A Young Man of Splendid Abilities

ONE WINTER AFTERNOON in the mid-1830s, two men met on a deserted Tennessee road near the Mississippi. One was a young man who said he was looking for a lost horse. The other, who was several years older, said he was a commercial traveler on his way to the ferry to cross into Arkansas. After a brief conversation, the older man offered to delay his journey and help the young stranger in his search.

To an onlooker it would have all seemed quite innocuous. But this was the river valley: neither man was what he appeared to be. In fact, both were taking part in an elaborate masquerade. The exact nature of this masquerade wasn’t clear then, and it may not be clear even now—but one thing about it can be said for sure: no other such meeting by the Mississippi has ever stirred up anywhere near as much trouble.

The men spent the rest of the day meandering through the winter landscape in the general direction of the ferry. All the while, they were engaging in the sort of idle chatter that American men have always gone in for when at loose ends: blunt, earthbound spitballing about the sorry state of the country. “What is it that constitutes character, popularity, and power in the United States?” the older man asked at one point. The answer was obvious: “Sir, it is property; strip a man of his property in this country, and he is a ruined man indeed—you see his friends forsake him; and he may have been raised in the highest circles of society, and yet he is neglected and treated with contempt. Sir, my doctrine is, let the hardest fend off.”

As the two men ambled on, their talk drifted to the exploits of a celebrated local horse thief and slave stealer named John Murrell. With typical bravado and cynicism, the men agreed that Murrell was a true hero of the age: admirable for his courage, his daring, his cleverness, his rebellious spirit. The young man was so caught up in enthusiasm that he compared Murrell favorably with Alexander the Great and Andrew Jackson—they were “little and inconsiderate” next to him, since “he is great from the force of his mental powers, and they are great from their station in the world.”

That was when the older man confessed: he himself was Murrell.

The young man was astounded. “Is it possible,” he asked, “that I have the pleasure of standing before the illustrious personage of whom I have heard so many noble feats, and whose dexterity and skill in performance are unrivalled by any the world has ever produced before him: is it a dream or is it reality? I can scarce believe that it is a man in real life who stands before me!”

Murrell, flattered and impressed by the young man’s attitude, invited him to forget about the missing horse and cross the Mississippi with him to Arkansas, where he had “a thousand friends.” The young man accepted at once. He introduced himself as Arthur Hughes, and never mentioned the horse again. But this was hardly an act of neglect. The horse didn’t exist, nor, for that matter, did Hughes—the young man, whose real name was Virgil Stewart, had made up the story as a way of introducing himself to Murrell. He had in fact been hired by one of Murrell’s victims to track him down and bring him to justice.

Murrell suspected nothing. He was so taken by Stewart that, as they went on together toward the ferry, he launched into a detailed account of his life and past crimes. He told how he was instructed in villainy by his mother; how by the age of sixteen he’d become so expert a sharper that he could walk into a clothing store, order a new suit, and have it charged to the son of the richest man in town. He’d since become a master of disguise who could pass himself off as both a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister (he was especially good at the falling exercise). But his most lucrative career was as a slave stealer. He claimed that “fifteen minutes are all I want to decoy the best of negroes from the best of masters.” Some slaves he would trick into throwing in with him; he would sell the slave to somebody else, and the slave would escape again. Sometimes they did this five or six times. He would promise the slave a share of the profits—but sooner or later would kill him instead, bury him in the swamps, and keep all the money for himself.

Several times in the course of this confession, Murrell intimated that he had a larger design. It took very little coaxing on Stewart’s part for him to reveal it. For many years, Murrell said, he had been engaged in a vast and secret project to organize all the thieves, murderers, and pirates in the river valley into one overarching criminal organization, which he called the Mystic Clan. The clan had two major components. The large outer circle of around a thousand men, called the Strikers, consisted of conventional lawbreakers who thought the purpose of the clan was simply to commit crimes more efficiently. Only the inner circle of four hundred men, called the High Council, knew the clan’s true purpose: to foment a slave insurrection throughout the South. Even as Murrell and Stewart talked, this plan was moving toward the crisis point—the moment when, Murrell said, “every state and section of the country where there are any negroes, intend to rebel and slay all the whites they can.”

The insurrection had been surprisingly easy to set up. It relied on Murrell’s skill at tricking slaves into betraying their masters. He laid out the technique in detail to Stewart. “We do not go to every negro we see, and tell him the slaves intend to rebel,” he cautioned. Instead the clan had to find “the most vicious and wicked-disposed ones on large farms.” The first step was to “poison their minds by telling them how they are mistreated, and that they are entitled to their freedom as much as their masters, and that all the wealth of the country is the proceeds of the black people’s labor.” Next, lessons from current events: “We tell them that all Europe has abandoned slavery, and that the West Indies are all free; and that they got their freedom by rebelling a few times and slaughtering the whites.” From there it was a quick route to the ultimate prize: “If they will follow the example of the West India negroes, they will obtain their liberty, and become as much respected as if they were white; and that they can marry white women when they are all put on a level.” And to seal the deal, they were told they had the backing of the world at large: “We get them to believe that most people are in favor of their being free, and that the free states in the United States would not interfere with the negroes if they were to butcher every white man in the slave-holding states.”

Of course, Murrell was careful to stress, this was all nonsense. He didn’t believe in abolitionism at all. The slave uprising was only a diversion. His real motive was larceny. In the midst of the chaos, the Mystic Clan was going to loot simultaneously all the banks in the slave states. “We have set on the 25th December, 1835, for the time to commence our operations,” he told Stewart. “We design having our companies so stationed over the country, in the vicinity of the banks and large cities, so that when the negroes commence their carnage and slaughter, we will have detachments to fire the towns and rob the banks while all is in confusion and dismay.”

It was a dizzying and nightmarish prospect for Stewart. But that was not the worst of it. As Stewart listened, he began to realize that there was something much darker at work in Murrell’s soul than greed. He was really a visionary. His ultimate motive was a kind of satanic spite. As he put it to Stewart: “I will have the pleasure and honor of seeing and knowing that my management has glutted the earth with more human gore, and destroyed more property, than any other robber who has ever lived in America, or the known world. I look on the American people as my common enemy. They have disgraced me, and they can do no more; my life is nothing to me, and it shall be spent as their devoted enemy.”

