1798: Father John Murphy, Wexford Rebellion leader

Add comment July 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Catholic priest John Murphy was executed on this date in 1798 for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


The Black 47 jam “Vinegar Hill” celebrates Father Murphy, imagining him confronting and embracing the choice to rebel …

I return to my prayers
And reflect upon Your tortured lips
But not a word do I hear
Just a veil of silence around the crucifix
And I remember the Bishop’s words
“When faith is gone, all hope is lost”
Well, so be it
I will rise up with my people
And to hell with the eternal cost!

An exemplar of that rare type persuadable to follow his moral commitments all the way out of the safety of a status quo sinecure, Father Murphy initially eschewed the trend towards armed rebellion in 1798.

This outbreak was itself a response to a violent martial law-backed campaign of repression to crush Ireland’s growing United Irishmen movement for self-rule, republicanism, and Catholic emancipation — each of them scarlet fighting words to the Crown. The risings that finally broke out had only scanty success, weakened as they were by months of arrests.

By far the strongest rising occurred in Wexford, so much so that the Wexford Rebellion is nearly metonymous for the Irish Rebellion as a whole. And our man, John Murphy, was a priest in Wexford Town.

Giving due heed to Ecclesiastes, Murphy pivoted quickly from his previous counsel that prospective rebels surrender their arms once he saw an enemy patrol gratuitously torch some homes, a decision that would immortalize his name at the cost of greatly shortening his life.

During the brief existence of the Wexford Republic, the padre surprisingly became one of its prominent combat commanders, and also one of the signal martyrs after the rebels were shattered at the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21, 1798.*

Murphy escaped that tragic battlefield only to have his remnant definitively routed a few days later.

He had only a few days remaining him at that point, days of hiding out with his bodyguard, James Gallagher. At last they were captured at a farm on July 2, and subjected that same day to a snap military tribunal and execution delayed only by the hours required to torture him.

After hanging to death, Murphy was decapitated so that the British could mount his head on a pike as a warning.

This 1798 rebellion they were able to crush, but Murphy has survived into legend. He flashes for only an instant in the sweep of history, springing almost out of the very soil into the firmament as an allegory of revolutionary redemption, brandishing together (as Black 47 puts it above) both his missal and his gun.


The ballad “Boolvague” by Patrick Joseph McCall for the 1898 centennial of the rebellion pays tribute to Father Murphy:

At Vinegar Hill o’er the River Slaney
our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos of Tullow took Father Murphy
and burned his body upon the rack
God grant you glory brave Father Murphy
and open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
in another fight for the Green again.

* There was a “Second Battle of Vinegar Hill” … comprising Irishmen but not in Ireland, for it was a convict rebellion in Australia in 1804. One of its leaders, Phillip Cunningham, was a survivor of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

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1835: A white man at Vicksburg and two black men at Livingston, and five slaves at Beatties Bluff

Add comment July 2nd, 2017 Headsman

The first casualties of the Murrell Excitement, a purported slave rising in Madison County, Mississippi, were strung up by vigilance committees on this date in 1835.

Having been alerted to rebellious talk by slaves on a Beatties Bluff plantation, a vigilance committee organized itself and interrogated every slave there.

Events were moving fast, and those in the middle of them had all they could do to keep up with developments — as can be seen by this staccato letter from Canton, Mississippi in the center of Madison County. It was reprinted widely in the U.S. in late July; we’re quoting here from the July 25, 1835 Baltimore Gazette And Daily Advertiser.

Canton, Mississippi
July 3, 1835.

I have to inform you the disagreeable news that the negroes are about to rise upon the whites. It come out about two weeks ago; the whole country is in alarm — There have been meetings throughout the state, to adopt measures to find out the ringleaders and to appoint patrols. We are out patroling every night. — Last night I was in company to ride about the country to the plantations to see if every negro was at his home. There was a white man taken up at Vicksburg concerned with the negroes; they called a court together, and brought him in guilty and HUNG him right off. There have been three more white men taken up, but they have not had their trials yet.

In Livingston a town twelve miles from here, they gave a negro six hundred lashes, before he would discover any thing; then he informed them that the blacks were to rise on the Fourth of July. The jail here is full and they are bringing more and more in every day. We have a meeting here to day to form a volunteer company, to be ready at a minute’s notices and we are prepared with guns and ammunition.

Whilst I am writing this, there is a large meeting here to adopt resolutions to protect the citizens; also to send on to the Secretary of War to send a company of soldiers to protect the citizens of the County. — They hanged two negroes yesterday at Livingston, and they have about fifteen more that they are going to hang. We had four brought in here this morning to examine, and expect they will hang one of them.

The Court has just adjourned. They tried three blacks and flogged them all. To one of them they gave two hundred lashes! There were three white men at the head of the insurrection, that have run away. They have one in jail. They took him out yesterday, and gave him Lynch’s law, and that is thirty-nine lashes in this country. They expect to hang him.


Meanwhile, at Beatties Bluff, interrogators on July 1-2 harrowed the slaves with scourges. A letter from one of their number described the transaction with the first man to crack, a blacksmith named Joe. We do not know for a fact whether there was any slave plot, but if one reads it from the perspective of Joe’s likely innocence it presents as an archetypical feeling-out dialogue between torturer and prey, each party half-guessing at the other’s direction so as to steer a story to its acceptable destination.

