1732: Pompey, poisoner of James Madison’s grandfather

Add comment September 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1732, a Virginia slave entered American presidential lore at the end of a noose.

The Madisons were “planters, and among the respectable though not the most opulent class”* resident in Virginia from the 1650s or so — and would in time bequeath the new American Republic its fourth president, James Madison.

We are concerned for today’s post with President Madison’s paternal grandfather, Ambrose Madison. Alas, concern will not necessarily translate to elucidation, for most of the Madison family’s records and correspondence were destroyed in the 19th century: the first Madison generations are shadowy historical figures. Ann Miller has pieced together the fragments in the short book “The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison”, published by the Orange County (Va.) Historical Society, and that is the primary source for this post.**

Ambrose Madison was a local grandee of King and Queen County, with landholdings elsewhere in Virginia; it was Ambrose Martin who in the 1720s acquired (via his father-in-law, a land surveyor) the Orange County grounds that would become the great Madison estate Montpelier.

In 1732, Madison moved his family to the Montpelier property. By that time, he controlled 10,000 acres in present-day Orange and Greene Counties, and was gobbling up land elsewhere — like the new frontier of westward settlement, the Piedmont.

And of course, Madison owned human beings, too. The inventory of his estate from 1732 lists 29 black slaves by their first (sole) names: ten adult men, five women, and 14 children.

In the summer of 1732, Ambrose Madison took ill and started wasting away towards death. The fact was apparent to Madison and those around him; the last weeks of his life were taken up in settling affairs. (He made out a will on July 31.)

Shortly before Madison’s death on August 27, two of his slaves — a man named Turk and a woman named Dido — along with another slave, Pompey, property of a neighboring plantation, were arrested on suspicion of having poisoned Madison. No record survives to indicate how or why they would have done so.

If grievances can only be guessed-at, they are not difficult to guess. At the same time, for aught we know the trio might have been falsely accused: there had never been a murder in the vicinity, but Madison’s death came just months after a gang of slaves committed a series of armed robberies and shot at three white people.† As we have seen from later and better-documented slave resistance, southern whites were prone to great paranoia where the prospect of servile rebellion was concerned. And as Madison was a healthy fellow in his mid-thirties, attributing his unexpected death to poison was a natural move.‡

As Miller notes,

It is likely that Ambrose Madison’s case sent ripples of fear — even panic — through the region … the court [appeared] eager to have a quick trial (and, perhaps, to make quick examples of those found guilty and hopefully deter any other slave rebellions).

All three slaves were convicted together on September 6 of “feloniously Conspiring the Death” of Ambrose Madison. Pompey hanged the next day — after he’d been appraised (at £30) to compensate his owner for the destruction of property. Turk and Dido were only found to be “concerned in the said felony but not in such a degree as to be punished by death but … by Whipping.” They suffered 29 lashes apiece “on their bare backs at the Common Whipping post, and thereafter to be discharged”.

We must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property … Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.

-(Future President) James Madison awkwardly defending the three-fifths compromise in the Federalist #54

Madison’s principal heir was his only son, James — a nine-year-old boy at the time of the events in this post.

The family brush with slave revolt did not deter this future Col. Madison from resuming (once he came of age) the family trade in land acquisition. He had 108 slaves of his own by the time that he died in 1801.

Col. Madison’s more famous son, the U.S. “founding father” and eventual president also named James, had slaves in the White House but was deeply conflicted about the horrid institution.

“He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging without limitation or hesitation all the evils with which it has ever been charged,” a slavery abolitionist who visited Madison (post-presidency) reported of the evening’s tete-a-tete. “Mr. Madison spoke strongly of the helplessness of all countries cursed with a servile population, in a conflict with a people wholly free.” Madison eventually came to support the fantastical solution of resettling U.S. slaves to an African colony; still, beset by debts, he never quite saw his way to manumitting his own slaves — not even in his will.

Whether the fate befalling his grandfather ever entered into President Madison’s considerations on the subject is left to posterity’s imagination; the documents surviving in his hand never mention anything about grandpa Ambrose.

* Per James Madison, Sr., Ambrose Madison’s son and the U.S. president’s father.

** Since the primary sources available are so scarce, there seems to be little that can be said with confidence of Ambrose Madison’s personality. Miller suspects him a skinflint, on the basis of a merchant’s exasperated correspondence: “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you” … and the same man again two years later: “have Ship’d the Goods you ordered … I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”

† A slave named Jack, owned by Mildred Howell, was hanged on May 2, 1732 for this affair. The fate of his seven compatriots history passes over in silence.

‡ Miller notes in an appendix several other trials of slaves for poisoning in 18th century Virginia, including some that resulted in acquittal — possibly militating against the railroading hypothesis.

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82 BCE: The defeated populares of the Battle of the Colline Gate

Add comment November 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On November 1 of 82 BCE, the Roman general Sulla clinched victory in his running civil war against the liberal populares by smashing them at a decisive battle at Rome’s Colline Gate. And on November 2 the victorious dictator* had his captured foes put to death en masse in the Villa Publica while Sulla himself laid out the new order in an address to the cowed Senate.

The roots of this climactic — although not literally final — battle stretch back years, decades even, to the populist Gracchi in the 130s and 120s, and even further than that. Rome’s burgeoning had strained her original social contract past the breaking point. Terms were renegotiated in bloody civil conflicts that saw Sulla emerge this date as master of the Caput Mundi.

The Gracchi all those years ago had tried (until the oligarchs’ faction assassinated them) to rebalance an increasingly stratified Roman society by introducing land reform and an early bread subsidy.

