Posts filed under 'Mississippi'

1955: Emmett Till lynched

Add comment August 28th, 2020 Headsman

Emmett Till was lynched on this date in 1955.

He’s surely the most recognizable and symbolically powerful of America’s many lynch victims, thanks in large measure to his mother’s Mamie Till’s insistence on an open-coffin funeral that put Emmett’s mutilated face in front of media consumers worldwide.

In its narrow particulars, it resembles more closely a private vendetta than the mob justice evoked by a term like “lynch law”: in the dark hours after midnight the night of August 27-28, two white Mississippians, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, barged into the home of a sharecropper named Moses “Preacher” Wright and at gunpoint forced him to surrender his nephew. Chicago-raised and thus insufficiently alert to the full rigor of the color line, young Emmett had transgressed it a few days prior by apparently* hitting on Bryant’s wife, boasting of his prowess with white girls up north.

In retaliation for this offense, the two intruders bundled Emmett into their truck, took him to a barn where they bludgeoned him into the deformed horror that later shocked so many newspaper subscribers — after which they finished him off with a gun and dumped his remains into the Tallahatchie River.

While this was not as exalted as the more recognizably execution-esque summary justice of the whole town, no reader in this year of our lord 2020 can fail to recognize the wanton self-appropriation of policing power by vigilantes justifiably confident in their impunity. This informal extension of the state’s legitimate violence via extralegal but allied actors is a hallmark of lynch law, however its definitional boundaries are drawn.

And indeed an all-white jury predictably acquitted the killers in what they later acknowledged was an act of race-based jury nullification. In a jaw-dropping post-trial Look magazine interview, the pair — shielded from a “double jeopardy” re-trial by their acquittal — matter-of-factly admitted the murder. To the reporter’s eyes they behaved as if they “don’t feel they have anything to hide; they have never regarded themselves as being in legal jeopardy. Not even psychologically are they on the defensive. They took it for granted before the trial that every white neighbor, including every member of the jury and every defense attorney, had assumed that they had indeed killed the young Negro. And since the community had swarmed to their defense, Milam and Bryant assumed that the ‘community,’ including most responsible whites in Mississippi, had approved the killing.”

Yet Till as portrayed by his executioners was a far finer man than they.

Their intention was to “just whip him… and scare some sense into him.” And for this chore, Big Milam knew “the scariest place in the Delta.” He had come upon it last year hunting wild geese. Over close to Rosedale, the Big River bends around under a bluff. “Brother, she’s a 100-foot sheer drop, and she’s a 100 feet deep after you hit.”

Big Milam’s idea was to stand him up there on that bluff, “whip” him with the .45, and then shine the light on down there toward that water and make him think you’re gonna knock him in.

“Brother, if that won’t scare the Chicago ——-, hell won’t.”

But under these blows Bobo never hollered — and he kept making the perfect speeches to insure martyrdom.

Bobo: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.”

Milam: “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you — just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'”

Taken to the riverbank where he’d be slain, Emmett Till bravely spat on his killers’ last offer of domineering clemency.

They stood silently … just hating one another.

Milam: “Take off your clothes.”

Slowly, Bobo pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts.

He stood there naked.

It was Sunday morning, a little before 7.

Milam: “You still as good as I am?”

Bobo: “Yeah.”

Milam: “You still ‘had’ white women?”

Bobo: “Yeah.”

That big .45 jumped in Big Milam’s hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.

* The specifics of what transpired at the Bryants’ grocery to trigger the lynching have been finely parsed and disputed ever since 1955. At a maximally “incriminating” interpretation, he made a crude but unthreatening pass at Mrs. Bryant. By other readings the whole thing might have been merely a misunderstanding. In this author’s opinion, indulging the question of whether Emmett Till was “actually innocent” of wolf-whistling a white woman concedes far too much ground at the outset to his murderers.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lynching,Mississippi,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Sex,Shot,Summary Executions,USA

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1915: A day in the death penalty (and lynch law) around the U.S.

Add comment August 6th, 2020 Headsman

U.S. hangmen clocked overtime on this date in 1915. The Washington D.C. Herald of August 8 covered the bloodbath thus:

Robert Watkins and John Salter were executed for the murder of Mrs. Mary Lassiter at Evergreen. A militia guard prevented a mob from burning the negroes. The other two executions in Alabama [Millard Carpenter and George James -ed.] were for the murder of white men.

At Fresno, Miss., Peter Bolen and Jim Seales, who killed another negro, were executed while 5,000 persons sang “There Is a Land of Pure Delight.” Bunyan Waters was executed at Fayetteville, Miss.

Nor were legal executions the end of it.

A dispatch from Shawnee, Okla., relating the story of the lynching of Ed Berry, stated that the affair was “one of the most orderly lynchings in the State.” Berry was hanged from a railroad bridge, and his body was riddled with bullets, after which the mob dispersed “in an orderly manner.”

In Trilby, Fla., a crowd of citizens lynched Will Leach, accused of attacking a 13-year-old girl.

Early today a report from Liberty stated that a lynching was almost certain if a mob caught a negro laborer who attacked a farmer’s wife near there.

While this piece focuses on the U.S. South, there was also a hanging on August 6, 1915, in Connecticut. Just minutes after midnight, with the words “Good-bye, Father, good-bye,” followed by a firm “not guilty!” from under the hood, Bernard Montvid died for murdering a Catholic priest named Joseph Zebris, along with Zebris’s housekeeper Eva Gilmanaitis in a home invasion/robbery that earned less than $5. Worse yet, Montvid had to split this paltry blood money with his partner, Peter Krakas — who had already been separately hanged by the time Montvid paid his own penalty.

The Espy file of U.S. executions, a wonderful resource but liable to errors, attributes an August 6, 1915 hanging to the state of Georgia. I’ve trawled several newspaper databases without substantiating this supposed execution of Henry Floyd.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Connecticut,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Lynching,Mississippi,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1919: John Hartfield lynched

Add comment June 26th, 2020 Headsman

John Hartfield (sometimes given as “Hartsfield”) was lynched on this date in 1919 in Ellisville, Mississippi.

“[U.S. President Woodrow Wilson] said the American negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America. For example, a friend recently related the experience of a lady friend wanting to employ a negro laundress offering to pay the usual wage in that community. The negress demands that she be given more money than was offered for the reason that ‘money is as much mine as it is yours.’ Furthermore, he called attention to the fact that the French people have placed the negro soldier in France on an equality with the white men, and ‘it has gone to their heads.'”

