Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

America's First Serial Killers

A Dangerous Place

Map showing the Natchez Trace
Map showing the Natchez Trace

Toward the end of the 1700s in America, the territory known as Tennessee was a wild and woolly place. Adventurers, boatmen, traders and people just moving from one part of the country to another found their way through its thick forests. One of the central pathways was the Natchez or Chickasaw Trace, which connected lower parts of the Mississippi River to central Tennessee, e.g., Nashville to Natchez, and linked three rivers: the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi. At first, the Trace was simply a series of narrow trails used by deer and Native Americans, and for a while, one could travel only single-file on horseback. But as more people utilized it, the Trace broadened. Its heaviest use, according to the National Park Service, was from 1785 until 1820.  Only ten years later, it was abandoned as an official channel and it was nearly absorbed back into the woods, but today's Natchez Trace Parkway follows approximately the same route. Few drivers realize just how dangerous and bloody it once was — thanks in part to a pair of serial killers.

Explorer Meriwether Lewis
Explorer Meriwether Lewis

In The Devil's Backbone, a reference to the Natchez Trace, Jonathan Daniels describes its history. Early on, European-Americans unused to the wilderness relied on Choctaw, Chickasaw, or Cherokee scouts. Eventually, trading posts run by whites went up at various locations along the way. Many eminent people traveled this 440-mile trail, such as Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, and explorer Meriwether Lewis (who died there at Grinder's Stand in 1809 and is buried there). Itinerant preachers saving souls also used the Trace, as did merchants seeking their fortune, and it thus became a lucrative area for highwaymen. One of the most notorious spots was Natchez-Under-the-Hill, a port to the Mississippi River.

The town drew gamblers, prostitutes and "Kaintucks," or frontiersmen from areas north, who sold their goods and boats, and then walked around with pockets full of cash. They drank the profits away and then started for home. But just outside the town limits, bandits awaited them, often in organized gangs, and among them were two men who grew notorious for their cut-throat ways — even to the other outlaws.

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