Buford Pusser: Tennessee Lawman

By  | May 6, 2018 | Filed under: News

Buford Pusser

Buford Pusser was born on December 12, 1937 to Helen and Car Pusser in Finger, located in McNairy County, Tennessee.  Carl Pusser was the Police Chief at Adamsville, Tennesse as Buford grew up.  Buford was big for his age.  In high school, he was 6 Feet, 6 Inches.  He played fotball and basketball.  When he graduated high school, he joined the United States Marines.  His military career was cut short due to Ashmua.  He was given a Medical Discharge for this.

Buford moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1957.  He took up Professional Wrestling.  He was known as “Buford the Bull”  He wrestled a bear in the wrestling ring one night.  At was at the wrestling matches that he met his future wife, Pauline.  They were married on December 5, 1959.  Pauline had two children, Dianne and Mike.  Buford and pauline later had Dwanna to add to their family.

The family moved back to McNairy County, Tennessee in 1962.  One night Burofd visited the clubs and/or “Juke Joints” at the State Line.  While gambling, he accused a player of cheating.  Several members of the owner’s staff took Buford to the back room where he was beaten and cut.  He was left on the side of the road.  He healed from his wwounds and decided to make them pay.

In 1964, when the incumbant Sheriff was killed in an automobile accident, Buford was elcted Sheriff of McNairy County.  He became the youngest Sheriff in Tennessee History.  He began his quest to elimate the “Dixie Mafia” as well as the “State Line Mob.”   At this time, Buford became know for carrying his “stick”.  A piece of wood that would become his trademark. 

The State line at Tennessee and Mississippi had several hotels, and clubs.  It was known that visitors had their valuables stolen.  Reports were made, but nothing came out of the reports.  Most  of the time, the victims refused to testify, supposedly after being visited by a member of the Club or hotel.  Louise Hathcock was the owner of the Shamrock Motel at the State Line and supposedly oversaw the other clubs.

Buford began to bust moonshine stills in McNairy County.  Moonshine was a big source of income at this time.  Buford would raid the stills, arrest the participants and then blow up the stills themselves.  While the Citizens of McNairy County were happy about this, the criminal element was not.  It was long before attempts on Buford’s life began to happen.

  Buford was stabbed, shot and ran over.  His vehicle was tampered with.  On February 1, 1966, Buford responded to a  robbery complaint at the Shamrock Hotel.  Lousie Hathcock was present when Buford got there.  Hathcock fired at Pusser with a concealed .38 Special Revolver.  Buford returned fire with his .41 Magnum Revolver, killing her.  Furthermore on January 2, 1967, Buford was shot three times during a traffic stop by an unidentified gunman.

On  the morning of August 12, 1967, the pone rang at the Pusser’s home.  The caller stated that there was some type of disturbance on New Hope Road.  As Buford got dressed, Pauline decided that she would go with him.  Buford and Pauling left their home heading toward the disturbance call.

As they neared the area, a car came alongside them and opened fire on the couple.  Pauline was killed and Buford was injured.  Buford was able to elude the vehicle, stopping to check his wife.  The car of gunman returned, shooting Buford several times.  Cartridges from a Revolver as well as a .30 Caliber Carbine were found at the scenes.  Doctors belive that Buford was hit in the jaw by at least two or three rounds of .30 Carbine.

Buford spent 18 days in the hospital before he could go home.  He had to have several surgeries to his face to repair the damage.  He would have scars along his jaw for the rest of his life.

Buford vowed to bring everyone involved in the murder of his wife to justice.  He continued to raid moonshine stills throught McNairy County.  On December 25, 1968, Buford responded to a call of a man (Charles harrison) threatening his landlord with a gun.  Buford fatally shot Harrison after Harrison shot Pusser. 

During this time frame, a Sheriff could only hold Officer twice in consecative Terms.  Buford could not run for Sheriff in 1970.  He became the Constable for the Town of Adamsville by write in votes.  He served in this position from 1970-1972.  Buford ran for Sheriff again in 1972 but was defeated.

On August 21, 1974, Buford met his Daughter Dwana at a local fair.  When he left ,driving his Corvette, his Daughter followed in another  vehicle.  While driving, Buford struck an enbankment at a high speed and was ejected from the car.  He died from the injuries he received.  Dwana was the first on the scene.  It has been speculated tha the car had been tampered with, causing the wreck.

