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Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South

Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South

by Michael Wayne


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In May of 1857, the body of Duncan Skinner was found in a strip of woods along the edge of the plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where he worked as an overseer. Although a coroner's jury initially ruled his death to be accidental, an investigation organized by planters from the community concluded that he had been murdered by three slaves acting under instructions from John McCallin, an Irish carpenter.
Now, almost a century and a half later, Michael Wayne has reopened the case to ask whether the men involved in the investigation arrived at the right verdict. Part essay on the art of historical detection, part seminar on the history of slavery and the Old South, Death of an Overseer is, above all, a murder mystery—a murder mystery that allows readers to sift through the surviving evidence themselves and come to their own conclusions about who killed Duncan Skinner and why.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195140033
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2001
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 1320L (what's this?)

About the Author

Michael Wayne teaches history at University College, the University of Toronto. His first book, The Reshaping of Plantation Society, won multiple prizes, including the Francis Butler Simkins Award of the Southern Historical Association.

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Chapter One

Investigation and Verdict

It was just after breakfast when the slaves first reported that Duncan Skinner was missing. He had gone off at daybreak to do some hunting and that was the last they had seen of him. So they said, anyway. By late afternoon some of his friends became alarmed and organized a search. A little while later they came upon his horse wandering along the road, riderless, its saddle pulled loose. But it was past midnight when, guided by torchlight, they finally found the body of the overseer. It lay sprawled across the exposed roots of a beech tree, no more than a half-mile from his cabin, in a strip of woods running along the edge of the plantation.

    The following morning a coroner's jury convened on the site. Their examination determined that Skinner's neck had been dislocated and he had a wound on his temple. Near his body lay his gun and, a little farther off, his game bag, cap, and whip. His death had been accidental, they concluded, caused by a fall from his horse while hunting. If any of the men thought that foul play might have been involved, they kept it to themselves.

    Duncan Skinner was thirty-seven years old when he died on Thursday, May 14, 1857. Born in South Carolina, he had come to Adams County, Mississippi, in the 1840s with his brother Jesse, ten years older, as part of the great westward migration that took place in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. A younger brother, Benjamin, had followed them a decade later. At the time of his death, Duncan was employed as an overseer on Cedar Grove, a 900-acre plantation with more than 80 slaves, 13 miles southeast of Natchez along the road to the small village of Kingston.

    Overseeing was a demanding job. It involved supervising the work of slaves, monitoring what they did in their spare time, and, in many instances, taking part in the financial operations of the plantation. A man hired to the position had to produce enough cotton to satisfy his employer while keeping at least a semblance of harmony and order among the slaves. The high turnover rate for overseers on most plantations proves that this was an almost impossible task for any length of time. But despite the difficulties he must have faced, Duncan Skinner appears to have been well regarded by Clarissa Sharpe, the fifty-five-year-old widow who owned Cedar Grove. She evidently consulted him not only on business matters but about her personal affairs as well.

    It was Jesse Skinner, working as overseer on nearby Smithland plantation, who first raised questions about the verdict of accidental death. Suspecting that the coroner's jury had done a careless job, he prevailed upon some local planters to reexamine the site where the body had been found. What they discovered lent substance to his concerns. Ordinarily when he went hunting, Duncan Skinner would use a Spanish saddle and hang his game bag on the horn. However, his Spanish saddle remained on the wall of his cabin; it was an English saddle, without a horn, that was found on his horse. Furthermore, the game bag on the ground near the body was an old one, full of holes, not the newer one he normally carried. And there was no sign of the powder flask and shot pouch he undoubtedly would have taken had he planned on doing some hunting. The body itself lay upon the roots of the beech tree in what appeared to be an unnatural suspension above the ground, almost as if it had been placed there. And the wound to the head was on the left temple, while it was the right temple that rested against the tree. Finally, a search of Skinner's cabin revealed that his money was missing.

    For several weeks no one involved in the investigation spoke publicly about the case. Then one morning in late June, in unusually cool weather for the early summer, eighteen men, including three who had served on the coroner's jury and Jesse and Benjamin Skinner, descended on Cedar Grove. They were led by Alexander K. Farrar and David P. Williams, planters in their forties who, between them, owned almost 500 slaves. Farrar, the principal figure involved, was a man of considerable standing in Mississippi, holding at one time or another various public offices, serving in the state legislature and senate, and sitting on the boards of numerous charitable organizations and educational institutions, Although in 1861, as a representative from Adams County to the Mississippi secession convention, he would oppose breaking up the Union, he went along with the decision of the majority and was the first delegate to sign the state secession ordinance.