-Diary of Wilson’s personal doctor Cary Grayson (Source)

This summer of 1919 was fraught and violent moment in America — later christened the “Red Summer” for the quantity and ferocity of racially motivated outrages.

With the end of the Great War, domestic guardians of order bristled alike at proud and armed black soldiers returning from France’s trenches and at the post-Bolshevik Revolution prospect of subversive agitation — fears that were intimately linked for elites, as the pull quote in this post indicates. Plus, as readers in 2020 surely recollect from the news, everyone was also laboring under the Spanish flu pandemic. Large riots or pogroms with multiple casualties occurred in several U.S. cities, including a five-day street battle in Washington D.C. in July that left 15 or more dead.

Likewise, lynchings surged in 1919 — from 38 and 64 in the preceding two years, to 83, a figure which hadn’t been recorded in more than a decade and has never been approached since.

James Hartfield was one* mark upon this near-hecatomb, a mark underscoring the strength of lynch law in this moment. The mob was disciplined and organized, confident that its actions had the blessing of the state. It acted deliberately, responsive to its own authorities. Nobody got his blood up to string up the man promptly upon capture; instead, Hartfield was delivered to private custody — not jail — and given him medical attention so that he’d be fit for his murder.


The Greenwood (Miss.) Commonwealth ran this headline on the day that Hartfield was killed — one of many newspapers to report the planned lynching ahead of time.

The schedule (Hartfield to be burnt at 5 p.m.) was publicized in advance in the press; even the state’s governor, literal Klansman Theodore Bilbo, issued a sort of official denial of clemency with a public announcement that he couldn’t intervene if he wanted to and he also didn’t want to.

I am utterly powerless. The state has no troops and if the civil authorities at Ellisville are helpless, the state is equally so. Furthermore excitement is at such a high pitch thruout [sic] south Mississippi and if armed troops interfered with the mob it would prove a riot among the citizens.

The negro says he is ready to die and nobody can keep the inevitable from happening. (Huntsville (Ala.) Times, June 26, 1919, under the headline “Governor Will Not Interfere With Lynching”)

And indeed, nobody did interfere.

The below from the next day’s Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser is one of several versions that saw wide distribution in the republic. Although these reports differ on some details — for example, whether Hartfield was or was not already mortally wounded by the gunshots he’d received from the posse — all unite in noticing the orderliness of this off-book execution.

ELLISVILLE, MISS. June 25 [sic] — Trailed for ten days through three South Mississippi counties by posses which included several hundred members of his own race, John Hartfield, negro, confessed assailant of an Ellisville young woman,** was captured desperately wounded near Collins, at daybreak this morning, rushed by automobile to the scene of his crime, hanged to a gum tree and then burned to ashes. His victim witnessed the lynching.

While negroes took no part in the actual lynching of Hartfield, posse leaders freely admitted they rendered valuable assistance during the chase knowing when they enlisted that it was intended to lynch the fugitive when he was captured. Many of them witnessed the execution.

The lynching was conducted in a manner which the authorities characterized as “orderly.” Guarded by a committee of citizens of Ellisvlle, Hartfield was taken first to the office of Dr. A.J. Carter, who after examination of gun shot wounds received when the fugitive made his fight against capture, declared the negro could not live more than twenty-four hours. In the meantime a group of silent men were piling cross ties and brush in a depression in ground near the railroad trestle. There was no shouting. Arrangements apparently had been made days ago.

The victim of Hartfield’s crime was escorted into the physicians’ office after the wounds had been examined. She positively identified him as her assailant. When she left the negro said to the committee: “You have the right man.”

Then there were quiet conferences. Members of the committee circulated in the crowd. Reports that there would be a “burning” at 5 o’clock gave way to statements that there would be a “hanging at the big gum tree.” Hartfield was told what the crowd itended [sic] doing with him, but only repeated “you have the man.” Later he said he knew he was going to die and declared he wished to “warn all men, white and colored, to think before doing wrong.”

Hartfield was not taken to jail, although earlier reports were that he had been lodged there. From the doctor’s office he was taken to the street and faced the crowd. “You have the right man,” he reiterated. Then a noose found its way around his neck and the trip to the big gum tree was started, the crowd still ominously silent.

Under the big gum tree Hartfield forcibly detained his victim all of the night of Sunday, June 15th. It was under a limb of the same tree that Hartfield was hanged as soon as the rope could be pulled up by hundreds of hands. Then occurred the first demonstration. While the body was in its death struggles pistols were produced by men in the crowd and fired point blank at the swinging form. Before the rope had been cut by bullets, burning fagots were thrown under the body and an hour later there was only a pile of ashes.

The victim with her aged mother witnessed the execution. When she reached her home two hundred yards away, she was informed that more than a thousand dollars had been subscribed for her use by persons in the crowd.

No arrests were made after the lynching and tonight the little town was quiet. Most of the visitors from the surrounding country left for their homes.

The future Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, who lived and worked in the U.S. intermittently in the 1910s where he was influenced by black radicals including Marcus Garvey, also made note of the Hartield outrage in his 1924 essay “Lynching” (see the numbered p. 53 of this large pdf):

When a lynching was to take place or had taken place, the press seized upon it as a good occasion to increase the number of copies printed. It related the affair with a wealth of detail. Not the slightest reproach to the criminals. Not a word of pity for the victims. Not a commentary.

The New Orleans States of June 26, 1919, published a headline running right across the front page in letters five inches high: “Today a Negro Will Be Burned by 3,000 Citizens.” And immediately underneath, in very small print: “Under a strong escort, the Kaiser has taken flight with the Crown Prince.”

The Jackson Daily News of the same date published across the first two columns of its front page in big letters: “Negro J.H. to Be Burned by the Crowd at Ellistown This Afternoon at 5 p.m.”

The newspaper only neglected to add: “The whole population is earnestly invited to attend.” But the spirit is there.

* Although lynched alone, he wasn’t quite the only victim. A white man who misunderstood or defied the commands of the vigilantes during the manhunt was also killed. And reportedly (although I haven’t verified this to my satisfaction) another black man elsewhere in Mississippi was lynched in the subsequent weeks merely for mentioning the Hartfield assassination.

** Family lore from a friend who survived by fleeing Ellisville characterizes Hartfield’s true offense as simply having a white girlfriend.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Common Criminals,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mature Content,Mississippi,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA

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1859: Pleasant M. Mask, wreck and ruin

Add comment March 4th, 2019 Headsman

This guy goes right into the roster of all-time great gallows names, for it was said (per the New Orleans Daily True Delta of March 15, 1859, rhapsodically channeling a report from the Oxford (Mississippi) Mercury) that “the name of Pleasant M. Mask is only pronounced with a shudder” and that doesn’t seem right at all.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Mississippi,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1835: Ruel Blake, “often seen among negroes”

Add comment July 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1835, Ruel Blake hanged in Livingston as one of the white instigators of a supposed slave uprising.

