Once a year, the Tennessee State Museum takes out its strangest object and puts it on display for the day. Last Saturday was your annual chance to see the cute little coffin and the mummified thumb that resides within.
This, allegedly, is the thumb of John Murrell, the great leader of the Mystic Clan, a kind of occult criminal organization that terrorized the people of Tennessee and Mississippi in the 1830s, while planning a vast slave insurrection that would give the Clan control of New Orleans and, perhaps, the whole Southeast.
Said to be the son of a Methodist minister and a woman who ran a brothel while her husband was out riding the circuit, Murrell was bad from an early age. He often was said to have posed as a minister himself, preaching inside the church while his gang absconded with the congregation’s horses outside.
Eventually, he was caught, tried for stealing a slave, and sentenced to ten years in prison, here in Nashville. After dying in prison, his body was cut up by curious medical students and, eventually, his thumb made its way to the State Museum, where it resides today.
Almost none of this is true. Murrell was a horse thief and likely a slave-stealer. He did go to prison. He didn’t die in prison, though, so it’s likely both his thumbs are with the rest of his body, in a grave down by Chattanooga.
There was no Mystic Clan.
The truth is something stranger and more horrible. I can’t do it all justice here, because it’s just too weird and too complicated, but I highly recommend Flush Times & Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson by Joshua D. Rothman, which explains the whole sordid mess in detail.
The short version is that there was this guy, Virgil Stewart, who (continue reading)