Stories of the notorious James Copeland Gang have been told for generations in the Pine Belt. Legend has it that Copeland’s Gold is still hidden in various locations throughout Mississippi and treasure hunters continue to look for it, to this day, but the gold isn’t the only thing that folks remember about Copeland and his gang.
Helen Clunie, a decedent of one of Copeland’s victims, remembered her grandfather telling stories about the Copeland Gang. According to Clunie, Copeland’s gang would come through town and ravage the country side.
“I remember my grandfather, Lemuel Alexander, telling the story of the Copeland Gang,” Clunie said. “When he was a small boy, the gang would come through the territory and if they thought there was someone who had money or anything of value in their homes, they would steal from them.”
Clunie said that because her great-grandfather had money, he had to figure out how to keep it hidden from the outlaws. “So his father, having money, would put in gourds and then pour his homemade soap into the gourd over the money,” Clunie said. “He had a clothesline strung over the front porch of his house and that’s where he would hang the gourds.”
According to Clunie, the gang never found out what the farmer was up to. “Well, the gang would come by and was friendly; so he would serve them coffee or homebrew and they would sit on the porch, and spit and whittle, telling their stories, which was the popular pastime in the olden days,” Clunie said.
To keep the members from discovering their secret, the Alexander family would loan money from the group. “Pappa Alexander would always borrow money from the gang, which they would lend him,” Clunie said. “Next time the gang came through, he would pay the money back and this is how the story went until there were no more trips and no more visits and no more Copeland Gang.”
The Alexander family was one of many effected by the gang. The wrath of the Copeland gang was so severe that for years after James Copeland’s death, the stories were hushed and children punished for talking about them.
James Copeland, also known as the Southern Land Pirate, was born near the Pascagoula River in Jackson County, Mississippi on January 18, 1823, according to the WPA history of Lamar County.
According to a memoir by Copeland days before his death, his parents, Isham Copeland and Rebecca Wells Copeland, insisted that he go to school and get a good education.
“My father often insisted, and urged it upon me to study and try to obtain a good education, and he told me that he would send me to school as long as I wished to go,” Copeland said.
However, Copeland learned how to cheat, steal and swindle his classmates out of there pocket-knives and anything else he desired.
“Indulging in this rude and mischievous disposition, I naturally became more hardened, and when at school, it was my delight to see the scholars whipped or otherwise punished, and I would often tell lies on any of them that would displease me, so as to cause them to get a flogging; and very often I would tell a lie on an innocent scholar, so as to clear a favorite and guilty one, and have the innocent one punished,” Copeland said.
Copeland was caught and punished, but after each instance he would get caught committing a worse crime than the one before. Anyone who played a part in getting Copeland caught would be in fear of his vengeance.
According to Copeland, his mother would always ‘protect and indulge’ him whenever he would get into trouble. Copeland said, “… being so indulged and protected, this excited me to commit crimes of greater magnitude.”
Copeland was generally successful at his mischievous undertakings, but eventually he was caught stealing hogs from his neighbor, Mr. Helverson, according to the Perry County WPA files.
Copeland said that his mother had sent him to Mr. Helverson’s house to get some vegetables or greens. Copeland went to house and told Mrs. Helverson what his mother sent him to do and she instructed him to go to the back garden and take whatever he wanted.
“I had no knife with me. I asked Mrs. H. to loan me a knife, which I knew she had, and she pulled out a very pretty little knife from her work-pocket, and told me not to lose or break it, for it was a present made to her by a friend, “ Copeland said. “Now, while I was in the garden procuring vegetables or greens, my whole mind and wits were employed in devising some mode by which I could cheat the lady out of her knife.”
Copeland hid the knife in the bottom of his sack and told Mrs. Helverson that he lost it in the garden. The two then searched the garden for the knife without finding it.
“The lady was very anxious about her knife and much regretted its loss, while I was all the time laughing in my sleeve, to know how completely I had swindled her,” Copeland said.
