1863: Spencer Kellogg Brown, Union spy

Add comment September 25th, 2017 Headsman

Spencer Kellogg Brown, a young Union spy during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1863 in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia.

Brown would come by the latter years of his short life to commonly drop his surname and simply go by Spencer Kellogg: this was fruit of the same cause for his enthusiasm for the northern cause, to wit, his growing to manhood in Osawatomie, the antislavery epicenter of the dirty frontier war known as “Bleeding Kansas”. But the thing about the name was, notwithstanding Kellogg’s/Brown’s enthusiasm for the Free State side, the surname he chanced to share with the ferocious abolitionist warrior John Brown was liable to get a body killed when uttered in the wrong company. (There was no blood relationship between Spencer Brown and John Brown.)

Spencer Kellogg Brown was just a teenager when he joined the Union army but the pell-mell ramp-up to war footing opened opportunities for able people. Brown rose out of the enlisted ranks to an officer’s commission and was detailed for risky scouting assignments into rebel territory down the Mississippi River, even feigning desertion so that he could enlist in the Confederate ranks and then escape back to his own lines with intelligence. Execution was an occupational hazard of this daring profession; eventually, young Brown was captured one too many times.

This public domain volume summarizes the man’s short biography, including many affectionate letters that Brown exchanged with family in the course of his adventures and his subsequent year-long imprisonment. If you like, you can imagine them in that Ken Burns documentary portentous voice-over reading.

Castle Thunder, Richmond, Virginia, Sept. 18, 1863.

Dear Kitty, my Sister: After lying in prison over a year, my time has come at last. To-day I went out for trial, but got it deferred until to-morrow. The witnesses are there, and there can be but one result, death. So I have written to you for all, to bid you a last good-bye, God bless you, I have tried to write often to cheer all, and it seemed very hopeful for a while, but within a few days all hope has left me. But don’t mourn, Kitty, as for one without hope. These only take away the mortal life, but God, I trust, has given me one that is immortal. Dear Kitty, I hope there is a ‘shining shore’ for us all, and another world where, free from guilt, we’ll no more sorrow, or part. I do not look forward with fear to death — not nearly as much as when it was farther off. God has been very kind to me, and for the past twelve months I have tried earnestly to please Him. I fear the embarrassment of the trial, to-morrow, the worst, but He will help me, I trust.

I have some little trinkets; you must divide them. The ring is for my wife; if she be not found, for yourself. Take comfort now, dear ones, God is good, and naught shall separate us from Him. I have hoped and longed, indeed, to see you all; but I know His wisdom chooses better; let us be content. Thank Him that all this time He has given me life and health and a heart to love Him, and to trust in Christ. Much as I long to see you all, I know ’tis best as it is, for He doeth all things well. So do not mourn, but hope — and think of heaven, where I hope, by God’s mercy, to await you all.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Soldiers,Spies,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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1984: Linwood Briley, terror of Richmond

Add comment October 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the eldest of Richmond’s still-notorious spree-killing Briley brothers went to Virginia’s electric hair.

Though they came from a respected and stable family, the Briley youths turned out to be such terrifyingly bad seeds that their father, James Sr., eventually kept his own bedroom door padlocked against them.

Our man Linwood Briley was the calculating leader, and the first of the Brileys to taste blood when he senselessly shot a 57-year-old neighbor hanging laundry in her backyard in 1971. As the shooter was only 16 at the time, he did a brief turn in reform school and returned to Richmond neither rehabilitated nor deterred.

In 1979, Linwood led his younger brothers James Jr. (J.B.) and Anthony on a seven-month rampage with a friend named Duncan Meekins. (Meekins would wisely turn state’s evidence against his accomplices.)

On March 12 of that year, Linwood and Anthony knocked on a door in Henrico County, pleading car trouble. No sooner did William and Virginia Bucher admit them then the Brileys trussed up the good samaritans, ransacked their house for valuables, and tossed a farewell match into the gasoline trails they had run through the rooms.

The Buchers managed to slip their bonds and escape their pyre, but few who met the Brileys in the weeks to come would be so fortunate.

Their attacks were marked by violent ferocity that terrified Richmonders, even though they were often driven by pecuniary motives.

