Mulliner the Mariner: The Man Beyond the Myth

Those familiar with the New Jersey Pine Barrens have probably heard the legend of Joe Mulliner, the infamous outlaw who is said to have terrorized the inhabitants of the Pines during the American War for Independence. Yet, beyond the myth, there was a real man. What facts are known about him? What elements of the folklore can be dismissed as fictitious?  This article sets out to briefly answer these questions by way of addressing a number of commonly repeated claims about Mulliner.

Claim: He was lawless and indiscriminately plundered everyone he encountered.

Was Joe Mulliner really a scoundrel who gave allegiance to no one and observed no law, as the story goes?   According to the British, he was not. However, the Whigs painted him in a much different light. In 1781, the Grand Inquest of Burlington County claimed that Mulliner and his gang were “moved by the instigation of the Devil,” that they were “false traitors and rebels against the State of New Jersey,” and that they “captured and held citizens of the state as prisoners of war.”[1] Shortly after Mulliner’s death, the New Jersey Gazette reported: “This fellow had become the terror of the country. He made a practice of burning houses, robbing and plundering all who fell in his way, so that when he came to his trial it appeared that the whole country, both Whigs and Tories, were his enemies.” [2] Such accusations were often leveled against Tory irregulars, and this particular case may have merely been an example of wartime rhetoric. John Watson, who was born at Batsto Village in 1778, claimed that Mulliner burned the home of his father, William Watson, who was a patriot and privateer, and took him to New York as a prisoner of war in November 1781.[3] It was common for Tories to kidnap Whigs for ransom or to exchange them for Loyalist prisoners, but Mulliner would have been dead by the date Watson sets for the event, indicating either that Watson simply confused the date or that Mulliner had nothing to do with it.

However, while the Whigs denounced Mulliner as a depraved soul who was guilty of horrendous crimes, the British painted him in a much more favorable light. According to Benjamin Franklin’s son, William, who, unlike his father, remained loyal to the Crown throughout the Revolutionary War, Mulliner was what was known as an Associated Loyalist.[4]  The Associated Loyalists were comprised of willing and able Tories who were hired to disrupt the activities of the Rebels. According to General Henry Clinton, the British Commander-In-Chief in North America, Mulliner worked for the British as a whaleboat privateer.[5] This demonstrates a fact about Mulliner that is absent from the folklore surrounding him: He was a sailor. Beginning in 1779, in an effort to compensate for economic loss caused by the Rebel privateers, the British encouraged Loyalists to engage in privateering, a common wartime occupation for mariners. Mulliner was allegedly one of a number of such anti-insurrectionists and, given the fact that the British went to some lengths in defending him, it may be unlikely that he indiscriminately plundered both patriots and Tories, as charged by his detractors. Ultimately, it is impossible to know whether the British account or the Whig account reflects a greater degree of truth, but it is reasonable to suspect that perhaps both sides were construing Mulliner in such a way as to advance their respective agendas. On the one hand, the Whigs may have been set on demonizing Mulliner in order to foster patriotic sentiments. For certain, they were set on making an example of him in order to deter other Tories from engaging in such “criminal” activities.  On the other hand, it is possible that General Clinton lied about Mulliner’s commission in order to bolster his case that the Rebels were engaging in “acts of cruelty and barbarity” against the Tories.[6]  Clinton’s accusation was not without merit, as it was not unusual for Tories to be tried and executed as prisoners of the state for committing essentially the same offenses as the patriots who were treated as prisoners of war by the British.[7]

Claim: He was the “Robin Hood of the Pines”.

“The Robin Hood of Pines” is a title often attached to Mulliner’s legacy, but how much similarity actually exists between the legend of Robin Hood and the historical Mulliner?  Not much.  Like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, Mulliner and his gang lived in the woods (at least when they weren’t at sea) where they could more easily elude the law. Yet, with the possible exception that Mulliner and his men occasionally robbed people traveling through the woods, the similarities end there.  That said, it is unlikely that Mulliner held up stagecoaches as is traditionally believed.  If he had done so, it certainly wasn’t routine, judging from the utter lack of any record of such events taking place in the region. Moreover, historian David J. Fowler, who devoted an entire chapter of his PhD dissertation (Rutgers) to Mulliner, concluded that the claim that Mulliner’s gang numbered around 40 to 100 men is a gross exaggeration and that, based upon what is known about other Pine Robber and outlaw gangs, the real number would have probably been closer to ten.[8]

Claim: He hid out on Rabbit Island.

