Posts filed under 'South Carolina'

1822: Gullah Jack

Add comment July 12th, 2020 Headsman

The slave Gullah* Jack was executed by South Carolina on this date in 1822, for his involvement in Denmark Vesey‘s attempted rebellion.

Angola-born, he’d been imported to the United States by prolific Florida slave-trader Zephaniah Kingsley. Kingsley described Jack as a priest in his own country, and whilst owned by a Charleston man named Paul Pritchard he’s known to have been involved in that city’s African Methodist Episcopal congregation — the same frequented by Vesey.

The late historian Sterling Stuckey parses the simpatico between Vesey’s insurrectionary Christiniaty and Gullah Jack’s Angolan mysticism in Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory & the Foundations of Black America, referencing testimony elicited by the tribunal investigating the Denmark Vesey conspiracy.

Gullah Jack’s sentence
9th July, 1922 — Jack, a slave belonging to Paul Pritchard, commonly called GULLAH JACK, and sometimes COUTER JACK, was brought up, and sentence pronounced by L.H. KENNEDY, Presiding Magistrate.

JACK PRITCHARD — The Court, after deliberately considering all the circumstances of you case, are perfectly satisfied of your guilt. In the prosecution of your wicked designs, you were not satisfied with resorting to natural and ordinary means, but endeavored to enlist on your behalf, all the powers of darkness, and employed for that purpose, the most disgusting mummery and superstition. You represented yourself as invulnerable; that you could neither be taken nor destroyed and that all who fought under your banners would be invincible. While such wretched expedients are calculated to inspire the confidence, or to alarm the fears of the ignorant and credulous, they excite no other emotion in the mind of the intelligent and enlightened, but contempt and disgust. Your boasted Charms have not preserved yourself, and of course could not protect others. “Your Altars and your Gods have sunk together in the dust.” The airy spectres, conjured by you, have been chased away by the special light of Truth, and you stand exposed, the miserable and deluded victim of offended Justice. Your days are literally numbered. You will shortly be consigned to the cold and silent grave, and all the Posers of Darkness cannot re[s]cue you from your approaching Fate! Let me then conjure you to devote the remnant of your miserable existence, in fleeing from the “wrath to come”. This can only be done by a full disclosure of the truth. The Court are willing to afford you all the aid in their power, and to permit any Minister of the Gospel, whom you may select to have free access to you. To him you may unburthen your guilty conscience. Neglect not the opportunity, for there is “no device nor art beyond the tomb,” to which you must shortly be consigned.

Vesey used Christian radicalism to reinforce and rationalize his call to arms:

Though Vesey’s room was full I did not know one individual there. At this meeting Vesey said we were to take the Guard-House and Magazine and get arms; that we ought to rise up and fight against the whites for our liberties; he was the first to rise up and speak, and he read to us from the Bible, how the children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage.

Vesey’s brand of Christianity complemented the African religion of Gullah Jack. Jack drew on African cultural practices widespread in black Africa to encourage insurrection, preaching the conjurer’s doctrine of invincibility. His personality, from all accounts, was African and as intact, despite the horror of the Atlantic voyage, as one could expect of one grounded in the heritage of his people. Purchased in Angola, he “had his conjuring implements with him in a bag which he brought on board the ship, and always retained them” — tangible evidence of his belief that his God lived. Described as a small man, “a Gullah Negro, with small hands and feet and large whiskers,” Jack “kept alive African religious traditions,” offering recruits African religious symbols “to guarantee victory.” At a meeting at Vesey’s, “Vesey supported Jack, referring to him as ‘a little man named Jack, who could not be killed, and who … had a charm and he would lead them.'”

Jack Pritchard also called on me about this business — he is sometimes called Gullah Jack, sometimes Cooter Jack; he gave me some dry food, consisting of parched corn and ground nuts, and said eat that and nothing else on the morning it breaks out … and you can’t be wounded, and said he, I give the same to the rest of my troops.