Blake was an foreigner to Madison County, a Connecticut carpetbagger who (according to the vigilance committee’s proceedings) “could claim but few or none as friends” as he was “of a cold, phlegmatic temperament, with a forbidding countenance; kept himself almost aloof from white society, but was often seen among negroes” and “was noted for cold-blooded revenge, insatiable avarice, and unnatural cruelty.” He worked as a wheelwright and carpenter, and had only a single slave, Peter.

But not everyone in Livingston had it in for the guy. As the excitement first began to bubble up as June turned to July, Captain Thomas Hudnall, a wealthy plantation owner gave Ruel Blake money and a horse and sagely suggested he lay low somewhere else while the storm passed. Blake had not yet been accused by anyone, but he’d aroused the ire and seemingly the suspicion of his neighbors when his own slave was accused and Blake administered an unconvincing and pro forma flogging — “he did not wish to hurt [the slave], occasionally striking a hard lick to keep up appearances.” Eventually other white citizens forcibly relieved him of the job, and Blake had the effrontery as he saw his man being thrashed to “[rush] through the crowd to where his negro was, and swore, if he was touched another lick, they would have to whip him first,” a threat that brought him to blows with the man wielding the whip.

Hudnall rightly anticipated that his neighbors’ presumption of “mere” excess sympathy for the slave would soon take a much darker turn: Blake blew town on July 1, and with the arrival into Livingston the very next day of the fantastical slave revolt claims from nearby Beatties Bluff, a $500 reward for his capture soon went nipping at Blake’s heels. In the ensuing panicked days, Blake along with the “steam doctors” Cotton and Saunders — all strangers come to Mississippi, all of them socially marginal and noted for fraternizing with black people — came to be acclaimed as the chief white conspirators, accusations that became self-affirming as men under the lash or in fear of the gallows repeated the names, knowing from their torturers’ leading questions who was already condemned by acclamation.

Blake was captured after just a few days, in Vicksburg, where he posed as a boatman from upriver. Now Hudnall’s favor cut against him, for the flight from Livingston appeared to prove his guilt:

He arrived in Livingston on the 8th of July, under a strong escort, intimations being obtained that an attempt would be made by the clan [John Murrell’s bandits, the alleged nexus of the slave rising plot -ed.] to rescue him.

His appearance in Livingston created a most alarming excitement; and, but for the committee’s being in session, in all probability he would have been forcibly taken from the guard, and immediately executed. After arriving, he was immediately put on his trial before the committee … Every disclosure which was made [by previous interrogations] was replete with testimony against him.

After hearing all the evidence, every opportunity was given him to produce counteracting testimony, which he failed to do. There being no doubt on the minds of the committee, he was, by a unanimous vote, condemned to be hanged; and, just before leaving the committee-room, he requested the committee to give him time to settle his affairs.

On the 10th of July, in the presence of an immense concourse of people, he was executed. He privately commended the verdict of the committee, and said they could not have done otherwise than condemn him from the evidence before them, and publicly, under the gallows, made the same declaration. He protested in his innocence to the last, and said that his life was sworn away.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mississippi,Public Executions,USA

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1835: Vincent, by popular demand

Add comment July 9th, 2017 Headsman

This story is transcribed from the July 27, 1835 National Banner and Nashville Whig:

From the Clinton (Miss.) Gazette.

PUBLIC EXECUTION. — On Thursday morning last,* between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock, VINCENT, a mulatto fellow belonging to the estate of the late Robert Bell, was hung in this place, by the citizens.

Abundant evidence of his participation in the late insurrectionary movements having been furnished the Committee of Vigilance appointed by the people of Clinton, he was sentenced to receive three hundred lashes, and to perpetual banishment from the United States, after the expiration of forty days.

On Wednesday evening, Vincent was carried out to receive his stripes; but the assembled multitude were in favor of hanging him — regarding the sentence pronounced against him as insufficient for the punishment of so enormous a crime. A vote was accordingly fairly taken, and the hanging party had it by an “overwhelming majority,” as politicians say. He was remanded to prison.

On the day of execution, a still larger crowd was assembled, and fearing that public sentiment might have changed in regard to his fate, after every thing favorable to the culprit was alleged, which could be said, the vote was taken — and his death again demanded by the people.

In pursuance of this sentiment, so unequivocally expressed, he was led to a “black-jack,” and suspended to one of its branches.

We approve entirely of the proceeding. The people have acted properly. Any man, whether he be white, yellow, or black, who lends his countenance and aid to a scheme, having for its object the burning of villages and towns, and the indiscriminate butchery of men, women and children, surely deserves an ignominious death. He who robs a solitary traveller on the high-way of a few dollars, is doomed to suffer death. How much more then, is he deserving of that punishment, who concocts and matures a deep laid conspiracy against the lives of an unoffending community?

Vincent could have made important discoveries at the gallows, but obstinately refused doing so, alleging that his own death being certain, it would profit him nothing to bring others to the same fate, and that he should inform on no one.


The Clinton lawyer named Henry Foote — who in future would become Governor of Mississippi — claimed in his memoir Casket of Reminisces that the ad hoc public votes on Vincent’s life were the product of his, Foote’s, desperate attempts to prevent the lynching at the behest of the former slave’s aged mistress.

When I rode into the town of Clinton I saw a large multitude assembled on one of the most popular streets, in front of a store in which Mr. Archibald Kenney, now in Staunton, Virginia, had some years before sold merchandize. I dismounted and went to the spot. I soon learned that the vigilance committee of that vicinage, composed of some of the best citizens of the county, had been trying a mulatto man, whom I knew very well, upon a charge of being a participant in the scheme of alleged insurrection.

