John A. Murrell, a thief and counterfeiter, spent much of his short life in prison and was a notorious outlaw in antebellum Middle Tennessee. In 1844 he died in Pikeville at the age of thirty-eight, shortly after completing nine years hard labor for slave stealing.
Murrell acquired a reputation as a criminal mastermind soon after his imprisonment. In 1835 a small pamphlet appeared which purported to be Murrell’s life story as he himself had revealed it to Virgil A. Stewart (the chief witness against Murrell). Murrell’s “confessions” not only described the murderous career of a monster with a grudge against the human race, but also purported to reveal the existence of a vast conspiracy, the aim of which was to bring about a region-wide slave insurrection. The pamphlet would have been consigned to richly deserved oblivion had not certain white residents of Madison County, Mississippi, believed Stewart’s outrageous story. Slaves were questioned near Livingston, the county seat, and under torture they revealed the existence of the conspiracy. Fear spread rapidly through the other counties of western Mississippi. White men, mostly outsiders and strangers believed to be members of the imprisoned Murrell’s band, were rounded up. The hangings and whippings began, though with a semblance of legality, as committees of safety sprang up and handed down sentences. Over fifty white men and an unknown number of blacks (mostly freemen) were either hanged or savagely whipped and banished. The entire episode was inspired by the depraved Stewart’s imaginary tale.