At the end of this monologue, Murrell invited Stewart to join with him in the Mystic Clan. As a sign of good faith, he offered to supply Stewart with a complete list of the clan’s membership, both the Strikers and the High Council, including addresses. “I consider you a young man of splendid abilities,” he declared. “Sir, these are my feelings and sentiments towards you.”

This story is told in a pamphlet, first published early in 1835, that caused a tremendous stir in the lower river valley. The pamphlet’s full title is A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, the Great Western Land Pirate; Together with His System of Villany, and Plan of Exciting a Negro Rebellion, Also a Catalogue of the Names of Four Hundred and Fifty-five of His Mystic Clan Fellows and Followers, and a Statement of Their Efforts for the Destruction of Virgil A. Stewart, the Young Man Who Detected Him; to Which Is Added a Biographical Sketch of V. A. Stewart, by Augustus Q. Walton. Several things about it are peculiar. There is the putative author, for instance: Augustus Q. Walton is a name otherwise unknown to literary history. There is the style, which mixes self-consciously poetic prose (“It began to grow late in the evening, and the sun shone dimly as it was sinking below the western horizon, and reflected a beautifully dim light from the sleet which shielded the lofty young timber of Poplar Creek bottom”) with crude phonetic spellings (“Murel” for “Murrell,” “Hues” for “Hughes”). And then, of course, there is the very odd story it’s telling.

The story does go on. Murrell and Stewart cross the Mississippi together. Murrell presents the young man to the High Council, Stewart makes a long extempore speech that immediately convinces the council that he is a kindred spirit, and they welcome him into their most secret deliberations. (A sample of the speech: “The conspiracy of four hundred Americans, in this morass of the Mississippi river, will glean the southern and western bank, destroy their cities, and slaughter their enemies.”) Stewart then manages to make his getaway, carrying enough proof with him to have Murrell arrested, convicted, and sentenced to the penitentiary.

For a modern reader, there isn’t much question about how to assess all this. It’s flagrantly absurd. It’s absurd not simply because of the wooden speechifying of the characters or the ridiculous melodrama of the action; there isn’t anything about the basic situation that seems even remotely plausible. How could Murrell have concocted such an enormous conspiracy, and how could he have kept it so secret? And why, if he had done all this, would he casually confess it to a total stranger—and then offer to supply the stranger with the names and addresses of every one of the conspirators?

But these weren’t doubts that troubled the original audience. People then had a different standard for judging the truth of what they read. Newspaper stories, and even formal histories, routinely recorded people making impossibly high-flown speeches to each other at moments of dramatic crisis and revealing all their dread secrets in ornate soliloquies. The overall effect was somewhere between Gothic melodrama and the oratory of Cicero. Readers did not find it necessarily implausible. They would have found a modern reader’s objections to be niggling and irrelevant. Even if Stewart’s account wasn’t a naturalistic rendering of how people actually behave, that didn’t mean the underlying substance wasn’t, in all the most important senses, true.

And besides, there were many things about the pamphlet that were already known to be true. There really was a man named John Murrell (or possibly Murel, as the pamphlet spelled it, or Murrel, as some later writers favored) who had been put on trial in Tennessee for slave stealing. He had been convicted, and in the spring of 1835 he was in a Tennessee penitentiary. Virgil Stewart was also a real person, and it was a matter of public record that he had been a witness against Murrell at the trial. And then, too, there was that list Murrell had promised Stewart of all the members of the Mystic Clan. The pamphlet reproduced it in full. It was disturbingly plausible; it carefully mixed vague and not-quite-traceable names (somebody called Williamson in Kentucky, a D. Harris in Georgia) with the real names of some of the most prominent citizens in Tennessee and Kentucky. No wonder that the original readers found it so convincing—in fact, wholly terrifying.

In the spring of 1835, Virgil Stewart went on a speaking tour on the lower Mississippi. At each stop along the way, he repeated the charges made in the pamphlet: that the Mystic Clan was real, that it was organizing a slave insurrection, and that the entire South was in imminent peril. The arrest of Murrell hadn’t put an end to the plot; in fact, it had accelerated it. The original target date for the uprising had been Christmas Day of that year; now it had been pushed forward to the Fourth of July.

Stewart caused a sensation everywhere he went. He impressed everybody with his demeanor: despite the desperate urgency of his message, he was in all respects modest and dignified, the model of a respectable young man. He told the most hair-raising stories about the Mystic Clan’s campaigns to kill or otherwise silence him, and yet he was never boastful, never arrogant; he was decorous, even prim. (The credited author of the pamphlet, Augustus Walton, remained out of sight—the widespread assumption was that Stewart had written the pamphlet himself.) Only a few people failed to be won over. In Vicksburg, for instance, Stewart was introduced to the celebrated lawyer Henry Foote (the defender of the Horace-reading highwayman Alonzo Phelps), who had read the pamphlet and found it “fearfully exciting and inflammatory.” But Stewart himself seemed somehow troubling; Foote described him as “sagacious and insinuating,” a rather ambiguous compliment. But then Foote thought it would be a bad idea to express any doubts, given the enthusiasm of Stewart’s supporters. “Those who dared even to question the actual existence of the dangers which he depictured,” Foote wrote later, “were suspected by their more excited fellow-citizens of a criminal insensibility to the supposed perils of the hour, or were denounced as traitors to the slaveholding interests of the South.”

In June 1835, Stewart gave his speech to the citizens of Madison County, Mississippi, deep in the plantation country northeast of Vicksburg. One person in the audience was especially alarmed. She is identified in the published records only as a Mrs. Latham, from the small town of Beatie’s Bluff. In the days after Stewart’s appearance, Mrs. Latham grew progressively more worried about the behavior of her slaves. “Her suspicions were first awakened,” reported a pamphlet entitled Proceedings of the Citizens of Madison County, “by noticing in her house-servants a disposition to be insolent and disobedient.” The situation rapidly became worse: “Occasionally they would use insulting and contemptuous language in her hearing respecting her.” Soon she was convinced that “something mysterious was going on, from seeing her girls often engaged in secret conversation when they ought to have been engaged at their business.” Naturally she began eavesdropping. Her worst fears were confirmed: they were discussing—cryptically but, she thought, unmistakably—the coming insurrection. Here was the giveaway: she overheard one girl say that “she wished to God it was all over and done with; that she was tired of waiting on the white folks, and wanted to be her own mistress the balance of her days, and clean up her own house.”