A considerable quantity of powder and shot had been found in his possession, which circumstance had awakened some suspicions against him. The committee had tried him, and had sentenced him to be whipped only, and they would, indeed, have discharged him altogether, as I learned from themselves, had they not dreaded the indignant rage of the population of the town, then in a very excited condition. The committee had been unfortunate enough to sit with closed doors, which gave to the imagination of those not taking part in their proceedings a wide field for unfavorable conjecture. When the sentence was announced the outsiders determined to hang their longed-for victim at any rate; and at the time I reached the place where they were assembled the preparations for the execution of the boy were going forward. The boy had been in the ownership of a venerable gentle man of the neighborhood, Captain Bell, a Virginia friend of mine of great respectability and intelligence. He had been a great favorite with his master, who had left him free. The captain had been dead about a year, and this boy, who by-the-by was nearly white, and singularly polite and civil in his manners, had been since his master’s decease a faithful protector of his family, which consisted of his widow and a single female child. This widowed lady had reached the fearful scene some minutes before my own arrival, and had been allowed, in connection with a learned and pious minister of the Gospel, Dr. Comfort, to hold a last interview with this unfortunate boy. She came forth from this interview, attended by her pious and humane protector, and advancing within the portico where most of the multitude were located, she spoke, with a voice much agitated and almost stilled with emotion, while the tears were rapidly coursing down her venerable cheeks, as follows:

“GENTLEMEN, you all knew my husband during his life, and respected him. This poor boy was his favorite servant. I know his disposition and character well. I have just catechised him most searchingly. Had he been guilty as charged I should have been able to detect his guilt. I assure you that he is innocent. Oh! gentlemen, (she wildly exclaimed,) is there not one among you who will stand up here as the representative and champion of a poor, widowed, friendless female?” I immediately rose to my feet. I looked circumspectly upon the crowd for a moment. I saw standing just before me the grim-looking face of a man notorious for his violent and blood-thirsty character, whose name was Hardwick, and whom I soon after prosecuted for a diabolical murder, for which he would certainly have been hanged if the victim of his atrocity had been a white man. I saw a new rope in this ruffian’s hands, the texture of which he was feeling with his accursed fingers, evidently for the purpose of ascertaining whether it was strong enough to do the dread office effectually for which he had purchased it. I was conscious of all the perils which surrounded my position, and I therefore proceeded with extreme caution. I spoke thus: “Gentlemen, you have heard the touching appeal of this venerable lady. I have nothing to add to her decorous and impressive address, but I have a word to say to you of a prudential character in regard to yourselves and your own future responsibilities. The excitement now raging in this community may after awhile subside. Then it may be that some officious person shall wish to institute a prosecution for murder on account of the hanging of this boy. In my judgment it will be most safe that whatever is done in this affair shall be the act, as it were, of the whole community. I am not willing that a few generous-minded young men shall be made the scape-goats of this vicinage. Let us all join in whatever act may be resolved on. Now I will take the vote of the whole assemblage upon the question of banging, if no one sball object to it.” No objection being made, I said: “All in favor of hanging this unfortunate boy will signify the same by saying aye.” Nine-tenths answered aye. I said: “Those opposed to hanging will answer no.” About eight or ten persons said no.

I determined to make one more experiment before I gave up all hope of saving a human being from a fate so dreadful as that I saw impending. The day was intensely hot. The street on which we were located was very wide and intersected with deep gullies. I said: “Gentlemen, let us settle this question more satisfactorily: All in favor of hanging will range themselves on the opposite side of the street; those in favor of mercy will remain under the shade of this portico.” Nearly all rushed across the street! I left the spot with feelings of sorrow and disgust which no words can express. The boy was swung into eternity in less than fifteen minutes from that moment.

On my way home to dinner I met that distressed widow. She was on horseback, and stopped for a moment to speak to me. She said: “Mr. Foote, you know what has taken place to-day. You were, during the life of my venerated husband, his friend and his legal adviser. Tell me what I had best do. I wish to prosecute the murderers of my servant. Will you undertake to bring them to justice? I will reward you liberally.”

“My dear madam,” I said, “We are in the midst of most unhappy circumstances and of most appalling dangers. The community in which we live is in a frenzied condition. Were you to commence such a prosecution as you mention your own life would not be safe. Let me recommend to you earnestly to bow to the imperious necessity of the hour. “She looked at me for a moment with a mingled expression of sorrow and resentment upon her countenance, and then responded to me with a grave and touching solemnity of look I can never forget: “I will take your advice. Farewell!”

* This story was republished around the country featuring only the Gazette‘s original “Thursday morning last” locution, without any contextualizing dateline, which is another compelling reason for newsfolk to abandon the chatty day-of-week convention in favor of stating an actual date. Neither does Foote trouble to date the affair.

However, in view of the infuriatingly cavalier dating of events that this calendar-interested author is forever wrestling, Joshua Rothman‘s gumshoe act on Vincent’s hanging date in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson is nothing short of a godsend. Here’s endnote 50 to chapter 7 in its gloriously diligent entirety:

Figuring the date of Vincent’s trial requires a bit of detective work and a bit of guesswork. On July 24 the Jackson Mississippian reprinted Vincent’s story as it appeared in the Clinton Gazette. July 24 was a Friday, and while no copies of the Gazette from July 1835 survive, the paper was published on Saturdays, meaning that its article about Vincent appeared in either the July 11 or July 18 edition. The original story indicates that Vincent’s execution took place on “Thursday morning last” and suggests that his trial took place the day before that. The language here is ambiguous. If the story originally appeared in the July 11 issue of the Gazette, “last” means July 9, the Thursday immediately preceding, as there was no vigilance committee in existence in Clinton on any Thursdays prior to that one. If the story originally appeared in the July 18 issue of the Gazette, “last” could mean that Vincent’s trial occurred on July 15 or on July 8, but July 8 seems more likely for several reasons. The activities of the vigilance committees all over the state, including the one in Livingston, had slowed significantly by the fifteenth. Moreover, Henry Foote claimed to have seen what happened to Vincent when he got back to Clinton the day after seeing the beating of Lee Smith. He may have been mistaken, but an entirely plausible and consistent timeline exists in which Foote saw a mob assault Lee Smith on the afternoon of July 7, arrived in Jackson that evening, accompanied William Sharkey to Clinton on the morning of July 8, and witnessed what became of Vincent in town that afternoon and early the next day. [citing] Clinton Gazette in Jackson Mississippian, July 24, 1835; Foote, Casket of Reminiscences, 256.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Mississippi,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1835: Dean and Donovan, white abolitionists

Add comment July 8th, 2017 Headsman

The planters comprising Livingston’s extralegal public safety committee had Albe Dean and Angus L. Donovan lynched on this date in 1835, during the ongoing panic at the prospect of slave rebellion.

Dean was a New England itinerant doctor, denounced by the “steam doctors” executed in Livingston on the 6th, in a desperate attempt to preserve their own lives; Donovan was a poor man from Kentucky whose name had been served up by similarly desperate slaves under torture at Beatties Bluff. Both were white, and in both cases the evidence marshaled against them largely resolved to a failure on the part of the accused to honor the color line.

