Buford Pusser, the Man, his Career, and Tragedies
He wrestled and defeated a live grizzly bear. He led a violent but successful campaign against moonshiners, gamblers, prostitutes and organized crime figures. His unusual methods of law enforcement earned him notoriety. He became a local legend for his heroics and at the same time gained him dangerous enemies.
This was the man – BUFORD PUSSER – the man who became the target of many assassination attempts – one of which took the life of his wife and left him emotionally and physically scarred. The man who eventually became the subject of four “Walking Tall” major motion pictures, including the latest staring big screen actor “The Rock”, which tell about his intriguing life and tragic death.
Born: December 12th, 1937 in the community of Finger in McNairy County, Tennessee.
Family: Parents - Carl and Helen Pusser, Brother – John Howard Pusser, Sister – Gaylia Pusser Davis, Daughter – Dwana.
Graduated: Adamsville High School in 1956, excelling in football and basketball.
Enlisted: Marine Corps but was discharged because of asthma.
Extra Schooling: Attended morticians school in Chicago.
Hobby: Wrestled professionally.
Married: in 1959 met and married Pauline Vance, a young, attractive divorcee with two children, Diane and Mike.
Buford Pusser…..Law Career
Buford had moved to Chicago late in the summer of 1957, but he began to feel a ‘tug at his heart’ to return to the slower pace of life of McNairy County. So in 1961, Buford packed up his family, which had grown to include a new baby girl, Dwana, and move back to Adamsville. His 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 and thus began his law enforcement career.
1962: appointed Adamsville Police Chief.
1964: elected Sherriff of McNairy County.
Shot eight times.
Knifed seven times
Fought off six men at once, sending three to jail and three to the hospital.
Destroyed 87 whiskey stills in 1965 alone.
Killed two people in self-defense
Hopped on the hood a speeding car, smashed the window and subdued the man who had tried to run over him.
Served three consecutive terms as Sheriff of McNairy County leaving the office September 1st,1970 due to Tennessee Term Limitations.
Buford Pusser…The Tragedies
On August 12th, 1967, Buford received a call at 4:30a.m. about a disturbance at the State Line. His wife Pauline insisted on accompanying him that morning, but when they reached the New Hope Road, a black car pulled out behind them at the New Hope Church. Suddenly, the car was beside them and a hail of bullets smashed into the side window. The shots missed Buford but had struck Pauline in the head. Trying to escape, Buford drove about two miles down the road before he stopped. Thinking that he had lost the assailants, he began to tend to his wife, but the car reappeared and began firing again. Pauline was struck in the head for a second time, and Buford had his jaw shot off. With the initial shots, Buford sank to the floorboard, a move that probably saved his life.
By the time Buford left his Sheriff’s post in 1970, his career was skyrocketing with WALKING TALL, WALKING TALL: PART II, and WALKING TALL : THE FINAL CHAPTER. A television documentary called “THE GREAT AMERICAN HERO” and a television series were yet to come. Thirty years after Buford’s death, “Walking Tall” was remade staring the popular actor and wrestler “The Rock”
In 1966, Buford was named Outstanding Young Man by the local Jaycees. In 1970, he was named one of Tennessee’s Outstanding three young men.
Early in the evening of August 20th, Buford attended a press conference in Memphis. The announcement was made that he would play himself in a movie “Buford”. It was never to be. He attended the McNairy County Fair and Livestock Show in Selmer later that evening and signed autographs. He chatted with his daughter, Dwana, and later passed her and her friends on the way home. On a long stretch of road between Selmer and Adamsville his corvette veered off the road and crashed into an embankment where it burst into flames. Among the first to the scene was his daughter, but it was too late. The man who had accomplished so much in law enforcement was dead.
From 1964 to 1974, a string of violent events had cast him into the world’s spotlight. Then, as if by a stroke of fate, it was over. His memory lingers with those who knew him best. They remember his shyness, politeness, and the strength and vigor with which he administered the law.
He was a true American Hero.