William, “a Negro man belonging to Mr. John Paul,” testified against Gullah Jack, saying that “all those belonging to the African Church are involved in the insurrection, from the country to the town — that there is a little man amongst them who can’t be shot, killed or caught.” And he reported that there was a “Gullah Society [a society of Angolans] going on which met once a month.” … it hardly matters which “church” Jack attended, since he moved with ease in the Charleston setting, persuading with his mystic powers:

Until Jack was taken up and condemned to death, I felt as if I was bound up, and had not the power to speak one word about it — Jack charmed Julius and myself at last, and we then consented to join — Tom Russell the Blacksmith and Jack are partners, (in conjuring) Jack learnt him to be a doctor … Jack said Tom was his second and when you don’t see me, and see Tom, you see me. Jack said Tom was making arms for the black people — Jack said he could not be killed, nor could a white man take him.

He was publicly hanged together with a slave named John, owned by Elias Horry, on the morning of July 12 in Charleston; three others condemned for the same occasion had their sentences respited for a week. There’s a recent book focused on surfacing this amazing character, A Documented History of Gullah Jack Pritchard and the Denmark Vesey Slave Insurrection of 1822.

* “Gullah” still today refers to the culturally distinctive coastal Lowcountry African-Americans and to their still-extant creole tongue. The term apparently derives from “Angola” and was in general use to describe people from that part of Africa — as with this advert for slaves to be sold on January 27, 1806, printed in the same day’s Charleston Daily Courier:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Slaves,South Carolina,Treason,USA

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1913: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment April 4th, 2019 Headsman

Alabama

From the Evening Star, April 4, 1913:

Florida

From the Tampa Tribune, April 5, 1913:

South Carolina

From the Charleston News and Courier, April 5, 1913:

West Virginia

From the Lexington Herald, April 5, 1913:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,Hanged,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Carolina,USA,West Virginia

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1771: Edmund James and Joseph Jordan, runaway slave aides

Add comment March 1st, 2019 Headsman

From this doctoral dissertation (pdf) by Gabriele Gottlieb:

The early 1770s in Charleston also saw the largest number of executions of whites who had been convicted of crimes connected with slavery. On March 1, 1771, Edmund James and Joseph Jordan were hanged for “aiding runaway slaves.” Jones [sic], the master of the schooner Two Josephs, and Jordan, a sailor, allegedly had stolen the schooner, taking with them several slaves. Thomas Dannails, a third condemned defendant, was pardoned after he was “recommended to Mercy by the Jury.” Several slaves, likely some of those who had run away on the Two Josephs, were hanged together with Jordan and Jones.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,South Carolina,Theft,USA

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1820: John and Lavinia Fisher

Add comment February 18th, 2019 Headsman

February 18, 1820 was the execution date of South Carolina crime Hall of Famers John and Lavinia Fisher.

By legendary repute the first serial killer in America, Fisher and her husband John were said to lure travelers to their Six Mile Wayfarer House near Ashley Ferry outside Charleston where they’d be poisoned, stabbed, and robbed.

Alas, the Fishers were actually a more conventional sort of brigand.


National Advocate for the Country (New York, N.Y.), January 28, 1820.

Quite incredible legends have been embroidered for this purported Bates Motel of the early Republic: for instance, that their cover was blown by a man named John Peoples/Peeples who grew suspicious enough to avoid drinking the poisoned tea and then sat up all night like young Felix Platter until he caught wind of the imminent attack, sprang out a window, and fled to safety. If so, it was a woeful failure of the period’s journalists merely to report that he had been savagely beaten and robbed.

A few books about the Lavinia Fisher case

Instead, these two seemed to be part of a gang of bandits who occupied not only their Six Mile House but also the Five Mile House, and Lavinia wasn’t the only woman in the lot: one Jane Howard was among the half-dozen arrested when the Six Mile lair was raided by a vigilante posse in February 1819, along with William Heyward, James M’Elwray, and Seth Young, along with others uncaptured. (Names via National Advocate, March 3, 1819) Papers of the time slate them with offenses like stealing livestock and highway robbery, and it’s the latter crime — not murder — that brought the Fishers to their gallows.

