1775: Thomas Jeremiah, Charleston’s wealthiest free black

3 comments August 18th, 2010 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1775, Thomas Jeremiah, a free black man in the then-colony of South Carolina, was hung after being convicted of attempting to a slave insurrection.

The case against him was extremely weak, but he was tried/framed under the Negro Act of 1740 (in a slave court, although he was not a slave), wherein the defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent. South Carolina’s own royal governor, William Campbell, called it a case of “judicial murder.”

Very little is known about Jeremiah. He left no diary or letters behind, and most of his trial records have been lost. We know he was married but we know nothing about his wife, whether she was a slave or a free black like himself, or whether they had any children. We don’t know how he became free or how he learned his trade. He is, in fact, so obscure that he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry.

What little we do know, however, suggests that he was a most extraordinary man: a fisherman and ship’s pilot, one of less than 500 free blacks in the city of Charles Town (now called Charleston), Jeremiah had somehow managed to claw his way up and amassed a net worth of £1,000, or about $200,000 in today’s money. He was one of the wealthiest free black men in North America, and certainly the wealthiest self-made one.

Himself a slaveowner, he had no reason to start a slave rebellion, but this didn’t matter to those who convicted him. Jeremiah’s life, trial and death are discussed in detail in J. William Harris’s 2009 book, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty. (This book review provides a good summary.)

2010 saw the publication of a second book, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution.

Jeremiah was basically a victim of his own success. He had risen too high; he made the local white elites uncomfortable. As Harris noted, Jeremiah “did not need to gather arms or preach revolution to undermine slavery, because his whole life was a refutation of whites’ basic justification for slavery.”

Henry Laurens, a wealthy businessman, future Continental Congressman, slaveowner, and contemporary of Jeremiah’s, stated he was “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.” He needed to be smacked down and he was, most severely.

In the spring and summer of 1775, revolution was fomenting everywhere. White “Patriots” wanted an opportunity to get out from under England, but they feared their slaves would use the conflict to try and get out from under them.

Nat Turner and Charleston’s own Denmark Vesey — these immortal rebels lay years into the future, but their very prospect made slave rebellions an omnipresent fear among the white populace. It was jumpy. And when two slaves accused Jeremiah of trying to persuade them to rebel, it jumped.

Only a few months passed between Jeremiah’s arrest and his execution. By that time he was a broken man, welcoming death. After he was hung, his body was cut down and burned to ashes.

Books about Thomas Jeremiah

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1781: Isaac Hayne, paroled prisoner of war

2 comments August 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1781, South Carolina patriot Isaac Hayne was hanged for breaking his conditional British parole and re-enlisting in the American Revolution.

Though Hayne is not, to us, the most famous revolutionary executed by the British, he might have been considered by his contemporaries as the most prominent individual to go to the scaffold for the cause.

A wealthy planter (lots of slaves!) whose home and grave can still be toured in Jacksonboro, Hayne was among 5,000 to surrender to the British when the latter captured Charleston in 1780.

These prisoners were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown in exchange for their parole, which Hayne reluctantly agreed to do because his family had been hit with smallpox.

He declared to a friend that,

as they [the British] allow no other alternative than submission, or confinement in the capital, at a distance from my wife and family, at a time when they are in the most pressing need of my presence and support, I must, for the present, yield to the demands of the conquerors. I request you to bear in mind, that previous to my taking this step, I declare that it is contrary to my inclination, and forced on me by hard necessity. I will never bear arms against my country … I do not mean to desert the cause of America.

But as the British southern campaign foundered over the year ahead, the mother country eventually attempted to call him up to do just that: bear arms against his country.

Hayne thought his parole terms protected him from ever having to serve against the colonies, so he simply got back into the fight on the revolutionary side instead. He was captured in that capacity.

The British commander Francis Rawdon handled his relapsed prisoner with uncommon severity, putting him to a drumhead military tribunal with a preordained outcome and refusing the many public pleas for leniency.

The irregular and vengeful nature of these proceedings, and Hayne’s seemingly honorable conduct, raised hackles on both sides of the Atlantic; shortly after hanging Hayne, Rawdon returned to the British Isles to find a good deal of pointed criticism of his behavior. (Parliament quashed any damaging official inquiry, and Lord Rawdon actually extracted an apology from the peer who had the temerity to motion the investigation — an intolerable impeachment on Rawdon’s honor.)

