Posts filed under 'South Carolina'

1715: Thomas Nairne, Charles Town Indian agent

Add comment April 15th, 2015 Headsman

The generations-long conquest of indigenous peoples in North America might look from posterity like a historical ienvitability, but the 1715-1718 Yamasee War was perhaps “as close to wiping out the European colonists as ever [they] came during the colonial period.” (Gary Nash, quoted by William Ramsey in “‘Something Cloudy in Their Looks’: The Origins of the Yamasee War Reconsidered”, Journal of American History, June 2003. This post draws heavily from Ramsey’s article, which is the source of any quote not otherwise attributed.) In it, not only the Yamasee but a vast coalition of peoples throughout what is today the United States Southeast nearly swept the British out of South Carolina.

And it started three hundred years ago today with some executions.

British South Carolina had extensive trading contacts with the native peoples in their environs — acquiring deerskins and Indian slaves for the plantation colony — and said trading had too often been a flashpoint between alien cultures. South Carolina’s annals record a number of instances of natives crudely abused by Anglo merchants, including women whose bodies were next to sacrosanct for the matrilineal Yamasee, and traders aggressively taking slaves even from friendly tribes. Many years later a Lower Creek man would recall that “we lived as brothers for some time till the traders began to use us very ill and wanted to enslave us which occasioned a war.”

It has never been entirely clear just why and how such individual abuses, even as a pattern, triggered in 1715 something as drastic as military action; our source William Ramsey suspects that they only hint at much wider-ranging economic pressures of the Atlantic economy, which entangled native peoples in debt and warped traditional lifeways towards producing ever more deerskins for export, obtained at ever poorer prices from ever more belligerent merchants.

Just as trade relations were at their most antagonistic, the colonial capital Charles Town fell down on the diplomatic side of the job. (This is, again, per Ramsey.)

The colony had created in 1707 an office of Indian Agent.

Intended to manage the complications of its sometimes-delicate cross-cultural trade and police the traders, the post instead became a locus of bitter competition between two men: Thomas Nairne and John Wright. (There’s a 1710 account of South Carolina in Nairne’s hand available here.) These two men, South Carolina’s most expert Indian diplomats and the only two men ever to hold the Indian agent office, had by the 1713-1715 period become consumed with their internal rivalry. Wright, a trader who thought Nairne too accommodating of the natives generally and unduly meddlesome with Wright’s own commerce specifically, bombarded the latter with lawsuits; Nairne eventually had to stay in Charles Town almost permanently to protect his own affairs. The colony’s diplomatic voice fell silent — which meant that rapacious traders squeezing mounting debts on their spring rounds in 1715 were that voice.

In annoyance, one tribe returned an ultimatum to Charles Town: “upon the first Afront from any of the Traders they would down with them and soe goe on with itt.” (See The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732)

That warning got the colony’s attention.

The Indian Agent rivals Wright and Nairne were dispatched together to meet with the Yamasees at Pocotaligo and smooth things over. But just as these men stood at loggerheads professionally, they were noted for quite distinct policies towards the Indians: Nairne was the friendly hand, the man who sympathized with natives. Wright was the asshole. If their joint presence was intended to be a good cop-bad cop act, they carried it off as clumsily as their mutual antipathy might suggest.

In a famous meeting on the night of April 14, Nairne, Wright, and a number of traders seemingly reassured the Yamasees over a feast that their grievances would be redressed, and went to sleep satisfied that matters were well in hand.

It was not so for the Yamasees, who held council that night after the Europeans were tucked away. An unknown Indian leader who signed himself “the Huspaw King” would later dictate a letter to a hostage charging that at the April 14 meeting

Mr. Wright said that the white men would come and fetch [illegible] the Yamasees in one night and that they would hang four of the head men and take all the rest of them for slaves, and that he would send them all off the country, for he said that the men of the Yamasees were like women, and shew’d his hands one to the other, and what he said vex’d the great warrier’s, and this made them begin the war.

We don’t know if this was on-message for the delegation — a glimpse of the iron fist that Nairne’s politesse was to glove — or delivered privately in Wright’s going campaign to undermine his opposite number. What we do know is that the Yamasees had seen both these men in authority over colonial-Indian trade over the past several years: on the night of April 14-15, they had to decide between mixed messages. Could they count on Nairne’s reassurances of comity? Or should they believe, as Wright intimated, the increasingly obnoxious inroads of traders presaged the outright destruction of their people?