Soon after, Copeland found something else that he wanted from the Helverson family. According to Copeland, he and one of his four brothers, Isham, took a horse and cart to the farm late at night and loaded 15 of his finest pigs and took them to Mobile, Alabama to sell for $2 each.
Mr. Helverson knew the boys had stolen the pigs, but he had no proof so the Copeland brothers went unpunished. Copeland said that he was so thrilled by the success and the encouragement of his mother that he decided he could make a living by thieving.
“I believed that I could make an independent fortune by thieving, and became insensible of the danger which awaited me,” Copeland said.
Still excited by his success, Copeland decided to steal more pigs from Mr. Helverson, but he was not as fortunate as the first attempt.
Even though he was 14 years-old at the time, Copeland was prosecuted for pig stealing and arrested by the sheriff of Jackson County. Copeland was charged with larceny.
Copeland’s father hired his the best counsel in the land, who after hearing the facts of the case, advised Copeland to put off the trial as long as possible, according to Copeland. “Fully sensible of my situation, young as I was at that time, it became necessary for me to devise some plan to get out of the scrape, and I reflected for weeks on how to manage this matter,” Copeland said.
Rebecca Copeland, James’ mother, who always took up for him asked Gale Wages to help free her son from his fate in the penitentiary. Wages and Rebecca decided that the best way to free James was by burning down the courthouse and destroying the evidence of his indictment, according to the Perry County, Mississippi WPA files.
Copeland said, “With this plan I was highly pleased, and much elated with the idea that I had a friend fully able and competent to bear me out, and who would stand up to me at any and all hazards, and bring me out clear.”
Joining the Clan
There was never proof that the courthouse was set on fire by either Wages or Copeland, and both were able to get away with the crime. After the incident, Copeland trusted Wages and the two became very close friends.
“I looked on him as my warmest and most confidential friend, and I eventually pinned my whole faith on him and relied upon him for advice and directions in everything,” Copeland said.
Soon after, Wages asked Copeland to join him, alleging that he could make money without working and live a lifestyle of ease and adventure, according to the Pearl River WPA files. Copeland accepted this proposition and went to Mobile with Wages to become a member of his Clan.
“I was then instructed and given the signs and passwords of the Clan; and above all was cautioned to keep a watchful eye, and not to let any person entrap me; nor let any person, under pretense of belonging to the Clan, or wishing to join, obtain in any way information from me in relation to the existence of the Clan, or their plan or mode of operation,” Copeland said.
The oath of the Clan was administered on the Holy Bible. “Oh! What a profanation of that good book,” Copeland said.
Wages, president of the Clan, and Charles McGrath, vice-president, took Copeland under their wing to teach him the ways of thievery. The group ravaged the Mobile area, stealing anything and everything they could, according to Copeland. By the fall of 1839, most of the local residents had left the city and the gang started ravaging the bay area and burning stores after they were through.
After their plundering was finished, Wages, Copeland, and McGrath decided to go to Florida to sell some of the jewelry, liquor, and dry goods. Each man went a different way to have a better chance of selling their items, according to Copeland.
The Death of Two and One
The group continued stealing, robbing, killing, and burning down houses in different places, and in the summer of 1843, they came to Perry County, Mississippi, where they met Allen Brown, on Red Creek, according to the Perry County, Mississippi WPA files.
While in Perry County, McGrath pretended to be a preacher and would hold revival meetings while the Clan stole horses from outside the tent, according to the WPA history of Lamar County.
By August, Brown had decided to leave town and sold his farm in good faith to a man named Harvey, who was connected to the Clan. Before he left, Brown took a $40 note on the farm. Harvey refused to pay the note, and Brown got Wages to take up the note. He asked that if Harvey did not pay it to him, for Wages to kill Harvey, according to the Perry County, Mississippi WPA files. However, the men argued about the note, and Harvey killed Wages and McGrath.
Copeland was on his way back into town when he heard what happened.
“This news sounded in my ears like thunder; and so astounded was I that I lost for the time all my senses,” Copeland said. After thinking over what he should do next, Copeland had a revelation.