The Livingston lynch committee was good enough to publish its own Proceedings by way of self-vindication, and we draw this post from its perspective on these marginal characters.

Trial of Albe Dean.

This man was a native of Ashford, Connecticut, whence he emigrated to Mississippi two years since. His general character before the disclosure of the conspiracy was not good; he was considered a lazy, indolent man, having very few pretensions to honesty. He had previously resided in the neighbourhood of Livingston, where he pretended to make a living by constructing washing-machines, until he became acquainted with Cotton, when he abandoned his business and turned steam-doctor, and went into partnership with Cotton, Saunders, & Co., and settled in Hinds county.

He was known to associate with negroes, and would often come to the owners of runaways and intercede with their masters to save them from a whipping. It was in evidence before the committee that he was seen prowling about the plantations in the neighbourhoods of Vernon, Beatie’s Bluff, and Livingston, ostensibly for the purpose of inquiring for runaway horses, which he did with great particularity — sometimes inquiring for a black, bay, gray, or other colour that suggested itself at the time. It was evident that horse-hunting was not his business, but that he was reconnoitring [sic] the country, and seeking opportunities to converse with the negroes …

Dean was arrested at the instigation of Saunders, who said he was a great rascal, and one of the conspirators. He was brought to Livingston with Saunders, on the 2d of July. On Monday, the 6th of July, he was placed on trial before the committee; but was in presence of the committee during the trial of Saunders and Cotton, and heard the whole of the testimony which went to implicate him.

It was in evidence before the committee, that, when on his way to Livingston, he had asked a witness, among other things, if some of Mr. W.P. Perkin’s negroes were not engaged in the conspiracy; and particularly if Hudnold’s Ned (a noted villain, whom he, Dean, had often endeavoured to screen from a whipping) was not concerned. He also inquired if Mr. Wm. Johnson’s Ruel Blake’s, and some other gentlemen’s negroes were not accused. He was not aware, at the time, that the very negroes about whom his inquiries were made had not only been suspected, but some of them actually hung; and, when informed Blake’s negro had been hung, he asked if he had made any disclosures about him. He was identified as one of their white accomplices by negroes accused.

And, lastly, he was accused by Dr. Cotton, who said, “Dean was one of his accomplices, and deeply engaged in the conspiracy, as a member of the Murrell clan.” After a cool and deliberate investigation of his case, he was, by a unanimous vote of the committee, found guilty of aiding and exciting the negroes to insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged.

In pursuance of the sentence, he was executed on the 8th of July, with Donovan, and died in dogged silence, neither acknowledging his guilt nor asserting his innocence.

This man requested that his name should not be given to the public, as his father was a public man, and it might lacerate the feelings of a venerated mother, who still survived. This request the committee and the writer would have scrupulously regarded, but that the name of the unfortunate man had already been made public by the officious and gratuitous information of some of the letter-writers [letters from Madison County to newspapers that were published widely in July and August -ed.], who have already given his name to the public.

Trial of A.L. Donovan, of Maysville, Ken.

After the trial of Dean, this young man was brought before the committee for examination, having been arrested on the evening of the 2d July, at Beatie’s Bluff.

His deportment, some weeks previous to his arrest, was very suspicious, from his intimacy with the negroes in the neighbourhood, being suspected at the time of trading with them, &c. His behaviour was so reprehensible as to compel the gentleman with whom he boarded to tell him, if he did not change his course he must leave his house, which he did a few days after, and went to the house of a man by the name of Moss, reputed a great scoundrel, whose name is mentioned in the report of the proceedings at Beatie’s Bluff: there Donovan remained until his arrest.

Donovan’s conduct was so very extraordinary and suspicious after he commenced boarding with Moss, as to induce the citizens of the neighbourhood to watch his movements. He was repeatedly found in the negro cabins, enjoying himself in negro society. Some persons requested him to leave the place, but he refused, alleging as a reason that he had to take care of some old keel-boats (which were entirely useless), half sunk, in Big Black river.

After the plot of the conspirators was discovered, instead of using his exertions to ferret out the ringleaders, and to assist the citizens in their efforts of detection, he would be found sneaking about the negro quarters, seeking opportunities to converse with them; and was caught at the house where the discovery of the conspiracy was made, engaged in earnest conversation with the girls who divulged the plot.

After arrests were made and examinations were going on, his conduct was such as no honest man would pursue; he would introduce himself into any company of gentlemen he would see conversing; this in itself at the time, was not noticed, as every one was desirous of finding out something to direct him in his investigations; but he would then go off and engage in conversations with Moss and his sons-in-law, who he knew, from their character, were suspected of being engaged in promoting the insurrection.

Even after several negroes were taken on suspicion, he still persisted in his attempts to converse with them, and at one time actually undertook (while the citizens were examining one) to release a negro who was tied, which negro afterward implicated him.

He was requested by the gentlemen who were examining the negroes not to come about them; they were compelled to take this step, from the fact that, when he was present, the negroes would say nothing, for the experiment was frequently tried; but when they were apprized that Donovan was not present, their disclosures were full, complete, and corresponding; the experiment was tried several times with the same success.

When he found he could not be permitted to be present at the examination of the negroes, he evinced considerable uneasiness, and kept walking to and fro, in view of the negroes under examination. The cause of his anxiety and alarm was soon explained; after his removal the negroes commenced a full detail and expose of the whole conspiracy (being at the time one or two hundred yards apart, and examined one at a time).

Among other white associates implicated by them, Donovan was said to be one of their leaders, and deeply concerned with them in the conspiracy.

After being implicated by a number of negroes at Beatie’s Bluff, the citizens thought proper to arrest him and bring him to Livingston, where the committee then organized was in session.

He was put on trial before the committee on the 7th July, and, in addition to the testimony before adduced, the following evidence was brought forward, which proved his participation in the conspiracy: —

A negro man from Beatie’s Bluff stated that Donovan was one of the white men engaged in persuading him to rebel with the rest, on the 4th of July, and that he had often solicited him to join them; Donovan said nothing was easier than for them to get their freedom; that the negroes could kill all the white people; and, if they should be pushed, that he would take them to a free state.

The confession of another negro man was in evidence before the committee, who pointed Donovan out at the time of the negro’s examination, and said, “He was to be one of their captains at Beatie’s Bluff.” It was also in evidence before the committee, that another boy, just before his execution, pointed Donovan out, when in a crowd, and said he was one of the men who persuaded him to enter into the conspiracy, and had encouraged him to go on, and get as many negroes to join as possible: other negroes implicated him.

