A Running Fight in Purdy, Tennessee (1859)

I’m taking advantage of a 30-day trial subscription to genealogybank.com and came across this newspaper article dated November 20, 1859 about a pre-Civil War fight between Fielding Hurst and M. Ledbetter on the streets of Purdy, Tennessee that involved pistols, horse shoes, and sticks! (Hurst is the subject of my book Hurst’s Wurst: Colonel Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry U.S.A.)

“A difficulty occurred between two of our citizens on last Wednesday night. M. Ledbetter snapped a pistol at F. Hurst, Esq., at the distance of about six feet, and Hurst afterwards fired twice at Ledbetter at the distance of about twenty paces, and one of the balls entered a chair in close proximity to Ledbetter.

Brickbats, horse shoes, sticks and bottles were thrown in wild confusion during a sort of running fight, which continued for several minutes. Much excitement prevalled, and some of our citizens done splendid dodging and running; in the latter list was found leading the way, one of the editors of this paper–we mean the one who lives in town. There was an old grudge between the parties, but we forbear comment.”


"Brownlow’s Cussing Judge"

In a case of “I wish I had known it before I published my book,” I stumbled across an interesting article while searching Newsbank this month. Newsbank is a searchable treasure trove of historic newspapers. My local library gives free off site access by simply having a library card. (Check yours, as they may have a similar benefit.)

The article was about Fielding Hurst when he served as judge of Tennessee’s Twelfth Judicial Circuit during Reconstruction. I’ve been researching this period of his life, one that has largely been ignored by other Hurst researchers. I’ve defended him both on this blog and in my book Hurst’s Wurst: Colonel Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry U.S.A., pointing out that many of the bad stories about him were partisan in nature, written by ex-Confederates with a bone to pick.

The article was published in the Daily Memphis (TN) Avalanche on June 22, 1867 . Entitled “Radical Demonism,” it described how Judge Hurst interrupted a speech made in Purdy, Tennessee by Emerson Ethridge, former Congressman and gubernatorial opponent of Governor William G. Brownlow. Ethridge was a conservative Unionist who believed former Confederates should have their voting rights given back to them, rights taken away by Brownlow and his Radical supporters in the General Assembly two years earlier. Judge Hurst was a Radical and had voted for the suspension of ex-Confederates voting rights.

Disliking what he heard while standing in the crowd, Hurst finally jumped onto the platform where Ethridge stood, “swinging his arms back and forth like the levers of a windmill,” and let out a torrent of obscenities at him. “That’s a d–d rebel lie, I’ll bet a thousand dollars,” Hurst reportedly cursed. “God d–m the rebels!” He pointed in his mouth and showed the bewildered Ethridge (who had no idea who he was) two missing teeth he claimed a rebel knocked out. He then cursed the Masonic Lodge and the church where the candidate’s speech was being given (despite himself being a Mason).

When Ethridge learned his identity, he chastised him for being a judge and behaving how he was and “perjuring yourself here before high Heaven–here in this sacred building–here before this altar, where all meet to worship the one living God.” But Hurst was not moved; he cursed the church and its preachers, who were a “set of canting, hypocritical rebels” and once again showed him his missing teeth! Ethridge mentioned there were women in the audience who were offended by his tirade; Hurst cursed them too, as rebels who “were worse than the men.”

According to the story, Ethridge told the crowd “he was going to enter into the animal taming business” and it “was as good a time as any.” Hurst took it as a threat against his life and cried, “Oh! you can shoot me. I know you are armed. I have no pistol. Oh! you and the d—-d rebels can assassinate me if you will.” The headline of the article questioned whether Hurst was “drunk or crazy.”

The article was clearly biased toward the pro-Confederate Conservatives and against the Radicals, so it’s hard to determine its truthfulness. Still, it shows a darker side of Fielding Hurst, whom the article describes as “monarch to all he surveys” in McNairy County, “[n]arrow minded, of deficient education, without legal or other information, drunken and debauched.” It’s an interesting story. I wish I had uncovered it last year so it could’ve been part of my book.

Proof of a Ghost in the Hurst Home?

(I intended to add this post on Halloween, but my computer’s hard drive decided to die and left me without Internet access for the past week.)

