The graves of Buford Pusser and his wife, Pauline. He walked tall. ~ Photo by Terry M. Thacker
On April 6-7, 1862, tens of thousands of soldiers, both Union and Confederate, fought bravely on the field of battle at a place called Pittsburg Landing, a point on the Tennessee River in southwestern Tennessee. That altercation came to be known as the battle of Shiloh.

In the last installment of this travel series I told you of my most recent visit to Shiloh. This week I would like to tell you about another conflict that took place in the same vicinity a century later.

The Buford Pusser Home and  Museum, Adamsville, Tennessee. ~ Photo by Terry M. ThackerA young man walked into a gambling den one night near the Tennessee/ Mississippi state line. Discovering that he had been cheated, he complained and was promptly beaten up. That man was Buford Pusser, and he vowed to get even.

Pusser became the chief of police in the McNairy County town of Adamsville and then, three years later, in 1964, ran for county sheriff and was elected. At 26, he was the youngest sheriff ever in the county.

During the next six years he worked tirelessly to clean up the county of organized crime. True to his vow, he took on the gambling, prostitution and moonshining that troubled the county, a task that other law officers had been reticent to deal with. Accounts began to appear regularly in the local newspaper detailing his confiscation of illegal stills and moonshine.

Pusser earned himself several enemies in the course of straightening up the county. He was shot several times in the course of his career in the line of duty and he, in turn, was forced to kill more than once in carrying out his responsibilities.

In 1967 he and his wife were ambushed while they were out driving. Pauline was killed and Pusser was seriously injured. He had to undergo 16 facial operations and bore the scars of his injury for the rest of his life.

Pusser was once asked why he didn’t just quit in the face of all the threats that he faced. He responded, “I just don’t like to quit. When they get you down, they’ll keep you down. I just want to stand up and fight.”

His exploits eventually became known outside the local community and a song was written about him called “The Ballad of Buford Pusser.” He was soon featured in a news story on a Memphis TV station. CBS saw it. So did Bing Crosby Productions. The movie “Walking Tall,” which was based on his life, was put out in 1973. It starred Bo Svenson and became a big hit, making Pusser a legend. He went on to make personal appearances nationwide and became friends with many celebrities.

On the evening of August 21, 1974, Pusser was returning from a press conference in Memphis announcing his signing of a contract to play himself in the next Walking Tall movie. Before heading home he stopped in at the McNairy County Fair in Selmer. His daughter Dwana was there with a girlfriend of hers and the other girl’s parents.

As Pusser was returning home, he passed Dwana and her friend’s family on the road. Soon after, the car in which Dwana was riding came upon a horrible scene. Pusser’s car had been mangled in an accident. Dwana got out and found her father lying on the road. He died in her arms. It is believed that the Corvette’s tie rod end had been tampered with, but nothing conclusive was ever determined. His killers were never brought to justice. Last year, Dwana wrote a book about her father, titled, “Walking On: A Daughter’s Journey With Legendary Sheriff Buford Pusser.”

Tennessee River Museum

After leaving the Shiloh battlefield I drove a couple of miles to the nearby town of Savannah to visit the Tennessee River Museum. The museum has an arrangement with the battlefield that, if you go to the battlefield first and pay the admission fee, then you can get into the museum for free upon presentation of proof of admission to the battlefield.

As I walked into the relatively small museum, a retired couple walked in at the same time. The attendant, a friendly retired lady, told us how much the admission fee was. The older gentleman pointed to me and jokingly told the attendant that I would pay their tab. I cheerily replied that I was getting in free and showed them the card that I received at Shiloh. He told the attendant that they had those cards as well and said that he would go to the car and get them. The attendant replied that it wouldn’t be necessary, that she believed them. I appreciated being present to witness that little transaction of trust.

I toured the small but interesting museum for the better part of an hour and then hopped back in the car and drove a few more miles to the town of Adamsville. I followed the signs to the Buford Pusser Museum, which is located in a middle class residential neighborhood. His house is the museum.

Buford Pusser Museum

As I walked up to the front door entrance, I saw a notice posted on the door that said that, as of just a few days prior, indoor photography was no longer allowed. I asked the tour guide the reason for this brand new policy. She replied that they had allowed indoor photography in the past as long as it was for private use, but that someone had recently taken pictures indoors and ended up using them commercially, even though the man had promised that he was taking them only for his personal use.

I sat on Pusser’s actual sofa (most, if not all, of the furnishings belonged to Pusser) as the tour guide turned on the ten-minute video. After I watched the video, she gave me a tour of the house.

When we reached the basement she showed me Pusser’s bedroom (no windows, for obvious security reasons). In a small section of the basement is a gift shop. Next to the gift shop is the two-car garage that contains the remains of the Corvette that he was driving on the night of his fatal ‘accident.’

I asked the tour guide for directions to Pusser’s grave, which was a mile or two down the road. I drove through the small cemetery, looking for a monument that read “Pusser.” I did not see it. I drove through a second time, this time spotting the marker on the left near the back edge of the cemetery. I got out for a moment and paid my respects, after which I got back in the car and headed to the small community of Pinson, just south of Jackson.

Next Installment – Mississippi River Redux

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