Is There a Monument to a Land Pirate in Centennial Park?



Does an empty base count as a monument?
  • Does an empty base count as a monument?
So, I was reading through William Waller’s Nashville, 1900 to 1910 the other day and I came across this passage, “Miss Belle Kinney was awarded the contract for a statue of Colonel Baxter, and the statue, cast in bronze and of heroic size, was unveiled May 28, 1907. The monument was erected in the apex of the triangle made by West End Avenue and Broad Street at Sixteenth, formerly Belmont Avenue. Major Lewis, member of the Board of Park Commissioners, countered by installing a marker in Centennial Park to the memory of John A. Murrell, a famous thief of early Tennessee days. the Major’s viewpoint was that the $1,000,000 subscription to the Tennessee Central stock was on no higher plane than thievery.” (p. 38)

If there were such a statue erected to John Murrell, it would have my vote for most hilarious insult in the history of Nashville. But is there such a statue?

Okay, let’s back up. Here’s what you need to know about John Murrell, if you don’t already: He was Tennessee’s most famous land pirate (after the Harpes). His father was a Methodist minister (you can see already why I like the guy) and his mother was a notorious whoremonger who supposedly taught John and his younger brothers how to rob people. John was the head of the notorious Mystic Clan, which was like the Masons, but for evil-doers, and his most famous scam was posing as an itinerant preacher and preaching the Bible while his men took off with the congregation’s horses. He was rumored to be trying to instigate a slave uprising in New Orleans so that he could take over the city and he was blamed for more than his fair share of murders (though who can say what John Murrell’s fair share would be?). When he died in prison, the State hacked up his body and his thumb ended up at the State Museum (where you can see it sometimes at Halloween).

Colonel Jere Baxter is a wonderful character in his own right. He was a lawyer and a newspaperman and later served as state senator and president of the Tennessee Central railroad. He helped found South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and Sheffield, Alabama. Baxter, Tennessee was so grateful that he ran the railroad out to them that they changed their name in honor of him. Y’all probably know him from Jere Baxter Middle School (where the aforementioned statue of him now stands) or Jere Baxter Lodge there on Gallatin.

But what you probably don’t know about him is that he and Judge Jacob Dickinson, who had been the Assistant Attorney General of the United States and Taft’s Secretary of War and, most importantly, counsel for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, loathed each other (which probably made extended family gatherings awkward, because Dickinson had been Baxter’s cousin’s law partner back in the day and Dickinson’s nephew was married to Baxter’s niece). For instance, while Jere was state senator, he gave a speech about how Tennessee was worse off at the time than it had been right after the Civil War, with all the poverty and the illiteracy. Dickinson publicly attacked him in national speeches and letters to papers, claiming that what Baxter was saying wasn’t true and, even if it was, he shouldn’t be telling people.

So, the Tennessee Central was a short railroad that ran between Nashville and, well, at least out to Baxter, but it was never very prosperous. Wirt Armistead, who was the local freight agent of the Tennessee Central said, “The Tennessee Central killed steamboat trade on the Cumberland River, and buses and trucks have killed the Tennessee Central.” But also playing an important role in the death of the Tennessee Central is that Dickinson’s railroad wouldn’t connect to it. Nashville took out a $1,000.000 bond on the Tennessee Central and people connected to the other railroads in town went berserk. People questioned whether the bond issue was even legal or if Baxter had managed to bilk the city out of an amazing amount of money.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this post. Jere Baxter dies and his friends put up a statue in honor of him. Did his enemies really put up a counter-statue of John Murrell in Centennial Park, since, if Nashville was going to be honoring famous thieves, might as well honor the most famous?

I’ve been to Centennial Park a billion times and I never saw a statue of John Murrell. So, I contacted the Parks Department to find out whether one had ever existed. What I learned from them is that Lewis probably only commandeered a monument that was already in the park, scratching Murrell’s name — or so the legend goes — on the base of a sundial in the park. The sundial is missing and there's no evidence of Murrell’s name ever being there, but they told me the base is still there.

I followed their directions and found the sundial base, about 300 yards northwest of the Parthenon. As promised, there’s no evidence of ancient graffiti or a sundial, but the empty base still stands, not-quite-evidence of a great insult.

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