1784: Richard Barrick, Massachusetts highwayman 1834: James Graves, Trail of Tears precursor

1829: The slaves of the Greenup revolt

November 20th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1829, the Kentucky town of Greenup strung up martyrs to the slave economy.

Our incident begins with a slaver by the name of Gordon who, with the aid of two assistants, was driving 60 blacks “including all sexes and ages” from the flesh markets of Maryland where he bought them west to the Mississippi — likely there to be “sold down the river” into barges bound for still harsher bondage deeper South. Melancholy slave coffles* like this one crisscrossed Kentucky’s highways routinely, columns of chattel lashed two by two to a long chain with a wagon train of provisions alongside. (Source) The awful migrations peaked in the summer months — timed to cotton plantations’ coming labor demands for the autumn harvest.

Despite the frequency and visibility of these transits, Kentucky remained an uneasy northern frontier of the Slave Power; in the coming Civil War it would become a literal battleground claimed by both North and South. Greenup was a river town, and just across the river lay Ohio, an abolitionist state. Kentucky’s proximity to free soil had invited bloody slave revolts in the past; here, the North-South nexus also helped to propagate the story of the Greenup incident.

An editor in nearby Portsmouth, Ohio, which was not merely free territory but a hub of the Underground Railroad, ran a story that soon volleyed around the Republic as newspaper after neighboring newspaper reprinted the remarkable bulletin copied ultimately from Portsmouth’s Western Tiller. This version of it (with line breaks added for readability) comes from the New-Hampshire Sentinel of Sept. 18, 1829. It’s verbatim from what the Western Tiller had reported almost a month before.

Affray and Murder!

A most shocking outrage was committed in Kentucky, about eight miles from this place, on the 14th inst. [14th of August, 1829] A negro driver, by the name of Gordon, who had purchased in Maryland about 60 negroes, including all sexes and ages, was taking them, assisted by an associated named Allen, and the wagoner who conveyed the baggage, to the Mississippi.

The men were handcuffed and chained together in the usual manner for driving those poor wretches, while the women and children were suffered to proceed without incumbrance.

It appears that, by means of a file, the negroes, unobserved, had succeeded in separating the irons which bound their hands, in such a way as to be able to throw them off at any moment. About eight o’clock in the morning, while proceeding on the state road leading from Greenup to Vanceburg, two of them dropped their shackles and commenced a fight, when the wagoner, Petit, rushed in with his whip to compel them to desist. At this moment every negro was found perfectly at liberty; and one of them seizing a club, gave Petit a violent blow on the head, and laid him dead at his feet; and Allen, who had come to his assistance, met a similar fate, from the contents of a pistol fired by another of the gang.

Gordon was then attacked, seized and held by one of the negroes, whilst another fired twice at him with a pistol, the ball of which each time grazed his head, but not proving effectual, he was beaten with clubs and left for dead.

They then commenced pillaging the wagon, and with an axe split open the trunk of Gordon, rifled it of the money, about $2,400, sixteen of the negroes then took to the woods.

Gordon in the mean time, not being materially injured, was enabled by the assistance of one of the [slave] women, to mount his horse and flee; pursued however, by one of the gang, on another horse, with a drawn pistol. Fortunately he escaped with his life, barely arriving at a plantation as the negro came in sight; who then turned about and retreated.

The neighborhood was immediately rallied, and a hot pursuit given — which we understand has resulted in the capture of the whole gang, and the recovery of the greater part of the money.

Seven of the negro men and women, it is said, were engaged in the murders, and will be brought to trial at the next court in Greenupsburg.

There are various reports afoot of the precise number of hangings effected on this date. The Espy file offers five names, but the newspapers of the time give it as four — as in this version from the Essex Gazette of Haverhill, Mass. (Jan. 2, 1830), which is likewise an nth-generation copy of the Western Times‘s initial reportage. The doomed men, that paper remarked, “all maintained to the last, the utmost firmness and resignation to their fate”; in spite of the predictably harsh punishment, it is interesting that they were allowed that traditional privilege of the condemned to expostulate under their hanging-nooses, even here to the point of vindicating the justice of their rebellion which would really have been tantamount to inciting other slaves to follow their example too.**

They severally addressed the assembled multitude, in which they attempted to justify the deed they had committed, on the principle acknowledged by all wise men,

That it is lawful in the sight of God and a principle implanted in the breast of every man by nature, to fight for freedom, and slay the tyrant who dares to deprive them of it.

