The years just before 1880 until about 1885 are considered the “outlaw years,” when lawlessness developed a law of its own and planned an empire.
Operating along the Natchez Trace, an overland trading and postal-rider route that in places was barely a trail, the outlaws preyed upon the traffic along this line. Their plans were laid in the dives under the bluffs of the river towns—Natchez and Vicksburg and as far south as New Orleans.
By far the bloodiest were the Harpes, who were capable of spectacular murders solely to amuse their comrades. Another gang of outlaws under John Murrell even threatened national stability, for a time, in his plot to steal slaves and organize insurrection, in order to disorganize the government and establish his own state. This conspiracy was discovered and defeated by a store clerk who joined the outlaws and lived several perilous months among them. He was almost hung by Murrell’s secret partisans among the “respectable” elements.
After the overthrow of the “outlaw empire” in 1885, the scene shifted: the frontier advanced; outlaw violence changed its forms, but it never again reached the terrible and magnificent range of the “outlaw years.”
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