1835: Ruel Blake, “often seen among negroes”

Add comment July 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1835, Ruel Blake hanged in Livingston as one of the white instigators of a supposed slave uprising.

Blake was an foreigner to Madison County, a Connecticut carpetbagger who (according to the vigilance committee’s proceedings) “could claim but few or none as friends” as he was “of a cold, phlegmatic temperament, with a forbidding countenance; kept himself almost aloof from white society, but was often seen among negroes” and “was noted for cold-blooded revenge, insatiable avarice, and unnatural cruelty.” He worked as a wheelwright and carpenter, and had only a single slave, Peter.

But not everyone in Livingston had it in for the guy. As the excitement first began to bubble up as June turned to July, Captain Thomas Hudnall, a wealthy plantation owner gave Ruel Blake money and a horse and sagely suggested he lay low somewhere else while the storm passed. Blake had not yet been accused by anyone, but he’d aroused the ire and seemingly the suspicion of his neighbors when his own slave was accused and Blake administered an unconvincing and pro forma flogging — “he did not wish to hurt [the slave], occasionally striking a hard lick to keep up appearances.” Eventually other white citizens forcibly relieved him of the job, and Blake had the effrontery as he saw his man being thrashed to “[rush] through the crowd to where his negro was, and swore, if he was touched another lick, they would have to whip him first,” a threat that brought him to blows with the man wielding the whip.

Hudnall rightly anticipated that his neighbors’ presumption of “mere” excess sympathy for the slave would soon take a much darker turn: Blake blew town on July 1, and with the arrival into Livingston the very next day of the fantastical slave revolt claims from nearby Beatties Bluff, a $500 reward for his capture soon went nipping at Blake’s heels. In the ensuing panicked days, Blake along with the “steam doctors” Cotton and Saunders — all strangers come to Mississippi, all of them socially marginal and noted for fraternizing with black people — came to be acclaimed as the chief white conspirators, accusations that became self-affirming as men under the lash or in fear of the gallows repeated the names, knowing from their torturers’ leading questions who was already condemned by acclamation.

Blake was captured after just a few days, in Vicksburg, where he posed as a boatman from upriver. Now Hudnall’s favor cut against him, for the flight from Livingston appeared to prove his guilt:

He arrived in Livingston on the 8th of July, under a strong escort, intimations being obtained that an attempt would be made by the clan [John Murrell’s bandits, the alleged nexus of the slave rising plot -ed.] to rescue him.

His appearance in Livingston created a most alarming excitement; and, but for the committee’s being in session, in all probability he would have been forcibly taken from the guard, and immediately executed. After arriving, he was immediately put on his trial before the committee … Every disclosure which was made [by previous interrogations] was replete with testimony against him.

After hearing all the evidence, every opportunity was given him to produce counteracting testimony, which he failed to do. There being no doubt on the minds of the committee, he was, by a unanimous vote, condemned to be hanged; and, just before leaving the committee-room, he requested the committee to give him time to settle his affairs.

On the 10th of July, in the presence of an immense concourse of people, he was executed. He privately commended the verdict of the committee, and said they could not have done otherwise than condemn him from the evidence before them, and publicly, under the gallows, made the same declaration. He protested in his innocence to the last, and said that his life was sworn away.

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1835: Dean and Donovan, white abolitionists

Add comment July 8th, 2017 Headsman

The planters comprising Livingston’s extralegal public safety committee had Albe Dean and Angus L. Donovan lynched on this date in 1835, during the ongoing panic at the prospect of slave rebellion.

Dean was a New England itinerant doctor, denounced by the “steam doctors” executed in Livingston on the 6th, in a desperate attempt to preserve their own lives; Donovan was a poor man from Kentucky whose name had been served up by similarly desperate slaves under torture at Beatties Bluff. Both were white, and in both cases the evidence marshaled against them largely resolved to a failure on the part of the accused to honor the color line.

The Livingston lynch committee was good enough to publish its own Proceedings by way of self-vindication, and we draw this post from its perspective on these marginal characters.

Trial of Albe Dean.

This man was a native of Ashford, Connecticut, whence he emigrated to Mississippi two years since. His general character before the disclosure of the conspiracy was not good; he was considered a lazy, indolent man, having very few pretensions to honesty. He had previously resided in the neighbourhood of Livingston, where he pretended to make a living by constructing washing-machines, until he became acquainted with Cotton, when he abandoned his business and turned steam-doctor, and went into partnership with Cotton, Saunders, & Co., and settled in Hinds county.

