Arson and Murder, Southampton County, 1821
In the summer of 1821, the slaves Abel and Celia of Southampton County were tried, convicted, and executed for killing the man to whom they had been hired out, James Powell, and his wife America. Below are the trial records from the Court Order Book of Southampton County.
Court Order Book, Southampton County, 1819-1822
At a Court of Oyer and Terminer summoned and held for the County of Southampton on the 28th day of June 1821 for the trial of Abel a negro boy slave the property of Sally Daughtry of this county for feloniously and wilfully [sic] murdering James Powell and America Powell his wife on the night of the 14th of the present month since at the dwelling house of [illegible] the same James Powell & America Powell his wife---
Present. Benjamin Cobb, Jacob Darden, James D. Massenburg, William E. Daughtry and William S. Everett–Gent. Justices
The Court being thus constituted the prisoner was set to the bar by the sheriff of this county into whose custody he was heretofore committed and charged with the felony aforesaid, and being thereof arraigned upon his arraignment pleaded not guilty and for his trial put himself upon God and the court and thereupon divers witnesses were sworn and examined on behalf of the Commonwealth touching the premises to wit, Patrick Doles of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that early in the morning of the 14th of this present month this young man who lives at the house of this deponent informed him the deponent that he thought the house of James Powell was on fire and had sent a negro man George the property of the deponent to see if it was the fact but before the conversation [p. 322] between the deponent and the young man had ceased the said George returned and informed this deponent that Powell’s house was on fire. This deponent asked George if he saw any person stirring, he replied he did not. This deponent then observed it was probable they were all consumed in the house, and ordered all hands to go over and if it was not the case to render all the assistance they could. This deponent after putting on his clothes immediately went over to the assistance of Powell and when he arrived there, he found the house of Powell consumed and himself and wife also consumed therein. After walking about & making some examinations to see what discovery he could make, he discovered that a trunk which was brought out of the house was broken or bursted open, and the papers very much scattered about. That Powell’s remains were lying where a cot formerly stood and appeared to be on the back, and Mrs. Powell’s lying where a bed formerly stood in the house--
Celia a negro girl the property of Henry Daughtry’s estate of the county of Nansemond being charged and sworn saith, that on the day before the murder was committed the prisoner said to her this deponent that he the prisoner had something to tell her which he was afraid to do till just night for fear this deponent would tell of it, and just at night of the same day he told this deponent that he wanted her to kill their people meaning Powell & wife, that he would give her, this deponent, five dollars to do it which this deponent refused to do saying that they had done nothing to induce her to kill them and that she could not do it. He the prisoner said she this deponent, should do it, or that he would & then said that she this deponent should tell them meaning Powell & wife, that he did not mean to come home there on the Monday morning following. That knight [sic] this deponent went in the room where the prisoner slept to get water which she never done before after knight [sic], and after getting in the room the prisoner asked this deponent if she did not intend to kill them, meaning Powell and wife. She answered no, and went back and laid down, but did not go to sleep, neither could she rest. She then went back in the room where the prisoner was, and got the axe and returned again in the room where Powell & wife slept & laid down, & then got up and attempting three times to strike Mr. Powell before she gave the blow and gave him three blows, one in the breast and two on the head & then left him—when she gave Powell the first blow he said “don’t” and Mrs. Powell asked what was the matter, and at that instant this deponent gave Mrs. Powell a blow in the breast and two on the head, while this deponent was committing the murder the prisoner was in the other room holding a negro boy to keep him from seeing this deponent commit the murder and at the same time telling this deponent to save them and spare them no life. This deponent then went in the other room where the prisoner was and he went out to the wood pile, & returned in the house and got some lightwood, carried it to the door steps and split it and kindled a fire and put it at the head of the bed where Mrs. Powell lay and asked the deponent for the barn key and went and got a quantity of fodder and put some on the fire at the head of the bed and carried some upstairs and set it on fire and put fodder under the house at that part of the house where Mr. Powell lay and set it on fire. He then put some fodder on the top of the house and set that on fire. During this time this deponent was carrying furniture up out of the house and after the prisoner had fired the house he assisted in carrying out furniture until the fire stopped them. They then moved the property out of the way of the fire and the prisoner carried a trunk a short distance under a peach tree and broke it open, and then returned to this deponent and said there was nothing in it and then went to Mr. Powell’s trunk and took out four pieces of money three 25 cent pieces & one 12 ½ cent piece, silver, and two silk frocks, one pair of stockings and buried those behind the smoke house and then took one cravat and put in his pocket, and took one [p. 323] shirt, one pair of pantaloons, and vest and one cambric frock & carried them off in the woods and returned and stayed a short time and then went off saying he was going to Mr. Murfee’s.
