Posts filed under 'Virginia'

1800: The slave Abram, property of John Patterson

2 comments August 19th, 2019 Headsman

The hanging, and then posthumous beheading and head-spiking, of the Virginia slave Abram lacks any firmer primary date than the signature given this Richmond newspaper report that was later widely reprinted in the young United States. (Our text here hails from the Hartford, Conn. American Mercury, September 18, 1800.)


A HORRID MURDER.

Capt. John Patterson, Inspector at Horsley’s Warehouse in the town of Dinguidsville and county of Buckingham, was lately murdered in a cruel manner by Abram, a negro man slave, the property of the said Patterson.

The circumstances of this atrocious deed is in substance thus related by the wretch who perpetrated it; being his confession at the time he was apprehended — repeated immediately after his trial and condemnation, and on the morning of his execution.

Says he —

In consequence of some punishment inflicted on me by my master for some misdemeanor of which I was guilty, a considerable time prior to the fatal catastrophe, I ever after meditated his destruction: On the evening in which it was effected, my master directed me to set off home (about seven miles distant from the warehouse, where I generally attended) and carry a hoe which we used at the place, I sat [sic] off, and was determined to dispatch him that night, after proceeding some distance I concluded to way-lay him having the hoe in possession, accordingly, I lay on or behind a log, convenient to the road on which my master was to pass, and fell into a slumber; after waiting there a considerable time, I heard the trampling of horses’ feet; I concluded therefore my master was near; I got up and walked forwards; my master soon overtook me, and asked me [it being then dark] who I was; I answeredAbram; he said he thought I had been gone from town long enough to have been further advanced on the road; I said, I thought not, I spoke short to him, and did not care to irritate him; I walked on however; sometimes by the side of his horse, and sometimes before him.

In the course of our travelling an altercation ensued; I raised my hoe two different times to strike him; as the circumstances of thep laces suited my pupose, but was intimidated; when I came to the bridge (across a small stream) I thought that place favorable to my views, but seeing a light, and some people at a house a little distant from thence I resisted the impulse. When I came to the fatal spot, being most obscured by the loftiness of the trees, I turned to the side of the road; my master observed it, and stopped; I then turned suddenly round, lifted my hoe, and struck him across the breast: the stroke broke the handle of the hoe; he fel; I repeated my blows; the handle of the hoe broke a second time; I heard dogs bark, at a house which we passed, at a small distance; I was alarmed, and ran a little way, and stood behind a tree, ’till the barking ceased: in running, I stumbled and fell; I returned to finish the scene; I began, and on my way picked up a stone, which I hurl’d at his head, face, &c. again and again and again, until I thought he was certainly dead — and then I went home.

The body was found the next morning: the features so defaced, the body so mangled, that it was with difficulty his person could be recognized — a scene too shocking for human sight. Capt. Patterson was a man universally esteemed. He was a tender husband, an affectionate brother, a mild master, a kind neighbour, a faithful officer, in short, he possessed every quality that constitutes the good citizen, and an amiable member of society.

P.S. After the cruel monster, who sacrificed the life of so worthy a character to his revenge was hanged, his head was struck off and exhibited on a pole about 24 feet high, in view of the warehouse where he was usually employed.

Buckingham, 19th Aug. 1800.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Uncertain Dates,USA,Virginia

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1678: Thomas Hellier, “Groans and Sighs”

1 comment August 5th, 2019 Headsman

Thomas Hellier, a miserable New World indentured servant who murdered his master and mistress along with another servant to escape his Virginia plantation, was hanged on this date in 1678.

Desperate in London after frittering away the £12 he stole from his parents without successfully getting his barbering/surgeon business off the ground, Hellier was talked into signing into an indenture. To his recruiter, the skeptical Hellier remembered (in his gallows confession),

I replied, I had heard so bad a character of that Country, that I dreaded going thither, in regard I abhorred the Ax and the Haw. He told me, he would promise I should be onely employ’d in Merchants Accompts, and such Employments to which I had been bred, if they were here used.

Just get them to sign on the line which is dotted. Promises to the contrary, Hellier upon arrival got sold straightaway to a farm that calloused his surgeon’s hands with all the abhorrent tools. The place was literally named the Hard Labour Plantation.

