1831: Slaves of Sussex County, for Nat Turner’s rebellion

Add comment September 23rd, 2017 Headsman

Four slaves allegedly concerned in Nat Turner‘s Virginia rebellion were hanged on this date in 1831.

Turner’s rising had spanned only a couple of days in August but would haunt Virginia and the South all the way to the Civil War. (At least.) And one of the first, frightening questions that white slaveowners had was — was the rebellion in Southampton County an isolated event, or was it part of a wider servile conspiracy that might augur a general insurrection? Would there be two, three, many Nat Turners? The Southampton Spartacus was himself pressed on this point before his execution; the published confessions of his interrogations note that “If Nat’s statements can be relied on, the insurrection in this county was entirely local, and his designs confided but to a few, and these in his immediate vicinity.”

Little but suspicion supported this proposition but the search was intense and in the time-honored investigative tradition eventually generated its own evidence, from the lips of “a negro girl of about 16 or 17 years of age” named Beck(y) when pressed by her mistress.

We can only guess at the particular circumstances inducing this young house slave to issue her denunciations,* but their substance was that she had heard the denizens of the slave quarters discussing the insurrection and planning to join it — not in Southampton County but in neighboring Sussex County. Slaveholders all knew that they dwelt in the shadow of a smoldering Vesuvius; if Becky’s claims were true, then the mountain was already spewing fire.

Becky’s accusations got three slaves put on trial in Southampton County on September 8, but all were acquitted. (There were many acquittals in the Nat Turner bust-up.) But Sussex County convened its own court and here Becky’s allegations were better received. Her testimony in the cases of “Solomon a negro man slave the property of Nancy Sorrly, Booker a negro man slave the property of Samuel A. Raines and Nicholas a negro man slave the property of Hannah Williamson here became favorably received — perhaps Sussex County feared that declaring itself insurrection-free would suggest a want of diligence?

Beck a negro slave the property of Solomon D. Parker a witness for the Commonwealth says that at the last May meeting at the Raccoon Meeting House, she heard the prisoners Nicholas and Booker say that they would join the negroes to murder the white people and heard the prisoner Solomon say that he would join too for God damn the white people they had been reigning long enough. Captain Peters’ two negroes Boson and Frank were also present and Mr. Parker’s Bob who told her if she told the white people would shot her like a squirrel and would not bury her, and she has since been told the same thing by all the others. There were several other negroes present whom she did not know. The Saturday night before and the Monday night of the last Southampton election she heard conversations among the negroes about ? On both these nights she was called in by her mistress and slept in the house. On Friday night she went out and stayed so late that she was not permitted to go in.

Similar evidence also helped to condemn several other accused slaves, all of whom were slated to hang on September 23. On September 16, the Virginia governor noted in his diary, “I had a Council of State, transacted business and received the record of nine slaves condemned to be hanged by the Court of Sussex. One I have reprieved. No news from any other part of the State.” Several others were set instead for convict transportation out of Virginia Commonwealth, and two slaves died in a desperate jailbreak attempt.

Solomon, Booker and Nicholas all hanged on September 23, 1831, along with a fourth slave called Ned who had been accused not by Becky but by a different house slave named Lizzy.

* In Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment, Mary Kemp Davis calls Becky “nothing if not wily. Her incriminating testimony was a masterful ‘hidden polemic’ against anyone who would try to implicate her in the insurrection.”

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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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1831: Nat Turner

12 comments November 11th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1831, the slave Nat — remembered to history as Nat Turner after the surname of his original owner — was hanged, flayed and dismembered for leading the most notorious slave rebellion in antebellum America.

A deeply religious man known to other slaves as “The Prophet”, Nat followed what he took to be divine directive to launch a bloody uprising on the night of August 21-22 in Southampton County, Virginia. Using (at first) axes, knives and clubs to avoid attracting attention to gunfire, Nat’s band slaughtered whites from house to house, freeing slaves as they went. At least 55 whites were killed, and a like number of slaves by white militias that mobilized to put down the revolt … and then hundreds more slaves as far away as North Carolina suspected of some tangential involvement or simmering disloyalty.

The uprising was suppressed within two days, but it rooted so deeply in the conscience of the South that it persists to this day.

“I have not slept without anxiety in three months. Our nights are sometimes spent listening to noises.”
-Slaveowner after the rebellion

Nat Turner embodied slaveowners’ terror of the subject population living about them, outnumbering them, resentfully supporting Southern gentility at the end of a whip — the conundrum Jefferson had described barely a decade before as “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Arguably, the revolt hardened southern whites against moderating slavery; some legislatures tightened restrictions against teaching slaves to read, thinking that literate slaves like Nat were more liable to uprisings.

Conversely, he was a powerful martyr of resistance in the slave quarters, a symbol of scores of other lesser-known uprisings and of the countless more that lurked in dreams and fantasies, awaiting some spark of outrage, some sudden opportunity, some wild carelessness of death.

He was a figure of literature even before his death — The Confessions of Nat Turner, dictated to a white interrogator, left Nat’s own riveting testimony from the shadow of the gallows; the Virginia-born white novelist William Styron used the same title for a controversial 1967 historical novel which earned a Pulitzer but drew a critical rebuttal from many black writers. (Nat Turner also stalks the memory of Styron’s semi-autobiographical narrator in Sophie’s Choice.) More recently, Nat has received graphic novel treatment.

Historians of every stripe, meanwhile, have struggled over the meaning of the man’s deeds and — especially — his paradoxical legacy as symbol.

Update: The occasion received a tribute in Alabama about the time this post went up.

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