    The investigators rounded up most of the domestic servants and sent the new overseer to get the field hands and bring them to the plantation house. They handcuffed several of the male slaves to trees some distance away to prevent them overhearing what was being said and ordered the rest of the slave force, both men and women, to stand in a line and remain silent. Then they took aside Jane, the cook, and told her that they knew a serious crime had taken place on the plantation and she had better tell them all about it. According to Alexander Farrar, she proceeded with no further encouragement to disclose that Henderson, the carriage driver on Cedar Grove, Reuben, a carpenter, and Anderson, one of the field hands, had murdered Skinner and then attempted to cover up the crime by making his death appear accidental. She also reported that, after killing the overseer, the three men stole Skinner's money and divided it up with the other slaves, several of whom decided to hide their share in a trunk belonging to John McCallin. This was the first mention of the Irish-born carpenter and ginwright who would come to be the central focus of the investigation.

    After finishing with Jane the investigators turned their attention to Reuben. He corroborated her testimony, presenting in some detail the manner in which he, Henderson, and Anderson had murdered Skinner. As Reuben described it, before daybreak on May 14 the three of them stole into the overseer's cabin while he was still in bed and attacked him in his night clothes with a club. Skinner managed to tear himself free and run into an adjoining room, but they chased after him, wrestled him to the ground, and bludgeoned him into unconsciousness. They then carried him off into a wooded area where, when he gave occasional signs of life, moaning and twitching, Reuben grabbed his head and twisted it violently, snapping his neck. Anderson returned to Skinner's cabin and gathered up his watch, gun, riding whip, one of his game bags, and a change of clothes, and brought them, along with the overseer's horse, to the spot where the body lay. The three slaves dressed Skinner in the clothes that Anderson had retrieved and took the bloodied nightshirt along with the club used in the killing to Jane, who burned them both and then went to Skinner's cabin where she attempted to scrub the bloodstains from the floor.

    Henderson now left to attend to his regular duties in the stables and garden and about the house. Meanwhile, Anderson and Reuben lifted Skinner up on the horse and then Anderson rode some distance into the woods until he came to the beech tree where the body was later found. He trampled the exposed roots of the tree and dumped the corpse on top of them. Then he loosened the saddle and released the horse. After firing off one barrel from the gun, Reuben dropped the weapon a short distance from the body and placed the whip, game bag, and Skinner's cap nearby, trying to make it appear as if something had frightened the horse, which had then reared, throwing the overseer to the ground. Returning to his cabin, they helped themselves to his money, then went back to where they had left the body and put the key to Skinner's trunk in his pocket. Finally, they returned to the slave quarters and got the drivers to hurry the field hands out to work, hoping to create the impression that everything was normal on the plantation.

    Following their questioning of Reuben, the investigators went to examine the overseer's cabin. There, on the floor in the corner of the room where, according to Reuben, he, Anderson, and Henderson had clubbed Skinner unconscious, they found what looked like bloodstains. Then they interrogated several more slaves, all of whom corroborated the testimony of Jane and Reuben. Anderson had fled from Cedar Grove after the murder. However, Henderson was inside the plantation house and they had him brought out to the yard and tied up for questioning. He denied being involved in any killing, but the men in the investigating party concluded that his "conversation and looks ... clearly indicated his guilt." After finding scars on his neck—received, Reuben said, in the struggle with Skinner—they unanimously concluded that the three slaves had murdered their overseer and, furthermore, that every slave on the plantation knew something about it. At this point, seemingly all that remained to be learned was what had happened to the money that Anderson and Reuben had taken from the overseer's cabin.

    The search for the missing money began with Jane. She and her husband, Burrell, led the men to their hen house, where they dug up a tin box containing $18, their share of the stolen cash. Reuben confessed he had kept a $20 gold piece for himself but claimed that he had given it to Dorcas, a house servant, to hide for him. The investigators then tracked down Dorcas in the plantation house and demanded that she turn over all the money she had received from the other slaves. She led them to a room over the infirmary and recovered a $20 gold piece, which she admitted Reuben had given to her. However, she denied knowing of any other money.