Wells Murfee of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that on the 14th of this present month about sunrise in the morning of that day the prisoner came to the house of this deponent and informed him that the house of James Powell was consumed by fire and James Powell and wife were also consumed in the house. The prisoner then asked the deponent what he should do. This deponent directed the prisoner to go to Mr. Simon Murfee and tell him to come up to this deponent’s house in his gigg [sic] in order to go to the place where Mr. Powell’s house was burnt. And when they arrived at the place where the cot formerly stood the head of the one that was said to be James Powell was separated from the body, and the scull [sic] appeared to be in several pieces. This deponent then discovered that two of the trunks which were brought out of the house were open. One appeared to be very much drawn by the fire, and the other appeared to be broken open by violence used on the lock.
Simon Murfee of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that on the morning of the 14th of this present month about ½ hour by six in the morning of that day the prisoner at the bar came to the house of this deponent and informed him that the house of James Powell was burnt and himself + wife consumed therein. This deponent asked if the child was saved. He answered it was. This deponent asked how it was possible the child should be saved & Mr. & Mrs. Powell consumed. The prisoner answered that they were carrying out property and both of them went in the house and it fell in upon them. That this deponent during this conversation with the prisoner thought he discovered evident marks of guilt, but upon reflection thought probably it might be the scene which he had witnessed produced the effect upon the countenance of the prisoner. This deponent then went to the place where the house was burnt and found the remains of two persons which he has no doubt was the remains of James Powell & wife & that the remains of one appeared to be where the bed formerly stood, and the remains of the other where the cot formerly stood, and upon examination found two trunks open, one of them a small distance from the other property which was taken out of the house and appeared to have been broken open and a considerable part of the clothing taken thereout, and two pocket books lying open in the trunk upon top of the other things in the trunks, both of which were empty, that this deponent did not see the prisoner any more during that day till nearly night when he set off home, The prisoner came up behind him in the road near the place where the house was burnt, and asked this deponent what he should do, or where he should go. That this deponent then directed the prisoner to go to the house of this deponent where he went accordingly & remained till the next day, when he was directed by this deponent to return to the plantation where James Powell had lived. that when when [sic] this deponent approached the prisoner he exhibited marks of fear and guilt and showed a disposition to avoid this deponent which induced this deponent to suspect the prisoner of having committed the murder of James Powell & wife and burning the house. Upon these suppositions this deponent apprehended the prisoner and had him confined and dealt with according to law.
Tyler Edwards of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that on the 14th of this month the prisoner at the bar overtook this deponent and asked if he, this deponent was not a witness to a note which James Powell gave for the hire [p. 324] of the prisoner. This deponent answered that he was the security to the note. That this deponent then asked the prisoner why he asked that question. The prisoner then said that James Powell and wife was burnt up in his house with all his property except one trunk and one chest. This deponent then asked this prisoner to give some account of the occurrence. He said he knew nothing of it until the house was on fire. That the house was fired in the boxing and that he thought it was set on fire. That this deponent asked the prisoner if there had been any fires in that part of the house. The prisoner answered there had not been any in a month that he knew of.
Nancy Beale of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that she was at the place where James Powell’s house was burnt & in walking in the garden saw the wrapper of the child of James Powell laying on a potato ridge.
Elizabeth Beale of full age being sworn deposeth & saith that she happened at the place where James Powell’s house was burnt & in walking in the garden saw the wrapper of the child of James Powell lying in the garden which was the same wrapper which this deponent had seen the child of James Powell wear.
Alexander Booth of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that he saw the prisoner at the bar at a preaching at Dixon Bass’s since James Powell’s house was burnt and saw him have 75 or 87½ cents in silver.
Dixon Bass of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that he saw the prisoner at the bar at a preaching at his house since James Powell’s house was burnt and saw the prisoner at the bar have a small quantity of silver.
