|THE NOTORIOUS COPELAND GANG
Extracted from the Perry County, Mississippi WPA FIles
The Copeland Gang
Among the fireside tales told by the older people are stories of the notorious Copeland Gang, which terriorized
the county a generation ago. Near the Perry Bond House, was the "Old Gum Spring" (now in Stone County). It is
reported that the gang would come to water their horses and rest enroute from their hideout on the Pearl River in
Hancock County to the Black Creek on the boundary of Stone, or Harrison County, as it was then. Mr. Bond is
said to have furnished them entertainment, unaware of the real character of his guests. Besides James
Copeland, among other members of the gang were said to be two men named Wages and McGrath, who
posed, respectively, as an evangelistic preacher and singer. While they engaged the community in a revival, the
Copelands stole their horses.
James Copeland's Youth
James Copeland was born near the Pascagoula River, in Jackson County, Mississippi, on the 18th day of
January, 1823. He was the son of Isham Copeland and his wife, Rebecca Wells Copeland. His father insisted
that he go to school and study and try to obtain a good education. It was his misfortune that his disposition led
him to study how to cheat, defraud and swindle his comrades and schoolmates out of their pocket-knives, their
money or anything that they might have that he wanted. He was generally successful in his undertaking. If he
could not effect his object in one way, he would resort to some other and finally obtain it before he stopped. He
would be punished for these deeds and, as soon as he was released, he would commit a worse misdeed than
the one he was chastised for. Any of his schoolmates that were the cause of his punishment were certain to
wreak his vengeance.
He indulged in many such petty crimes at school and in the neighborhood of his home, until he was finally
caught, stealing hogs from his neighbor, Mr. Helverson. Despite his young age, he was prosecuted for pig
stealing and arrested by the sheriff of Jackson County. He had to give bond to appear at the Circuit Court to
answer the indictment preferred against him by the State of Mississippi.
He reflected for weeks how he might get out of this scrape, but it was his mother, who always took up for him
and supported him in any difficulty, who brought Gale H. Wages to their home to consult with about the problem.
Mr. Wages devised to destroy the courthouse, therreby destroying all evidence against James. James and his
mother agreed to this plan. Wages and James set a time for the accomplishment of their design and
accordingly met. Late one dark night, they entered the courthouse and placed combustibles in the roof on the
windward side of the house. After applying the match, they left the place in double quick time and stopped some
five or six hundred yards to watch the fire, rejoicing in their success. Once again, James got clear of a crime of
which he was guilty.
After the burning of the courthouse, the bond between the two grew. Wages one day made a proposition to
James, to join him, alleging that he could make money without work and live in ease and genteel style. He and
the other members of his group had a Wig-Wam in the city of Mobile, where they held meetings and that they had
many confederates there whom the public little suspected. James accepted this proposition.
Copeland is Accepted by the Clan
James went to Mobile with Wages and there he became a member of the clan. They held a meeting at the
Wig-Wam and James was introduced as a candidate for membership, where he was admitted. He was given
the oath. The oath was administered on the Holy Bible. The form of the oath was, "You solemnly swear upon
the Holy Evangelist of Almighty God, that you will never divulge and always conceal and never reveal any of the
signs or passwords of our order; that you will not invent any sign, token or device by which the secret mysteries
of our order may be known; that you will not in any way betray or cause to be betrayed any member of this order -
the whole under pain of having your head severed from your body - so help you God." After he was thus initiated
and invested with all the signs, words and mode of secret correspondence, by means of an alphabet or key,
invented by the notorious Murel of Tennessee. He was furnished with the alphabet and key and, in that mystic
writing, he was furnished with a list of all names that belonged to their clan and a list of several other clans.