In one killing, the murder that technically earned Linwood Briley his death sentence, the gang lay in wait in an alley behind a nightclub and randomly snatched the first person who stepped out for a breath of fresh air. That turned out to be the DJ, John Gallaher, who was forced into the trunk of his own car, driven to an abandoned factory on Mayo Island, and executed.

Two weeks later, they cornered a 62-year-old nurse at the door of her apartment and battered her to death with a baseball bat before they looted the apartment. Another victim was found with scissors and a fork still sticking out of his lifeless back; one man whom the Brileys suspected of trying to steal their car had his brains dashed out with a falling cinderblock while pinned screaming to the pavement.

Their last victim was a neighbor who had drawn their attention by nervously locking up his house when he saw the Briley gang. The young men intimidated him into opening up for him, raped his wife, and shot the lot, not excluding their five-year-old son.

The Brileys weren’t done alarming Virginians even after their death sentence: on May 31, 1984 — just a few months before Linwood’s electrocution — Linwood and James led a death row breakout and were on the loose for three more weeks, hiding out with an uncle before recapture.

James Briley, Jr. followed his brother to the electric chair on April 8, 1985. As of this writing, Anthony Briley remains incarcerated, as does Duncan Meekins.

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1876: Hillary Page, the Chesterfield fire fiend

Add comment September 1st, 2016 Headsman

Hillary Page, “the Chesterfield fire fiend”, went to Virginia’s gallows on this date in 1876.

Born a slave, Page by 1874 was a mere servant at the Ruffin family’s “Summer Hill” estate off the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike. He had lived there all his life. That year, a series of attempted arsons ravaged the area, including one that devastated Summer Hill.

Eventually, a black youth named Wesley betrayed Page as their author, though contemporaries thought the spree, which claimed no fatalities, arose less from viciousness than simpleminded pyromania.

“The Richmond correspondent of the Petersburg Index” (as quoted by the Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 7, 1876), ventured a bit of compassion for the young man.

I think he ought to be sent to the penitentiary for life [rather than hanged]. He is too dangerous to be allowed to go at liberty, and justice wil be satisfied without taking his life. He is only 19 or 20; he lived on the place with his mother and father, and had no great malice in his misdeeds. He merely kindled the fire to see it burning. Sometimes he was the first to give the alarm; he always helped to put it out. He either did the firing to see the houses burn, or compel his parents to remove to Richmond, which he desired and they refused to do. A few years ago a young lady, who was being educated at a Richmond boarding school, fired the house a dozen times. Once it came near burning down. It was said she had a mania on the subject. Nobody is so charitable to Hillary.

Perhaps there was a bit of charity after all in the air, for it took an inordinate (for the time) 19 months for the case to proceed from arrest to gallows: Page’s first death sentence was overturned on appeal and his eventual hanging-date was pushed back by the governor so that the condemned could be examined for lunacy.

By the end of it the fire fiend was quite a celebrity. At a stopover in the courthouse jail en route to a gallows,* Page was besieged by journalists shouting questions at him until his ministers arrived and shooed them away.

“Hillary, do you feel any better prepared to die than you did yesterday?”

“Yes, sir. I feel a heap better.”

“Do you acknowledge yourself guilty of everything that has been charged against you?”

“Yes, sir, all but one thing, and that is young Mr. Ruffin’s house. I didn’t burn that. It caught fire by itself. I didn’t burn that.”

“Hillary, why did you say that Colonel Ruffin and his son came to you and desired you to make statements implicating other parties?”

“All that was false. I just said so because I thought it would do me good. I was put up to it. It’s natural that I should try to save my life.”

(Source: Richmond Dispatch report in the very topical Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia: A History, 1782-1907)

The road, our correspondent noted, “was lined with vehicles of all descriptions” for “it seemed that all the whites and blacks of the county were going to witness the saddest act of a poor unfortunate career.”

* “It was by a general verdict accorded to be as mean a scaffold as was ever erected for the execution of a human being,” the Dispatch reported (again, via Ward’s Public Executions in Richmond, Virginia). “The sheriff of the county was even more nervous than the condemned.”

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1864: Martin Robinson, treacherous guide

1 comment March 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a Union officer frustrated of a design to raid Richmond during the U.S. Civil War hanged a local African-American guide whom he thought had intentionally misled him like Susanin.