April 15th was Good Friday. And the Europeans awoke to their Calvary.

The Yamasees’ decision about the intentions of their European counterparts was far from internally unanimous — but it was instantly effected.

“The next morning at dawn their terrible war-whoop was heard and a great multitude was seen whose faces and several other parts of their bodies were painted with red and black streaks, resembling devils come out of Hell,” a plantation owner later wrote to London. Most of the Europeans were killed on the spot, Wright apparently among them. A couple of them escaped.

And for Thomas Nairne, a stake in the center of the little village awaited, with an agonizing torture-execution said to have required three days before Nairne mercifully expired on April 17th.

The red indicates War, and the black represents the death without mercy which their enemies must expect.

They threw themselves first upon the Agents and on Mr. Wright, seized their houses and effects, fired on everybody without distinction, and put to death, with torture, in the most cruel manner in the world, those who escaped the fire of their weapons. Amongst those who were there, Captain Burage (who is now in this town, and from whom I derive what I have just said) escaped by swimming across a river; but he was wounded at the same time by two bullets, one of which pierced his neck and came out of his mouth, and the other pierced his back and is lodged in his chest, without touching a vital spot. …

Another Indian Trader (the only one who escaped out of a large number) saved his life by crawling into a marsh, where he kept himself hid near the town. He heard, during the whole day, an almost continual fire, and cries and grievous groans. He often raised his head in his hiding-place, and heard and saw unheard-of things done; for the Indians burned the men, and made them die in torture. They treated the women in the most shameful manner in the world. And when these poor wretches cried O Lord! O my God! they danced and repeated the same words mocking them. Modesty forbids me to tell you in what manner they treated the women: modesty demands that I should draw a veil over this subject.

This man who had witnessed so many cruelties, stripped himself naked so as completely to resemble the Indians; and in this state, made his escape by night, crossing the town without being perceived, he heard many people talking there, and saw several candles in each house; and having avoided the sentries, God granted that he should arrive here safe and sound.

Mr. Jean Wright, with whom I had struck up a close friendship, and Mr. Nairne have been overwhelmed in this disaster. I do not know if Mr. Wright was burnt piece-meal, or not: but it is said that the criminals loaded Mr. Nairne with a great number of pieces of wood, to which they set fire, and burnt him in this manner so that he suffered horrible torture, during several days, before he was allowed to die.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Businessmen,Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Public Executions,South Carolina,Summary Executions,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions

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1724: Christian George, Peter Rombert, Peter Dutartre, and Michael Boneau

3 comments September 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1724, four members of a colonial religious cult were hanged together at the gallows of Charleston, South Carolina.

The Dutartre family, whose members comprise two of those executed four, numbered among many Huguenot refugees to settle around Charleston in the late 17th century fleeing religious persecution after France revoked the Edict of Nantes. They settled into the young town’s “Orange Quarter” where for many years French was heard in the streets and from the pulpits.*

The Dutartres would turn the orange quarter crimson in the early 1720s, when they fell under the spell of two newly-arrived Moravian prophets, Christian George and Peter Rombert, who pulled the family into a millenial free-love commune.**

These colonial Branch Davidians were also slated with civic transgressions such as refusal of taxes and militia duty.

At last, a constable named Peter Simmons was dispatched with a small posse to arrest the cult. The Dutartres fired back, killing Simmons — but the other seven members in the bunker were overwhelmed by the Charleston militia.

Mark Jones describes the aftermath in his Wicked Charleston: The Dark Side of the Holy City.

Four of the family males were tried in general sessions court in Charles Town in September 1724: Peter Dutartre, the father; Peter Rombert, the prophet; Michael Boneau, husband of a Dutartre woman; and Christian George, the milister.

During the trial, the men appeared to be unconcerned about the crimes they had committed or their fate. They were convinced that God was on their side and even if they were executed, they, just like Jesus, would be resurrected on the third day.

They were marched to the gallows near the public market (present-day location of City Hall). Standing with ropes around their necks the condemned men confidently told the gathered crowd they would soon see them again. They were hanged together and their bodies were allowed to dangle from the gallows for several days — so the resurrection (or lack thereof) could be witnessed by the public.