The Gracchi banner would eventually fall to Gaius Marius, a successful general noted among other things for defeating Jugurtha. His “Marian reforms” thoroughly overhauled military organization; crucially for the Roman social crisis, he opened to the propertyless masses service in the legions — formerly the preserve of the very landed citizen-farmer being squeezed out by the empire’s concentrating wealth.**

Marius’s program addressed two problems simultaneously: it gave the Roman poor a vector of upward mobility; and, it professionalized an army whose fighting capacity had slipped behind Rome’s imperial reach.

Because the capstone to a career in the newly-professionalized army would be a grant of land secured by Marius himself, it also introduced a dangerous personal alliance between vaunting commander and his troops, the seed of later centuries’ cycles of incessant rebellion.

During the decade of the 80s, a now-aged Marius was still the populares‘ standard-bearer, but was opposed now by the patrician general Sulla, Marius’s own former lieutenant during the war against Jugurtha.

Marius’s attempt to displace Sulla from command of a planned Roman expedition to the East to punish King Mighridates of Pontus for his abuse of Roman citizens in Asia Minor brought the two to open blows. Calling on his troops’ personal loyalty to him, Sulla broke an ancient taboo by marching on Rome itself.

Marius fled into Africa, a death sentence nipping at his heels. (Various artists have imagined him chilling in the ruins of Carthage.) Once Sulla sailed for Asia, however, Marius allied with the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna and roared back from exile, seizing the capital and instituting a reign of terror against his political enemies. Plutarch:

whenever anybody else greeted Marius and got no salutation or greeting in return, this of itself was a signal for the man’s slaughter in the very street, so that even the friends of Marius, to a man, were full of anguish and horror whenever they drew near to greet him. So many were slain that at last Cinna’s appetite for murder was dulled and sated; but Marius, whose anger increased day by day and thirsted for blood, kept on killing all whom he held in any suspicion whatsoever. Every road and every city was filled with men pursuing and hunting down those who sought to escape or had hidden themselves. Moreover, the trust men placed in the ties of hospitality and friendship were found to be no security against the strokes of Fortune; for few there were, all told, who did not betray to the murderers those who had taken refuge with them.

He died about the age of 70 in 86 BCE, days into his unprecedented seventh consulship.

While all this transpired, Sulla had been several years detained in fighting Mithridates. By 83, he’d hung up the “Mission Accomplished” banner and made ready to march on Rome for the second time.

Marius was dead; his ally Cinna had also been killed in a mutiny. The populares party was now headed by Marius’s altogether less formidable son Gaius Marius the Younger and a plebeian consul named Carbo — guys nobody today has heard of, which pretty much tells you what happened next.

Attempting to stop Sulla in the south, Marius the Younger was thrashed and forced to retreat to Praeneste, where he would be bottled up harmlessly until he took his own life in desperation. Further north, Carbo was trounced and chased into exile (and eventual execution) by Sulla’s ally Pompey, the future Triumvir who got his possibly-sarcastic honorific “the Great” from his action in Sulla’s civil war.

The populares general Pontius Telesinus made the last stand of his movement hurling a force of Samnites and Roman Marian supporters at the capital where, at the Colline Gate, they momentarily pressed Sulla’s wing dangerously against the city wall before another future Triumvir, Crassus, overcame them from the opposite flank.

The ensuing slaughter on this date in 82 settled the Marius-versus-Sulla civil war: Sulla published a large proscription of former Marius supporters who were put to death by the thousands before the general resigned his dictatorship at the end of the year 81.†

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast series covers these events in Death Throes of the Republic, episode 3. In the indispensable History of Rome podcast, the relevant episodes are 31a. Marius | 31b. Marius | 32. The Social War | 33. Marius and Sulla | 34. No Greater Friend, No Worse Enemy.

* Sulla would be acclaimed dictator by the Senate a few weeks later, reviving an office that had been unused since Hannibal threatened Rome more than a century before.

** Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD:

there is a famous utterance of Manius Curius, who after celebrating triumphs and making a vast addition of territory to 290 B.C. the empire, said that a man not satisfied with seven acres must be deemed a dangerous citizen; for that was the acreage assigned for commoners after the expulsion of the kings. What therefore was the cause of such great fertility? The fields were tilled in those days by the hands of generals themselves, and we may well believe that the earth rejoiced in a laurel-decked ploughshare and a ploughman who had celebrated a triumph, whether it was that those farmers treated the seed with the same care as they managed their wars and marked out their fields with the same diligence as they arranged a camp, or whether everything prospers better under honourable hands because the work is done with greater attention. The honours bestowed on Serranus found [297 B.C.] him sowing seed, which was actually the origin of his surname. An apparitor brought to Cincinnatus his commission as dictator when he was ploughing his four-acre property on the Vatican, the land now called the Quintian Meadows, and indeed it is said that he had stripped for the work, and the messenger as he continued to linger said, ‘Put on your clothes, so that I may deliver the mandates of the Senate and People of Rome’. That was what apparitors were like even at that time, and their name itself a was given to them as summoning the senate and the leaders to put in an immediate appearance from their farms. But nowadays those agricultural operations are performed by slaves with fettered ankles and by the hands of malefactors with branded faces! although the Earth who is addressed as our mother and whose cultivation is spoken of as worship is not so dull that when we obtain even our farm-work from these persons one can believe that this is not done against her will and to her indignation. And we forsooth are surprised that we do not get the same profits from the labour of slave-gangs as used to be obtained from that of generals!

† Surviving the proscription was the son-in-law of the late consul Cinna, one Julius Caesar. He was able to pull strings with Sulla to get himself off the list.

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