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Denmark Vesey and His
IN the pantheon of rebels against slavery in the United States, Denmark Vesey stands exalted. Historians celebrate this free black carpenter who organized slaves to emancipate themselves in 1822 by setting fire to the city of Charleston, South Carolina, slaying all whites, and sailing off to the black republic of Haiti. A free man who identified with slaves, a black man who claimed the human rights monopolized by whites, an urban artisan who prepared to lead an army of rural field hands, a man of African descent who built a coalition of native Africans and country-born creoles, a religious man who melded the Christianity of Europe with the spiritual consciousness of Africa, a diasporic man inspired by the black Atlantic's legacy of rebellion and sovereignty, a radical man who wielded the ideals of the Age of Revolution against white oppression and hypocrisy, a militant man who scorned compromise and relished redemptive killing, a brave man unintimidated by the long odds against liberation, a loyal man who refused to name his co-conspirators when informants betrayed his scheme at the last minute, a stoic man who died on the gallows without giving his executioners the satisfaction of remorse or confession--Denmark Vesey was a bold insurrectionist determined to free his people or die trying.
This heroic interpretation of Vesey and his co-conspirators seemed more or less reasonable to me in December 1999 when I accepted the Quarterly's invitation to review three new books about the Vesey conspiracy. 1 In subsequent months, as the project veered in entirely unanticipated directions, I came to believe that historians have been wrong about the conspiracy. In the pages that follow, I explain why and point toward an alternative account. In general, I argue that almost all historians have failed to exercise due caution in reading the testimony of witnesses recorded by the conspiracy court, thereby becoming unwitting co-conspirators with the court in the making of the Vesey conspiracy; that the court, for its own reasons, colluded with a handful of intimidated witnesses to collect testimony about an insurrection that, in fact, was not about to happen; that Denmark Vesey and the other men sentenced to hang or to be sold into exile were not guilty of organizing an insurrection; that, rather than revealing a portrait of thwarted insurrection, witnesses' testimony discloses glimpses of ways that reading and rumors transmuted white orthodoxies into black heresies.
Historians who seek to learn about Vesey and his co-conspirators confront a daunting obstacle. The Charleston Court of Magistrates and Freeholders that pronounced Vesey "the author, and original instigator of this diabolical plot . . . [whose] professed design was to trample on all laws, human and divine; to riot in blood, outrage, rapine . . . and conflagration, and to introduce anarchy and confusion in their most horrid forms" collected almost everything known about him during the last two weeks of his life and the six weeks following his execution. 2 Since 1822, scholars have resorted to the court's Official Report for information about who he was, what he did, and what he hoped to do. 3 By drawing mostly on sources used to convict the insurrectionists, historians have followed the lead of the court and of nineteenth-century abolitionists who accepted the court's conclusions about Vesey's leadership while rejecting the court's defense of slavery and white supremacy. In 1861, Thomas Wentworth Higginson summarized the still-prevailing consensus that the Vesey conspiracy "was the most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves, and came the nearest to a terrible success. In boldness of conception and thoroughness of organization there has been nothing to compare with it." 4 According to the court, Vesey grew up as a slave on the Danish island of St. Thomas. When he was about fourteen years old, he was purchased by Captain Joseph Vesey, who took him with a cargo of 390 slaves to St. Domingue and sold him there. After a year, the planter who bought the young slave declared him "unsound, and subject to epileptic fits" and returned him to Captain Vesey. For the next seventeen or eighteen years, the young man who became Denmark Vesey served Captain Vesey in Charleston as a "most faithful slave." In 1799, Denmark Vesey won fifteen hundred dollars in a local lottery and used six hundred to purchase his freedom. For the next twenty-two years he lived in Charleston as a free man, working as a carpenter "distinguished for great strength and activity." 5 Because almost nothing else is known about Vesey until he was fifty-five, when witnesses began to testify against him, it is tempting to look through the lens of his last days and see his long life as the making of an insurrectionist. In his new biography of Vesey, Douglas R. Egerton argues that the spirit of rebellion Vesey manifested in 1822 dated back to his year as a slave in St. Domingue, when, as an "artful boy," he "somehow managed to understand that local law required all newly-imported slaves to be free of affliction or disease" and "began to display 'epileptic fits'" (p. 20). By this clever ruse, Vesey "outsmarted" the St. Domingue planter who had purchased him and manipulated his own return to the more benevolent Captain Vesey, with whom his "epileptic fits ceased as quickly as they had begun" (pp. 2021). David Robertson, the author of another new study of Vesey, agrees, terming the fits "a charade" (p. 30). Vesey "probably feigned fits," Edward A. Pearson observes in the 164-page introduction to his transcription of the manuscript record of the conspiracy trials. Pearson ventures that Vesey "may have suffered from seizures as a consequence of participating in voodoo ceremonies" (p. 27). 6 Artful charades and voodoo ceremonies are only two of many possible reasons for "fits" that may or may not have been "epileptic."
The court's biographical sketch is the sole source attributing epileptic fits to Vesey; it was published more than forty years after the fits allegedly occurred, and it says nothing about voodoo ceremonies or Vesey's understanding of St. Domingue's laws regulating imported slaves. By imputing legal knowledge, charades, and possibly even voodoo to fits the court termed epileptic, Egerton, Robertson, and Pearson read the mentality of a wily fifty-five-year-old insurrectionist into the behavior of a fourteen-year-old slave boy. This interpretive procedure characterizes almost all the historical writing about Vesey. Most scholars have uncritically accepted the court's judgment and the witnesses' testimony about Vesey and his co-conspirators. Like many others, Egerton, Robertson, and Pearson routinely put in Vesey's mouth words that the court recorded as witnesses' testimony about what Vesey said. They fail to consider that what Vesey actually said might have been different from what witnesses testified and the court recorded. Egerton avers, for example, that "literally all of Vesey's numerous religious pronouncements were drawn from the Old Testament, and in a very real sense, Vesey and his disciples turned their back on the New Testament God of love," fashioning "a theology of liberation that fused the demanding faith of the Israelites with the sacred values of Africa" (p. 124). 7 In reality, the only evidence of Vesey's religious pronouncements comes, not from him, but from the testimony of witnesses against him, an unsteady foundation for interpretive generalizations about "literally all of Vesey's numerous religious pronouncements." Similar reliance on witnesses' testimony leads Pearson to claim that Vesey was "an agent of cultural revitalization who forged a new political discourse of rebellion from ethnic African practices and customs, militant Old Testament Christianity, and the language of revolutionary emancipationism" (p. 128).
