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Joe Mulliner: Man, Loyalist, Rake, Bandit, Folk Hero & Ghost
written by US332 Wayne Straight, edited by US312 Steve Mullinax & US339 Wendy Arnim

(First appeared in MxWorld, Volume 26, Number 3, pages 5-9, February 2012)

While trying to verify or refute a Branford Mx genesis for several Mx lineages in New York state and beyond, I ran across the following Find-a-Grave entry for one Joe Mulliner, a bigger-than-life character who ran a band of brigands called The Refugees out of a stronghold in the New Jersey (NJ) Pine Barrens(1). I already knew that Thomas Mx3, a grandson of Thomas Mx of Branford had migrated to NJ ca 1683, so I was on the lookout for any of his descendants. The fact that Joe spelled his name the same way as Thomas had sparked my interest and I’d promised myself to eventually investigate him for any connection to Thomas Mx3(2).

Figure 1: There were additional notes attached to this entry as follows: "Joe Mulliner is the only interment at this gravesite located on Pleasant Mills-Weekstown Road, Route 43, two miles east of Pleasant Mills, on south side of road."

Note: This grave marker is said to have been erected by local pranksters in the 1960’s(3), the original stone having disappeared at about the same time(4). It sits on one of several grave sites reported to be Joe’s final resting place, two others being: 1) Gallows Hill in what is today a cemetery known as Laurel Hill, located on Jacksonville Rd. in Burlington Co. NJ, and bearing a simple small stone that reads, "JM."(5); and 2) an unnamed location at the Forks of the Mullica River, near Crowleytown, in Burlington Co., NJ, on land owned by his wife, who is also purported to have been his "active and cunning assistant"(6).--wjs

In any event, I thought this entry interesting enough to pass on to Betty, who then asked me to write Joe up for MxWorld, thus providing me the perfect excuse to follow up on that promise. Although my inquiries into Joe’s origins were unsuccessful, I did find more than enough material for an MxWorld article--there were history books, blogs, genealogical queries, novels (both narrative and graphic), ghost stories, newspaper articles, and even a ca 1974 documentary film featured on YouTube(7) --it seems that Joe was a bona fide folk hero! The resulting narrative illustrates some of the many sides of Joe Mulliner who in life was a human being, a political activist, a lothario, a brigand, and a celebrity; and in death remains a legend.

Joe Mulliner, The Man:
Though there is very little genealogical information available on Joe, the majority of sources place his birth at between 1740 and 1750, somewhere in England (a smaller number posit NJ), and having at least one, almost certainly two, brothers. Described as a "worthy man", Joe’s brother Moses was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, serving in the Continental Army, and after the war went on to sire at least three children in Little Egg Harbor Township, Burlington Co., NJ, where he lived and died(8). One John Mulliner, almost certainly the other brother, is credited by one source(9) as being involved in Joe’s nefarious deeds. But another(10) says that this second brother also served in the Continental Army. Little has been written about John. He too lived out his life in Little Egg Harbor, though it’s difficult to say how long he lived as he had a nephew by the same name. There was also a Henry Mulliner living in the area during that time frame.

Regarding Joe himself, its said that he: married young, to a woman he met at a party and that he settled down on a farm on the Mullica River(11); made a legitimate living on the water as a coastal pilot prior to the war(12); was commonly considered to be a Tory (at least in name if not always in practice); lived life large; died young; and left no issue. Physically, he was described as being: "of good address and attractive personal appearance…wore an (British) officer’s uniform, with a ponderous sword at his side and a brace of pistols in his belt.(13)"…"a swaggering giant of a man, reputed to stand six-foot-five"(13)…"good natured…loved feasting, fun and fighting.(14)" …"came from a good family…well educated for his time...(had a) booming voice…an aggressive friendliness and good humor that seemed to naturally draw people to himxii"..."a handsome fellow with charm enough to talk the bloomers off a clothesline(15)."

