Murder of an Overseer, Southampton County, February 1802
In 1802, the slaves named Hercules (sometimes referred to as Hark), George, and Henry were put on trial for mudering William Summerell, their overseer.
[p. 249] At a court of Oyer and Terminer held for the county of Southampton the the [sic] 11th day of February 1802 for the trial of Hercules a negro man slave belonging to James Wilkins on of the county aforesaid charged with murdering William Summerell within the county aforesaid on the afternoon of the first day of this Instant.
Present: Benjamin Blunt, Jacob Darden, Robt Goodwyn, Jos Ruffin, Josiah Vick, Sam’l Blunt, James Millar, George Lymley, Jno Lee --Gentlemen
The court being thus constituted the prisoner was set to the bar by the Sheriff of this county (and Aug’s C. Cocke being appointed council for the def[endan]t) and charged with the murder aforesaid to which he plead not guilty and Anthony Newsum a free mulatto boy an apprentice to James Wilkinson about 16 or 17 years of age of prompt mind being first charged & sworn was examined on behalf of the commonwealth says that he was ordered by Wm. Summerell his overseer to be at the river an hour before day on the Monday before Summerell’s body was found he went accordingly on horseback and saw there Aaron and another black person with him Aaron asked this witness what he came for he replied he came for the overseer who was over the river and had brought a horse for him which he had often done before Aaron then said go home immediately & say y[ou]r horse had thrown you and got away then this witness went a little way and stopp[e]d and the person who was with Aaron spoke to him & ordered him to go home at that time he knew that the person that spoke to him was Hercules the prisoner by his voice. Hercules was than running off the witness asked Hercules what he was about he replied he was going to do something the reason of this witness stopping was that he expected that something was to be done as he had heard among the negroes of the family that they wished Summerell dead. After this the witness proceeded on home & heard a gun after he had got about 3/4 of a mile towards the place where he had left the prisoner & Aaron in the direction where Summerell generally pass[e]d.
[p. 250] And Willis a negro man slave belonging to John Wilkinson another witness being charged and sworn says that about a fortnight before the death of Summerell George one of the negroes belonging to Jon. Wilkinson came to the plantation where he lived and told this witness that Summerell the decd. would be overtaken before many days this witness asked George ?how [sic], he replied, Summerell would be shot this witness asked who would shoot him, George replied Henry one of the prisoners would shoot him and that Hercules the prisoner now at the bar & Aaron were saving for it – this witness further says that on the Monday morning before Wm. Summerell was found dead he went to the river with Wm. Summerell and set him over after he had returned abt 150 yards from the river he heard a gun in the direction that Summerell the dead usually passed from one plantation to the other.
And James Jackson of full age being and sworn says that suspecting Hercules the prisoner at the bar with George & others were guilty of murdering Wm. Summerell that he whip[pe]d George and Hercules who with Aaron after some time confessed that Hank had shot him & this witness with others and the prisoners Hark, George, and Henry went with him into the low grounds of Meherrin River and found the body buried in the mud & covered with logs that there were a number of shot wounds in his breast which appeared to be the occasion of his death; the body was also much bruised seemingly from strokes with sticks or other violence.
And Aaron another witness belonging to James Wilkinson on who was first charged and sworn says that in the spring of last year he heard George one of the prisoners propose subscription of money to buy poison to give to Wm. Summerell the dead who was then their overseer and that Hercules and Henry the prisoners & Big Anthony put in a 1/4 of a dollar each to buy the poison that George procured some scorpion heads but this plot did not succeed owing this witness supposes from George's wife destroying the poison as she suspected it was for her. That ab[ou]t a fortnight or 3 weeks before Wm. Summerell was killed another
[p. 251] another [sic] plot was entered into to kill Summerell by shooting him that George Henry and Hercules the prisoners were concerned in their plot and that George proposed this plot Henry found the gun & powder Hercules the lead & that all three were present at the moulding of the shot which were large buck shot that they were moulded in pinback and that this witness was present the prisoners first proposed to shoot him at the river and throw the body into it but finally agreed to bury him in the low grounds that on Monday before the last this witness with Hercules the prisoner at the bar went to waylay the decd. at the river before day on his passing from one plantation to another that after day break Wm. Summerell the decd. crossed the river & Hark the prisoner now at the bar who had gun and had undertaken to shot Wm. Summerell fired on him from behind a tree at the distance of about 15 or 20 feet.
That there was 25 buck shot in the gun that the shot entered the upper part of his heart that he fell immediately & the prisoner Hercules went up to him & call[e]d this witness to come & told him there was no danger that this witness and Hercules both stuck him with large sticks and that Hark jump[e]d with his feet on his body twice; after he was dead that witness & the prisoner dragged the body into the low grounds and covered him up slightly with shells of logs & at 12 o’clock of the same day George on of the prisoners & this witness went with a hoe and dragged him further into the low grounds & covered the body in the mud pretty deep & covered it with a large log and other small pieces and the evidence being thus closed in behalf of the Comm[onwea]l[th]. The prisoner was asked if he had any witnesses to examine or any further evidence to make to which he replied he had not and the court on consideration of the evidence and the whole circumstances of the case are unanimously of opinion that the prisoner is guilty Therefore it is
[p. 252] it is [sic] ordered that the prisoner be taken from hence to the place from whence he came and from thence to the place of execution and there on the 20th day of the present month between the hours of 12 & 3 in the afternoon of that day be hung by the neck till he is dead.
Memo the court value the slave Hercules to three hundred and thirty three dollars and thirty four cents.
[The slaves known as George and Henry were also put on trial. The prosecution used the same witnesses and evidence from the trial of Hercules. The two men were found guilty and executed.]
Court Minute Book, Southampton County, Virginia, 1799-1803: Pg. 249-252