John A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate

The accounts of the “Great Western Land Pirate”, John A. Murrell are enough to fill many, many pages. A story built out of legend and exaggeration from fact, here is the condensed story.

Murrell planned his own outlaw empire with New Orleans as his capital and himself as king. With a gang of followers labeled the Mystic Clan, Murrel and his gang were robbers, counterfeiters, horse-thieves, and slave stealers. When stealing slaves, Murrell would present them with a proposal: he would steal them from their current masters, sell them three or four times, and give them freedom in the North. But, once the scam became too well known, Murrell would instead murder them. The process Murrell and his clan used when disposing of evidence was gruesome. They ripped open their victim’s belly and took out the entrails, replacing them with rocks and sunk them in rivers & creeks.

Captured by a slave in Florence near Cypress Creek (and memorialized by a local historical marker), Murrell was sentenced to jail. Murrell died nine months after leaving prison, and parts of his body were said to have been dug up and stolen. His skull is still missing, but one of his thumbs is in the possession of the Tennessee State Museum.

As stated, there is much to this legend and most cannot be separated from what might be fact. Read a full account of John A. Murrell online here.

Read more about the Tennessee State Museum displaying John Murrell’s thumb.

William Basil Wood

William Basil Wood

“The Father of Florence”Florence Times, August 1, 1890

WILLIAM BASIL WOOD – A leading citizen of the Early day of Florence. Born Oct 20, 1820 in Nashville. Died April 3, 1891 in Florence. A quote from the Florence Times upon his death: “A full and faithful biography of him would, in large measure, constitute the history of Florence for the past fifty years”.

William Wood was born on October 31, 1820 to Alexander H. of Virginia and Mary (Evans) of England. Williams paternal grandfather was secretary to Alexander Hamilton and had commanded troops in the Colonial army. His father was an officer in the war of 1812. Wood was educated at LaGrange College and and was admitted to the bar in Florence in 1843. That same year, he married Sarah B. Leftwich and began practicing law. In 1844, William was elected judge of Lauderdale county.

William Wood served in the army at various capacities during the Civil War. As a colonel, he was in several battles including Shiloh and all the battles of the army of Tennessee. After the war, Wood got into the steamboat business until 1876 building several boats including the “Florence Lee”.

Wood had a very active interest in public improvements. His efforts in Florence were persistent and effective directly putting Florence in the lead of the growing cities of the South. Wood’s first effective work in this direction was the organization of the Land, Mining and Manufacturing Company, whose work gave Florence a commanding position before the county and accomplished great things for the city. Also, in connection with others, Wood organized (and became president of) the Railroad & Improvement Company.

Wood originated the idea and raised the subscription for the Florence Wesleyan University (State Normal College); gave liberally to it himself and was president of its board of trustees for several years. The college’s endowment being exhausted at the end of the war, Wood succeeded in having it sold to the state, and it was converted into the State Normal School.

Edward A. O’Neal Home

Edward A. O'Neal Home historical marker
Marker located on the Northbound side of Court Street across from Coby Hall

Home of the Father-Son Governors

Built in the 1840’s, acquired by Edward Asbury O’Neal. Occupied various times during the Civil War by Federals and Confederates. Edward A. O’Neal (1818-1890) attended LaGrange College; lawyer, Colonel of the 26th Alabama Regiment, C.S.A.; appointed brigadier general. Governor, 1882-1886. Emmet O’Neal (1853-1922), lawyer; Governor, 1911-1915; lived in nearby Courtview.

Thomas Hollingsworth

Mr. Thomas Hollingsworth - Florence, Alabama

Thomas Hollingsworth was born in Algiers, LA to parents of English descent. When Thomas was just 7 years old, his parents took him and moved back to England where he grew up and served 3 years and 3 months in the British army.

Moving back to America 1874, Thomas came to Florence in 1885 having only 15 cents to his name. He got a job working for the Muscle Shoals canal. One of his first real estate ventures was the purchase of a half-acre lot on Royal Avenue near the L&N depot for just $90. He later sold the same property for $3,550. Making many similar investments, Thomas quickly became a very influential member of the Florence community and a member of the city council.

By the 1890s, Thomas was worth over $50,000 and had built over 15 structures mainly in East Florence; the most notable of which was the Sweetwater Opera House built at a cost of $8,000.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 3rd, 1891 City Councilman Thomas Hollingsworth was found dead in a ditch. After attending a city council meeting on Monday night, Thomas headed for his home in East Florence with D.M. Wilson’s buggy (Wilson also lived in that direction). The two men stopped off at Schall’s Saloon for a few drinks and stepped back outside to find their buggy stolen. They both acquired horses from a near by stable and went in pursuit of the stolen buggy. Once the arrived in Sweetwater valley, each men went to their respective homes to inform their wives that they would be later than usual due to the pursuit of Wilson’s stolen buggy. Planning to meet up on Huntsville Road on Sweetwater Heights, Hollingsworth was never seen alive again. Wilson failed to find his friend and returned home.

On Tuesday morning, Hollingsworth’s body was discovered in a gulley beside Huntsville Road face down in the mud. A physician by the name of Dr. Kernachan, who viewed the body, stated “the cause of death to have been a fall, producing unconsciousness and suffocation by drowning.” Thomas Hollingsworth’s body was buried in the city cemetery the following day.