of the “prejudice that exists against him in the public mind” in Yalobusha, Stewart did sue for libel sixteen of the men who signed the statement supporting Clanton. Then he wrote a letter “to the public” that appeared in several newspapers conceding that he could “never expect to obtain” hard evidence proving that Murrell’s clansmen had bribed Clanton but asking his “fellow-citizens of the South” to withhold judgment while he marshaled circumstantial evidence that would show he was telling the truth.83
In a different place and at a different time, the entire affair might have come to nothing. Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet and Matthew Clanton’s reply might have been a peculiar but ultimately insignificant exchange involving two men at loggerheads about who took what from whom, who told the truth, who lied, and whose character warranted a reputation for soundness. John Murrell might have faded from the memory of all except the most devoted chroniclers of local history and gone down as a small-time legend men told stories about in their dotage. But somewhere in the Southwest there were people who believed Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet. They believed John Murrell’s men had not abandoned their plan for inciting a slave rebellion, and they believed they would be under siege at any moment. As Stewart started gathering materials to sustain himself yet again before a skeptical audience, even he never would have guessed that Murrell was about to enter the ranks of the most famous outlaws in pre–Civil War America, or that The Western Land Pirate was about to catalyze one of the deadliest incidents of extralegal violence and mass hysteria the antebellum South would ever see.