We then called for a rope, and tied his hands, and told him that we were in possession of some of their conversation, and that he should tell the whole of it; after some time he agreed that, if we would not punish him, he would tell all that he could recollect. He said he knew what we wanted, and would tell the whole, but that he himself had nothing to do with the business. He said that Sam had told him that the negroes were going to rise and kill all the whites on the 4th, and that they had a number of white men at their head: some of them he knew by name others he only knew when he saw them. He mentioned the following white men as actively engaged in the business: Ruel Blake, Drs. Cotton and Saunders, and many more, but could not call their names; and that he had seen several others. He aso gave the names of several slaves as ringleaders in the business, who were understood to be captains under those white men.

Joe appears to have managed this frightful situation with aplomb and “was set at liberty”; however, on his evidence, other slaves were brought in: an aged preacher named Weaver (“no offers of lenity could shake his courage, and he remained steadfast under the torture of the lash, when even his executioner was nigh to fainting with his task”); a man named Russell (“all was mystery with him” until, prompted, he made a statement “in all particulars, precisely like the one made by Joe”); a handsome youth called Jim who offered more white man’s names and claimed that the slaves intended “to slay all the whites, except some of the most beautiful women, whom they intended to keep as wives”; and “a boy” — presumably a child — called Bachus who confirmed same.

“After getting through with these examinations, Jim, Bachus, Weaver, Russell, and Sam, were all put to death by hanging.”

A tense albeit perhaps dramatized narration of the violent interrogations and summary executions can be found in chapter 29 of The Life and Adventures of J. A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate, which is also the source of the illustration above, and of the parenthetical quote about the preacher Weaver.

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1916: Trooper Alexander Butler

Add comment July 2nd, 2016 Headsman

One hundred years ago today at Bussy-les-Daours on the Somme, Canadian Trooper Alexander Butler was shot for the unprovoked murder of another soldier during World War I.

Butler was a veteran soldier with six-plus years in the 7th Hussars. For obscure reasons possibly tracing to multiple head injuries he had sustained in falls from horse during World War I, Butler on June 8 approached a fellow Hussar named Mickleburgh and suddenly poured five rifle rounds into his chest.

Butler was one of only two Canadian soldiers executed for murder during the Great War. (Twenty-two others were shot for desertion, and one for cowardice.) Those two soldiers were excluded from the 2006 posthumous pardon of Commonwealth servicemen who were “shot at dawn” during the war.

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1752: Thomas Wilford, the first hanged under the Murder Act of 1751

Add comment July 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.

Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1752, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**

Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†

Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.

“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.

A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.

Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the predominant practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡

* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our norm has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)

England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.

I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.

** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.

† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like these blokes.

‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.

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1945: Louis Till, father of Emmett

Add comment July 2nd, 2013 Headsman

The Aug. 28, 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers by an all-white Mississippi jury were among the American civil rights movement’s pivotal events.

For a certain indecent number of people, however, the passion of the 14-year-old youth — alleged to have flirted with a white woman — was to be mourned only insofar as it confirmed the menace that insatiable Negro libidos posed to southern way of life.

Further to that end, the months following Emmett Till’s death brought to the headlines the formerly obscure* July 2, 1945 hanging of an American G.I. in Italy: Emmett’s father, Louis Till.

The violent Louis Till ruined his marriage to Emmett’s mother Mamie shortly after his son’s birth. Repeatedly violating her restraining order eventually landed Till pere before a judge, who gave him a choice between hard time and enlistment. Till joined the U.S. Army.

In 1945, he was court-martialed for murdering an Italian woman and raping two others. His execution near Pisa — he’s buried in Europe in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, the same final resting place as Eddie Slovik — was the no-account end of a no-account man for many years thereafter. Mamie Till said that she wasn’t even told what happened to her ex-husband, and was stonewalled when she sought information.

By the end of 1955, everyone knew.

In Jim Crow’s backlash against nationwide condemnation of the Till lynching, Louis Till came back to life in newsprint all that autumn to visit the sins of the father upon his late son: here was the mirror of the young predator all grown up, violating Italian women. Mississippi’s white supremacist senators used their rank to obtain his army file, and leaked it to reporters.

According to Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy’s study of the Mississippi media’s conflicting reactions to the events of 1955, “Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens’ Councils.”

The pawn’s sacrifice did not figure in the endgame.

Crude attempts to impose blood guilt for Louis Till’s crimes aside, Clenora Hudson-Weems argues in her Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement that it was Emmett Till’s shocking death that catalyzed the civil rights movement — that the horrifyingly mutilated face at his open-casket funeral and the insouciant confession of his killers once they had been acquitted shook southern blacks and northern whites alike so profoundly as to dispel any confidence that legal briefs or political incrementalism could grapple with America’s race problem. Civil rights lion Joyce Ladner was an 11-year-old Mississippi girl when Emmett Till was lynched; she would tell Hudson-Weems of the shock it delivered in her world coming on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating schools.

A very important thing is that it followed the Supreme Court decision in 1954. It’s like the Whites said that they don’t care what rights we were given … So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till incident and were just waiting for the spark to come. The Till incident was the catalyst.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, launching the famous bus boycott. “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back,” Parks said later.