Vesey's cultural syncretism included, Robertson surmises, "probable knowledge of Islam and the Koran" (p. 47), as suggested by the initial date of Vesey's planned insurrection, July 14, 1822: "The number fourteen, according to Islamic numerology, is particularly propitious, as representative of the Prophet's name; and the date of July 14, 1822, reckoned by the Islamic lunar calendar, marked the last two months of that Islamic year, Dhu al-Qa'dah and Dhu al-Hijah, respectively. The latter month, Dhu al-Hijah, by which time Vesey had hoped to have liberated his people and to have returned them to Africa, takes its name from the Hijrah in the Koran, meaning 'to migrate, withdraw, or to make an exodus'" (p. 38). Again, although the court and its witnesses--not Vesey--supplied the July 14 date (among others), Robertson hazards Vesey's debt to Islam atop a precarious scaffolding of Arabic etymology and Islamic numerology and time reckoning. Such interpretive improvisations are not limited to Vesey's religious beliefs. Egerton, for example, asserts that Vesey was "enormous" (p. 34), a man of "immense size" (p. 58), "a giant" (p. 72) of "towering height" (p. 119). Unfortunately, no source documents Vesey's physical size, nor does any record state that Vesey planned, as Egerton argues, "a mass exodus of families" (p. 168), "more of a mass migration than a conventional slave rebellion" (p. 148). Here, the symmetry of a big conspiracy by a big man with big plans substitutes for evidence. For the central narrative of the insurrection conspiracy, Egerton, Robertson, Pearson, and other historians rely on the court's Official Report. They reverse the moral polarity of the court's chronicle, applauding what the court deplored and vice versa. Egerton affirms that witnesses' testimony "must be used with great care" (p. 237), but only once does he express skepticism about the testimony. One witness's statement that an accused conspirator said that, after the white men had been killed, "we know what is to be done with the [white] wenches" shows, according to Egerton, that this testimony was "nonsense served up for the magistrates" because "Vesey's escape was a mass exodus of families," and the accused's "notoriously hot-tempered" wife would not "have stood idly by while her husband ravished female prisoners" (p. 168). 8
Except for this singular defense of the conspirators' family values, Egerton, like other historians, treats the testimony of witnesses as a faithful rendition of what Vesey and other conspirators said and did. Egerton observes that "testimony obtained from bond defendants under emotional duress--sometimes even under torture--is not by definition spurious; it is merely coerced" (p. 237). This chilling view that coerced and tortured witnesses tell the truth was wholeheartedly shared by the Charleston court, but few other American jurists then or since concur. Although Robertson, Pearson, and other scholars do not explicitly echo Egerton's endorsement of coerced testimony, they practice it by simply accepting the statements of both the witnesses and the court. The lone dissenter from the court's narrative and the historiographical consensus is historian Richard C. Wade. In a 1964 article, Wade challenged the reliability of the Official Report by comparing its rendition of the confessions of two slaves with manuscript depositions that those slaves gave outside of court and that happen to have survived in the private papers of white planters. 9 The discrepancies between those depositions and the Official Report, Wade explained, "indicate that little confidence can be placed in the authenticity of the official account." 10 Examining the conflicting testimony about the conspiracy in the Official Report as well as the doubts about the plot expressed by Governor Thomas Bennett and United States Supreme Court justice William Johnson brought Wade to conclude that "there is persuasive evidence that no conspiracy in fact existed, or at most that it was a vague and unformulated plan in the minds or on the tongues of a few colored townsmen." 11 Wade's argument has been rejected by all subsequent historians. 12 Before the studies by Egerton, Pearson, and Robertson, the most vigorous defender of the consensus version of the Vesey plot was William W. Freehling. Terming Wade's analysis "a step backward," Freehling pointed out that Wade failed to consult the manuscript trial record before concluding that the Official Report had tampered with trial testimony. 13 Freehling announced that his comparison of "the entire Vesey trial record" in both the unpublished manuscript and the Official Report "exonerates the judges from ever falsifying a quote. . . . The verbal evidence of conspiracy was not falsified in the slightest." 14
Making explicit what other historians' use of the trial testimony implicitly assumed, Freehling mounted a spirited defense of the court, declaring "the Vesey judges unusually responsible." The judges "struggled to live up to their democratic conscience," Freehling proclaimed, and, within the limits of the inherently despotic regime of slavery, they succeeded: "In the end, these uneasily despotic judges, in a time of extreme hysteria acquitted almost half their defendants." 15 In sum, the Vesey plot that Wade concluded was "probably never more than loose talk by aggrieved and embittered men" was instead, according to Freehling, an "unusually credible conspiracy," although "no one who values democratic justice can be altogether sure." 16 Freehling properly spotlighted the manuscript trial record as the key document for determining "whether the conspiracy seems credible and whether the judges seem to have been scrupulous in weighing suspect testimony." 17 Although Governor Bennett submitted the manuscript transcript to the South Carolina legislature in November 1822 and it has resided in the state archives ever since, few historians have consulted it, preferring instead the more convenient printed testimony in the Official Report, which they assume mirrors the manuscript. Since any persuasive account of Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators must begin with the manuscript trial transcript, scholars should welcome Pearson's transcription published in Designs against Charleston. 18 They should, but, regrettably, they had better not. To understand why, it is necessary to examine the manuscript and then to compare it with Pearson's transcription.
Pearson correctly points out in a brief "Editorial Note" that two manuscript transcripts exist. He claims that "Document A, Copy One, starts with the first trials on 19 July 1822 and closes with the proceedings of 26 July," while "Document B, Copy Two, replicates the first document but contains testimony from the proceedings of early August" (front matter). Pearson says that he "used both Documents A and B" in preparing his published transcription, "remaining faithful to the transcript as it appeared in the original" (ibid.). Unfortunately, these statements are mostly wrong. The court proceedings began on June 19, not July 19, 1822; Document A is a brief printed narrative of the trials, not one of the court transcripts; one manuscript is labeled "Document B House of Representatives" and is referred to hereafter as "House"; the other manuscript is labeled "Evidence Document B" and is referred to hereafter as "Evidence"; the words "Copy One" and Copy Two" do not appear on either transcript; the two manuscript transcripts are not replicates; and the transcription in Designs against Charleston is not faithful to the original. 19 First, consider the appearance of the original manuscripts. Both are in remarkably good condition, each written in a clerk's clear hand that fills--with important exceptions--both sides of the eight-inch by thirteen-inch pages. 20 The handwriting in both documents appears similar, suggesting that they were written by the same clerk. The unambiguously legible and perfectly horizontal handwriting stretching line after line indicates that neither manuscript represents rough notes scribbled hurriedly during court sessions. Both must have been written later, at least one of them presumably based on notes that no longer survive. Neither document, then, preserves the court transcript as we think of such things today: verbatim records of what witnesses said. Instead, both manuscripts are revised versions of the words witnesses uttered, words filtered through ears and pens belonging to one or more unknown clerks, words that now appear with seductive clarity in the surviving manuscripts. Careful comparison of the two manuscripts demonstrates that House is a copy of Evidence, apparently created, as the label indicates, for the House of Representatives; that Evidence was written before House and is the earliest extant record of the court proceedings; and that for the most part Designs against Charleston is based on House, the copy, rather than on Evidence, the original manuscript. The manuscripts contain compelling signs of the priority of Evidence. To recognize those signs, one must examine the basic organization of both documents. Both manuscripts have four major sections: an initial section of testimonies, a section of June court proceedings, a section of confessions, and a section of July trial proceedings. Only Evidence has a fifth section that covers the trials of August, as Designs against Charleston states. 21 Unlike Designs against Charleston, neither manuscript begins with the proceedings of June 19. 22 Instead, both start with the section of undated testimonies that precedes the June 19 material. 23
The first sign of the priority of Evidence is the way this initial testimony section ends in each manuscript. In Evidence, the section ends near the top of a page; the remainder of that page is blank, and the proceedings of June 19 begin at the top of the next page. 24 In House, the initial testimony section also ends close to the top of a page. Then, with no intervening blank space, the June 19 proceedings begin and fill the rest of that and subsequent pages. 25 The absence of such continuity in Evidence shows that it was the original manuscript, which a clerk copied to produce House. In Evidence, the June 19 court proceedings begin at the top of a new page in what appears to be the same clerical handwriting as the foregoing testimony section, but this new section is strikingly different from the preceding one in two respects. First, the opening page is noticeably discolored compared to the previous pages; its left edge is considerably frayed, unlike the straight, smooth edges of previous pages. 26 It appears, in other words, to have been the first page of the proceedings, darkened by greater exposure to light than its reverse side and all other interior pages, which are a light cream color. 27 Page numbers are a second way the June court proceedings section of Evidence differs from the initial testimony section. The nineteen pages of the June court proceedings in Evidence are numbered consecutively, establishing that the record of the proceedings was originally a separate document from the initial testimony section, which lacks original page numbers. 28 A comparison of this pattern to the continuous pagination of House, from the outset of the initial testimony section through the first pages of the court proceedings, strongly suggests that a clerk copied the separate documents of Evidence (that is, the initial testimony section and the June proceedings) to prepare House, which begins with the initial testimony section on a page he numbered "1."