Immediately Mrs. Latham set out to raise the alarm. There wasn’t much in the way of official authority available in Beatie’s Bluff, so she consulted with the most respected gentlemen of the town. They heard her out and decided to investigate for themselves. At her house they closely examined the girls she had overheard. The finding of these gentlemen, according to the pamphlet, was that the statements of the girls “corresponded in every particular with the communication of the lady.” The gentlemen came to a simple and terrifying conclusion: there was indeed reason to believe that an insurrection of the slaves was imminent. They made urgent recommendations: that new committees of vigilance and safety be immediately formed and that the system of slave patrols be reinstated. The slave patrols, the author of the pamphlet observed, “had been entirely neglected heretofore.”

It may seem odd that the slave owners had been so lax about security up until then. But their guiding principle had always been to make as little effort as possible—and, in particular, to spend as little money as possible—to keep the system of slavery going. Most of the plantations in central Mississippi had absentee owners who hired the absolute minimum number of white employees they could get away with—a few overseers (usually noted for their unyielding cruelty), a bailiff, and sometimes a doctor, or at least someone who purported to have a little medical training. By the 1830s, the ratio of slaves to whites in some rural counties of Mississippi was reaching fifty to one. The owners were trusting geography to do the work of security: their thinking was that since the slaves knew they were trapped in the middle of an entirely hostile country with no way of ever returning home, they would give up, accept their situation, and settle in to being docile and obedient laborers.

The news that this might not be true galvanized the white community. A committee of vigilance was immediately formed in Madison County. It set to work questioning slaves with ferocious speed and determination. The interrogation technique was straightforward: the slaves would be flogged until they confessed something. Sometimes a slave was given dozens of lashes; sometimes it was hundreds. The interrogation went on for hours or days. But sooner or later the committee heard what it wanted to hear. Then the slave would immediately be hanged.

Most of these confessions were vague. A slave would admit to having heard some sort of indistinct talk about trouble coming. The talk would usually be attributed to some other slave—most often a known troublemaker on another plantation. That slave would be brought in and flogged, and would then admit to having heard something about the trouble from some other slave on yet another plantation. The committee relentlessly followed this trail from plantation to plantation until, eventually, one of the slaves would admit that there had been some talk concerning the insurrection with a white man.

The committee wasn’t looking for any specific white man. Sometimes they heard about a nameless stranger who’d been loitering along a country road; other times it was one of the disreputable locals known to consort with slaves at the darky parties. But most promising were the odd hints about a group of shadowy white instigators making grand promises, the way the Mystic Clan was supposed to be doing. One slave, surely realizing that he was a dead man no matter what he said, came out with a particularly garish confession that might have been straight from Stewart’s pamphlet: he claimed that it was the plan of the slaves “to slay all the whites, except some of the most beautiful women, whom they intended to keep as wives; said that these white men had told them that they might do so, and that he had already picked out one for himself; and that he and his wife had already had a quarrel in consequence of his having told her his intention.”

After several such confessions the committee believed that the situation was now clear. Proceedings of the Citizens of Madison County summarized the committee’s findings:

They ascertained that they were not to contend alone with a few daring and desperate negroes, and such of their deluded race as they might enlist in their daring and bloody enterprise, but that these negroes were instigated and encouraged by some of the most wicked and abandoned white men in the country; highway robbers, murderers, and abolitionists, who were to supply them with arms and ammunition, and lead them on to the work of massacre and carnage, conflagration and blood.

What was the next step in preventing this disaster? The committee believed that was obvious: they had to root out the white conspirators in their midst. By late June they had taken several suspects into custody. There was no thought about turning them over to the official legal system—the crisis was too urgent, and the testimony of the slaves (even assuming they’d been kept alive) wouldn’t have been admissible in court anyway. The committee carried on with the interrogations themselves. They made a great show of following the procedures of the legitimate courts: the anonymous author of the Proceedings pamphlet insisted (with considerable passion) that where the white suspects were concerned, the committee members conducted themselves in an appropriate legal fashion, with full respect for the rights of the accused. Henry Foote witnessed one of the interrogations and came away with a different opinion: “The examination was conducted in a very rapid and informal manner, and without the least regard to the established principles of the law of evidence.”

In each case, there was only one piece of direct evidence: the confession of a slave obtained through torture. But, as the pamphlet author was careful to point out, there was plenty of supporting evidence and corroboration. There was one Joshua Cotton, for instance: he was a suspect because it was well known that he was “in the habit of trading with negroes.” Then there was a William Saunders, suspected because he was unemployed and because “his deportment was such as to induce his employer to discharge him.” There was an Albe Dean, who had several strikes against him:

He was known to associate with negroes, and would often come to the owners of runaways and intercede with their masters to save them from a whipping. It was in evidence before the committee that he was seen prowling about the plantations in the neighbourhoods of Vernon, Beatie’s Bluff, and Livingston, ostensibly for the purpose of inquiring for runaway horses, which he did with great particularity—sometimes inquiring for a black, bay, gray, or other color that suggested itself at the time. It was evident that horse-hunting was not his business, but that he was reconnoitring the country, and seeking opportunities to converse with the negroes.

All of these men were tortured; some of them did confess. Joshua Cotton finally admitted that he and the others were following “the plan laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet.” All of them were hanged.

Then there was the case of Reuel Blake, a local gin wright (that is, one who built and repaired cotton gins). A slave of Blake’s had been named by several other slaves as belonging to the conspiracy. When this slave was brought before the committee, Blake was as a courtesy allowed to take part in the interrogation. It did not go well. The slave refused to talk, and the committee invited Blake to whip him until he disclosed his part in the conspiracy. Blake was reluctant; he carefully informed the slave about the situation, explained what the flogging was for, and, as the Proceedingsauthor remarked with incredulous italics, “requested him to tell all he knew about it.”

Then Blake began flogging his slave. It was obvious to everyone that Blake’s heart wasn’t in it; he only lashed weakly, “occasionally striking a hard lick to keep up appearances.” The committee called a halt and asked him to step aside. Then they began the interrogation in earnest. Blake, standing a little off from the group, grew increasingly agitated. As the flogging reached a peak of intensity—and just as the committee believed the slave was about to confess—Blake burst back into the center of the action and proclaimed that if they were going to touch his slave again, they’d have to flog him first. The committee member doing the flogging immediately raised the whip to oblige him, and they got into a fistfight. The spectators broke it up and “from the best of motives,” according to the pamphlet, urged Blake to flee. He did so, and as he ran away from the committee, some of the boys in the crowd ran along with him for a few hundred yards, hooting and mocking him.