He was known to associate with negroes, and would often come to the owners of runaways and intercede with their masters to save them from a whipping. It was in evidence before the committee that he was seen prowling about the plantations in the neighbourhoods of Vernon, Beatie’s Bluff, and Livingston, ostensibly for the purpose of inquiring for runaway horses, which he did with great particularity — sometimes inquiring for a black, bay, gray, or other colour that suggested itself at the time. It was evident that horse-hunting was not his business, but that he was reconnoitring [sic] the country, and seeking opportunities to converse with the negroes …

Dean was arrested at the instigation of Saunders, who said he was a great rascal, and one of the conspirators. He was brought to Livingston with Saunders, on the 2d of July. On Monday, the 6th of July, he was placed on trial before the committee; but was in presence of the committee during the trial of Saunders and Cotton, and heard the whole of the testimony which went to implicate him.

It was in evidence before the committee, that, when on his way to Livingston, he had asked a witness, among other things, if some of Mr. W.P. Perkin’s negroes were not engaged in the conspiracy; and particularly if Hudnold’s Ned (a noted villain, whom he, Dean, had often endeavoured to screen from a whipping) was not concerned. He also inquired if Mr. Wm. Johnson’s Ruel Blake’s, and some other gentlemen’s negroes were not accused. He was not aware, at the time, that the very negroes about whom his inquiries were made had not only been suspected, but some of them actually hung; and, when informed Blake’s negro had been hung, he asked if he had made any disclosures about him. He was identified as one of their white accomplices by negroes accused.

And, lastly, he was accused by Dr. Cotton, who said, “Dean was one of his accomplices, and deeply engaged in the conspiracy, as a member of the Murrell clan.” After a cool and deliberate investigation of his case, he was, by a unanimous vote of the committee, found guilty of aiding and exciting the negroes to insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged.

In pursuance of the sentence, he was executed on the 8th of July, with Donovan, and died in dogged silence, neither acknowledging his guilt nor asserting his innocence.

This man requested that his name should not be given to the public, as his father was a public man, and it might lacerate the feelings of a venerated mother, who still survived. This request the committee and the writer would have scrupulously regarded, but that the name of the unfortunate man had already been made public by the officious and gratuitous information of some of the letter-writers [letters from Madison County to newspapers that were published widely in July and August -ed.], who have already given his name to the public.

Trial of A.L. Donovan, of Maysville, Ken.

After the trial of Dean, this young man was brought before the committee for examination, having been arrested on the evening of the 2d July, at Beatie’s Bluff.

His deportment, some weeks previous to his arrest, was very suspicious, from his intimacy with the negroes in the neighbourhood, being suspected at the time of trading with them, &c. His behaviour was so reprehensible as to compel the gentleman with whom he boarded to tell him, if he did not change his course he must leave his house, which he did a few days after, and went to the house of a man by the name of Moss, reputed a great scoundrel, whose name is mentioned in the report of the proceedings at Beatie’s Bluff: there Donovan remained until his arrest.

Donovan’s conduct was so very extraordinary and suspicious after he commenced boarding with Moss, as to induce the citizens of the neighbourhood to watch his movements. He was repeatedly found in the negro cabins, enjoying himself in negro society. Some persons requested him to leave the place, but he refused, alleging as a reason that he had to take care of some old keel-boats (which were entirely useless), half sunk, in Big Black river.

After the plot of the conspirators was discovered, instead of using his exertions to ferret out the ringleaders, and to assist the citizens in their efforts of detection, he would be found sneaking about the negro quarters, seeking opportunities to converse with them; and was caught at the house where the discovery of the conspiracy was made, engaged in earnest conversation with the girls who divulged the plot.

After arrests were made and examinations were going on, his conduct was such as no honest man would pursue; he would introduce himself into any company of gentlemen he would see conversing; this in itself at the time, was not noticed, as every one was desirous of finding out something to direct him in his investigations; but he would then go off and engage in conversations with Moss and his sons-in-law, who he knew, from their character, were suspected of being engaged in promoting the insurrection.

Even after several negroes were taken on suspicion, he still persisted in his attempts to converse with them, and at one time actually undertook (while the citizens were examining one) to release a negro who was tied, which negro afterward implicated him.

He was requested by the gentlemen who were examining the negroes not to come about them; they were compelled to take this step, from the fact that, when he was present, the negroes would say nothing, for the experiment was frequently tried; but when they were apprized that Donovan was not present, their disclosures were full, complete, and corresponding; the experiment was tried several times with the same success.

When he found he could not be permitted to be present at the examination of the negroes, he evinced considerable uneasiness, and kept walking to and fro, in view of the negroes under examination. The cause of his anxiety and alarm was soon explained; after his removal the negroes commenced a full detail and expose of the whole conspiracy (being at the time one or two hundred yards apart, and examined one at a time).

Among other white associates implicated by them, Donovan was said to be one of their leaders, and deeply concerned with them in the conspiracy.

After being implicated by a number of negroes at Beatie’s Bluff, the citizens thought proper to arrest him and bring him to Livingston, where the committee then organized was in session.