A semi-Biographical movie called “Walking Tall” was made of Buford’s life.  Buford was portayed by actor Joe Don baker.  The movie was a success and “Walking Tall 2” was made,   Bo Svenson replaced Baker as Buford Pusser.    A thrid and final movie was made.  Buford was slated to play himself in the movie but he died before the film was done.  A Television Series was done with Bo Svensen reprises his role as Buford Pusser.  In 2004, a remake of “Walking Tall” was made with the Rock, Dwayne Johnson, having the lead role.  This film did not have any connection to Pusser.

 

W.R. Morris wrote two books about Buford.  The first was the “Twelth of August.”   This book was written in 1971.  Buford was at Gene Crump Cheverolet in Tuscumbia , AL during this time promoting the book.  My mother took me to see him.  I was 3 years old.  The only thing I remember is I was scared of Pusser because he was so big.  I did get a copy of the book autographed to me from Pusser.  Morris later wrote a book called the “State Line Mob.”

Dwana Pusser upon growing into adulthood open and maintaned the Buford Pusser Museum.  Each year there was a Buford Pusser Festival in McNairy County, Tn.  Dwana wrote a book called “Walking On” , which dealt with her suspiscouins on the death of her Father.  Sadly Dwana recntly passsed away.  Before she passed away, I was able to get her to autograph a copy of her book to my Grandmother, Nona Mae Dixon.  When Nona Mae passed away, the book was kept by my Mother.

The Tennessean Newspaper published the following story on the 40th Anniversary of Buford’s Death:

 

 When Buford Pusser became the sheriff of McNairy County in 1964, he didn’t expect to become a legend and a hero for the underdogs.

Old friends said he was a soft-spoken gentleman. He was stout and stood at over 6 feet tall, weighing in around 250 pounds. He had sandy red hair and freckles that covered his face. He wore khakis and button-up shirts every day.

He loved his family fiercely and called out his daughter’s name minutes before he died. He was the sheriff who was known for carrying a big stick, thanks to Hollywood. He was the one who cleaned up McNairy County. In 1973, a movie called “Walking Tall,” which was based on Pusser’s life, was released. Two more movies were made after his death. All three continue to give inspiration and hope to viewers.

Pusser’s legacy still lives on, and he’s still regarded as a hero.

“The lawmen really didn’t have a hero until Buford came along,” said Bill Wagoner, a high school classmate and friend of the Pusser family. “He became the hero to most of the law enforcement people in the United States.”

Officer Ryan Burlesci of the Adamsville Police Department said Pusser’s story is what inspired him to go into law enforcement.

“I moved to Adamsville about eight to 10 years ago, and that’s the first thing we did — go to the Buford Pusser museum, look at all the stuff and learn about his history here,” he said. “That’s why I’ve always wanted to do this.”

Pusser served as sheriff until 1970. During that time, he was shot and stabbed numerous times as he tried to rid McNairy County of organized crime.

It’s been 50 years since he was elected sheriff, when he was just 26 years old. It’s been 47 years since his wife, Pauline, died in an ambush, which some believe was an assassination attempt against Pusser. And it’s been 40 years since the day Pusser died. He left the county fair and lost control of his 1974 Corvette, crashing into an embankment on Highway 64 in the town of Lawton.

“I was at the fairgrounds that night, and he passed us on the way home and he died in my arms,” his daughter, Dwana Pusser Garrison, said.

Today, people still visit Pusser’s home in Adamsville. Garrison has been told several times how much her father meant to current law enforcement officials.

“It’s amazing, the number of people that come out here,” she said. “They want to pay tribute, even after all these years.”

On the anniversary of his death Thursday, nearly a hundred people gathered at the site where Pusser crashed to pay their respects.

Today

Nestled in a quiet Adamsville neighborhood on Pusser Street is the home Pusser lived in. Only now, it’s a museum.

Visitors walk in through the front door and are asked to first sign a guest book with their name and location.

To the right are family pictures: Buford Pusser and wife Pauline. Their only child together, Dwana. Her children and grandchildren. Pauline’s kids, Mike and Diane.

