1876: Hillary Page, the Chesterfield fire fiend

Hillary Page, “the Chesterfield fire fiend”, went to Virginia’s gallows on this date in 1876.

Born a slave, Page by 1874 was a mere servant at the Ruffin family’s “Summer Hill” estate off the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike. He had lived there all his life. That year, a series of attempted arsons ravaged the area, including one that devastated Summer Hill.

Eventually, a black youth named Wesley betrayed Page as their author, though contemporaries thought the spree, which claimed no fatalities, arose less from viciousness than simpleminded pyromania.

“The Richmond correspondent of the Petersburg Index” (as quoted by the Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 7, 1876), ventured a bit of compassion for the young man.

I think he ought to be sent to the penitentiary for life [rather than hanged]. He is too dangerous to be allowed to go at liberty, and justice wil be satisfied without taking his life. He is only 19 or 20; he lived on the place with his mother and father, and had no great malice in his misdeeds. He merely kindled the fire to see it burning. Sometimes he was the first to give the alarm; he always helped to put it out. He either did the firing to see the houses burn, or compel his parents to remove to Richmond, which he desired and they refused to do. A few years ago a young lady, who was being educated at a Richmond boarding school, fired the house a dozen times. Once it came near burning down. It was said she had a mania on the subject. Nobody is so charitable to Hillary.

Perhaps there was a bit of charity after all in the air, for it took an inordinate (for the time) 19 months for the case to proceed from arrest to gallows: Page’s first death sentence was overturned on appeal and his eventual hanging-date was pushed back by the governor so that the condemned could be examined for lunacy.

By the end of it the fire fiend was quite a celebrity. At a stopover in the courthouse jail en route to a gallows,* Page was besieged by journalists shouting questions at him until his ministers arrived and shooed them away.

“Hillary, do you feel any better prepared to die than you did yesterday?”

“Yes, sir. I feel a heap better.”

“Do you acknowledge yourself guilty of everything that has been charged against you?”

“Yes, sir, all but one thing, and that is young Mr. Ruffin’s house. I didn’t burn that. It caught fire by itself. I didn’t burn that.”

“Hillary, why did you say that Colonel Ruffin and his son came to you and desired you to make statements implicating other parties?”

“All that was false. I just said so because I thought it would do me good. I was put up to it. It’s natural that I should try to save my life.”

(Source: Richmond Dispatch report in the very topical Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia: A History, 1782-1907)

The road, our correspondent noted, “was lined with vehicles of all descriptions” for “it seemed that all the whites and blacks of the county were going to witness the saddest act of a poor unfortunate career.”

* “It was by a general verdict accorded to be as mean a scaffold as was ever erected for the execution of a human being,” the Dispatch reported (again, via Ward’s Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia). “The sheriff of the county was even more nervous than the condemned.”