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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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Witchcraft

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