The account of an army chaplain attached to the 5th New York Cavalry explains:

The guide, a negro, had misled us during the night, and, to obviate the delay of retracing our steps. Col. Dahlgren, on the representations of the negro that an excellent ford was to be found at Dover Mills, concluded to cross at that point. After two hours’ halt we again moved on, and soon reached Dover Mills, but only to meet disappointment.


Dover Milles, Civil War era illustration

The negro had deceived us, no ford existed at this point nor any means of crossing the river. He then stated that the ford was three miles below: this was obviously false, as the river was evidently navigable to and above this place, as we saw a sloop going down the river.

… he came into our lines from Richmond … [and] was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung in conformity with the terms of his service. The negro became greatly alarmed, stated confusedly that he was mistaken, thought we intended to cross the river in boats, and finally said that he had done wrong, was sorry, etc. The colonel ordered him to be hung, — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch dangling by the roadside.

Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around.

A Goochland County marker marks the spot of the botched crossing and subsequent execution.

But we’re really just getting started. Stay tuned for some serious blowback from this bootless military debacle.

The full story of the raid is a tangled and contested affair, but it’s well worth perusing in detail. To sum up:

This expedition’s leader, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, abandoned the effort and in the attempt to fall back, rode into a Confederate ambush the next day. He died in the fusillade, while his men were captured.

The body of this late Col. Dahlgren, on whose authority our misfortunate guide was put to death, was found by the Confederates to bear some startling papers* … indicating that the intent of his ill-starred expedition was not merely to liberate starving northern prisoners, but that “once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”

Within days, the story was abroad and Richmond newspapers floridly outraged at this proposed breach of chivalrous warfare.

Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to quash public demands for the Dahlgren party’s summary execution, the documents may indeed have marked a turning point in the war’s conduct, a public announcement of total warfare sufficient for the South to “inaugurate a system of bloody retaliations.”** If so, it was a well-timed license: the Confederacy was in the process of being steamrolled and would soon require recourse to more desperate strategems.

After Dahlgren, argues Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, “there was an increase in Confederate clandestine activity designed to encourage the antiwar faction in the North to organize and revolt” — even including a mirror-image Confederate cavalry raid on Washington D.C. with an eye towards capturing Lincoln.

There are, in fact, some historians who postulate that it was “bloody retaliation” for Dahlgren’s attempt on the Confederate president that ultimately led southern agents to initiate the late-war plots against Abraham Lincoln’s person — resulting ultimately in Lincoln’s assassination:

Ulric Dahlgren, and [his] probable patron [U.S. Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy’s president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president.

That is some blowback.

Books exploring the alleged link between the Dahlgren Papers and the Lincoln assassination

* It must be said that the Dahlgren papers have been continually contested as frauds from the moment they were known, though many historians do indeed consider them legitimate. We are in no position to contribute to that debate, and for the purposes of this post’s narration the question is immaterial: the papers, forged or not, certainly existed, were widely publicized, and genuinely angered many southerners.

** These words are the demand of the March 8, 1864 Richmond Dispatch.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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1887: Thomas Cluverius, Richmond murderer

Add comment January 14th, 2012 Headsman


Dallas Morning News, January 14, 1887.

On this date in 1887, a long-running (for the time) legal drama in Richmond ended with the hanging of Thomas Cluverius for murder.

On Friday the 13th — March 13, 1885 — Cluverius killed his cousin and lover Lillian Madison, who was eight months pregnant with his child, an act “as dark as any that can be found in all the calendar of crimes.” (Columbus Daily Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1887)

From the illicit affair to the shocking crime of passion and calculation to the damning lost watch key found at the site of the murder: everything conspired to spill newsprint, not only in Virginia but nationwide.

Nevertheless, by the time he hanged, the young lawyer was supported by at least a chunk of public opinion prepared to credit his dogged insistence on innocence.* He maintained it all the way to the scaffold. The drama of a potential gubernatorial reprieve, backed by hundreds of Old Dominion worthies, went to literally the very last hour of the condemned man.

The facts of this case now 125 years in the grave enjoy meticulous and evocative coverage at The Shockoe Examiner, a Richmond blog that we come to via Murder by Gaslight’s Cluverius post.