Confirming evidence that House is a copy of Evidence comes from the way the June court proceedings and the subsequent confessions section are recorded. In Evidence, the court proceedings from June 19 through June 27 are recorded on pages originally numbered 1 through 19. 29 The concluding testimony of June 27 stops about halfway down original page number 19, and the rest of that page and its reverse are blank. 30 At the top of the next new page the confessions section begins and continues without interruption for eleven pages, then stops less than halfway down the concluding page, which is followed by two blank pages. 31 Then, starting at the top of a new page, the testimony of the second set of court proceedings begins with the dated entry for July 10. 32 In other words, it appears that a clerk wrote the transcript of the first eight days of court proceedings (June 1927) and then stopped. The same clerk also transcribed a separate collection of confessions, which were placed in Evidence following the June 27 testimony. Then, when the court reconvened on July 10, the clerk started a new page of the transcript. This pattern of recording strongly suggests that the transcript of the proceedings of June 1927 was written out by the clerk sometime after June 27 and before July 10, a likelihood of considerable significance in understanding the conspiracy trials. These discontinuities in Evidence between the end of the June 27 testimony and the start of the confessions section and between the end of the confessions section and the start of the July 10 testimony are not matched in House. There, the confessions section immediately follows, on the same page, the end of the testimony of June 27. The confessions run continuously to end in the middle of a page; then, with no blank space, they are immediately followed by the trial testimony of July 10 and subsequent days. 33 This pattern of continuity in House and discontinuity in Evidence persists throughout the manuscripts, making virtually certain the priority of Evidence. 34 Apparently, a clerk wrote out House as a continuous copy of the separate sections of Evidence. 35 Knowing that House is a copy helps date the manuscripts, crucial information for understanding the transcripts and their context. According to the manuscripts, court proceedings occurred in three separate phases. The first set of court sessions convened between Wednesday, June 19, and Thursday, June 27, interrupted only by observance of the Sabbath. The Evidence record of these proceedings was probably written sometime during the next twelve days before the beginning of the second phase of trials, which ran from Wednesday, July 10, through Friday, July 26, again interrupted only by Sunday recesses. For the most part, the July trials in Evidence are recorded by starting a new day's testimony at the top of a new page and, at the conclusion of that day's testimony, leaving blank whatever space remained on the page, then starting the next day at the top of the next new page.
This pattern suggests the likelihood that at the end of each day, a clerk wrote out the record of that day's testimony. Seven days after the end of the July proceedings, the third, abbreviated set of trials started on Saturday, August 3, then recessed for two days before concluding on Tuesday, August 6. 36 House was probably copied, using all the accumulated records preserved in Evidence, after the July trials ended. The clerk who wrote House did not copy the material from the August trials and probably did not have access to it. Evidence, in other words, recorded the court proceedings in process; the House copy of Evidence was made retrospectively, probably in late July or early August. In any case, it seems certain that both Evidence and House existed in their present form by early to mid-August 1822, before the publication of the Official Report in October. There can be no doubt that the Official Report is based on the manuscripts, rather than vice versa. Nor can there be doubt that Evidence is the original surviving transcript of the Vesey court.
In Designs against Charleston, Pearson demonstrates no awareness that House is a copy of Evidence. Although he claims to have "used" both manuscripts, a word-by-word comparison of Designs against Charleston with both House and Evidence proves that Designs against Charleston is based mostly on House. For example, Designs against Charleston usually adheres to the House practice of changing "&" found in Evidence to "and." The book also follows House's introduction of commas to Evidence passages that lack them and House's omission of commas from Evidence passages that have them. The decision to base Designs against Charleston on House, the copy, rather than on Evidence, the original, would not matter if the contents of House and Evidence were truly replicates, as Pearson asserts. After all, the fundamental question is whether the transcript published in Designs against Charleston is faithful to the original manuscript, Evidence. But they are not replicates.
A word-by-word comparison of Evidence and Designs against Charleston reveals that there are 5,0006,000 discrepancies between the Evidence manuscript and the published transcript in Designs against Charleston. Since many of these differences are matters of punctuation and capitalization, it may be tempting to wave them off as insignificant editorial alterations made for publication. That temptation should be resisted. Changes in punctuation can alter both the meaning of passages and the authority of the text. It becomes impossible for a reader of the published text to judge such essential qualities of the original as the care with which it was transcribed or its peculiarities of diction and syntax, which may be revealing. 37 The introduction of thousands of changes of punctuation and capitalization conveys a false sense of the original manuscript. To promise a faithful transcript and not deliver it violates the authenticity of the manuscript and the trust of the reader. Worse, Designs against Charleston does not reliably transcribe passages that are the same in both Evidence and House. In the first twenty-nine words of the court proceedings published in Designs against Charleston, there are ten differences between the published version and both Evidence and House. 38 Consider some of more than 550 instances in which Designs against Charleston adds words not present in either Evidence or House (see Figure I), omits words that are present in both manuscripts (see Figure II), or changes clearly legible words present in both manuscripts (see Figure III). Although such word additions, omissions, and changes are not the most damaging flaws in Designs against Charleston, they fatally corrupt the published transcript and render it an unreliable guide to the manuscript court record. 39 All these discrepancies between Designs against Charleston and the manuscript transcript appear to be the result of nothing more systematic than unrelenting carelessness. Designs against Charleston, however, also compromises the unique chronological integrity of the manuscript court record with ill-advised editorial interventions.
The Official Report provides no chronology for the various trials and testimony except to say that they began on June 19 and ended on August 6. It does include a list of arrest and execution dates. 40 Otherwise, the court simply listed trials and witness testimonies without indicating who said what when, a matter of fundamental significance in assessing the meaning of both the testimony and the trials. The manuscript court record preserves much of the vitally important chronology obscured in the Official Report. With the exceptions of the initial testimonies and confessions sections, Evidence lists witnesses' statements under the date of the court session, creating an unambiguous chronology for nearly all the testimony.
Instead of remaining faithful to the chronological order of Evidence, Designs against Charleston scrambles it, taking testimony from the initial testimonies section of the manuscript and inserting it here and there throughout the published transcript, often according to where those testimonies were published in the undated Official Report. For example, Designs against Charleston presents the testimony of slave Yorrick Cross as the lead-off witness on June 21. 41 In Evidence, Yorrick Cross's testimony does not appear on June 21. Instead, it is part of the initial section of testimonies.
