Execution of Nat Turner, Leader of 1831 Slave Rebellion
In the summer of 1831, Southern slave owners’ worst fears came true when Nat Turner led a rebellion of his fellow slaves, with the goal of killing as many whites as they could regardless of sex or age. The uprising began Aug. 21, 1831, and over the next 36 hours Turner led about 70 followers on a bloody rampage. Using mainly knives, hatchets and axes, they killed 55 people—31 of them infants and children—in Southampton County, Virginia, before being stopped by the militia. Turner managed to elude capture until October 30 when he was caught hiding in a cave. At his November 5 trial Turner was convicted and sentenced to die, and was executed on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia.
Nat Turner’s rebellion, capture, trial and hanging were big news, especially in Southern newspapers. On November 8, three days before his execution, the Richmond Compiler published this article. It was reprinted by the Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Nov. 19, 1831:
We understand that Nat Turner, the head of the Southampton Tragedy, was tried by the Court of that county on Saturday last. The evidence against him was clear and irresistible—he was condemned, and sentenced to be executed on Friday next. Will some future fatalist pretend to assert of him, as a Romancer of Albany has lately said of Gabriel, that he was torn to pieces by horses? We need scarcely add, that these remarkable executions are unknown in Virginia—that the insurgent, like any other murderer, dies by the cord—and that Nat Turner will be hung as were his associates in the massacre of Southampton.
The Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia) published this article on Nov. 18, 1831:
Nat Turner.—This wretched culprit expiated his crimes (crimes at the bare mention of which the blood runs cold) on Friday last. He betrayed no emotion, but appeared to be utterly reckless in the awful fate that awaited him, and even hurried the executioner in the performance of his duty! Precisely at 12 o’clock he was launched into eternity. There were but a few people to see him hanged. (Apropos—The Albany biographer of negro cut-throats will please to remember, that Nat was not torn limbless by horses, but simply “hanged by the neck till he was dead.” He may say, however, that General Nat sold his body for dissection, and spent the money in ginger cakes.)
A gentleman of Jerusalem has taken down his confession, which he intends to publish with an accurate likeness of the brigand, taken by Mr. John Crawley, portrait painter of this town, to be lithographed by Endicott & Swett, of Baltimore. (Norfolk Herald.)
The “gentleman of Jerusalem” was Thomas Ruffin Gray, a lawyer who interviewed Turner in his cell from Nov 1-3; right after his execution Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has a “DigitalCommons” repository that has published this 1831 book online.
As powerful and mysterious as he was in life, he was perhaps more so in dying—for no one who witnessed Nat Turner’s death ever forgot it. Hanging is a gruesome way to die, the victim kicking and twitching, often soiling himself in the final death throes. Not so with Nat Turner; he refused all entreaties to say a final word and went calmly to his death. When they tightened the rope, he took a last breath and peacefully passed away without a muscle trembling, much to the crowd’s astonishment. This remarkable death scene was noted in this article, published by the National Gazette and Literary Register (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Nov. 19, 1831:
Nat Turner.—We learn, says the Petersburg Intelligencer, by a gentleman from Southampton, that the fanatical murderer, Nat Turner, was executed according to sentence, at Jerusalem Friday last, about 1 o’clock. He exhibited the utmost composure throughout the whole ceremony; and although assured that he might if he thought proper, address the immense crowd assembled on the occasion, declined availing himself of the privilege, and told the sheriff in a firm voice that he was ready. Not a limb nor a muscle was observed to move. His body, after death, was given over to the Surgeons for dissection.
This comment was published by the City Gazette & Commercial Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina) on Nov. 21, 1831:
Nat Turner, the somewhat notorious, was hung at Norfolk on the 11th inst. He met his fate with a stupid sort of indifference—sold his body to the surgeons for dissection, and spent the money in ginger-cakes!
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