Emmett Till’s body was exhumed for autopsy and DNA testing in 2005, in part to dispel the old story first promulgated by the attorneys who defended Till’s murderers — that the body wasn’t Emmett Till’s at all. On the corpse’s finger was a ring inscribed with the initials of his father: L.T.

* Louis Till did have one small claim to fame prior to his son’s murder: the fascist poet Ezra Pound chanced to be imprisoned with Till; he mentions the later-famous execution in his Pisan Cantos:

Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings

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1931: Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf

6 comments July 2nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1931, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” was beheaded for that city’s most infamous serial murder binge.

It was, perhaps, the logical end of a terrible journey.

A factory moulder and World War I deserter in his late forties, Peter Kürten commenced a series of uncommonly bestial rape-murders in early 1929 … the harvest of a lifetime’s twisted brutality.

He’d been the oldest of 11 children stuffed in a hellish one-room apartment with a violent drunk of a father who battered the children and openly raped their mother. Well, “if they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” in Peter’s words.

The future vampire took his refuge turning his own abuse on younger siblings and, with the help of a degenerate dogcatcher in the neighborhood, on obliging animals he could lay his hands on — which creatures he was soon learning to torture, and to rape, alongside more conventional human delinquencies like arson and burglary.

Kürten is known to have strangled at least one ten-year-old prior to World War I (he would also claim to have surreptitiously drowned a couple of school chums in his boyhood) but it was on the far side of the Great War — which he’d spent mostly in miserable prisons, nursing increasingly twisted fantasies of vengeance — that the beast truly emerged.

The spree that carried him to these pages began in Febuary 1929, when he slew an eight-year-old, attacked a middle-aged woman, stabbed a mechanic to death. Kürten’s crimes were irregular, but distinguished by a fiendish wrath: he abducted one young woman and hammered her to death in the woods outside town; he stabbed a five-year-old to death with scissors as he achieved his orgasm; he asked a teenager to run off and get him some cigarettes, so he could use her absence to slit her younger sister’s throat; he stabbed strangers randomly.

“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions” of mayhem and cruelty, he said, “that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”

Düsseldorf endured a year of terror, finally aborted when Kürten’s own wife — whom he seems to have loved genuinely — turned him in, at Kürten’s own request, for the reward money.

At a packed trial, the accused’s accumulated hatred for the sadistic world poured out in words just as it had done in deeds over the months preceding.

I said to myself in my youthful way ‘You just wait, you pack of scoundrels!’ That was more or less the kind of retaliation or revenge idea. For example, I kill someone who is innocent and not responsible for the fact that I had been badly treated, but if there really is such a thing on this earth as compensating justice, then my tormentors must feel it, even if they do not know that I have done it …

Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it. My blood and the blood of my victims will be on the heads of my torturers. There must be a Higher Being who gave in the first place the first vital spark to life. That Higher Being would deem my actions good since I revenged injustice. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.

-Kürten

Amateurs though we are, we incline to doubt the sufficiency of the tit-for-tat explanation. Kürten might well have believed that about himself, but the “vampire” moniker gets at an essential, organic sensuality about his crimes whose roots go quite a bit deeper than revenge.

“Tell me,” the doomed murderer is supposed to have asked a prison doctor shortly before facing the guillotine, “after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?”

The doctor indeed thought it possible the head might survive a few seconds.

“That,” mused the killer, “would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”

Kürten is one of several predatory sex-slayers — also see the likes of Fritz Haarman and Carl Grossman — who prospered in interwar Germany, and helped to inspire Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic M. (Kürten is often thought the most direct model for that movie’s murderer, played by Peter Lorre. Lang denied that was the case, but in some countries’ releases it went out under the title not of M, but of The Vampire of Düsseldorf.)

Sources:

Murderpedia

TruTV

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1934: Ernst Roehm, SA chief

1 comment July 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1934, in the coda to Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives purge of the Nazi party, the emerging dictator had his longtime ally shot.

Bavarian World War I veteran Ernst Röhm (Roehm) had been a National Socialist brawler of the earliest vintage: after the armistice, he was among the Freikorps paramilitaries to topple the short-lived Munich Soviet. He joined the NSDAP’s predecessor, the German Workers’ Party, before Hitler himself, and he stood trial with the future Fuhrer after helping Hitler attempt the Beer Hall Putsch. They were so tight, Hitler politely ignored Röhm’s open homosexuality.

But most importantly, Röhm was the energetic organizer of the Sturmabteilung, or SA — the party’s private army ready at arms for street battles with Communists, roughing up Jews, Praetorian Guard duty for party brass, and various and sundry other unpleasantries.


An SA brownshirt tosses a book on the pyre at a May 10, 1933 book burning.

Röhm grew the SA like a weed. At well over 4 million men by the time of Hitler’s Chancellorship, it greatly outnumbered the army itself.

This gave Röhm personal designs on absorbing the army into his paramilitary instead of the other way around, and it gave Röhm the literal boots on the ground to manifest his own commitment to the “Socialist” bits of the “National Socialist” project. His noises about the “second revolution” to come after the Nazis had already obtained state power were most unwelcome.

“One often hears voices in the bourgeois camp to the effect that the SA have lost any reason for existence, but I will tell these gentlemen that the old bureaucratic spirit must yet be changed in a gentle or, if need be, an ungentle manner.”