Although Cross's testimony is not explicitly dated, the content of the testimony makes it possible to approximate when it was given. Cross testified that he spoke to slave Harry Haig "last tuesday the very day the 6 men were hanged about 6 oClock (AM)." 43 Denmark Vesey and five others were hanged on Tuesday, July 2. Cross could not possibly have known on June 21 that Vesey and five others would be executed eleven days later on Tuesday, July 2; Denmark Vesey was not even arrested until Saturday, June 22. 44 Although Pearson's logic for placing the Cross testimony on June 21 remains ineffable, the testimony itself shows that it must have been given after Tuesday, July 2 ("last tuesday"), and on or before Tuesday, July 9. 45 Even the Official Report notes, without identifying Cross, that this testimony was given after the June sessions "in the course of the succeeding trials." 46
Nonetheless, the manuscript transcript makes clear that the Official Report routinely falsifies the June court proceedings by calling them trials. Consider the case of Denmark Vesey. Under the heading "THE TRIAL OF DENMARK VESEY, a free black man--Col. G. W. Cross attending as his Counsel," the Official Report groups testimony from five witnesses, all of it preceded by the label "Evidence." Although the court conducted its sessions behind closed doors, according to the Official Report it allowed the accused to confront and cross-examine witnesses, to make statements in their own defense, and to be represented by counsel or, if slaves, by their owners. 47 The manuscript court transcript makes it possible to determine the extent to which these rules governed the proceedings against Vesey. Two of the witnesses against Vesey listed in the Official Report, William Paul and Joe LaRoche, testified on June 19 and June 20, before Vesey was even in custody. Since Vesey was not arrested until June 22, he could not possibly have heard their testimony or questioned them. The other three witnesses against Vesey--Frank Ferguson, Adam Ferguson, and Benjamin Ford--all testified on June 27, although approximately a third of Frank Ferguson's testimony that appears in the Official Report was actually given after the June court sessions adjourned. 48
In all, half the testimony the Official Report published against Vesey was given when he could not possibly have been present to hear or question it. 49 The manuscript transcript contains no mention of a trial of Denmark Vesey. It says nothing about the presence in court of Vesey or G. W. Cross as his counsel. It says nothing about Vesey facing his accusers or questioning them, yet the Official Report describes dramatic encounters of this sort. While various witnesses mentioned Vesey in their statements during the June proceedings, the manuscript discloses no evidence that Vesey himself was ever examined. Not a single word of testimony from Denmark Vesey exists in the manuscript. Nor is there any statement of the court's verdict or of Vesey's sentence, although the Official Report concludes Vesey's trial with "The Court unanimously found Denmark Vesey guilty and passed upon him the sentence of death." 50 If a trial of Denmark Vesey was held, as the Official Report claims, no sign of it appears in the original manuscript of the court proceedings. Vesey's case is typical of the June court proceedings, with one exception: all five slaves who were executed with him were at least in custody when the witnesses the Official Report attributes to their trials actually testified in court, although there is no evidence that they were present during the testimony against them. 51
The word "trial" never appears in the record of the June sessions, nor does the word "Evidence" precede testimony. Instead, the manuscript court proceedings simply report the testimony of individual witnesses. In the June proceedings, there is no sign that any given witness's testimony referred to the trial of a specific defendant. 52 Four of the five slaves executed along with Vesey--Rolla Bennett, Batteau Bennett, Jesse Blackwood, and Peter Poyas--are mentioned as present in court at one time or another, but none of them is described as present during the testimony against him, as claimed by Official Report. 53 The Evidence manuscript strongly suggests that during the June sessions the court simply interrogated various witnesses, then decided by June 27 that the testimony added up to sufficient proof of the guilt of Denmark Vesey and the five others executed on July 2.
Despite the absence of any sign of trials in the June proceedings, Designs against Charleston imports into the published court transcript, with due notice, the Official Report headings of trials. Inexplicably, Designs against Charleston encourages readers to believe that the record of proceedings in the Official Report possesses the same authority and reliability as the manuscript trial record. When read in light of the Evidence manuscript, the Official Report manifestly creates the illusion of trials by describing separate trials not present in the court record, chopping up continuous witness testimony to make it appear to have been given in the trials of specific defendants, reporting the courtroom presence of defendants and their masters or counsels, and reporting individual verdicts and sentences. It is no exaggeration to say that, if Evidence is to be believed, the Official Report lies about the trials of Denmark Vesey and the five slaves sentenced to death at the conclusion of the June proceedings.
Far from being an impartial account of court proceedings, the Official Report is a document of advocacy, a public, retrospective statement of the prosecution's case against Denmark Vesey and the many other defendants. It must be read and interpreted with the suspicion warranted by special pleading. In the Official Report, the court defended its procedures and congratulated itself on a job well done: "By the timely discovery of this plot, Carolina has been rescued from the most horrible catastrophe with which it has been threatened since it has been an independent state." 54 By giving the appearance of trials, the court justified its decision to send thirty-five men to the gallows. In addition, by claiming to have conducted trials that evidently never occurred, the court responded to its critics by cloaking its summary procedures in false claims of rudimentary due process.
The court's actions provoked two important critics, one public and outspoken, the other private, maneuvering through official channels behind the scenes. Although both critics held high office and wielded considerable power, neither influenced the court as he desired. On the contrary, the criticisms of both men backfired, invigorating the court, sending more slaves to the gallows, and ultimately shaping the character of the Official Report and subsequent histories of the Charleston insurrection conspiracy. Only two days after the court launched its June sessions, William Johnson, Jr., published in the Charleston Courier a seemingly innocuous account of an insurrection scare a decade or so earlier near the Georgia-South Carolina border. South Carolina's most eminent jurist of the era, Johnson had been a United States Supreme Court justice since 1804, when Thomas Jefferson tapped him as his first appointee. 55
Johnson's familiarity with cases and courts from the lowest to the highest levels of jurisprudence gave his remarks a certain gravity. Under the title "Melancholy Effect of Popular Excitement," Johnson described political leaders' overreaction to a hoax that hinted of an impending slave insurrection in 1810 or 1811. A half-drunk cavalry trumpeter in Edgefield County, South Carolina, bored with waiting for the slave rebels to appear, sounded a blast on his bugle. Vigilant cavalrymen nearby interpreted the bugle call as the signal for the insurrection to begin and galloped away to crush the uprising. Finding only "a single poor half-witted negro . . . crossing a field on his way home, without instrument of war or music," the cavalry seized the slave and, when he denied any knowledge of the insurrection, "he was whipped severely to extort a confession, and then, with his eyes bound, commanded to prepare for instant death from a sabre, which a horseman was in the act of sharpening beside him." The slave "now recollected" that another slave named Billy had a horn. Militiamen rushed to Billy's home, where they "found him sleeping in the midst of a large family" and there in one corner of his dwelling, a "terrific horn." Although "the horn was actually found covered and even filled with cobwebs," a hastily convened Court of Magistrates and Freeholders convicted Billy of inciting an insurrection and sentenced him to hang. Billy's master, "thunderstruck at the sentence," urged the court to give Billy "a more deliberate hearing," but to no avail. The master roused a judge to appeal to the Court of Magistrates and Freeholders, but the "presiding magistrate actually conceived his dignity attacked and threatened impeachment against the judge, who, as an individual, had interfered only to prevent a legal murder." Billy was executed. 56 Johnson claimed later that he believed this account "contained an useful moral, and might check the causes of agitation which were then operating upon the public mind" in Charleston. 57 But rather than checking anything, Johnson's story energized the Charleston Court of Magistrates and Freeholders. Shortly after the article appeared, the court--as if re-enacting Johnson's script--privately wrote him that his account "was calculated to produce, not only a distrust of our proceedings, but contained an insinuation, that, under the influence of popular excitement, we were capable of committing perjury and murder." 58 The members of the court demanded that Johnson retract that insinuation. In a choreography of offended honor, the court and Johnson exchanged barbed accusations that quickly became public. Two days after the conclusion of the June sessions, on the same day that newspapers first published news of the court's proceedings--namely, that Denmark Vesey and five slaves had been sentenced to hang for "an attempt to raise an insurrection"--the court's "Communication" appeared in the Courier. 59 Johnson had insinuated that they were "capable of committing perjury and murder," the court proclaimed, and had "implied" that he "possessed sounder judgment, deeper penetration, and firmer nerves, than the rest of his fellow citizens." The members of the court invoked their own "purity of motives, and their conduct through life" as well as their hope "to have pursued their labors, important to the state and distressing to themselves, unassailed by suspicion or malevolence." 60 In a brief paragraph published immediately following the court's statement, Johnson asked Charlestonians to "suspend" their "opinion" until he prepared a narrative that would "satisfy all the world that it [the court's communication] is one of the most groundless and unprovoked attacks ever made upon the feelings of an individual. . . . an instance of the most unprecedented pretension."
Within a week, Johnson published his rejoinder explaining that he was "the injured man" who had been attacked by the court, "not in the language of my natural political and social equals, but that of dictators." 61 White Charlestonians spoke out in defense of the court, not Johnson. A. S. Willington, editor of the Courier, expressed the "perfect respect which I feel, in common with the community, for the character and conduct of the gentlemen who compose the Court." When the members of the court, in a huff, proposed to quit now that Vesey and the five convicted slaves were scheduled to hang, a statement appeared in the Courier that claimed to speak for "the whole of our citizens" who "cannot refrain from expressing an anxious wish that the gentlemen who compose the present Court, would continue their services until the causes and extent of the excitement which now pervades our community, shall be thoroughly explored." The statement praised the members of the court for the "arduous and painful duty" they had performed, for their "sacrifice of time, of feeling, and of personal consideration," for the "unbounded and unequivocal confidence" their decisions had earned, and for their "integrity, talents, firmness, humanity, and all of those qualities which are calculated equally to ensure justice to the accused, and security to the public." 62 Whether this balm soothed the court's bruised egos cannot be known. But a glance at the pace of arrests suggests that it may have. Between June 17, the day after the uprising was supposed to begin, and June 28, the day after the court adjourned its June sessions, officials arrested thirty-one suspects, rounding up one or more every day, with the exception of two days. 63 Then for three days after the adjournment of the June court sessions, no arrests were made, suggesting that the court believed its investigation was winding down. Arrests started again on July 2, the day after the appearance of the statement by "the whole of our citizens" and the day Vesey and five slaves went to the gallows.