Judith Dutartre and her two brothers, David and John, aged eighteen and twenty, were the three other prisoners. Judith, due to her pregnancy, was not tried. David and John were convicted and condemned to prison. [actually reprieved -ed.] They were sullen and arrogant, confident God would protect them. However, after the third day of their kinfolk’s execution (and the fourth, and fifth), when none of the men hanging from the gallows was resurrected, David and John began to see the error of their ways. They later asked for a pardon from the court, which they received.

Less than five months later, David Dutartre attacked and murdered a stranger on the street. He was brought to trial and told the court he killed the man because God commanded him to do so. David was sentenced to death.

A total of seven people (two innocents) died as a result of what has to be one of the most unusual cases of religious fanaticism in American history.

* The French Quarter still exists today, as a cobblestoned downtown Charleston historic district with a Huguenot Church whose congregation dates to the 1680s but whose services now transpire in English.

** Given the timeless popularity of the sexual misbehavior trope for slandering religious outsiders, I do suggest the reader handle this received part of the narrative with due caution.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scandal,South Carolina,USA

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1865: Amy Spain, liberation anticipation

1 comment March 10th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1865, just weeks before the final collapse of the Confederacy, a slave named Amy was hanged on a sycamore tree before the courthouse of Darlingon, S.C., for anticipating her liberty a little too exuberantly.

Mopping up after his march to the sea, Union Gen. William T. Sherman proceeded to South Carolina. After occuping the capital, Columbia, Sherman’s army made a northerly progression towards North Carolina.

In early March, Union Cavalry appeared in Darlington. Our 17-year-old principal, the domestic of a local lawyer named A.C. Spain,* exulted at this arrival.

“Bless the Lord, the Yankees have come!” Harper’s Weekly** would later report her to have exclaimed.

The long night of darkness which had bound her in slavery was about to break away. It was impossible to repress the exuberance of her feelings; and although powerless to aid the advancing deliverers of her caste, or to injure her oppressors, the simple expression of satisfaction at the event sealed her doom.

But the Union men were not long for the town. It was just a scout party; constrained by strategic objectives, and hindered by swollen early-spring rivers, the main body of Union forces passed Darlington by.

Anticipating an occupation that was not about to occur, Amy recklessly declared herself free and took some of the Spain household’s possessions — the fruit of her own involuntary labor. Whatever her exact actions in those days, they were frightfully punished — over the objection of A.C. Spain himself, who reportedly served as her advocate at the rebel military trial that condemned her.


This illustration of Amy Spain’s execution appeared with the Harper’s Weekly article quoted above.

Her persecutors will pass away and be forgotten, but Amy Spain’s name is now hallowed among the Africans, who, emancipated and free, dare, with the starry folds of the flag of the free floating over them, speak her name with holy reverence.

-Harper’s Weekly

* Spain was also a Confederate commissioner to Arkansas at the start of the Civil War, in which capacity he successfully urged Arkansas into the rebel camp.

** Septemer 30, 1865.

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1881: Four Black Friday hangings

Add comment November 25th, 2013 Headsman

November 25, 1881, was the day after Thanksgiving. And that date was a true “Black Friday” on the American gallows: four distinct murderers, all African-American men, were hanged in four different cities on this date in 1881.

We’re cadging entirely from the New York Herald of Nov. 26, and all quotes (as well as the pictured headline) source to that journal.

Richard James (South Carolina)

Richard James hanged in Marion, South Carolina for the previous year’s murder of a local shopkeep, David M. Harrell.

James insisted on his innocence, and even “turned upon the preacher with indignation” at in his cell on his last day when importuned to unburden himself of his sin. He “swore by all that was holy that he knew nothing of the crime, and was ready to face his Maker with this oath on his lips.”

James, “a light colored negro about thirty two years old” who “looked capable of committing any crime” and had a bad reputation in town, had been tried with his two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis for having waylaid the Harrell on his way home from closing the store.

A mixed-race jury (nine whites, three blacks) convicted the first two but acquitted Lewis. Benjamin had already been executed some weeks previously.

Henry Johnson (South Carolina)

Shortly afternoon that same day, Henry Johnson hanged in the jail in Sumter while “the housetops and fences near the jailyard were crowded with negroes, who heightened the scene by melancholy exclamations.”

Johnson, who converted to Catholicism the week before his death, occupied his last morning writing to a sweetheart in Port Royal, S.C. (He sent her some wooden buttons to remember him by, and demanded that she never marry.)

While he went mildly, his crime was “one of the most cold-blooded and unparalleled murders ever known in South Carolina.” (Of course, newspapers say this about every crime.)

