As something of a folklore hero, Buford Pusser has had a trio of movies dedicated to his life, There are also multiple songs, including two that mention an altercation between Jimmy Buffett and Pusser.
His law enforcement career was legendary. He went on a nearly one-man crusade against local crime rings involved in moonshining, gambling, and other vice-centered crimes.
Born in Adamsville, Tennessee, Pusser was an enforcer-type person from a young age. Standing at 6’6” and 250 pounds by the time he was an adult, he was physically intimidating to nearly everyone around him.
He enlisted in the United States Marines right out of high school. However, he was quickly discharged because he had asthma, which greatly disappointed him.
He instead turned to wrestling, starting a career as “Buford the Bull.” For the next two years, he traveled the semi-professional wrestling circuit around the country. Until one day, he met his wife Pauline Mullins.
The two wed in 1959 and moved to Chicago, where Pusser worked for the Union Paper Bag company for 3 years. In 1962, they returned to Adamsville, where Pusser eventually would return to his earlier dream of serving the public in an enforcement role.
Tennessee’s Youngest Sheriff
Pusser stepped into the role of police chief and constable for his hometown quickly after arriving. This was the beginning of a long career dedicated to eliminating local crime.
After two years, Pusser gained the chance to become sheriff of McNairy when the standing sheriff was killed in a car accident. At just 27 years old, Pusser became the youngest sheriff in Tennessee history.
Even as a young sheriff, Pusser was intensely dedicated to enforcing laws and protecting his community. He had a very strong moral compass and a tireless dedication to aligning his community with what he felt was right.
A Man on a Mission
As Pusser stepped into the role, he quickly learned that his predecessor was complicit in a slew of organized crime in the region. This included a moonshining ring run by two groups called the Dixie Mafia and State Line Mob.
These groups would distill moonshine and then sell it in Tennessee and Mississippi. They made thousands of dollars selling the illegal alcohol. Pusser made it his personal mission to eradicate these groups. In the process, he made a number of enemies.
In 1964, shortly after he was elected to his new role, Pusser was assaulted by members of the moonshining ring. They were trying to prevent the new sheriff from shutting down their operation.
Pusser was stabbed seven times and left to die. However, he survived. And now his mission to eradicate the group of moonshiners was an act of personal vengeance.
With renewed vigor, he raided forty-two stills and arrested seventy-five moonshiners in his first year alone. In the coming years, he would also survive multiple gunshot wounds and other assassination attempts as he expanded his crusade to include prostitution rings and gambling circles.
As unbelievable as Pusser’s life was within his first year as sheriff, things only got more absurd and heartbreaking.
In August of 1967, Pusser received a call about a disturbance just outside of town early in the morning. He got up and prepared himself for whatever trouble there may be. Just before he left his wife asked to join him. The two of them shuffled into their car and drove across town.
As they were driving, another car drove up next to them and opened fire on the couple. Pauline was killed instantly. Two rounds went through Pusser’s jaw.
It would take a number of surgeries over almost three weeks to reconstruct his jaw. But Pusser would survive the attack and have a renewed determination to eliminate the criminal rings. While still a mission driven by his sense of morality, the added fervor of avenging his wife drove Pusser harder than anything else ever had.
Pusser believed the assassination attempt was related to a case from the previous year, where he was shot at when investigating a robbery. He returned fire and killed Louise Hathcock. She was the common-law wife of Kirksey Nix who was head of the Dixie Mafia.
Pusser insisted that Nix and his associates were behind the assassination attempt. However, none were ever indicted on charges related to the shooting.
However, three of Nix’s associates were killed over the next three years. Nix himself was imprisoned for committing another murder. There are rumors that Pusser was responsible for the deaths of Nix’s associates, although there has never been any conclusive evidence.
But if that were the case, Nix may have avoided being killed himself by being imprisoned.
A Grim End
In 1970, Pusser was forced to step away from his role as sheriff because term limits kept him from running for office again. He returned to his role as constable and tried to run for sheriff again in the next election in 1972. But he was unable to swing the votes.
Then in 1973, a movie called Walking Tall was released that was based on Pusser’s life. One day Pusser was returning home from the county fair in 1974. This was the same day he negotiated the sequel movie to Walking Tall. His car hit an embankment and flew off the road.
Pusser was thrown from the car after it caught fire. He did not survive his injuries. Rumors surrounding his crash have wondered whether it was actually an accident, or whether this was a successful assassination attempt.
Nix had successfully organized hits from in prison. And the trooper who worked the accident later became sheriff of McNairy County, which were both suspicious in the context of the crash. But perhaps the most suspicious is that Pusser did not receive an autopsy.
Shortly after his death, community members turned Pusser’s house into a museum dedicated to the law enforcer. His biographic movie, Walking Tall, has received sequels, spin-offs, and remakes for the next almost 50 years.
He has been immortalized as a folk hero in multiple other kinds of media. Even though he only lived to 36 years old, Pusser left a legendary legacy in his wake.
Birdwell, Michael E. “Buford Pusser.” Tennessee Encyclopedia, October 8, 2017. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/buford-pusser/.
Franco, Samantha. “Buford Pusser Was a Good Cop Who Was Hell-Bent on Getting Revenge,” The Vintage News, August 25, 2022. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2022/08/25/buford-pusser/.