State Treasure - Tennessee

By Anthony M. Belli
From page 29 of the July, 2010 issue of Lost Treasure
Copyright © 2010 Lost Treasure, Inc. all rights reserved

$1 Million TreasureHOUSTON COUNTY – John A. Murrell (1806? – 1844), also known as the Great Western Land Pirate, in his youth organized the Mystic Clan, a band of cutthroat outlaws who, for 12 years, reigned terror against all living in the Mississippi River region. Murrell’s personal cache of $1 million in stolen loot is believed to remain buried in rural Tennessee. To date just two caches linked to the clan have been unearthed.Born in Lunenburg County, Virginia, and raised in Williamson County, Tennessee, young John and his two brothers all earned reputations as petty thieves in childhood. Mr. Murrell was a Methodist circuit preacher who was away from home for long periods, while Mrs. Murrell ran a boarding house by renting rooms in the family home to weary travelers, so she claimed. During Mr. Murrell’s long absences from home, one man described Mrs. Murrell’s business as a “combination tavern, brothel and thieves’ market.”And history isn’t much kinder, in essence remembering the preacher’s wife as a vivacious whore who seduced and exhausted her gentlemen guests in order to rob them. John later recalled that, as a young boy, his mother would direct him to sneak into the guest’s rooms after they were fast asleep and pilfer everything of value.Discovery of the crime the next day received little or no attention, since none of Mrs. Murrell’s guests wanted to face an inquiry or divulge any information about their activities on the evening prior. John left home at 16 already a career criminal. Known for his charismatic charm, as a young man Murrell organized a band of outlaws known as the Mystic Clan.In J. M. Keating’s History of Memphis, Tennessee (1888), he wrote… “Murrell’s clan counted their numbers by hundreds. They held their 'grand council' in the deep, dark woods of the Mississippi Bottom in Arkansas, 12 or more miles below Randolph [at] a notable sycamore, towering above all other trees, discernible for miles around.” With impunity, the clan terrorized citizens living along the Natchez Trace, the Mississippi River, its tributaries, and throughout central and west Tennessee for 12 years.Murrell and the Mystic Clan engaged in highway robbery, burglary, theft, slave stealing, assault and murder. The amount plundered cannot be estimated. Murrell intentionally never carried large amounts of the clan’s loot with him, opting to cache much of it in predetermined sites across Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee.As the money came in it was deposited into the clan’s cache holes where it remained for as long as it took for the heat to die down; it was then distributed to members accordingly. At the peak of Murrell’s career, some historians claim membership in the Mystic Clan reached around 1,000. During this period, Murrell built a fine stone house in Denmark, where he settled and quietly ran his criminal enterprise.The end came on February 7, 1834, after a runaway slave was discovered on Murrell’s land. Arrested for slave stealing, Murrell was convicted and sent to the Tennessee State Penitentiary for a 10-year stretch in July 1834. Released in April 1844, suffering from tuberculosis and wanting to “drop out-of-sight,” Murrell secretly moved to Pikeville (Bledsoe County) to spend the last seven months of his life. Murrell joined the local Methodist Church, sang in the choir, and was treated by a local doctor.On November 3, 1844, Murrell died and was buried in a cemetery at Smryna, Tennessee. So what happened to the loot that was buried in the clan’s cache sites, and what became of Murrell’s personal cache? The clan had long been disbanded when Murrell was released from prison. Since Murrell couldn’t travel long distances, and none of his old villain friends knew where to find him, it’s believed the location of many Mystic Clan cache sites died with him.As for Murrell’s private bank, said to contain $1 million in gold specie, there are two lines of thought. Most believe Murrell’s personal cache remains buried in the vicinity of his stone house in rural Denmark. Others think the crafty outlaw had confederates, perhaps through prison contacts living in Pikeville. They believe Murrell would’ve enlisted their help to dig up his cache and relocate it to Pikeville. History, however, does not record Murrell having any sign of wealth in the months leading up to his death.One treasure cache of $30,000 attributed to the Mystic Clan was unearthed in 1903 by Morton Ravenal, near Colbert’s Ferry along the Natchez Trace, on the Tennessee River. A second cache is rumored to have been found north of Natchitoches, Louisiana, in a fake cemetery built by Murrell.The Saga of the Bloody Brixie BoysCOFFEE COUNTY – I’m certain the Brixie Boys had every intention of being as big as the James-Younger outfit or the Wild Bunch, but, for whatever reason, history overlooked them. In only one instance is the Brixie gang mentioned during the post-Civil War South, and that is in connection to this treasure legend.The pioneering Wenten family is reported to have been among the first farmers to settle in southeast Coffee County at the southwest end of the Cumberland Plateau. Located in a region incompatible to farming, at a time when their presence was regarded as a trespass onto Indian lands, this vanguard family with a few others planted their crops, made a profit and raised their children. Early settlements like nearby Hillsboro were sparsely populated early on and offered few services. Pioneer settlers commonly kept the family’s money buried somewhere on the farm for safekeeping.In 1864, the Brixie gang heard of a prosperous farmer near Hillsboro named Wenten who had a reputation for being a miser. The outlaws proceeded to Hillsboro to take the Wenten farm. Under the cover of darkness, and without warning, the gang forced entry into the family’s home and caught everyone by surprise.At gunpoint they seized Cephus while his three children hid inside the home and Mrs. Wenten escaped into the nearby woods. The bad guys beat Cephus, demanding he surrender the family fortune, but he refused. He was then hauled outdoors to the base of a nearby oak tree and pistol whipped, but still said nothing. A noose was then placed around Cephus’ neck and the other end tossed over a sturdy limb of the oak. Three men then hoisted Cephus off the ground and watched for a full minute as he fought for his life. They dropped Cephus to the ground and, with a pistol to his head, demanded his money. Again he refused and was hanged.Next, Mrs. Wenten was dragged from the woods to the base of the oak where her husband’s lifeless body dangled. Pleading for their lives, she explained that her husband was the only one who knew where the money was buried. Tortured and beaten, she could tell them nothing; a bullet to the brain took her life. All three children were then seized and questioned. Like their mother, they knew not where their father had hidden his fortune and were murdered. The killers spent the night in the farmhouse. The next day was spent digging for the hoard, but when they failed to find it they moved on.Sixty-years later, in 1924, a local man stumbled onto what appeared to be a small, wooden barrel sticking up from the ground behind the abandoned and sagging Wenten farmhouse. He unearthed the old nail keg and discovered it full of gold and silver coins. He became paranoid and said later he felt as if someone was watching him. He quickly reburied the keg, covered it over and returned home. The man never returned to the old Wenten place, but years later confided in his friend, Peter Cunningham, as to what he’d found there.For a year Cunningham kept silent about the treasure. He then decided to dig up the hoard for himself, but the day before he would’ve made the trip he died from a stroke. Many believe the treasure is cursed and the ghosts of Cephus and his family still stand guard over the hoard.For those who intend to research the Wenten family history and the site of their Hillsboro farm, I’ll save you some time. Records for Coffee County show no family named Wenten. This likely indicates a misspelling of the surname. I recommend using alternative spellings of this name, Wenton, Winten, etc., for research purposes.Sources:Keating, J.M, "History of the City of Memphis Tennessee, 1888," Syracuse, N.Y., D. Mason & Co., Publishers, p. 157-159 Casey Tim, “Messenger of the Devil,” January, 1995, Treasure Cache, p. 35, The Murrell Clan, Kirk, Lowell, John A. Murrell – An Early Tennessee “Terrorist,” Howard, John, “Lost Tennessee Hoard,” June 1971, True Treasure magazine, p. 26 Jameson, W.C., Buried Treasures of the South, 1992, Little Rock, Arkansas, August House, Inc., p. 190 – 193.