John Screws of full age being sworn deposeth and saith that he heard the prisoner at the bar say if James Powell whip[p]ed him any more that he the prisoner would not live with him.
Miles a negro man slave the property of William Lawrence being charged and sworn saith that during the last fishing season he frequently heard the prisoner at the bar say that if James Powell whipped him that he would be damned if he, the prisoner, did not kill him.
The evidence on the part of the Commonwealth being closed and the prisoner being fully heard by ounsel, the Court after hearing the testimony and all the circumstances of the case are unanimous in the opinion that the prisoner is guilty of the murder whereof he stands charged. Therefore it is considered by the court that the prisoner be taken hence to the place from whence he came and from thence to the place of execution on Wednesday the 12th day of August next between the hours of 10 o’clock A.M. & 5 o’clock P.M. of that day and be hanged by the neck until he be dead.
And the court value the said slave Abel to three hundred & seventy five dollars.
The foregoing proceedings were signed by Benj. Cobb
Teste James Rochelle
At a Court of Oyer and Terminer held at the courthouse in the county of Southampton on the 28th day of June 1821 for the trial of Celia a negro girl slave the property of the estate of Henry Daughtry of the county of Nansemond, who stands charged with feloniously murdering James Powell and America his wife of this county on the night of the 14th of the present month.
Present, Benjamin Cobb, James D. Massenburg, Jacob Darden, William S. Everett,
and William E. Daughtry—Gent.
The court being thus constituted the prisoner was set to the bar by the sheriff of this county into whose custody he was heretofore committed and charged with the felony aforesaid, and being thereof arraigned pleaded not guilty and for her trial put herself upon God and the court and thereupon divers witnesses were sworn and examined in behalf of the Commonwealth touching the premises, to wit, Samuel Calvert & Simon Murfee of full age being duly sworn, depose that the prisoner confessed in the premises and hearing of these deponents that she murdered James Powell & America his wife by inflicting three blows on each with an axe. That she struck Mr. Powell on the breast with the eye of the axe and repeated the blow twice upon which Mrs. Powell called upon her husband to know what was the matter. That the prisoner then went immediately to her bedside & inflicted three blows on her breast. They then both appeared to be still and she then went into the other room where her accomplice the negro boy was, who told her it was best to save the infant of Mrs. Powell to prevent suspicion which she accordingly did by taking it from its mother’s side and carrying it out of doors and that Abel her accomplice then set fire to the house. And the evidence of Simon Murfee & others as given in in [sic] the case of Abel being admitted in this case. And the evidence being thus closed on the part of the commonwealth and the prisoner being fully heard by counsel. The court after hearing the testimony and all the circumstances of the case are unanimous of opinion that the prisoner is guilty of the murder whereof she stands charged. And it being demanded of her if anything for herself she had or knew to say why the court should not proceed to pronounce judgment against her according to law, she said that she had nothing but what she had before said. Therefore it is considered by the court that she be hanged by the neck until she be dead. But the said Celia alleging herself quick with child and praying that execution of the judgment aforesaid may be respited, it is commanded the sheriff of this county that he summon a jury of matrons to meet here on the third Monday in July next being court day, to try and examine whether the said Celia be quick with child or not. Whereupon the court stands adju=ourned and it is hereby adjourned till the third Monday in July next being court in course.
The foregoing proceedings were signed by Benjamin Cobb.
[p. 327] (July 16, 1821)
Celia a negro woman slave who stands convicted of feloniously murdering James Powell & America his wife was again set to the bar by the sheriff of this county to which day the Court of Oyer and Terminer summoned and held for her trial was continued and thereupon came a jury of matrons to wit Lucy Myrick, Peggy Vick, Elizabeth Whitehead, Peggy Williford, Lucy Drake, Betsey Rowe, Sally Pope, Patsey Scott, Anna Beale, Tabitha Blythe, Winney [?] Doyal, & Tempy Phillips who being duly sworn to try and examine whether the said Celia be quick with child or not, retired into a private room with the said Celia and after sometime returned into court, and upon their oath did report that they did not believe the said Celia to be quick with child. Therefore it is considered by the court that the judgment pronounced against the said Celia be executed by the sheriff of this county at the usual place of execution on the 15th day of August next between the hours of 10 o’clock A.M. & 5 o’clock P.M. of that day and thereupon the prisoner is remanded to jail.