Joe Mulliner, Loyalist:
Accounts vary as to whether Joe was in truth a Loyalist, or simply an opportunist. He most certainly had Tory leanings that triggered persecution by his Whig neighbors. At least one source(5) supports this notion: "Until the time of the Revolution…the couple lived a quiet life, but the war changed all that...he (Joe) opted to remain loyal to the King…His decision was unpopular with his pro-independence neighbors and, in 1779, Mulliner was forced to flee his home to avoid arrest." According to another source(13), when "war broke out he turned pirate. His small sloop was perfectly adapted to slip stealthily from the coves that dot the Jersey Shore around Egg Harbor. From these lairs, he prayed [sic] upon vulnerable merchant ships as they anchored at shore. Occasionally he took hostages among the crew and collected ransom from their relatives on land. At some point Mulliner expanded his brigandage from sea to land." We know that he did receive a commission from the Board of Associated Loyalists of New York--led by William Franklin, New York’s Royal Governor at the time, and the son of Benjamin Franklin(16). Joe is also credited with providing information, ca 1778, to General Burgoyne, who then sent an 800-man expedition against the once thriving trade center at Chestnut Neck in Atlantic Co., NJ(17). Most sources agree that Joe was hung as a traitor and spy rather than as a bandit.

However, according to one source(18) he "terrorized both American Patriots and British Loyalists." Another(15) states his gang "fought, sometimes for Tories, but often for themselves". A third(19) states "there is ample evidence that he would steal from anyone." Finally, an item in The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, of 8 August 1871, states "He had made a practice of burning houses, robbing and plundering all who fell in his way so that when he came to trial it appeared that the whole country, both whigs and tories, were his enemies."

His ingenuity is as legendary as his exploits. One particular tale that appears often in the historical annals, has it that Joe designed an ingenious dog collar with a hidden compartment, and having trained his dog as a courier, would use it to communicate with or through his wifexiv.(14)

Whether Loyalist, renegade or both, he was obviously very successful in his endeavors. According to one sourcev, Joe and his gang stole assorted riches exceeding $1 million (US). This source goes on to say that over the years, treasure hunters have recovered at least three caches of stolen goods attributable to Joe, as follows: 1847--silver plate worth $30,000 (US); 1906--a cache of Revolutionary War era gold coins; and 1970--a weapons cache of three swords, one with an ornate silver hilt.

Joe Mulliner, Rake:
Although Joe married young, it seems clear that matrimony didn’t temper his carnal urges. Much of his reputation as a lothario actually seems due to his love of dancing and partying, but human nature being what it is, there is probably at least a germ of truth to the allegations. Stories abound regarding his romantic exploits, but they all appear to fall into three specific categories; abduction, rescue, and disrupting parties. Some renditions, especially the fictional works, combine aspects of all three.

Rather than try to paraphrase, I offer the following extracts from New Jersey History's Mysteries(5):

Abduction: "Honoria Read was the young and beautiful daughter of Charles Read, Ironmaster of Batsto village. In the summer of 1781, she gave a party at her home in Pleasant Mills, and Mulliner took exception to his name having been left off the guest list. Never one to stand on ceremony, he crashed the party and left with the unwilling hostess." He reportedly returned her that same night, but the ransom he demanded was said to be her "wholehearted affection". I leave it to the reader to interpret the meaning of that phrase.

Rescue: "…he passed a young woman crying in the backyard. When he inquired as to the cause of her troubles…she ran into the inn. Mulliner followed and soon discovered the cause of her unhappiness, a forced betrothal. He waited for the start of the ceremony before appearing on the stairway with his guns brandished to stop the marriage. He gave the groom one of two choices, leave or die. The groom choice [sic] the former, and was never seen again."


Figure 2: Joe Mulliner Crashing a Wedding Party

Party crasher: "Mulliner again arrived as a party was in progress. Perhaps the music had drawn him…he always seemed to appear whenever there were festivities. As was (his) habit, he picked the prettiest woman to dance with first, and gradually took a turn with all the women at the party. Normally, none…would dare challenge him, but on this one night…a small and timid man refused to allow his date to dance with Mulliner, and when the outlaw pushed the suitor aside and insisted, the angry man slapped Mulliner across the face. The crowd waited for an explosion of fists (but) instead he began to chuckle, and then his booming laughter rang out.

Declaring that, ‘So fearless a little bantam must have the best girl present,’ he shook hands with the slapper, danced one turn with his partner, and returned her with his compliments before disappearing into the night."

It was in this last role that he was finally apprehended. From the same source, we learn: "Joe Mulliner's love of dance and drink would ultimately prove his undoing. In the early summer of 1781, he crashed his final party in present-day Nesco. The festivities were in full swing at the Indian Cabin Mill Inn when he arrived with his usual flair. As always, he picked the prettiest woman to dance with, pushing her partner aside. The furious man slipped out the back door and past the guard…made his way to the nearby home of Captain Baylin, the leader of the local militia…(who) quickly raised a posse and surrounded the inn. Mulliner surrendered."

