Shortly after graduating from high school, Buford Hayes Pusser (Dec. 12, 1937 - Aug. 21, 1974) enlisted into the United States Marine Corps, and was later discharged due to asthma. In 1962, his father retired as Adamsville Chief of Police due to health problems, and Buford was hired as constable for the Adamsville Police. Two years later, he was elected Sheriff of McNairy County. Discovering that organized crime was running prostitution, illegal alcohol and corruption throughout the county, he determined to eliminate it. This resulted in several attempts on his life, and he reacted by enacting more strict measures than the men sent against him. He was shot eight times, knifed seven times, and once fought off six men trying to kill him, sending three to the hospital and jailing the other three. In 1965, he destroyed 87 whiskey stills alone.
(Kit and Morgan Benson at findagrave.com)
August 17, 1967
Pusser wounded; Wife slain by gunmen”. That was the headline as it appeared in the Thursday, August 17, 1967, edition of the McNairy County Independent. The story came just days after McNairy County Sheriff Buford Pusser’s wife Pauline was shot and killed in an apparent assassination attempt.In the early hours on the night of August 12, 1967, Sheriff Buford Pusser received a call at home. The caller told Buford that there was serious trouble flaring up on New Hope Road. After hanging up the phone, Buford jumped out of bed and began to put his uniform on. While Buford was trying to get dressed, Pauline got up and said she was going along. As the Sheriff and his wife were riding down New Hope Road, neither of them heard the black Cadillac approaching from behind. As the Cadillac got closer it pulled along side the Sheriff and his wife. When the Cadillac was right beside Buford’s car, the shots began and struck Pauline in the head area. Pauline sank in the seat holding on to her husband’s arm. Pusser knew his wife had been shot and that he had to get down the road to get away from these madmen. Buford drove nearly two miles down New Hope Road before coming to a complete stop. While Buford was checking the condition of his wife the black Cadillac appeared again this time rendering point blank shots at the Sheriff and his wife. The second series of shots from the gunmen are the ones that hit Buford in the face, and a second one hitting Pauline for the second time. After the shots, Buford said the gunmen must have thought they had killed both of them since they flew off in their car. Buford was transported to the medical facility in Selmer, then transferred to Baptist Hospital in Memphis. TBI Agents found eleven bullet holes in Buford’s Plymouth along with 14 empty .30 caliber cartridge cases.
Governor Buford Ellington Tuesday morning authorized a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murder of Mrs. Buford Pusser and the wounding of her husband Sheriff Pusser, in the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 12, in McNairy County.
The governor said, “This is the maximum reward that can be offered by the state. In addition the TBI is working closely with McNairy county officers and FBI in the investigation. I sincerely hope this combined action will result in the crime being solved in the very near future.”
Sources near the govenor said Tuesday, “We wish it could be more.” A local reward fund was started here Tuesday with the acceptance by WM. E. (Bill) Smith of the position as chairman. An attempt is being made to match the state`s reward.
Smith said, “We feel that this is the most reprehensible crime in the county`s history and that offering a substancial reward it might cause someone to come forward with information that will lead to the arrest and convictions of the killers.”
On August 21, 1974, Buford Pusser had his last ride. Earlier that day, Pusser had been at a press conference in Memphis announcing that Pusser would play himself in a sequel called "Buford." Pusser drove his Lincoln Continental home, parked it in his garage, and changed from his suit into shorts and a tee shirt. Employees of the Phillips 66 Station delivered his 1974 maroon Corvette and Pusser took a test ride. When he returned, his daughter Dwana had already left for the county fair. He got into the corvette and headed for Selmer.
Around midnight, he left the fair headed home, passed his daughter’s friend’s car and was out of sight. Pusser crashed into an embankment just off Hwy 64, around the Lawton area, where he was killed.
As we stated earlier, the legend of Pusser lives on, far after his death. Two movies were made, many songs written, as well as books and even a TV series. Pusser is, and always will be, alive in the hearts and minds of many now and in the years to come.