To the left, newspaper clippings from Pusser’s life hang in a frame on the wall. Pusser’s couch lies untouched, a rope blocking it off from visitors. Brown leather and metal chairs are set up farther to the left in front of a TV. Visitors can watch an eight-minute video about Pusser’s life before moving along.

Upstairs are Pusser’s kitchen, a sitting room, Dwana’s room, a guestroom filled with Pauline’s furniture, and Mike’s childhood room — where, according to Garrison, Elvis Presley sat silently on the day of Pusser’s funeral.

All the rooms are filled with furniture, clothes and items from Pusser’s life, including school report cards and notebooks. Downstairs is Pusser’s bathroom and bedroom. His office and a jail cell were also once down there.

The museum is a trademark for Adamsville, said Wagoner.

“It’s been handled very well,” he said about the museum. “It is very well received by the public, and the attendance is good.”

In the last year, the guestbook filled with names of people from across the United States, and nine countries were represented.

Wagoner isn’t a stranger to talking with people about Pusser. He said the experience is remarkable.

“They have a deep and abiding interest in him,” Wagoner said.

Pusser’s life even had an impact on the most unlikely of people.

Steve Sweat is considered a “Buford Pusser historian” by many people, including Garrison.

“The first moonshine still that Pusser busted up in January of ’64 was my brother’s,” Sweat said. “Buford was still just chief of police in Adamsville at that point.”

Sweat, who now owns a car body shop in Selmer, said no hard feelings were ever held against Pusser, because he was just “doing his job.”

Sweat has spent most of his life, since the 1960s, documenting Pusser’s life.

Tourists even visit his shop, where pictures of Pusser hang on the walls and a replica from the sheriff’s car in the first “Walking Tall” movie is parked out front.

“A lot of people think that’s the car Pusser drove,” Sweat said. “I have to tell them, no, it’s just a replica from the movie.”

Buford the Bull

After graduating from Adamsville High School, Pusser moved to Chicago and wrestled professionally for some time before his father, Carl, who was the police chief of Adamsville, became disabled.

Pusser became chief in 1961. Three years later, he ran for sheriff with the intentions of cleaning up McNairy County, especially near the Mississippi state line where organized crime infested the county with gambling, prostitution and illegal moonshine production.

Wagoner and Garrison said before Pusser was elected, the organized crime became so violent that even law-abiding citizens feared for their safety.

About three years ago, Garrison heard one of those stories of fear from a woman who owned a large amount of land near the state line during Pusser’s time.

“‘It had been so bad,’ she told me,” Garrison said.

The woman, Garrison said, told her there were some days she and her husband found “somebody dead in the field” and that fear of retaliation kept them from calling police.

“She said, ‘I want you to know, when your daddy took office, he stopped it.’ and she said, ‘I want to say thank you. Thank you for what your daddy did for us,'” Garrison said.

People began to take notice in the change of authority shortly after Pusser took office.

“Pusser built a reputation on being tough on mostly on the state-line people,” Wagoner said.

The state-line people would eventually be the ones to jump start not only Pusser’s career, but his popularity.

“On February the first, 1966, Pusser answered a call after an Illinois couple called and said they had been robbed at the Shamrock Motel in Corinth, Mississippi,” Wagoner said. “He went down there and investigated. The result was an altercation where he shot and killed Louise Hathcock.”

As the story goes, Hathcock fired at Pusser first, then raised her weapon a second time before Pusser fatally shot her.

Pusser killed one more person in his lifetime — Russ Hamilton, on Dec. 25, 1968.

“Russ Hamilton had killed four people,” Wagoner said. “He spent 30-odd years in prison for killing four people. He’s a bad one.”

Pusser was called after a drunk Hamilton reportedly threatened his lawyer. Wagoner said Hamilton fired at Pusser first, shooting through Pusser’s coat and knocking the handle off a pistol that was in his coat pocket.

“That handle is in the museum now,” Wagoner said.

On Aug. 12, 1967, Pusser’s wife, Pauline, was killed in an ambush, which many say was an assassination attempt meant for Pusser.

“Pusser answered another disturbance call on New Hope Road, near the Mississippi state line,” Wagoner said. “His car was fired into. Pauline was killed instantly, and Buford’s jaw was shot away by probably two rounds. That’s what the doctor who operated on him said.”