Joe Mulliner, Folk Hero:
Regardless of who he actually was, local folklore has painted Joe bigger than life—"the Robin Hood of the Pine Barrens"(20). As is so often the case with folk heroes, Joe was apparently a very large man (folklore doesn’t seem to like average-sized or diminutive heroes.) In addition, he dressed in an outrageous style—the British uniform surely chosen to offend his Whig neighbors—and obviously had an extroverted personality big enough to match his physical stature. Add to this his documented exploits, as well as our all-too-human penchant for embroidering tales and you get a legendary figure.

A number of sources are critical of this description, as witness the following: "In fact his robberies helped impoverish an already war-scarred countryside and there is no record of his sharing the wealth with anyone but his fellow criminals.(13)"…"Another well-known highway man was Joe Mulliner, who terrorized both American patriots and British Loyalists."(18) …."It was said that Mulliner never let pass an opportunity to steal from the rich, but there is ample evidence that he would steal from anyone.(20)";

But the majority of reporters paint him in a more positive light: "Though his legend claims he was known for ‘looting and killing almost at will,’ and that he and his men ‘ravaged and terrorized’ the New Jersey countryside, it appears to be more myth than fact. Mulliner was known to engage his victims in good conversation and frequently joked with them. Some considered it an honor to have been robbed by the famous Joe Mulliner. It was his friendliness and compassion for not robbing the poor that earned him the Robin Hood reputation.(12)"…"In all their illegal exploits, he and his gang never killed, or even seriously injured anyone.(8) "…"What ensured Mulliner's status as a local celebrity was that, in spite of his large stature, he was a rather nonviolent, and even friendly, robber…he was even known to entertain his victims with jokes and stories while his men rifled through their belongings. He was also reputed to have only robbed those who could afford it, leaving poorer travelers to go about their business. One story also has him leaving an anonymous bag of cash for a woman whose house was destroyed by his overenthusiastic henchmen, by way of apology for their actions.(21)" My sentiments tend to favor him in this more favorable light, if for no other reason than that, according to most sources, he was hanged for high treason rather than for brigandage.

As if to add to Joe’s legendary status, since his death, several attempts have been made to move or obscure the location of his remains: ca 1860, his bones were exhumed by a bunch of drunks and taken to Batsto, but eventually returned(14); in 1960, his grave marker, said to be located on the Pleasant Mills-Nesco Rd., disappeared(4); also in 1960, pranksters are said to have erected a false marker in Pleasant Mills(3) (see Figure 1).

Joe Mulliner, Ghost:
As befits such a legendary figure, Joe figures prominently in the ghostly pantheon of the Pines. This extract from the June 13th, 1839, Oswego Observer, entitled Mulliner's Ghost Seen in Washington, is typical, "Joe Mulliner, the infamous ‘Robin Hood of the Pines’, was hanged fifty eight years ago, from the low limb of a buttonwood tree among the scrub cedars along the Mullica River. This fact, however, doesn't stop people from reporting his wraith from time to time, searching the places he haunted during his lifetime of woeful deeds for the pile of gold he buried long ago." or, more than a century later, this one from The San Antonio Light of 23 Jun 1946, By Henry Charlton Beck, entitled Only Memories Live in Jersey's Ghost Towns(14), "The Mulliner ghost story, one of the oldest of the pinelands, is still told at firesides, in the faded villages it concerned. It is years now since the last traveler, racing a lathered mount to Pleasant Mills, told how he had plainly seen Joe Mulliner's phantom, earnestly searching in the dark for the gold he buried long ago." Or, more recently, from Haunted Jersey Shore: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Garden State Coast(3), "But his spirit does not rest. 'Stand and deliver!' shouts the ghost that some claim to have met on dark nights. At other times, the ghost of Joe Mulliner can be seen spinning his sweetheart about merrily as he dances to ghostly music."

But to close off this tale I prefer a bit of poetry, by Henry Beck, appropriately entitled, The Legend of Joe Mulliner(22) —
the scrub cedar that borders the river, weird shadows move.
Lights flicker and gutter out. The eerie wraith falls, or rather
seems to float to the ground. Then it searches for something and,
disappointed, strides off down the road to a lonely grave.

