The Devil’s Punchbowl
“Far in the past, a great cup-shaped hole, about five hundred feet wide, had formed in the soft earth of the river bluffs. Slowly it seemed to widen, as gullies formed along its sides and rows of trees hurtled into its depths. Thickly grown, it provided a dim, almost impenetrable place of concealment. Natives thought a heavy meteor might once have plummeted here, sinking into the earth. Steamboat men claimed that their compasses behaved crazily when they passed.” Harnett T. Kane “Natchez On The Mississippi”
Ask twelve people in Natchez the location of the Punchbowl and you will get twelve very different answers. Much of this is due to the fact that the river north of Natchez was reshaped in the 1930’s, leaving the true location a bit fuzzy. Whatever has been said about the Devil’s Punchbowl, it has been a place of dread and woe throughout the early years of Mississippi’s history.
Prior to 1930, the river north of Natchez was not a relatively straight channel. There existed a 23 mile meander that started about 2 miles north of Under the Hill, arcing west towards Ferriday La, then north and back east towards Anna’s Bottom. Nestled into the bluff at this bend in the river is the Devil’s Punchbowl.
In the last decade of the 1700’s up until the 1830’s the primary mode of commerce was the flatboat. A flatboat was a raft of sorts that had a cabin built upon it for shelter while traveling. Goods would loaded upon it at points up river and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans. At New Orleans the goods would be sold and the boat broken up and sold for lumber. The boatmen would then make their way back to Natchez to embark on a journey back to Nashville via the Natchez Trace.
It was this pattern that drew the land and river pirates. The Punchbowl was advantageous due to both its proximity to the river and the Trace. By land the Trace is less than 20 miles. One common strategy for the river pirates would be to have a decoy on the riverbank, a very old or young person, call out to flat boaters for help. Making land, the pirates would swarm from the dense thickets, overwhelming the travelers, killing them and stealing their goods.
The most infamous of the pirates was John Murrell. Murrell operated as both a river pirate and a bandit on the Natchez Trace. The Mystic Clan, as Murrell’s gang was known, consisted of somewhere between 3oo and a 1000 persons. It was through this network that Murrell moved the stolen goods. Horse thievery and reselling stolen slaves also constituted for some of the gangs work.
John Murrell and his gang operated up until the 1840’s, when Murrell was apprehended as part of plot to take over New Orleans and install himself as some sort of potentate of Louisiana. For his crimes he was jailed in Nashville TN, where he later died of tuberculosis.
As one canoes down river into Natchez at around MM 368 LBD be sure to keep a watchful eye on the bluffs. Through the trees several deep clefts can be spotted, one of which is the true Devil’s Punchbowl. If your compass goes wild and you spot someone calling innocently from the bank, you will know that you have arrived at the right spot.
Treasure writer Thomas Perry described it as “resembling an extinct volcano. It is only a few acres across, but this natural fortress in the wilderness has been linked to more treasure stories per square foot than just about any other place on the planet. Sir Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte are said to have buried treasure there, along with a host of lesser known French, English and Spanish pirates.” As with all things southern, the story is usually better than the history.
The Southern View Ezine reported that: “Two sets of particularly evil, inhumane pirates plagued the river from Memphis to Natchez in the 1800s, the Harpe Brothers and Samuel Mason Gang, who were so bloodthirsty that they even repulsed other pirates. The Devil’s Punchbowl was a place for the hiding of treasure and the disposal of corpses. Mason’s crew would lure passing boats by posing as farmers with goods. Someone might cry out as if in trouble. Sometimes they would have a girl stand on the bank and call out as if in distress. Victims would be killed unceremoniously, stripped, and their bodies hurled into the Devil’s Punchbowl. The Masonites would throw in two bodies at once, betting which would hit bottom first. A terrifying time for travel and commerce along the Natchez Trace and the Mississippi River.” (Kathy Root Pitts)