As the night closed on August 21, 1831, a small group of enslaved Virginians prepared to launch a massacre in Southampton County, a stagnant and isolated region comprised of small farming families and the people whom they owned. Led by the religious enthusiast Nat Turner, the insurgents wielded guns, axes, pitchforks, rakes and other farm implements, which they used to dispatch the souls of more than fifty men, women and children over the next 48 hours. Beginning with the family of Joseph Travis — whose nine-year-old stepson Putman Moore was Turner’s legal master — the so-called “banditti” traced a circuitous route throughout the surrounding farms, their slaughter conceived with the intent of stimulating a wider revolt among Virginia’s bondsmen and bondswomen.
Turner’s official “confession,” dubiously transcribed and embellished by a lawyer and failed planter named Thomas Gray, described the scene at one of the remote farmhouses:
Having murdered Mrs. Waller and ten children, we started for Mr. William Williams’ — having killed him and two little boys that were there; while engaged in this, Mrs. Williams fled and got some distance from the house, but she was pursued, overtaken, and compelled to get up behind one of the company, who brought her back, and after showing her the mangled body of her lifeless husband, she was told to get down and lay by his side, where she was shot dead.
In the aftermath of the revolt (which was quelled by August 24), enraged posses throughout of the region exacted a toll on the black population that proved to be as merciless as — and unquestionably disproportionate to — the revolt itself. While the Virginia press dwelled luridly on the contours of Turner’s predations, few writers detailed the “extremities” to which the furious white population was driven in its response to the uprising. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 120 extrajudicial executions took place during subsequent weeks, as captured plotters and the innocent alike were shot, burnt to cinders or disarticulated. The decapitated head of the insurgent Henry Porter wound up in the possession of a local surgeon, who bore it triumphantly throughout his travels; a passel of similar heads, taken by a militia company from North Carolina, were displayed on posts as a warning to potential imitators. The Constitutional Whig, a Richmond newspaper, soon found itself apologizing to the people of Southampton for initially questioning this sort of brutality.
Not having witnessed the horrors committed by the blacks, or seen the unburied and disfigured remains of their wives and children, we were unprepared to understand their feelings, and could not at first admit of their extenuation, which a closer observation of the atrocities of the insurgents suggested . . . . Let the fact not be doubted by those whom it most concerns, that another such insurrection will be the signal for the extermination of the whole black population in the quarter of the state where it occurs.
The Southampton slave revolt, as everyone knows, completely transformed the regional — and indeed the national — conversation about slavery. Defenders of the institution set forth vigorous arguments claiming that slavery was a just and humanitarian system that served masters and slaves equally well; at the same time, they hardened the shell of slavery against those who might discover fault with it. Southern states passed stringent laws regulating literacy and religion among enslaved Americans, and they hounded religious sects that advocated emancipation. For their part, abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison viewed the rebellion as the harbinger of national doom:
What we have so long predicted,—at the peril of being stigmatized as an alarmist and declaimer,—has commenced its fulfilment. The first step of the earthquake, which is ultimately to shake down the fabric of oppression, leaving not one stone upon another, has been made. the first drops of blood, which are but the prelude to a deluge from the gathering clouds, have fallen. The first flash of lightning, which is to smite and consume, has been felt. The first wailings of bereavement, which is to clothe the earth in sackcloth, have broken up our ears.
After Nat Turner’s execution on November 11, his body was dissected and his skin allegedly rendered into grease. In the years to come, many white Virginians were purported to own the skull of the rebel leader; one man insisted that his father possessed a wallet made from Turner’s hide. And so it happened that the whites of Southampton would traffic in the relics of a man who often likened himself to Jesus Christ.