He was put on trial before the committee on the 7th July, and, in addition to the testimony before adduced, the following evidence was brought forward, which proved his participation in the conspiracy: —

A negro man from Beatie’s Bluff stated that Donovan was one of the white men engaged in persuading him to rebel with the rest, on the 4th of July, and that he had often solicited him to join them; Donovan said nothing was easier than for them to get their freedom; that the negroes could kill all the white people; and, if they should be pushed, that he would take them to a free state.

The confession of another negro man was in evidence before the committee, who pointed Donovan out at the time of the negro’s examination, and said, “He was to be one of their captains at Beatie’s Bluff.” It was also in evidence before the committee, that another boy, just before his execution, pointed Donovan out, when in a crowd, and said he was one of the men who persuaded him to enter into the conspiracy, and had encouraged him to go on, and get as many negroes to join as possible: other negroes implicated him.

A young man of unimpeachable character testified to the committee, in the presence of Donovan, that he and Donovan were walking through the field of his employer about the 25th or 26th May, when Donovan remarked to him that he should hate to be an overseer very much. Witness asked him why? He answered, it was such cruel work to be whipping the poor negroes, as he was obliged to do. Witness told him he never whipped only when they deserved it, and that was not often. Donovan exclaimed — “My friend, you will not have use for this long,” at the same time putting his hand on witness’s whip. Witness was a little astonished, and asked him to explain himself. Donovan, by way of explanation, remarked, the reason why he would not have use for it long was, that the negroes would soon be all free in this state. Witness replied, he knew the owners were not going to set them free, and that he (Donovan) ought to know that they could not effect their liberty by force, as they had tried it two or three times, and always failed; and that he thought they were now contented to remain in slavery.

Donovan replied warmly, in answer to his remarks, “that they could obtain their liberty by force, and that they would do it, not by themselves, but with the aid of thousands of rich, smart white men, who were ready to head them, with money, arms, and ammunition for their use.” And, before leaving the plantation, requested permission of witness to converse with the negroes, and to inform them of their rights, &c.

Of course, after the expression of such sentiments as above set forth, his request was denied, and at the same time he received a little good advice, and a threat from witness that, if he was seen on the plantation again, he might expect a “benefit” from his negro whip; and, using witness’s remark, Donovan cut out, and he had not seen him since until before the committee on his trial.

The committee were satisfied, from the evidence before them, that Donovan was an emissary of those deluded fanatics at the north — the ABOLITIONISTS. And, that while disseminating his incendiary doctrines among the negroes to create rebellion, he had found out that he was anticipated by a band of cut-throats and robbers, who were engaged in the same work, not wishing to liberate negroes, but to use them as instruments to assist them in plunder.

Being of a dissolute and abandoned character … and ripe for every rash enterprise, he joined the conspirators with the hope of receiving part of the spoils. If there had been any doubt on the minds of the committee as to his connexion with the conspirators, he would at least have been sentenced to be hanged for his attempts at diffusing among the negroes rebellious notions. On the 7th he was condemned to be hanged.

Accordingly, at twelve o’clock on the 8th of July he offered up his life on the gallows, as an expiation for his crimes. He said, from the gallows, that the committee did their duty in condemning him; that from the evidence they were compelled to do so.

Thus died an ABOLITIONIST, and let his blood be on the heads of those who sent him here.

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1835: Joshua Cotton and William Saunders, steam doctors

1 comment July 4th, 2017 Headsman

In the Mississippi slave insurrection panic of 1835, slavers’ fears attached themselves right from the start to the prospect of white leadership affiliating with the prospective black rising.

Israel Campbell, a slave who would eventually reach freedom in the North and publish a fascinating autobiography on the eve of the Civil War, was present in the vicinity. He knew nothing of any rebellion until

two white men came to my house one night after I had gone to bed, and ordered me to get up immediately. I could not think, for my life, what was the matter. Before I got my clothes on, they became impatient, and called for me to open the door. As I done this, one of them seized me by the collar, having a bowie-knife in one hand. Uttering a horrible oath, he asked —

“What do you know about Doctor Cotton’s scrape?”

“Nothing at all, sir,” I replied.

“Don’t you tell me a lie. Do you know Dr. Cotton? When did you see him last?”

I replied, that I would not tell them a lie; that I did know Mr. Cotton, but that I had not seen him for some time. They went on asking a number of questions, wanting to know if I knew Harris’ old Dave, the negro preacher, and when I heard him preach last, and where at? I answered them satisfactorily these queries. They then wanted to know if I staid at the meeting until the people had all dispersed? If they talked any thing about getting free and killing the white people?

I replied to them about knowing the different parties; but about the rising of the slaves I had heard nothing.

