(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1775,* plantation owner William Pitman was hanged for murder in King George County, Virginia.
Pitman had a reputation as a brutal man and was no stranger to the Virginia courts; he had been making appearances since the 1750s. So perhaps it was not surprising that he got strung up eventually.
Virginia Gazette, Apr. 21, 1775
What is surprising, indeed perhaps unprecedented, is that the murder victim was one of his own slaves.
The Virginia Gazette, which published the sole surviving account of the incident, says that Pitman, “in liquor” and “in the heat of passion” lost his temper, “tied his poor negro boy by his neck and heels,” and beat him with a large grapevine before stomping him to death.
Pitman can hardly have been the first, or the last, slaveowner to slaughter his own “property” but it was usually impossible to get a conviction because blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in court. In this case, however, two white people — Pitman’s own son and daughter — sealed the case by giving evidence against their father.
The Gazette, writing on April 21, said Pitman had “justly incurred the penalties of the law” and said hopefully that the story might be “a warning to others to treat their slaves with moderation, and not give way to unruly passions, that my bring them to an ignominious death, and involve their families in their unhappy fate.”
* Pitman’s hanging “yesterday” is reported in the Saturday, May 13 issue of the Virginia Gazette — a different Virginia Gazette from the one quoted in this post, as it happens: three competing papers used this same branding; the report in this post’s body on the circumstances of Pitman’s conviction comes from Dixon and Hunter’s Gazette, while the May 13 item establishing the hanging date is from Alexander Purdie’s Gazette.
Purdie’s May 13 edition further adds that when the sheriff came to fetch him on the fatal day, “Pitman made some resistance, but was soon overpowered; he behaved with decency at the place of execution, and attributed his unhappy fate to the effect of intemperate drinking.”