Tragic Memories


November 21, 1901

 

TRAGIC MEMORIES

 

A Description of the Famous Cavern.

 

Once the Headquarters of a Daring Band of Desperadoes.

 

Sixty miles above Paducah, on the Illinois shore of the Ohio river, is the sleepy little town of Cave-in-Rock, and near it is the famous cavern from which the town takes its name, and which, next to Mammoth Cave is the most famous cave in the northwest.[?]  Here John A. Murrell made his headquarters, and here scores of dark and bloody deeds have been enacted.

Of late interest of another sort has centered about Cave-in-Rock.  Immense beds of kaolin have recently been discovered there, and northern capitalists are now preparing to develop these deposits.

For a third of a century Cave-in-Rock was the hiding place, fortress and treasure vault of John A. Murrell, the most famous bandit who ever infested the Ohio valley.  Finally it was his tomb.

From 1820 until 1850 John A. Murrell made the cavern his headquarters, and to this day relics of the bold freebooter and his band are frequently found in its labyrinthine recesses.

Murrell was the son of a wealthy Louisiana planter, an ambitious, daring young fellow who was anxious to make a fortune for himself quickly.  Early in 1820 he gathered a band of about 40 men of kindred spirits and began making raids on the fleets of flatboats that went down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans, then the main market of the South.  The number of these boats was large and their cargoes were rich.  They came from the upper Mississippi, the Missouri and Ohio rivers.  Some of them were laden with grain and farm produce, others carried furs and manufactured goods, and still others conveyed considerable quantities of gold and silver.  Making his headquarters at Cave-in-Rock Murrell preyed upon the river commerce until his depredations became so numerous and bloody that the Federal government sent posse after posse of marshals to capture him, and even put a reward of $50,000 on his head.  Owing to his intimate knowledge of the recesses of Cave-in-Rock, and the topography of the surrounding country, Murrell managed to evade the numerous traps set for him by the United States marshals and was never captured.  In the winter of 1849-50 the bandit chief was killed by one of his own men in a quarrel.  Later the Cave was used by Little Harp and Big harp, two notorious bandits and murderers, and by the equally infamous fords Ferry gang.

Cave-in-Rock, located in the Southern border of Hardin county, Ills., is a mammoth subterranean cavern with many side chambers.  The main opening is on the Ohio river and the men who were seeking Murrell supposed this was the only means of exit, but explorations in recent years have disclosed an underground passage, thirty miles long, with an opening at the town of Equality, in Gallatin county.  This passage is large enough to lead a laden horse through, and its discovery solves the mystery of Murrell's many escapes when the marshals thought they had him trapped.

Satisfied that he and his band were being followed and watched, he would quietly make for the river opening of the cave as if he were trying to throw his pursuers off the trail.  Seeing the bandit and his gang enter the cave, the marshals would settle down to watch the opening, confident that sooner or later the hunted bandits would emerge that way.  But Murrell did nothing of the kind.  He would lead his band through the secret passage, come out in Gallatin county, thirty miles away, and laugh at pursuit.  The entrance to this passage was so cleverly concealed that none of the men who were chasing Murrell ever found it, and its discovery was due to accident.

Besides this provision for escape Murrell always had the cave stocked for a long siege.  About three hundred yards from the entrance he established stables for twenty horses, and nereby [sic] were stored grain and hay sufficient to last a year.  Over the stables and reached by a ladder was a large chamber, which was used as a living room, and this was also kept well stocked with food.  Just beyond the stables there are a number of natural tunnels of considerable size and forming a bewildering maze through which none but men of long experience can travel, without becoming hopelessly entangled and lost.  Murrell had studied these passages carefully and knew how to go through them at a rapid gait and unerringly strike the one that leads to the exit in Gallatin county.

By 1849 Murrell's thirty years of pillage had so devastated the river commerce that the people of the central west and southwest united in an appeal for relief.  Murrell had amassed a large fortune, and was ready to retire, but was afraid to do so.  The government had a standing reward of $50,000 for his head.  His rule over his band had become so arbitrary that some of his followers revolted and he was afraid that if he deserted the remnant of his band, those with whom he had quarreled would seek him out and surrender him.  Consequently he found his only safety was in sticking to his stronghold and keeping the band together as much as possible.

Murrell grew restive under the restraint, became irritable and was almost constantly quarreling with those of his band who remained with him.  One day, in 1849, he was shot by one of the bandits in a dispute about the division of the spoils of a robbery.  At least that is what some of the survivors said.  But there is another story that the shooting was deliberately planned in the expectation of getting the reward, and that the quarrel was only a pretext.  At any rate the murderer cut off Murrell's head, and made overtures to surrender it for the offered $50,000, but the deal was never carried through.  While negotiations were pending a hint was given to the murderer that the passing of Murrell's head to the government would be the signal for his own death, and so he never appeared to claim the reward.

Some years ago some patent medicine vandal painted the words, "St Jacob's Oil" over the mouth of the cave, in great black letters.  Save for this disfigurement the cave looks much as it looked in Murrell's day.

The black cavern pierces a high stone bluff, some feet above high water mark.  From the face of the cliff a view up and down the river for miles is afforded.--Paducah News-Democrat.

 

Source:  Crittenden Press. (Marion, Ky.) 1879-1907, November 21, 1901, Image 7 - Chronicling America - The Library of Congress.

 

[My comments are in brackets.]