Perhaps no man in American History achieved more in terms of organized crime before the 20th century than John Murrell. At the time he and his efforts created the most fear in a dozen states; fear of slave revolt and fear of subversive activity on a scale never before achieved by land or river pirates, Indians or any group of marauders in American history. His plans were elaborate and backed by henchmen aplenty to carry them out. For years the trees in the South were filled with men hung for their part in John Murrell’s fabulous December 25, 1835 scheme to incite slave revolt and take over of the governments of several states. His life as a murderer and robber in a dozen Southern and Mid Atlantic states is only eclipsed by the size of his organization of crime and mayhem and the scale of his endeavors.
Though much of Murrell’s true experience is muddled in legend or even mythology and many to this day claim it so much nonsense, the fact remains he produced a considerable legal and even vigilante reaction in nearly every city in the South in 1836. At a time when abolitionism was beginning to make some headway, but also on the heals of several slave revolts in the West Indies and Virginia, Murrel’s plan caused the greatest backlash and fear of slaves to date.
In many ways the great fear of Southern planters may have been expressed by secession and fomented by memories of Murrell.
John Anderson Murrell was born in 1804 in either Lunenberg, Virginia or Middle Tennessee, sources differ in opinion, but moved early to Williamson County, Tennessee. His father was an itinerant Presbyterian preacher and his mother, according to sources was a whore who taught john and brother William to steal (Kirk 2002). At age 19 Murrell was fined for “riot” and 2 years later for gambling. In 1826 he was convicted of horse theft twice, receiving a one year sentence in prison.
In his Historic Blue Grass Line, Douglas Anderson tells of Murrell having been tried in Nashville on a change of venue, on May 25, 1825, on the charge of having stolen a horse from a widow in WilliamsonCounty. The verdict and judgment was that Murrell should serve twelve months' imprisonment; be given thirty lashes on his bare back at the public whipping post; that he should sit two hours in the pillory on each of three successive days; be branded on the left thumb with the letters H. T. in the presence of the Court, and be rendered infamous.
Mr. Anderson describes the branding from the statement of an eye-witness as follows: At the direction of the sheriff Murrell placed his hand on the railing around the judge's bench. With a piece of rope Horton then bound Murrell's hand to the railing. A negro brought a tinner's stove and placed it beside the sheriff. Horton took from the stove the branding iron, glanced at it, found it red hot, and put it on Murrell's thumb. The skin fried like meat. Horton held the iron on Murrell's hand until the smoke rose two feet. Then the iron was removed. Murrell stood the ordeal without flinching. When his hand was released he calmly tied a handkerchief around it and went back to the jail ( Grimstead, 1998: 320-21).
Much of John Murrell’s life was exposed when a co conspirator turned informant, Virgil Stewart wrote a pamphlet, detailing Murrell's life and the many crimes he was involved in. Much of it is reminiscent of the Harps Brothers or even Thomas Hair and reads like a modern day crime spree that never seemed to end. One small portion of it represented only a single trip to Georgia, but left 11 people robbed, dead or both.
I commenced traveling and making acquaintances among the speculators that I could. I went from New Orleans to Cincinnati, and from there I visited Lexington, in Kentucky. I found a speculator about 4 miles from Newport, who furnished me with a fine horse the second night after I arrived at his house. I went from Lexington to Richmond, in Virginia, and from there I visited Charleston, in the state of South Carolina; and from thence to Milledgeville, by way of Savannah and Augusta, in the State of Georgia. I made my way from Milledgeville to WilliamsonCounty, the old stomping ground. I robbed eleven men but I preached some fine sermons, and scattered some counterfeit United States paper among my brethren ( Howard, 1836: 58, 59).
