Milton Brown and the Trial of John Murrell

This lawyer took on an unpopular client believing that everyone, even the despised, is entitled to legal representation.

Many do not understand our legal system. They fail to appreciate that it is designed to work when both sides have trained lawyers to present their case and test the opponent’s case. From this clash of champions, the truth is expected to emerge. Nevertheless, sometimes a lawyer is confronted with the dilemma of whether to represent an unpopular client. There is the natural fear that championing a cause contrary to public opinion or the interests of “the powers that be” will damage a legal career. Yet history shows that this is usually an unfounded fear. John Adams’s representation of the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre in 1770 and Clarence Darrow’s entire career are famous examples. Tennessee has its own early such lawyer-hero: the young Milton Brown of Madison County.

The infamous outlaw John Murrell, known as “the Great Western Law Pirate,” was finally brought to trial at Jackson, Tenn., in the hot summer of 1834 after being unexpectedly captured at Florence, Ala. After his apprehension, he briefly escaped from Tennessee authorities, but was recaptured, to the relief of the people of West Tennessee. The daring and ruthless Murrell’s criminal career had finally come to an end as he was charged with almost every crime in the Tennessee Code. This dashing but dastardly criminal was especially skilled in counterfeiting, horse theft and slave stealing, all serious offenses in antebellum Tennessee. He was known to steal the same slave multiple times for the purpose of resale, often luring slaves with a false promise of freedom. If a slave’s owner published the theft so much that Murrell felt at risk in attempting resale, the slave would be found brutally murdered. Hence, slave owners were hesitant to report the theft for economic if not humanitarian reasons.[1]

As for horse theft, Murrell’s operation grew so extensive that he maintained a secret corral in Kentucky to hold horses until they could be sold. His favorite haunts were along the Mississippi River in Tipton County and the Natchez Trace, and his favorite method of horse theft was to ride into a town pretending to be a circuit-riding preacher. (It is said he took after his unscrupulous mother.) In any event, Murrell, the son of a minister, would call a revival meeting for that night and, while the citizenry was engrossed in his powerful sermon, his associates would make off with the congregation’s horses.[2] It was even alleged that he would kill for the right price, and he was credited with murdering as many as 400 people. However, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction with Murrell and his “empire of crime.” By 1834, he was a legend and arguably the first organized crime boss in America.

It is certain Murrell was a master criminal of uncommon ability. His activities covered as many as eight states in the lower Mississippi Valley, but his home base was Madison County, Tenn. His organization grew to a grand scale, and he called it the “Mystic Clan.” Every move seemed calculated for dramatic effect and to frighten and enrage the public, especially the wealthy slave-owning planters. There is even evidence that he encouraged slave insurrections, particularly one planned for Christmas Day 1835.[3] In any event, the region was terrorized, rich and poor, slave and master. When Murrell was unexpectedly captured, the people demanded his execution. Not surprisingly, no one would agree to represent Murrell. Circuit Court Judge Joshua Haskell finally appointed Milton Brown of Jackson as Murrell’s counsel. Many urged Brown to decline the appointment, but he accepted, believing everyone, even the despised Murrell, is entitled to legal representation.[4]

Milton Brown was born on Feb. 28, 1804, at Lebanon, Ohio. By 1823, the 19-year-old had found his way to Nashville and was studying law in the busy office of Congressman Felix Grundy. On admission to the Tennessee bar, Brown struck out for West Tennessee and opened an office in Paris. In 1832 he relocated again to Jackson, the legal center of West Tennessee. At Jackson his practice grew because of hard work, community service, and his soon-to-be celebrated oratorical and trial skills. He also became an active member of the Whig Party, the First Methodist Church of Jackson, and a leader of the local Temperance Society, a group that grew to more than 100 members.[5]

Brown’s rising status in the community, however, appeared endangered by his new, controversial court-appointed pro bono case. Despite the warnings, Brown prepared a vigorous defense. The region was enthralled in the trial, for the proceedings were widely reported in the press. The colorful Murrell and his crimes were a newspaper editor’s dream, and the papers made the most of it.[6] Although hanging appeared to be a forgone conclusion, Brown went on the offensive in a courtroom packed with spectators, press and the handsome Murrell’s lady-admirers. The youthful lawyer focused on the prosecution’s key witness, Virgil Stewart, a former friend and associate of Murrell who had infiltrated Murrell’s organization then turned state’s witness. We know that Brown attacked Stewart’s credibility and motives and painted him as a Judas. After the trial, Stewart was so incensed that he published the following rebuke of Brown:

When I took measures to secure the conviction of John A. Murrell, I was not proceeding against a friend, but an enemy; an enemy not only to me, but to every honest man in the community; whose outrages were insufferable, and whose systematic plans evade every effort to bring him to justice. Thus the dignity of our laws and institutions, which were established for the protection of our lives, liberty, and property, lay insulted and trampled under the feet of that daring incendiary and his piratical legion, who gloried in the havoc they were making of our property, and the dissensions they produced in the social-bands of society; for to both ends were their purposes directed. In my proceedings against this formidable banditti, I considered myself justified in initiating measures which have been taken by the greatest patriots and generals of our country, whose opinions and acts we are bound to respect.

Mr. Brown is not willing that I should ever wear any other character than the infamous one I represented to John A. Murrell, and he professed to see no virtuous motives in my conduct which propelled me to action. No, sir, as there was no large fee, or other selfish consideration, to influence my actions, it was a mysterious matter with him, because his own narrow soul is too small to render the same services, and for that very reason, all such men as Milton Brown have no right to express their contracted views of me and my conduct; and, should they express them, they are entitled to no credit. I consider him, and all such men, nothing more than the organ through which the venom of a detestable and piratical clan of villains was vented towards me, whose machinations and calumny were ignobly piled on my character by Mr. Brown, like another ignominious hireling in iniquity.