Friend of the site Anthony Vaver (author of Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) has a nice profile of this small bit of chum for the emerging Atlantic economy on his site Early American Crime.

It seems that after trying and failing to escape his farm once, Hellier loosed himself by busting into the master’s bedchamber with an axe and bashing to death Mr. Cutbeard Williamson — right hand to God, that’s the name — and his wife, plus the maid who also resided in the house. Although he fled the grounds, neighbors suspicious of his close-cropped hair — a scarlet letter imposed after his previous escape to mark him as a runaway — detained him and the law soon caught up.

Hellier took the opportunity of his execution to sting the Virginia planter class for its abuse of employees, although to some readers eyes it might equally appear a manifesto for laziness.

How much more consonant and agreeable were it to common Policy, Self-interest, as well as true Christian Charity, for all Masters in Virginia, Planters as well as others, to consider first their own Ability, and the Capacity of the Servants whom they designe to purchase, before they deal for them; sincerely at the same time imparting to them, What their Work must be, and what their Usage? And if, by enquiry into their former Condition, they discover them improper persons for their purpose; How much a wiser course were it, that such should seasonably pitch their choice on some others, more useful for them? Or if they will chuse no others, Conscience and Christianity sure ought to oblige them to use such Servants as their Christian Brethren, with Gentleness and Courtesie, content with their honest endeavours, not Tyrannizing over Christians, as Turks do over Galley-slaves, compelling them unmercifully beyond their strength.

For though Masters justly do expect and require Fidelity and painful Industry from their Christian Servants, and such Servants ought to put themselves forth to their utmost power for their Masters Benefit: Yet, the merciful Man exerciseth Mercy towards his Beast, much more toward a Christian Servant. And let cruel, tyrannical, Egyptian Task-masters know, that their Master is also in Heaven, whose Omniscience beholds and knows all persons dealings, and will judge according to Equity, without respect of persons, in his own due time, and listen to the Groans and Sighs of poor oppressed Wretches, vindicating the cause of injur’d Innocents, retributing crosses, vexations and troubles to all Wrong-doers.

And whereas this poor Penitent Wretch declar’d, That the bitterness of his ill-tongued Mistress was the main immediate provocation prompting and exciting him to give way to Satan’s suggestions, while he tempted him to perpetrate this horrid, execrable Outrage: I suppose, all will grant, that Bitterness in any case (especially to morigerous Servants of a gentle Temper, obediently willing to do their endeavours) is no way Christian-like nor commendable, but rather Patience and kinde usage … Also you that are Masters of Servants in this Country, have respect to them, to let them have that which is necessary for them, with good words, and not (Dam you dog, do such a thing, or such a thing.) They are not Dogs, who are professed Christians, and bear God’s Image; happily they are as good Christians as your selves, and as well bred and educated, though through Poverty they are forced to seek Christianity under thy roof; where they usually find nothing but Tyranny. Be good to your Servants, as you would have God be good to you. Servants, in all things obey your Masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service as man-pleasers, but with singleness of heart, fearing God. Masters, give to your Servants what is right and equal; know that you also have a Master in Heaven.

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1779: Manuel, burned for witchcraft in the USA?

Add comment June 15th, 2019 Clarence Alvord

(Thanks to the late University of Illinois history professor Clarence Walworth Alvord for the guest post, which originally appeared in an essay he wrote for the centennial of the Land of Lincoln‘s 1818 statehood. For context to this 1779 execution, the area comprising the future U.S. state of Illinois had been attached by the British crown to its own recently annexed province of Quebec, formerly French and Catholic. Illinois had then been seized during the Revolutionary War by Virginia, which at this moment (and only a few years thereafter) maintained it as Virginia’s own “Illinois County”. Notwithstanding Dr. Alvord’s rebuttal, the slave Manuel is still frequently described down to the present day as having been burned for witchcraft. -ed.)

