McMurran family story filled with adversities

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

On some days at Melrose, you can almost see Mary Louisa McMurran preparing for her daughter’s wedding, grieving over a lost child or rushing to the side of her dying husband.

The McMurran family’s story is one of love and sadness and mystery, and it lives today for tourists who visit the antebellum house at the Natchez National Historical Park each year.

“This family had everything in the world going for them, and nothing went right,” said Janice Turnage, a park ranger with the National Park Service. “The angel of death was a frequent visitor.”

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The family’s story begins in the early 1800s, when John McMurran of Pennsylvania moved to Natchez and fell in love with Mary Louisa Turner.

After they married, the couple built Melrose in the 1840s and began their difficult journey.

Mary Louisa bore three children, but one died as a child. Mary Elizabeth McMurran and John McMurran Jr. lived with their parents at Melrose.

“Mrs. McMurran absolutely adored these children,” Turnage said.

But her love could not spare them hardship.

In 1856, the McMurrans watched as their frail 17-year-old daughter Mary Elizabeth married 30-year-old Farar Conner at Melrose.

It was a day that saddened her father because he mourned the idea of giving away his only daughter,&160;Turnage said.

That same year, their son John Jr. married Alice Austen, a Baltimore belle who brought a new perspective to life in the South.

“She described (slavery as) a well-oiled machine,” but she did not like the responsibility, Turnage said.

Within a year of their marriages, the two couples began having their own children.

“The character of the house changed with the coming of the (seven) grandchildren,” Turnage said.

Mary Elizabeth McMurran Conner had three children, the first of whom, Benjamin Farar “Fazee” Conner, was born with club feet. Despite surgery, he walked with a limp all of his life.

John Jr. and Alice, who lived on a plantation south of Natchez, had four children. But only two daughters lived to be adults.

Later, Alice Austen McMurran wrote of the pain of hearing the last few coughs her child ever made from another room. Her family had tried to protect her from being near the child at the end, Turnage said.

The Civil War brought extra turmoil.

Farar Conner went off to war, leaving his young wife at home in poor health. “He left her here pregnant and dying, and he knew it,” Turnage said.

Mary Elizabeth McMurran Conner had been sick for years with a disease of the spinal cord which affected her brain.

The young mother was only in her 20s but had the body of an old woman and a mind of a child. She had symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, said Kathleen Jenkins, museum curator at Melrose Natchez National Historical Park.

Before her death, Mary Elizabeth gave birth to a healthy baby boy, John McMurran Conner, but her family knew she would not live much longer.

The night of her death in March 1864, her family and several slaves spent the entire night around her bed.

At the age of 29, “she literally wasted away,” Turnage said.

Her husband, Farar Conner, spent most of the Civil War as a prisoner of war and could not return home until after his wife’s death. He also returned home to find his 6-year-old daughter, Mary Louisa Conner, had died from dysentery and dehydration.

And two days after his return, his youngest child, the boy born during his wife’s illness, also died from dysentery.

This left Benjamin Farar “Fazee” Conner, their crippled son, as the only surviving offspring.

Whether it was the tragedy of the Civil War or the loss of so many loved ones – or both – John and Mary Louisa McMurran soon decided they no longer wanted to live at Melrose.

They sold the house and its furnishings and made plans to move to Baltimore. But as fate would have it, they never made it.

In December 1866, John McMurran was riding on a steamboat on the Mississippi River when the boat caught fire.

He escaped to a river bank, injured, and later died in New Orleans from exposure to the cold water. Mary Louisa unable to reach her husband’s bedside before he died. Distraught with grief, she turned to her faith for comfort. She continued to care for her crippled grandson.

With Melrose lost to them, what happened to the family in the following years remains somewhat of a mystery.

Mary Louisa McMurran continued to live in Natchez, beloved by local residents both white and black. She died almost penniless in 1891.

Until her death, she kept a close eye on her crippled grandson, who was spoiled by doting grandmothers.

Fazee Conner lived into the 20th century but died a poor man, according to historians. No one knows where he lived his adult life or where he is buried.

The story of John McMurran Jr. is another mystery.

After being discharged from the Confederate Army due to a hearing loss aggravated by artillery fire, he essentially switched sides – moving north to work for the Union War Department.

His wife, Alice McMurran, and their two daughters stayed at the plantation operating a school.

And, his wife began presenting herself as a widow even though her husband was still alive, Turnage said.

Historians researching the McMurran family do not know where John McMurran Jr. spent the rest of his life, but they have found letters written by the young man to his mother during this time period.

They also have letters from him apologizing to his wife without explaining what he did wrong.

Historians may never know the full story of the McMurran family. But its joys and sorrows continue to captivate people today.

“That’s why the story is so powerful. It’s very human,” Turnage said. “It’s very real, and it’s not Hollywood at all.”