The Hayne incident was widely understood to have been conditioned by British frustration at its failing fortunes in the war. By the time of the execution, the redcoats held nothing of South Carolina save Charleston itself. General Cornwallis had recently marched north from the Palmetto State; in a few weeks’ time, he would surrender his sword and the British cause alike after the decisive British defeat at Yorktown, Virginia.

And though the commandants at Charleston scarcely anticipated that stunning reversal, they had only a few months before suffered the upsetting (but more legally tenable) hanging of the honorable British Major John Andre as a result of the Benedict Arnold affair. British forces were reputedly on the lookout for any opportunity to trade tit for tat.

Continental Gen. Nathaniel Greene alleged that the British officer who received the petition for Hayne’s life simply wrote on it John Andre — and sent it back.


Isaac Hayne was the great-uncle of South Carolina pol Robert Y. Hayne, best remembered for a hot sectional debate with Massachusetts Sen. Daniel Webster. (Read it all here, if you must.)

It was during this exchange of Senatorial disquisitions that Webster delivered one of the noted orations of the antebellum era, the aptly-named Second Reply to Hayne:

I have not allowed myself, Sir, to look beyond the Union, to see what might lie hidden in the dark recess behind. I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder. I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion, to see whether, with my short sight, I can fathom the depth of the abyss below; nor could I regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs of this government, whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union may be best preserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it should be broken up and destroyed. While the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil. God grant that in my day, at least, that curtain may not rise! God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind! When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shine on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood! Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original lustre, not a stripe erased or polluted, not a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as “What is all this worth?” nor those other words of delusion and folly, “Liberty first and Union afterwards”; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all it sample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart, – Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseperable!

When not being rhetorically posterized by New England gasbags, Robert Hayne made time to pen a justification for his famous forebear’s conduct for the Southern Review in 1828 — comparing the British behavior of executing rather than detaining a prisoner who broke parole to the massacre at Jaffa Napoleon notoriously ordered in 1799.

(Actually, Isaac Hayne’s old nemesis Francis Rawdon had only died in 1826; Robert Hayne wrote his piece to confute a vindication of himself that Lord Rawdon — also recognized by his subsequent titles, Earl of Moira and Marquess of Hastings — had authored, decades after the fact, of his conduct in the Hayne matter.)

Though this 37-page slog of Robert Hayne’s is obviously in the public domain by now, it appears it is not yet freely available online. However, it’s the source of the otherwise unattributed quotes in this article.

Part of the Themed Set: The Empire Strikes Back.

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1822: The audacious Denmark Vesey

5 comments July 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, white South Carolinians hanged the most terrifying slave insurrectionary who never rose — and breathed a sigh of relief as they clamped the shackles ever tighter upon their groaning servile class.

Inspired by slave revolts shaking the Caribbean, the Denmark Vesey plot was the South’s worst nightmare: Nat Turner, multiplied by about nine thousand.

That’s the size of the slave and free black network Vesey is said to have recruited — ready to undertake a coordinated uprising to seize Charleston, slaughter the white populace, and possibly then to sail for a Haiti whose own slave revolt had recently established it a black-governed republic. The mind boggles at such a scheme’s bravado … but in an age when horseshoes and mizzenmasts could outrun information, Vesey’s plot could have been past any prospect of obstruction before anyone in a position to obstruct it even knew what happened. Had they not flown but defended Charleston, the event would have ignited a conflagration to outshine every other slave uprising.

The weak point, of course, were those 9,000 — or however many — slaves who had to act ruthlessly and in unison, and keep their peace until they struck. It is incredible enough that such a secret kept among so many for up to four years.

The plot finally leaked mere days before it was to have been attempted when a middling player attempted the unnecessary freelance recruitment of a house slave — a class Vesey had intentionally (and rightly, events would prove) excluded for dangerously excessive personal loyalty to their masters’ families.*

Melancholy Dane

A well-educated and well-traveled man on account of his years as the personal property of a slaver — Joseph Vesey, who bequeathed his purchase both a surname and the given name Telemaque, subsequently corrupted into “Denmark” by Charlestonians — the plot’s signature hero/villain had managed to purchase his freedom and establish himself in the anomalous position of free black artisan/entrepreneur in the slaveholding South.

His successful carpentry business (apt choice, for a martyr) had given him the prestige and the werewithal to start an independent African Methodist Episcopal church where he poured out a hatred of chattel slavery undiminished by his own liberty.