We’re very pleased on this occasion to interview a writer who has given “Tommie” and “Lillie” a more literary treatment. John Milliken Thompson‘s first novel The Reservoir (review), just published in the summer of 2011, illuminates the timeless conflicts between lust and propriety, in the very specific locale of post-Reconstruction Richmond.

ET: For you as a writer, how did you come by this story, and why did you decide to make it your first novel?

JMT: I came across a brief mention of the case in a book on Richmond history and made a mental note of it.

Sometime later I began looking into the case and, after finding all kinds of material on the trial and on Richmond in the 1880s, I became more and more intrigued. A failed attempt to turn the story into a nonfiction account led me to write it as a novel.

Book CoverWhat was the most challenging thing about approaching the story?

Creating believable, interesting characters within a compelling plot is THE challenge of writing any piece of fiction. This one was no different, though it helped to have a historical framework and tons of good material to turn to.

That said, one of the toughest things about telling this story was getting the voice right. My goal was to create a narrative that could get close in to Tommie’s head, without revealing too much (to the reader or himself), and then pull farther back.

I found it interesting that you said you “felt so connected to these long-dead people that [you] owed it to them to get it right,” because I have that sense myself sometimes. In the end, what are you hoping that 21st century readers take away from the story? What did you take away from it?

In the end, I think what I most want is for readers to feel moved by the plight of these young people, who made some crucial mistakes and paid dearly for them. We all make mistakes in our youth; sometimes we learn our lessons before we get in deeper, sometimes not.

The inference is that Tommie killed Lillian because she was pregnant. How damaging would Lillian’s giving birth really have been to Tommie socially, professionally, or otherwise? Do we need to look for more complex motivations?

That’s a good question, and Tommie even considers what his life would be like if he had “done the right thing” by Lillie and married her. Even if he had been able to live down the scandal of marrying a pregnant girl, which in those days and in their circle would’ve been significant, it would still not have been the life this ambitious young man had envisioned for himself.

And what about the world he lived in — 1880s Virginia, and the place of the crime, Richmond. What’s this place like a generation after the Civil War? And why did this crime in this place become national news?

Well, Richmond, the former Confederate capital, was making a comeback after being ravaged by the war. This event caught the interest of the general public because of the high standing of the families involved and because the lawyers trying the case were distinguished men and famous orators.

Despite maintaining innocence to the last, it seems pretty difficult to imagine that Thomas Cluverius was actually innocent. Still, at the time there were plenty of people who apparently thought he might be. Why on earth did he attract that level of support? If not for the watch-key, might he have avoided conviction altogether?

That’s the fickle nature of the public — once the scapegoat has been cast out, there is a lingering sense of doubt and guilt that causes many of us to look into our own hearts … let he who is without sin.

I think the watch-key did play a big role, but it wasn’t necessarily the sine qua non. I think the sheer volume of testimony offered by the prosecution overwhelmed any reserve the all-male jury might have felt. The burden of proof, in fact if not by law, lay with the defense, and the proof (of innocence) simply wasn’t there.

What are you working on next?

I’m finishing up a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who suffers a number of poignant losses in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. By the way, until “turn-of-the-century” means turn of the 21st (maybe in two decades?) I’m using that phrase to mean turn of the 20th.

Thanks for inviting me on your blog.

* Or empathize with the young lawyer’s lost-potential pathos.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Murder,Other Voices,Sex,USA,Virginia

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1800: Prosser’s Gabriel, slave rebel

Add comment October 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1800,** the Virginia slave Gabriel — sometimes remembered as Gabriel Prosser after his owner’s surname, although that wasn’t what his contemporaries called him — was hanged in Richmond, along with a number of his confederates in a planned slave rising.

Decades before Virginia’s more famed Nat Turner rebellion, Gabriel was plenty frightening for the growing little burg of Richmond in 1800. (The incident would result in a clampdown on education and mobility for slave and free blacks alike.)

Gabriel and company conceived a daring revolution to seize the city of Richmond, take hostage Governor (and future U.S. President) James Monroe, and rearrange the state’s power structure.

This scheme, in which the rebels actually stay in Virginia, depended on an optimistic assessment for the prospects of a multiracial alliance — with Richmond’s own poor whites, and also, according to testimony given by conspirators, with Indians and with the French in opposition to a pro-British American policy tilt.