My last post concerned Russell Ingle’s “Ghosts of Purdy” article that mentioned the possibility that Fielding Hurst’s home could be haunted. Until I exchanged a series of e-mails last week, I had never heard–let alone seen photos–that there might just be something to it!

I mentioned that I had been there last November and had even walked inside, but saw nothing except a terribly vandalized historic home. Randy Lute sent me an e-mail two days before Halloween and shared what he experienced when he ventured into the Hurst home. Having read the article in last week’s McNairy County Independent Appeal and being interested in old homes and barns, Randy drove to Purdy and took some photos of the outside of the Hurst home. He walked inside and even went upstairs and looked around. “My heart was racing,” he recalled. “[N]ot scared, but [my] heart was racing.”

Later, he uploaded the photos from his digital camera into his home computer. He zoomed in on the window above the front door of the house and saw a very disturbing image he had not seen the day he was there. “I’m here to tell you, what I saw looking at me out that window stood the hairs on the back of my neck on end,” he wrote. “There’s a face looking out of that window, and it’s not a happy looking face. [It’s a] stern, mean, cold look.” He claimed to see not one, but two faces in the window.

“I want you to know I’m not doing drugs or drinking,” Randy assured me. “I’m a stone cold, sober, decent kind of man.”

I had no cause to doubt him and he promised to send me photos to prove it. Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. I love to hear ghost stories, especially with a local flavor, but still I was a bit skeptical.

Until I saw the photos.

Here’s the photo Randy took of the front of the house.

It wasn’t until he zoomed in on the window situated directly above the front door and porch roof that he saw this image.

In the middle pane’s upper left-hand corner, there’s what appears to be a human face!

I’ll add the other photos he sent me, but this one was the creepiest one to me.

McNairy County’s Boogeyman

Halloween is less than a week away–fear the ghost of Fielding Hurst!


The front page of yesterday’s McNairy County Independent Appeal had an article by Russell Ingle entitled “Ghosts of Purdy.” It’s a seasonal piece that ties Halloween with stories of ghosts supposedly haunting the home of Fielding Hurst and the Purdy Cemetery a short distance across the road.

Unfortunately, it’s also another example of sensationalizing history for the sake of an entertaining story and not getting the facts straight.

I don’t blame Mr. Ingle. I’m sure he just wanted to write an interesting story and share with readers what he had learned about one of McNairy County’s most notorious figures. I’ve had close to 15 years to learn what I know about Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry, so I can’t fault someone who may have only had a few days or weeks to research the subject.

There’s a lot of exaggerated and downright false information when it comes to Fielding Hurst and the Sixth Tennessee. One must trudge through period and modern-day partisan or erroneous writings to discover what is actually true. Much of them can be attributed to former Confederate soldiers, but some are more contemporary and simply expound and exaggerate from a one-sided (i.e. Confederate) point of view.

One hundred twenty-six years after his death, Fielding Hurst remains a despised man among descendants of the Confederacy in southwest Tennessee. It’s a hatred that’s been passed down from their great-great granddaddies who fought against him or felt his wrath or that of his men. I’ve heard stories of family members who were never seen again, their disappearances blamed on Hurst and his command. There are many people who have genuine reasons for their feelings against him.

Fielding Hurst has become the Boogeyman of McNairy County, Tennessee. He is a “monster” and a “demon”and his insidious reputation grows more brutal and bloodier with the passage of time. His evil deeds are magnified and sensationalized for dramatic effect to the point of absurdity. I’ve often thought someone should write a novel with Hurst as a central character because the stories that are considered truth already border on imaginative fiction.

I was contacted this week by someone who asked if it was true that Hurst “murdered and dismembered people and was possibly murdered himself. He cut off people’s heads and lined them up in his yard.” I repeat this not to make fun because the person only wanted to know if the accusations were true. Yet it shows how ridiculous the crimes attributed to Hurst have become. Such lies make Hurst sound like the Civil War’s answer to Vlad the Impailer, a.k.a. Dracula.