Perhaps one of the most famous Murrell stories is the robbery of a South Carolinian in the Cumberland area of Kentucky. Here, Murrell was traveling on horseback with his most notable associate in crime, Daniel Crenshaw of Tennessee. They met up with a man from South Carolina and decide to waylay and rob him. The story is recounted by Mark Twain in his Life on the Mississippi **(**chapter 29); Robert Coates’ The Outlaw Years (1930) and H.R. Howard’s History of Virgil A. Stewart (1836), which continues the story:
My self and a fellow by the name of Crenshaw gathered four good horses, and started for Georgia. We got in company with a young South Carolinian just before we reached CumberlandMountain, and Crenshaw soon knew all about his business. He had been to Tennessee to buy a drove of hogs, but when he got there pork was dearer than he had calculated, and he declined purchasing. We concluded he was a prize. Crenshaw winked at me; I understood his idea. Crenshaw had traveled the road before, but I never had; we had traveled several miles on the mountain, when we passed near a great precipice; just before we passed it, Crenshaw asked me for my whip, which had a pound of lead in the butt; I handed it to him, and he rode up by the side of the South Carolinian, and gave him a blow on the side of the head, and tumbled him from his horse; we lit from our horses and fingered his pockets; we got twelve hundred and sixty-two dollars. Crenshaw said he knew of a place to hide him, and gathered him under the arms, and I by his feet, and conveyed him to a deep crevice in the brow of the precipice, and tumbled him into it; he went out of sight. We then tumbled in his saddle, and took his horse with us, which was worth two hundred dollars. We turned our course for South Alabama, and sold our horses for a good price. We frolicked for a week or more, and were the highest larks you ever saw. We commenced sporting and gambling, and lost every cent of our money (64, 65).
In yet another story, the nature of Murrell’s clan and its association with law enforcement and other higher ups in society is that of the posse ambushed by his men along the Mississippi River:
A most atrocious and diabolical wholesale murder and robbery had been committed on the Arkansas side. The crew of a flatboat had been murdered in cold blood, disemboweled, and thrown in the river, and the boat-stores appropriated among the perpetrators of the foul deed. The Murrell Clan was charged with the inhuman and devilish act. Public meetings were called in different parts of the country to devise means to rid the country and clear the woods of the Clan, and to bring to immediate; punishment the murderers of the flatboat men. In Covington a campaign was formed to that end, under the command of Maj. Hockley and Grandville D. Searcey, and one, also formed in Randolph, under the command of Colonel Orville Shelby. A flatboat, suited to the purpose, was procured, and the expedition consisting of some eighty or an hundred men, well armed, with several day's rations, floated out from Randolph, and down to the landing where wholesale murder had been committed. Their place of destination was ShawneeVillage, some six or more miles from the Mississippi. Where the sheriff of the county resided. They were first to require of the sheriff to put the offenders under arrest and turn them over to be dealt with according to law. To the ShawneeVillage the expedition moved in single file, along a tortuous trail through the thick cane and jungle, until within a few miles of the village, when a shrill whistle at the head of the column startled the whole line. Answered by the sharp click! click! click! of the cocking of the rifles in the hands of Clansmen. In ambush, to the right flank of the moving file, and within less than a dozen yards.
_ The chief of the Clan stepped out at the head of the expedition, and in a stentorian voice commanded the expedition to halt, saying:_
"We have man for man; move forward another step and a rifle bullet will be sent through every man under your command."
A parley was had, when more than man for man of the Clansmen rose from their hiding places in the thick cane, with their guns at present. The expedition had fallen into a trap; the Clansmen had not been idle in finding out the movements against them across the river. Doubtless many of them had been in attendance at the meetings held for the purpose of their destruction. The movement had been a rash one, and nothing was left to be done but to adopt the axiom that "prudence is the better part of valor." The leaders of the expedition were permitted to communicate with the sheriff, who promised to do what he could in having the offenders brought to justice; but alas for Arkansas and justice! The Sheriff himself was thought to be in sympathy with the Clan. And law was in the hands of the Clansmen. The expedition retraced their steps. Had it not been so formidable and well known by the Clansmen, every member of it would have found his grave in the Arkansas swamp." (Quoted from Kirk, 2002: and Botkin, p. 214)
John’s brother William was listed as a druggist, living in Cincinnati, while another brother lived in Sumter, South Carolina. Most of Murrell’s life and history were documented and published in 1835 by Virgil Stewart, A Lawrenceville, Georgia man who infiltrated Murrell’s gang, as he says, to learn the whereabouts of three slaves stolen from Parson John Henning. Stewart claimed to have taken notes from Murrell’s own trailside confessions to murder, horse theft and slave stealing. In 1835 Stewart published A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, the GreatWesternLand Pirate (1835, Cincinnati). Here Stewart outlined a very detailed plan for slave insurrection the burning and taking of towns and the robbery of many by a well-organized “mystic clan” of Murrell followers in a dozen states.
Stewart’s Pamphlet, deemed by many as fiction, or even a response to a growing abolitionist movement, was well received in the south and created a great panic among slave owners and the public alike. Fears of a slave revolt had been fueled by the Stono revolt in the West Indies, Nat Turner and a recent affair in Virginia in 1832. Stewart described some of the particulars of the clan and their plan:
The clan are all not of the same grit; there are two classes. The first class keep all their designs and the extent of their plans to themselves. For this reason all who would be willing to join us are not capable of managing our designs and there would be a danger of their making disclosures that would lead to our destruction of our designs before they were perfected. This Class is what we call the Grand Council.