-Röhm, Nov. 5, 1933 (Source)

Well, those gentlemen weren’t about to wait around to be changed in an ungentle manner. Hitler was induced to sacrifice the man who raised him to power in favor of those who could keep him there, personally arrested his old friend and aide-de-camp as the June 30 purge got underway.

A sucker for nostalgia, Hitler didn’t have Röhm killed outright — the fate of many others in those terrible hours — but instead shipped him to Stadelheim Prison in Munich.* After due consideration, though, the treacherous chancellor did what he was always going to do.

Alan Bullock, in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, described the final scene.

Hitler ordered a revolver to be left in his cell, but Röhm refused to use it: “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.” According to an eyewitness at the 1957 Munich trial of those involved, he was shot by two S.S. officers who emptied their revolvers into him at point blank range. “Röhm wanted to say something but the S.S. officer told him to shut up. Then Röhm stood at attention — he was stripped to the waist — with his face full of contempt.”

A nice twist of the Long Knife by its wielders: they justified the purge on the grounds of an imminent coup attempt by the dead SA boss,** branding the murders of Röhm and his comrades … the Röhm-putsch.

* The same prison where the White Rose resistance members were later executed.

** Reinhard Heydrich supplied a dossier implausibly alleging Röhm was on the take from the French.

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1983: Phillipa Mdluli, enterprising businesswoman

Add comment July 2nd, 2010 Headsman

It was this date in 1983 that the last hanging (so far) in Swaziland took place — that of 48-year-old Phillipa Mdluli, for ritually killing the daughter of one of her restaurant’s employees.

The True Crime Library’s archive of worldwide hangings reports that

after the girl, Thuli Mabaso, was slaughtered, her body parts were removed and served up in Mdluli’s restaurant, where the bodies of small girls were considered by the customers to be a great delicacy.

It may be no coincidence that this last hanging occurred during the run-up to parliamentary elections later that year, and while executive power in this absolute monarchy had devolved to a fractious regency following the death of the previous king.

When the heir to Swazi throne came of age as Mswati III in 1986, he became known both for clemency and for centralizing power in his own person. Between those two phenomena, there’s not much room for politicians to productively demagogue the issue. And with a population barely north of one million, there are only so many cannibal restauranteurs.

Despite the death penalty’s long abeyance in the small kingdom, Swaziland has been obstinate about not repealing the statute; in 2008, it voted against a UN death penalty moratorium resolution despite the fact that it functionally had a quarter-century moratorium of its own at that point.

But Swaziland does still have prisoners on death row. In an apparent show of empty juridical saber-rattling, Swaziland made a very public international search in the late 1990s for a new “hangperson” (“Women are welcome … I therefore advise them to try their luck”).

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1706: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, the Kongolese Saint Anthony

15 comments July 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On July 2, 1706, Kimpa Vita, a Congolese noblewoman also known by her baptismal name Dona Beatriz, was burned as a witch in Evululu.

This remarkable woman claimed to be a medium for the spirit of Saint Anthony of Padua, a popular saint in the Catholicized Kingdom of Kongo, and attracted a mass movement in the midst of civil war and social breakdown in the proud Kongo state.

Executed Today is pleased to mark this occasion with an interview with Boston University Prof. John K. Thornton, author of The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706.


This is a very unfamiliar story to most, as you point out in The Kongolese Saint Anthony. So let’s begin with some orientation — the Kingdom of Kongo is in the midst of a ruinous civil war. Why?

The civil war in Kongo was basically a dynastic affair, that is, a battle between branches of the royal family for control over the throne. Kongo had a very highly centralized political structure, the king and his council had a lot of power not only over who held high office, but also who got what income, because a lot of income derived from holding office. So controlling the kingship and its related patronage was very important.

This story is very complicated, I try to lay it out as simply as possible in Chapter II of my book. To make matters short, by D Beatiz’ day it had two branches duking it out — the Kimpanzu and the Kinlaza, with Pedro IV, conveniently descended from both these families, as a sort of conciliatory figure.

And it’s a highly Catholic country. How did that come to be?

Pretty remarkable story.

Actually I think it’s the only real missionary victory that the Catholic church had in the early modern period. By that I mean that they spread the faith to a completely independent country and not just by conquest.

Officially, it was a series of miracles that both Catholic priests and Kongo elites witnessed in 1491 that led Nzinga a Nkuwu, the king of Kongo to become a Christian and be baptized on May 3, 1491 (my birthday is May 3, 1949 which I have taken to be a sort of sign that I should be studying Kongo).

However, it was Nzinga a Nkuwu’s son Afonso (ruled 1509-1542) that really established the church. Afonso provided for the funding of the church, created schools for teaching literacy and Christian religion for the nobility, had children educated in Portugal and returned to the country, and working with his own educated people and Portuguese priests also figured out how to blend the two traditions into a religion that was acceptable in the country. It’s no wonder the Church called him the “Apostle of Congo”.

The kings who followed elaborated and extended what Afonso started, especially by creating a network of schools all over the country. By and large Rome and Portugal collaborated and blessed the project, so the Pope allowed Afonso’s son Henrique to be the first Sub-Saharan African bishop in 1518, and assigned him to extend the church in Kongo (Henrique died in 1531). In 1596 the Pope made Kongo’s capital city the seat of the Bishop of Congo and Angola.

