Back in the good old days of yesteryear, there were outlaws and scoundrels just as there are today. They just wore funny clothes and sported weird moustaches. Their names sounded like characters in old TV westerns.
Along the mighty Mississippi River, these outlaws lurked in the shadows of cypress and cottonwood trees, crouched amid the clay bluffs carved into the hillsides, and hid themselves among the dense pine thickets that grew along the ridges and ravines.
These were the hang-outs and hide-outs of gangs of horse thieves, cattle rustlers, whiskey peddlers, gamblers, opium merchants and the like.
One of the most famous outlaws was a man named Simon Turner, who fled to the river bluffs and bottoms after being connected with a killing in Alabama.
It seems Simon was having a shootout with a man named Harkle when his young son Simon Jr., wandered upon the scene along with a fellow boy about the same age. The elder Turner was said to have put down his flintlock rifle when he spotted the two young boys. The elder men shook hands and ended their feud.
And who said there was no honor among thieves?
According to the Works Progress Administration account of the period, with footnotes by amateur historian Tim Harrison, most of the trouble had to do with the fact there was at least one saloon in every town and community in DeSoto County.
It was said to be a “common occurrence to see drunken riders gallop into town firing pistols and creating great disturbances,” wrote Mrs. Julia Haraway of the time period. Many killings occurred at picnics that started out peacefully until the liquor clouded people’s minds and spurred on their temperament.
During Reconstruction, the period just after the Civil War, horse stealing was a common occurrence.
The People’s Press and Times of March 21, 1867 stated that Martin J. Taylor, convicted of horse stealing, was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for his crimes. While in jail, he made a confession as to who the other members of his gang were, gave their names to the proper authorities, and warned area citizens to be on the lookout for them. Their names were published in the newspaper of the day and included: Ells Hurst, Elijah Hurst, Chapman Hurst, Timmer Moore, Jerry Ferguson, George Smith, William Garner, Andrew Garner, John Dunn, Hiram Dunn, all said to be of McNairy County, Tennessee.
Cattle rustling and moonshining would continue well into the 20th century. An article from the 1930s in the old Times-Promoter relayed a story of how DeSoto County Sheriff Sid Campbell and several deputies tracked cattle thieves some 15 miles through the woods and pastureland near the Days community.
The cattle thief was said to have abandoned a stolen cow, fled the woods, and was never heard from again.
A famous murderer named Julius Joyner, who lived in the area known as “Smoky Hollow,” is said to have plowed his fields with a firearm strapped to his side in case the law or an avenger came calling. He murdered his own brother during a quarrel, fled to Texas to escape justice, and was said to have become a school teacher before he killed the father of a student he had whipped one day. The father sought to kill him first, or so the story goes.
One of the most infamous outlaws was a man named Rube Burroughs, a train robber, who originally hailed from another part of Mississippi. If a person planted a pine tree in his front yard that home would be safe from any trouble from the noted outlaw. One of these pine trees, and one which was estimated to be the State of Mississippi’s oldest and largest pine tree, once stood in the front yard of former Horn Lake First Lady Annie Ruth Brown and her husband, former Horn Lake Mayor Winn Brown, Sr.
The large pine tree was felled during a storm in July of 2003. Pieces of the large pine tree were sent to museums around Mississippi, including the DeSoto County Museum, which features a large circular chunk of the tree.
Perhaps this piece of “heart pine,” made from a high up portion of the tree, guards the museum against any ghosts of outlaws that once roamed the area.
Many of these stories, actual artifacts and accounts of these legends and tall tales are housed at the award-winning DeSoto County Museum.
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ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.