Once Blake was out of sight, the committee talked over what had happened. At first everyone assumed that Blake was merely some kind of perversely softhearted sentimentalist. But as they went on talking, their views changed. Soon they all began to say that there was just something about the man they’d never trusted. They didn’t like the looks of him, for one thing: “He was of a cold, phlegmatic temperament,” the pamphlet writer explained, “with a forbidding countenance.” He had been living in Madison County for two or three years, and had never tried to fit in—preferring instead more suspicious company. “He kept himself almost aloof from white society, but was often seen among negroes.” He looked worse and worse the more they thought about it. “His character, as known to the citizens, was one of the darkest die. He was noted for cold-blooded revenge, insatiable avarice, and unnatural cruelty; had been detected in several attempts to swindle his fellow-citizens, who, if they exposed his rascality, were ever after the objects of his deadly hatred.” Lastly, he had said that he had gone to sea in his youth. “From vague hints he would occasionally drop, it was the general impression that he had been a pirate.” The case was closed.

Blake was no fool. He understood from the outset how things were going. By the end of the afternoon, the committee had decided to try him on the grounds that he was likely a member of the conspiracy—but when they went to his house to arrest him, he was gone. He’d already gotten out of Madison County and was making his escape to Vicksburg.

There he hid out in the boat city off the levee of Vicksburg Landing. He passed himself off as a boatman from Indiana. The disguise didn’t work for long. The Madison County vigilance committee offered a reward of five hundred dollars for him and posted it up and down the river; somebody in the boat city saw it and ratted him out. The committee arrived soon afterward and put him under arrest.

Blake was brought back to the town of Livingston in Madison County under heavy guard. A mob surrounded him on his arrival and he was almost killed then and there, but the committee held the people at bay long enough to put him on trial at the lynching court. Unlike most of the other accused, he never made any kind of confession or admission. But he was found guilty and he was hanged.

The approach of the dread Fourth had the whites of rural Mississippi in a panic. That was a day when the plantation slaves of the lower valley were traditionally granted a certain amount of liberty. They weren’t required to work and were permitted to hold their own holiday celebrations with little or no interference from their overseers. On some plantations these parties were enormous events that slaves from other plantations were allowed to attend unsupervised. These were ideal conditions for the breeding of revolt.

But even if all those celebrations were canceled, what good would it do? The interrogations of the committee had established, if nothing else, that slaves were already moving around the countryside with impunity and were in constant and casual contact from plantation to plantation. There was also the whole problem of the maroons, as they were called—escaped slaves who hadn’t fled north but were still living secretly in the plantation country and the wilderness. Nobody knew how many maroons there were, possibly thousands. Maroons were living in all the riverfront districts of the valley; there was known to be a sizable clandestine maroon community in New Orleans; maroon encampments were believed to be scattered through the wild country from the Everglades through the sea islands along the Gulf and up through the river delta. There were persistent rumors about a large and flourishing maroon city in the trackless bayous somewhere north of New Orleans, possibly led by a notorious escaped slave known as Squire. (Squire was finally caught and executed in 1837, but the city was never found.) If there were any maroons in Madison County, they were surely in touch with the slaves in the plantations—and were perfectly placed to help organize the revolt.

By the beginning of July the towns of Madison County were on full alert. No one stayed alone after dark. At sundown, the women and children gathered in a central location—usually the public square—while the men formed posses and patrolled the outskirts of town and the surrounding countryside. There were no streetlights in these towns, so people built bonfires at the intersections. The stillness of the night would be broken by sporadic gunfire as the posses, deceived by the wild shadows cast by the bonfires, took shots at each other. Meanwhile, the women and children kept scanning the sky above the treetops, watching for the telltale glow that would mean the arsonists had set to work in the neighboring towns and the insurrection had begun.

In Vicksburg, the Fourth of July was celebrated as it always had been, with a huge open-air barbecue. This was a gay and colorful event—the citizenry in their Sunday best, the militia in full uniform, the local band playing, and cannonades and fireworks at sundown. Nothing was any different that year: the disturbances in the rural counties had so far made little impression on the cosmopolitan river towns. (The governor of Mississippi had issued a proclamation on July 3 urging all citizens to be on the watch for any uprisings—he, too, blamed the threat on “lawless base villainous white men”—but in Vicksburg it was ignored.) Then something unpleasant happened on the picnic grounds. People were sitting at ease at the long tables set out under the trees when a man named Cabler, a gambler from Vicksburg Landing, “insolently thrust himself into the company” (as one newspaper later put it). He insulted one of the militia officers and took a swing at another guest. He was quickly and forcibly ejected.

That was all. It should have been immediately forgotten. On the Fourth, as with all big public occasions, there were inevitably a lot of drunken quarrels and fistfights that blew over as quickly as summer squalls. But Cabler was unwilling to let the incident go. Later that afternoon, the militia officers moved into the town square and put on a public demonstration of their close-order drilling. Cabler showed up spoiling for a fight. He shouldered his way into the middle of the militia company and confronted the officer he’d earlier insulted. The two were immediately surrounded by the whole company. Cabler was seized and searched: he was found to be carrying a knife, a dagger, and a loaded pistol. Several officers carried him off into the woods. There they whipped him, tarred and feathered him, and ordered him to leave town.

The parties resumed. Formal balls began in the mansions, and after sunset there were fireworks shows. Sometime that evening, the crowds of revelers scattered around town were swept by a rumor: Cabler’s gambler friends in Vicksburg Landing were planning revenge. Nothing overt had taken place—there was no sign of a war party coming up from the landing. But around midnight, as the celebrations were beginning to break up, a large group of citizens held an impromptu meeting at the courthouse to decide what to do about the threat. They agreed that it was time for drastic action. The waterfront district of Vicksburg Landing needed to be cleaned up once and for all. The crowd passed by voice vote a public declaration ordering all professional gamblers to leave the landing within twenty-four hours.

As it happened, there were a lot of gamblers in Vicksburg Landing. Its reputation had grown almost as bad as that of Natchez-Under-the-Hill. People up and down the river had started calling it the Kangaroos, after its largest and rowdiest gambling house. Shock and consternation spread throughout the Kangaroos the morning of July 5, when its inhabitants woke late to find the walls and doors on every street and alley nailed with hastily printed posters announcing the resolution the townspeople had passed the night before. The Kangaroos was in a turmoil all day: Would the gamblers obey the order and leave? By nightfall some of the waterfront’s most notorious gamblers were in fact seen departing—at least as far as the boat city, just as a precaution.