Many people, even twenty-five years later, tour the home/museum of Pusser, his original office and hopefully soon the original jail in the McNairy County Courthouse. It is apparent that to many Sheriff Buford Pusser is "Walking Tall."
(Janet Rail at sheriffbufordpusser.com)
As Russel Gallimore stated at the funeral of Buford Hayes Pusser on August 24, 1974, Pusser’s spirit continues to live. Buford Pusser met an untimely death at age 36, just ten years after becoming the youngest sheriff in McNairy County at age 26.
1999 marks the 25th Anniversary of Pusser’s death. This is a man who was born and died among his people, his friends and his enemies. The man who "Walked Tall" and became a legend in his own time and an international hero.
Pusser won fame as a young sheriff who could not be bought or beaten by criminals. It was with raw courage and steadfast determination that Pusser crumbled a vicious vice and gambling ring that was terrorizing and corrupting McNairy County. This mission was accomplished at a terrible cost of not only his own disfiguring wounds, but the murder of his wife, Pauline.
Pusser is described by his friends and family as a quiet, kind and caring man, a gentle giant. Pusser stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. His shadow cast across the nation one of the tallest in law enforcement history. Pusser became an American folk hero. A native of McNairy County. A legend with world-wide recognition.
Ask McNairy Countians what they think about Sheriff Buford Pusser, and you will get many different answers. The reactions range from respect and praise to harsh criticism. The reasons for the vast differences of opinions are as varied as the people themselves.
It has been stated before, that in a county where Democrats and Republicans are almost equal in number, simple politics alone made friends or enemies for Pusser, a Republican.
In keeping with political tradition in McNairy County, in the 1964 election incumbent Sheriff James Dickey was favored to win the re-election for another term in office. Just before the election, however, Dickey was killed in an auto accident and Pusser won the election by a close margin.
Pusser promised to "clean up McNairy County". Pusser served and was re-elected for three consecutive terms in office from 1964-1970. This was the term limit according to Tennessee law.
Pusser’s war against crime bore a high price tag. Pusser’s six years in office led to many acts of violence, often targeting the sheriff who was hospitalized on several occasions. Two people were killed in the line of duty. This type of combat with the outlaws left its battle scars on Pusser.
(Janet Rail at sheriffbufordpusser.com)
Word was that a movie was in the making on Pusser’s life. Two years later, as plans were being developed for the movie "Walking Tall," Pusser was making plans to run again for sheriff.
There was controversy regarding the film developing in the county and Pusser blamed that controversy for his defeat by incumbent Sheriff Clifford Coleman.
Selmer officials were opposed to the movie saying it would show the town in a "bad light." The producers ultimately chose Chester and Madison Counties for the location due to a said "lack of cooperation." These charges were denied by local officials.
The movie "Walking Tall" became a success. Pusser was defeated in the race, but claimed he was now glad he lost the race due to the demand for public appearances. Pusser became a living legend, making appearances all over the nation.
(Janet Rail at sheriffbufordpusser.com)
A runaway box-office hit to the tune of 17 million dollars, the original Walking Tall is the unabashedly manipulative story of real-life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser. As played by Joe Don Baker, Pusser can either be regarded as a tireless champion of justice or a baseball-bat-wielding hooligan. But with some of the most scurrilous villains this side of a Republic serial as the main targets of Pusser's wrath, the audience cannot help but applaud the sheriff's strongarm methods. When the town baddies seek vengeance by killing Pusser's wife (Elizabeth Hartman), the you-know-what really hits the fan! Never resorting to subtlety, Walking Tall was such a winner that it spawned two sequels, a made-for-television movie, and a weekly TV series -- none of which were enjoyed by the real Buford Pusser, who had long since died under questionable circumstances. At the time of the film's theatrical release, the MPAA rating system was comparatively new, so the studio launched an ad campaign aimed at parents, letting them know that the R-rated Walking Tall contained violence and not sex, and therefore was good family entertainment. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide.