The secret of writing true history depends upon the collection of all the contemporary evidence bearing on the case. The reason that people complain of the changing interpretations of history is that new material is found as society demands a broader and broader interpretation of the phenomena of the past. There was a time when history consisted in what we call to-day the drum and fife history; the doings of the great political leaders, events of military glory; and almost no other phenomena of changing society were noted. To-day the task of the historian, however, is far greater; and he is obliged to cast his net far afield in order to collect the material for the social development of the past …

“it must be remembered that the Creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery. Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives …

At this time the Creoles were smitten by a sudden epidemic of fear that their negro slaves were trying to bewitch and poison them. Several of the negroes were seized and tried, and in June two were condemned to death. One, named Moreau, was sentenced to be hung outside Cahokia. The other, a Kaskaskian slave named Manuel, suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced “to be chained to a post at the water-side, and there to be burnt alive and his ashes scattered.” These two sentences, and the directions for their immediate execution, reveal a dark chapter in the early history of Illinois. It seems a strange thing that, in the United States, three years after the declaration of independence, men should have been burnt and hung for witchcraft, in accordance with the laws and with the decision of the proper court. The fact that the victim, before being burned, was forced to make “honorable fine” at the door of the Catholic church, shows that the priest at least acquiesced in the decision. The blame justly resting on the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England must likewise fall on the Catholic French of eighteenth-century Illinois.

-Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West

An example of how easy it is to misinterpret a past event, provided all the material available is not collected, and how easy is that interpretation after the material has been found, has come under my observation … About forty years ago Edward G. Mason, at that time secretary of the Chicago Histori[c]al Society, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd,* in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation. Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he vegan to search for an explanation and discovered that about this time there was an outbreak of voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason’s find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sancttion [sic] of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Fortunately there has come into my hands a full record of the court’s proceedings by which Manuel was condemned; and I find that the judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death. I then looked up the law of the land. Naturally it might be supposed as Roosevelt did that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd. I found that the Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. Another document of even greater interest in the case also came to my hands. It certainly was a surprise. This was another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in the day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck. To summarize then: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck. This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events upon too narrow information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

* Todd’s brother Levi was grandfather to eventual U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. -ed.

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1892: A day in the death penalty around the U.S. South

Add comment January 22nd, 2019 Headsman

All five of the people executed on January 22, 1892, and all four of the victims associated with their various homicides, were African-Americans.


From the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, Jan. 23, 1982.

Robert Carter, hanged in the Camden, Alabama, jail on January 22 for murdering his wife, a crime he admitted.

“The murder was most brutal,” wrote the newsman under the headline pictured above, indulging a touch of anatomical hyperbole. “He followed his wife into the woods from the field where both were working and beat her to death, crushing almost all the bones in her body.”


Less certain was the case of the adulterous lovers Jim Lyles and Margaret Lashley hanged in Danville, Virginia, that same January 22 for slaying Lashley’s husband George.

Lashley asserted her innocence from arrest to execution, and her trial jury had recommended her for mercy. The day before execution, Lyles made a full confession in which he claimed sole responsibility for the crime, exonerating his paramour; Lashley’s bid for an eleventh-hour clemency on the basis of was nevertheless denied.

They died together, “displaying not a semblance of weakness” after “the prayer and song service, which lasted thirty minutes, both principals rendering, in strong harmonious voices, the hymns selected for the occasion.” (Columbia, S.C. State, Jan. 23, 1892)


Lucius Dotson hanged in Savannah, Georgia, on the same morning, for the murder of Jeff Goates.

Even at the late date of 1892, Dotson’s brother, “fearing that medical students had captured Lucius’s carcass, had the coffin opened at the depot … and was surprised to find his broken-neck brother in it.” (Charleston, S.C., News and Courier, Jan. 24, 1892)


The last woman ever hanged in North Carolina, Caroline Shipp died on a Dallas, North Carolina gallows before a crowd of some 3,000 souls.

A woman of “barely 20 years old”, condemned for poisoning her infant child. Under the noose, she “displayed great coolness” and “talked eight minutes, re-affirming her innocence, and declared a man [her lover -ed.] named Mack Farrar committed the crime.” The drop of the rope hit her with what a local paper called “a soul-sickening jerk”; it took her 20 minutes to strangle to death.