Any attorney at law, who will lie and misrepresent evidence for the sake of indulging in abuse and slander on the character of a witness, is a base, corrupt scoundrel, and should not be respected by any man. Milton Brown lied and misrepresented my evidence for the sake of indulging in abuse and slander on my character when a witness: therefore Milton Brown is a base, corrupt scoundrel, and should not be respected by any man.[7]

Stewart’s response and the outcome of the great trial prove that Brown’s strategy was effective. Brown not only damaged Stewart’s testimony, in closing he skillfully argued that there may be evidence of horse theft, but insufficient proof under Tennessee law to convict for murder or other crimes. The jury agreed. Murrell was sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary. Upon his release in 1844, he moved to Pikeville in East Tennessee and became a blacksmith, a trade he learned in prison.[8]

As for Milton Brown, despite Virgil Stewart’s denunciation and the public hatred of his client, he was even more respected than before and now had a statewide reputation for his trial skills. In fact, he had entered the front ranks of Tennessee attorneys. His law practice flourished, and Gov. Newton Cannon appointed him Chancellor of West Tennessee in 1837 following the resignation of Chancellor Pleasant Miller. In 1839 Brown resigned from the Chancery bench and ran as the Whig nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives. Winning the contest, he emerged in Congress as a leader of the southern Whigs and a champion of the Whig program of high tariffs, internal improvements and the Bankruptcy Act of 1841. His ceaseless attacks on Democratic leaders in Congress and in Tennessee provided endless frustration to his political opponents. In 1843 Democrat James K. Polk confronted Brown in a colorful debate in Jackson on the issues dividing the parties. Brown, however, is best remembered for his 1845 deadlock-breaking resolution to admit Texas to the Union.[9]

After leaving Congress in 1847, Brown was often promoted for high office, including the Tennessee Supreme Court and the U.S. Senate, but such efforts failed to interest him. Instead, he turned his attention to transportation and remained a tireless promoter and manager of railroads during his tenure as president of the Mississippi Central and Tennessee (1854-56) and the Mobile and Ohio (1856-71). He is credited with doing more to cover West Tennessee in rails than any other person. Brown, among Tennessee’s most charitable Methodist lay leaders, was also instrumental in the founding of Union, Lambuth and Vanderbilt universities.[10]

During the Civil War, Brown gave much of his personal wealth to the Confederate cause, including the outfitting of local volunteers with supplies and horses. When Jackson fell to federal forces, his wife was brutalized by Union soldiers and their home ransacked. Yet after the war, he rebuilt his railroad and fortune[11] When in 1873 fire destroyed the Academy of the Immaculate Conception at Jackson, the Dominican Sisters operating the boarding school did not know where to turn. Methodist Milton Brown had a solution. He donated his mansion on Baltimore Street to be used as the school until a new building could be built.[12] Brown also permitted his house to be used as a conference site for southern black Methodist leaders in order to lay the groundwork for the formation of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Brown died one of the wealthiest men in Tennessee in 1883 and is interred in Jackson’s Riverside Cemetery.[13]

As for John Murrell, he died in Pikeville nine months after his release from prison.[14] Not long after his burial, his decapitated corpse was found disinterred from its grave and half eaten by hogs. The head later appeared as a carnival attraction to be viewed for 10 cents.[15] The existence and location of a long lost “Murrell Treasure” is debated. Some believe this fabulous fortune lies hidden in Madison County to this day, perhaps near his home at Denmark, Tenn.

RUSSELL FOWLER is associate director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has more than 40 publications on law and legal history, including several in this Journal.

Notes

  1. Russell Fowler, “Milton Brown, 1804-1883: West Tennessee’s Man for All Seasons,” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, Vol. L, 8 (1996); Emma Inman Williams, Historic Madison 87 (1946).
  2. Russell Fowler, “Milton Brown, 1804-1883: West Tennessee’s Man for All Seasons,” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, Vol. L, 8 (1996).
  3. James Lal Penick Jr., The Great Western Land Pirate: John A. Murrell in Legend and History 150 (1981).
  4. Russell Fowler, “Milton Brown, 1804-1883: West Tennessee’s Man for All Seasons,” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, Vol. L, 8 (1996).
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. H. R. Howard, ed., The History of Virgil A. Stewart and His Adventure in Capturing and Exposing The Great Western Land Pirate and His Gang in Connextion with the Evidence 175-77 (1836).
  8. Russell Fowler, “Milton Brown, 1804-1883: West Tennessee’s Man for All Seasons,” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, Vol. L, 8-9 (1996); Emma Inman Williams, Historic Madison 87-88; 242-43 (1946).
  9. Russell Fowler, “Milton Brown,” The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture 95 (Rutledge Hill Press, 1998).
  10. Id.
  11. Russell Fowler, “Milton Brown, 1804-1883: West Tennessee’s Man for All Seasons,” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, Vol. L, 21-22 (1996).
  12. Buford C. Utley, “The Early Academies of West Tennessee,” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, VIII, 17 (1954).
  13. Russell Fowler, “Milton Brown, 1804-1883: West Tennessee’s Man for All Seasons,” The West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, Vol. L, 22-23 (1996).
  14. Id. at 9.
  15. James Lal Penick Jr., The Great Western Land Pirate: John A. Murrell in Legend and History 31 (1981).

Russell Fowler RUSSELL FOWLER is associate director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has more than 40 publications on law and legal history, including several in this Journal.