Monday, 22 June 2020

The Lynching of Thomas Jeremiah

In the spring of 1775, as South Carolina moved towards rebellion against British rule, frantic rumors swirled through the colony and its capital, Charleston. (Image: View of Charlestown in 1768, by Pierre Charles Canot, LOC)

Hysterical Carolinians accused the British government of plotting a rebellion of enslaved Africans against their masters. The hypocrisy of slaveholders demanding freedom from "royal tyranny" was palpable, but is often overlooked even today. 

The very idea of slave rebellion aroused panic: the enslaved constituted the majority of South Carolina's population, the only American colony where this was the case.   

In June, the Charleston authorities arrested several slaves and a free black, Thomas Jeremiah. At the time, Jeremiah was one of only about five hundred free blacks in the colony. He was also one of the most prominent. Many people called him "Jerry." 

Jeremiah had a successful fishing business and also earned money as a harbor pilot, guiding ships through the treacherous sandbars at its entrance. His net worth of over £1000, more than $200,000 in today's money, meant he was a wealthy man. 

On the basis of the testimony of two slaves he had allegedly tried to recruit, the authorities charged Jeremiah with plotting a slave uprising to benefit the British. He was tried under the Negro Act of 1740, which the colonial assembly had passed after a slave revolt in 1739, the Stono Rebellion.

Under the Negro Act the accused were tried in special slave courts, which denied the accused the judicial rights of the regular courts. There was no jury, only a tribunal of five white men that functioned as prosecution, judge, and jury. In contrast to traditional English courts, the defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent. Lacking defense counsel, the accused was unlikely to prevail. 

The evidence against Jeremiah was exceedingly flimsy. The testimony of the two slaves was highly suspect, probably extracted under threat. One of them, Jemmy, was Jeremiah's brother in law. Jemmy later retracted his testimony before Anglican minister  Robert Smith, future Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina.   

By then the court had found Jeremiah guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging and burning. As an act of "humanity" the court allowed that he could be hanged until death before being burnt.

The royal governor, Lord William Campbell, judged the proceedings a farce. He tried to get Jeremiah pardoned, but found that he no longer had any authority in the colony. Campbell's life was threatened because he had tried to help Jeremiah. He fled South Carolina a few weeks later, effectively ending British rule. By then, the court's sentence had had been carried out. (Image: Lord William Campbell, by Thomas Gainsborough)

On August 18, 1775,  Jeremiah was brought to the place of execution, a green across from the Sugar House, the house of correction for "unruly slaves." In front of a large crowd of whites and blacks, he was hanged and his dead body was burned to ashes. 

Jeremiah seems an unlikely person to have led a slave rebellion. He owned several slaves himself. His rise to wealth and prominence may have been his undoing. It was a living reproach to the white elite's claims that Africans were fit for nothing but slave labor. He had once been put in the stocks for allegedly insulting a white ship captain. 

His work as a ship pilot also told against him. Fearful whites pointed out that no one knew the harbor as well as he, and worried that he would guide British navy vessels into it. Jeremiah had served the city as a volunteer fireman, but even that hurt his cause. People said he knew so much about putting out fires that he was likely setting them. Among his accusers was a member of the tribunal that tried Jeremiah, the city's fire master, Daniel Cannon.  

One of the people Governor Campbell had appealed to on Jeremiah's behalf was Henry Laurens, then serving as President of the Provincial Congress. Laurens was also one of the richest men in South Carolina. He had made a vast fortune in the slave trade. With the profits, he bought several plantations and hundreds of slaves. (Image: Henry Laurens, painted by John Singleton Copley while Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London)

Laurens refused Campbell's appeal, claiming he was helpless to stop Jeremiah's execution. That may have been true at that point, but Laurens' private correspondence shows that he disliked Jeremiah. Laurens wrote that Jerry "is a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by luxury and debauchery and grown to an amazing pitch of vanity and ambition." In more colloquial terms, he was "uppity" and needed to be taught a lesson. 

Laurens denied that as a free man, Jeremiah should be accorded the rights of one and tried by a jury. English law was designed for whites. As an African, Laurens argued, Jerry had no claim to its benefits. The only option was to try him as a slave.

Reflecting on Jeremiah's fate, Campbell described the event as a "judicial murder" and his executioners as "barbarians." After nearly 250 years of similar events, it is difficult to disagree. Thomas Jeremiah may have been given a "trial" but the whole proceeding was in effect, a lynching.

Further Reading: 

J. William Harris, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty (Yale University Press, 2009)

William R. Ryan, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2010)