An oft-repeated element of the Mulliner myth is that he and his gang hid out on an island at the Forks of the Mullica River, where the Atsion and Batsto creeks converge.  This island is known as “Rabbit Island”, and oral tradition has it that goods were stored in warehouses here during the Revolutionary War. The island is located right in the middle of what was once one of the hottest centers for patriotic privateers and smugglers along any New Jersey river. When one considers also the fact that the island would have lacked sufficient tree cover due to logging, it becomes clear that there is no substance to this particular tradition.

A more feasible tradition holds that Mulliner and his gang hid out in the nearby Mordecai Swamp, a large tract of cedar forest stretching from Batsto to Bulltown that was owned and logged by Mordecai Andrews in the early 1700s.  It is said that they had an encampment on one of a number of island-like areas of high ground that are dispersed throughout the swamp.  Mulliner and his men would not have lingered for long, however, and likely made transient encampments throughout the Pines as they moved about carrying out their missions.  It is not unreasonable, however, to surmise that Mulliner would periodically return to Mordecai Swamp or other suitable places in the vicinity. With all of the patriotic activity that took place at the Forks and Batsto, and given Mulliner’s supposed familiarity with the area, it would make sense that he would frequently come back to carry out the work that the British government commissioned him to do.  However, it certainly would have been a risky undertaking, considering the presence of armed soldiers, militia and patriots at these locations.

According to oral tradition, Mulliner lived with his wife (whose name is not known) on her property along the Mullica River in present day Sweetwater before he had to flee as an outlaw, but this has yet to be confirmed through historical records. If it is true, then perhaps he would have sometimes traveled under the cover of darkness to visit her when he was nearby.  Local lore holds that the family dog was trained to relay messages between Joe and his wife by means of crossing the river with notes tucked into a special collar.  Another legend holds that Mulliner and his men would cross the river by means of using cedar branches as camouflage.  These stories make for good folklore but can neither be discounted nor proved.

Claim: He would frequent the tavern at Quaker Bridge.

It is said that Mulliner had a penchant for drinking, singing and dancing and that he and his men would frequent the taverns throughout the Pines. Allegedly, Mulliner had a habit of taking the hand of the prettiest woman in the building and dancing with her. Her significant other, if present, would scarcely protest out of fear of Mulliner and his gang, who apparently were reputed to be prone to violence.  It is often suggested that one such tavern visited by Mulliner was the Quaker Bridge Hotel (or Thompson’s Tavern), but this cannot be true. It wasn’t until 1809, nearly 30 years after Mulliner’s death, that the first application for the tavern license was submitted. However, his reputation as being violent is not without historical support.  In November 1780, he was called to trial for his actions on September 30th of the same year when “Joseph Mulliner, mariner, did beat and ill-treat” a man named John Wood. [9]

Claim: He was arrested at the Indian Cabin Mill Inn in Nesco.

There is a blue sign in front of an old house along Route 542 in Nesco that reads: “Indian Cabin Mill Inn. Joe Mulliner noted refugee-Tory-outlaw captured here in 1781. Renamed Union Hotel in 1861.”  The sign is incorrect on two levels. Mulliner was probably arrested either in Monmouth County or off the coast of Monmouth County, as indicated by Sir Henry Clinton, who reported that Mulliner was first taken to Freehold and then later transferred to Burlington County. The Scots Magazine (which happens to be the oldest magazine in the world still in publication) echoed Clinton’s report: “Joseph Mullener, an associated Loyalist, and captain of a whale boat privateer, was taken by the rebels in 1781, carried to Freehold, removed to Burlington, tried and executed, not withstanding he produced his commission as Captain of the said privateer at his trial.” [10]

The second problem with the sign is the fact that Indian Cabin Mill Inn was not located at Nesco, but rather just off Indian Cabin Road near what is now known as Egg Harbor City Lake.  The tavern was so named due to its proximity to a saw mill that once operated at the foot of the lake known as Indian Cabin Mill. The earliest owner of the mill that the author is aware of was Timothy Shaler, whose wife and children are buried in marked graves nearby.  It is not known when the mill was first given this name, but it was previously known as Shaler’s Upper Mill.[11] The mill was probably constructed shortly after Shaler, who himself was a prominent patriotic privateer, purchased many acres of land between Pine Creek (a.k.a Newton Creek) and Landing Creek in 1774. [12]

Claim: He was hung along the Mullica River.