After convincing themselves that I was ignorant, they left, warning me, however, not to be caught outside our own plantation, nor talk with any strange negroes or white men. They told me that Dr. Cotton and some other mean white men and a great many of the negroes were laying plans to rise and kill off the white people and free the negroes. After giving me some brandy, and again warning me, that if I did not heed their advice, I would be shot, they left my house.

They, with other parties, went around among all the slave quarters. Many they scared so badly, that they told lies of every description, and suffered for it. When they thought they had succeeded in quelling the insurrection, they commenced punishing those they had caught. Some they hung, others they burned, and some of those they thought not so guilty they pulled cats back-wards on their bare backs. Two of the party hung themselves in the prison.

The man these rude guests hunted with that menacing Bowie knife was Joshua Cotton, an itinerant homeopath expounding the fad launched by Samuel Thomson‘s hit publication New Guide to Health. Thomson had by means of some natural palliatives healed his family of several ailments that confounded legitimate medical practitioners; his emphasis on having patients sweat out toxins by immersion in steam led his followers to be derided as “steam doctors.”

Cotton wasn’t the only steam doctor beating the bushes in Madison County: an intimate named William Saunders was also about. Their wandering practice, interacting with free men and slaves alike, profiled as precisely the types who would be orchestrating a coordinated rebellion — and they had been implicated under the lash by the Beatties Bluff slaves, where the insurrection panic had begun days earlier.

Though not yet aware that they would be caught up in the panic, the steam doctors were making their own moves in these days. Saunders attended a June 30 meeting of Livingston whites to organize suppression of the supposed rebellion and advised them that the other steam doctor, Cotton, “was in the habit of trading with negroes; would buy any thing they would steal and bring to him.” This put the vigilantes onto Cotton; Saunders left town in peace and made, so he said, for Texas — which would have been a wise choice, as events would show.

On the road to Vicksburg and a river crossing to the safety of Louisiana, Saunders repeated the story to another traveler who just so happened to have a more suspicious frame of mind than the Livingstonians. This Good Samaritan promptly brought Saunders in as a suspected conspirator himself. Both steam doctors were under lock and key as the Beatties Bluff allegations of their complicity reached Livingston.

Saunders elaborated his charges against Cotton, plainly hoping to trade his opposite number’s life for his own: that Cotton was forever going about pretending to lose his horses in the countryside “as a pretext for hunting them, that he might have opportunities to converse with the negroes, and, by that means, to seduce them from their allegiance to their owners, by instilling rebellious notions among them; and to form plans, and to make converts to his propositions, which he could not do by being a steam-doctor.” Since a slave brought from Beatties Bluff also identified Cotton on sight as the man keen on seducing him to rebellion, Cotton could perceive that his fate was surely sealed, and while the vigilantes deliberated on July 4 he sent them a desperate offer to confess in exchange for leniency. The committee refused the offer … but confession was still the only card Cotton had to play, and he submitted the confession on spec. In it, he leaned for his narrative on Virgil Stewart’s recently published claims about a slave plot led by the bandit John Murrell.

I am one of the Murrell clan, a member of what we called the grand council … Our object in undertaking to excite the negroes to rebellion, was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder. I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet … from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the 4th of July, and it would have been tried to-night (and perhaps may yet), but for the detection of our plans.

Cotton also repaid tit for tat by naming Saunders as one of the plotters, confirming some slaves’ accusations and leaving the backstabbing chum to twist on his own useless protestations of innocence.

The upshot of Cotton’s statement was an offer to buy his own life by continuing to reveal more information about the conspiracy going forward — essentially, to become a standing informant against anyone whom the slavers might next suspect. “But the committee, deeming it of infinitely more importance to check the impending storm, by immediately destroying two of the ringleaders, and thereby creating dismay and panic among them, ordered their execution” — which was effected immediately, both steam doctors being marched directly from their hearing to the jail where, “fastening a rope to the grating of a window, in the upper story of the jail, and leaning a couple of rails against the wall, assisted the culprits upon the rails; then, adjusting the other end of the rope around their necks, removed the rails. They were left hanging until the next morning.”

The final extent of the executions/lynchings meted out during the course the insurrection panic is uncertain. Israel Campbell, however, would remember that Cotton and Saunders were certainly not the end of it when it came to rootless itinerants in the vicinity — and not only the steam doctor set. “[T]he party who were making arrests endeavored to get hold of every steam doctor and colored preacher they could,” he wrote in his autobiography.

[O]nce in their grasp, there was very little mercy shown them. The heads of the preachers they cut off and put on poles, and placed them along the road, where they remained until they were bleached. I saw several of their skulls in an apothecary store at Mount Vernon the latter part of that fall. Dr. Cotton was a noble-looking man and a friend to the slave, and he died a martyr to the cause he had so much at heart, — the emancipation of the slave.

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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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