John Davis, a good and hard working colored man was going through Hope Swamp on his way to the forest, where he was employed to cut cross ties for the railroad [but] he was followed by one Henry Johnson, also colored, who shrouded himself from view by the thick undergrowth. Thus, Indian like, he thirsted for his victim’s blood, and followed David step for step with the greed of a hungry panther until they arrived at a point where the depth and loneliness of the swamp was best suited for the tragedy that was enacted. The desired spot having been reached, Johnson, without uttering a word, raised his gun and fired, shooting John Davis in the middle of the back. Davis dropped dead in his tracks instantly. Johnson then caught him by his heels and dragged him to a hollow log, in which he placed Davis and then covered the log all over with … straw and leaves.

And then Johnson went to Davis’s house, where he knew he would get a good reception since Davis’s wife fancied him.

Explaining that Davis had had to go into town on business and would not be back for a day or three, Johnson made himself “not only lord of Davis’ house, but his much beloved wife.” He tried to lay the blame on a local fellow named Orange Isaacs whom Johnson by all appearances sincerely believed to be a sorcerer.

Joseph Harris (Tennesee)

In Rogersville, Tenn., Joseph Harris hanged for slaying two men in November 1880 in a crime that aroused so much local hatred that he was stashed away in Nashville until two days prior to the execution to prevent the appearance of lynch law.

Unlike the South Carolina condemned, Harris’s hanging was fully public, and a fair concourse of onlookers braved freezing temperatures to satisfy themselves with the course of justice.

Harris had targeted the outgoing proprietor of a country farm called Marble Hall. John Brown, having sold the estate, had sent his family on to their next lodgings in Bristol while he remained at Marble Hall with a 17-year-old stable hand named Heck to sell off the remaining livestock and close up affairs.

Those affairs were closed for good on November 23, when the room that Brown and Heck occupied was discovered on fire, its inhabitants having had their brains bashed in. $500 Brown had recently pocketed from the sale of his hogs was missing.

Sang Armor (Georgia)

Sang Armor not only had the most unusual name of November 25’s grim harvest, but was distinguished as the first-ever public execution (or execution of any kind) in Taliaferro county, Georgia. Taliaferro is currently (circa 2010 census) the least populous county east of the Mississippi with a population of just 1,717.

Armor was egged on by the crowd at his gallows to give up the names of accomplices whom he had previously implied had aided him in the murder of an elderly white man, but he remained “sullenly silent on the subject and talked only on religious matters.” The scaffold was erected in Ellington meadow, on the land of his victim, Amos Ellington.

“The feeling against Armor was very strong,” concludes the report, “especially among the colored men, several of whom he tried to implicate in the crime.”

Not Squire Clark (South Carolina)

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Squire Clark, who was supposed to hang in Lexington, S.C., was respited until December 23.

Clark, sentenced to be die in a strange case where a body was found on a railroad tracks, mutilated by passing trains, had been convicted circumstantially for having killed the fellow before dumping his remains on the tracks. Convicted, overturned on appeal, convicted again, and ultimately commuted to a penal sentence, Clark never made it into the executioners annals.

The estate of his victim later sued the railroad for negligence in having run over the remains of W.S. Hook no fewer than three times.

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1797: Figaro the Elder and Jean Louis, Charleston slaves of Dominguan exiles

Add comment November 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1797, two French slaves were hanged in Charleston for plotting rebellion.

This plot was the product of the liberation-minded aftermath of the Haitian Revolution … although whether the product was in the minds of the slaves, or those of the paranoid slaveowners, is still up for debate.

As the great slave revolution unfolded, many of Saint Domingue’s white planters had fled abroad. Charleston, South Carolina was a major destination, one of several Atlantic cities in the U.S. that received these refugees in quantity* — lugging along as many slaves as they could. “My Fellow-Citizens know your goodness,” said one of their number in an address to the South Carolina legislature, “and anticipate the Share you are about to take in their Calamities.” The state government accordingly granted relief money to these put-upon immigrants; the British themselves are thought to have been kicking into the relief kitties in Charleston as part of 18th century covert ops to check the spread of Jacobinism.

With the Haitian Revolution and its beneficiaries aligned (for the moment) with the French Revolution,** these French exiles fit right in with pro-British federalists to a continental reactionary backlash.

Revolutionary France’s consul in Charleston (he was U.S. ambassador by the time of the events in this post) maneuvered against that city’s planter exiles (“colonial aristocrats,” as he called them†) and eyed hemispheric emancipation, according to this book.

