James Copeland: Mobile’s Antebellum Outlaw

Recounting an infamous criminal's life of crime across the Gulf Coast.

portrait of criminal James Copeland

Above The portrait, etchings and book cover image are from Life and Confession of the Noted Outlaw James Copeland by J. R. S. Pitts, first published in 1858.

At noon on October 30, 1857, 34-year-old James Copeland, escorted by a sheriff, climbed the steps of a gallows and faced a huge crowd gathered to witness his hanging. An outraged people had traveled miles to Perry County, Mississippi, from all over the Gulf Coast for the ghoulish event. Many had walked the entire distance from Mobile. Over the years, Copeland’s name had become a household fixture, striking fear in hearts and minds. This, then, was a celebration of retributive justice. Some brought picnic lunches and camped there for the night to assure themselves a good seat. When the time came, the condemned spoke his last words to the multitude and the blindfold capped over his face. Then, under a clear blue sky, he quietly uttered, “Lord, have mercy on me,” as the drop fell, ending the villainous and notorious life of James Copeland.

Jimmy Copeland first saw the light of day on January 18, 1823, and then was raised on a small farm near the Pascagoula River. One of five sons of Isham and Rebecca Copeland, his childhood could hardly be considered average. Although his father, a farmer and former patriot soldier under Andrew Jackson, encouraged him to attend school, his favorite subject proved to be stealing from his classmates. Pocket knives, money or any object that caught his eye, he would steal or find a way to swindle it from his fellow students. Such conduct was not tolerated by his teachers, resulting in transfers from school to school. Each time he was due to receive some well-deserved punishment, his mother, Rebecca, would intervene on his behalf, helping him contrive excuses and lies. Naturally, this encouraged the boy to commit another offense worse than the previous one. Looking back on his life, Copeland confessed that his mother “always upheld me in my rascality.” Perhaps she didn’t realize it, but Rebecca served as the enabler who launched Copeland into his life of crime.

Young Copeland’s misdemeanors and peccadillos soon ripened into crimes of a more serious nature. At the age of 14, he stole 15 pigs from a neighbor, loaded them in a wagon and sold them in Mobile for $30. He was eventually caught and arrested by the sheriff of Jackson County, Mississippi, and despite his youth, was charged with larceny. The charge was serious and the evidence against him was overwhelming. Knowing a lawyer would be of little help, his mother was desperate over the fate of her son. This led her to consult with the ruthless and cunning Gale Wages, a known outlaw in Mobile, who had been in and out of trouble his entire life. For Wages, the solution was simple. He and the boy would simply set fire to the courthouse in Jackson County and any evidence would be destroyed in the flames. As planned, on a moonless night in October of 1837, they burned the building to the ground along with all the records it housed.

Without evidence, the charges against James Copeland were dropped, freeing him to embark on his criminal career. At this time, lawmen were scarce on the Gulf Coast, enabling marauding criminals to prey on defenseless civilians. Worse still, many of these outlaws formed gangs, or “clans,” as they were called, and robbed and pillaged communities with impunity. Gale Wages was the leader of a large clan of 60 outlaws in Mobile, who operated with secret passwords, codes and hiding places they referred to as “wigwams.” Young Copeland, intrigued with how Wages had solved his problem with the law, followed him to Mobile. There, he became fascinated with his mentor’s notoriety and the number of important people he knew. At the same time, Wages saw great potential in young Copeland as a future outlaw and loyal disciple. The two bonded, which led to Copeland being initiated into the Wages’ clan and the life of a hardened criminal.

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Following a couple of years of tutelage in the art of stealing livestock and other valuables from the neighboring farms, Copeland, then only 17, participated in his first major crime spree as a member of the gang. It was a well-planned and orchestrated affair to rob every business in the city of Mobile. It was made possible because members of the clan, who were also watchmen and security guards for the businesses, provided the robbers with pass keys to the buildings to be looted. On the night of October 7, 1839, Wages and his group of outlaws, disguised in masks, entered every store on the east side of Mobile. Thousands of dollars worth of dry goods and jewelry were piled into carts and rolled to the wharf at the foot of Government Street, where two schooners and a barge were waiting. Before leaving, they set fire to the west side of town as a distraction. Then, boarding their vessels, they disappeared into the night, sailing south to a secret wigwam on Dog River.

