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A Day Away: Pikeville, Tennessee: Rest in Pieces

By Mike Steely

John Murrell died a young man but in his brief lifetime he had ventured across Tennessee and Kentucky and raised a lot of fear, murdered a few folks, stolen from many others, and left his stamp on our history and legends.

Murrell was born about 1806, some say in Virginia and some say in middle Tennessee. He was said to have started his “career” at Cumberland Gap, waylaying travelers there and stealing their money and goods. For a while Cudjo’s Caverns there was known as “Murrell’s Cave.” From there he moved up to the Ohio River and put a gang together, operating out of Red Banks and Diamond Island. From there his gang moved to Cave In Rock, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky.

Murrell then moved and spent several years operating along the Natchez Trace, robbing, killing, and stealing slaves. Then he hatched an odd idea for the time.

The plan was to foster a Slave Revolt in the south.  He would encourage slaves to escape and join his “Mystic Clan” and gain their freedom. He would start in New Orleans and, by doing so, would become the ruler of a huge crime ring and king of that city. But his plans were found out, many of his followers were hunted and killed, and Murrell himself was eventually caught and convicted of stealing a slave.

During his criminal lifetime Murrell “rubbed shoulders” with the likes of fellow outlaws Sam Mason, The Harpe Brothers, Harry Crenshaw and many more. His deadly deeds were exposed and blown way out of reality, in a “dime” novel prior to his death. His fame was recalled by Mark Twain as Huck and Tom looked for “Murel’s Treasure.”  Several movies were made about him and some actually place him well beyond his time of death in the Civil War.

He died in 1844 atop the Cumberland Mountains near Pikeville. Although near his time of death he professed his faith and declared he would no longer be an outlaw, Murrell was such a legend that he would not rest easy in his grave.

The “reformed” outlaw lived as a blacksmith near Pikeville and was buried in the Smyrna Cemetery, in Bledsoe County. He did not stay buried very long. Someone, legend says two doctors, dug him up and took body parts, including his head. Some say he was reburied there and others say his body was taken, in pieces, and buried at unknown spots.  It is said you can see Murrell’s thumb at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

Cave In Rock is a little Illinois town just across the river a few miles north of Marion, Ky. You can get there by going through Nashville and north off Interstate 24 to Highway 641 and following it to Highway 91. The Cave In Rock Ferry, one of seven in Kentucky, goes back and forth about every 20 minutes and you can see the cave from the Kentucky side. There’s only about 640 people who live there and the village is a step in the past. The Cave In Rock State Park is located above the cave.

Or you can drive over to the Pikeville area and see if you can find Murrell’s grave.

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