A young man of unimpeachable character testified to the committee, in the presence of Donovan, that he and Donovan were walking through the field of his employer about the 25th or 26th May, when Donovan remarked to him that he should hate to be an overseer very much. Witness asked him why? He answered, it was such cruel work to be whipping the poor negroes, as he was obliged to do. Witness told him he never whipped only when they deserved it, and that was not often. Donovan exclaimed — “My friend, you will not have use for this long,” at the same time putting his hand on witness’s whip. Witness was a little astonished, and asked him to explain himself. Donovan, by way of explanation, remarked, the reason why he would not have use for it long was, that the negroes would soon be all free in this state. Witness replied, he knew the owners were not going to set them free, and that he (Donovan) ought to know that they could not effect their liberty by force, as they had tried it two or three times, and always failed; and that he thought they were now contented to remain in slavery.

Donovan replied warmly, in answer to his remarks, “that they could obtain their liberty by force, and that they would do it, not by themselves, but with the aid of thousands of rich, smart white men, who were ready to head them, with money, arms, and ammunition for their use.” And, before leaving the plantation, requested permission of witness to converse with the negroes, and to inform them of their rights, &c.

Of course, after the expression of such sentiments as above set forth, his request was denied, and at the same time he received a little good advice, and a threat from witness that, if he was seen on the plantation again, he might expect a “benefit” from his negro whip; and, using witness’s remark, Donovan cut out, and he had not seen him since until before the committee on his trial.

The committee were satisfied, from the evidence before them, that Donovan was an emissary of those deluded fanatics at the north — the ABOLITIONISTS. And, that while disseminating his incendiary doctrines among the negroes to create rebellion, he had found out that he was anticipated by a band of cut-throats and robbers, who were engaged in the same work, not wishing to liberate negroes, but to use them as instruments to assist them in plunder.

Being of a dissolute and abandoned character … and ripe for every rash enterprise, he joined the conspirators with the hope of receiving part of the spoils. If there had been any doubt on the minds of the committee as to his connexion with the conspirators, he would at least have been sentenced to be hanged for his attempts at diffusing among the negroes rebellious notions. On the 7th he was condemned to be hanged.

Accordingly, at twelve o’clock on the 8th of July he offered up his life on the gallows, as an expiation for his crimes. He said, from the gallows, that the committee did their duty in condemning him; that from the evidence they were compelled to do so.

Thus died an ABOLITIONIST, and let his blood be on the heads of those who sent him here.

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1835: The unknown lynched of the Murrell Excitement

Add comment July 7th, 2017 Headsman

We’ve done several posts in these pages devoted to Mississippi’s July 1835 slave insurrection panic and there are several more yet to come.

But today’s post is dedicated to the dead that we can’t date, and mostly can’t even name: the unknown slaves killed beyond the reach of law and documentation in forgotten lynchings or private murders around Madison County and environs. There’s no way to know how many these were; it’s guessed that they ranged into the dozens.

Well might one outrage to the well-documented extralegal lynch committee stretching necks in the county seat of Livingston — but as this was a committee of local oligarchs it had an orientation towards order, even if not law, and it brooked cross-examination and extenuating evidence, issued sub-lethal sentences and even acquittals. According to Joshua Rothman in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, many claimed — right or wrong — that Livingston was an island of relative calm in a panic compassing “a territorial belt along the Mississippi River stretching northward from Mississippi’s boundary with Louisiana nearly 250 miles toward Tennessee and inland roughly 75 miels toward the center of the state.”

Numerous public reports in Mississippi tried to suggest that a very different atmosphere prevailed in and around Madison County during the insurrection scare that continued on past the hangings of the gamblers in Vicksburg, and that the Livingston Committee of Safety had successfully introduced order to a situation that might otherwise have escalated into an uncontrolled orgy of violence.

Yet even in Livingston, the narrative is absorbed with the white purported masterminds; slaves’ executions appear as a part of the scenery, never exhaustively categorized. The white artisan Ruel Blake would be impeached on evidence given by a slave whose capture and hanging by a mob dignifying itself an ad hoc lynching subcommittee is entirely recounted — sans date — in a single footnote to the Livingston proceedings.

He was run by track-dogs some two hours without being taken, making his escape by taking to water. He remained in the woods until the excitement had partially subsided. By the laudable exertions of his master, he was decoyed into Livingston, where he was taken … the committee of safety had adjourned when he was taken. The citizens seemed determined he should be hanged, and consequently organized a committee, composed of some of the members of the first committee and other freeholders, who condemned him to be hanged; and, in pursuance of the sentence, he was executed in Livingston. Under the gallows he acknowledged his guilt, and said that R. Blake told him of the insurrection … Blake told him he must kill his master first, which he promised to do. Blake told him he was to be one of the captains of the negroes, &c.

And this is a wealth of information compared to some. Elsewhere we are left with passing allusions, shocking and frustratingly sparse, fragments deposited by a whirlwind.

In Warren County, the slave Israel Campbell remembered in his autobiography how he “saw the place where the slaughter took place. Two large wooden forks, with a pole laid from one to the other, served for the gallows, and they told me men hung there two days and nights.” But he never quite tells us how many or just when.

A July 8 letter from a white man in Clinton, Mississippi,* remarks that “a general excitement prevails, and every one is vigilant in the detecting and hanging of all villains, and it requires but little proof. I cannot say how many have been hung and shot among the white and blacks.”

From Mississippi Springs* on the same date: “Many white persons have been suspected of giving encouragement to it — some taken up, others pursued — those taken up have invariably been hung after a hasty examination by those who apprehended them; no more ceremony than is usually used upon hanging a dog for killing sheep is extended to them … A great number of negroes have been hung, and they are hanging them daily.”

Rothman again:

From near Natchez, about forty miles south of Claiborne, a plantation governess wrote in her diary about “insurrections, hangings, patrolling, and all sorts of frights” in the area, and one man wrote from Natchez itself that everyone in the city was “under arms all the time” and “hourly expect[ed] an insurrection, as the celebrated negro stealers Murrel and his band, are at the head of all the negroes.” All the towns upriver from Natchez, the man reported, were similarly guarded, and people in those places were “catching from 5 to 20 every day … and they hang them without judge or jury …

Future U.S. Senator and Mississippi Governor Henry Stuart Foote lived then in Clinton and his memoir heaped scorn on the ur-text of this statewide paroxysm, Virgil Stewart’s pamphlet claiming that small-time outlaw John Murrell was really a master criminal orchestrating a slave revolution. Foote remembered how in a timeless phenomenon “those who dared even to question the actual existence of the dangers which he depictured [sic] were suspected by their more excited fellow-citizens of a criminal insensibility to the supposed perils of the hour.”