Murder of Pauline Pusser
According to Pusser, on the pre-dawn morning of August 12, 1967, Pusser's phone rang, informing him of a disturbance call on New Hope Road in McNairy County. He responded, with his wife Pauline joining him for this particular ride. Shortly after they passed the New Hope Methodist Church, two cars came alongside Pusser's; and the occupants opened fire, killing Pauline and leaving Pusser, who had suffered a shotgun wound to the face, for dead. He spent eighteen days in the hospital before returning home and would need several more surgeries to restore his appearance, Pusser vowed to bring all involved with his wife's death to justice. He identified four assassins: Louise Hathcock's former boyfriend, Carl Douglas "Towhead" White, George McGann, Gary McDaniel, and Kirksey Nix; but he later changed his story as to who the assassins were when he couldn't identify them from pictures and in person.
On April 4, 1969, the person who paid for the hit, according to Pusser, White was gunned down in front of the El Ray Motel on U.S. Highway 45 in Corinth, Mississippi. The alleged triggerman was a small-time hood named Berry Smith. W.R. Morris, author of The State Line Mob: A True Story of Murder and Intrigue, wrote in 1990 that Pusser himself had hired the hit man who killed White with one shotgun blast to the head.
In late 1970, both McDaniel and McGann were found shot to death in Texas. According to Edward Humes in Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia (1994), Pusser was suspected by some law enforcement officials of having killed both. However, McGann was killed as a result of an unrelated matter by one Ronny Weeden, who was tried and convicted of the crime.
Pusser never brought Kirksey Nix to justice. Nix was sentenced to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for the Easter Saturday 1971 murder of a New Orleans grocer, Frank J. Corso. Nix was later involved in the 1987 murder-for-hire of Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife Margaret, in Biloxi, Mississippi. His co-conspirator, Biloxi Mayor Pete Halat, had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from Nix and blamed it on his law partner, Judge Sherry. Nix ordered a hit from prison and was later sentenced to isolation for the rest of his life. Nix has repeatedly refused to comment about Pusser's claims that he was one of Pauline Pusser's killers.
Pop culturePusser was the subject of three biographical books written by W.R. Morris: The Twelfth Of August: The Story of Buford Pusser (1971), Buford: True Story of "Walking Tall" Sheriff Buford Pusser (1984) and The State Line Mob: A True Story of Murder and Intrigue (1990). In addition, Morris also created a pictorial history book of Buford called The Legacy of Buford Pusser: A Pictorial History of the "Walking Tall" (1997). Pusser's daughter Dwana, released a book in 2009 entitled "Walking On," which is also an account of his life.
The 1973 movie Walking Tall was based on Pusser's true story. It was a combination of very loosely based fact and Hollywood revisionism. This has since become a well known cult classic (with two direct sequels of its own, a TV movie, A Real American Hero, and a brief TV series, also called Walking Tall).
A remake by the same name was released in 2004 as a somewhat less realistic and more mainstream film. Also dedicated to Pusser, the remake stars Dwayne Johnson and again takes liberties with the story, giving the action a more modern setting and premise. In this version the main character is not referred to as Buford Pusser but as Chris Vaughn.
On a 2004 episode of the HBO drama The Wire titled "Moral Midgetry", Baltimore Police Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Kima Greggs leave Baltimore for Virginia where McNulty derogatorily refers to the southern sheriff as Buford Pusser.
Drive-By Truckers wrote songs about the events surrounding Pusser's wife's death and his colorful tenure as sheriff for their 2004 album, The Dirty South. The album contains a three-song suite, "The Boys from Alabama", "Cottonseed" and "The Buford Stick", that claim to tell "the other side of that story".
Jimmy Buffett references a run-in he had with Pusser in the lyrics of two of his songs: "Presents to Send You" ("But my last little bout/I had my hair pulled out/by a man who really wasn't my friend") and "Semi-True Stories" ("A walkin' tall sheriff/and a big Cadillac/and me in my golf shoes/on the hood makin' tracks/this daring young singer/was under attack").
After the success of the 2004 film, Walking Tall: The Payback was released in 2007 direct-to-video. The main character (Kevin Sorbo)'s name was changed to Nick Prescott, and the movie was set in the Dallas area. Later that year on September 25, 2007 Kevin Sorbo returned in Walking Tall: Lone Justice.
In a November 16, 2007 column, Bill Simmons, "the Sports Guy," compared NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Pusser. Comedian and talk-radio host Dennis Miller occasionally refers to a "Buford Pusser Stick" on his radio show, in reference to a fictional scene from the movie Walking Tall where Pusser uses a stick to beat up everyone in a roadhouse.