    With a good deal of gold and silver still unaccounted for, the investigators decided to question Henderson once again. When he continued to protest his innocence, they turned their attention to his brother Lem. According to at least some slaves, Lem had originally been part of the conspiracy. He had supposedly gone along with the others on the morning of the murder but had lost his nerve at the door of Skinner's cabin and run away. Lem, too, however, professed ignorance of any crime. Exasperated and impatient to find the missing money, the investigators got permission from Clarissa Sharpe to whip the brothers. They divided into two companies, one to deal with Lem, the other with Henderson. According to Alexander Farrar, once Henderson was beaten he quickly made a full confession, his testimony filling in some minor details of the crime. The reason there had been no shot pouch or powder flask found near the body was because Anderson had inadvertently left them behind when he retrieved Skinner's clothes. Henderson himself had removed the pouch and flask later and thrown them into a small horse pond on the plantation. As for his portion of the money, he had given it to Dorcas to put in John McCallin's trunk. This led the investigators back to Dorcas, who admitted having received gold from Henderson but said she had concealed it in the loft above the ironing room. Taking them there—the ironing room was in an L-shaped building next to the main residence—she produced one $5 and four $10 pieces, the exact quantity and value of coins Henderson said he had left with her.

    By now it was late afternoon. In the course of their investigations the men had learned that Anderson was hiding out on Magnolia, a neighboring plantation. He was said to be waiting for Reuben and supposedly knew a place where the two of them would be safe. The investigating party placed Reuben, Henderson, and Lem, as well as a few other slaves on Cedar Grove, under guard. Then, while some members went home, the rest went after Anderson. He was captured without difficulty and when interrogated apparently told a story that confirmed what they had already learned.

* * *

The following day the investigators returned to Cedar Grove. They wielded the lash more freely now, to punish the men and women involved in concealing the crime and to learn more about the stolen money. Under the whip, several slaves admitted to receiving gold or silver. They all swore that they had turned it over to Dorcas for safekeeping, however, and that she had concealed it among John McCallin's belongings. Concluding that Dorcas had lied earlier, the investigators ordered her to take them to McCallin's trunk. Inside, they found several pairs of women's slippers, other articles that Dorcas claimed were her own, a daguerreotype of McCallin, some of his clothing, and three purses with gold and silver amounting to more than $60.

    Although a portion of the money still lay unrecovered, the investigators now turned their attention to what was for them a far more troubling issue. Why had Dorcas used McCallin's trunk as a hiding place? Dorcas herself refused to tell them, but under the lash some of the field hands offered an explanation, implausible as it may at first have sounded: Dorcas had been McCallin's mistress for fifteen years or more. McCallin was pressing his attention on her owner, hoping to marry his way into a fortune. However, Clarissa Sharpe went by everything Duncan Skinner said, and Skinner disliked and distrusted McCallin. McCallin told Dorcas that, if the slaves did away with their overseer, he was confident Clarissa Sharpe would accept his proposal. Then he'd acquire title to the plantation and ensure that all the slaves had comfortable lives. According to Alexander Farrar, the field hands also revealed that shortly after the murder McCallin appeared at the plantation, warned the slaves that there was going to be an investigation, and advised them not to admit to anything.

    The investigating party now called for Henderson again, this time to question him about McCallin. Henderson corroborated what the field hands had said and recounted the following story: On McCallin's last visit to Cedar Grove before the murder, he Henderson went to the carpenter's room one evening to collect his boots for cleaning. McCallin was standing by a window looking out into the quarter where Skinner was whipping some slaves. "Hen', there is quite a fuss in the quarter tonight," McCallin said. Henderson agreed, but added, "it is no uncommon thing here." McCallin then suggested, "Well if I was you boys, I would get rid of that man. I would put him out of the way." The following morning, when Henderson returned with the boots, McCallin asked him how long the whippings had continued the previous night. Henderson replied that he didn't know, that scenes like that were so common he didn't pay much attention to them any more. "You boys are a cowardly, chicken hearted set," McCallin shot back, "or you would not stand that man's whipping and beating you so—you would put him out of the way. If you were to do so, then I could marry the widow, and there would be no overseer, and you would all have better times."

    Henderson told the investigators that it was after these exchanges with McCallin that he came up with the idea of killing Skinner. He also confirmed the testimony of the field hands that McCallin returned to Cedar Grove after the murder to put the slaves on their guard. The plough driver provided further evidence on this point, claiming that McCallin said to him, "I don't know whether you boys killed Mr. Skinner or not, but if you did you had better keep your mouths shut."