No matter how many times she’s talked about that day, Garrison still chokes up when those memories are brought back.

She was 9 years old when Pauline was killed.

“It’s hard to relive,” she said, when asked what it’s like to talk about her parents’ deaths publicly. “This is my family. This is my mother. You’ve got to realize, this is my life.”

Pauline Pusser’s killers were never arrested.

Garrison spent seven more years with her father before he died in a single-car crash on Aug. 21, 1974.

‘Walking Tall’

Friends say that Pusser’s goal was never to be famous.

“Pusser wasn’t trying to attract attention,” Wagoner said. “Pusser wasn’t really trying to make a name for himself. Pusser was fighting crime with one deputy, some part-time help and a very small budget to work on. He’s fighting crime the only way he knows how, which is fire with fire.”

In 1973, the first “Walking Tall” movie was released.

“I believe that what made the first movie, ‘Walking Tall,’ popular, was people were fed up,” Wagoner said. “They saw Buford take on big-time crime, and they saw him give some people what they had coming to them and that’s the bottom line.”

Garrison said the first of the three movies made was the most accurate. The last movie, “Final Chapter: Walking Tall” was released in 1977.

The movies were originally going to be named “Pusser,” but Garrison said her dad came up with the name “Walking On” and eventually, “Walking Tall” made the cut. Garrison later wrote a book called “Walking On” about her dad’s life and in his honor.

Since the movies, Garrison has said she’s spoken to many law enforcement officers who tell her that the movies inspired them to get into their careers.

The death of a legend

On Aug. 20, 1974, Pusser had just signed a contract saying he’d play himself in the second “Walking Tall” movie.

He made the announcement at a news conference in Memphis.

“A lot of people don’t know this now, but to show what type of person Daddy was, when he got home from signing the paperwork in Memphis, he mowed the grass and washed his car,” Garrison said.

When his car was sparkling, Pusser went to the fair at the McNairy County Fairgrounds. Normally at the fair, he’d participate in the dunking booth.

When Pusser left the fair, he drove eight miles and was in the city of Lawton when his car crashed into an embankment, killing him.

His family and close friends believe his crash was not an accident, but instead an orchestrated homicide.

Since the police report said it was an accident, no charges were ever filed.

When Sweat found out about the accident, he said it was easy to discover the location of where Pusser crashed.

“There were hundreds of people that came to that site and picked up every crumb of what was left of that crashed vehicle,” he said. “There were news crews, trucks, cameras, newspaper people. People came to that crash for days and weeks.”

40 years later

It felt like it was 100 degrees outside, but officers wearing their uniforms and Kevlar vests still stood outside in the heat to celebrate Pusser’s life on Thursday.

It was exactly 40 years ago to that day that Pusser died in the fiery car crash.

Officers and constables from all over West Tennessee met at the McNairy County Fairgrounds and made the eight-mile trip to the site where Pusser crashed.

Dyer County Constable Bobby Byrum rode in the memorial ride in his green replica sheriff’s car. Pusser has always been an inspiration for him.

“I was 16 years old when Buford got killed,” he said. “I was living over in Wayne County at the time and just been a Buford fan ever since. I got into a lot of his history and built the car.”

Byrum said he was drawn into Pusser’s law-enforcing ways, and after watching the first movie, he wanted to know more.

“I figured there was more behind the movies than what that shows and I got into the history,” he said.

Savannah Police Department Sgt. Allen Shelling said he was also a fan of the “Walking Tall” movies.

“I was 10 years old when his death happened, but I was a fan of him,” he said. “Growing up and watching the movies, and being close to Savannah, I always try to honor his law enforcement years and death.”

 Bobby Inman is retired from Law Enforcement after 21 years of Service.  He is the Store Manager of Southern Heritage Gun & Pawn in Tuscumbia.   He has articles published in Law & Order Magazine, Police Marksman Magazine, Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement Magazine as well as several published ebooks on Amazon, Kobo Writing, as well as Nook (Barnes & Noble).  He is owner of Poopiedog, an Animal Rescue Dachshund, who is his constant companion.   He is a Senior Investigative Reporter for the Quad Cities Daily

 

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