Either way, Charleston tour guides will tell you that she haunts the old city jail to this day. She’s also famous for her purported last words, “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it,” which might even be a real quote.


Alexandria [Va.] Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1820

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Public Executions,South Carolina,The Supernatural,Theft,USA,Women

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1880: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment July 9th, 2018 Headsman

A half-dozen murderers hanged in five different U.S. states on this date in 1880.


Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, July 10, 1880. We make the count six, not four.
George Allen Price (Pennsylvania)


Harrisburg (Penn.) Patriot, July 10, 1880.

George Sanford and Richard McKee (Arkansas)


Columbus (Ga.) Daily Enquirer, July 13, 1880.

Alexander Howard (North Carolina), Daniel Washington (South Carolina), and Henry Ryan (Georgia)

(Note: Henry Ryan’s execution is missing from the Espy File of U.S. executions.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Murder,North Carolina,Ohio,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Carolina,USA

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1828: Uriah Sligh

Add comment February 22nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Charleston Courier, March 29, 1827.

PENDLETON, MARCH 21. — We regret to announce that Captain Jehu Orr, who was stabbed on the 12th of February by Uriah Sligh, died on Sunday morning last of the wound.

Captain Orr has been long an inhabitant of the district, and has been very generally esteemed as an upright man and respectable citizen. His sufferings from the period of the infliction of the wound to that of his death, are represented to have been severe, and to have been borne with the most Christian fortitude.

Sligh, who was some time since admitted to bail, has been recommitted, and will probably be tried at the ensuing Court, which will commence on Monday next.

From Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pa.), March 13, 1828:

Pendleton, (S.C.) February 27, 1828.

On Friday last pursuant to the sentence of the law, Uriah Sligh was executed at this place for the murder of Jehu Orr.

As usual on such occasions, a large concourse of people assembled to witness the last pangs of a suffering fellow creature. It is certainly a strange curiosity which prompts people to attend the execution of a criminal, but it has so happened that the three occurrences of the kind which have unfortunately taken place here within two years, have severally collected together a more numerous assemblage than we have observed on any other occasion.

The following has been handed us by a gentleman who was present; the address being as nearly as can be remembered in the words uttered by the criminal on the eve of execution: —

After some religious exercises, he rose and addressed the crowd as follows.

Fellow-Citizens of Pendleton District — You see me in this situation. It is intemperance has brought me here. I was an honest and industrious man and strove to maintain my family in honesty and comfort.

I have no recollection of the action for which I am now suffering. I never had any ill-will or intention of killing that man.

And I now warn all of the danger of a habit of intemperance; particularly the poorer class who have it not always in their power. When they have an opportunity they will go to great excess.

I would exhort all to seek religion as the only sure guard against such awful practices. If you were always in the discharge of your duty and serving your God, you would be in no danger of coming to an end like mine.

He then knelt down and prayed with much earnestness that the Lord would pardon his sins and receive him to happiness; expressing a strong hope that as the blessed Saviour had promised that none who came to him should be cast out, he would also receive his spirit, and cleanse him by his blood.

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

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1719: Richard Worley, pirate

Add comment February 17th, 2017 Charles Johnson

(Thanks to Captain Charles Johnson — perhaps a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe — for the guest post. It was originally Chapter XIII “Of Captain WORLEY, And his Crew” in Johnson’s magnum and only opus, A General History of the Pyrates.)