The Church grew again in the late sixteenth century when a series of kings named Alvaro (I and II, father and son, in particular) went a lot farther than Afonso had in Europeanizing Kongo. They gave the nobles titles of nobility in European fashion (Counts, Dukes and Marquis), the brought in relics from Europe (bones of martyrs, for example), established an embassy in Rome, renamed the capital city as Sao Salvador, and so on. The Kongolese ambassador to Rome, Antonio Manuel, who died in 1608 and is honored in a wing in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, left personal papers when he died now found in the Vatican archives. They show the sort of culture a person educated entirely in Kongo could show, in addition to a fascinating array of Kongolese administrative documents — the only ones we have. He also studied Carmelite mysticism, and had correspondence from many different people all over Europe. He was clearly at home among elite Europeans and was regarded by those who met him as a cultured individual in a period when extra-Europeans were not always seen that way.

The Jesuits established a college in Kongo in 1624 and it provided advanced education along European lines until it was close just about the time that Beatriz was active. Kongo had a library, in fact, though no trace of it exists any more, found on the second floor of the Jesuit college.

So in short, the answer is that the political elite of the country decided in the sixteenth century to make their country a Catholic one, and they took vigorous steps to make it happen.

They put teachers out all through the country, visiting priests from Europe constantly met these teachers in the rural areas, they were usually literate and possessed a good deal of knowledge of European culture, some had even lived in Europe. These schoolmasters were the soul of the church; they instructed the people (using a catechism in their own language after 1624), prepared them for the sacraments and led weekly prayers at places of worship, usually large wooden crosses erected at key points all around the country.

So there’s a religious penetration that on the face of it might seem to be a religion of colonization, of foreign domination. But that’s clearly not the way most Kongolese thought about it.

It was never a religion of conquest, and for that reason, the Kongos managed to make it their own without feeling they were abandoning or being forced to give up something. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries foreign visitors often commented on how proud the Kongos were, of their country, their language, their food and the like, thinking that they were the best people in the world. “Congo arrogance” was a common epithet that the Portuguese who built the colony of Angola on Kongo’s southern border used to describe them.

And it’s still very true today. I go to Angola quite a bit and have been to Mbanza Kongo twice. You can feel and hear that pride even now. During the colonial period (roughly 1885 to 1975 in that area) the Portuguese tried very hard to replace indigenous languages with Portuguese and to erase African culture in a systematic way, especially after 1926. But the Kongos simply refused to be erased: they continued their language secretly, kept their special foods and taught their children that they were still the best. It worked.

Today in Angola, you see in so many places that Portuguese is the language of daily life — even street kids shout at each other in Portuguese in Luanda and the land east all the way to Malange. But in Mbanza Kongo and elsewhere in the north, the language of daily life is Kikongo, the ancient language of the country. Their pride has been a problem for Kongo, too. In 1992 a lot of them were massacred in Luanda, partially for political reasons that are very complicated, but also I think because other Angolans resent this pride. But enough on that.

Anyway, the Kongolese were proud to be not just Christians but Catholics. The Portuguese tried to invade Kongo from Angola several times, first in 1622, then again in 1657, and finally in 1670. Each time they were decisively defeated. On the other hand, the Kongos were also unable to invade Angola, as they were repelled there also, first in 1580 and again in 1665 (when the famous Battle of Mbwila was fought on the border between the two domains of Angola and Kongo).

This led to great hostility between Kongo and Portugal and especially its governors of Angola. Portuguese were massacred in the wake of the 1622 invasion and after the Battle of Mbwila in 1665, and by the 1670s they had been effectively forced to leave the country, trading their only with Africa servants called pombeiros who represented their interests. (Priests were an exception).

Yet this history didn’t impact on the way Kongos saw themselves as Catholics. King Garcia II (1641-1661) famously wrote a letter in which he proudly stated that they obeyed the Pope, vicar of Christ on earth, even though the Portuguese, whom they hated, had introduced them to the religion. Indeed, the only thing that we see in the correspondence of Kongolese kings that they do say good about Portugal was that it introduced them to the religion.

The idea of a Catholic Kongo was reinforced when Kongo made an alliance with the Dutch. This took place in 1622 in the aftermath of the failed Portuguese invasion. Pedro II, the king, sent a letter to the Dutch States General proposing an alliance in which the Dutch would send a fleet to attack Angola by sea, and Kongo would send an army by land. The first attempt to do this in 1624 failed, in part because the Portuguese went out of their way to conciliate Kongo, but the second attempt, in 1641, succeeded and for a time the Kongo-Dutch alliance (joined by the formidable Queen Njinga of Ndongo-Matamba who was also at war with Portugal) nearly drove the Portuguese out of Angola.

The Dutch hoped to use this opportunity to also convert Kongo to the Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church and they even had special literature designed to convert Catholics who spoke Portuguese to Calvinism. But Garcia II would have none of it, and had the books burned (it was the seventeenth century after all), and forced the ministers to leave. He wrote a letter to the Dutch Estates General protesting the attempt and in it he made the statement I summarized in the paragraph above.

Kongo tried to make contact with Dutch speaking Catholic countries in the aftermath of the third failed Portuguese invasion in 1670. It seemed like a good compromise though the Dutch never did come back to Angola to fight, and the Catholic parts weren’t part of the Dutch program.

So, that’s background — now, who is Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita?

