Where in the world is Agnes Isabella buried? No one knows

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 7, 2008

Her name is carved in the stone — Agnes Isabella Bruce — along with the date of her death — June 21, 1881.

There’s a lot more to the story, however, that brought this lady from Scotland to America — and maybe back to Scotland.

It’s a story of not only mystery, but of theft and murder, of war and foreign entanglement. But the only visible hint to the past is Mrs. Bruce’s tombstone atop an Indian mound on Oakland Plantation, just off Highway 3 in Warren County near the Yazoo line. Three families — Purvis, Bruce and Spears — were directly involved.

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The story begins in the 1830s when John and Ann Purvis moved from Scotland to Mississippi and bought Oakland Plantation, then another in Sunflower County. Before 1850, they had hired Thomas P. Bruce, also from Scotland, as their overseer. He was in his 20s, single and probably a relative.

John Purvis was almost 50 when he died in 1850. He had no children, so his wife, Ann, and his mother inherited his estate. After their deaths, all was to be sold and the proceeds divided among the children of his brother and sisters, who lived in Mobile, Scotland and England. Ann Purvis was free to remain here or to return home.

Bruce, the overseer, went to Scotland sometime in the 1850s and married Ellen, had several children and returned to Oakland before 1860. Thomas, David and James were all born in the homeland, and George arrived on ship off the coast of Cape Horn. Ann Purvis went back to Scotland and died in 1860; Mary Purvis died there the following year.

When the War Between the States began, the estate had not been settled and Thomas P. Bruce ran the plantation. As he was a citizen of the United Kingdom and had no interest in the American war, he thought the Union Jack would provide protection.

Wrong! The safety that neutrality should have given the Scotsman was an empty wish as the Yankee soldiers left Oakland in ruin and destruction. Official records show that troops in Grant’s army, serving under Gen. Francis P. Blair, burned the home, cotton gin, slave quarters and other buildings, stole all the mules and other livestock, as well as all the corn, peas, bacon, potatoes and other provisions “and left it completely destroyed.”

Bruce and his family fled to New Zealand but returned after the war. The United States government claimed he had abandoned the plantation, and it was confiscated. Bruce hired Vicksburg’s leading lawyer, Thomas A. Marshall, who was a Unionist, to help him regain the land. Marshall pointed out the circumstances of the abandonment, that Bruce had been forced off the place, that the army had wantonly destroyed it, but that it was not liable to seizure or confiscation anyway because Bruce was a foreigner. The court referred the matter to the Bureau of Refugees, who revealed C.A. Montrose of the Treasury Department had leased the land.

Oakland was abandoned, Bruce contended, only because of threats and outrages committed by the Yankees.

Arriving on the scene in 1866, as the plantation was turned over to Bruce, was Purvis Spears, a nephew of the original owners, John and Ann Purvis, and an heir to the plantation. He had the idea of becoming a Southern planter, but there was nothing left to cultivate the place. Purvis debated if he should stay or go home, but a tragedy concluded the problem.

On Jan. 2, 1867, a headline in the Vicksburg Herald read, “Atrocious Murder and Arson in This County.” On Saturday night, Dec. 30, 1866, Purvis Spears had been murdered, his home ransacked and burned. Some of the report was contradictory — he was shot twice with a shotgun, but “His body was burned to a cinder.”

The episode was blamed on a group of blacks, but one of them walked 6 miles, reporting the murder and burning, but stated that it was done by a gang of whites. However, some of Spears’ possessions were found among those suspected. Two men were arrested, but the others eluded the sheriff.

Later in the week, on Jan. 6, the Herald reported that six more — five men and a woman — had been arrested and charged with the murder. The woman and one man must have been released, for only five people were convicted — Henry Harris, Granville Morris, Bob Jones, Joe Murphy and Alex Stewart.

The hanging, at Bobb’s brick yard, was to take place on Feb. 22, 1867, but the day before the deaths of all except Stewart were postponed for 28 days by order of Gov. Ben Humphreys.

Stewart was taken to the gallows on the appointed day where the trap was to be sprung at 12:30 in the middle of the day.

Stewart’s name had not been included with those arrested several days after the murder; it was probably he and a man named Albert Neely who had been taken into custody right after the atrocity.

At the scaffold, the Rev. Dr. Camp prayed for the condemned, and before Stewart plunged into eternity he confessed his part in the murder and also implicated Neely. The paper speculated that a new trial might be held for Neely and the others, but no records have been found other than that Gov. Humphreys commuted their sentences to life in the penitentiary at hard labor.

Isadore Kahn was appointed administrator of the estate, claiming that Spears’ personal property was worth only $350 and that the deceased owed him $267.85. Kahn claimed there were no relatives in this country, but those on the Coast disagreed! Bruce claimed the estate owed him almost $13,000. Whatever litigation took place is unknown, but Bruce remained at Oakland and was operating it in 1880. Living with him was his son, T.P. Bruce Jr., and the son’s wife, Agnes Isabella, who would die the next year.

There was more tragedy awaiting Thomas P. Bruce. On Dec. 9, 1884, his son George C. Bruce, “a bright and promising youth of 17 years,” according to the Herald, accidentally shot himself in the forehead. He died a few hours later.

The boy was probably buried in the small family graveyard atop the Indian mound along with his mother, Purvis Spears, John Purvis, and others.

The late Blaine Russell, a Vicksburg journalist and historian, visited the site in the early 1900s and said there were four or five tombstones on the mound. When Charlie Faulk of The Vicksburg Post wrote about it in 1969, only one stone was visible, that of Agnes Isabella, and it had fallen and was lying in the weeds.

Russell heard from old residents that Agnes Isabella had longed for her homeland and begged her husband to have her body returned to Scotland for burial. He made the promise, but the only way to keep it, to preserve the body, was to ship it in a barrel of rum. The stone, they said, was just a memorial.

Eight years ago, some of the kin came from Scotland to research the family. Thomas P. Bruce Sr., they said, had died in Scotland in 1892 while on a visit and was buried there. They didn’t know the story about Agnes Isabella. When they returned home they made a search of local graveyards and family records but came up with no conclusion.

Where is Agnes Isabella Bruce buried?

The mystery remains unsolved.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.