[Richard Worley‘s] Reign was but short, but his Beginning somewhat particular, setting out in a small open Boat, with eight others, from New-York. This was as resolute a Crew as ever went upon this Account: They took with them a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, half a dozen old Muskets and Ammunition accordingly. Thus provided, they left New-York the latter End of September 1718, but it cannot be supposed that such a Man of War as this, could undertake any considerable Voyage, or attempt any extraordinary Enterprize; so they stood down the Coast, till they came to Delaware River, which is about 150 Miles distant, and not meeting with any Thing in their Way, they turn’d up the same River as high as Newcastle, near which Place they fell upon a Shallop belonging to George Grant, who was bringing Houshold Goods, Plate, &c. from Oppoquenimi to Philadelphia; they made Prize of the most valuable Part of them, and let the Shallop go. This Fact could not come under the Article of Pyracy, it not being committed super altum Mare, upon the High-Sea, therefore was a simple Robbery only; but they did not stand for a Point of Law in the Case, but easing the Shallop Man of his Lading, the bold Adventurers went down the River again.

The Shallop came straight to Philadelphia, and brought the ill News thither, which so alarm’d the Government, as if War had been declared against them; Expresses were sent to New-York, and other Places, and several Vessels fitted out against this powerful Rover, but to no manner of Purpose; for after several Days Cruize, they all return’d, without so much as hearing what became of the Robbers.

Worley and his Crew, in going down the River, met with a Sloop of Philadelphia, belonging to a Mulatto, whom they call’d Black Robbin; they quitted their Boat for this Sloop, taking one of Black Robin’s Men along with them, as they had also done from George Grant, besides two Negroes, which encreased the Company one Third. A Day or two after, they took another Sloop belonging to Hull, homeward bound, which was somewhat fitter for their Purpose; they found aboard her, Provisions and Necessaries, which they stood in need of, and enabled them to prosecute their Design, in a manner more suitable to their Wishes.

Upon the Success of these Rovers, the Governor issued out a Proclamation, for the apprehending and taking all Pyrates, who had refused or neglected to surrender themselves, by the Time limited in his Majesty’s Proclamation of Pardon; and thereupon, ordered his Majesty’s Ship Phoenix, of 20 Guns, which lay at Sandy Hook, to Sea, to cruize upon this Pyrate, and secure the Trade to that, and the adjoining Colonies.

In all probability, the taking this Sloop sav’d their Bacons, for this Time, tho’ they fell into the Trap presently afterwards; for they finding themselves in tolerable good Condition, having a Vessel newly cleaned, with Provisions, &c. they stood off to Sea, and so missed the Phoenix, who expected them to be still on the Coast.

About six Weeks afterwards they returned, having taken both a Sloop and a Brigantine, among the Bahama Islands; the former they sunk, and the other they let go: The Sloop belonged to New-York, and they thought the sinking of her good Policy, to prevent her returning to tell Tales at Home.

Worley had by this Time encreased his Company to about five and twenty Men, had six Guns mounted, and small Arms as many as were necessary for them, and seem’d to be in a good thriving sort of a Way. He made a black Ensign, with a white Death’s Head in the Middle of it, and other Colours suitable to it.* They all signed Articles, and bound themselves under a solemn Oath, to take no Quarters, but to stand by one another to the last Man, which was rashly fulfill’d a little afterwards.

For going into an Inlet in North-Carolina, to clean, the Governor received Information of it, and sitted out two Sloops, one of eight Guns, and the other with six, and about seventy Men between them. Worley had clean’d his Sloop, and sail’d before the Carolina Sloops reached the Place, and steered to the Northward; but the Sloops just mentioned, pursuing the same Course, came in sight of Worley, as he was cruising off the Capes of Virginia, and being in the Offin, he stood in as soon as he saw the Sloops, intending thereby to have cut them off from James River; for he verily believed they had been bound thither, not imagining, in the least, they were in Pursuit of him.

