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Buford Pusser

The Walking Tall Sheriff

Buford Pusser was a true American hero. He stood his ground and held true to his ideals in the face of bribes, threats, violent physical attacks, and tragedy. He left his mark on southwestern Tennessee and in the annals of American law enforcement, and though he died much too young, his legend lives on.

Born near Finger, Tennessee on December 12, 1937, Buford Hayes Pusser started life big, weighing in at nine pounds, six ounces. He was the third child of Carl and Helen Pusser, an honest, hard working couple who struggled to make ends meet. Buford’s father worked at a sawmill during the week, and cut his neighbors’ hair on Sundays for a nickel a head.

When he was fourteen years old, the family moved to Adamsville , Tennessee , where Buford attended high school. Never a stellar student, Buford was more at home on the athletic field, where he excelled in football and basketball. The Pusser family work ethic was instilled in Buford at an early age; he helped tend the family garden as a child, when he was thirteen he got his first job, working for the owner of the local general store, and he worked on a pipeline while in high school.  

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Buford joined the Marines after graduating from high school, and was shipped to Paris Island , South Carolina for basic training. His time in the military was short-lived, however. Doctors discovered he had asthma and Buford received a medical discharge.

Back at home in Adamsville, Buford soon became restless and moved to Chicago , Illinois . He had grown into a powerful man, standing 6’6” tall and tipping the scales at 250 pounds. His family and friends knew him as a gentle giant, a quiet, kind and caring man. Buford used his physical size to his advantage and became a professional wrestler, stepping into the ring as Buford the Bull. He enjoyed a good career as a wrestler, even facing off with a bear in one stunt. During this period of his life, he met and married Pauline Mullins, a divorced mother of two, on December 5, 1959. the couple would have a daughter together, whom they named Dwana.

Growing homesick, and wanting to raise his family away from the big city, Buford and Pauline moved back to Adamsville in 1961. Buford’s father Carl was the Chief of Police by then, and Buford went to work as an officer in the police department, then was appointed Chief when his father retired. 

In 1964 Buford was elected Sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee. At that time crime and corruption were running rampant in the rural county. Buford and his deputies quickly went to work busting moonshine stills, destroying as many as 87 illegal stills during his first year in office. In retaliation, in November of that year Buford was attacked by thugs hired by the moonshiners, who stabbed him seven times and left him for dead.

Buford recovered from his wounds and went right back into battle, continuing to wage war on the illegal whiskey makers, as well as the criminals who did business along the Tennessee-Mississippi state line in southern McNairy County, where prostitution, gambling, and other vices were running rampant.

The State Line Mob, as this group of hoodlums were known, first offered the new Sheriff $1,000 a month to look the other way. That was a huge sum of money in those days, but Buford Pusser could not be bought. Nor could he be deterred with threats toward himself or his family. 

Buford Pusser’s law enforcement methods would probably be frowned upon in today’s politically correct society, but not in his day and age. Early on, he did not carry a gun, depending on his size to get the job done. This was probably the period when the legend of the big stick was born. Buford never carried a club on a regular basis, but he often grabbed a fence post to smash whiskey stills and illegal saloons, and on at least one occasion he did use a club to administer a little “frontier justice.”  Following the stabbing that almost killed him, Buford changed his mind about going armed, and began to carry a .41 magnum Smith and Wesson revolver.

This was not to be the last physical attack on the hard driving sheriff. Over the years he was shot eight times, stabbed seven times, struck by a car, and killed two people in the course of his duties.

On February 1, 1966, the sheriff received a complaint that a couple had been robbed while staying at the Shamrock Motel, on the state line. The motel included a restaurant, motel, and bar, where hookers trolled for customers. The suspect was the motel’s owner, Louise Hathcock, who had been acquitted of killing her husband the year before.

Louise Hathcock was no stranger to Sheriff Pusser. She habitually carried a ball peen hammer in her apron pocket, and a teenaged Buford had watched her beat a sailor to death with it when he and his buddies were out carousing at the Shamrock.

Pusser already had two open warrants for Hathcock, for theft and illegal possession of whiskey, and was accompanied by Deputies Jim Moffett and Peatie Plunk when he went to arrest Hathcock. Just before they reached the motel, Deputy Plunk suggested that Buford strap on his gun, which was in the car’s glove box. Buford did so, an act that would save his life. When they arrived at the Shamrock, Hathcock pulled a .38 revolver on the lawmen, and Buford drew his own weapon and shot her. A grand jury ruled the killing justifiable, but it made Hathcock’s outlaw associates along the state line hate the sheriff even more.