For several years before he disclosed his intentions to any one, he appears to have been constantly and assiduously engaged in endeavoring to imbitter [sic] the minds of the colored population against the whites. He rendered himself perfectly familiar with those parts of the Scriptures which he could use to show that slavery was contrary to the laws of God; that slaves were bound to attempt their emancipation, however shocking and bloody might be the consequences … (Source)

His judges were later incredulous that he’d be so hung up about it:

It is difficult to imagine, what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.

An American Spartacus?

Denmark Vesey blurs into myth as he approaches his end, together with lieutenants: among them, Peter Poyas, the organizational maven of the operation who was hanged along with Vesey and four others; and Gullah Jack, an African priest among the 29 more who would die in the weeks ahead.

Most of the principals held their tongues before interrogators; the tribunals were held secretly; their records were censored against the apprehension by other slaves of the potential for such designs as “a bottle with poison to put into my master’s pump & into as many pumps he could about town.”

But there was enough known to shatter forever any illusion of paternal congeniality more liberal masters might have fancied. One planter was incredulous that his agreeable charge might be involved in such nefarious doings until he asked the man directly and was astonished to hear from his trusted coachman’s lips the frank intention “to kill you, rip open your belly and throw your guts in your face.” (Both quotes are from this book review.)

Whites were scared. “I have never heard in my life, of more deep laid plots or plots more likely to succeed,” wrote Anna Haynes Johnson, niece to Gov. Thomas Bennett. (Source) Another concluded that “our NEGROES are truly the Jacobins of the country.” (Source)

But as initial panic (and federal troop deployments) gave way to a more pervasive undertow of security paranoia, the affair was self-consciously downplayed and records intentionally destroyed for fear that too-careful documentation of its particulars could map the way for a revival. An 1861 piece in The Atlantic — an excellent read on the progress of the conspiracy — grapples with what was even then a gaping evidentiary vacuum.

The intense avidity which at first grasped at every incident of the great insurrectionary plot was succeeded by a distaste for the memory of the tale; and the official reports which told what slaves had once planned and dared have now come to be among the rarest of American historical documents. In 1841, a friend of the writer, then visiting South Carolina, heard from her hostess for the first time the events which are recounted here. On asking to see the reports of the trials, she was cautiously told that the only copy in the house, after being carefully kept for years under lock and key, had been burnt at last, lest it should reach the dangerous eyes of the slaves. The same thing had happened, it was added, in many other families. This partially accounts for the great difficulty now to be found in obtaining a single copy of either publication; and this is why, to the readers of American history, Denmark Vesey and Peter Poyas have been heretofore but the shadows of names.

Antebellum September 11

Even as a nonstarter, the insurrection was an antebellum 9/11 that spurred a reactionary crackdown on perceived liberalities in the system — most vividly symbolized by the construction of the fortress that became the still-extant military academy The Citadel, but more systematically impinging blacks’ everyday freedom to assemble and worship, and even requiring (until the Supreme Court overruled the law) free black sailors be detained whenever a northern ship called at port. Pro-slavery southerners blamed open disapprobation for slavery voiced in Congress during the recent Missouri Compromise wrangling, and even similar sentiments expressed in the British parliament, for emboldening the terrorists.

All this yielded a rich political harvest from the fruit of the gallows — like Charleston mayor James “there is nothing they are bad enough to do, that we are not powerful enough to punish” Hamilton, who rode his timely suppression of the plot to Congress later that year.

Such political profiteering, combined with the sketchiness of primary sources, has licensed a revisionist take on the orthodox history — that there was never any conspiracy, but that reactionary white elites concocted the plot from a tissue of loose liberation talk, false confessions, and latent white fear in order to win political power. This contested minority interpretation has been a recent topic of academic dispute, since Michael P. Johnson floated it in 2001 (an account is required to read Johnson’s original essay; here’s a synoptic article that appeared subsequently in The Nation).

Markers of historiography around these competing versions of Vesey, bearing directly on the question current in today’s Charleston of whether and how to memorialize this episode, are ripe with controversial modern-day implications.

Consider: if Vesey is a rebel indeed, the silence of (most of) the plotters is a noble acceptance of torture to protect their confederates; if they’re framed, they’re silent because there’s nothing to confess. Either way, the modern reader’s sympathies are likely to lie with the blacks, but Johnson’s interpretation removes the locus of action from them to white elites. If he’s right, would that derogate an entire narrative of black resistance to slavery, drain the martyrdom from their deaths? Or would it correct an overstated romantic mythology of armed resistance, and color this day’s hanging with a different heroism: refusing to purchase their lives with a false accusation?

* For his timely betrayal, Peter Desverneys received his liberty and a state pension; he later became a slaveholder himself. See Black Slaveowners.

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