The two Sloops standing towards the Capes at the same Time, and Worley hoisting of his black Flag, the Inhabitants of James Town were in the utmost Consternation, thinking that all three had been Pyrates, and that their Design had been upon them; so that all the Ships and Vessels that were in the Road, or in the Rivers up the Bay, had Orders immediately to hale in to the Shore, for their Security, or else to prepare for their Defence, if they thought themselves in a Condition to fight. Soon after two Boats, which were sent out to get Intelligence, came crowding in, and brought an Account, that one of the Pyrates was in the Bay, being a small Sloop of six Guns. The Governor expecting the rest would have followed, and altogether make some Attempt to land, for the sake of Plunder, beat to Arms, and collected all the Force that could be got together, to oppose them; he ordered all the Guns out of the Ships, to make a Platform, and, in short, put the whole Colony in a warlike Posture; but was very much surprised at last, to see all the supposed Pyrates fighting with one another.

The Truth of the Matter is, Worley gained the Bay, thinking to make sure of his two Prizes, by keeping them from coming in; but by the hoisting of the King’s Colours, and firing a Gun, he quickly was sensible of his Mistake, and too soon perceived that the Tables were turned upon him; that instead of keeping them out, he found himself, by a superiour Force kept in. When the Pyrates saw how Things went, they resolutely prepar’d themselves for a desperate Defence; and tho’ three to one odds, Worley and his Crew determined to fight to the last Gasp, and receive no Quarters, agreeably to what they had before sworn; so that they must either Dye or Conquer upon the Spot.

The Carolina Men gave the Pyrate a Broadside, and then Boarded him, one Sloop getting upon his Quarter, and the other on his Bow; Worley and the Crew, drew up upon the Deck, and fought very obstinately, Hand to Hand, so that in a few Minutes, abundance of Men lay weltering in their Gore; the Pyrates proved as good as their Words, not a Man of them cry’d out for Quarter, nor would accept of such, when offered, but were all killed except the Captain and another Man, and those very much wounded, whom they reserved for the Gallows. They were brought ashore in Irons, and the next Day, which was the 17th of February 1718-19, they were both hanged up, for fear they should dye, and evade the Punishment as was thought due to their Crimes.

* The origin of the skull-and-crossbones design we commonly associate with pirates is murky, but Worley is often credited as one of the earliest to sail under it. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,South Carolina,USA

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1820: The slaves Ephraim and Sam, “awful dispensation of justice”

Add comment January 28th, 2017 Headsman

From the Savannah Daily Gazette, Feb. 5, 1820:


From the August Chronicle 2d inst.

EXECUTION:

On Friday last two negro men, named Ephraim and Sam, were executed in conformity to their sentence, for the murder of their master Mr. Thomas Hancock, of Edgefield District S.C.

Sam was burnt and Ephraim hung, and his head severed from his body and publicly exposed. The circumstances attending the crime for which these miserable beings have suffered, were of a nature so aggravated, as imperiously demanded the terrible punishment which has been inflicted upon them.

The burning of malefactors is a punishment only resorted to, when absolute necessity demands a signal example. It must be a horrid and appealing sight to see a human being consigned to the flames.

Let even fancy picture the scene — the pile — the stake — the victim — and the mind sickens, and sinks under the oppression of its own feelings — what then must be the dread reality!

From some of the spectators we learn, that it was a scene which transfixed in breathless horror almost every one who witnessed it. As the flames approached, the piercing shrieks of the unfortunate victim struck upon the heart with a fearful, painful vibration — but when the devouring element seized upon his body, all was hushed — yet the cry of agony still thrilled in the ear, and an involuntary and sympathetic shudder ran thro’ the crowd.

We hope that this awful dispensation of justice may be attended with such salutary effects as to forever preclude the necessity of its repetition.

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

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1926: The Lowman lynchings

3 comments October 8th, 2016 Headsman

Aiken, South Carolina disgraced October 8, 1926 with the lynching of three members of the Lowman family.

American lynch law come 1926 was into its decline phase; the 30 lynchings in that year across the country have never been equalled in the nine decades since, but were also 50% below the rates at the beginning of the 1920s, and very far from the peak 1890s where triple-digit counts of mob murder were the perennial norm.

