A comprehensive exploration of a bizarre, contested murder in the plantation South on the eve of the Civil War.
Wayne (The Reshaping of Plantation Society, not reviewed) describes an incident that obliquely dramatizes the cruelties and absurdities of the “peculiar institution.” Shortly after overseer Duncan Skinner was reported missing by the slaves of Clarissa Sharpe’s plantation, a search party was organized and Skinner was found dead, apparently killed in a riding accident (or so a coroner’s jury concluded). But local planters soon discovered that all the slaves believed a different story: namely, that three male slaves had killed the overseer for his money and arranged the scene. The three killers were accorded representation in what was essentially a show trial, and were then hanged. The local planters, however, attributed the conspiracy to a non-slave–owning white carpenter, John McAllin, who was believed to have had designs on Miss Sharpe. They subsequently threatened him with retaliatory violence via a newspaper ad that urged him to leave town. McAllin in turn asserted his innocence in an equally fiery ad that put the planters in an untenable position, as it struck at the severe class differences between slaveholders and white laborers in the antebellum South. At the time, McAllin’s culpability was generally accepted. Using many obscure primary-source documents, Wayne debates this thesis, pursuing alternative explanations that centered upon the need of pro-slavery whites to manipulate perceptions of their African chattel as alternately childlike and brutal, and maintain their authority over the restive group of impoverished whites represented by McAllin. He astutely concludes that Southern whites “held to contradictory interpretations of black character and drew on them as circumstances and their own psychological needs dictated.”
A fascinating history that faces still-difficult questions of injustice and responsibility.