HBJ1999's picture

Methodist traveling log books

I have many (original) "methodist/traveling preacher-log books" from the 1800's to early 1900's....this mans name is mentioned a few (plus) times in the books!! Will have to re-look at the yrs/dates & locations again!

KentuckyOutlaw's picture

John Murrell

Could you possibly throw us a "crumb". Like a possible date when you may complete Documentary?.................................Terry

I have done so much - for so long - with so littleI am now qualified - to do anything - with nothing!

KentuckyOutlaw's picture


If anyone needs anyone to do Kentucky research - Feel free to contact me!Good work on this article!

I have done so much - for so long - with so littleI am now qualified - to do anything - with nothing!

cnielsen's picture


Hi there. I looked up the county in Tennessee and you are right. The change has been made in the story. Of course we try to avoid typos at all costs, but, being human, they do sometimes happen. Thanks...for the heads up.

Treasure Hunter gary hudson's picture


That's HOUSTON COUNTY not Huston in the Tennessee article on the Murrell Clan.  Great job on the research!

cnielsen's picture

Follow up

Thanks so much for this info, Ron. I will be sure the writer who does our state stories reads and checks out your info for future reference on Tennessee state stories.

Have a great day!

Treasure Hunter's picture

John A. Murrell

John A. Murrell is not buried in Smryna, Tennessee. He is buried in Symrna Cemetery, Pikeville, Tennessee. I have been filming a documentary on Pikeville and Bledsoe County Tennessee. I have been researching this quiet a bit here lately. I went and video taped where he is buried.

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