Meanwhile, a new rumor was riling Vicksburg. Up until that point, the squabble with Cabler and his fellow gamblers had been seen as a strictly local affair. But somehow during that day a connection was made: people started saying that this whole business had something to do with the stories emerging from the plantation districts about John Murrell and the slave insurrection. By nightfall on July 5, people all over Vicksburg were quoting from Stewart’s pamphlet and saying the gamblers were members of the Mystic Clan.

There was no evidence, not even a single coerced confession, but from that point on, the rumor was regarded as a proven fact. As one writer noted a few years later, “It was known that the gamblers as a body belonged to, or were cognizant of, the conspiracy.”

On July 6, the local militia moved into the Kangaroos to enforce the resolution. They were accompanied by a mob of citizens determined to put a stop to the Mystic Clan. As the militia began rounding up the gamblers, the mob fanned out swiftly through the tangle of streets and alleys. Soon they were breaking into every gambling house and saloon. They stampeded the residents; they dragged out the faro tables and everything else connected with gambling they could find. They smashed it all and burned it; there were bonfires on every corner of the Kangaroos.

The mob met with little or no resistance. But then they came to Cabler’s house by the wharves. A large, well-armed group of gamblers had barricaded themselves inside. The mob surrounded the house. The back door was forced open. The windows had all been blocked off by the gamblers, and the interior of the house was pitch-black. The scene rapidly grew confused. People began shooting. One of the shots struck and killed a leader of the citizenry, Dr. Hugh Bodley, one of the most well-regarded men in Vicksburg. A newspaper obituary the next day called him “universally beloved and respected”; Henry Foote, who knew him, said in his memoirs that he was “a most intelligent and high-spirited young gentleman, of great professional promise.” Bodley’s death put the mob in a frenzy. They stormed the house, seized five of the gamblers, and immediately hanged them.

Over the next several days, the news about the hangings and the mass expulsion of the gamblers spread up and down the river. It caused an immediate wave of excitement. In river towns all through the valley, the committees of vigilance and safety were joined by new “anti-gambling societies” that took the events in Vicksburg as their model. They were guided by Stewart’s pamphlet and by the now-universal belief that the river gamblers as a class were connected to the Mystic Clan. They were also galvanized by the sudden appearance of the gamblers themselves in their midst: those who had been expelled from Vicksburg were scattering along the river and were showing up in alarming numbers in other riverfront districts. The anti-gambling societies made a great point of deploring the hanging of the five men in Vicksburg Landing—but they also put up posters announcing that any gamblers found in their communities “will be used according to the Lynch Law.”

The weeks that followed were chaotic. As more towns purged undesirables from their riverfront districts, the Mississippi was suddenly swarming with a flood of displaced gamblers and prostitutes. They all were wandering from town to town, looking for any place without an antigambling society. Mostly they traveled by steamboat, but there were some large groups of gamblers who’d dawdled too close to a town’s deadline and found themselves unhappily thrashing through the forests on foot while pursued by hunting parties. Many of the gamblers drifted down to New Orleans, where anybody could be hidden; others showed up as far away as Texas.

Meanwhile, in the rural counties the campaign against the insurrection was intensifying. Even though the July 4 deadline had passed with no signs of trouble from the slaves, nobody thought the danger was over. The committees in fact regarded the situation as so urgent that they dispensed with the trials before the lynching courts. Those who were arrested were simply hanged where they’d been caught. Sometimes their bodies were left dangling from the eaves of their houses or suspended from a high tree branch in a prominent place on the roadside, as a warning to the others. By mid-July every stranger found in the interior of Mississippi was being detained. Commercial travelers, itinerant craftsmen, wandering preachers—they were all caught up by one or another committee. One man hunting in the woods was arrested for possession of a shotgun and gunpowder. The vigilance committee found the evidence against him not completely conclusive—so they sentenced him to a flogging. But a mob had gathered outside the building where the committee was meeting, and when they heard the verdict, they were so outraged by its leniency that they stormed the building, seized the prisoner, and hanged him.

The net of suspicion was wide. Since one of the original victims of the Madison County committee was a Thompsonian doctor, all Thompsonians were automatically suspect. Henry Foote, traveling in the Mississippi countryside that summer, came upon a dire scene in a small town east of Vicksburg: a crowd had tied a man to a tree and was flogging him. He had been put on trial by the local committee and, in a rare move, had been found entirely innocent, but the townspeople weren’t satisfied. It wasn’t that they were certain he was guilty of anything in particular. “He was, unfortunately, a Thompsonian doctor,” Foote wrote, “and on that ground it had been thought that he ought at least to be decently scourged.”

Also included in the sweep were any locals the people had never much liked. One of these in Madison County, a William Benson, “was considered by the committee a great fool, almost an idiot”; the committee took pity on him and simply ordered him to leave town. Another was held in the local jail because he was deemed a “rascal.” He was visited by the committee after sunset and was flogged until long after midnight; when they came for him again in the morning to pass sentence on him, they found he had hanged himself. Others, where there was inconclusive evidence of their guilt, were treated with what the committee viewed as mercy. First the accused would be given a thousand lashes. Then he would be stripped naked, bound at his wrists and ankles, dumped into a boat, and set loose on the local river—to work himself free, or to fall overboard and drown, or to die of sunstroke as the boat floated through the furnace of the summer day on its way downstream toward the Mississippi.

Meanwhile, the story of the Murrell excitement went on spreading, until it reached the world beyond the river valley. The people who had taken part in putting down the insurrection were shocked to discover that outsiders did not view the events in the same light they did. In fact, in the rest of the world, the valley’s response to the danger was seen as somehow worse than the danger itself. The hanging of the Vicksburg gamblers was regarded as an especially heinous injustice. There were outraged editorials condemning it in newspapers in the North and even in Europe. It became the subject of protest ballads and pamphlets and broadsides; ultimately there was even a touring panorama, a full-size version of the storming of Cabler’s house in the Kangaroos, with a sinister tree dangling with nooses in the background, awaiting the victims of the mob. The hanging of the gamblers was said to have been the event that first taught the rest of the world about the existence of the courts of Judge Lynch; it was the reason why “lynching” became a dirty word outside the South.

