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More John Murrell Mythology: the Posse Ambush

Shawnee village, Arkansas


Compare these two stories about John Murrell and his dealings with a posse, as told from two different sources. See if they don't sound to you like the same story, one embellished or the other. The first is from  Reverend Devil:  Master Criminal of the Old South , by Ross Phares, 1941 (and thanks to Leslie Thomas of Gatota).

(William) Long and his friends were indignant as well as embarrassed.  (the courts had ruled in the case of Murrell stealing Long's slaves that Murrell would be sentenced to serve Long for five years as his slave) It was clear that Murrell had outwitted them.  Many considered the joke on Long.  Believing that they could do nothing with him at law, a group formed a company which they called Captain Slick’s Company, and advertised for all honest men to meet at a certain school house to bind themselves against him (Murrell). 

Careful plans were laid.  Rules and laws for the government of the company were made.  Murrell was declared a menace to society.  He must be done away with, and no pains were spared in preparing to do it.  They would deal with him this time in a way where his smart law tricks could do him no good.

On a certain night, which had been announced, the company of over two dozen men came marching up to the Murrell’s house, with their guns flashing.  It was to be the last of the slick negro-stealer.

But Murrell had read the notices of Slick’s Company, and he had friends the same as Long.  Eighteen were with him on that night.  And they were well supplied with guns and ammunition.  The dwelling and outbuildings had been prepared with portholes, and men were stationed about in them, organized if under some skilled general’s orders.  Men were stationed in different buildings so as to command a fair fire to rake the door of the dwelling.

And so Long and his men came creeping on in the silence of the night with no voice to warn them of what lay ahead.  But before reaching the house, they discovered the musket barrels point out at them from the building with deadly aim.  They stood frozen in their tracks for a moment.  Their aggressive rage turned suddenly into tremulous fear.  They were afraid to huddle together for a conference.  Any move might be fatal.  Without any command to retreat, they turned and made as inconspicuous an exit as possible.  They decided that the safest thing to do was to let Murrell alone.  Murrell had told his friends around him that law would uphold a man in the protection of his home.  Perhaps it would.  Doubtless Murrell knew. 

The second version is from BA Botkin, ed., Treasury of Mississippi River Folklore, Crown Publishing: New York, 1955, page 214 as seen in Kirk 2004.


A most atrocious and diabolical wholesale murder and robbery had been committed on theArkansas 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 wasShawnee Village, 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 Shawnee Village 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)



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