In the Mississippi slave insurrection panic of 1835, slavers’ fears attached themselves right from the start to the prospect of white leadership affiliating with the prospective black rising.
Israel Campbell, a slave who would eventually reach freedom in the North and publish a fascinating autobiography on the eve of the Civil War, was present in the vicinity. He knew nothing of any rebellion until
two white men came to my house one night after I had gone to bed, and ordered me to get up immediately. I could not think, for my life, what was the matter. Before I got my clothes on, they became impatient, and called for me to open the door. As I done this, one of them seized me by the collar, having a bowie-knife in one hand. Uttering a horrible oath, he asked —
“What do you know about Doctor Cotton’s scrape?”
“Nothing at all, sir,” I replied.
“Don’t you tell me a lie. Do you know Dr. Cotton? When did you see him last?”
I replied, that I would not tell them a lie; that I did know Mr. Cotton, but that I had not seen him for some time. They went on asking a number of questions, wanting to know if I knew Harris’ old Dave, the negro preacher, and when I heard him preach last, and where at? I answered them satisfactorily these queries. They then wanted to know if I staid at the meeting until the people had all dispersed? If they talked any thing about getting free and killing the white people?
I replied to them about knowing the different parties; but about the rising of the slaves I had heard nothing.
After convincing themselves that I was ignorant, they left, warning me, however, not to be caught outside our own plantation, nor talk with any strange negroes or white men. They told me that Dr. Cotton and some other mean white men and a great many of the negroes were laying plans to rise and kill off the white people and free the negroes. After giving me some brandy, and again warning me, that if I did not heed their advice, I would be shot, they left my house.
They, with other parties, went around among all the slave quarters. Many they scared so badly, that they told lies of every description, and suffered for it. When they thought they had succeeded in quelling the insurrection, they commenced punishing those they had caught. Some they hung, others they burned, and some of those they thought not so guilty they pulled cats back-wards on their bare backs. Two of the party hung themselves in the prison.
The man these rude guests hunted with that menacing Bowie knife was Joshua Cotton, an itinerant homeopath expounding the fad launched by Samuel Thomson‘s hit publication New Guide to Health. Thomson had by means of some natural palliatives healed his family of several ailments that confounded legitimate medical practitioners; his emphasis on having patients sweat out toxins by immersion in steam led his followers to be derided as “steam doctors.”
Cotton wasn’t the only steam doctor beating the bushes in Madison County: an intimate named William Saunders was also about. Their wandering practice, interacting with free men and slaves alike, profiled as precisely the types who would be orchestrating a coordinated rebellion — and they had been implicated under the lash by the Beatties Bluff slaves, where the insurrection panic had begun days earlier.
Though not yet aware that they would be caught up in the panic, the steam doctors were making their own moves in these days. Saunders attended a June 30 meeting of Livingston whites to organize suppression of the supposed rebellion and advised them that the other steam doctor, Cotton, “was in the habit of trading with negroes; would buy any thing they would steal and bring to him.” This put the vigilantes onto Cotton; Saunders left town in peace and made, so he said, for Texas — which would have been a wise choice, as events would show.
On the road to Vicksburg and a river crossing to the safety of Louisiana, Saunders repeated the story to another traveler who just so happened to have a more suspicious frame of mind than the Livingstonians. This Good Samaritan promptly brought Saunders in as a suspected conspirator himself. Both steam doctors were under lock and key as the Beatties Bluff allegations of their complicity reached Livingston.
Saunders elaborated his charges against Cotton, plainly hoping to trade his opposite number’s life for his own: that Cotton was forever going about pretending to lose his horses in the countryside “as a pretext for hunting them, that he might have opportunities to converse with the negroes, and, by that means, to seduce them from their allegiance to their owners, by instilling rebellious notions among them; and to form plans, and to make converts to his propositions, which he could not do by being a steam-doctor.” Since a slave brought from Beatties Bluff also identified Cotton on sight as the man keen on seducing him to rebellion, Cotton could perceive that his fate was surely sealed, and while the vigilantes deliberated on July 4 he sent them a desperate offer to confess in exchange for leniency. The committee refused the offer … but confession was still the only card Cotton had to play, and he submitted the confession on spec. In it, he leaned for his narrative on Virgil Stewart’s recently published claims about a slave plot led by the bandit John Murrell.
I am one of the Murrell clan, a member of what we called the grand council … Our object in undertaking to excite the negroes to rebellion, was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder. I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet … from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the 4th of July, and it would have been tried to-night (and perhaps may yet), but for the detection of our plans.
Cotton also repaid tit for tat by naming Saunders as one of the plotters, confirming some slaves’ accusations and leaving the backstabbing chum to twist on his own useless protestations of innocence.
The upshot of Cotton’s statement was an offer to buy his own life by continuing to reveal more information about the conspiracy going forward — essentially, to become a standing informant against anyone whom the slavers might next suspect. “But the committee, deeming it of infinitely more importance to check the impending storm, by immediately destroying two of the ringleaders, and thereby creating dismay and panic among them, ordered their execution” — which was effected immediately, both steam doctors being marched directly from their hearing to the jail where, “fastening a rope to the grating of a window, in the upper story of the jail, and leaning a couple of rails against the wall, assisted the culprits upon the rails; then, adjusting the other end of the rope around their necks, removed the rails. They were left hanging until the next morning.”
The final extent of the executions/lynchings meted out during the course the insurrection panic is uncertain. Israel Campbell, however, would remember that Cotton and Saunders were certainly not the end of it when it came to rootless itinerants in the vicinity — and not only the steam doctor set. “[T]he party who were making arrests endeavored to get hold of every steam doctor and colored preacher they could,” he wrote in his autobiography.
[O]nce in their grasp, there was very little mercy shown them. The heads of the preachers they cut off and put on poles, and placed them along the road, where they remained until they were bleached. I saw several of their skulls in an apothecary store at Mount Vernon the latter part of that fall. Dr. Cotton was a noble-looking man and a friend to the slave, and he died a martyr to the cause he had so much at heart, — the emancipation of the slave.