The story of the summer became increasingly garbled as it circulated. The retellers outside of Mississippi and Louisiana were never altogether clear what happened when. The way it was most often told, the Murrell excitement had actually started with the anti-gambling riot in Vicksburg, and then had spread back to the plantation country. At least that was the version Abraham Lincoln heard. In 1838, Lincoln spoke at the Springfield Lyceum about “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” Here was how he summarized the summer of 1835:

In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers.… 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 road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.

After the worst of the frenzy had passed—after the interrogations and the hangings had petered out, after the committees had largely disbanded, after the scattered gamblers had resumed their old ways (many of them had discreetly returned to the Kangaroos by the autumn of 1835), after the people in Madison County had started sleeping in their own beds again at night—a second edition of Stewart’s pamphlet appeared.

It was a curious production. The original author, Augustus Walton, vanished from the title page, never to be heard from again. John Murrell’s name was pushed far down into the subtitle as well: the pamphlet was now called The History of Virgil A. Stewart, and His Adventure in Capturing and Exposing the Great “Western Land Pirate” and His Gang. There was also this new epigraph:

I am not willing to admit to the world that I believe him.

—A bitter enemy

I care nothing for his jealous animosity. He may vent his poisonous spleen. I am sustained before the world by evidence that shall chain his envenomed tongue.


There had always been a certain amount of skepticism about Stewart’s original pamphlet. This wasn’t so in the lower valley, where the pamphlet had been universally accepted at face value, but it was especially true back in Tennessee, the site of Murrell’s arrest and trial. There John Murrell had been a known quantity. A lot of people had had dealings with him personally, and the notion that he was some kind of Mephistophelean master conspirator struck them as preposterous. They’d never heard anything about this “Mystic Clan,” and they didn’t believe it existed. To them, Murrell was a small-time horse thief, slave stealer, and swindler—nothing more.

So how to account for Stewart? The skeptics pointed to one highly suspicious fact. When Stewart had been a witness against Murrell at his trial for slave stealing, he’d never said a word about the Mystic Clan or about the slave insurrection. Why not? There was an obvious explanation: he hadn’t thought any of it up yet. He’d waited until Murrell was safely convicted and thrown in prison, and then he’d spun the whole thing out of thin air, just to cash in on Murrell’s notoriety.

There was another and darker theory. This was the version favored by people with a grudge against Stewart—in particular, those whom Stewart had identified in the pamphlet as members of the Mystic Clan. Their theory was that Stewart was lying about his entire relationship with Murrell. The initial meeting on the river road had never happened; Stewart and Murrell had actually known each other all along. Murrell really did run some kind of gang of horse thieves and slave stealers—and Stewart had been one of them. He had invented his story about being a secret infiltrator so he could dodge his complicity in Murrell’s crimes.

Stewart responded to these rumors and insinuations with fury. The second edition of his pamphlet was substantially longer and more elaborate than the first because it was primarily concerned with fending off these attacks against his good name. He (or whoever was the now-anonymous author) sometimes talked as though the insurrection was only a minor sideline for the clan; their real business was the persecution of Stewart himself. Page after page of the pamphlet recounts the ongoing malevolence of the clan and Stewart’s own indomitable courage and fortitude in standing up to it. Stewart (still described only in the third person) is surrounded at all times with a halo of sanctimony; he is said to be “of untiring perseverance, and well schooled in the disposition of man; and possessed of an inordinate share of public spirit.” His critics, meanwhile, are “murderers, thieves, and refugees, brandishing their envenomed weapons of destruction.” Particular rage is reserved for “a certain Mr. A. C. Bane, who has been calumniating Mr. Stewart by means of abusive and slanderous letters, in which he has endeavoured to produce the impression on the mind of the public that Mr. Stewart was an accomplice of Murrell’s in villany.”

The second edition of the pamphlet didn’t do anywhere as well as the first. Stewart blamed the poor sales on his critics, who he said were all secret members of, or at least sympathizers with, the clan. As one admirer of Stewart, the writer Philip Paxton, put it a few years later:

His enemies, the yet undiscovered members of the clan, in a thousand ways sought to poison the public ear. They denounced him as a member of the clan, induced by hope of reward, by cowardice, or a spirit of revenge, to betray the plot. When a man has hundreds of secret enemies thrusting their stealthy but fatal daggers into his character, with but few friends who can but ward off the more open blows, his chance for obtaining even-handed justice from any community is small, and so it proved with our hero.

Stewart’s response was defiance: in the next election he ran for Congress. He did so, Paxton said, “to test his popularity and the strength of his enemies.” He was badly defeated. He then capitulated: “Justly disgusted and indignant at the ingratitude of those for whom he had sacrificed so much, he left the state and country.”

There were a lot of stories about where Stewart went after that. Back east somewhere, Henry Foote heard; or maybe it was out west; or maybe he’d gone undercover again with the clan. According to one story, he’d gotten rich. At the height of the original excitement, he’d been offered a ten-thousand-dollar reward by the Mississippi state legislature for alerting them to their danger—and he’d respectfully, even nobly, turned the money down. Now some people were saying that he’d somehow gotten hold of that money after all and was living in luxury in Europe. But Philip Paxton claimed to know the real story firsthand. According to him, Stewart moved to a barely settled region of Texas, where he lived in an isolated cabin in the desolate hill country along the Colorado River.

Stewart still insisted that he was in danger from the Mystic Clan. He was so certain the clan had him under surveillance, Paxton wrote, that he “did not dare to venture out from his cabin after dark, to have a light in his room, or to sleep in the same chamber as his wife.” He let his hair and his beard grow wild, and if he had to go into town, he wore a disguise. He believed that the only reason the agents of the clan didn’t attack him directly was that they had been ordered to hold off by John Murrell himself. Murrell was still in the penitentiary in Tennessee, after his original conviction for slave stealing—but the moment he was free, according to Stewart, he was going to come west and take his revenge.

In the spring of 1845, the news came that Murrell had finally been released. There were rumors in Texas—possibly started or encouraged by Stewart himself—that Murrell was coming, that he had been spotted at this or that railroad depot or stagecoach way station somewhere west of the Mississippi. Stewart grew extraordinarily frantic. But the weeks passed, and Murrell mysteriously failed to appear. And by summer, even if Murrell had arrived, he would have been sorely disappointed. Stewart was already dead.

Some said it was natural causes—that was the version Paxton gave. Others said he’d been poisoned by persons unknown. According to another story, Stewart had been fatally shot in a saloon fight a short time before Murrell was expected to arrive in Texas. The man who shot him was a complete stranger, and nobody ever found out what they’d been quarreling about.