Arrests continued every day for the next two and a half weeks, with the exception of two days, until the court adjourned its July sessions on the twenty-sixth. 64 In all, the court arrested eighty-two suspects in July, more than twice as many as in June. Executions also indicate the court's renewed vigor. After the six hangings on July 2, the court executed twenty-eight more convicted conspirators before the end of the month, more than four times the number of hangings that resulted from the June sessions. This record of judicial energy during the sweltering heat of July suggests that the court set out to show William Johnson and his ilk that the insurrection conspiracy was no illusion and that the executed black men were bloodthirsty rebels, not victims of legalized murder. Johnson's ilk included the governor of South Carolina, Thomas Bennett, Jr. The two men were brothers-in-law and close friends. In 1794, Johnson had married Bennett's sister Sarah, and the couple later named one of their sons Thomas Bennett. Like Johnson, Bennett was a Charleston native and a Jeffersonian--he named one of his sons Washington Jefferson. 65 The proprietor of a thriving lumber and rice mill on the outskirts of the city, Bennett had served in the state legislature almost continuously since 1804, including four years (18141817) as Speaker of the House. In the summer of 1822, he was in the last months of his term as governor. Bennett had an insider's perspective on the proceedings of the Court of Magistrates and Freeholders, and not just because he was governor. The court found treachery lurking in the governor's home at 19 Lynch Street, among his most trusted household slaves. Rolla, Ned, Batteau, and Matthias Bennett were among the first ten slaves arrested in June, and all but Matthias were executed with Vesey on July 2. Since his own slaves were among the accused conspirators and he did not want his objections to appear self-interested, Bennett waited to express his opposition to the court's June proceedings.
As Bennett explained in a report to the legislature that fall, he considered the organization of the court by the Charleston City Council "in every sense . . . an usurpation of authority, and a violation of Law." Bennett objected to the court's mode of operation. He lamented that the court opted "to close its doors upon the community" and hold its sessions in secret. He considered it no less "a source of embarrassment and concern" that the court took testimony from witnesses "under pledges of inviolable secrecy" and "convicted [the accused], and sentenced [them] to death, without [their] seeing the persons, or hearing the voices of those, who testified to their guilt." Such procedures violated the "rules which universally obtain among civilized nations, in the judicial investigation of crime." Secret testimony "shut out those accidental rays, which [in open court proceedings] occasionally illuminate the obscurity, in which innocence and guilt are indistinguishable," a matter of great consequence since a slave conspiracy trial necessarily "admitted no testimony, but such as was equivocal, the offspring of treachery or revenge, and the hope of immunity." By refusing to allow the accused to face their accusers, the court lost the opportunity to separate truth from fiction. "The presence of the innocent [accused], will sometimes fetter the [accuser's] tongue of guilt, and dissolve the best concerted scheme of falsehood," Bennett declared. 66
Shortly after the court concluded its June sessions and sent three of his slaves to the gallows, Bennett solicited an official opinion from the attorney general of South Carolina, Robert Y. Hayne. In his lengthy response, Hayne advised Bennett, "If I had been asked whether a free white man could be lawfully tried by a Court sitting with closed doors and without being confronted with his witnesses I should have had little difficulty in giving the answer. . . . But nothing can be clearer than that slaves are not entitled to these rights. Magna Charta & Habeas Corpus and indeed all the provisions of our Constitution in favour of Liberty, are intended for freemen only." The Charleston court was complying with South Carolina law, Hayne said, and in any case the governor "is certainly not bound to examine into Judicial errors, nor is it his duty to correct them." 67 By July 2, the members of the court had been criticized in public by a justice of the United States Supreme Court for committing legalized murder and in private by the governor of South Carolina for sending black men to the gallows in proceedings that could not withstand public scrutiny. Rather than causing the court to exercise greater caution or restraint, the criticisms galvanized the magistrates and freeholders to prove that they knew what they were doing. 68 No proof could be more convincing than identifying, convicting, and punishing additional conspirators.
The court set out to do just that when it re-convened on July 10. The court's critics made the reputation of leading white men dependent in part on discovering an insurrectionary plot among black men. Especially after Johnson accused the court of hot pursuit of a chimera, the magistrates, freeholders, and their supporters needed to uncover more conspirators in order to fortify their own honor and integrity. Both the court and its critics understood the importance of whites' perception of the insurrection conspiracy. Bennett and Johnson deplored "the pitch of excitement" to which the "public mind had been raised." 69 From mid-June to early July, white Charlestonians had lived in a state of hyper vigilance. Day after day militia officers called men away from their jobs and homes to muster, march, patrol, and stand guard. Beating drums and ringing bells summoned and dispatched soldiers, putting ordinary citizens on edge. 70 Was that pealing bell a signal the conflagration had begun? Was that drum roll the call to arms? Were those artillery rounds fired at a black army advancing toward the city? Such questions gave the court compelling public incentives to prove that Johnson and Bennett were wrong, that the conspiracy was more extensive and insidious than the six executions from the June sessions had suggested. More arrests, convictions, and executions would redeem their impugned honor, confirm the wisdom of public alarm, and verify their suppression of the threat. By its actions, the court said to Bennett and Johnson, in effect, "You want trials? We'll give you trials." During July the court continued to meet behind closed doors, but for the first time the manuscript transcript routinely links the name of an accused slave with the word "trial." 71 The criticisms of Bennett and Johnson on one side and the rebuttal by Hayne on the other constitute potent evidence that during the June sessions the accused were not present when witnesses testified against them. In July, however, the accused may have been present in court when testimony was given against them, although the manuscript transcript seldom says so. Testimony from the accused would document their presence. But, with important exceptions, the accused remain mute in the July transcript, just as they do in June. Of the forty-six men on trial during July who did not confess, only two testified in court, according to the transcript. 72 The most frequent exceptions to the silence of the accused in the July transcript and the strongest evidence of their presence in court are their pleas. 73 The transcript states, for example, "Jimmy Clement--arraigned plea not guilty--put on trial." 74 The July transcript records a plea of not guilty for forty-five of the forty-six defendants who did not confess. 75 Unlike in the June sessions, during July witnesses came before the court to testify in the trials of specific black defendants. Sometimes during July, a master or his representative cross-examined a witness, a rare occurrence in the June sessions. 76 In addition to announcing trials, listing witnesses and their testimony, and permitting cross-examination, the court also explicitly pronounced judgments and sentences during July.
Such judgments and sentences never appear in the June transcript. The court clearly altered its procedures during July, presumably in response to the criticisms of Bennett and Johnson. But rather than exculpating defendants, as Bennett and Johnson expected, the formalities of trials greatly expanded the scope of the alleged conspiracy, leading to the conviction and punishment of one black man after another who--like the slave Billy in Johnson's account in the Courier--admitted no conspiratorial activity. The trials resulted in forty-four convictions: twenty-six men went to the gallows, and eighteen were sentenced to exile outside the United States. Just two of the forty-nine men the court tried in July were found unambiguously not guilty. It exaggerates only slightly to say that the July trials were held by a hanging court.