The second class are those whom we trust with nothing except that which they are immediately concerned with. We have them to do what we are not willing to do ourselves. They always stand between us and danger. For a few dollars we can get one of them to run a Negro or a fine horse to some place where we can go and take possession of it without any danger: and there is no danger in this fellow then; for he has become the offender, and of course he is bound to secrecy. This class is what we term the Strikers. We have about 400 of the Grand Council and near six hundred and fifty strikers (116)...
The Grand Council is made up of citizens from a number of states: 61 from Tennessee; 47 from Mississippi; 47 from Arkansas; 25 from Kentucky; 27 from Missouri; 28 from Alabama; 33 from Georgia; 35 South Carolina; 31 from North Carolina; 21 from Virginia; 27 from Maryland; 16 from Florida; 31 from Louisiana and 18 “at large” members. The clan was mixed with members of another group of discounted individuals known as “steam doctors”. These quacks had been scamming the American public for years over the cures of disease they associated with using steam. In 1829, the Ohio State Medical Society excommunicated one Dr. Shang and all of his adherents in what they termed the “Thompsonian plan” of healing and the “steam Confederation” that followed it. Two of the first leaders of the Council were Cotton and Saunders of Mississippi, both “steam doctors “ and “Thompsonian Empirics”:
July 4th, 1835 Confession of Joshua Cotton to authorities in Mississippi:
I acknowledge my guilt and I was one of the principal men in bringing about the conspiracy. I am one of the Murrell clan, a member of what we called the Grand Council. I counseled with them twice, once near Columbus, this Spring and another time on an island in the Mississippi River. Our object in undertaking to excite the Negroes to rebellion, was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder. I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet. Blake’s boy Peter had his duty Assigned him, which was, to let such negroes into the secret as he could trust, generally the most daring scoundrels; the Negroes on most all the large plantations knew of it; and from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the fourth of July, and it would have been tried tonight ( and perhaps may yet) but for the detection of our plans (247-48).
One of Murrell’s conspirators was already in jail in Mississippi awaiting execution. Alonzo Phelps was a notorious killer and highwayman on the Natchez Trace. Once implicated, Phelps requested the Governor give him time to write his memoirs, also claiming he had planned to break jail and join the insurrection Murrell had planned. Others began confessing, like William Earle, before a Justice of the Peace:
My brother John told me there was going to be a rising of the Negroes; and Boyd said to me about the 12th of June, we can live without work; there was to be a rising of Negroes of Negroes on the fourth of July, and Cotton and Saunders were to be captains; that he was to go to Natchez with his company. Boyd and Saunders told me the same one day, and said that men by the names of Lofton and Donnely were engaging Negroes to enter into the conspiracy (257)…
It was by no means safe for Stewart to make all the accusations covered in his pamphlet. Many of the Council and some of the strikers were powerful men in their states. Many attempts were made on Murrell’s life while he was imprisoned and Stewart spent the rest of his life looking over his shoulder for men like Matthew Clanton and Isham Medford who actually wrote a pamphlet opposing Stewart’s story. There was considerable fertile ground for discounting the revelation as sensationalism, anti-abolitionist propaganda or complete mythology. Many in the Northeast considered the mass justice which followed as “more lynchings down south” (Natchez C. & J.: 3:3:1837).
Committees were formed in the states involved to deal with the conspirators. Trials were held and both whites and Negroes were executed by hanging. Those included:
…The list of white men executed on confession, or negro testimony, or circumstantial evidence, were Joshua Cotton, a steam doctor from Tennessee, who made a confession that he was one of the grand council of Murel's gang, and that the statements of Stewart's book were correct; William Saunders, also of Tennessee, a friend of Cotton's; Albe Dean, a Mississippian of two years' residence from Connecticut, who was hung on the word of Cotton and Saunders; A. L. Donovan, of Maysville KY who was apparently a contraband trader with the negroes, and was accused of being an abolitionist; Ruel Blake, implicated by Cotton; Lee Smith of Hinds County, from Tennessee, implicated by Cotton; William Benson, who had worked for Blake; William Earle, of Warren County, being taken committed suicide; John Earle, who made a confession was turned over to the committee at Vicksburg…(Webb, 1922: 254).