Yet the very flight of Saint Domingue planters also brought like a contagion the idea and experience of successful revolt in the breast of those refugees’ own chattel slaves … and in the midnight terrors of those slaves’ owners. As early as August 1793, rumor gripped Charleston that a slave revolt was in the offing. Jittery Southern states began passing laws to restrict slave imports from the West Indies who might be carriers of the virulent dream of liberty.

It was in this context that Charleston authorities discovered in 1797 “a conspiracy of several French Negroes to fire the City and to act here as they formerly done at St. Domingo.”

These several Negroes denied the plot, for a while.

Eventually, and surely encouraged by what me might today dignify “enhanced” interrogation, one of them turned state’s evidence. This “Figaro the Younger” — there were two named Figaro arrested for this same plot‡ — was the property of one Jacques Delaire, one of the Dominguan community’s more belligerent aristocratic grandees. Figaro the Younger’s evidence, though only a “partial confession” was enough to doom two of his fellows.

After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”

(A French freedman named Mercredi hanged for the same affair a week later.)

For testifying against his mates, Figaro the Younger saved his own life and was sentenced to be transported to Suriname. En route, the pressure of his leg irons caused “a swelling about the ankles which turn’d into a sore & … a mortification of the flesh ensuing his toes rotted & one of his feet drop’d of[f] entirely.”

The southern anti-slavery cause was soon crippled, too.

Especially after the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt, any dalliance with emancipation, republicanism, revolution, became practically unutterable, as if to speak the words would conjure up the flames of Cap-Francais. “Beyond a reasoned fear of domestic insurrection seems to have lain a desire to banish the reality of St. Domingo,” as Winthrop Jordan put it.

But the threat and the example of Haiti long stalked the imagination of those caught in the toils of the South’s peculiar institution. And more literally than that, as Robert J. Alderson notes,

Captain Joseph Vesey … was [one] of the dispensers of [refugee relief] aid, [and] many Domingan refugees made calls on him. When the Domingan planters visited, their slaves had a chance to speak with one of Captain Vesey’s slaves, Denmark Vesey.

* For example, see Gary Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 65 (1998). Philadelphia was at the time still the U.S. capital.

** Said alignment between revolutionary Haiti and the mother country was, of course, tenuous and not permanent.

There’s a report in the Paris archives from this period of the French consulate’s low opinion of Charleston’s Dominguans: “tricky people, at the end of their resources that vengeance towards their country and despair may lead to anything. Among the French whom we have here, there are some very good patriots who know what the hospitality of the country demands of their gratitude, but the number is small.”

‡ The Figaro plays and some of their operatic adaptations were culturally current in the 1780s and 1790s. That includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro but not yet Rossini’s Barber of Seville with its definitive Figaro aria … although such would be very poor excuse not to post the latter.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Slaves,South Carolina,Torture,USA

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2005: Hastings Arthur Wise, workplace shooter

Add comment November 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2005, Hastings Arthur Wise was executed in South Carolina for a shooting rampage at his workplace.

Or rather — and this was the problem — his former workplace.

Canned from his machine-operator job of four years at the Aiken County R.E. Phelon engine manufacturing plant that July, Wise warned that he’d be back.

On September 15, 1997, he turned up packing a 9 mm pistol and exacted his revenge — just another of America’s endless cavalcade of mass shootings.

He shot a guard to get into the plant. The guard survived, but four others were not so fortunate as Wise stalked through his former employer’s halls screaming and firing. Police later recovered four empty eight-round magazines.

The human resources director who had fired him was the first Wise killed.

Two men in the tool and die area who had jobs that Wise had once sought unsuccessfully were the next.

A young woman in a job Wise had sought promotion to was wounded with shots to the back and leg, then finished off execution-style.

Wise took to firing almost indiscriminately and wounded a few others, but the body count still might have been higher. Some others Wise saw and could have murdered, but did not — some possibly saved by happenstance, others whom Wise said in court that he declined to shoot because he used to get along with them as coworkers. The whole rampage was calculated to such an extent that Wise took a 9,000-mile road trip to California and Texas to tick a few items off his bucket list first.

Wise always intended to check out at the end of his spree; the SWAT team found him on the floor suffering from a swallow of insecticide that turned out to be non-fatal. The judicial process was the slow train, but the destination remained the same.

