Denmark Vesey Trial: 1822
Denmark Vesey Trial: 1822
Defendant: Denmark Vesey et al.
Crime Charged: Conspiracy to commit insurrection and murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Vesey defended himself with assistance from George Warren Cross
Chief Prosecutors and Judges: Lionel Kennedy, Thomas Parker, William Drayton, Nathan Heyward, James Legare, James R. Pringle, Robert J. Turnbull
Place: Charleston, South Carolina
Date of Trial: June 23-28, 1822
Sentence: Death (President James Madison later remitted the sentence); also, Hull was dishonorably discharged and his name was stricken form the rolls of the army
SIGNIFICANCE: Along with the later Nat Turner uprising, the Vesey conspiracy prompted new legislation that made it more difficult to free slaves and placed more severe restrictions on free blacks.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a 60-year-old former slave who had bought his freedom with the winnings from a lottery ticket, planned what would have been the most extensive slave rebellion in American history. He plotted to seize Charleston, South Carolina, recruiting thousands of slaves to help him and writing to the president of the black Haitian Republic, asking for Haitian military assistance. On the night of the uprising, his coconspirators, the house servants of prominent Charlestonians, were to assassinate the governor and other officials while they slept. Afterwards, six infantry and cavalry companies of armed slaves would move through Charleston and murder the entire white population. The only whites to be left alive were ships' captains, who would carry Vesey and his revolutionaries to Haiti. Before leaving South Carolina, he planned to burn Charleston to the ground.
A Long Brewing Plot
Vesey's plot developed over a five-year period. In 1817 he seized upon Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church as a means of organizing the insurrection. The church had over 4,000 members, both free black and slave, and it was remarkably free of white supervision. The literate Vesey taught Bible there. At his trial one witness testified that Vesey "studied the Bible a great deal, and tried to prove from it that slavery and bondage is against the Bible." Another slave described how Vesey "read to us from the Bible, how the children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage." Once, when a listener objected to Vesey's call for violence and genocide to redress the evil of slavery, he replied simply, "The Lord commanded it."
Vesey also appealed to non-Christian blacks with the help of slave Jack Pritchard. "Gullah Jack," as he was known in Charleston, had been born in Angola and was an Obeah-man or conjure man. Many in the black community believed he had the power to create charms that could protect the wearer against bullets. Gullah Jack was key in recruiting help for the plot among the Gullah population of Charleston and the neighboring islands.
By December 1821 Vesey had four main lieutenants. One was Ned Bennett, the trusted slave of South Carolina governor Thomas Bennett. Another was Rolla Bennett, who routinely took charge of the governor's household during his absences. Although Rolla later testified that "the governor treats me like a son," he was willing to murder the governor and his family. The third man, Monday Gell, "enjoyed all the substantial comforts of a free man." His master allowed him to keep a goodly portion of his earnings as a harness maker. The fourth lieutenant, Peter Poyas, was a ship's carpenter, who believed that "we are obliged to revolt."
By mid-1822, Ned Bennett was spreading the word in the country that Sunday, June 14 had been chosen for the uprising. Peter Poyas, Rolla Bennett, and Monday Gell were collecting and organizing armed companies among the AME congregation, and Gullah Jack alerted the islanders to prepare their boats and weapons for an attack on Charleston. The date was well chosen. Blacks were permitted to gather at the city market on Sundays with little supervision, and by mid-July many of the city's elite and militia members had left town to escape the heat.
The Secret Plot is Revealed
Vesey had managed to keep his conspiracy secret for a remarkably long time considering the number of persons involved. He had warned that any traitor would be "put to instant death." He had also largely avoided involving mulattos and house slaves, whom he considered a security risk. But three weeks before the appointed day, Peter Prioleau, a house servant of Colonel John Prioleau, was approached by a strange black man while he was on an errand down by the wharves. "We are determined to shake off our bondage," the stranger told Peter. "Many have joined, and if you go with me, I will show you the man, who has a list of names, who will take yours down." Stunned, Peter Prioleau left quickly. Eventually, he told his master about the encounter.
Surprisingly little happened at first. Colonel Prioleau rushed to tell Charleston's mayor, Intendent James Hamilton. Peter told his story to the governor and the city council, all of whom initially refused to believe that anything serious was afoot. Colonel Prioleau, acting on his own initiative, arrested William Paul, the man who had approached Peter. After a week of solitary confinement and physical abuse, Paul revealed the outline of Vesey's plan and the identity of all of Vesey's main lieutenants. Still the authorities did little. The governor claimed, upon learning that his slave Ned was involved, that Ned's "attachment and fidelity" to him were beyond question. Several other conspirators were questioned and released. But Vesey himself was neither named nor suspected, and all the while he was working to move up the date of the revolt before the white population could learn more about it.
Meanwhile, Major John Wilson, who was more suspicious than the governor, arranged for his mulatto servant George to make undercover inquiries. On June 14 George confirmed that the plot was real and that midnight of Sunday June 16 was the appointed time. This convinced Hamilton, who summoned the state militia to reinforce the city guard, but he raised no public alarm.
Vesey and Others Finally Arrested
By Sunday June 16, Vesey noticed the influx of armed troops into the city and canceled the insurrection. Soon most of the ringleaders had been arrested, except for Vesey. Interrogators remarked later that he "enjoyed so much confidence of the whites, that when he was accused, the charge was not only discredited, but he was not even arrested for several days after, and not until proof of his guilt had become too strong to be doubted."
On June 18, Hamilton summoned seven prominent merchants and lawyers to convene as a pro tempore court for all blacks arrested for insurrection. This special court had no jury and its sentences could not be appealed. The seven judges both heard cases and prosecuted them. This practice was legal under the state Negro Act of 1740, which was still in force and allowed for special courts for blacks, "severe" physical interrogation, and capital punishment. The defendants did have the right to counsel, to know the identity of hostile witnesses and to cross-examine other slaves, and to challenge hearsay evidence.
Of the four witnesses called against Vesey, only one specifically testified that Vesey urged slaves to seize weapons and fight for freedom. The only other evidence came from an unidentified white barber, who claimed that Vesey had hired him to make wigs from Caucasian hair. (Vesey had hoped that wigs and white paint would deceive the city guard in the dark sufficiently to let slaves near enough to them to kill them,) Vesey denied knowing the man, but when Hamilton produced one of the wigs, Vesey remarked "Good God!" and confessed he knew the hairdresser and said he had had the wig made for his own use.
Vesey himself did not take the stand, and from jail he urged other defendants to die like men and say nothing. He was allowed to cross-examine witnesses and to act as his own counsel. In the end, however, Judge Lionel Kennedy pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to death. "It is difficult to imagine what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary," Kennedy remarked. "From your age and experience you ought to have known that success was impracticable." On July 2, 1822, Vesey and five of his main conspirators were hanged. By the end of August an additional further 131 blacks were arrested and 35 hanged.
The conspiracy had two long-term results. First, the city of Charleston established the Citadel to help protect its citizens against "an enemy in the bosom of the state." Second, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun ordered U.S. military forces to take up indefinite duty in Charleston to help "in quelling the disturbances" there, and established a military presence that would last until, and ultimately trigger, the Civil War.
—Carol Willcox Melton
Suggestions for Further Reading
Pearson, Edward A., ed. Designs against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Robertson, David. Denmark Vesey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.