But if ever the time might have been right for such a plot, it was in 1800. A bitter presidential contest adjudicating the Republic’s most fundamental issues was unfolding; there were rumors that the governing Federalists would not voluntarily relinquish power, and the matter might fall to civil war between by the factions.

Gabriel unabashedly attempted to leverage this division between whites; working as he and many other urban blacks did side-by-side with white Republican laborers — whose own interests vis-a-vis Federalist merchants were being so bitterly contested — he must have had a good vibe about the situation on the ground to gamble his life on it. Though the hope was that the white working class would join the revolt after it broke out, there were at least a few whites already initiated into the conspiracy beforehand.

Alas, what broke out was not rebellion but a storm: a downpour that rained out the first planned rising, washing out bridges and roads that the conspirators were counting on to assemble. Before the makeup date could be scheduled, some slaves taking a care for their own necks had betrayed it.

The public mind has been much involved in dangerous apprehensions, concerning an insurrection of the negroes in several of the adjacent counties. Such a thing has been in agitation among the blacks, principally instigated by an ambitious and insidious fellow, a slave, by the name of GABRIEL, the property of Mr. Thomas Prosser, of the county of Henrico. This villain, assuming to himself the appellation of General, through his artfulness, has caused some disturbance, having induced many poor, ignorant, and unfortunate creatures to share in his nefarious and horrid design.

The plot has been entirely exploded, which was shallow; and had the attempt even been made to carry it into execution, but little resistance would have been required, to render their scheme entirely abortive. Thirty or forty of the party have been arrested and confined in jail for trial. Yesterday a called court was held for that purpose, at the court house in this city when six of them were convicted and condemned to suffer death this day at 12 o’clock. It is said that the evidence which has been procured, will go to prove nearly this whole of them guilty. To-day the court will proceed to go thro’ with the rest of the trials.

[The Governor has issued his Proclamation, offering a reward of THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS† for the apprehension of the above “GENERAL,” who has thought proper to take himself off. Exclusive of this sum, he likewise promises “to any number not exceeding five of the said accomplices, who shall apprehend the said GABRIEL, and deliver him up so that he be brought to justice, a FULL PARDON for their offences.” ]

-Columbian Mirror, Tuesday, Sep. 16, 1800, quoting “a Richmond paper”

It would be interesting counterfactual history to know the world in which the insurrection was actually launched — whether “but little resistance” would have sufficed to put it down. Gabriel might have reckoned naively on the prospective balance of forces,‡ but his read of the fractious alliance against him was spot-on. Maybe with a modern communications infrastructure, the affair could have become a full-blown October Surprise.

The Jeffersonian party, desperate not to give its plantation supporters cause to rethink its partisan alignment, took pains to downplay what was really quite a bold conspiracy. Not for the last time, wealthy merchants (here backing the Federalists) sought their own advantage pressing the racial wedge issue — for the slaves’ prospective lower-class white allies were also part of Jefferson’s coalition.

“If any thing will correct & bring to repentance old hardened sinners in Jacobinism, it must be an insurrection of their slaves,” editorialized the Boston Gazetteex cathedra, as it were, from 18th century America’s very temple of Mammon. (The quote comes from this tome.)

One thing all right-thinking whites could agree on was a heaping serving of scorn for “General” Gabriel.


Columbian Mirror, Saturday, October 4, 1800.

But then, that personal interview with Monroe also gives a lie to Gabriel’s insignificance. (Gabriel told Monroe nothing of any use to the latter; Monroe sent him away with orders to keep him nearly incommunicado from the sort of working stiffs who would figure to be his jailers.)

A few years later, an English visitor captured at second hand this indefatigable portrait of the doomed slave in his masters’ courts.

I passed by a field in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?”

In 2007, James Monroe’s (distant) successor as governor of the Old Dominion (informally) posthumously pardoned Prosser’s Gabriel. Gov. Tim Kaine’s statement on the occasion validated Gabriel’s own defense of himself.

“Gabriel and his colleagues were freedom fighters and deserve their rightful place in history as women and men of integrity who fought for freedom.”

And the site of his martyrdom? Well, it’s … a good place to park.

* Some sources give Oct. 7 as the date of execution; this apparently was the initial sentence of the court but delayed a few days to hang the ringleader along with others in a variety of spots around town.