As for John Murrell himself, he was never charged with anything connected with the insurrection. He served out his ten-year sentence for slave stealing. He had a tough time in the penitentiary, even by the standards of those days. In his first months, he had made a daring escape but had been recaptured a few weeks later; as punishment he’d spent the rest of his sentence chained to a stone block in his cell. Some said he eventually converted to Christianity and became a model prisoner. Others said he went insane. In any case, he never said a word about Stewart, the pamphlet, or the clan.

After his release from the penitentiary, Murrell disappeared from public view. There were stories that he was spotted in this or that river town along the Mississippi—a gaunt, pale, sickly street preacher who’d cough up blood as he harangued passersby about damnation and Judgment Day. He is reported to have died of tuberculosis in Memphis, a year or so after his release, in the squalid back alleys of the riverfront district.

Over the next few years, as more writers took up the story, a fuller image of Murrell and the Mystic Clan emerged. Many questions left unanswered by Stewart were addressed. There was, for instance, the great practical mystery of how Murrell had managed to co-opt all the criminals of the lower Mississippi into his conspiracy. Philip Paxton described it as a feat worthy of Eugène Vidocq, the famous French master criminal turned private detective. Murrell had formed a kind of cordon of criminal police the length of the Mississippi, and anytime a crime was committed by somebody not in their lists, they would immediately investigate, identify the criminal, seize him, and bring him up before the clan for judgment. “The criminal was astounded,” according to Paxton, “on discovering that deeds which he supposed none but his God and himself to be cognizant of, were known by numbers, whose mandate he must obey implicitly, and among whom he must enroll his name, or be immediately exposed to the world.… All … were fish that came to Murrel’s net; the low gambler and the rich villain were equally received with open arms.”

Other writers considered the extent of the clan and speculated on which celebrated criminals had been secret members. What about Alonzo Phelps, for instance, the backwoods highwayman and reader of Horace? His lawyer, Henry Foote, recorded his belief that Phelps had certainly been a member, or at least an associate. After all, hadn’t he called for the emancipation of the slaves, even threatening to start a rebellion himself? Then there was James Ford of the Ford’s Ferry Gang: a history published early in the twentieth century, Otto Rothert’s Outlaws of Cave-in Rock, examined the matter of Ford’s possible membership in the clan at length but found the evidence inconclusive.

As for the ultimate goal of the conspiracy, Stewart had taken it no further than the apocalyptic night of the insurrection, but others carried the story onward. In the version Frederick Marryat heard in 1839 (and the way it was told and retold in pamphlets and dime novels for decades afterward), the clan’s real objective had been to overthrow the governments of the slave states and establish a new empire, with its capital at New Orleans and Murrell as emperor.

But was that still the plan? What was the clan up to? It didn’t seem to trouble anybody that the clan was proving to be very elusive. None of the members identified on the master list in Stewart’s first pamphlet were ever arrested or tried; nobody else ever came forward to confess membership; no intrepid adventurer ever followed Stewart’s lead and infiltrated the group to find out about its current status. In the years after the initial excitement faded, the clan appeared only in fitful, ghostly traces here and there in the lower valley and the South. The abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, for instance, wrote in 1845 that the lynched gamblers remained unavenged and that he had heard that the clan was continuing to look for payback: “It is said that this fraternity have sworn eternal enmity against Vicksburg.” In 1853, the Texas Ranger, a newspaper in Galveston, Texas, ran a long story headlined THE MURRELL GANG IN WASHINGTON COUNTY, the gist of which was that a still-flourishing branch of the clan was up to its old tricks:

Passing counterfeit money, stealing negroes, cattle, and other property, were the principal branches of business followed by this extensive association. A correspondent of the Ranger says, the number of negroes stolen from the counties named is very considerable. Two of the gang, Short and McLaughlin, were tried for murder in 1848, but by means of their associates on the jury got clear, and afterwards boasted that they had followed one of the state’s witnesses to take his life for giving evidence against them, which it is thought they succeeded in doing. The same correspondent says, the gang is composed of ministers of the gospel, merchants, lawyers, farmers, traders, and also that some editors of newspapers are inculpated, as having aided by their advice and support.

But nothing more followed from this report—perhaps those “inculpated” newspaper editors hushed it up.

Gradually the clan evanesced into folklore. John Banvard, artist of the “Three-Mile Painting” of the Mississippi, described in the pamphlet accompanying his panorama how he’d once been set upon by members of the clan. There’d been a furious gun battle, he said, and he’d left one of the villains dead—while he himself had rowed away with a souvenir line of bullet holes along the bow of his canoe. The actor Noah Miller Ludlow claimed in his memoirs that he’d first heard of the Mystic Clan during his earliest days traveling in showboats on the Mississippi, in the 1810s—when the real John Murrell was still a child.

Mark Twain was fascinated by Murrell. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the gold that Tom and Huck Finn find at the end is said to have been left behind by “Murrel’s gang.” In Life on the Mississippi, Twain recalls with a certain kind of nostalgic pleasure how Murrell used to masquerade as a preacher (Twain always liked tweaking church people), and he indulgently compares Murrell’s villainy with that of a current, highly celebrated outlaw, Jesse James:

Murel was his equal in boldness, in pluck, in rapacity; in cruelty, brutality, heartlessness, treachery, and in general and comprehensive vileness and shamelessness; and very much his superior in some larger aspects. James was a retail rascal; Murel, wholesale. James’s modest genius dreamed of no loftier flight than the planning of raids upon cars, coaches, and country banks. Murel projected negro insurrections and the capture of New Orleans; and furthermore, on occasion, this Murel could go into a pulpit and edify the congregation. What are James and his half-dozen vulgar rascals compared with this stately old-time criminal, with his sermons, his meditated insurrections and city-captures, and his majestic following of ten hundred men, sworn to do his evil will!

Among the whites of the lower valley and the delta, there had never been any serious doubt about Stewart’s story. The consensus was and remained that Stewart had been telling the truth and the insurrection had been a real threat. Frederick Marryat wrote in 1839 that while Stewart had recently been savagely vilified, his critics “no longer attempt to deny that his revelations were correct.” The actions taken by the committees and the courts of Judge Lynch may have been regrettable—even illegal—but however much the rest of the world condemned them, they had been necessary to stave off the ultimate catastrophe.