    Several days after completing their investigation at Cedar Grove, a few of the whites met at Mandamus, a nearby plantation belonging to William B. Foules. On June 7, a few weeks after the body of Duncan Skinner was found and when the official verdict in the case was still death by accident, some of the Foules slaves had killed their own overseer, a Louisiana native named Y. W. McBride. The men responsible claimed they had been encouraged by the seeming success of Henderson, Reuben, and Anderson in concealing their crime. Later that week the investigators went to Magnolia, the plantation where Anderson had been hiding at the time of his capture. Once again, as during the original investigation at Cedar Grove, they formed the slaves in a line and prohibited them from speaking to each other. Then they took them off one at a time for questioning. The Magnolia slaves confessed to having helped Anderson and related that he had said he didn't care if he was found out, "he had no peace of mind since Skinner was killed." They also admitted having heard about the murder from Henderson and reported he had left a pistol with them and had confided in them about McCallin's part in the crime. According to what Henderson told them, McCallin had advised Dorcas not to feel hurt if he married her owner and to act as if there had never been anything between them. He would be able to do more for her if he became the owner of the plantation, he assured her, than he could in his present circumstances. Alexander Farrar was of the opinion that Dorcas was in fact quite pleased by the idea of the proposed match. Some slaves claimed that she would point to McCallin while he was out walking with Clarissa Sharpe and say, "you see that man yonder, he will be your master yet."

    A few days later the investigating party interrogated Henderson four the fourth time. By now he, Reuben, and Anderson were in the county jail in Natchez. He admitted giving the gun to the slaves on Magnolia. And was it true, the whites asked, what the Magnolia slaves said about McCallin and Dorcas? He paused for a moment, then broke into a laugh. "Oh! I'll tell you," he replied, and then described their relationship in exactly the terms the Magnolia slaves had used.

* * *

By the time the eighteen men involved in the investigation had completed their work, they were satisfied that they had a clear picture of how Duncan Skinner had come to his death: The three slaves, Henderson, Reuben, and Anderson, had murdered him, surprising him in his sleep, beating him with a club, and breaking his neck. Although Anderson and Reuben had then stolen his money, theft was not the motive for the crime. The slaves were in effect agents for the white carpenter, John McCallin, acting in the expectation that later he would reward them with "better times." For his part, McCallin assumed that, once Skinner had been removed, he would be free to marry Clarissa Sharpe and acquire title to Cedar Grove.

    The investigators left Henderson, Reuben, and Anderson with the sheriff, to be dealt with by the legal system. But bringing John McCallin to justice was more complicated. According to the laws of Mississippi, as well as the laws of other southern states, testimony by blacks against whites was inadmissible in court. Since the case against McCallin was based entirely on evidence provided by slaves, there were no grounds for indicting him. As a result, the investigators decided to take matters into their own hands. And so they published the following notice in local newspapers in late July:

WE, THE UNDERSIGNED, having examined the negroes on Mrs. Clarissa Sharp's plantation, in reference to the murder of Mr. Duncan B. Skinner, find, upon examination, that he was without the least shadow of doubt murdered; and from the confessions of the negroes, made separately and apart from each other, without their having any possible chance of knowing what each had confessed, that the conduct of Mn. JOHN McCALLIN has been such, that we hereby warn him not again to make his appearance among us; and we, the undersigned do hereby pledge ourselves to enforce the warning herein given:

    To give added weight to their warning, they appended a declaration of support signed by seventeen of the most prominent men in the community:

We, the undersigned, believe the foregoing statement, and hereby pledge ourselves to co operate in any course that the foregoing signers may deem necessary.

    These initial efforts at intimidation proved unsuccessful, however. A week after the notice was first printed, McCallin issued a defiant response in the same newspapers:

I HAVE A LATELY SEEN A NOTICE in the Natchez Courier, signed by A. K. Farrar, David P. Williams, and numerous others, the tendency of which is to charge me, upon the statements of negroes, with being implicated in the murder of my friend Mr. Duncan B. Skinner, and which also threatens me with personal violence. The charge so contained is utterly false, and as I believe maliciously prompted by the negroes, as in due time will be made to appear. As to the threats against me, although I also may be murdered, I shall entirely disregard them.


Excerpted from DEATH of an OVERSEER by Michael Wayne. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Wayne. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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