Virginia Argus, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 1800.

** A pregnant year in the history of slave rebellion: Denmark Vesey bought his freedom in 1800; Nat Turner and John Brown were both born in 1800. (Noted here.)

† It was a slave who eventually turned in Prosser’s Gabriel … but Virginia stiffed him on the reward, handing over only $50 instead of the promised $300.

‡ Or maybe that’s just hindsight talking. In 1800, the Haitian Revolution was underway — so who could blame slaves for thinking big?

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Treason,USA,Virginia

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1852: John and Jane Williams, slaves

2 comments September 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1852, John and Jane Williams hung in Richmond for the hatchet-murder of the wife and infant child of their master.

This one was a sensation for the antebellum crime beat, the “deep brain-cuts” to the heads of Joseph Winston (who survived) and Virginia Winston and nine-month-old child (who, obviously, did not) administered in the small hours July 19th was just the sort of thing to tap white slaveholders’ fears. (Reportedly, they were cruel masters and had recently threatened to sell Jane without also selling her child.)

That the crime was authored by urban slaves assimilated to the money economy connected it directly with broader anxieties about social transformations, as explored by Midori Takagi in Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction:

[U]rban slaves who enjoyed a variety of privileges including hiring out, living apart, socializing without supervision, and cash bonuses. White Richmonders believed these privileges encouraged the slaves to be rebellious …

Although John belonged to the Winston household, he worked at the docks for John Enders during the day. Like most hired slave workers, John could move about the city before and after working hours with no supervision. He also probably received cash from his earnings and could earn extra by performing overtime work. John was not required to live in the Winstons’ house but chose to in order to be with his wife. Janes, on the other hand, was directly owned by the Winstons and most likely did not enjoy the same privileges as her husband. But she was able to move about in the city making trips to the market, did socialize with other slaves and possibly free blacks, and was well aware of the privileges and expectations of hired slaves including her husband.

White residents came to believe that these factors encouraged slaves to act violently by planting within them “the germ of rebellion.” One influential Richmonder, Joseph Mayo (who later became mayor), attributed the “glaring evils” of the slave population to “the system of board money … [and] the assumptions of equality exhibited by the blacks in riding in carriages contrary to law, and in dress and deportment.” Increasingly, white city dwellers began to wonder if they had been — in the words of one resident — “rearing wolves to our own destruction.”

These anxieties, piqued by crimes such as the Williamses’, would lead to a welter of new restrictions on the movement, behavior, and even attire of urban slaves in Richmond in the ensuing years.

But that was for the future. While Richmond had real-life master-murdering miscreants in its clutches, it gave vent to all its opprobrium.

Papers described the crimes as “hardly paralleled in history,” anticipated for Jane (who eventually copped to the crime and unsuccessfully tried to exculpate John) “the fires of her eternal doom,” and her execution “without the smallest particle of sympathy from any human being possessed of the ordinary feelings of justice.” The exhortations of her pastor, the Richmond Daily Dispatch opined, fell upon “unwilling ears. The thick-crowding thoughts of the diabolical murder of two innocent, guileless beings, committed by Janes with the coolness and deliberation of a fiend, rendered unimpressive, cold, and tedious, those ceremonies.”

It is to be hoped [the Dispatch concluded] that her merited and summary execution will operate as a warning to the fractious portion of our negro population.*

In a show of scrupulous regard for the inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, the state of Virginia compensated the convalescing Joseph Winston to the tune of $500 for expropriating and executing his property.

* (Second-hand) sources for the newspaper excerpts: The Penalty is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions by Marlin Shipman; and, “Black Female Executions in Historical Context” by David V. Baker, Criminal Justice Review, vol. 33, no. 1 (March 2008).

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Women

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  • jehanbosch/ Johan Louis de Jong: The crippling of the Christian Byzantine Empire was a great tragedy. The Emperor...
  • Anna: Thank you! I thought it might have been taken at the same time that this one https://imgur.com/a/X03Sj but I...
  • Kevin M Sullivan: Hi Anna, I’ve seen the actual photos of Bundy that were taken after his death that shows his face...
  • Brad: I honestly can’t say. Most of the post-execution photos of Bundy that are available are closeups of his...