After the execution of thirty-four black men during July, the August trials were an anticlimax. A new court composed of different magistrates and freeholders lacked the zeal of its predecessor. The August court presided over fourteen trials in two days. All the defendants pleaded not guilty, and all but three of them testified in court. Eight men were convicted; one, William Garner, was sentenced to hang, and seven were sent into exile. The court acquitted the other six men. Finally, on August 9, Garner became the last conspirator to die in a noose. The court not only whitewashed its self-image by retrospectively claiming--falsely--that the trial procedures it adopted in July had been in use since the first sessions in June. It also sanitized, in its Official Report, the trial proceedings of July and August. None of the "not guilty" pleas made by forty-five of the men on trial in July appears in the Official Report, although the report does not fail to mention the two guilty pleas. Likewise, the three-paragraph narrative of the August trials makes no mention of the "not guilty" pleas entered by all fourteen of the defendants. The Official Report literally silences these men who, according to the transcript, officially declared in court that they were innocent. The substance of the testimony published in the Official Report differs from that in the manuscript transcript in two other major ways.
First, the court did not resist the temptation to "improve" testimony recorded in the transcript. A word-by-word comparison with the manuscript testimony discloses that the court made thousands of changes in the Official Report, omitting words that are present in the transcript, adding words that are not present, and changing words, punctuation, capitalization, and word order. In the aggregate, these changes have the effect of making the testimony of witnesses smoother, less ambiguous, more coherent, and--thereby--more inculpatory. The second major innovation of the court was to publish confessions that do not appear in the manuscript transcript. Calling routine testimony confessions and printing confessions uttered at death's door helped the Official Report inculpate all the defendants, whether or not they confessed, as well as exculpate the court for any alleged irregularity or misjudgment. 77 In sum, the Official Report combines an assertion of the conspirators' guilt with a defense of the court's honor. Although historians have interpreted the court's activities as a response to the insurrectionists' conspiracy, it is more accurate to consider the evidence of conspiracy--especially in the deadly July proceedings--as the court's self-generated response to its wounded honor. It is beyond doubt that the Official Report falsifies the record of testimony and court procedures documented in the manuscript transcript.
Historians who have relied on the Official Report as an accurate statement of the words and deeds of the court, the accused, and their accusers have unwittingly collaborated in the court's deception. Rather than offer a faithful account of what was said and done by the court and the people who appeared before it, the Official Report makes a less than scrupulous case for the prosecution of the black defendants and for the defense of the white magistrates and freeholders. It should be read and interpreted with caution, as a document that reveals more about the court and its supporters than about the Vesey insurrection conspiracy. Any credible account of the conspiracy must be derived from the manuscript transcript, a complex and troublesome source.
The court's power inflected every word that appears in the transcript. The court defined the question it considered as "Who were the conspirators?" rather than "Were there conspirators?" It operated on the premise that it must suppress an impending slave insurrection, and it interrogated witnesses, passed judgment, and pronounced sentences accordingly. South Carolina law gave the court power to "hear and determine the matter brought before them in the most expeditious and summary manner." 78 With this mandate, the court used intimidation, beatings, and the threat of death to collect testimony. The court's procedures re-enacted hierarchies of race and status familiar to all masters and slaves. Black witnesses knew that their words, heard by an imposing group of white men, could send them to the gallows. They also knew that the right words might save them from the executioner's slipknots. The court's power over life or death--superseding even the power of a slave's master--gave black witnesses a powerful incentive to try to say what the white court wanted to hear.
One example well illustrates the overt exercise of power that influenced all testimony before the court. William Paul, the first witness interrogated by the court, was arrested May 31, nineteen days before he testified on the opening day of the court's June sessions. Paul's arrest followed a conversation he had on May 25 with Peter Prioleau, who subsequently told his master, John C. Prioleau, that Paul had invited him to join a slave uprising. The white Prioleau immediately informed the intendant of Charleston, James Hamilton, Jr., who convened the Charleston City Council and Governor Bennett to examine Paul on the day of his arrest. Not satisfied when Paul "flatly denied" knowledge of a slave uprising, city officials placed him in "solitary confinement in the black-hole of the Work-House." Hamilton reported later that he appointed a committee "to examine [Paul] from time to time, with the hope of obtaining further intelligence." Since white Charlestonians routinely sent their slaves to the workhouse for beatings, Paul's examinations probably included physical stimuli considered likely to improve his memory. According to Hamilton, after Paul spent "a week in solitary confinement, and beginning to fear that he would soon be led forth to the scaffold, for a summary execution," he recalled in graphic detail the plans for insurrection, plans he repeated in his court testimony. 79 All the black men arrested were placed in the workhouse. 80 Even if they were not roughed up by the city wardens who arrested them or beaten afterward in the workhouse--as many of them probably were--residing in the workhouse, where beatings were as normal as sunrise, had to focus their minds, much as it did William Paul's. 81 Especially after June 29, when the court announced publicly that Denmark Vesey and five slaves would be hanged, accused conspirators knew their lives were on the line. That knowledge translated the court's power into the personal idiom of each witness.
The palpable menace of the court's power underscores the courage of the forty-five men who pleaded not guilty during the July trials. Just as remarkable, 83 percent of the men arrested did not succumb to the court's desire to hear incriminating testimony. Only twenty-three of the 131 men arrested cooperated with the court by testifying against other defendants. All the rest said nothing, at least nothing recorded in the court transcript. The silence of the men executed by the court is particularly striking. Of the thirty-five men eventually hanged, twenty-four remained mute. Two of the condemned men gave lengthy confessions to their masters and then briefly testified against other defendants. 82 Four men who went to the gallows gave statements in court implicating others. 83 Only six hanged men spoke a few words in self-defense. 84 No testimony appears in the transcript from all the other men who shared Denmark Vesey's fate. 85 Since only two of the executed men had confessed and just six testified to any knowledge of the plot, the court's case against the executed men necessarily rested principally on the testimony of other witnesses. Historians' judgments of Denmark Vesey and the insurrection conspiracy rest there as well. During June and July the court heard testimony from thirty-three cooperative black witnesses; twenty-three of them had been arrested and were in custody; ten others were not arrested. 86 Almost all (97 percent) of the testimony from those who were not arrested came during the June court sessions or shortly thereafter. 87 These witnesses gave the majority of testimony during the sessions that led to the execution of Vesey and the first five slaves. 88 Nearly all (96 percent) of their testimony was given in secret. 89 Although the court transcript clearly records the names of these witnesses, the Official Report does not reveal their identities, in deference to the court's deal with the witnesses' masters to conceal witnesses' names in exchange for their testimony. 90 By testifying, these unarrested witnesses tiptoed through a dangerous minefield. Their testimony was valuable to the degree that it revealed their knowledge of a conspiracy, but knowing about a plot could easily implicate them in the eyes of the court.
To excuse themselves while incriminating others, these men gave testimony in the general form "it's not me; it's them." Such testimony succeeded: the court granted these unarrested witnesses immunity from prosecution. Their immunity is notable since their self-incriminating statements--ignored by the court--were similar to testimony that led the court to convict many defendants. In effect, these men were the court's pet witnesses. 91 Arrested witnesses gave three and a half times as much testimony as pet witnesses. 92 During the July sessions, testimony came almost exclusively from arrested witnesses. 93 Since the July sessions convicted 80 percent of the men who went to the gallows--confirming both the extent of the conspiracy and the wisdom of the court in crushing it--arrested witnesses merit special attention. Six arrested slaves, the court's star witnesses, furnished more than 90 percent of the July testimony. Three "superstar" witnesses, Monday Gell, Perault Strohecker, and Charles Drayton, provided three-fourths of the July testimony. 94 Three other men, John Enslow, Billy Bulkley, and Harry Haig, accounted for another 20 percent. 95 At least one of these star witnesses testified in every trial during July and at least one of the superstars testified in all but five trials. Testimony from the star witnesses had devastating results for the men they implicated. 96 Every man tried and executed during July was incriminated by at least one star witness; at least one superstar testified against all but four of them. 97 When the court heard testimony from at least two superstars, it convicted 92 percent of the defendants and sentenced 84 percent of them to death. 98 Clearly, the court believed that its star witnesses supplied convincing evidence against the accused conspirators. Historians who share the court's view that the executed men had plotted an insurrection must also rely on the testimony of these witnesses.