This only they had done, and having failed to accomplish the sole object for which they slew their merciless oppressors, traffickers in human flesh, it remained for them to pay the forfeit of that failure with their lives.

One of them while standing upon the cart, just ready to be launched into eternity, exclaimed, several times — “Death! — Death, any time, in preference to slavery!”

During the whole time they stood under the gallows, not a joint was seen to tremble, nor a sigh heard to escape from them.


David Walker, a free-born North Carolina black man who moved to Boston and became a prominent abolitionist, dwells at some length on the story in his magnum opus, Walker’s Appeal. Directed at his African-American fellows, the Appeal here does not pause to justify the self-evident righteousness of slaves revolting against their captors — instead, it addresses the putatively “humane” action of the enslaved woman, who in Walker’s estimation in effect props up slavery as a whole when she rescues the near-murdered slaver Gordon. Indeed, while the sketchy information that survives about this failed revolt does not offer us the particulars of what unfolded in the hours immediately following the slaves’ breakout, the proximity of potential refuge across the sectional border invites one to wonder whether that ounce of compassion was not the difference preventing the slaves from reaching the Ohio River. Walker, at any rate, has no patience for sentiment in this instance.

Here a notorious wretch, with two other confederates had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them like brutes … [until] by the help of God [the slaves] got their chains and hand-cuffs thrown off, and caught two of the wretches and put them to death, and beat the other until they thought he was dead, and left him for dead; however, he deceived them, and rising from the ground, this servile woman helped him upon his horse, and he made his escape.

Brethren, what do you think of this? Was it the natural fine feelings of this woman, to save such a wretch alive? I know that the blacks, take them half enlightened and ignorant, are more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European that can be found in all the earth … there is a solemn awe in the hearts of the blacks, as it respects murdering men: whereas the whites, (though they are great cowards) where they have the advantage, or think that there are any prospects of getting it, they murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them. This is the natural result of pride and avarice.

But I declare, the actions of this black woman are really insupportable. For my own part, I cannot think it was any thing but servile deceit, combined with the most gross ignorance: for we must remember that humanity, kindness and the fear of the Lord, does not consist in protecting devils. Here is a set of wretches, who had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them around the country like brutes, to dig up gold and silver for them, (which they will get enough of yet.) Should the lives of such creatures be spared? Are God and Mammon in league? … Any person who will save such wretches from destruction, is fighting against the Lord, and will receive his just recompense. The black men acted like blockheads. Why did they not make sure of the wretch? He would have made sure of them, if he could.

Walker died suddenly of tuberculosis a few months after his Appeal hit print. As he forecast elsewhere in that same document, his widow received scant indulgence on her mortgage debt once the husband was out of the picture and the white real estate mogul George Parkman soon compounded the woman’s grief by throwing her out of the house. It was one of the countless little coldnesses Parkman inflicted en route to stacking up his own fortune … and to his years-later star turn as the victim of one of Harvard University’s most sensational murder trials.

* The witness who described this earlier 1822 scene of a 40-strong slave coffle marching perversely under the stars and stripes quotes an apt stanza from popular 18th century poet William Cowper, an ardent hater of slavery:

Ah! me, what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair?
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man!

** Perhaps matters would have been handled differently a couple of years later, after Nat Turner‘s rebellion scared the pantaloons off slaveowners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


Calendar

November 2015
M T W T F S S
« Oct   Dec »
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Julia: Aby was a brave lad, and badly mistreated, he came out to fight, for his adopted country, not only lying about...
  • matchmaking Nightfall Strike: Please let me know if you’re looking for a article writer for your blog. You have...
  • Johan Louis de Jong: With all due respect humously is not a real word. Please use another term. PS. Luckily Louis XVI...
  • Tony: Just watched a NIgerian movie about these events “Invasion 1897″ on Netflix. Worth checking out
  • Ione: Has anyone ever considered that he was a calculating man and changed his MO because the victims in his later...