[In Clinton] after the first organization of the vigilance committee, which sat afterward every day, the excitement, as was natural, increased perceptibly every hour. Suspected persons, both white and black, were apprehended everywhere; some of whom were brought before the committee for examination, while others, whose guilt seemed to be fully established, were hung without ceremony along the roadsides or in front of their own dwellings by those who had apprehended them …

Madison county was still the main focus of excitement, and every day we heard in the peaceful village where I dwelt of some new case of supposed guilt which had been there developed, and some new application of punishment not known to the law of the land, but which was supposed to be justified by the terrible necessity then dominating over all things beside.

Circumstances being what they are, we cannot but assume that such episodes each stand in for added multiples of lives taken by fire or noose or musketry, on plantation fastnesses or remote byways or hamlets too small for their own scrivener … nameless lives whose loss never spilled a drop of ink.

* Published in the Ohio State Journal, July 24, 1835.

* Published in the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, July 30, 1835.

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1835: Five professional gamblers lynched at Vicksburg

1 comment July 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1835, five professional gamblers were strung up in Vicksburg.

It was an event more adjacent to than constituent of the slave rebellion panic shaking Mississippi, for the men were neither slaves nor their confederates and they were not struck down for threatening the Slave Power; at best, the uneasiness of possible insurrectionary stirrings abroad informed the tense background, or offered the post hoc justification — but these lynchings were a different thing that inhabited by chance the same time and place.

A Mississippi River boomtown “created by the easy credit of the Jacksonian ‘flush times’ and the scramble for wealth coincidental to Indian removal,” wrote Joshua Rothman,* Vicksburg had become a haven for faro players and other imps. The reports of this date’s events run thick with moralizing but as Rothman observes,

The merchants, doctors, lawyers, and planters who constituted Vicksburg’s budding elite may have believed professional gamblers threatened their moral integrity, but most people in Vicksburg were essentially speculators who had risked migration to the Southwest for the allure of fast profits almost unimaginable everywhere else in the country. In a very real sense, nearly everyone in Vicksburg was a gambler.

Then as now the high rollers at the tables of casino capitalism make free to snort at their louche progenitors and their marked cards and cathouse molls; gambling was a top-shelf moral hazard throughout 19th century America.

Whatever uneasy accommodation Vicksburg’s respectable had made with their cardsharps came to an abrupt end at an Independence Day barbecue that Fourth of July, when a player got into an altercation with a civilian and, ejected from the festivities, boldly returned to the scene armed, looking for trouble. Incensed townspeople overpowered him and drug him out of town to tar and feather him and order him out of town.

The summary executions that will follow two days hence would be widely condemned as news of the event echoed to the corners of the Republic, but that condemnation would always be attenuated by the nigh-universal public disapproval attached to gambling. A dispatch from Vicksburg that reached many other newspapers — we’re quoting it from the July 31, 1835 Richmond (Va.) Whig; one may find the piece in its entirety here — trowels on thick paragraphs of sermonizing before we come to the narrative: “shameless vices and daring outrages … destitute of all sense of moral obligations … intent only on the gratification of their avarice … vile and lawless machinations … every species of transgression … drunken and obscene mirth …” Et cetera, et cetera.

Now that we’ve forded this mighty river of invective, we find the townspeople of Vicksburg post-tar-and-feathering, “having thus aggravated the whole band of these desperadoes,

and feeling no security against their vengeance — the citizens met at night in the Court house, in a large number, and there passed the following resolutions:

Resolved, That a notice be given to all Professional Gamblers, that the citizens of Vicksburg are resolved, to exclude them from this place and its vicinity; and that twenty-four hours notice be given them to leave the place.

Resolved, That all persons permitting faro-dealing in their houses, be also notified that they will be prosecuted therefor.

Resolved, That one hundred copies of the foregoing resolutions be printed and stuck up at the corners of the streets — and that this publication be deemed notice.

Most of Vicksburg’s wagering fanciers took the ultimatum seriously and blew town. They were wise to do so.

On the 6th, as promised, Vicksburg’s soldiery marched door to door through a roster of homes suspected of hosting illicit gambling and there “dragged out every faro table, and other gambling apparatus that could be found” … until,

At length they approached a house which was occupied by one of the most profligate of the gang, whose name was North, and in which, it was understood that a garrison of armed men had been stationed. All hoped that these wretches would be intimidated by the superior numbers of their assailants, and surrender themselves at discretion, rather than attempt a desperate defence.

The House being surrounded, the back door was burst open, when four or five shots were fired from the interior, one of which instantly killed Doctor Hugh S. Bodley, a citizen universally beloved and respected.

The interior was so dark that the villains could not be seen, but several of the citizens, guided by the flash of their guns, returned their fire. A yell from one of the party announced that one of the shots had been effectual, and by this time a crowd of citizens, their indignation overcoming all other feelings — burst open every door of the building and dragged into the light, those who had not been wounded.

North, the ringleader, who had contrived this desperate plot, could not be found in the building, but was apprehended by a citizen, while attempting in company with another, to make his escape at a place not far distant. Himself, with the rest of the prisoners, were then conducted in silence to the scaffold.

One of them not having been in the building before it was attacked, nor appearing to be concerned with the rest, except that he was the brother of one of them, was liberated. The remaining number of five, among whom was the individual who had been shot, but who still lived, were immediately executed in presence of the assembled multitude. All sympathy for the wretches was completely merged in detestation and horror of their crime.

The whole procession then returned to the city, collected all the Faro Tables into a pile and burnt them.

The names of the individuals who perished, were as follows: North, Hullams, Dutch Bill, Smith and McCall.

Their bodies were cut down on the morning after their execution and buried in a ditch.

It is not expected that this act will pass without censure from those who had not an opportunity of knowing and feeling the dire necessity out of which it originated. The laws, however severe in their provision, have never been sufficient to correct a vice which must be established by positive proof, and cannot, like others, be shown from circumstantial testimony.

It is practised too, by individuals whose whole study is to violate the law in such a manner as to evade its punishment, and who never are in want of secret confederates to swear them out of their difficulties, whose oaths cannot be impeached for any specific cause.

We have borne with these enormities, until to have suffered them any longer would not only have proved us to be destitute of every manly sentiment, but would also have implicated us in the guilt of accessories to their crimes. Society may be compared to the elements which although “order is their first law,” can sometimes be purified only by a storm. Whatever therefore sickly sensibility or mawkish philanthropy may say against the course pursued by us, we hope that our citizens will not relax the code of punishment which they have enacted against this infamous and baleful class of society — and we invite Natchez, Jackson, Columbus, Warrenton, and all our sister towns throughout the State, in the name of our insulted laws — of offended virtue and of slaughtered innocence, to aid us in exterminating this deep-rooted vice from our land.