All the arrested witnesses had every reason to fear for their lives. Unlike the pet witnesses, they lacked immunity. Arrested on suspicion of involvement in the conspiracy based on testimony they did not hear from witnesses they did not confront, these men found themselves in the dreaded workhouse, awaiting appearance before the court. 99 It is reasonable to assume that, like William Paul, they wanted to avoid the hangman. But how could they do that? Should they plead not guilty, hoping that the evidence the court considered strong enough to arrest them proved too weak to convict them? This strategy offered the possible reward of acquittal but was accompanied by the high risk of execution. Should they choose instead to admit involvement in the conspiracy and cooperate with the court by testifying against other defendants? Should they tell the court, in general, "It's me and them"? Such a strategy would align them with, rather than against, the power of the court.
Every slave and every African American knew it was less dangerous to go along with white people than to challenge them. Cooperating with the court promised reduced risk along with the possibility of a real reward--some punishment short of execution. Whether for these or other reasons, the arrested witnesses tried to make the best of their desperate situation by confessing their own involvement, testifying against defendants who claimed to be uninvolved, and throwing themselves on the mercy of the court. Monday Gell expressed the pressures probably felt to one degree or another by all the arrested witnesses. Taken into custody on June 27 and confined to the workhouse, Gell confessed in court sixteen days later. His first words announced his desperation: "I come out as a man who knows he is about to die." 100 Gell then identified thirty-five fellow conspirators. The champion confessor, Gell named more names, gave more testimony, and incriminated more defendants than any other witness. 101 In its Official Report, the court praises Gell as "distinguished for the candour, sobriety, and intergrity of his life" and affirms that "every word which came from Monday could be implicitly relied on." 102 Gell's cooperation did not happen by accident. The court convicted him and sentenced him to hang on July 12 along with Charles Drayton, Harry Haig, Gullah Jack Pritchard, and John Horry. 103 While in the workhouse awaiting execution, Drayton became "overwhelmed with terror and guilt," according to James Hamilton, Jr. Drayton berated Gell for placing him "in such a miserable and perilous situation." Gell told Drayton that many others were involved in the plot. Drayton--"in a state of the most lamentable depression and panic . . . from the fear of death and the consequences of an hereafter, if he went out of the world without revealing all that he knew"--passed Gell's information along to court officials. They put Drayton and Gell together in the same cell in order to obtain more secret information and ultimately Gell's cooperation. 104 Although details about the court's encouragement of collusion between Gell and Drayton did not become public until mid-August, prominent notices in the Courier and the Mercury made it clear on July 12 that Gell, Drayton, and Haig were receiving special treatment. Pritchard and Horry were executed as scheduled, but Gell, Drayton, and Haig obtained a one-week stay of execution, followed by another stay a week later. 105 After Gell's confession and helpful testimony throughout the July trials, the court commuted his sentence to exile, along with Drayton's and Haig's, just before the July sessions ended. 106
The reward these three received for their cooperative testimony was typical. During the July sessions, the arrested witnesses who gave 97 percent of the testimony were ultimately sentenced to exile rather than execution. 107 Testifying that "it's me and them" worked; it saved "me" and hanged "them." In a letter to Governor Bennett, the court explained why: "These men are unquestionably guilty of the offences with which they have been charged; but under the impression that they would ultimately have their lives spared, they have made to us disclosures not only important in the detection of the general plan of the conspiracy, but enabling the Court to convict a number of the principal offenders. Having used these individuals as witnesses and obtained from them the knowledge they could communicate, we deemed it uncessarily [sic] harsh and amounting almost to treachery, afterwards to sacrifice their lives." 108 In the court's view, because the witnesses spoke the truth, they should not be executed. Bennett claimed, on the contrary, that these witnesses said what seemed likely to save themselves from the gallows. He wrote that Charles Drayton "predicated his claims of escape [from execution], on the number of convictions he could make. Nothing could exceed the chilling depravity of this man." He also declared that the court "extorted" Monday Gell's testimony by "stratagem." 109 Bennett's observations about Drayton and Gell appear generally applicable to all the cooperative witnesses. Allowing for exceptions, black men who did not admit guilt were executed on testimony from those who admitted their knowledge or guilt but were not executed. The men who gave the least incriminating evidence--who usually said nothing at all--received the greatest punishment. The men who gave the most incriminating evidence, much of it self-incriminating, received the least punishment short of acquittal. Since nearly all the testimony about the conspiracy came from witnesses who sought to protect themselves by implicating others, the credibility of their confessions warrants consideration.
All the cooperative testimony from black witnesses amounted to confession of knowledge of the conspiracy, involvement in it, or both. Although the transcript affixes the label "confession" to testimony from just five of the arrested witnesses, those "confessions" did not differ in kind from the rest of the cooperative testimony from black witnesses. 110 All such testimony shares the core feature of confessions: the admission that the witness knew or did something wrong as defined by the court and the white society it represented. The court exercised the power to impose on witnesses its definition of right and wrong, good and evil, morality and immorality. That power, aside from motivating witnesses to cooperate with the court to avoid execution, offered witnesses an alluring temptation to redeem their disputed morality by admitting wrong, their own and others.' 111 That the rewards of confession, moral and functional, have a confounding tendency to shape confessional testimony is illustrated by a different court case, one near in time but distant in space and social context. In 1819 in Manchester, Vermont, brothers Jesse and Stephen Boorn were arrested and put on trial for murdering Russell Colvin, their brother-in-law. 112 Although Colvin's body had not been found, he had been missing for almost seven years. Circumstantial evidence--charred bones, an old hat, a knife, a button--pointed the finger of suspicion at the Boorn brothers, who were known to have been at odds with Colvin for a long time. At first, both brothers insisted that they were innocent. Then Jesse confessed that Stephen had murdered Colvin and provided numerous details about the crime. 113 Stephen, however, refused to acknowledge guilt. The residents of Manchester had little doubt that both brothers were guilty. According to the brothers' attorney, "public feeling" against the defendants "was intense." 114 Their neighbors visited them in jail and implored them to confess. Finally Stephen wrote out a confession that vividly described how he had murdered Colvin, buried him, dug up his remains, reburied them under a stable that later burned, then recovered the charred bones, threw most of them in the river, and stashed the other things in a hole under a stump--a story that neatly accounted for the circumstantial evidence. 115 The jury quickly found both brothers guilty of murder. But when the judge sentenced them to be executed, they again claimed to be innocent. While they awaited execution, their lawyer managed to find Russell Colvin, who was alive and working on a farm in Dover, New Jersey. If Jesse and Stephen Boorn, free white men on trial by a court of free white men in Vermont in 1819, succumbed to the pressure to make false confessions when considered guilty and advised to confess by their free white neighbors, then it is prudent to suspect the veracity of the confessional testimony of the black witnesses--nearly all of them slaves vulnerable to the multiple coercions of bondage over mind and body--who stood before the court of white slaveholders in Charleston in 1822. One cannot assume that these witnesses told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Their statements should not be dismissed entirely, but they must be interpreted with great caution and skepticism. Nowadays, prosecutors seek to corroborate confessions with physical evidence. In Charleston, despite the zealous efforts of court authorities, no physical evidence was found that corroborated testimony about such preparations for insurrection as stockpiled weapons, lists of conspirators, or communication with allies in St. Domingue. 116 The only evidence of the conspiracy came from witnesses' words, some version of which a clerk recorded in the court transcript. Consider a few of Monday Gell's words on these matters. On July 13, the day after he had received a one-week stay of execution, Gell testified, "I never wrote to St Domingo or any where else on this subject, nor kept a list or books, nor saw any such things . . . nor did I hear any thing about arms being in possession of the blacks--I dont know that Tom Russell made pikes nor that Gullah Jack had any of them." 117 Two days later in the trial of Tom Russell, a blacksmith, Gell testified in total: "Tom Russell and Charles Drayton talked together once in my Shop but I did not hear what they said--I had frequent conversations with Perault [Strohecker] but not with Tom." Testifying in Russell's trial before Gell spoke, Strohecker had said that Gell had six pike heads in his shop and kept a list with forty-two names on it, which he burned when the first arrests were made. Drayton, whose testimony also preceded Gell's, said that Russell made the pike heads for Gullah Jack, "which pikes were to be used for fighting according as I suppose." 118 Eight days later, after Russell had been convicted and sentenced to hang, Gell confessed again. He had testified repeatedly against other defendants and received another week-long stay of execution, but he did not yet know whether his sentence would finally be commuted to exile. This time as he confessed his memory was remarkably refreshed. He averred that, although he did not write to St. Domingue, Vesey did. Vesey, he said, "brought a letter to me which was directed to President Boyer" of Haiti; he accompanied Vesey to a wharf where Vesey gave the letter to a cook on a Haiti-bound schooner; the cook agreed to deliver the letter to his (the cook's) uncle in Haiti, who in turn was supposed to "present the letter to Boyer. . . . Nothing extraordinary took place after this." 119
This more specific testimony, while conforming to Gell's earlier statement that he did not write a letter, contradicts his claim that he knew nothing about it and simultaneously implicates Vesey, who could not testify on this point since he had been hanged three weeks earlier. 120 What Gell said about weapons and lists in his second confession more directly contradicts his initial statement, although it is congruent with the testimony of Strohecker and Drayton in Russell's trial. Gell declared, "I knew personally of no arms except six pikes shewn to me by Gullah Jack, which were made by Tom Russell--I knew of no lists except the one which I kept containing about 40 names, and which I destroyed after the first interruption and alarm." 121 On the surface, this brief sequence of testimony strongly suggests collusion among the court's three superstar witnesses. If collusion commonly occurred, then testimony from cooperative witnesses would be even less trustworthy. On the other hand, if significant collusion can be ruled out, then congruent testimony by two or more witnesses would more likely be true. In the Official Report, however, the court boasts about orchestrating collusion between Drayton and Gell, proving that communication occurred between those two superstar witnesses. The Official Report also extols Gell and Strohecker "for veracity and honesty" and marvels at the "concurrence" of their testimony, especially since they "were not permitted to have any communications with each other, . . . were never informed of the particular prisoner against whom they were to appear. . . . [and] were brought forth separately and examined."
