Blood and Thunder
Twenty-five years after his death, the legend of Buford Pusser lives on
By Chris Davis
JULY 5, 1999: Just a little over a hundred miles east of Memphis, on U.S. Highway 45, two ruined buildings straddle the Tennessee/Mississippi state line like a toothless old hooker, leering at passersby and enticing them to stop and poke around. The windows are blown out, and the dim interiors are lit by narrow shafts of sunlight pouring through the roof, onto the dirty ceramic tiles below. Looming above a cluster of young trees, a faded sign reads "Motel" in shattered white neon, and if you pull back some of the undergrowth you can see a smaller metal sign, its message long erased by the elements, in the shape of a four-leafed-clover.
This is all that remains of the Shamrock, once a thriving den of vice, where many a hungry traveler stopped in, lured by the prospect of a 49-cent country ham breakfast, only to find himself robbed and beaten. If the unfortunate party threatened to tell the law, he was good as dead, wrapped in logging chains at the bottom of the Tennessee River. Word has it the Shamrock's breakfasts were quite good, but not nearly as tempting, or as lucrative, as the gambling, drinking, and whoring that went on in back.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, several such establishments flourished in the rural stretch between McNairy and Alcorn counties, where illegal hooch was smuggled in from Missouri and white lightning poured like tap water. The state line was a cooling-off spot, where major-league thugs hid out between hits and heists. Carl Douglas "Towhead" White, a psychotic megalomaniac and lieutenant in the "Dixie Mafia," considered Corinth, Mississippi, to be his home, and even Lee Harvey Oswald was known to partake of the state line's dark delights. The law had been bought off, so with pockets full of cash, and easy access to easier girls, bootleg booze, and games of chance, the mobsters could live here like sultans. Of all the joints, the Shamrock was the most notorious.
Louise Hathcock, who managed the Shamrock for her cowardly, dim-witted ex-husband Jack, willingly took a brutal beating from Towhead White (an occasional and reluctant lover) in order to gun down her hated former spouse and claim self-defense. The sadistic White, whose only interest in Hathcock stemmed from the piles of money the Shamrock raked in, no doubt took double pleasure in assisting his dupe to the rank of sole proprietor. That's just the kind of good country people they were.
When Hathcock waited tables at the Shamrock, she carried three items in her apron: a notepad, a pen, and a ball-peen hammer -- her weapon of choice. On his first trip to the state line, a 17-year-old boy named Buford Pusser watched Hathcock beat a sailor to death with that hammer. It was a sight that would haunt him for years to come, until, as the sheriff of McNairy county, he bore witness to images of mayhem that made that first bloodletting look like a Disney feature. He ultimately rid the area of its criminal infestation, but it cost him dearly.
Pusser never intended to be a lawman. After chronic bouts with asthma led to his discharge from the Marines, he left Tennessee to attend mortician's school in Chicago, where the 6'6," 250-pound Pusser worked in a box factory and took up professional wrestling to supplement his income. It was at a wrestling match that Buford "The Bull" met Pauline Mullins, a divorcee and mother of two. They were later married, and after Pauline gave birth to their daughter Dwana, the Pussers returned to McNairy County to raise their family.
"Do you know Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar? Well, after what all I went through, they would let me in there free of charge, and I could just sit on a bench and wave at people all day long," says Dwana Pusser Garrison. Now 38, Garrison is a county commissioner and the proprietor of Pussers' restaurant in Adamsville, Tennessee, where huge cartoon images of her famous father (designed by Jerry "The King" Lawler) adorn the walls, and entrees come in "Buford-sized" portions.
"I still sleep with the television on," she continues, blinking her eyes rapidly beneath a calculated explosion of blond hair. "When I was a little girl, I figured that if [the state-line mob] was going to get me, they were going to get me. There was nothing I could do about it, and I just didn't want to hear them coming."
As sheriff of McNairy County, Pusser refused the $1,000-a-month bribe he was offered to "look the other way." And the mobsters threatened to take his children out in the swamp, "and cut their pretty little heads off."
"I still carry a gun," Garrison says calmly. "There were a lot of people who really didn't like Daddy."
Those who didn't like him had good reason. During his tenure as sheriff he jailed more than 7,500 criminals, and he dismantled 85 illegal stills in 1965 alone. His methods were unconventional; extreme by the estimation of some. The stories of his fighting crime with nothing but a big stick are largely exaggerated, though on one occasion he did use a fence-post to extract his peculiar brand of justice, and on another he solved a domestic squabble with a good old-fashioned hickory-switching. In the beginning Pusser vowed not to even carry a gun, but he soon realized that his enemies weren't playing with sticks and stones, and after a number of violent confrontations, he strapped on a .41 Colt magnum.
"He was on a mission to clean out the state line, and he had the higher power with him every step of the way," says Jimmie Powers, a longtime employee of the Buford Pusser Home and Museum. "Louise Hathcock put a gun right to his head and it misfired. A gun dealer said that the chance of that gun she had misfiring was one in a million. He had the higher power -- I believe that in my heart."
Pusser, in the space of his career, was stabbed seven times, and shot eight.
As the sun rose on the morning of August 12, 1967, he and his wife were ambushed on New Hope Road, a short-cut between Adamsville and the state line. Pauline was killed, but Buford, whose jaw was blasted almost entirely off, survived. The press christened him the unkillable cop, and from that point on, he pursued the state-line mob with a thunderous vengeance, until all of the undesirables were either gone, dead, or in jail.
On August 21, 1974, Pusser attended a press conference in Memphis to announce that he would be playing himself in Buford, a sequel to the loosely adapted bio-pic Walking Tall. Shortly thereafter he lost control of his Corvette and crashed into an embankment. His daughter Dwana was one of the first to arrive at the scene, and the girl pulled her giant father away from the burning wreck. "He had suffered so much," she's on record as saying. "I couldn't just let him burn up."
Raised in the shadow of fear and orphaned at 13, Garrison says of her childhood experience: "I was just having my own pity party when my grandma said to me, 'Honey, your daddy left you something that not too many other people have. He left you a legend.'"
It took nine guest-books to contain the names of those who turned out for Pusser's funeral. Actor Joe Don Baker, who portrayed the big sheriff in Walking Tall, was there, and even a brooding Elvis Presley lurked somberly in one of the children's bedrooms throughout the service.
Situated near Pickwick and the Shiloh Battlefield, Adamsville is a sleepy little town that springs to life once a month during its free all-day bluegrass jamborees. The Buford Pusser Home and Museum (which has suffered financial woes in recent years) houses memorabilia ranging from the grim to the mundane, and is a fascinating part of the Pusser legacy. But it's a small part. From Pat's Kountry Kitchen, where folks reminisce over bottomless 50-cent cups of joe about how Buford used to hand out $100 bills to the poor, to room 110 of the Old Home Motel, where he once lived, Adamsville is a living museum. Nearly everyone you encounter there has a story to tell about that famous lawman who walked so very tall.
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