Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Independence Day, 1835: The John A. Murrell Conspiracy and the Lynching of the Vicksburg Gamblers in Literature

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Independence Day, 1835: The John A. Murrell Conspiracy and the Lynching of the Vicksburg Gamblers in Literature

Article excerpt

   But this state of the public mind was characteristic of the period
   of time to which I now refer. It was contemporaneous with the
   Murrell excitement.... When the yellow fever prevails as an
   epidemic, every other disease seems inclined to run into it,
   and assume its type. So, during the Murrell excitement, every
   crime was connected with it. (169)

   - Ibredix, 1851

   Now the bees know how to sarve out such chaps, for they have their
   drones too. Well they reckon its no fun, a making of honey all
   summer, for these idle critters to eat all winter - so they give
   'em Lynch Law. They have a regular built mob of
   citizens, and string up the drones like the Vixburg gamblers. (34)

   - Thomas Chandler Haliburton, 1836

1835 HAS LONG BEEN RENOWNED AS AN EXTRAORDINARY YEAR FOR THE Mississippi, not least because November witnessed the birth of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Events in the summer had already ensured that Independence Day, 1835, would enjoy a long afterlife in memory. Violence spread along the river. In Madison County, Mississippi, particularly the towns of Beattie's Bluff and Livingston, paranoid terror gripped the population. It was widely believed that a criminal conspiracy masterminded by the (already incarcerated) outlaw John A. Murrell was about to result in a slave rebellion, timed to coincide with the upcoming national holiday. From the end of June to the middle of July, mob violence and vigilante justice held sway, resulting in "several dozen" deaths and lynchings (Penick 3). Itinerant whites--primarily steam doctors--were hanged alongside suspected slaves. As the Columbus (Miss.) Democratic Press described Murrell's plot, "A more diabolical attempt--a deeper laid scheme of villainy, was never brought to light.... White men ... have, with a fiend like madness, instigated the ignorant and generally contented African, to rise"(Niles' Weekly Register, August 8, 1835, 403).

In Vicksburg, tensions between the town and its itinerant community of gamblers were about to ignite. It began with a brawl, at the Fourth of July celebration hosted by the Vicksburg militia, between some of its members and a gambler (or a known associate of gamblers), Francis Cabler. After tarring and feathering Cabler, the militia resolved upon the formation of an Anti-Gambling Committee. Gamblers were given twenty-four hours to leave town. After the allotted period of time had passed, the militia and a civilian mob descended upon the "Kangaroos," the infamous waterfront district that took its name from a famous gambling-house that had burned down the year before. Breaking up roulette wheels and faro tables as they went, the militia found a group of individuals ensconced in Alfred North's coffee house. After an exchange of shots the militia stormed the building. One of its members, Dr. Hugh Bodley, was shot dead. Five men--labeled as gamblers--were seized and promptly hanged. Other river towns followed suit, exiling, though not executing, their own gambling communities. The Louisville Advertiserannounced that the "proceedings at Vicksburg have kindled a spirit throughout the lower country which is breaking forth at every point, and obliging the blackleg fraternity to make their escape with all haste" (Niles" Weekly Register, August 8, 1835, 401).

Connected by time and geography, the two events were conflated almost immediately. They have been linked together, ideologically and imaginatively, ever since. Without delay, the Madison County lynchers commended their colleagues in Vicksburg for "arresting and speedily bringing to condign punishment, those inhuman monsters who have been engaged in plotting and maturing such diabolical measures for the destruction of the lives of the innocent and virtuous" (Penick 147). In the aftermath, the terms "Murrell," "gambler," and "abolitionist" became essentially interchangeable. The Mississippian, for example, called on the army to clear the Arkansas morass, the alleged home of Murrell's headquarters, of "gamblers and abolitionists from the lower country" (Penick 155). …

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