Most everyone has heard of Mr. T. He's an actor probably best known for his role as Sergeant Bosco Albert "B.A." (Bad Attitude) Baracus on The A-Team, a TV series from the late 1980s. The Baracus character became his breakout personality as a gruff, intimidating, no-nonsense dude who was a gentle giant… until provoked. People quickly learned – don't mess with Mr. T.
Surprisingly, someone who might be called the original Mr. T had a lot in common with his contemporary counterpart. He was a man named John Smith, who was born in Essex County Virginia sometime around 1771, and whom Ray Denslow has called, "An Original Bad Man."
In an alphabetical roll of the members of the first Lodge west of the Mississippi River, Louisiana Lodge 109, nestled between the names of "Smith, Reuben" and "Terry, Robert," appears the curious entry:
T, John Smith (C as Fellowcraft)
The cryptic entry after his name indicates he was a charter member of the Lodge in 1807 and came in as a Fellowcraft. The Lodge of his initiation remains unknown. In 1789, still in his teens, young John Smith moved to Tennessee and somehow scraped up enough money to buy land there. With that transaction, he launched a career as a land baron and entrepreneur. Subsequently, he made extensive land purchases in Tennessee and expanded his holdings to Alabama. He became increasingly aware his name was a common one, which not only led to confusion in social situations, but also opened him up to become a victim of fraud if that confusion oozed its way over into his land contracts. He figured he needed a more distinctive name and decided to call himself "John Smith T," adding the single letter to indicate he was the John Smith from Tennessee.
Smith was a mild-mannered man and what might be said to be a "smooth-talker." He had the ability to work his way through business deals, always coming out on top. By the late 18th century, he laid claim to more than a quarter-million acres in Tennessee and northern Alabama. He set his sights on Missouri's lucrative lead mining facilities and moved there in 1797.
Brother T was successful as an entrepreneur, not so much as a result of his gifted social abilities but much more due to the fact he was a ruthless businessman. He was as nasty as they came and had the ability to make our Mr. T of the A-Team look like one of God's chosen angels.
Attempting to control the lead mining industry in Missouri, Smith T had to go up against the most powerful resident in the area, Moses Austin, father of the founder of Texas, Brother Stephen Austin. He talked, cajoled, and battled his way into several powerful positions including becoming a judge, commissioner of weights and levies, and a lieutenant colonel in the militia. With those credentials and his domineering character, he broke Austin's monopoly.
Mr. T didn't stop there. He used the lead he mined to make ammunition and began manufacturing firearms. In order to build his business, he used slave labor to assemble his guns which quickly developed the reputation of being the finest arms in the region. He used his own weapons to become an expert marksman and that, combined with his personality's short fuse led him in a new direction. Insult Mr. T, and you would find yourself challenged to a duel in a time where anyone turning down such a challenge would be branded a coward for life.
T had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Louisiana Territory, always wore two guns at his side, two in his coat pockets, had a Bowie knife and carried a rifle he called "Hark From the Tombs." Many considered him the most dangerous man in Missouri; yet, his deceptive outward demeanor led one man to call him, "As mild a mannered man as ever put a bullet into the human body."
In 1821, a man named Richard Rose tried to persuade some of John Smith T's slaves to leave him. Smith T, in retaliation, shot and killed Rose, and became the first person to be indicted for murder in Washington County, Missouri. The indictment never went any farther and this "Teflon Desperado" was never tried for the crime. Nine years later in St.Genevieve, he got into an argument with Samuel Ball, settling things by taking out his gun and shooting Ball, who died instantly. This time he was tried but acquitted and never punished.
In 1806, he made the mistake of teaming up with Aaron Burr in Burr's futile attempt to invade Mexico. Upon learning a presidential proclamation made Burr's scheme illegal, T returned to Missouri, blaming Burr for deceiving him. Still, the federal government issued a warrant against him for treason. When officers attempted to arrest him, Smith drew his pistol and told them to leave him alone. Knowing how mean he was, they did just that. The warrant was never executed, but for that act, he was removed from all public offices.
Years later, Lionel Browne, Burr's nephew, heard T insult Burr. Browne, either out of naivety or stupidity, challenged T to a duel. Early the next morning, Browne lay dead on a dew-covered meadow in Herculaneum, Missouri, with a bullet in his forehead. An expert marksman with the best artillery, T is known to have killed at least fifteen men on the so-called "field of honor."
An enigma of a man, the quiet, unassuming Mr. T, with an itchy trigger finger was known to donate land to churches and schools. He was generous with the poor and contributed to the construction of roads and canals which helped to open the country for western expansion. No record exists that the Grand Lodge of Missouri ever sanctioned Brother T. Dueling, however, was another matter. The practice became so prevalent in the untamed territories of the early US that some Grand Lodges banned the practice, sometimes with little effect.
This man who lived by the gun did not die by one. Rather, in 1836, at the age of about 65, he died a comparatively quiet death from a fever he contracted on a trip to Tennessee.
For all his faults – and they were many – the original Mr. T, like his twentieth-century counterpart, was a gentle giant… until provoked, and, just like today, people of the 19th century quickly learned – don't mess with Mr. T.