“I recollected that Wages had given me a diagram or map of the place where our, now my money was hidden, and a direction of the course so that I certainly could find it,” Copeland said. “Stimulated with the idea of being worth $30,000, I began to cheer up and returned home.”
When he returned home to get the diagram, Copeland found all his friends grieving.
According to Copeland, Wage’s father and the old lady asked him ‘James we will give you $1,000 for Harvey’s scalp, if you will kill the rascal or have it done.’ He then banned together several members to help in the task, and asked for a $500 advance from Wage’s father.
Copeland and his bandits then traveled to Harvey’s farm, according to Perry County, Mississippi WPA files. Harvey wasn’t home, so the group stayed and roasted his corn. The smoke from the fire betrayed their location. Harvey and a few other men snuck up on the gang, killing many people on both sides, including Harvey.
Copeland was able to escape the battle, but he lost the diagram of where the gold was buried, according to the WPA history of Lamar County, Mississippi.
The Capture of Copeland
After the famous Harvey Battle, Copeland and his brother, John, roamed the country side as outlaws. During the fall and winter of 1848, the Copeland brothers made two trips from Big Creek to Catahoula to hunt for the missing money, according to Copeland.
“I loitered away my time for some month or two, and it seemed that my mind in some way became confused and impaired, and I took to drinking too much spirituous liquors,” Copeland said. “I drank too much spirits and became intoxicated, and in that situation I imagined every man I saw was trying to arrest me.”
Copeland believed that an Irishman named Smith was trying to arrest him, and Copeland pulled his gun to kill him.
“He was too quick for me; he threw up my gun, drew his dirk and stabbed me just above the collar bone,” Copeland said. The wound did not reach the chest cavity, and Copeland was able to escape.
Smith then traveled to Mobile and told the news, which prompted a search party to arrest Copeland and take him to the Mobile jail.
“I was now in the worst situation I ever was in my life,” Copeland said.
Copeland was indicted for larceny in Alabama and murder in Mississippi, according to his memoir. “The question was which trial to avoid,” Copeland said.
He plead guilty and was sentenced to four years of hard labor in the Alabama state penitentiary. However, Copeland was not free of the laws of Mississippi.
“The vigilance of the Sheriff of Perry County threw a guard around me, that secured him the possession of my person at the expiration of my time in the penitentiary of Alabama, and he immediately transferred me to the county jail of Perry County, Mississippi,” Copeland said.
He stayed in the jail of Perry and Covington counties an upwards of two years before his case went to trial. Copeland was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death. However, before his execution could take place, the court clerk was alerted that the case was to be reviewed by the High Court of Errors and Appeals, according to Copeland.
This was false hope for Copeland, and he was declared guilty of murdering James A. Harvey. The prosecution asked for the death penalty because they could not pin any of the other crimes on him, according to the Perry County WPA files.
During his final night, Copeland wrote a letter to his mother:
Augusta, Mississippi, October 29th, 1857.
Mrs. Rebecca Copeland:
My dear Mother- It is with painful feelings indeed, that I attempt writing to you on the present occasion. I take this opportunity, knowing at the same time, that it is the last one of the kind which I shall ever be permitted to enjoy while here on earth. It is long and much that I have suffered while in prison since my first confinement in Mobile County, and yet it seems as though nothing will pay the debt but my life. I have had my trial and was convicted upon a charge of murder, and I have received the awful sentence of death. The sheriff told me today, that tomorrow at 2 o’clock I will be hanged, according to the order of court. Oh, my dear mother, what an awful sound is this to reach your ear. Oh, would it could be otherwise; but you are aware that I justly merit the sentence. You are knowing to my being a bad man’ and dear mother, had you given me the proper advice when young, I would now perhaps be doing well. It is often I have meditated on this subject since my confinement in prison, and often have I recollected my good old father’s advice when I was young, I would now perhaps be doing well. It is often I have meditated on this subject since my confinement in prison, and often have I recollected my good old father’s advice when I was young, and repented a thousand times over, with sorrow and regret, that I have failed to receive it as good, benevolent advice. If such a course I had taken, I have no doubt, but what I would be doing well at this time. But it is too late now to talk of things past and gone. The time has come when I shall have to take my departure from this world, and it pains my heart, to know that I have to leave you and my brothers and sisters; and much am I mortified to think how distantly you have treated me while here in prison. Not the first time have you been to see me; but I can freely excuse you for all this, and I do hope you will prepare to meet Jesus in Heaven.