The event has proven to have a durable hold on Gaston County’s memory, and Shipp’s claim of innocence continues to interest latter-day researchers.

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1866: John Roberson

Add comment December 28th, 2018 Headsman

From the Richmond (Va.) Whig, Dec. 28, 1866 …

… and the same source on Jan. 1, 1867:

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1736: James Matthews and Elizabeth Greenley

Add comment November 26th, 2017 Headsman

Little primary documentation about these hangings appears to be conveniently available absent a visit to Williamsburg’s archives, but the bare outline of murder in the colonial servants’ quarters lifts the eyebrow. Was our Bess’s crime connected to the horse thief’s, leaving the shades of two star-crossed lovers in death like Bess and her highwayman of verse?

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
   Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
   Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.


Virginia Gazette, Nov. 5, 1736.


Virginia Gazette, Nov. 26, 1736.

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1767: Tom, slave of the Baylor family

Add comment October 15th, 2017 Headsman

From The Baylors of Newmarket: The Decline and Fall of a Virginia Planter Family, by Thomas Katheder. The specific “Baylor” referenced in this text is John Baylor III, a slave merchandising heir then in the midst of squandering the family fortune through his passion for horseracing. (In the latter capacity, Baylor also imported the legendary colonial stud Fearnought.) Baylor died in 1772, still straining his creditors for maintenance of his oligarchic station … but his son John Baylor IV died in a debtor’s prison that his “gentleman justice” father had helped to construct. We have the date of the hanging, although not the explanation for the delay between trial and execution, via a different book, Murder at Montpelier.

In colonial Virginia, the county courts, which were controlled by “gentleman justices” like Baylor, governed the counties with an oligarchic, unchecked, and largely self-perpetuating rule utterly unthinkable in modern America. [sic]

With legislative, executive, and judicial functions combined into a single governing body, the county courts impacted the day-to-day lives of Virginians more than any other civil authority. The county court adjudicated most civil matters, including debt and contract disputes, presided over nonfelony criminal cases (accused felons were bound over for trial at the General Court in Williamsburg), and determined whether wills were admitted to probate and whether deeds, mortgages, or other instruments were worthy of being recorded in the county records.

The justices established the amount of the county levy each year and decided who was exempt from taxation and exactly how the money would be spent — no road, bridge, or public building could be built without their approval. They issued bonds, permits, and licenses, including permits for ferries and mills, as well as licenses for taverns and inns; they even set the prices that could be charged for alcoholic beverages.

They appointed all county officers, including tax collectors, the county clerk, militia officers, the coroner, and the sheriff (some of these positions were subject to the royal governor’s usually perfunctory assent). As historian Jack P. Greene points out, in colonial Virginia “[n]ot a single local civil or judicial officer was elected.”

The justices also apprenticed orphans to artisans or tradesman; they fined the parents of illegitimate children or sometimes ordered they be publicly whipped; and they put able-bodied paupers to work or exiled them from the county if they were from somewhere else (under ancient English custom and law the poor were supposed to be dealt with in their home communities.)

The justices were most powerful when they sat as a “Court of Oyer and Terminer” under special commission from the governor. In that capacity the justices could — and did — try slaves for capital offenses and order their execution, without any right of appeal.

In the summer of 1767 one of Col. Baylor’s slaves, Tom, was tried and found guilty of breaking into a white planter’s house and stealing items worth about five shillings. The Orange County Court, presided over by James Madison Sr. (father of the future president) [and a man who had lost his father to an alleged slave murder -ed.], noted that Tom was “precluded from the Benefit of Clergy” because he had already received it once before and ordered him executed.

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1863: Spencer Kellogg Brown, Union spy

Add comment September 25th, 2017 Headsman

Spencer Kellogg Brown, a young Union spy during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1863 in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia.

Brown would come by the latter years of his short life to commonly drop his surname and simply go by Spencer Kellogg: this was fruit of the same cause for his enthusiasm for the northern cause, to wit, his growing to manhood in Osawatomie, the antislavery epicenter of the dirty frontier war known as “Bleeding Kansas”. But the thing about the name was, notwithstanding Kellogg’s/Brown’s enthusiasm for the Free State side, the surname he chanced to share with the ferocious abolitionist warrior John Brown was liable to get a body killed when uttered in the wrong company. (There was no blood relationship between Spencer Brown and John Brown.)