In the early morning of August 12, 1967, Sheriff Pusser received a call at home. The anonymous caller reported that there was a drunken fight going on near the state line. Buford’s wife, Pauline, decided to ride along with him when he went to investigate. As they were driving down New Hope Road , a black Cadillac pulled alongside their car and a fusillade of shots range out. Pauline was struck in the head and slumped down in her seat, holding Buford’s arm.

Buford floored the accelerator on his powerful car and sped away from the ambush, then pulled to the side of the road to check on his injured wife. As he was frantically trying to stop the bleeding from her terrible wound, the Cadillac roared up again and the killers opened fire again. Buford was shot at least once in the face, tearing away most of his lower jaw, and Pauline was hit again. Believing their bloody work was done, the gunmen fled the scene.

Buford was not able to attend his wife’s funeral, he was still hospitalized recovering from his wounds, with an armed deputy stationed at the door of his hospital room in case the assassins returned to finish the job. Buford would require extensive surgery to rebuild his shattered face, and was hospitalized for nearly three weeks following the shooting.

Investigators counted eleven bullet holes in Buford’s car, and picked up fourteen spent cartridge cases at the ambush site. The killers of Pauline Pusser were never identified, though there was no doubt that they were hired by the State Line Mob.

Buford had traveled a long and hard road from his early days as a lawman, when he did not carry a gun. Following the ambush, he carried a .357 magnum revolver and an M-16 rifle.

Less than two years after the shooting at the Shamrock Motel, Buford was forced to kill again in the line of duty. Charles Russell Hamilton was a bad man by any account. He had already killed his mother, his wife, and two different men, but managed to avoid prison every time. On Christmas Day, 1968, a relative of Hamilton ’s called to report that he was drunk and threatening to kill him. When Buford tried to arrest him, Hamilton fired at the Sheriff with a .32 automatic. One bullet whizzed past the Sheriff’s head, another sliced across his stomach, and Hamilton ’s third shot hit the grip of Pusser’s revolver. The lawman managed to draw his damaged .357 magnum and shot Hamilton between the eyes. The killing was ruled self-defense.

Word of Buford’s war on crime spread far beyond the borders of McNairy County , Tennessee , and he became the subject of three Walking Tall movies and a short-lived television series. He was visited by famous entertainers, and celebrated in newspapers nationwide as a folk hero.

Through all of this, Buford Pusser remained the same good ol’ boy he always was, and continued to serve the people of McNairy County , Tennessee through three terms as Sheriff. During his ten year career in law enforcement, he had arrested over 7,500 criminals on charges ranging from drunken driving to murder.

On August 21, 1974, Buford attended a press conference in Memphis about the upcoming Walking Tall movie, and then went to the McNairy County Fair. He talked to his thirteen year old daughter Dwana, who was there with family friends, shook hands with friends and supporters, and then headed home driving his Corvette. Dwana later recalled that her father passed the car she was riding in going very fast, and soon was out of sight. A few miles down the road they came upon the shattered remains of the Corvette. It had left the highway at a high rate of speed and smashed into an embankment on U.S. Highway 64. Buford was laying beside the wreck, and his grief stricken young daughter pulled his body away from the car to keep him from being burned. The famous lawman was dead at age 36. He was buried at the Adamsville War Memorial Park Cemetery, just a few blocks from his home, on August 24, 1974.

Over the years there was a lot of speculation as to whether Buford’s death was more than an accident. Some people believed that his enemies had tampered with the car, but investigators could find no evidence of this.

Today the famous lawman’s home in Adamsville is the Buford Pusser Home and Museum, and has been preserved as it was when Buford lived there. The home’s rooms are filled with the original furniture the Pusser family used, and mementoes of Buford’s life. His daughter Dwana is active with the museum, and she and other guides are happy to give visitors a tour and share their memories of Buford’s triumphs and tragedies.

Buford’s bedroom looks like its resident has just gone off to another day at work and will be home soon. His clothes hang in the closet, his boots stand at the foot of the bed, and the bureau and nightstand hold his mail and personal items.  

Displays in the lower level of the home include weapons carried by Buford and the criminals he arrested, displays on his career, and even a moonshine still like the ones Buford hunted down and destroyed. A small gift shop has souvenirs and books about Buford’s adventures. The museum is located at 342 Pusser Street in Adamsville. For more information, call (731) 632-4080. Every year the citizens of McNairy County honor Buford’s memory with the Buford Pusser Festival, held in Adamsville over the Memorial Day weekend.

Visitors to McNairy County can visit Buford and Pauline’s graves, see a marker at the site of the accident that took Buford’s life, and tour the Buford Pusser Home and Museum to learn more about the brave and relentless man who brought law and order to the area and never backed down, no matter how terrible a price he had to pay. Buford Pusser is still a hero, a man who walked tall.

 

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