After James had become initiated and had become identified with the clan, Wages and McGrath, knowing his
ability and that he was a keen, shrewd and cunning lad, took him under their special charge. They ranged that
season from one place to another, and sometimes in town, stealing any and everything they could. Sometimes
killing beef, hogs and sheep, hauling them to town and selling them; sometimes stealing a fine horse or a mule
and conveying it to some of their comrades to conceal; and, occasionally, a negro would disappear. All this
while, they pretended to be engaged in making shingles, burning charcoal and getting lathes and pickets, each
The clan went on stealing, robbing, killing people and burning houses in different places, until May, 1843, they
came to Perry County, Mississippi, to a man by the name of Allen Brown, on Red Creek. They hung around here
until August. They killed people's fat yearlings and hogs in the woods for their meats. They all stole mules,
horses and Negroes and sold until they had about $30,000 in gold, clear of all expenses. This was to be divided
between Copeland, Wages and McGrath.
Wages and McGrath are Killed
Brown had sold his place to a man named Harvey, who was connected with them. Brown took a $40.00 note
on the place, but Harvey refused to pay the note and Brown got Wages to take up the note and, if Harvey did not
pay it to him, for Wages to kill Harvey. They got into a difficulty about the note and Harvey killed Wages and
So, when Copeland came from a trip to Mobile and learned of this, he said it sounded like thunder in his ears.
He was determined to get Harvey. Copeland gathered a gang to try to kill Harvey. They went there, but no one
was home, so they stayed to try to catch him when he did come. They went to Harvey's field and gathered some
green corn and built a fire and roasted them and all ate what they wanted to, the corn, figs or apples. The smoke
of their fire betrayed them, so a large crowd came in on them and a part of both sides were killed, including
Those of the gang who weren't killed or captured went to Mobile, Alabama, but they were caught one at a time.
One of the clan was tried and convicted twice in Perry County, Mississippi. The first conviction was reversed by
the Appellate Court and, while in prison waiting for a second hearing, he died. Copeland continued to hide out
from place to place, intending to leave the country, but somehow there seemed to be a supernatural power over
him. One time, in partricular, he started and got part of the way and found he had left a large part of his money,
so he turned to go back after it.
James Copeland Captured
He loitered his time away until the spring of 1849, when he went to a grocery store near Mobile. He had been
drinking a great deal and this time he became intoxicated. While in this state, he imagined every man he met
was trying to arrest him. He had a difficulty with a man and he drew his double barrel shotgun, but the man was
too quick for him. He was stabbed, then he ran again, but the sheriff tracked him by his trail of blood and brought
him back to Mobile. He was indicted in Mobile for larceny and he had another warrant against him in Perry
County, Mississippi for murder.
He was tried and sentenced to four years in Alabama. The sheriff placed guard around him to secure him
and, after his time was served there, he was transferred to the jail of Perry County, Mississippi. He remained in
Perry County and Covington County jails two years before his trial.
Trial in Perry County
At the September term of court, in the year A.D. 1857, on Wednesday of the term, it being the 16th day of the
month, James Copeland was taken to the bar of the court and arraigned upon an indictment, found by the
following Grand Jury at the March term, 1857, to wit:
John W. Carter
G. W. Rawls
Joseph G. Young
James M. Bradley, Sr.