Spencer Kellogg Brown was just a teenager when he joined the Union army but the pell-mell ramp-up to war footing opened opportunities for able people. Brown rose out of the enlisted ranks to an officer’s commission and was detailed for risky scouting assignments into rebel territory down the Mississippi River, even feigning desertion so that he could enlist in the Confederate ranks and then escape back to his own lines with intelligence. Execution was an occupational hazard of this daring profession; eventually, young Brown was captured one too many times.

This public domain volume summarizes the man’s short biography, including many affectionate letters that Brown exchanged with family in the course of his adventures and his subsequent year-long imprisonment. If you like, you can imagine them in that Ken Burns documentary portentous voice-over reading.

Castle Thunder, Richmond, Virginia, Sept. 18, 1863.

Dear Kitty, my Sister: After lying in prison over a year, my time has come at last. To-day I went out for trial, but got it deferred until to-morrow. The witnesses are there, and there can be but one result, death. So I have written to you for all, to bid you a last good-bye, God bless you, I have tried to write often to cheer all, and it seemed very hopeful for a while, but within a few days all hope has left me. But don’t mourn, Kitty, as for one without hope. These only take away the mortal life, but God, I trust, has given me one that is immortal. Dear Kitty, I hope there is a ‘shining shore’ for us all, and another world where, free from guilt, we’ll no more sorrow, or part. I do not look forward with fear to death — not nearly as much as when it was farther off. God has been very kind to me, and for the past twelve months I have tried earnestly to please Him. I fear the embarrassment of the trial, to-morrow, the worst, but He will help me, I trust.

I have some little trinkets; you must divide them. The ring is for my wife; if she be not found, for yourself. Take comfort now, dear ones, God is good, and naught shall separate us from Him. I have hoped and longed, indeed, to see you all; but I know His wisdom chooses better; let us be content. Thank Him that all this time He has given me life and health and a heart to love Him, and to trust in Christ. Much as I long to see you all, I know ’tis best as it is, for He doeth all things well. So do not mourn, but hope — and think of heaven, where I hope, by God’s mercy, to await you all.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Soldiers,Spies,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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1831: Slaves of Sussex County, for Nat Turner’s rebellion

Add comment September 23rd, 2017 Headsman

Four slaves allegedly concerned in Nat Turner‘s Virginia rebellion were hanged on this date in 1831.

Turner’s rising had spanned only a couple of days in August but would haunt Virginia and the South all the way to the Civil War. (At least.) And one of the first, frightening questions that white slaveowners had was — was the rebellion in Southampton County an isolated event, or was it part of a wider servile conspiracy that might augur a general insurrection? Would there be two, three, many Nat Turners? The Southampton Spartacus was himself pressed on this point before his execution; the published confessions of his interrogations note that “If Nat’s statements can be relied on, the insurrection in this county was entirely local, and his designs confided but to a few, and these in his immediate vicinity.”

Little but suspicion supported this proposition but the search was intense and in the time-honored investigative tradition eventually generated its own evidence, from the lips of “a negro girl of about 16 or 17 years of age” named Beck(y) when pressed by her mistress.

We can only guess at the particular circumstances inducing this young house slave to issue her denunciations,* but their substance was that she had heard the denizens of the slave quarters discussing the insurrection and planning to join it — not in Southampton County but in neighboring Sussex County. Slaveholders all knew that they dwelt in the shadow of a smoldering Vesuvius; if Becky’s claims were true, then the mountain was already spewing fire.

Becky’s accusations got three slaves put on trial in Southampton County on September 8, but all were acquitted. (There were many acquittals in the Nat Turner bust-up.) But Sussex County convened its own court and here Becky’s allegations were better received. Her testimony in the cases of “Solomon a negro man slave the property of Nancy Sorrly, Booker a negro man slave the property of Samuel A. Raines and Nicholas a negro man slave the property of Hannah Williamson here became favorably received — perhaps Sussex County feared that declaring itself insurrection-free would suggest a want of diligence?