Looked at from a modern viewpoint, it's easy to understand why critics of the early '70s had problems with Walking Tall. Its politics support knee-jerk vigilante justice, the technical credits are hit-and-miss (note the frequent boom shots), the plot rewrites the real events that inspired the story to manipulate its audience, and it wallows in brutal violence. However, it also remains easy to see why this film clicked with the audiences of the day. It is exciting, it milks its gritty premise for all the action and drama it can muster, and it is driven by an unforgettable, star-making lead performance from Joe Don Baker. Mort Briskin's script is shamelessly manipulative in its shuffling of the facts, but still manages to work on a basic good vs. evil level. Phil Karlson, a veteran director of gritty crime melodramas like The Phenix City Story, captures the story's sweaty Southern atmosphere nicely and stages the events in a tough, pull-no-punches fashion that makes up for its lack of finesse with its sheer visceral power. However, the best element of the film is Joe Don Baker's performance as Buford Pusser. His down-home charm tempers the recklessly obsessive nature of his character, he delivers an impressive physical presence during the frequent action scenes, and he pours plenty of heartfelt emotion into the film's more dramatic moments. His presence dominates the film, but it is also worth noting that Elizabeth Hartman delivers a fine supporting performance as Pusser's wife, who plays a careful-thinking devil's advocate to his justice-obsessed character and lends the story a bit of humane warmth in the process. In short, Walking Tall may be a little too dated and lacking in polish for many modern viewers, but it is necessary viewing for anyone interested in action cinema since it remains one of the most influential (and frequently imitated) films of this genre to emerge from the 1970s. ~ Donald Guarisco, All Movie Guide.
Joe Don Baker - Buford Pusser; Noah Beery, Jr. - Grandpa Carl Pusser; Brenda Benet - Luan Paxton; Lynn Borden - Margie Ann; John Brascia - Prentiss Parley; Ed Call - Lutie McVeigh; Sidney Clute - Sheldon Levine; Gene Evans - Sheriff Al Thurman; Leif Garrett - Mike Pusser; Bruce Glover - Grady Coker; Elizabeth Hartman - Pauline Pusser; Arch Johnson - Buel Jaggers; Ted Jordan - Virgil Button; Don Keefer - Dr. Lamar Stivers; Sam Laws - Willie Rae Lockman; Gene Lebell - Bouncer; Dawn Lyn - Dwana Pusser; Pepper Martin - Zolan Dicks; Rosemary Murphy - Callie Hacker; Gil Perkins - 1st Bouncer; Felton Perry - Obra Eaker, Deputy; Logan Ramsey - John Witter; Richard X. Slattery - Arno Purdy; Russell Thorson - Ferrin Meaks; Kenneth Tobey - Augie McCullah; Lurene Tuttle - Grandma Pusser; Red West - Sheriff Tanner; Douglas Fowley - Judge Clarke; Carey Loftin - Dice Player; John Myhers - Lester Dickens
Phyllis Garr - Costume Designer, Oscar Rodriguez - Costume Designer, David Hall - First Assistant Director, Ralph E. Black - First Assistant Director, Phil Karlson - Director, Harry Gerstad - Editor, Charles A. Pratt - Executive Producer, Walter Scharf - Composer (Music Score), Don Black - Songwriter, Jack H. Young - Makeup, Joe Altadonna - Production Designer, Philip M. Jefferies - Production Designer, Stan Jolley - Production Designer, Jack A. Marta - Cinematographer, Mort Briskin - Producer, Charles A. Pratt - Producer, Joel Briskin - Producer, Sass Bedig - Special Effects, David Dockendorf - Sound/Sound Designer, Andrew Gilmore - Sound/Sound Designer, Gil Perkins - Stunts, Carey Loftin - Stunts, Mort Briskin - Screenwriter, Johnny Mathis - Featured Music