Dear Mother, long has the time been that life was not any satisfaction to me. I am now in the dungeon with the cold and icy bands clasped around me, and cold as clay. Much have I suffered, but after two o’clock tomorrow, my troubles will all be over, or worse than they are at present. This I am not able to tell. I have been preparing to meet my God, praying diligently for mercy and for the pardon of my sins, but I do not known whether my prayers have been heard or not. – The Scriptures say “that the spirit of the Lord shall not always strive with man,” and again say: “he that calls upon the Lord in the last hours shall be saved.” If so, I feel some spark of hope, but I tell you this hope is hanging upon a slender thread.
Dear Mother, it makes the tears trickle down my cold checks to have to pen this statement to you. Dear Mother, I have to close this letter. My heart is overflowed already, so when you receive this, you can keep it as a memorial, and remember that poor Jim is no more on earth; that he has bid you a long farewell.
Dear Mother, it appears as though my heart will break at the very thought of this. Oh, could I but see you once more before my death, it would give my aching heart some relief; but we have to part without this pleasure.
Now my good old Mother, I bid you a long farewell, forever and forever.
Copeland was sentenced to be hung by the neck until he was found dead on Oct. 13, 1857. On this day, Copeland was led to the gallows and had his death warrant read to him.
Copeland then addressed the crowd that had gathered, urging the men to take his life as an example to avoid bad company. According to Copeland, his misfortune was due to being misled as a child. He concluded his life by admitting that the words of his confession were the true account of his life.
“Lord, have mercy on me!” Copeland said in his last moments, briefly struggling before dying.
The Gold’s Legend
John Guice, author of Life and Confessions of James Copeland, the Great Southern Land Pirate, remembers as recent as 12 to 15 years ago that people were still looking for the gold. According to Guice, one man even went as far as spending thousands to rent machinery to search for gold in various streams throughout South Mississippi.
“There may have been a little gold at some time, but I doubt very seriously that there was a great deal of it,” Guice said.
The Copeland gang was shrouded in mythology and mystery, even while it still existed. That myth perpetuated well into the late 20th century, and even worsened after Copeland’s death. According to Guice, families in south Mississippi wouldn’t even talk about the legends for years.
Now, Guice believes the tales of Copeland’s Gold are just that, wise-tales.
“The more I think about it as a mature person, the more I think it is a grand hoax,” Guice said. “If there was any substantial amount, it would have been impossible to keep its location a secret.”
According to Guice, there were too many people involved with the Copeland gang for the location of the gold to be kept a secret.
“I strongly doubt that it could have been kept a secret, and also because of how many people searched for it,” Guice said.
Even if the legend was true, Guice doesn’t believe there was as much money as the legend claims. “The Copeland gang was significantly involved in counterfeiting, so why would they risk going to prison with counterfeiting operations if they had all that gold,” Guice said.
However, there are still people who believe the Copeland-Wages treasure is buried between the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile Bay, Mississippi, and Alabama. According to Anthony Belli, author of Lost Treasure, outlaws often didn’t disclose the location of their treasure to other gang members in fear being looted by their own.
The only way to really prove if the legend is true is to start digging.
Excerpts from Copeland’s memoir were taken from Life and Bloody Career of the Executed Criminal, James Copeland, published in 1874 by Dr. J.R.S. Pitts. This book was later republished by J.R.S. Pitts and John Guice in 1972 as Life and Confession of the Noted Outlaw James Copeland.
Helen Clunie provided a written account of her story, published as an extra along with the Perry County WPA files.