tidbits, fragments, and ephemera 36: the Buford Pusser edition

tidbits, fragments, and ephemera is a sometimes substantial but not making any promises glimpse at some information and news related to Generation X in the Deep South.

A wrestler-turned-sheriff versus the bad guys, 1960s

The first reports come in the 1960s about the small-town Tennessee sheriff who had federal law enforcement helping him to raid moonshine stills and combat crime. Buford Pusser’s name and image can be found in professional wrestling advertisements in the very early 1960s, before he became the police chief in Adamsville then the sheriff of McNairy County. By 1963, his name was appearing in the newspaper as he led the charge against illegal liquor producers and other criminals. But it was rough going. In one report in The Tennesseean from January 1965, Pusser and the FBI returned to their cars to find them destroyed, along with all of their equipment. Retaliations like these were common. Two years later, it got much worse, and his mythology began.

Assassination attempt, 1967

By 1967, the headlines had gotten more frequent, and on August 12, 29-year-old Buford Pusser was the target of an assassination attempt. He was riding his car with this wife when it was riddled by gunfire. Sheriff Pusser was wounded, but his wife Pauline was killed. The attack was brutal. Law enforcement officials found bullets or casings from a 30-30, a 30-06, and a .44 magnum. One witness called it “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” The ambush appeared to have been a set-up, because an unknown person had called Buford’s father to request that he be sent to a home. Initially, the young sheriff said no, that he would not go on the call, but the person called the Adamsville Police Station and insisted that he come “right away.”

Two songs by Eddie Bond, 1970

Publication of The Twelfth of August, 1971

Tennessee native WR Morris wrote this account of Buford Pusser’s story, which was a bestseller in its day. Morris was born in Reagan, Tennessee in 1934 and served in the Air Force in the mid-1950s. His book sold well but, unfortunately, it did not receive universal acclaim. After its release in November 1971, Nashville’s Tennesseean said it was “as exciting as Pusser’s life,” while the Memphis Commercial Appeal‘s reviewer wrote: “If there’s an award for the undefinitive biography of 1971, The Twelfth of August would win it hands down. It’s a downright shoddy account [containing] silly dialogue, misspellings, and oozy hero-worship.” Morris later wrote another one on the subject,The State-Line Mob, which was published in 1990.

The release of Walking Tall, February 22, 1973

This now-classic film, starring Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser, was widely hailed in our youthful circles as being rare due to its extreme violence. Released when even the oldest GenXers were still small children, the movie’s setting and plot contained backwoods bars, prostitutes in trailers, bloody brawls, and violence against law enforcement— not exactly kids’ stuff. Alongside the more palatable portrayals of outlaws in Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard, Walking Tall was the hard stuff. This time, the bootleggers were not friendly, smiling goof-offs in search of a good time but instead were men who would blast a country sheriff with a shotgun while his wife was in the car with him. It took most of us a long time – well into the 1980s – before we would see this movie, but it still lingered in sense of our Southern-ness as the coup de grace of what a badass was. And we learned that a badass carries a big ol’ stick.

The car crash, 1974

On August 21, 1974, 36-year-old Buford Pusser was killed in a fiery car crash. He was driving home from the county fair in his new Corvette, and his teenage daughter was in the car behind his. Witnesses say he swerved off the road then was thrown from the car, which burned up. In yet another tragic twist to his life story, his daughter watched him by the side of the road.

The TV movie A Real American Hero, 1978

It’s possible that enough people wanted to see a movie about Buford Pusser, but Walking Tall was just too violent. If that was the case, the made-for-TV movie starring Brian Dennehey could have been the answer to the problem.

level:deepsouth is an online anthology about growing up Generation X in the Deep South during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. The anthology is open to submissions of creative nonfiction (essays, memoirs, and reviews), fiction, poetry, and images (photos and flyers), as well as to contributions for the lists.