Beck a negro slave the property of Solomon D. Parker a witness for the Commonwealth says that at the last May meeting at the Raccoon Meeting House, she heard the prisoners Nicholas and Booker say that they would join the negroes to murder the white people and heard the prisoner Solomon say that he would join too for God damn the white people they had been reigning long enough. Captain Peters’ two negroes Boson and Frank were also present and Mr. Parker’s Bob who told her if she told the white people would shot her like a squirrel and would not bury her, and she has since been told the same thing by all the others. There were several other negroes present whom she did not know. The Saturday night before and the Monday night of the last Southampton election she heard conversations among the negroes about ? On both these nights she was called in by her mistress and slept in the house. On Friday night she went out and stayed so late that she was not permitted to go in.

Similar evidence also helped to condemn several other accused slaves, all of whom were slated to hang on September 23. On September 16, the Virginia governor noted in his diary, “I had a Council of State, transacted business and received the record of nine slaves condemned to be hanged by the Court of Sussex. One I have reprieved. No news from any other part of the State.” Several others were set instead for convict transportation out of Virginia Commonwealth, and two slaves died in a desperate jailbreak attempt.

Solomon, Booker and Nicholas all hanged on September 23, 1831, along with a fourth slave called Ned who had been accused not by Becky but by a different house slave named Lizzy.

* In Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment, Mary Kemp Davis calls Becky “nothing if not wily. Her incriminating testimony was a masterful ‘hidden polemic’ against anyone who would try to implicate her in the insurrection.”

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1830: Ebenezer Cox, gone postal gunsmith

Add comment August 27th, 2017 Headsman

Long before slavery abolitionist John Brown wrote its name into the firmament, Harpers Ferry* was a vital cog for the military of the young United States. Its armory, founded at George Washington‘s behest at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers whose waters turned its machines, was the 1b supplier of small arms to American soldiery alongside a similar facility in Springfield, Mass.

But it was also a bit of a problem child from the start: the facility too small, the location too inaccessible,** the manufacturing process too inefficient.

Hoping to remedy at least the last of these, a fellow named Thomas Dunn was hired from the Antietam Iron Works in 1829 for a managerial task that was not calculated to please the Harpers Ferry armorers.

So detested were Dunn’s downsizing and production speedups that one armory hand name of Ebenezer Cox — having been laid off and subsequently balked of a re-hire on grounds of being a volatile drunk — simply walked into the boss’s office one day in January 1830 and gave him a taste of his own product.

Hopefully the irony wasn’t lost on anyone because the message for labor-management relations had the sharp report of a Model 1803: Cox “became a folk hero among the armorers; whenever future managers tried to impose factory discipline Cox’s name was always mentioned to the armory officials.” (Source)

Folk hero … and martyr. Cox naturally still had to pay the price for his early instance of going postal, and the Library of Congress helpfully preserves for ready access a Narrative of the life, trial, confession, sentence of death, and execution of Ebenezer W. Cox.

While we can scarcely evaluate Cox’s craft when it came to boring a muzzle, he was certainly not a man who wanted for an engineering cast of mind.

Preceding the fatal hour, strong suspenders were prepared, with hooks under or near the collar of his shirt or shroud, so contrived as to prevent suffocation, provided the rope could be securely placed within the crooks; and no doubt this plan would have succeeded, and the culprit been preserved alive, had the rope been deliberately fixed. But owing, probably, either to want of time, or through perturbation of mind, something was omitted, and only one of the hooks caught the fatal cord which twisted his neck awry; and although it did not prevent his finally suffocating, he apparently died with all the agonies of a lingering and protracted death.


“John Brown’s Fort”, the armory’s former guard and fire engine house. Though not yet extant at the time of Cox’s crime, it’s the best we’ll do since the rest of the original armory was destroyed during the Civil War and never rebuilt. (cc) image by Doug Kerr.

* Harpers Ferry was in Virginia at the time of these events; today, it’s in West Virginia.

** Connections via the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would arrive in the 1830s.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,USA,Virginia,West Virginia

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