* “The Hazards of the Flush Times: Gambling, Mob Violence, and the Anxieties of America’s Market Revolution,” The Journal of American History, Dec. 2008. Also recommended: Rothman’s book Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson.

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1835: Joshua Cotton and William Saunders, steam doctors

1 comment July 4th, 2017 Headsman

In the Mississippi slave insurrection panic of 1835, slavers’ fears attached themselves right from the start to the prospect of white leadership affiliating with the prospective black rising.

Israel Campbell, a slave who would eventually reach freedom in the North and publish a fascinating autobiography on the eve of the Civil War, was present in the vicinity. He knew nothing of any rebellion until

two white men came to my house one night after I had gone to bed, and ordered me to get up immediately. I could not think, for my life, what was the matter. Before I got my clothes on, they became impatient, and called for me to open the door. As I done this, one of them seized me by the collar, having a bowie-knife in one hand. Uttering a horrible oath, he asked —

“What do you know about Doctor Cotton’s scrape?”

“Nothing at all, sir,” I replied.

“Don’t you tell me a lie. Do you know Dr. Cotton? When did you see him last?”

I replied, that I would not tell them a lie; that I did know Mr. Cotton, but that I had not seen him for some time. They went on asking a number of questions, wanting to know if I knew Harris’ old Dave, the negro preacher, and when I heard him preach last, and where at? I answered them satisfactorily these queries. They then wanted to know if I staid at the meeting until the people had all dispersed? If they talked any thing about getting free and killing the white people?

I replied to them about knowing the different parties; but about the rising of the slaves I had heard nothing.

After convincing themselves that I was ignorant, they left, warning me, however, not to be caught outside our own plantation, nor talk with any strange negroes or white men. They told me that Dr. Cotton and some other mean white men and a great many of the negroes were laying plans to rise and kill off the white people and free the negroes. After giving me some brandy, and again warning me, that if I did not heed their advice, I would be shot, they left my house.

They, with other parties, went around among all the slave quarters. Many they scared so badly, that they told lies of every description, and suffered for it. When they thought they had succeeded in quelling the insurrection, they commenced punishing those they had caught. Some they hung, others they burned, and some of those they thought not so guilty they pulled cats back-wards on their bare backs. Two of the party hung themselves in the prison.

The man these rude guests hunted with that menacing Bowie knife was Joshua Cotton, an itinerant homeopath expounding the fad launched by Samuel Thomson‘s hit publication New Guide to Health. Thomson had by means of some natural palliatives healed his family of several ailments that confounded legitimate medical practitioners; his emphasis on having patients sweat out toxins by immersion in steam led his followers to be derided as “steam doctors.”

Cotton wasn’t the only steam doctor beating the bushes in Madison County: an intimate named William Saunders was also about. Their wandering practice, interacting with free men and slaves alike, profiled as precisely the types who would be orchestrating a coordinated rebellion — and they had been implicated under the lash by the Beatties Bluff slaves, where the insurrection panic had begun days earlier.

Though not yet aware that they would be caught up in the panic, the steam doctors were making their own moves in these days. Saunders attended a June 30 meeting of Livingston whites to organize suppression of the supposed rebellion and advised them that the other steam doctor, Cotton, “was in the habit of trading with negroes; would buy any thing they would steal and bring to him.” This put the vigilantes onto Cotton; Saunders left town in peace and made, so he said, for Texas — which would have been a wise choice, as events would show.

On the road to Vicksburg and a river crossing to the safety of Louisiana, Saunders repeated the story to another traveler who just so happened to have a more suspicious frame of mind than the Livingstonians. This Good Samaritan promptly brought Saunders in as a suspected conspirator himself. Both steam doctors were under lock and key as the Beatties Bluff allegations of their complicity reached Livingston.

Saunders elaborated his charges against Cotton, plainly hoping to trade his opposite number’s life for his own: that Cotton was forever going about pretending to lose his horses in the countryside “as a pretext for hunting them, that he might have opportunities to converse with the negroes, and, by that means, to seduce them from their allegiance to their owners, by instilling rebellious notions among them; and to form plans, and to make converts to his propositions, which he could not do by being a steam-doctor.” Since a slave brought from Beatties Bluff also identified Cotton on sight as the man keen on seducing him to rebellion, Cotton could perceive that his fate was surely sealed, and while the vigilantes deliberated on July 4 he sent them a desperate offer to confess in exchange for leniency. The committee refused the offer … but confession was still the only card Cotton had to play, and he submitted the confession on spec. In it, he leaned for his narrative on Virgil Stewart’s recently published claims about a slave plot led by the bandit John Murrell.

I am one of the Murrell clan, a member of what we called the grand council … Our object in undertaking to excite the negroes to rebellion, was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder. I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet … from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the 4th of July, and it would have been tried to-night (and perhaps may yet), but for the detection of our plans.

Cotton also repaid tit for tat by naming Saunders as one of the plotters, confirming some slaves’ accusations and leaving the backstabbing chum to twist on his own useless protestations of innocence.

The upshot of Cotton’s statement was an offer to buy his own life by continuing to reveal more information about the conspiracy going forward — essentially, to become a standing informant against anyone whom the slavers might next suspect. “But the committee, deeming it of infinitely more importance to check the impending storm, by immediately destroying two of the ringleaders, and thereby creating dismay and panic among them, ordered their execution” — which was effected immediately, both steam doctors being marched directly from their hearing to the jail where, “fastening a rope to the grating of a window, in the upper story of the jail, and leaning a couple of rails against the wall, assisted the culprits upon the rails; then, adjusting the other end of the rope around their necks, removed the rails. They were left hanging until the next morning.”

The final extent of the executions/lynchings meted out during the course the insurrection panic is uncertain. Israel Campbell, however, would remember that Cotton and Saunders were certainly not the end of it when it came to rootless itinerants in the vicinity — and not only the steam doctor set. “[T]he party who were making arrests endeavored to get hold of every steam doctor and colored preacher they could,” he wrote in his autobiography.

[O]nce in their grasp, there was very little mercy shown them. The heads of the preachers they cut off and put on poles, and placed them along the road, where they remained until they were bleached. I saw several of their skulls in an apothecary store at Mount Vernon the latter part of that fall. Dr. Cotton was a noble-looking man and a friend to the slave, and he died a martyr to the cause he had so much at heart, — the emancipation of the slave.

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