"He walked tall."
December 12, 1937 - August 21, 1974
Sheriff of McNary County, Tennessee, from 1964 to 1970
Who was Buford Pusser?
Buford Hayse Pusser is a legendary figure in the history of American law enforcement, known for his strong hands-on approach. His story of taking down a major crime ring on the Tennessee-Mississippi border is one of law enforcement legend, spawning numerous books and a trilogy of films, the most well-known of which is Walking Tall.
Buford was born to Carl and Helen Pusser on December 12, 1937, near Finger, Tennessee. His early childhood was spent during the years of the Great Depression, so his family made their living by working the local cotton fields; during the off season Carl worked at a local sawmill.
Buford graduated from Adamsville High School (Tennessee) in 1956, enlisting in the Marines after graduation. He received basic training at Parris Island, but due to an asthma condition Buford was given a medical discharge in November of that year.
In early 1957, after returning home to Tennessee, a series of events transpired that would foreshadow the later twists and turns of Buford's life. In the mid-1950s, a group of organized criminals had moved into the Tennessee-Mississippi area, bringing with them several crime rings. In February 1957, Buford, recently expelled from the Marine Corps, visited a gambling house in southern Tennessee that was operated by this team. Discovering that he had been openly cheated at a card game, he got into a fight with the owners of the gambling house and was beaten almost to death. He was robbed of his remaining Marine Corps pay and left to die. He managed to crawl to a local doctor, who stitched up his wounds -- with 192 stitches.
Later in 1957, Buford moved to Chicago, IL, and it was there that he began working as a professional wrestler for extra money. While in Chicago, he also met his wife Pauline, and on December 5, 1959 the two were married.
In 1962 Buford and his family returned to McNair County, Tennessee, and settled in Adamsville. Buford's father Carl had been Adamsville's police chief. Due to medical problems, Carl planned to retire and he encouraged Buford to apply for his position. After a vote from the city board, Buford was made police chief.
Buford Turns To Law Enforcement
In November 1962 Buford ran for and won his first elected office, Constable of McNair County, Tennessee, which was a part-time position. As constable, he made a crusade of crushing the area's illegal whiskey trade, but Sheriff James Dickey stifled Pusser's efforts.
Sheriff Dickey was on the payroll of the so-called "Moonshine Ring," which operated on the Mississippi and Tennessee state lines; this was an evolution of the crime rings that Buford had been introduced to in a rough way earlier in his life. Realizing that his current position as constable under a corrupt sheriff offered him little chance to actually fight crime, he decided to run for Sheriff of McNair County.
On September 1, 1964, at the age of 26, Buford became the Sheriff of McNair County, Tennessee. He hired his father as jailer and went right to work cleaning up the criminal elements within the county, which included the mob that had infested the state line for years. Pusser refused the $1,000-a-month bribe he was offered to "look the other way," and in retaliation, the mobsters threatened to take his children out in the swamp "and cut their pretty little heads off."
Fighting The Mob
Buford's methods were unconventional, to say the least. He utilized the natural fighting skills he had learned as a youth in Tennessee and the techniques gained in the Marine Corps to go forward with an extremely hands-on brand of justice. He became reknowned for literally "fighting" crime; on one occasion he used a fence post to extract his peculiar brand of justice, and on another he solved a domestic squabble by cutting a branch from a hickory tree and utilizing the branch as a weapon. 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 he strapped one on after a number of violent confrontations. In other words, Buford Pusser was into "hands-on" law enforcement.
In November 1964, the Moonshine Ring ambushed Pusser and stabbed him seven times, leaving him to die, but Pusser survived this attack. In his first year as sheriff, Pusser destroyed 87 whiskey stills (in most cases literally destroying them with a baseball bat) which were producing illegal moonshine, and the business never recovered. Once the whiskey ring was broken, he followed the criminals to their other businesses, prosecuting prostitution rings and illegal gambling houses. During his tenure as sheriff he jailed more than 7,500 criminals; consider that number in light of the fact that this was a six year period in a largely rural area.
Violence Breeds Violence
For all of the good he did in putting away criminals, Buford Pusser's life was a whirlwind of violence. Much of Buford Pusser's tenure as sheriff of McNair County was quite violent.
On February 1, 1966, he attempted to arrest Louise Hathcock in a local motel for theft and illegal possession of whiskey. Pusser shot and killed Hathcock after Hathcock fired at the sheriff first.
On Christmas Day, 1968, Pusser was forced to kill Charles Russell Hamilton. Don Pipkin, landlord and cousin to Hamilton, called Pusser and told him his relative was drunk and had threatened to shoot him and his wife. Hamilton had killed his mother, his wife, a York man from Chewalla and a man from Alabama. Pusser made the call and after Hamilton shot at the sheriff, Pusser killed him, his second killing in the line of duty.
Both cases were heard by the McNair County grand jury and both were ruled self-defense.
By the time he was 32, Pusser had been shot eight times, stabbed seven times, had been struck by a car, and had killed two people in self-defense. He also fought six men at once and sent three to jail and three to a hospital. Another time, he hopped on the hood of a speeding car, smashed the window and subdued the man who tried to run over him.
But this was just the beginning.
A Most Terrible Loss
On August 12, 1967, around 4:00 am, Buford received word of a disturbance along the state line separating Tennessee and Mississippi. The couple was about to leave for a short vacation in Virginia, so the two of them went to investigate the situation.
As Buford and Pauline reached the state line, a black Cadillac pulled up alongside the Pusser's vehicle and opened fire. Pauline was shot twice in the head, killing her almost instantly, while Buford was shot in the jaw, which was blown entirely away.
Again, Pusser lived through this. He underwent sixteen operations to repair the lower half of his face and by November was back patrolling the roads of McNair County.
The Fame & The End
In 1970, Pusser had virtually eliminated the crime rings on the state border and his methods of enforcement had begun to attract attention. He was portrayed in a documentary entitled The Great American Hero, and there was word of a major film series. In this environment, Pusser was defeated in the 1970 election for McNair County sheriff by Clifford Coleman.
Shortly thereafter, the film Walking Tall was made and released, starring Joe Don Baker as Buford. This would be followed in the early 1970s by two more "Walking Tall" films, as well as a short-lived television series and a plethora of books.
On August 21, 1974, Buford Pusser attended a press conference in Memphis, Tennessee, to announce that he would be playing himself in a new film version of his life story, entitled Buford. On his way home, he stopped by the McNair County Fair and Livestock Show, met with friends and family, and signed some autographs. On his way home from the show, Buford Pusser was involved in a fatal automobile accident; it had sharply veered from the road and crashed and burned into a tree. This may or may not have been foul play, but the McNair County Sheriff's Department did not find enough evidence to raise charges against anyone for the crime.
It took nine guestbooks to contain the names of people who showed up for Pusser's funeral. Among them was Joe Don Baker, who played Pusser in Walking Tall, as well as the King himself, Elvis Presley.
The Legacy of Buford Pusser
Pusser's legacy is that of a hands-on law enforcer. His reputation as a person unafraid to do whatever he felt necessary to prevent crime is often held up as a shining example of law enforcement, even though his methods may have sometimes been extreme. Is he a hero? That's for you to decide.