From the late 1830s through the 1850s outlaw James Copeland and his clan terrorized settlers on the frontiers of southern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Consequently, a tremendous crowd gathered on the banks of the Leaf River just outside the town of Augusta in Perry County on 30 October 1857 to witness his hanging for murder. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, a carnival-like atmosphere prevailed among the members of the throng, many of whom had traveled considerable distances from nearby counties. Word had spread that Copeland had dictated the details of his ignominious career to sheriff J. R. S. Pitts while awaiting execution. The Life and Confession of the Noted Outlaw James Copeland appeared in print the next year and created a furor among the folk of the Piney Woods.
Because of the Copeland gang’s infamy, the fear it generated, and the intense interest in the names of his confederates, copies of the first edition soon disappeared. Rumors began to circulate that members of the clan had taken an oath to steal all copies, a myth that persisted in rural South Mississippi as late as the 1970s. Indeed, no copies of the first edition have ever surfaced despite decades of diligent searching by historians, archivists, and booksellers. In 1874 Pitts published a second edition containing a new introduction and an expanded appendix. In 1909 his son, A. S. Pitts, published a third edition, and in 1980 the University Press of Mississippi published a facsimile of the 1909 edition.
Copeland was born in Jackson County on 18 January 1823. His father, a veteran of the War of 1812, settled in the Pascagoula River Valley approximately ten miles from the Alabama line. At age twelve Copeland stole a pocketknife from a neighbor in whose garden he had picked some collard greens. A few years later Copeland was indicted after stealing some pigs from the same neighbor, although the senior Copeland had hired an attorney to represent his son. Fearing the boy’s conviction, his mother sought advice from an unsavory character from Mobile, Gale H. Wages, who recommended that the Copelands destroy the evidence by burning the Jackson County Courthouse. They did so. Smitten with the style and swagger of Wages, Copeland followed him to Mobile for initiation into his “clan.” While at one time that group bore both their names, it eventually became known simply as the Copeland Clan. As he faced the gallows, Copeland blamed his life of crime on his mother because she had failed to punish him for stealing the pocketknife and had introduced him to Wages.
Though South Alabama and Mississippi remained their favorite haunt, these outlaws roamed and engaged in crime as far east as the Chattahoochee River, as far west as San Antonio, and as far north as the Wabash River. While they specialized in stealing livestock and slaves, their activities encompassed arson, hijacking flatboats, murder, and counterfeiting. One clan member, Charles McGrath, masqueraded as a Methodist preacher, attracting huge crowds to his “revivals” while his confederates robbed worshipers’ homes.
Most of the Copeland Clan’s crime involved violence, frequently including deadly force, but their favorite technique for stealing slaves was treachery. After gaining the confidence of unsuspecting slaves, sometimes at slave revivals, gang members would promise to lead them to freedom; the slaves would run away, only to be sold at distant slave auctions. In one particularly despicable case, Copeland enticed a slave girl to run away with him, impregnated her, and then sold her at a New Orleans slave market.
The Life and Confession of the Noted Outlaw James Copeland provides a rare window through which one can observe the economic and social lives of the plain folk of the Old Southwest, with frequent references to timber-related industries, religion, narcotics, and, above all, frontier violence.
- J. R. S. Pitts, Life and Confession of the Noted Outlaw James Copeland (1980)