Reports from the Gallows: Southern Capital Punishment, 1776-1820
On March 28, 1820, Jordan- a Virginia slave convicted of the murder of his overseer- was ushered before a sizeable crowd eager to witness his death. Slaves convicted of capital crimes faced swift justice, for southern legal norms dictated an expedited trial and punishment. Often, large gangs of slaves were brought in to witness the spectacle. Their inclusion was a political move by the slaveholders to deter future slave resistance. Before climbing to the top of the ladder, Jordan murmured a short prayer- a public act of contrition expected of criminals. Finally, a spectator reported, “…he was turned off; his struggles lasted three to four minutes.” His body presumably remained before the public’s view for the rest of the day, a symbolic representation of white supremacy in the South.
Jordan’s case tested the boundaries of plantation justice. His body reminded the public of the swift and merciless nature of southern justice. Executions were harsh, theatrical, and purposeful. The southern imagination on the subject of capital punishment was closely tied to race and protection of the social order. Southerners embraced capital punishment as a prescription to the ills of society-either civic or theological deviance. Instead of viewing the gallows as a symbol of the wrongs of society, southerners romanticized and mythologized death sentences, imagining the gallows to be a mechanism to produce conformity and order. Moreover, southerners constructed myths that legitimized their support of the institution, including: the guiding hand of god at the gallows, the belief of crime as a contagion, and the threat of slave revolts. Myths served to underpin the existing social order, and planter authority.
Vanessa Varin, Louisiana State University