One might say that both the phenomenon and its pracitioners had matured. If exhortations to better refer justice to the law were the authorities’ running strategy for quelling lynch mobs, then the mobs themselves became complicit with the barristers — and could reserve recourse to extrajudicial means for occasions when the courts failed to work Judge Lynch’s will. Leo Frank’s case a decade prior to this is an excellent example: though there was a virtual lynch atmosphere at his trial, it was only after the man’s death sentence had been commuted by the governor that a lynch gang systematically extracted the man from prison to slay him.

Something like this pattern appears to distinguish the Lowman lynchings.

This dreadful case began with an exercise in that other grand tradition of racialized justice, the drug war — Prohibition-style. On April 25, 1925, the Lowmans’ tenant farm near Monetta was raided by police on a bootlegging tip.* The Lowmans resisted and a firefight broke out, leaving two dead: Annie Lowman, and Sheriff Henry Hampton “Bud” Howard.

Annie’s killing would of course never be punished. But inside of three weeks, fourteen-year-old Clarence Lowman was death-sentenced as Sheriff Howard’s killer, along with his cousin and “conspirator” 21-year-old Demmon Lowman. Bertha Lowman, Demmon’s older sister, received a life sentence.

And so Judge Lynch might rest easy.

Except that one year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court surprisingly threw out the Lowmans’ sentences as prejudicially obtained. The second trial began in October and right away the state suffered a setback when Judge Samuel Lanham threw out the murder case against Demmon Lowman.

Judge Lynch was wide awake now.

That very night — October 7 — white vigilantes organized a new verdict. According to the NAACP’s investigation, “within one hour of [Lanham’s] decision, news had been sent to as distant a point as Columbia that the three Lowmans were to be lynched that night.”

At 3 o’clock in the morning of October 8, and aided by the local constabulary, the mob stormed the jail and dragged Clarence, Demmon and Bertha Lowman away to a pine thicket outside of town where they were gunned down.

“On the way Clarence Lowman jumped from the car in which he was held,” the NAACP investigator would later report in the summation of his interviews.

He was shot down and recaptured, in order to prevent telltale blood marks, a rope was tied to the back of the car and the other end of it around Clarence’s body. In this manner he was dragged about a mile to the place of execution. The members of the mob sated that Bertha was the hardest one to kill. She was shot but not killed instantly. She dragged herself over the ground and as one member of the mob put it, ‘bleated like a goat.’ Another member of the mob, slightly more decent, said that she begged so piteously for her life and squirmed about so that a number of shots had to be fired before one found a vital spot and ended her agony.

Although the NAACP supplied South Carolina’s governor with the identities of 22 alleged members of the lynch mobs (including the sheriff himself) and 11 other witnesses to its actions, no man was ever sanctioned for this event, and an all-white grand jury declined to forward any indictments.

A distant Lowman relative was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle recollecting the stories his grandmother told about that horrible night, and the impression those stories had in his own life.

“She [grandma] talked about it all the time,” William Cue said. “Took them out of jail — drug them out like dead mules. When I drive past, I think about it — it happened in that house. … I learned something from that. … There was a lot of times where a man mistreated me and it kept me from doing anything.”

* It’s been argued by latter-day researchers that the tip itself was bogus, and supplied to police further to a personal vendetta — which, if true, would make the Lowmans victims of the 1920s version of SWATting.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lynching,Murder,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,South Carolina,USA

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1911: Daniel “Nealy” Duncan, posthumous pardon candidate

2 comments July 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1911, still professing his innocence, Daniel “Nealy” Duncan hanged in the county jail at Charleston, South Carolina.

“Short, thick set and very black,”* Duncan was, at length, arrested for the murder of a King Street tailor named Max Lubelsky. Poor Mr. Lubelsky had been discovered on June 21, 1910 as he lay dying of a fractured skull — the bloody cudgel rudely enhanced with a nail abandoned beside its victim was the only clue, besides someone in the neighborhood who thought they noticed “a negro, dressed in a blue suit, wearing a derby hat”** who left the store around the time of the midday attack. The attacker’s purpose was robbery.