“I don’t have much to say except that I did not wish to take advantage of the court as far as asking mercy,” Wise said to the court at his sentencing. “It’s a fair trial. I committed the crimes.”

As good as his word, Wise voluntarily dropped his appeals and went quickly from his 2001 conviction to execution, declining to make any final statement.

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1780: Colonel Hamilton Ballendine, if that was his real name

Add comment March 5th, 2013 Headsman

According to some newspaper accounts deemed credible enough by almanacs and registers of the time, a British officer named Hamilton Ballendine was hanged by the Americans during the Siege of Charleston. The good colonel had thought he was approaching his own British sentries after a reconnoiter of Charleston’s defenses, and when hailed he provided this name.

His name, or his alias, or his password — whatever it was, it was not recognized by the sentries, who turned out in fact to be the colonial pickets. At that point, he was a spy caught red-handed, and these folks tended to get short shrift during the American Revolution.

This event has struck some observers as conspicuous by its absence from any of the numerous firsthand diarists’ accounts within the besieged city. The account in this footnote, recopied in its entirety below, appears to be the sum of the information on the matter. Judge accordingly, gentle reader.


In the Siege of Charlestown (Munsell), 68, we find the following: —

EXECUTION OF COLONEL HAMILTON BALLENDINE.

(From Dunlop’s Packet of April, 1780.)

WILLIAMSBURG IN VIRGINIA, APRIL 18.

On the 5th Ult. was hanged at Charlestown, South Carolina, Colonel Hamilton Ballendine, for drawing Draughts of the town and Fortifications. He was taken by a Picquet Guard, which General Lincoln sent out that Night to Stono, as he was making his Way to the enemy; and when he was hailed by the Guard his Answer was, ‘Colonel Hamilton Ballendine.’ The Guard told him that would not do, and carried him to the commander of the Picquet, upon which he pulled out of his pocket the Draughts. The Officer told him he was mistaken, and carried him to General Lincoln, who ordered him for Execution.” —New York Royal Gazette, April 16.

See, also, Moore’s Diary of the Revolution, vol. II, 260. The story is also incorporated in the text of the Annual Register for 1780 (London), vol. XXIII, 222, in which it is said that Ballendine suffered “the unpitied death of a traitor.” Both Simms (So. Ca. in the Revolutionary War, 177) and Draper (King’s Mountain and its Heroes, 22, note) call attention to the fact that the story is mentioned by none of the South Carolina historians, nor any of the Charlestown diarists or letter writers. Draper seems to doubt if there was any such person. In the So. Ca. and Am. Gen. Gazette, June 9, 1775, Hamilton Ballentine advertises a power of attorney to receive a legacy due and collect the assets of an estate. There was therefore doubtless such a person, but what became of him is not further known. His name is not on the list of those whose estates were confiscated (Statutes of So. Ca., vol. VI), where it probably would be found had the story been true. It is scarcely possible that such an event would have been overlooked by all the writers and diarists of the time, and not have been preserved by local tradition; and yet the particularity of the statement, and its acceptance by the Annual Register at the time, would suggest that there must have been some foundation for the statement.

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1944: George Stinney, Jr., age 14

36 comments June 16th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1944, a five-foot-one-inch, ninety-pound prisoner walked into the death chamber of the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia, South Carolina and was executed in the electric chair.

He was so small that the guards had trouble strapping him into the chair and fitting the electrodes on. When the first jolt of electricity hit him, the mask fell off his face, revealing an expression of horror.

His name was George Junius Stinney Jr., and at fourteen years, seven months and twenty-six days, he was the youngest person to be legally executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. In spite of this startling distinction, his death went practically unnoticed in the press.

Stinney, a black youth from a poor family in the town of Alcolu, was condemned for the double murder of two white girls he knew: Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8. The girls had gone out on their bicycles on March 23, 1944, and along the way they saw Stinney and his sister and asked where to look for flowers. The Stinneys said they didn’t know.

The next day, the two girls’ bodies were found in a muddy, water-filled ditch. They had both sustained severe head injuries; their skulls were shattered. A fifteen-inch railroad spike was found nearby.

A few hours later, Stinney was arrested and locked in a room with several police officers and no one else. According to later testimony, at first he claimed the girls had suddenly attacked him and he hit them with the railroad spike in self-defense. However, a short time later he gave a second statement confessing to premeditated murder.