Why were they so certain the story was true? Stewart had been, as Henry Foote called him, an “insinuating” man, and his masterstroke of insinuation had been his claim that Murrell was secretly allied with the Northern abolitionists. The way his pamphlet tells it, the abolitionists were a worse evil than the clan itself. The pamphlet offers Stewart’s vision of that awful day when the clan and the abolitionists would emerge from the shadows together and wreak destruction on the South—“the fertile fields and smiling scenes of his native land, destined to be deluged in the blood of his fellow countrymen; its cities and villages laid waste by the desolating march of a lawless and murderous band of ruffians and robbers, led on by a poisonous swarm from the ‘great northern hive’ of fanatics and incendiaries.”

Passages like this went over very well in the lower valley. They were essentially how people pictured the abolitionists already: as a swarm of insects bent on destroying the South for some insane, inscrutable reason of their own. The fury against the abolitionists can be seen all through the Murrell excitement. The author of Proceedings of the Citizens of Madison County loses all sense of decorum when he comes to one of the white accused—the unfortunate A. L. Donovan of Kentucky, who had been “repeatedly found in the negro cabins, enjoying himself in negro society.” The author reports incredulously that Donovan was once heard saying that he couldn’t be a plantation overseer because “it was such cruel work whipping the poor negroes.” No wonder the local vigilance committee was so easily convinced that Donovan was what the author calls “an emissary of those deluded fanatics at the north—the Abolitionists.” He was immediately hanged. “Thus died an Abolitionist,” the author remarks with satisfaction, “and let his blood be on the heads of those who sent him here.”

The source of this venom was generally unstated, but not hard to deduce. It was an article of faith in the South that the slaves were basically well-treated and that any cruelties they suffered were rare aberrations in an essentially humane system. It followed that any resentment the slaves might feel at their situation was being deliberately encouraged by outside troublemakers acting out of sheer malice. In the wake of the Murrell excitement, a large organization of Northern abolitionists made an ill-advised attempt to reach out to moderate Southerners and sway them to their cause: they began mailing their pamphlets in bulk to prominent white citizens in the South and in the river valley. The result was a public explosion. Nobody believed that the abolitionists were trying to influence white opinion; it was obvious they were trying to get their propaganda into the hands of the slaves and trigger an uprising. President Andrew Jackson condemned the abolitionists in his annual message to Congress:

I must also invite your attention to the painful excitement produced in the South by attempts to circulate through the mails inflammatory appeals addressed to the passions of the slaves, in prints and in various sorts of publications, calculated to stimulate them to insurrection and to produce all the horrors of a servile war.

Legislation was soon passed making it a federal crime to use the United States mails to distribute abolitionist literature. From then on, postal inspectors routinely opened mail sent from Northern addresses to Southern destinations to ensure that no prohibited writings were passing through. In states throughout the lower valley and the Deep South, possession of abolitionist literature became a felony; any Negro, any person of color, slave or free, found with such literature was immediately put to death.

These actions, drastic though they might seem, did nothing to calm white anxiety. Stronger action was required. In the years that followed the Murrell excitement, more and more laws were passed to stamp out anything that might kindle an insurrection. It became a capital crime to teach slaves to read and write; it was forbidden for slaves to assemble in public for any reason—a prohibition that was soon extended to free people of color as well. In fact, by the 1840s and 1850s, free people of color had come to be seen as one of the main sources of danger, and their lives were increasingly hemmed in by laws designed to keep them down or to drive them out of the slave states altogether. Some states forbade free people of color to move or travel without permission from the government; other states expelled all free people of color who’d been born or emancipated after a certain date; still others retroactively invalidated their emancipations, so that any freed slave who remained in the state would be sold at auction to a new owner. Just before the Civil War, Louisiana passed a law making it illegal for any slave to be emancipated for any reason.

But none of it helped; the dread was unappeasable. There is no solid evidence that slaves anywhere in the South ever attempted to organize a large-scale uprising after the catastrophic failure of Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831—three years before the Murrell excitement even began. But the whites saw new uprisings everywhere. In December 1835, after the initial wave of the Murrell excitement had died down, it flared up again, this time in Louisiana. It began when a rural vigilance committee got a slave to confess that the insurrection was back on and was scheduled for its original date, Christmas 1835. (The committee may have been inspired by a play called The Great Land Pirate, based on Stewart’s first pamphlet, which had just opened in New Orleans.) The committee led a frantic search of all the plantations for miles around; a rumor spread that caches of weapons had been found in many of the slave quarters. New committees immediately sprang up, and regulators and slave patrols spent the rest of that month keeping watch. The plantation owners and their families were evacuated and waited out an uneasy Christmas in New Orleans.

The excitement faded away by January—but two years later, it burst out again. This insurrection was said to have been betrayed before it could begin by a slave who was unwilling to see his beloved master harmed. More than fifty slaves and free Negroes were arrested by the local committees; twelve were executed. Two companies of federal troops were stationed in the region over the next several months to preserve order.

From then on, every few years—sometimes more often than that—the excitement erupted anew in random places throughout the lower valley. It went essentially the same way each time: an overheard conversation among the slaves would be given a sinister interpretation by their owner, and there would be a flurry of interrogations and coerced confessions, then a general panic. After urgent sessions of the courts of Judge Lynch, several people, sometimes dozens, would be left dead. But in the end, the ultimate organizers of the conspiracy remained mockingly out of reach, and the panic was primed to break out again somewhere else.

Anything at all could be the trigger. In New Orleans in 1840, after a few scattered incidents of hostility on the street between whites and disorderly slaves, one newspaper editorialist wrote that “the late repeated attacks of the negro upon the white man in our city should excite our suspicions whether they be not the piquet guard of some stupendous conspiracy among the blacks to fall upon us unawares.” By the 1850s, when fresh excitements were sweeping the South, one panic was set off in Virginia by the sight of a line of slaves heading to work in the mines: they were carrying shovels and pickaxes, and people thought they had armed themselves for murdering their masters. Another wave of panic spread through Texas in the summer of 1860 after a number of big fires broke out in the major cities. Texas happened then to be in the middle of a severe drought—but nobody blamed the weather. The fires had to be the work of secret gangs of disaffected slaves and infiltrating abolitionists. There followed a convulsive wave of arrests and lynchings. By early fall, when the rains returned, the situation briefly calmed. It flared up all over again that November, reached a new peak of fury, raged out into the lower valley, and then inflamed the whole South as the news spread that the archfiend of the abolitionists had just been elected president of the United States.

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