However, the concurrence of Gell's second confession with Strohecker's testimony in Tom Russell's trial indicates that the court exaggerated the independence of these two superstar witnesses. The three superstars testified so frequently during July that they probably heard each other's testimony many times. Immediately following Gell's testimony against Scipio Sims, for example, Drayton said, "Monday told me pretty much what he has himself stated to the Court," strong evidence that collusion occurred during the trials. 122 The crowded workhouse made it difficult to keep arrested men from talking to each other. According to the Official Report, Vesey was held in a cell with four other defendants. By July 13, when Gell gave his first confession, officials had already arrested sixty-seven men. Bacchus Hammett testified that when he was arrested on July 11, "he was put in the room in the work house with Perault--that Perault told him Gullah Jack had buried the powder and he thinks Perault knows where it is." 123 Even in the improbable event that, unlike Hammett, Strohecker, and Vesey, the other arrestees were housed individually in separate cells, communication among them would have been difficult to prevent. The workhouse was designed to punish blacks, not keep them incommunicado. Witnesses also could communicate with each other before they were arrested. The star witnesses were all on the streets for a month after the arrest of the first suspect, William Paul, and for eight days after the start of the June court sessions. 124
During June, news of arrests and of the coming and going of witnesses who were not arrested spread quickly on the black grapevine. Edwin Paul, for instance, testified, "I heard every body even the women say when several [suspected conspirators] were apprehended that they wondered that Monday Gell & Denmark Vesey were not taken." 125 It strains credulity to imagine that Gell and the other men who became star witnesses during July did not hear and talk about the rumors in June while they were still at large. 126 In short, instead of being ruled out, significant collusion among cooperative witnesses seems almost certain. Given the court's low standards for proof of guilt, collusion did not necessarily require much coordination of testimony. Here, for example, is the complete recorded testimony that led the court to sentence Dublin Morris to death:
Perault--Dublin said to me that Wm. Gardner had engaged him to join against the whites--he belongs to the African Church--
Charles Drayton--Dublin told me one day he had heard of it, but that was all-- 127
Even when testimony was somewhat more specific, minimal collusion among star witnesses--such as simply agreeing to implicate a man--could provide sufficiently congruent testimony for the court to execute the defendant. Consider the full recorded testimony against Tom Scott, who was hanged:
Monday Gell Examined--I told Tom of the business and he joined--he was often at my Shop talking on this business he was willing had joined and said he was making ready--he was of the same mind after the 16th June--He belongs to the African Church-- X exd. 'tis about 3 months since I spoke to him about it--the first time it was fixed to commence on 2d Sunday in July and Vesey afterwards altered it to 16th June
Perault--Tom told me he was engaged in this business with his own mouth, and was willing--He told me the day that Monday was taken of the circumstance and said the more we stand still the more of us will be taken--he belonged to Mondays Company
Charles Drayton I have heard him and Monday often in his Shop talking on this business, and heard him assent to the business; he spoke boldly 128
Aside from collusion among witnesses, leading questions from the court probably created congruence in the testimony of witnesses eager to cooperate. 129 Regrettably, it is impossible to be certain, since the transcript includes none of the questions the court posed to witnesses. It is not difficult, however, to imagine the questions that preceded certain testimony. For example, it seems likely that the words "he belongs to the African Church" in Strohecker's testimony against Dublin Morris and Gell's testimony against Tom Scott were prompted by questions from the court such as "Does he belong to the African church?" or "What church does he belong to?" The court's antipathy to the African church in Charleston was no secret. The Official Report denounces the "inflammatory and insurrectionary doctrines" preached by black religious leaders who infected their "ignorant" followers with "perverted religion and fanaticism." 130
Cooperative witnesses presumably had little trouble intuiting the answers the court expected to its questions about church membership. When the court repeatedly asked more or less the same questions to the same star witnesses during the numerous July trials, it collaborated with the witnesses to such an extent that, rather than simply listening to what witnesses had to say, it actively colluded with them in creating testimony. Perault Strohecker appears to provide an overt example of such collusion. The court declared that Strohecker's "open, frank and blunt manner convinced every one who heard him that he was incapable of uttering a falsehood." Governor Bennett did not share the court's confidence in Strohecker's truthfulness. According to Bennett, the Committee of Vigilance, a group of white citizens who privately interrogated possible conspirators, told Strohecker "a tissue of facts, which were assented to [by Strohecker], and eventually produced his confession." 131 In other words, white vigilants told Strohecker what to say and he said it, then adhered to the script in his testimony before the court. Although sources do not exist to corroborate Bennett's account, it seems quite plausible. If the vigilance committee was the ultimate source of Strohecker's testimony, then his case represents a difference in degree but not in kind from the court's collusion--via its questions and expected answers--with other cooperative witnesses.
Stated bluntly, the court believed that the pet
and star witnesses who were eager to save their own necks and were
successful in doing so told the truth and that most of the thirty-five
executed men lied or refused to admit the truth. Historians who share
the court's judgment that the men convicted were about to spark a slave
insurrection have little choice but to believe the witnesses and
disbelieve the men who pleaded not guilty or, like Vesey, said nothing.
Yet the foregoing review of the witnesses' testimony, confessions, and
collusion in the court transcript shows that it is absurd to suppose
that witnesses told the unvarnished truth. It is no less absurd simply
to assume that the executed men lied. It is not easy to specify why
historians should embrace the court's view that Monday Gell, Perault
Strohecker, Charles Drayton, and the other cooperative witnesses were
more credible than Denmark Vesey, Peter Poyas, Gullah Jack Pritchard,
and the other men who were hanged. But it is easy to see why the
testimony of Gell, Strohecker, Drayton, and the other cooperative
witnesses merits the utmost skepticism.