Archive for May 1st, 2011

1830: The slave Jerry, the last American execution by burning?

1 comment May 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1830,* a slave named Jerry was executed in Abbeville, South Carolina … by burning to death.

The slave was the property of a Miss Elizabeth McQuerns, a schoolteacher who hired him out — in which capacity he raped the wife of his subcontracted master.

This case is treated in an April 1990 piece for The South Carolina Historical Magazine by Lowry Ware, titled “The Burning of Jerry: The Last Slave Execution by Fire in South Carolina?” But in addition to being the last execution by fire in South Carolina, it might well be the last in the United States. (The quotes below are all via Ware.)

“Judicial,” for slaves, was of course something less than a robust vindication of the defendant’s rights — and burning sentences imposed in colonial and antebellum America were almost universally used against black slaves. One pictures a context not unlike that of extrajudicial burnings to follow in the decades yet to come.

According to a copy of the trial transcript McQuerns later filed for compensation (the original trial record is lost, Ware says),

the Court acquainted [Jerry] that they were to proceed immediately upon trial and would hear his answer to the charge against him and whatever witnesses he had to produce in his behalf as well as against him.

The witness produced to support the charge against the prisoner was heard and examined and there being no witness in behalf of the prisoner, the court after mature consideration of the case found the prisoner guilty … [and was condemned to] be sent to the Gaol of the said District and there remain until the first day of May next and then be brought back to an old field above West Donald still house, and there burnt to death between the hours of twelve and two o’clock.

But previous to awarding and ordering said sentence to be executed appraised and valued said Negro slave man named Jerry at four hundred dollars and direct the sum of ____ to be paid to Elizabeth McQuerns the owner of said Negro and the remainder of the sum of ____ dollars to ____ agreeably to the Act of Assembly made and provided.

Such a dramatically anachronistic sentence surely made its impression.

As remembered, decades later, by a minister named Samuel Leard who witnessed the execution as a teenager,

thousands of men, women and children, both white and colored, assembled together in an old field not far from the residence of Mr. Donald to witness the execution of a beastly criminal by burning alive at the stake. The crime cannot with propriety be named — the name and the memory of the criminal ought to be consigned to eternal oblivion. But there sat the prisoner, the waiting impatient crowd, the immense pile of pitch pine logs and kindling wood scattered around, the sheriff and his posse, the temporary platform for the preacher … for it was determined that the fiendish criminal should hear his own funeral sermon pronounced … As the poor doomed man ascended the pile, he began to pray audibly and this was kept up continuously during the process of chaining him to the stake, and until the mounting flames deprived him of a wretched life. This was the last execution by fire ever seen in South Carolina.

-Abbeville Press & Banner, July 2, 1879

In 1833, the Palmetto State humanely legislated that “that “on the conviction of a slave, or a free person of color, for a capital offence, the punishment shall be by hanging, and not otherwise.”

* The scanty documentation remaining of this case leaves the date less than completely ironclad, but the one issued in sentence attested in this piece will have to do.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Attempted Murder,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,South Carolina,USA


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