Letter from Citizens of Sussex County to Governor of Virginia, February 28, 1835

 

To the Governor and Council of the State of Virginia,

 

                 At a called Court of the County of Sussex on Saturday the 21st of February 1835 a condemned slave named Boatswain [Boson in the original trials in Sussex], who had escaped from jail, and who had been recently apprehended in Norfolk, and returned to the said County of Sussex for identification & execution:  received the unanimous recommendation of said Court to the exercise of the pardoning power of the executive; commuting his sentence of death to that of transportation.—

 

Now, we the undersigned inhabitants of the aforesaid County of Sussex beg leave, most respectfully to UNITE in the above recommendation of our said Court to the Executive of our State.—

 

                 Most of your Petitioners are near neighbours of the master of said condemned slave:  most of us have participated in the extreme excitement produced by the horrible events, which led to the Condemnation. We know the circumstances: We encountered the danger: we suffered all the inconveniences, of that most appalling period, being in the immediate vicinity of the scene of Blood, and WE, yes! We, who may consider ourselves as a part of the intended victims of that massacre, DO INTERCEDE for the life of the condemned. Time has mellowed our feelings, and given full exercise to our reason. We can now view the events freed from that exasperation, which blinded our unbiased judgments. We can do JUSTICE, even, to the unfortunate culprit, and although, for examples sake, we would not screen a participator in that blood deed, from consign punishment; yet, we cannot see one suffer the penalty of Death, who, we believe not to have been a participant in it. We candidly admit that Boatswain was, perhaps, a discontented spirit; and, perhaps, a refractory slave:--that he might have indulged in threats, amongst his fellow slaves, against the Whites:--that he might have been tempted to join the murderers had they, for a time, proved successful, and continued embodied, carrying on the work of carnage. These are probabilities, but not facts, or events, and we surely, will not now hang the vilest wretch, for what he might possibly be induced to commit; when there is not one little of evidence to prove that he did commit any such crime. The whole and sold testimony against him is that of Parkers negro woman. On her evidence alone, nearly all the condemnations in Sussex were made; and very many of these in Southampton. Now! we declare to you that many of the good citizens of both those counties have strong doubts, as to the correctness of her testimony: and WE think it not sufficient, of itself, unconnected with any other corroborating circumstances, to warrant an execution, at this present day. The girl’s memory was certainly not correct in one material fact, against one of the condemned, who also met his fate. Solomon & Boatswain are coupled together in her testimony: and Solomon, of the time, the most deeply implicated, in his threats of insurrection & murder – the time and place and the circumstances were the same, as to both those negroes. The guilt or innocence of both should stand or fall by the truth or falsehood of the evidence she gave against them – conjointly: -- Now, let us see whether there may not exist some doubt as to the correctness of her memory. – She says: ---

 

(see Record of the Trial, a copy of which we respectfully forward herewith to save the trouble of a reference to your files.)

 

“Beck a negro slave the property of Solomon D. Parker says that at the last May meeting at the Racoon Meeting House she heard the prisoner say he would join the negroes to murder the white people. This was in company of several other negroes: one of whom – Solomon – said God damn the white people they had reigned long enough. –She has not seen the prisoner since, until he was brought before a magistrate to be examined.”

 

                 This is all the evidence. It comprises the whole story of his guilt. – Couple it with the fact that this conversation occurred at the Racoon Meeting House in Sussex: when the insurrection had its origins, and was confined exclusively to a neighbourhood in Southampton: that it occurred in May, four months previous to the insurrection; when all the evidence given at the trials in Southampton, left the mind convinced that it was not an affair of premeditation but suddenly gotten up by a fanatic, who had to use religious delusion and force, to induce a very few desperadoes to commence it with him: after a revel, where they became excited by liquor, heightened by the inflammatory declamation of their leader. – uniting all those circumstances, together, and the mind is irresistibly led to the conclusion that this threatening conversation at the Racoon – May – Meeting had no connection whatever with the massacre in Southampton, and therefore that Boatswain is innocent of all participation in that crime.

 

                 But still, from the evidence, we may conclude that he was hatching & fomenting an insurrection, in his own neighbourhood; and should therefore pay the penalty of his life, as the testimony proves that fact on him. Permit us therefore to trespass yet a moment longer on your time, by examining into that point also.

 

                 Bear in mind, that the conversation is said to have taken place between several negroes, at the Racoon Meeting House, at the May meeting 1831, in which Solomon and Boatswain were the prominent conspirators. Solomon was condemned and executed under this testimony alone. Now, if any fact can be adduced to invalidate the truth of the witness’s testimony, in any one point: — surely we may justly & reasonably conclude that the witness might have erred in other points.

                 

                 Mr. & Mrs. Laine, inhabitants of that immediate neighbourhood, both declare that on this very meeting day vizl May Racoon meeting in 1831, -- Solomon came out of the mill pond (contiguous to Mr. Laine’s) where he had been fishing all the morning: -- that he brought to them a fine string of fish, just caught: that he remained on the plantation untill [sic] long after the meeting had broken up: -- that he assisted Mr. Laine’s servants in taking the horses of those who had rode from meeting to Mr. Laines: -- that he Mr. Laine saw him, Solomon, there untill [sic] nearly or quite sun down: and that he did not leave there untill [sic] after that time. So as to render impossible that he could have been at the meeting house during the time of meeting, on that day. --  To which facts they -- Mr. and Mrs. Laine are willing to make affidavit, if necessary. –

 

                 Here then you have the evidence of two white witnesses – persons of intelligence – of unblemished reputations, and standing as fair in our society, as any other members of it: -- who prove to you that the girl of Parkers was certainly mistaken in all that she deposed & said about Solomon; and which led to his execution and if wrong, as to him, can you consent to the sacrifice of another victim, on that identical testimony?

 

                 We have been operated upon by the above facts to recommend Boatswain for transportation, instead of execution. The county court of Sussex have been impelled, by the same reasons, to recommend him for the same commutation of punishment, and, we fervently hope that the same facts & reasons will operate to induce you to accede to the recommendation of the court; and the prayer of the petition of your fellow citizens,

 

                                                      Geo Blow

                                                      William Peters

                                                      Alexander N. Laine

                                                      Thomas Partridge

                                                      Joseph Canton

                                                      Nicholas Cocks

                                                      [?] Massenberg

                                                      Wm. D. Taylor

                                                      Richard Massenburg

                                                      John Lilly

                                                      Jordan Edwards

                                                      Wiliam Morre

                                                      [illegible]

                                                      Aug. Claiborne

                                                      [illegible] Harrison [?]

                                                      Wm. Parham [?]

                                                      [?] Briggs

                                                      [?]Briggs Jr.