“His body was given over to the surgeons for dissection. He was skinned to supply such souvenirs as purses, his flesh made into grease, and his bones divided as trophies to be handed down as heirlooms. It is said that there still lives a Virginian who has a piece of his skin which was tanned, that another Virginian possesses one of his ears and that the skull graces the collection of a physician in the city of Norfolk.”– John W. Cromwell, “The Aftermath of Nat Turner’s Insurrection,” 1920
“On the evening of August 21–22, 1831, an enslaved preacher and self-styled prophet named Nat Turner launched the most deadly slave revolt in the history of the United States.”
That’s how the Encyclopedia Virginia described the Nat Turner Rebellion, measuring the “most deadly slave revolt” solely in terms of white deaths, 55. It’s true that in response to the revolt Virginia eventually killed most of the seventy or so participants in the uprising, which would make it among the most deadly revolts of enslaved people. But the other 130+ Black people killed because people were upset about the rebellion were murdered, some in their beds. But that’s another story.
Nat himself wasn’t caught for over two months after the deadly insurrection. While allegedly spotted in several surrounding states during that period. He never left Southhampton County, spending most of that time hiding in two locations.
When he was finally discovered, he was dehydrated and emaciated, surrendering himself to the farmer with a gun who stumbled upon him. He faced trial, was convicted, and was hung for his crimes on November 11, 1831. What might have been the end of the story is where this story begins.
Maybe it was the length of time people spent searching for Nat Turner, fearing that he would reappear or that enslaved people inspired by Nat Turner would revolt on their own. The fear of a Black man (and woman) was real following the revolt, and they blamed Nat.
It could be the fact he showed no remorse. His supposed attorney, T.R. Gray, interviewed Turner multiple times and published the results as the “Confessions of Nat Turner.” He made clear at trial and afterward that Nat Turner was a madman.
He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably. On other subjects he possesses an uncommon share of intelligence, with a mind capable of attaining any thing; but warped and perverted by the influence of early impressions. He is below the ordinary stature, though strong and active, having the true negro face, every feature of which is strongly marked. I shall not attempt to describe the effect of his narrative, as told and commented on by himself, in the condemned hole of the prison. The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face when excited by enthusiasm, still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins. — T.R.Gray
The white citizens of the ironically named Jerusalem, Virginia, the county seat of Southhampton County where the trial was held, were pissed at Nat Turner. You could sense it in the magistrate’s words as he pronounced the sentence, perhaps suggesting his body’s fate when ordering him to be hung until he was, “Dead! Dead! Dead!”
“Attend then to the sentence of the Court. You have been arraigned and tried before this court, and convicted of one of the highest crimes in our criminal code. You have been convicted of plotting in cold blood, the indiscriminate destruction of men, of helpless women, and of infant children. The evidence before us leaves not a shadow of doubt, but that your hands were often imbrued in the blood of the innocent; and your own confession tells us that they were stained with the blood of a master; in your own language, “too indulgent.” Could I stop here, your crime would be sufficiently aggravated. But the original contriver of a plan, deep and deadly, one that never can be effected, you managed so far to put it into execution, as to deprive us of many of our most valuable citizens; and this was done when they were asleep, and defenceless; under circumstances shocking to humanity. And while upon this part of the subject, I cannot but call your attention to the poor misguided wretches who have gone before you. They are not few in number — they were your bosom associates; and the blood of all cries aloud, and calls upon you, as the author of their misfortune. Yes! You forced them unprepared, from Time to Eternity. Borne down by this load of guilt, your only justification is, that you were led away by fanaticism. If this be true, from my soul I pity you; and while you have my sympathies, I am, nevertheless called upon to pass the sentence of the court. The time between this and your execution, will necessarily be very short; and your only hope must be in another world. The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10 A. M. and 2 P. M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” — Jeremiah Cobb Esq.
Nat Turner was taken out and hung after the trial, but the ordeal his body would undergo was just beginning. His corpse was taken to a surgeon for dissection. His skin was cut in sections with which to make purses and wallets. Those were given to families and handed down from generation to generation. His flesh was turned into grease, and sections of bone were handed out as souvenirs. Lastly, he was beheaded, his ears given away as trophies. There are rumors that some of his remains were made into soup and consumed; judge for yourself whether the people performing the former were capable of the latter.
Nat Turner’s skull purportedly turned up in the hands of former Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher. When contacted by descendants of Nat Turner, he readily agreed to return the skull so that it could have a proper burial.
“The legacy of Nat Turner has had an enduring impact not simply upon our family but upon American history. Certainly, this fragile fragment holds enormous emotional value for me and for my family. But it is of immeasurable value because it is a poignant reminder of the price of freedom. In a very tangible way, it asserts the humanity of people who were systemically dehumanized. Its incredible existence demands an acknowledgment that, yes, this black life mattered.” — Shanna Batten Aguirre
There have been many reasons given for the treatment of Nat Turner’s body. Some say it was to “erase him” so the revolt would soon be forgotten. Others wanted an example to be made of him to prevent future insurrections. I submit that it was because he was uppity, never showing remorse and not apologizing. They had the last word in Nat Turner’s death that they didn’t get in life.
“Nat Turner! Stand up. Have you any thing to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced against you?”
“I have not. I have made a full confession to Mr. Gray, and I have nothing more to say.”
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
You may also like these posts on The Good Men Project:
|Escape the Act Like a Man Box||What We Talk About When We Talk About Men||Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race||The First Myth of the Patriarchy: The Acorn on the Pillow|
Join The Good Men Project as a Premium Member today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
A $50 annual membership gives you an all access pass. You can be a part of every call, group, class and community.
A $25 annual membership gives you access to one class, one Social Interest group and our online communities.
A $12 annual membership gives you access to our Friday calls with the publisher, our online community.
Register New Account
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Shutterstock