Joseph T. Breland
John Fairley, Foreman
Which indictment was as follows:
The Grand Jurors for the State of Mississippi, summoned, empaneled, sworn, and charged to inquire in and
for the State of Mississippi, and in and for the county of Perry, upon their oath, present, that James Copeland, late
of said county, on the 15th day of July, Anno Domini, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-seven, with force and
arms in the county of Perry aforesaid, in upon one James A. Harvey, then and there being in the peace of God
and the said State of Mississippi, feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault; and
that the said James Copeland, a certain shot gun, then and there loaded and charged with gun powder and
divers leaden shot, which shot gun, so loaded and charged he, the said James Copeland, in both his hands,
then and there, had and held, to, at, against and upon the said James A. Harvey, then and there feloniously,
willfully and the malice aforethought of him, the said James Copeland, did shoot off, and discharge; and that the
said James Copeland with leaden shot aforesaid, out of the shot gun aforesaid, then and there by force of the
gun powder, shot and sent forth as aforesaid, the said James A. Harvey, in and upon the left side of him the said
James A. Harvey, in and upon the left side of him the said James A. Harvey then and there feloniously, willfully
and of the malice aforethought of him, the said James Copeland did strike, penetrate and wound, giving to the
said James A. Harvey, then and there with the leaden shot so as aforesaid discharged and sent forth, out of the
shot gun aforesaid, by the same James Copeland, in and upon the left side of him, the said James A. Harvey, a
little below the left shoulder of him, the said James A. Harvey, diverse mortal wounds, of the depth of three
inches and the breadth of one quarter of an inch of which, the said mortal wounds, the said James A. Harvey,
from the fifteenth day of July in the year aforesaid, languished, and languishing did live; on which said twenty-fifth
day of July in the year aforesaid, the said James A. Harvey in the county of Perry aforesaid, of the mortal wounds
aforesaid, died, and the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, do further present that John Copeland, late
of the county aforesaid, on the day and year aforesaid, in the county of Perry aforesaid, malice aforethought, was
present, aiding, abetting and assisting the said James Copeland, the felony and murder aforesaid to do and
commit; and the jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the said James Copeland and John
Copeland, him the said James A. Harvey, in manner and form aforesaid, feloniously, willfully and of their own
malice aforethought did kill and murder, against the peace and dignity of the state of Mississippi.
George Woods, District Attorney, upon this indictment was indorsed "A true bill signed, John Fairley,
Foreman." The case was begun and held at the regular September term 1857. Present the Hon. W. M.
Hancock, presiding Judge of the 8th Judicial District of Mississippi. George Woods, Esq., District Attorney for the
Judicial District, James R. W. Pitts, Sheriff of Perry County and James Carpenter, Clerk of said Court.
Wednesday, a jury was selected by the prisoner and state and were ready to have the trial next day. On
Thursday, comes the District Attorney and the prisoner is again brought to the bar in the custory of the sheriff, and
the argument is resumed and concluded; and the jury are instructed by the court at the request of the counsel, in
writing, and the jury retire to consider their verdict. And, in the presence of the prisoner, return the following, to
wit: "We, the jury, on our oaths, find the prisoner guilty in manner and for as charged in the bill of indictment."
And the prisoner is recommended to jail to await his sentence.
Sentence of the Court
Friday, comes the District Attorney and the prisoner, who was on yesterday convicted of the crime of murder, is
again brought to the bar. And, thereupon, the prisoner, by his counsel moves the court for a new trial, which
motion was fully heard and understood by the court; and is by the court here overruled. And to the opinion of the
court in overruling said motion, the prisoner by his counsel here excepts: So he was taken back to jail, to await
the sentencing. The next day, the sentence of death by hanging was pronounced.
Letter to his Mother
Augusta, Mississippi, October 29, 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 that 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 the court. Oh, my dear mother, what an awful sound is this to reach your
ear. Oh, would it 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 had 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 service, 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 sister; 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 icy bands clasped around me and cold as clay. Much have I suffered, but after 2 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 know whether my prayers
have been heard or not. The scriptures said that, "The spirit of the Lord shall not always strive with man." And,
again, says, "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 cheeks 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
memorial and remember that poor Jim is no more on earth; that he had 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.
The day arose clear and beautiful on which the senetence of the law and of outraged humanity was to be
executed on the many who had so often violated their most sacred behest. The sky was blue and serene; the
atmosphere genial; all nature was calm and peacful; man a one was agitated by the various strong emotions
which the execution of the fatal sentence of retributive justice on a felllow man could not be create.
The place of execution was distant from the city of Augusta one quarter of a mile. The gallows was erected on
a beautiful elevation that was surrounded by the verdure of shrubby oak and the tall, long-leaf pine. The ground
was everywhere occupied by thousands of spectators, gathered from Perry and the surrounding counties, to
witness the solemn scene. It was indeed one that they will long remember.
