1852: John and Jane Williams, slaves

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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