Tradition holds that Mulliner was hung from a tree at a place called “High Bank” on the south side of the Mullica River, but the historical record shows that he was hung at Gallows Hill in Burlington City, where Laurel Hill Cemetery is presently located.  Everyone sentenced to death by the Burlington Court met his or her fate at Gallows Hill, and Mulliner would not have been an exception. His sentencing resulted in some controversy with General Clinton decrying Mulliner’s hanging as unlawful. Clinton noted that because Mulliner was commissioned by the British government he should have been tried as a prisoner of war. Instead, he was treated as a prisoner of the state and was charged with felony and high treason. Mulliner pleaded not guilty and allegedly presented proof of his commission, but to no avail. The judge sentenced him to death after citing the fact that he owned no property, which must have made him expendable in the eyes of the court.[13]

Claim: He was buried at High Bank (or at Crowleytown).

Mulliner’s body may have been placed in a common burial ground, as were many who were executed under the law. Alternatively, his body could have been turned over to his wife for burial on her property.  It is not known where her property was, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that it was located along High Bank where a recently placed tombstone now purports to mark her husband’s place of repose.  There is a tradition that his original grave was indicated by a small stone at High Bank that read “J M”, but the following excerpt of 1765 deed for land near the same location may indicate that the stone in question was merely a property boundary marker:

“Benjamin Brush of Galloway Twp., £90 for 14 acres…in the same place on the west side of Mullacais River just below a certain landing called Reads Landing and on a tongue of land that puts out in a cove, bounded by J. M. (marker), excepting 5 acres lying next to Richard Westcott.”

Read’s Landing (of Charles Read fame) was located on the south (or west) side of the river just below the mouth of Lucas Branch, which flows into the Mullica immediately downstream of High Bank.  The initials are that of John Monrow who had this land surveyed and then conveyed to Benjamin Brush in 1765.[14] We can be certain that it did not signify Mulliner, who owned no land.

Closing Remarks

The folklore surrounding Joe Mulliner is interesting but can be determined to be largely fictitious.  However, the little that we do know of him through historical records proves to be quite interesting nonetheless.  Extracting the historical Mulliner from the legend proves to be a stimulating albeit difficult task that raises many questions, some which are unanswerable and others that have yet to be answered.

Notes

  • Burlington County presentment, n.d. (c. 1781). NjMoHP, reel 37.
  • NJA, 2d ser. 5: 282.
  • Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time (Philadelphia, 1898), vol.3, 12.
  • William Franklin to Clinton, 25 April 1782, BHQP, reel 13, no. 4474
  • Clinton to Washington, 1 May 1782, PCC r 171, v10: pp. 543-46
  • Fowler, Egregious Villains, Wood Rangers, and London Traders (Rutgers, 1987), p.224
  • Richard M. Brown, Strain of Violence (New York, 1975), p.75
  • Fowler, p.218
  • Burlington County indictments, November 1780, NjBuHi.
  • The Scots Magazine, Volume 44 (1782), p.491
  • GC-A-216
  • Colonial Conveyances, A-F, p. 526
  • Min. Burl. Co. O & T Ct., July – August, 1781
  • SGO Book Y

* For further reading, see Egregious Villains, Wood Rangers, and London Traders by David J. Fowler, which includes a chapter dedicated to unraveling the legend of Joe Mulliner and is the most comprehensive historical work on the subject to date. I am indebted to Fowler for the research behind a significant portion of this article.

* The author has written a song that celebrates the lore of Joe Mulliner, which can be heard here: https://gabrielcoia.bandcamp.com/track/joes-last-jig

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