Archive for July 7th, 2017

1835: The unknown lynched of the Murrell Excitement

Add comment July 7th, 2017 Headsman

We’ve done several posts in these pages devoted to Mississippi’s July 1835 slave insurrection panic and there are several more yet to come.

But today’s post is dedicated to the dead that we can’t date, and mostly can’t even name: the unknown slaves killed beyond the reach of law and documentation in forgotten lynchings or private murders around Madison County and environs. There’s no way to know how many these were; it’s guessed that they ranged into the dozens.

Well might one outrage to the well-documented extralegal lynch committee stretching necks in the county seat of Livingston — but as this was a committee of local oligarchs it had an orientation towards order, even if not law, and it brooked cross-examination and extenuating evidence, issued sub-lethal sentences and even acquittals. According to Joshua Rothman in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, many claimed — right or wrong — that Livingston was an island of relative calm in a panic compassing “a territorial belt along the Mississippi River stretching northward from Mississippi’s boundary with Louisiana nearly 250 miles toward Tennessee and inland roughly 75 miels toward the center of the state.”

Numerous public reports in Mississippi tried to suggest that a very different atmosphere prevailed in and around Madison County during the insurrection scare that continued on past the hangings of the gamblers in Vicksburg, and that the Livingston Committee of Safety had successfully introduced order to a situation that might otherwise have escalated into an uncontrolled orgy of violence.

Yet even in Livingston, the narrative is absorbed with the white purported masterminds; slaves’ executions appear as a part of the scenery, never exhaustively categorized. The white artisan Ruel Blake would be impeached on evidence given by a slave whose capture and hanging by a mob dignifying itself an ad hoc lynching subcommittee is entirely recounted — sans date — in a single footnote to the Livingston proceedings.

He was run by track-dogs some two hours without being taken, making his escape by taking to water. He remained in the woods until the excitement had partially subsided. By the laudable exertions of his master, he was decoyed into Livingston, where he was taken … the committee of safety had adjourned when he was taken. The citizens seemed determined he should be hanged, and consequently organized a committee, composed of some of the members of the first committee and other freeholders, who condemned him to be hanged; and, in pursuance of the sentence, he was executed in Livingston. Under the gallows he acknowledged his guilt, and said that R. Blake told him of the insurrection … Blake told him he must kill his master first, which he promised to do. Blake told him he was to be one of the captains of the negroes, &c.

And this is a wealth of information compared to some. Elsewhere we are left with passing allusions, shocking and frustratingly sparse, fragments deposited by a whirlwind.

In Warren County, the slave Israel Campbell remembered in his autobiography how he “saw the place where the slaughter took place. Two large wooden forks, with a pole laid from one to the other, served for the gallows, and they told me men hung there two days and nights.” But he never quite tells us how many or just when.

A July 8 letter from a white man in Clinton, Mississippi,* remarks that “a general excitement prevails, and every one is vigilant in the detecting and hanging of all villains, and it requires but little proof. I cannot say how many have been hung and shot among the white and blacks.”

From Mississippi Springs* on the same date: “Many white persons have been suspected of giving encouragement to it — some taken up, others pursued — those taken up have invariably been hung after a hasty examination by those who apprehended them; no more ceremony than is usually used upon hanging a dog for killing sheep is extended to them … A great number of negroes have been hung, and they are hanging them daily.”

Rothman again:

From near Natchez, about forty miles south of Claiborne, a plantation governess wrote in her diary about “insurrections, hangings, patrolling, and all sorts of frights” in the area, and one man wrote from Natchez itself that everyone in the city was “under arms all the time” and “hourly expect[ed] an insurrection, as the celebrated negro stealers Murrel and his band, are at the head of all the negroes.” All the towns upriver from Natchez, the man reported, were similarly guarded, and people in those places were “catching from 5 to 20 every day … and they hang them without judge or jury …

Future U.S. Senator and Mississippi Governor Henry Stuart Foote lived then in Clinton and his memoir heaped scorn on the ur-text of this statewide paroxysm, Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet claiming that small-time outlaw John Murrell was really a master criminal orchestrating a slave revolution. Foote remembered how in a timeless phenomenon “those who dared even to question the actual existence of the dangers which he depictured [sic] were suspected by their more excited fellow-citizens of a criminal insensibility to the supposed perils of the hour.”

[In Clinton] after the first organization of the vigilance committee, which sat afterward every day, the excitement, as was natural, increased perceptibly every hour. Suspected persons, both white and black, were apprehended everywhere; some of whom were brought before the committee for examination, while others, whose guilt seemed to be fully established, were hung without ceremony along the roadsides or in front of their own dwellings by those who had apprehended them …

Madison county was still the main focus of excitement, and every day we heard in the peaceful village where I dwelt of some new case of supposed guilt which had been there developed, and some new application of punishment not known to the law of the land, but which was supposed to be justified by the terrible necessity then dominating over all things beside.

Circumstances being what they are, we cannot but assume that such episodes each stand in for added multiples of lives taken by fire or noose or musketry, on plantation fastnesses or remote byways or hamlets too small for their own scrivener … nameless lives whose loss never spilled a drop of ink.

* Published in the Ohio State Journal, July 24, 1835.

* Published in the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, July 30, 1835.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lynching,Mississippi,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions,Torture,Uncertain Dates,USA

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