Nat Turner, Leader of Slave Revolt, Sentenced to Die
Whites throughout the South were traumatized in the summer of 1831 by a short-lived, bloody slave revolt led by Nat Turner, a man his fellow slaves called “The Prophet.” Beginning at 2:00 the morning of Aug. 21, 1831, Turner led as many as 70 followers on a 36-hour murderous rampage, invading homes to free slaves and kill all the white people they could find. By the time the local militia rallied and scattered Turner’s band, 55 whites—31 of them infants and children—in Southampton County, Virginia, were dead, most of them horribly butchered. Not wanting to use firearms because the noise would alert the neighbors, Turner and his followers used hatchets, axes, and clubs on their victims. In one particularly brutal attack, Mrs. Levi Waller was hacked to death and her ten children beheaded.
By all accounts, Turner was an extraordinarily intelligent yet peculiar man. Although education was not encouraged for slaves and in fact outlawed in many areas, he taught himself to read as a young child and pored over the Bible. He often avoided people and spent a great deal of his time fasting and praying. He began preaching and believed he received visions from God—one such vision told him he was to be an instrument of revenge against the whites for their wicked ways.
A solar eclipse on Feb. 12, 1831, convinced Turner the time was drawing near for his great act of vengeance. Another solar eclipse on August 13 was the final sign; eight days later the rampage began with an attack on the household of Turner’s owner, Joseph Travis. Although militia forces defeated Turner’s band the next day and captured several of the rebels, Turner himself escaped and hid in the woods, avoiding capture for over two months. Finally, on October 30 he was discovered and apprehended, and the legal system moved swiftly. On Nov. 5, 1831, Turner was convicted and sentenced to die, and six days later he was executed.
As the following newspaper articles indicate, there was a great deal of interest in Turner’s capture and conviction. This article was published by the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland) on Nov. 5, 1831:
Capture of Nat Turner
The Petersburg Intelligencer received this morning contains the following account of this individual:
It is with much gratification we inform the public, that the sole contriver and leader of the late insurrection in Southampton—concerning whom such a hue and cry has been kept up for months, and so many false reports circulated—the murderer Nat Turner, has at last been taken and safely lodged in prison.
It appears that on Sunday morning last, Mr. Phipps, having his gun, and going over the land of Mr. Francis (one of the first victims of the hellish crew), came to a place where a number of pines had been cut down, and perceiving a slight motion among them, cautiously approached, and when within a few yards, discovered the villain who had so long eluded pursuit, endeavoring to ensconce himself in a kind of cave, the mouth of which was concealed with brush. Mr. P. raised his gun to fire; but Nat hailed him and offered to surrender. Mr. P. ordered him to give up his arms; Nat then threw away an old sword, which it seems was the only weapon he had. The prisoner, as his captor came up, submissively laid himself on the ground, and was thus securely tied—not making the least resistance!
Mr. P. took Nat to his own residence, where he kept him until Monday morning—and having apprized his neighbors of his success, a considerable party accompanied him and his prisoner to Jerusalem, where after a brief examination, the culprit was committed to jail.
Our informant (one of our own citizens, who happened to be in the county at the time), awards much praise to the people of Southampton for their forbearance on this occasion. He says that not the least personal violence was offered to Nat—who seemed, indeed, one of the most miserable objects he ever beheld—dejected, emaciated and ragged. The poor wretch, we learn, admits all that has been alleged against him—says that he has at no time been five miles from the scene of his atrocities; and that he has frequently wished to give himself up, but could never summon sufficient resolution!
Mr. Phipps, as the sole captor of Nat, is alone entitled to the several rewards (amounting in the aggregate, as we understand, to about $1,100) offered by the Commonwealth and different gentlemen, for his apprehension; and we are told, that in this instance Fortune has favored a very deserving individual—to whom, in addition to the pleasure arising from the recollection of the deed, the money derived from it will not be unacceptable.
This article was published by the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia) on Nov. 8, 1831:
Extract of a Letter Received in Richmond Dated Southampton, Nov. 1
Nat Turner is at last safely lodged in jail. He answers exactly the description annexed to the Governor’s Proclamation, except that he is of a darker hue, and his eyes, though not large are prominent—they are very long, deeply seated in his head, and have rather a sinister expression. A more gloomy fanatic you have never heard of. He gave, apparently with great candor, a history of the operations of his mind for many years past, of the signs he saw, the spirit he conversed with; of his prayers, fastings, and watchings, and of his supernatural powers and gifts, in curing diseases, controlling the weather, &c. These he considered for a long time only as a call to superior righteousness; and it was not until rather more than a year ago that the idea of emancipating the blacks entered his mind. How this idea came, or in what manner it was connected with his signs, &c. I could not get him to explain in a manner at all satisfactory—notwithstanding I examined him closely upon this point he always seemed to mystify. He does not, however, pretend to conceal that he was the author of the design, and that he imparted it to five or six others, all of whom seemed prepared with ready minds and hands to engage in it. These were they who rendezvoused in the field near Travis’s. He says their only arms were hatchets and axes at the commencement—that he entered Travis’s house by an upper window, passed through his chamber, and going through the outer door into the yard to his followers, told them that the work was now open to them. One of them, Hark, went into the house and brought out three guns—they then commenced their horrid butchery, he, Nat, giving the first blow, with a hatchet, both to his master and mistress, as they lay asleep in bed. He says that indiscriminate massacre was not their intention after they obtained foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men too who ceased to resist.
I had intended to enter into further particulars, and indeed to have given you a detailed statement of his confessions, but I understand a gentleman is engaged in taking them down verbatim from his own lips, with a view of gratifying public curiosity; I will not therefore forestall him.
This notice was published by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on Nov. 11, 1831:
Richmond, Nov. 8.
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 hung on Friday next.
This notice was published by the State Rights Free Trade (Charleston, South Carolina) on Nov. 14, 1831:
A Virginia paper says: “The speedy retribution which has overtaken Nat Turner and his murderous accomplices will be an awful warning to such deluded wretches forever hereafter. Not one has escaped!”
This notice was published by the Rhode Island American and Gazette (Providence, Rhode Island) on Nov. 15, 1831:
Nat Turner has been convicted by the special court of Southampton county. He was sentenced to be hung on Friday, the 11th of November; no doubt the sentence was carried into execution yesterday. We also learn that three other slaves were to be executed at the same time and place: one of them taken previously to the apprehension of Nat, the other two subsequently, and upon Nat’s information.
While he was in jail, Turner had lengthy conversations with his lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, from November 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.
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