Two nights later, the outlaws returned to the city, which was still in a state of panic. This time, they pillaged the west side of town in the same manner as the first heist and torched the east side of town before again escaping by boat. Wages and his clan could not have picked a more distressful time to plunder and burn the city. Mobile, at that time, was still trying to recover from a financial depression, along with an epidemic of yellow fever. The fires burned for days, sweeping from the Government Street Hotel over several blocks and consuming municipal buildings, the city’s bell tower and most of the wooden houses on both sides of Dauphin Street

Following the great plunder of Mobile, Copeland and Wages fled to the panhandle of Florida to avoid arrest and turn their stolen property into cash. Posing as peddlers, they were accompanied by another gang member known as Preacher Charles McGrath. Little is known about McGrath, except that he often masqueraded as a Methodist minister, swindling his congregations out of their offerings and valuables, then slipping away to flimflam other unsuspecting brethren. In time, the three of them would become a sort of de facto executive committee of the clan. After returning from Florida and a brief visit to Mobile, the three decided to go west on an extended crime-filled escapade.

The two-year journey took them through Louisiana to Texas by way of the Red River, and then on to the Midwest, as far north as Cincinnati and back down the Mississippi River to Vicksburg. By the time they returned to Mobile, their trail was littered with deception, arson and stealing slaves and livestock, mostly beef, hogs and sheep, which they hauled to market and sold. Along the way, they also committed some vicious murders, which involved poisoning, drugging, drowning or bludgeoning to death anyone who stood in their way. The long raid had accumulated thousands of dollars and a reputation that rivaled any of the notorious outlaws of that day. The threesome, always fearing arrest, had their currency converted to gold and buried. Exactly how much gold they concealed may never be known. But the most prevalent legend is that $30,000 of the precious metal was buried somewhere in the dark recesses of the Catahoula Swamp in Hancock County, Mississippi, and to this day, treasure hunters are still digging holes in that huge morass.

The cover of the "James Copeland, the Great Southern Land Pirate."

During the trio’s absence from Mobile, Wages’ gang had been reorganized with several new members whom Wages suspected to be spies. Wages, Copeland and McGrath reacted with a bloody purging, methodically killing off seven of the dubious members one by one. Mobilians, of course, concluded the unholy threesome were the killers, forcing them into hiding. Yet they slyly evaded all lawmen and continued to loot the communities along the Gulf Coast. Nothing was safe from the threesome. Livestock and slaves were still disappearing from the farms and plantations. For a brief time, they even tried their hand in the counterfeiting business. But early in 1848, their mischief was interrupted. Wages and McGrath were shot to death while
attempting to collect a bogus note from a debtor named James Harvey, who had been swindled by a gang member. With the death of Wages, Copeland became the undisputed leader of Mobile’s criminal clan, although some had already thought of him as such. Seeking revenge, Copeland, along with a few of his hand-picked gang, traveled to Mississippi and murdered Harvey, the man responsible for the death of his friends.

Harvey’s death was the beginning of the end for the outlaw Copeland. The murder occurred in Perry County, Mississippi, where a young 25-year-old James Robinson Pitts was the sheriff. A small, pale-faced man, Pitts was well-educated and would one day become a doctor. But at this time, he was determined to be the man who would escort the celebrated criminal, Copeland, to the scaffold. That desire grew into a gripping compulsion. Much like Ishmael, Copeland had become Pitts’s “white whale.” In the spring of 1849, the outlaw was captured and convicted in Mobile on larceny charges. But the tenacious Pitts waited years for his release from an Alabama prison and brought him back to Mississippi to stand trial for murder. Pitts had long been intrigued by Copeland’s infamy. Thus, following his 1857 conviction while awaiting execution, the sheriff spent hours beside Copeland’s jail cell, listening to him dictate his life story, a story that he later published in his controversial book, “Life and Confession of the noted outlaw James Copeland.”

Russell W. Blount Jr. is the author of five books on the American Civil War as well as a number of articles on 19th-century America in historical journals and publications.  

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