Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Natchez Trace: Joseph Thompson Hare



England is known for notorious highwaymen, such as Claude Du Vall, known as the Gentleman Highwayman and Dick Turpin one of the most famous highway thieves in their history. But American also had some notorious highwaymen. One of these thieves and murderers was Joseph Thompson Hare. He and his gang plied their trade along a very old trail called the Natchez Trace. In the 1800s the Trace was considered American’s most dangerous trail. It is said that Hare stole at least $90,000 in cash by the time of his final capture.

Joseph Hare’s life of crime started at an early age. He was born in the 1780s in Chester County, Pennsylvania. As a young boy he was apprenticed as a tailor. He loved fabric and clothes but finding the tailor trade could not give him the financial means he desired he started to commit petty crimes in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Spending most of his time on the run, Hare boarded a sailing ship headed for New Orleans. 

Liking the area he decided to stay in the south. Within a short period of time he was back to committing crimes. He joined with three other men, one of whom was his younger brother and became their gang leader. In his short time in New Orleans Hare observed that many farmers and peddlers had their pockets heavy with cash after selling their crops or finishing their trade. They then headed north from New Orleans on the Natchez Trace.

The Natchez Trace was a path or trail first used by Native Americans and then by European explorers, early traders and emigrants to the area. In the late 17th century and early 18th century this old path was still the main route north from New Orleans, it was 440 miles long and extended from Natchez, Mississippi--the first settlement along the Mississippi River all the way to Nashville, Tennessee. Even though men tended to travel in groups along this path Hare figured it was a perfect place to relieve them of their cash.


He and his gang did exactly this. It is said that they blackened their faces with berry juice, which terrorized their victims even more. The farmers and traders they victimized had good reason to be afraid for Hare and his men even though their main goal was to rob didn’t have any qualms if this meant they had to kill to get the cash. The gang found a secluded cave just south of the Tennessee border covered in a thick canebrake where they could rest between robberies. They spent three months ambushing travelers at various places along this trail. Now rich they headed back to New Orleans in order to spend their stolen cash.

Within seven months their money ran out so the gang headed back to the Trace. It was during this time in 1812 at the age of 32 that Hare wrote in his dairy:

Let not anyone be induced to turn highwayman by reading this book and seeing the great sums of money I have robbed, for it is a desperate life, full of danger, and sooner or later ends at the gallows.”

Even when he and his gang spent time in New Orleans they found no real peace for they landed themselves in one bloody fistfight after another. In contrast to this the third and final time they visited New Orleans they actually hosted a dance--a cotillion. Shortly afterwards they headed once more to the Trace to continue their robberies. But this time the Spanish detained them as American spies. For New Orleans and Louisiana still belonged to Spain at this time. The gang had Spanish passports for this reason but these didn’t help them, what did ironically was several of their cotillion guests vouched they were of good, honest character.

The Spanish released them and they continued their journey back to the Natchez Trace. But Joseph Hare shortly after his return was captured for the first time. He found himself running from a posse when he was confounded to see an apparition of a ghostly white horse on the path in front of him. According to his writing this was not the first time he had spotted a strange apparition in the Trace. For even back then it was considered haunted. The sight of this horse so startled him he sought shelter for the night in a nearby home. But this decision proved to be a bad one for the posse caught up and arrested him.

Joseph Hare spent the next five years in jail studying the Bible. He felt strongly that the apparition of the white horse was a warning sign or omen that he must change his wicked ways or pay the consequence. Unfortunately, when he was released he didn’t stick to his new found conviction. Within the year he was captured again, this time he had just held up a night mail coach outside the city of Baltimore. He was tried and convicted and sentenced to hang. He continued to talk about the ghostly white horse he had seen on the Trace up until his death. Some considered him to be psychotic. While he waited to be executed he tried to bite off the finger of one of his jailors. On September 10, 1818 at the age of 38 he was hanged in front of a crowd of 1500 witnesses.


But it seems his spirit does not rest in peace. Witnesses state that his ghost is still heard laughing in an area known as Natchez-Under-the-Hill. This area was a wharf that was the last stop for boatman on their way to New Orleans. It was considered the most dangerous river landing on the Mississippi River. Men were often beaten to death and robbed in this area. It was closed down in 1837. Another ghost connected to Hare was his mistress who haunts the area where she was buried. Hare discovering  she was unfaithful to him took revenge by burying her alive. She still wore the jewels he had given her. The Natchez Trace has many ghosts and ghost stories attached to it, in future I will share more. 

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