End Notes:

1. The Pine Barrens, reputed home of the cryptozoological terror known as ‘The Jersey Devil’, and home to ghost towns with such colorful names as Ong’s Hat, Double Trouble, Pancake & Chicken Bone, comprise an enormous, marshy, heavily-forested, and sparsely-populated wilderness covering a huge portion of what is arguably the most heavily populated state in America. Its denizens, popularly & pejoratively known as Pineys, were once widely considered to be in-bred, low-caste, bumpkins. H. H. Goddard popularized the argument supporting this claim in 1912, in a study called The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness.

2. Via some very circuitous logic and questionable reporting, a tenuous connection can be made between Joe Mulliner and the Branford Mxes, but as is too often the case, I’ve found nothing definitive with which to argue for this case, nor any evidence linking him to any other Mx Line.

3. Haunted New Jersey: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Garden State, by Patricia A. Martinelli & Charles A. Stansfield, pub. Stackpole Books, 2004, pages 60-61

4. Discover the Hidden New Jersey, by Russell Roberts, pub. Rutgers University Press, 1995, pages 312-314

5. New Jersey History’s Mysteries : Joe Mulliner – The Robin Hood of the Pine Barrens ww.njhm.com/mulliner.htm

6. ibid, Absegami Annals of Eyren Haven and Atlantic City, 1609 to 1904, by Alfred M. Heston, Atlantic City, Vol. 1, printed for the author, by Sinnickson Chew & Sons Co., Printers, Camden, NJ, 1904, & The San Antonio (TX) Light, Only Memories Live in Jersey's Ghost Towns, by Henry Charlton Beck, 23 Jun 1946, pages 6-7

7. Ghost Towns of the Pine Barrens in New Jersey YouTube video.

8. Proceedings, By-Laws, List of Members, &c, of the Surveyors Association of West NJ. With Historical and Biographical Sketches Relating to NJ, by the Association of Practical Surveyors of West NJ, John Clement, pub. by order of the Society, S. Chew, Printer, S. Chew, steam-power printer, Camden, NJ, 1880, pages 200, & 346-347

9. Bass River History : History and Early Culture of Bass River Township, Burlington County, New Jersey, pages 1-7 (www.bassriverhistory.org/uploads/6/8/7/1/6871754/bass_river_history.pdf)

10. Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, by Henry Charlton Beck, pub. Rutgers University Press, 1983, chapter 22, pages 167-173

11. Lost Treasure OnLine : State Treasures - New Jersey, by Anthony M. Belli, from page 18 of the March, 2011 issue of Lost Treasure (http://www.losttreasure.com/content/archives/state-treasures-new-jersey-0)

12. Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels, Rivergate Series, by Jon Blackwell, pub. Rutgers University Press, 2007, pages 18-20

13. Absegami Annals of Eyren Haven and Atlantic City, 1609 to 1904, by Alfred M. Heston, Atlantic City, Vol. 1, printed for the author, by Sinnickson Chew & Sons Co., Printers, Camden, NJ, 1904

14. The San Antonio (TX) Light, Only Memories Live in Jersey's Ghost Towns, by Henry Charlton Beck, 23 Jun 1946, pages 6-7

15. Stories and Novels : The Devil and the Dancing Fool, Written by Doris Lane, 17 Feb. 2009 (http://dorislane.com/?p=8")

16. The Loyalists: Revolution, Exile, Settlement, by Christopher Moore, pub. McClelland & Stewart, Ltd., Toronto, 1984: page 133, & So Obstinately Loyal: James Moody, 1744-1809, by Susan Burgess Shenstone, pub. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 2001, page 136,

17. The Daily Union History of Atlantic City and County, New Jersey : containing sketches of the past and present of Atlantic City & County, New Jersey, by John F. Hall, 1899, Daily Union Printing Co., Atlantic City, 1900, pages 91 & 93

18. True Crime, New Jersey: The State's Most Notorious Criminal Cases True Crime Series, by Patricia A. Martinelli, pub. Stackpole Books, 2007

19. This is New Jersey, by John T. Cunningham, Edition 4, pub. Rutgers University Press, 1994, page 243

20. Within my sources, I counted at least 18 instances in which this descriptive term was used.--wjs

21. Bicycles, Books and Bowties : Awesome Historical Figures You've Never Heard Of: Joe Mulliner, by Matt DeBlass (http://mattdeblass.blogspot.com/2010/11/awesome-historical-figures-youve-never.html) Friday, November 19, 2010

22. Time Traveler (http://www.mapsurfer.com/boxes/box35.html), LOCATION: Pine Barrens, NJ, DATE/NUMBER: 03-Mar-2001/35