Stinney allegedly stated he had wanted to have sex with Betty June, but he couldn’t do so until the younger girl was out of the way, so he killed Mary Emma with the railroad spike. Betty June ran away, but Stinney caught up with her. When she resisted his sexual advances, he killed her too and dragged both bodies into the ditch. That’s the story.

When the townspeople found out that Stinney had confessed and would be charged with murder, a lynch mob formed outside the jail. Authorities took the boy to another jail in Columbia, fifty miles away, for his own safety; fearing for their own lives, Stinney’s family also fled town.

The trial took place on April 24, one month and one day after the murders, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Virtually the only evidence against Stinney was the testimony of the sheriff who heard the confession: there was no written record of the confession. Stinney’s defense attorney, who planned to run for state office, did not contest the confession and called no witnesses, but only claimed his client was too young to be held responsible for the murders. However, under South Carolina law at the time, a fourteen-year-old was legally an adult.

The jury was sent out at 5:00 p.m. and returned with a guilty verdict just ten minutes later.

There was no appeal.

Some local churches and the NAACP asked the governor for a commutation, citing Stinney’s age — but the governor allowed the execution to proceed. The entire drama from homicides to execution spanned less than 90 days.

One of Betty June Binnicker’s sisters reflected fifty years later, “Everybody knew that he done it, even before they had the trial they knew that he done it. But I don’t think that they had too much of a trial.”

More than sixty-five years after Stinney died, a community activist called for the case to be reopened, suggesting Stinney may have have been innocent. The evidence against him was absurdly slight. He had no history of violent behavior, and it seems unlikely that this short, slender boy would be strong enough to overpower two girls and beat them to death. Stinney’s brother, now a pastor in Brooklyn, said the family always believed in his innocence. Both his brother and his sister recalled that he had been a smart boy, a good student and artistic, and their family had been a close and loving one.

As one article noted, “Stinney’s trial and subsequent execution were suspicious at best and a miscarriage of justice at worst … This was South Carolina in 1944, with a black male defendant, two young white female victims, and an all white, male jury. Stinney never stood a chance.”


Stinney-inspired scene from the TV movie Carolina Skeletons.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,South Carolina,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1915: Thomas and Meeks Griffin, ancestors of Tom Joyner

4 comments September 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1915, a quintet of African Americans died in South Carolina’s electric chair during a 70-minute span.

Joe Malloy was put to death for killing two white men four years before; the other four executed on this date were convicted together of murdering 73-year-old Confederate veteran John Q. Lewis. They were John Crosby, Nelse Brice, and — our principal concern today — Thomas and Meeks Griffin.

The Griffins were among the wealthiest blacks around, and we’ve already seen where that’s a dangerous profile to keep in South Carolina.

In this case, and even though public opinion was predictably inflamed at the aged veteran, the Griffins weren’t lynched: indeed, prominent white people in the community, such as the mayor and the sheriff, rose to the Griffins’ defense to the extent of signing a petition for executive clemency. They didn’t believe then that the thief whose accusation condemned the brothers was credible.

More than likely they suspected Lewis’s 22-year-old black mistress, Anna Davis, and/or her husband — and undoubtedly, they would have known exactly why this scandalous angle was not pursued in court.

Still, South Carolina’s governor reckoned that they’d had their day in court, the victims deserved closure, and whatever other equivalents of the familiar modern-day rationales one might care to name.

Almost surely, this distant injustice would be lost to time were it not for the Griffins’ famous great-nephew, the radio host Tom Joyner.

Joyner only recently discovered (via Henry Louis Gates Jr.‘s research for a PBS documentary*) his kinship with these executed men; his grandmother had moved away to Florida to bury the family tragedy.

But the broadcaster exhumed it with gusto, and, two years ago, was able to secure a posthumous pardon from South Carolina based on the weakness of the original case. It’s thought to be the first official posthumous pardon the state has granted to any executed persons.

But we do want to extend the Palmetto State the credit due to all its sons whose signatures graced the disregarded clemency petition way back when. More than that: The State editorialized, confusedly but forcefully, against the manifest racial discrepancies in capital sentencing on the occasion of this quintuple-execution. (Oct. 1, 1915) These questions, ever present, are more sincerely grappled with in this column than we can manage today.

* You can watch the big reveal when a flabbergasted Joyner first hears about his ancestors: it’s quite a moment.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notably Survived By,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,South Carolina,USA,Wrongful Executions

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

2 comments 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.

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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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