Many Northerners as well as Southerners, moved by the reaction and panic in the wake of Murrell’s exposition, recalled the days of “regulators” and speedy justice in the back country of America in the 1700s. The Jackson Freetrader of August, 1836 noted:
Another bloody affray, is a sound which often greets our ears. The affair at Vicksburg, the affair at Manchester, the affair at Rodney, other places, and lastly a most horrid affair at Fayette, have followed each other in quick succession, as to make every friend to law and order shudder, lest an entire destruction of rational liberty should be the consequence of these repeated violations of law.
Most Southerners hailed Stewart as a brave defender of America’s interests. He was welcomed as a hero by the Mississippi Legislature; the New Orleans City Council republished his pamphlet, noting its truth “cannot now be denied”; The Legislature of South Carolina voted Stewart a reward for his services; and most newspapers in the South gave the whole affair intense and favorable coverage. The Story saturated literature in America for a hundred years, which is remarkable since most Americans today have never heard of John Anderson Murrell.
Murrell, himself was arrested and according to 1841-42 prison records in the Tennessee archives, sentenced to 10 years for slave harboring and reported to jail on august 17, 1834. The Tennessee Democrat on November 24, 1844 announced Murrell’s release from prison in April, 1844 and his death in November. He was buried at a 45 degree angle from East west according to some sources and was disinterred soon after the ceremony and his head cut off and taken. (Kirk, 2002). At this point the mythology of John Murrell began to form. As stated above Northerners believe Murrell’s legend was a response to Abolitionism, while Southerners swear to his impact and they responded with many hangings, litigation and vigilante activity.
Murrell’s ubiquitous nature is also in question…he is reported to have operated in a dozen states and, after becoming a popular subject, many new places are added to the list:
Even more in debate is the location of his hideout and operations base. Once again, Jackson or Madison County are bandied about, but other places include Natchez, Mississippi in an odd depression on a bluff called Devil's Punch Bowl, Tunica County, Mississippi, the Neutral Ground in Louisiana, and even the tiny Island 37, part of Tipton County, Tennessee. One record, a genealogical note, even places him as far east as Georgia; in fact Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett makes it clear there was a lawless district in that town named for him, "Murrell's Row" in the 1840s. Because Murrell has come to symbolize Natchez Trace lawlessness in the antebellum period, it's understandable that his "hideouts" (whether there were any hideouts or not) have been said to have been located at most of the well-known areas of particular lawlessness along the Natchez Trace (State master Ebcyclopedia).
An obituary for Virgil Stewart’s nephew states “…One of their hangouts in Georgia was at Jug Tavern, now Winder, county seat of BartowCounty(Georgia)…” The history of Forsyth County, Georgia includes a curious section on the comings and goings of the Murrelites to and from the Keyes House. Interestingly, the history states Murrell used the Woolly’s Ford hideout and operated under the name Guy Rivers ”…An EtowahRiver cave, utilized for clandestine meetings of the Murrell gang, was known as Guy Rivers’ cave…(Bramblett, 2002: 26).” The property was later developed into a mill complex in 1855 and now lies beneath Lake Lanier, Atlanta’s water supply. How Murrel became friends with the Wooly’s at Keyhole House is not explained.
Grimstead (1998: 149) is another who believes Murrell’s life is overexaggerated. He points out Stewarts claim to have taken notes with nothing but a needle and his saddle, or pants or portmanteau to make depressions on is highly unlikely. How he recalled 450 names given him is beyond belief. Furthermore, Stewart did not receive the formal education one would associate with a writer, growing up without means. The pamphlet was published under a pseudonym, Walton, not Stewart and the whole story embellished by such sensationalist media as the Police Gazette. Grimstead notes even Governor John Claiborn had his doubts about all of it: referring to the affairs as “…one of the most extraordinary and lamentable hallucinations of our time…”
Woodiwiss (2001: 56) mentions Murrells head being displayed at fairs for 10 cents a look.Other myths include the lone pine tree: Murrellites would plant a single pine in the front yard to indicate a safe haven for any gang member (Rascoe, 2004: 50). Finally, John Murrell’s capture even has its mythology, Campbell (2002), recounts the tale of the Nevel family who claimed Murrel stopped at their house for breakfast and was captured there at Providence Plantation near Tchula, Mississippi. Why the reward was not taken for the capture isn’t mentioned in his sources.
Disregarding the nay sayers, Southerners took Murrell’s threat as serious. Even Abraham Lincoln had something to say about the whole affair in a speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838:
In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers: a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring States, going thither on business, were, in many instances, subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every roadside; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.
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