She was the daughter of a noble Kongo family from the region right around Kibangu, a flat-topped mountain that lays some distance east of the capital of Mbanza Kongo (on a clear day you can see that mountain from Mbanza Kongo).

She seems to have had spiritual gifts even as a youth, and had dreams of playing with angels and visions and the like. Not surprisingly, she turned to religious pursuits, becoming a nganga Marinda, a spiritual person whose role the Catholic missionaries did not like, but was widely accepted in the Kongo as legitimate. She was probably too spiritual and independent to be married, since she had two failed marriages by the time she began her prophecy.

Her movement combines both a religious renewal and a national restoration. Should one think of her as a religious person whose cause happened to have political implications, or someone who’s very intentionally trying to alter the balance of power? Is it even right to separate the secular and the religious dimensions?

I think Beatriz was trying to end war as much as anything else. This was at the height of the slave trade: thousands of people were being exported annually to Brazil, to the Spanish Indies, to Suriname, and some even to South Carolina.

The slave trade was one of the byproducts of war (along with death and destruction), and because slavery was lucrative, it helped to continue the wars in a vicious cycle. As Beatriz understood it, the solution was to end the civil war and restore the kingdom. None of the pretenders to the throne seemed able to do that.

She thought that he had sent Saint Anthony do to that, and he had come to earth and chose to be incarnate in her. It harmonized with Kongos’ belief that they were God’s chosen people (he had created Kongo himself, sending his angels to create the rest of the world), and he would intervene to set things right.

And who exactly are her followers?

Beatriz had followers from all ranks and walks of life. Pedro IV had her burned, but his own wife Hipolyta became a devotee. Pedro was intrigued by her message himself. A number of the top contenders also were either tempted or became her followers. The most notable of her followers was Pedro Constantinho da Silva, one of Pedro’s generals who saw allying with her as a chance to become king. Along with the political guys was a great mass of peasants, who really hoped for a better time and thought that Beatriz’ movement could restore the kingdom.

It was the politics of her movement that got her in trouble. Once Beatriz threw herself in with Pedro Constantinho she was doomed because the other contenders became her enemies. It was Pedro IV who managed to capture her, and he had her burned as a heretic and witch. Before she went over to Pedro Constantinho, Pedro IV had been very interested in her mission and protected her.

Dona Beatriz? Kimpa Vita?
What’s In A Name?

Kongos in those days usually had at least two names.

The first one was a zina dia santu (Saint’s name), given as a Portuguese name though often pronounced as in Kikongo and always incorporating “Dom” or “Dona” as part of the name. So someone named Joao would be called Ndozau, and someone named Miguel would be Ndomigel.

Their second name was a Kikongo name, like Mpanzu, Nkuwu, Vita, Nzinga and so on. As far as I can tell people got both names from their parents when they were born, and they probably started using the zina dia santu even before baptism. If people had two Kikongo second names, the second one was the father’s first name, sort of like the Scandanavian system where a Johan’s child is named Johansson.

Beatiz’ second names mean “scheme” or “plan” (Kimpa), and “war” (Vita). It might be because she was born in a war and this was added, or it might just be her father’s first Kikongo name. King Antonio I had Vita as an element in his name; some people use this as evidence she was descended from this king who was killed in the Battle of Mbwila in 1665. I think such a fact would have been noted at the time and I doubt it.

Nowadays, people in Angola and DRC tend to look down on the zina dia santu, which they view (wrongly, I believe) as a remnant of the colonial past. Many Angolans believe that somehow the Portuguese organized all that Christian stuff in Kongo and the local people resisted or rejected it.

I think the reason for this is twofold: first, because that’s what the Portuguese claimed during the colonial period, that they really more or less created the Kingdom of Kongo, which is totally untrue. A second reason is because most Angolans with any nationalist feeling don’t like to be identified with Portugal and so look to a non-Portuguese past. Hence, D Beatriz is rather militantly known as “Kimpa Vita” in Angola and one does not often hear her Christian name, though of course people know it.

-J.K.T.

Dona Beatriz rejects or alters a number of religious practices we might think of as essentially Catholic, like the iconography of the cross, but she’s not doing it in the name of rejecting Catholicism — she’s doing it in the name of Saint Anthony of Padua. Was there simply a pent-up need for renegotiating the way the faith worked for Kongolese? If so, did it happen in some other way after she was executed?

I think she was concerned that Christianity was too European, and one of the things she chided the missionaries about was that they did not represent any black saints.

She had direct revelation from God on her side, she died every Friday and spent each weekend in Heaven conferring with the Heavenly Father about the affairs of Kongo and so what she got there was pretty much undeniable. From these sessions in Heaven she learned the stories about Jesus being born in Nsundi, baptized in Sao Salvador and Mary being a slave of a Kongo marquis. There was probably a lot more richness to these stories that our accounts tell us.

Kongos were pretty sure, I think, that God was an African and their pride also gradually placed stories in Africa, so in this way Beatriz was confirming what people believed or wanted to believe. After her death, we find a lot of art objects, particularly crucifixes, in which Jesus is shown as an African (his features are African) and is wearing a cloth with a specifically Kongo design. Cecile Froment has recently competed a wonderful Ph.D. thesis at Harvard on this art which I think will really demonstrate how much the Church in Kongo incorporated Kongo concepts. I don’t know if Beatriz’ movement inspired this art directly, but her movement and the art together represent what many people were thinking.

