The Last of Mountain Tom

Lee Freeman paints Tom as an urban legend in a scholarly paper. Here are the first paragraphs:

Tales from Beyond the Grave: The Life and Legend of Thomas Marion “Mountain Tom” Clark

By Lee Freeman, Local Historian/Genealogist for the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library in Florence, Alabama.

Most locals have seen the marker and know the story of how Tom aka “Mountain Tom” Clark lies buried underneath East Tennessee Street in Florence. They know that he was a Civil War era outlaw, born in the mountain area of East Tennessee, that he deserted the Confederate Army after killing a man; that he was arrested with two outlaws in Sept. of 1872; that he boasted of killing eighteen men and one child; that he hid gold in a deserted cave somewhere; that he was captured dressed as a woman; etc.. Unfortunately, this and much of the rest of what most people know about Tom Clark is simply urban legend, folklore.

Mountain Tom Clark, Civil War era murderer and bully, lynched and buried under a street as revenge by Jennie Helderman
Torturer, bully, fiend, meaner than the devil himself, could have looked like this menacing man

The man largely responsible for this was the late Dr. Maurice “Wade” Pruitt (1911-1976), whose 1977 posthumously-published book Bugger Saga (“Mustn’t cry, son, ‘cause the Buggers’ll get you if you don’t watch out’”) attempted to chronicle Tom Clark’s life and times, and that of some of his gang members.1 While drawing upon some historical sources, Bugger Saga is based primarily upon oral tradition, stories told to Pruitt by his grandparents and other relatives. Pruitt stated in an un-sourced interview included in the book: “Anyway, I have aimed at the truth and if I have, at times, not hit the Bull’s eye, I am sorry, but that’s the way I’ve recollected hearing them tell it.”

2 As folklore, these tales are invaluable however as an accurate record of Tom Clark’s life and career, they leave much to be desired. The following article will seek to separate fact from folklore with regard to the life and crimes of Thomas Marion Clark. Because Pruitt’s book is the only published account of Tom Clark, and because what it says is taken as gospel by many, I have quoted and referred to it fairly extensively in this article, while at the same time relying upon primary historical documents wherever possible. There are actually more period historical records for Tom and his gang than might at first be assumed.

So what do we know about Tom Clark? Well, for starters, Tom may not have had the nickname “Mountain Tom” and may not have been born in East Tennessee. Tom was married to Sarah Bradford in Franklin County, Tennessee in September of 1847,3 and while Tom’s 1850 and 1860 census enumerations do record his birthplace as Tennessee Tom’s father Henry Clark, a native of Kentucky, repeatedly shows up in the US censuses from 1830 to 1850 living in Jackson County, Alabama.4 So if Henry Clark was ever in Franklin County, Tennessee it must have been before 1830 (or possibly in between census years)

As for Tom’s nickname “Mountain Tom,” the earliest and only historical reference I can locate which refers to him as “Mountain Tom” is a March, 1893 Florence Times (reprinted from the Sheffield Reaper) biographical sketch of Tom written by armchair historian Mr. T. S. Fedore of South Florence, in Colbert County. 5 Fedore says Tom was named “Mountain Tom” to differentiate him from another Tom Clark who was known as “Chinubbee” Tom.6 Every other 19th century and early 20th century historical reference to Tom that I can find however refers to him simply as “Tom Clark” or “Thomas Clark.” Nothing is known of Tom’s life before the Civil War, though Wade Pruitt surmised that the Clarks may have arrived in Lauderdale in the 1830s and that Tom was a cattle thief before the Civil War.

While claiming to be a “correct write-up” of the “fiend” Clark, based upon careful historical investigation, much of Fedore’s sketch seems to be anecdotal, and is another reason why myth and folklore about Clark still abound….

Despite there being no reliable evidence for Tom’s burial beneath East Tennessee Street, the presence of this historical marker will no doubt ensure that most locals will simply take for granted that he is. And perhaps at the end of the day that’s okay. After all, as local historian Harry Wallace comments, for Tom to be buried beneath Tennessee Street would be poetic Southern justice.