Probably the most common source used by writers is an article published in the Confederate Veteran (March-April 1992, p. 20-23) entitled “Hurst!” by W.Clay Crook. It’s available online and pops up on most every search for Fielding Hurst. Mr. Crook writes a well-worded story and turns prose with the best of them. It reads as an authoritative account of Hurst and many writers rely on its accuracy. Unfortunately, it suffers from a few factual errors and Mr. Crook gives no documentation to back up some of his assertions.

Mr. Crook writes:

“When the price of human misery and destruction is subtracted from war, little is actually left of the glory we so often admire in battle. It is true, however, that there are some who have tarnished the art of warfare more thoroughly than others. The Romans had Attila the Hun. Northwestern Europe, the Vikings … but old families in West Tennessee spit forth one invective — like acid from a shattered battery — Hurst!”

Hurst’s legend grows more with each writer’s take on his dastardly misdoings. Crook thought him worse than Atilla the Hunn, the Vikings, and Wiliam Tecumseh Sherman. Now Russell Ingle elevates his sinister stature to that of Adolf Hitler!

Mr. Ingle writes:

According to legend, Hurst said he was driven by divine mandate to cleanse the land of Rebels. Just like Hitler slaughtered the Jews, Hurst spread a bloody trail and left mutilated bodies wherever he traveled. The story is told how, on a patrol to LaGrange, Hurst carried with him a band of Confederate prisoners and, at every mile post, killed one, cut their head off and hung it on a post.

Granted, Hurst was guilty of many things from extortion and arson to executing Confederate soldiers and guerrillas. Murders of soldiers and civilians off the battlefield and on the home front, though committed by men under his command, were still his responsibility.

But in no way did his actions compare to the Holocaust and the death of approximately six million Jews in concentration camps, innocent victims who were persecuted because of Hitler’s prejudice against their people. They were not at war with Hitler and his armies, yet they were systematically killed because of their race.

Hurst’s so-called “mandate to cleanse the land of Rebels” makes him out to be a twisted and demented evangelist with an unquenchable thirst for Rebel blood, male, female, and child alike. This line was taken from Crook, who dramatically evoked the Bible with this verse: “Hurst himself felt driven by divine mandate to slay the Philistines (meaning “neighbors who tended to disagree” with him), cleanse the land of rebels and like Joshua before him, to spare not even the ox nor its manger.”

There’s no question Hurst detested those he and other Unionists labeled as “Secesh,” or the proponents of secession. He sought to avenge the persecution against he and his family from his rebel neighbors and the Confederacy as a whole. But to say he gave himself a “mandate” is unfounded and undocumented. It makes for good reading, but it’s simply not true.

The particulars of the executions of Captain John Ambrose “Dock” Wharton and four other Confederate soldiers have long been embellished. So what really happened?

Here’s the real story: It took place not at LaGrange but on the road between Purdy and Pocahontas, Tennessee. Hurst believed Wharton and his men were guerrillas and not Confederate soldiers and that Wharton had threatened to take his life. After a gun battle during which Wharton was wounded, he was taken to Hurst who vowed to end Wharton’s life instead. They were executed and left beside the road. At least one of the men, Thomas W.S. Morgan, was wounded and left for dead; nearby residents tended to him as best they could before he died.

There is only one authoritative source that I’ve found for the incident, a letter dated July 23, 1863 written by Dew M. Wisdom to Col. Philip D. Roddey. In it, Wisdom relates the incident but makes no mention of the soldiers’ bodies buried as mile posts, much less decapitated and hung on posts.

So where did the decapitation claim come from? Crook attributes it to G. Tillman Stewart, late historian of Henderson County. I’ve not found it in any other source materials. Because there is no evidence to prove it, it must be assumed that the decapitation version is false. The worst part is, when these distorted tales are published in books and newspapers and spread across the Internet, they become facts for those without the inclination to dig deeper. They are often accepted at face value and reprinted over and over again.


I’m sure I sound like I’m defending the actions of Fielding Hurst, but it’s really not the case. All I ask is that anyone who writes about him be objective and not completely believe everything they’ve read about him, particularly what’s available on the Internet. To embellish and exaggerate what he did for the sake of a good story distorts the facts and is dishonest to the reader.

(Parts of this post were written tongue-in-cheek to accentuate the dramatic prose used by some writers to describe Fielding Hurst and what he did.)