An aside here. From Afonso’s time onward, there was a desire to make an independent Kongo church under its own bishop and with its own clergy. They had the educational resources to support this, so they felt they should. Alvaro II entertained ideas that he could control such a church, that the king was “vicar of his kingdom” and could appoint clergy at will. This wasn’t canonical and the church didn’t support it, even going to far as to try some of those who advised him on this through the Inquisition. But even when Kongo got its own bishop in 1596, the kings of Portugal managed to get control of appointment and put Portuguese in there.

This was the cause of endless conflicts between the kings and the bishops, particularly because of the hostility between Portugal and Kongo over Angola. Finally, a compromise was worked out. While the bishop ended up residing in Angola, and he refused to ordain many Kongolese, the priestly needs of Kongo were to be met by missionaries, who weren’t really there to spread the faith (it had already spread) but to perform the sacraments that an ordained priest could. Because Portugal didn’t want Kongolese clergy, and Kongo didn’t want Portuguese clergy, the compromise was to chose Italian clergy who were from neutral states (mostly Florence, but others as well). These priests came from the Capuchin order, a strongly Counter-Reformationist order that wanted to purge Kongo’s Catholicism of its local elements in the name of purifying the faith. That didn’t go so well, and the struggle over just how Kongo the church could be was waged along these lines.

Beatriz came into this struggle on the Kongo side. While not denying the Capuchins their place as priests, she contended with them over the theological questions. She lost this round, mostly for political reasons and not theological ones. Maybe the African Jesus of Froment’s thesis was the theological victory of Beatriz or at least her followers.

She occupies the ruined former capital. What’s the significance here? Had she remained unmolested, what trajectory might her movement have been on?

I think that messianic religious leaders like her in a politically charged environment don’t have much chance unless they are very astute or their supporters are strong. Of course occupying the capital was vital. It had been abandoned in 1678 and was in ruins, yet it was the very symbol of Kongo. The kings were all buried there, the cathedral was there. Holding the city was in effect restoring the kingdom and presumably ending the civil war.

She could only have remained in power if she had stayed with Pedro Constantinho and if his forces had been enough to protect her and to fend off the inevitable attacks that the other two primary contenders, Joao II of Bula and Pedro IV of Kibangu, would mount. Pedro ended up beating both of these two, first Pedro Constantinho in 1709 and then Joao. So with Pedro Constantinho as patron she could not have survived.

She also made the political mistake, which we can only put down to overconfidence or naivete, of going back home to her parents who lived in Pedro IV’s domain to have her baby. Having the baby also upset her, and made her feel guilty since as a saint she should not have done this.

But let’s be a bit speculative and say that Pedro IV didn’t capture her, or he decided to follow her and put distance between himself and the Catholic clergy who were obviously opposed to her. What might have happened? Perhaps he would have re-founded the church in Kongo with a new relationship to Rome, and decided to have Kimpa Vita and some sort of apostolic succession from her ordain priests and bishops. These would clearly have been drawn from the schoolmasters who ran the church in Kongo anyway. A good number of them did become Antonioans and they would have created a new church. It would have had some of its own new traditions, like the stories that Beatriz told about Jesus’ birth in Nsundi and baptism in Mbanza Kongo, or the descent of kings and the like. These might have been written since the chruch was literate and perhaps formed a new scripture. And perhaps they might have found, in time a way to reconcile this with Rome, but maybe not. It would have been an independent church as we see all over Africa now.

What exactly leads to her execution? Cui bono?

Her execution was done following her capture as described above. She was tried in a civil not an ecclesiastic court under Kongo and not church law. Kongo law prescribed punishment for witchcraft and heresy and those were the charges against her.

We don’t know what happened in her trial since the record has not survived (my dream is to find it, since there probably was one once, and who knows, it might have been sent to the Inquisition in Portugal or Angola). But all we know is what the Italian priests, Bernardo da Gallo and Lorenzo da Lucca told us, and they were not invited to the trial (fine by them; they didn’t want to be too closely associated with the results). They questioned her about her beliefs, and da Gallo’s account of that inquiry is our basis for knowing what she believed. But they could do no more on that end than hear the result. They were happy for it since that’s what they wanted too.

Her movement isn’t destroyed by her execution. What happens over the next 2 1/2 years before the Battle of Sao Salvador? And what happens after that battle: What was Dona Beatriz’ immediate legacy? Was she remembered, was her name invoked? What became of her followers?

We know the movement remained very strong in Mbanza Kongo after her death, and that Antonian prayers were shouted out by the defenders of the city in 1709. But there is not documentary mention of them further after that. But don’t read too much into this, since the documentary record becomes very, very quiet after 1710 or so — we just don’t have any details about it from any source. In fact, until I discovered a kinglist written in 1758 (I think by a Kongo) we weren’t sure how long the reigns of the kings were for the next fifty years or even what order they ruled in. It is possible that the movement survived even there.

We also know that the movement had very strong bases in the southwest part of Kongo, in lands belonging the the Kimpanzu faction that had been headed by Suzanna de Nobrega. This faction was not involved in the war in 1709 and thus would not have suffered the inevitable persecution that took place in Mbanza Kongo.

But Manuel II, the king who followed Pedro IV after his death in 1718, came from that faction and region. He had abandoned the Antonians to join Pedro, and perhaps he also suppressed the movement back home. We have a couple of letter from him, written early in his reign and dealing with ecclesiastical matters, but the question of Antonians doesn’t come up in them.