With very little to go on, police “rounded up a number of characters” and, the papers forthrightly reported, gave these black men “the ‘third degree'”: that is, tortured them.

Granting that we find ourselves at this moment at the nadir of race relations in the Jim Crow south, these officers conceived themselves acting in good faith, torture and all. They were not utterly indiscriminate; several of the beaten-up suspects were able to produce an alibi and were duly released with their newly acquired welts. But in the absence of a witness (or knuckle-assisted self-incrimination) they had little to work with.

And so the assailant remained a mystery.

There matters still stood on July 8 when the widow Mrs. Lubelsky came racing out of her late husband’s store with blood streaming down her own face, crying murder at the top of her lungs.

To take up the narration reported in the next day’s edition of The State,

Just then a negro emerged and two men, Isaac Goodman and Moses Needle, who were passing, gave chase of the negro. He was caught a few blocks distant and promptly turned over to Police Officer Stanley and Detective Levy, who had also taken up the chase. Protesting his innocence and declaring that another negro had attempted to kill the woman, Daniels was taken to the station house amidst great excitement and the patrol wagon did not roll off any too soon from the excited neighborhood …

The State has given us an incriminating narration, but if we begin from our suspect’s denial it is not too difficult to conceive the scene otherwise — a bystander swept into the chaos as the panicked Mrs. Lubelsky barges out of her shop, the sudden attention of a crowd which the newsman gives us to understand was wound up enough for a lynching. You’d run, too.

The traumatized Mrs. Lubelsky insisted that it was Duncan who attacked her; this is one of the few pieces of palpable evidence we have in the case, though eyewitness error is a frequent factor in wrongful convictions. She would have glimpsed her assailant for a moment, dashed out of the store in a panic, then a fleeing man was chased down and hauled back to her — perfect cues for her memory to fix this man with all sincerity as the picture of her assailant.

And whatever the cliche about criminals returning to the scenes of their crimes, few are bold enough to repeat a literally identical attack days apart. It was basically just by analogy that the July 8 assault was held to place Duncan at the scene of the murder 17 days before; the vague description of the blue-suited man who might or might not have had anything to do with the murder could have fit Duncan or numerous other people. A local black man said that Duncan had been in the area on the day Max Lubelsky was killed, which would scarcely rise to the level of circumstantial even were one to discount the possible confirmation bias (or police pressure) introduced by Duncan’s arrest.

One would like to think (forlorn hope!) that a jury in 2015 would demand better than this to stretch a man’s neck … but in Charleston in 1910, it was enough to surpass reasonable doubt.†


The State, Oct. 8, 1910.

Duncan’s insistence on innocence was passed down in his own family and in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church whose congregation the hanged man once belonged to. In these halls, he is widely understood to have been an innocent man and this conclusion has not wanted for latter-day advocates.‡

The case surfaced to the broader public recently, with a push around the centennial of Duncan’s hanging to have him posthumously exonerated. The measure failed on a 3-3 vote in 19112011.

Left: Dead Weight, a historical novel based on the Duncan case; right: Charleston’s Trial, a nonfiction account.

Duncan was the last person hanged in Charleston, but not the last in South Carolina; there was a double execution in December of 1911 before the Palmetto state adopted electrocution beginning in 1912.

* The State (Columbia, S.C.), June 11, 1911.

** The State, June 22, 1911.

† The supernaturally inclined took notice from the August 1911 hurricane that devastated Charleston as a portend of Duncan’s innocence — and nicknamed it “the Duncan storm”.

‡ 2010-2011 media accounts indicated that the victim’s descendants did not share such confidence in Duncan’s innocence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Carolina,Theft,Torture,USA,Wrongful Executions

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