About the hour of noon, the prisoner, after being neatly clad, was led from the jail by the officers of the law,
placed in the ranks of the bars formed for the occasion and the procession moved slowly toward the fatal spot.
Soon the doomed man appeared on the gallows, the death warrant was then read to him and he was
informed that he had but a short time to live.
He proceeded to address the awestruck and silent multitude. He especially urged the young men present to
take warning from his career and fate, and to avoid bad company. His misfortune he attributed principally to have
been misled while young. When he had concluded, a number of questions were asked by the immediate
spectators in relation to crimes which had transpired within their knowledge; but he would give no direct answer,
shrewdly eluding the inquiries.
The sheriff then asked him in hearing of many lookers on, if the details of his confession, previously made to
the officer, were true, he replied that they were.
His hands were then tied and the cap pulled over his face, and he was told that he had but a few moments to
live. He exclaimed, "Lord, have mercy on me." and he was praying when the drop fell, and a brief struggle ended
his blood-stained career.
Members of the Clan
This is to certify that I was present at the execution of James Copeland, who was executed at Augusta, Perry
County, Mississippi, the 30th day of October, 1857, and overheard the Sheriff, J. R. S. Pitts, ask him, the said
James Copeland, if the detailed history and list of names given as members of the Wages and Copeland clan
were correct, and he answered the Sheriff in the affirmative that they were. T. C. Carter, Office, 58 North
Commerce Street, Mobile, Alabama; members of the Copeland and Wages Clan, as given by James Copeland
in his Confession:
W. W. Moore
W. W. Ratcliff
J. W. Wesley
W. P. Hobs
G. H. Wages
C. H. McGraffin
J. Waters, Jr.
W. C. Whelps
J. F. Wright
S. S. Shoemake
|The following was shared with us by Mary Alice Laird, a descendant of John Mixon. John Mixon was
a jailor at the Augusta prison at the time James Copeland was held there. If not for family history
handed down from generation to generation, stories such as this one would be lost to us. I'm so
appreciative of Mary Alice sharing this! If the Mixons are in your family tree and you'd like to send
an e-mail message to Mary Alice, click on the book below.
George Washinton Mixon was my g-g-grandfather, he was a son of John and Rebecca Mixon. John
Mixon was a jailor at the Augusta jail when James Copeland was a prisoner there.
When John took supper to Copeland one evening, Copeland was waiting with a large plank or two by
four to hit him. Copeland missed John's head, but hit his foot and broke it, leaving John crippled. As
Copeland was beating John, Rebecca, his Indian wife, took her shoe and hit Copeland about the head and
made him let John go. Copeland ran down the stairs and escaped. He was later captured by Hamp
Nickles, where Leaf River enters Tallahala Creek. Copeland is buried in Augusta, MS. My cousin, Biddie
McAdory, said that the gallows where Copeland was hung, were still there when she was a youngster and
she would pass it on the way to school.
Ref. The Mixon-Mixson Family Volume II by John Leslie Mixon
|Mary Anne Hammonds, a descendant of James Andrew Harvey's first wife, wrote to me concerning his
role in the story above, explaining that James Harvey had no connection to the gang when he
unknowingly bought property from one of its members (property the gang member did not even own).
It was this dispute which ultimately culminated in the shoot-out on Harvey's farm. She included a link to
her cousin. Mardi Byrd Kelly's website, which contains more information about James Harvey. It can
be found at www.geocities.com/Heartland/Meadows/4555/3C1B11JosA.htm
Mary Anne, also, provided an interesting story, written by another
of her cousins, Helen Clunie, about the Copeland Gang:
"I remember my grandfather, Lemuel Alexander, telling the story of the Copeland Gang. 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. So his father, having money,
would put in gourds and then pour his homemade soap into the gourd over the money. He had a
clothesline strung over the front porch of his house and that's where he would hang the gourds. 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. But then Pappa Alexander would always borrow money from the gang, which they would lend
him. 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."
With many thanks to Mary Anne for adding to this exciting story!