After my book was published, Simon Bockie, a librarian at Berkeley and an excellent ethnographer of Kongo (he’s a Kongo himself) wrote a critical review. He claimed that I had not made use of abundant oral traditions that he had heard in his youth about Kimpa Vita in writing my book and thus I had written an account based on only the testimony of her enemies.*

I had searched published sources in French, Portuguese and Kikongo for traditions that I could relate to Beatriz when I did my research, and I did make as much use of these as I could when I wrote. But at the time I had not been able to do research in Mbanza Kongo and so had to let that aspect go. When my wife, Linda Heywood and I went to Mbanza Kongo in 2002, we specifically asked about traditions concerning Kimpa Vita (as she is usually called today) and were taken to a man who claimed to be the local expert on her. He asked us if we wanted to hear the tradition in French, Portuguese or Kikongo (Mbanza Kongo is very near the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and probably half the population is trilingual). We said Kikongo, which he proclaimed to be the right answer. He then went into a half-hour or maybe forty-five-minute discourse on the question. He had some interesting things to say. First, I noticed that he gave dates in his account, but he stated them in French. Likewise, he mentioned the names of the missionaries and the Christian names of Kongo kings in French also. I thought this was strange and concluded that he had received a “fed back” tradition, meaning that he had combined what he might have known from oral sources, such as his parents or elders, with written sources that drew on the movement which was described in French at least as early as 1953.

I might have easily concluded that both his traditions and those Bockie heard as a youth were simply feed back stories made to surround an event known only from modern historical reconstruction. You can hear such a tradition and have no idea that it is of modern creation, since you might not know its sources and even the one telling you might have heard rather than read it. Personal elaboration around a few set facts is a common point of oral tradition, and thus explaining things one receives from tradition or even from books can be expanded this way.

But having said that I was very intrigued by other elements in the story which were purely Kikongo. The most important was the very significant role played in the story I heard in Mbanza Kongo by Beatriz’s mother (ngudi andi Kimpa Vita), to the point where much of the inspiration of the movement was in fact from the mother, and moreoever, the mother continued the movement after her daugher’s death.

The traditionalist went on to link modern religious movements through the descent of this mother. Was it possible that the movement did live on? I can’t say. I do know that several independent churches claim Kimpa Vita as their founder, or claim to be heirs to her message, most notably some branches of the Kimbanguist church (founded in the 1920s by a prophet named Simon Kibangu) and the Bundu dia Kongo, a rapidly growing church founded by Mwanda Nsemi in the 1960s. It could be true, or it could be simply propaganda of these movements, also fed back into tradition.

Was it unusual that this movement was led/instigated by a woman? Or would that not have been consequential to her followers and opponents?

The movement was led by Saint Anthony; D Beatriz was only his earthly form. Why he chose a woman is harder to say.

Did it make a difference that he did? Probably. Beatriz realized that the woman/man thing was a problem. When Pedro’s soldiers arrested her they challenged her, asking how Saint Anthony, who was a man, could have a baby. Her only answer was that she didn’t know, only that it had come from Heaven. She certainly was attentive to women; for example, she could make the barren bear children, and women were among her close followers.

I don’t think, though, that we should read too much into the sex issue. There were also a number of very powerful women in Kongo at her time: Queen Ana Afonso de Leao all but ruled the southeast, and Queen Suzanna de Nobrega ruled the southwest. Although Joao II ruled Lemba, everyone knew that his sister, Elena was the real ruler of that territory. There were provisions in Kongo law allowing women who reached a certain political level to have male concubines and treat them more or less as men treated female concubines.

Finally I confess that I didn’t do as much as I wanted to or could about the question of women and females in Kongo life when I wrote the book, and sacrificed some analytical asides in the interests of narrative. I tried to remedy this ever so slightly in an dense and technical article I published in the Journal of African History, called “Elite women in the Kingdom of Kongo”, not for the faint-hearted, that addressed the question of female power. I had also addressed female power in the life of Queen Njinga, who ruled in the Kimbundu speaking area south of Kongo, in another article some twenty years ago, and I hope to write more about women in the future.

Has there been a reclamation or rediscovery of her in the postcolonial period? How does Dona Beatriz/Kimpa Vita read in Angola now?

As long ago as 1996 there was an official decision to erect a statue to her somewhere in the country. There is an image of her, drawn by Bernardo da Gallo from life, on the cover of my book, so it wouldn’t be hard to do. This would be the “book” D Beatriz Kimpa Vita, with the full apparatus of scholarship, as opposed to the “tradition” Kimpa Vita, supported by the oral traditions and independent churches. It will be interesting to see how these two versions, my book, and Kongo pride run into each other.

* Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (1998), pp. 645-647, in which Bockie writes,

As a child growing up in the Lower Congo listening to tales from our oral history, I heard many times about the exploits of Kimpa Vita, who was still remembered after 250 years as a major cultural heroine … It was something of a shock to find that Thornton has chosen to present his account almost exclusively through the eyes of her enemies and killers … there remains no convincing Kongo voice or presence in this book.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heresy,History,Interviews,Martyrs,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,The Supernatural,Witchcraft,Women

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Slaves,South Carolina,Torture,Treason,USA,Wrongful Executions

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