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Denmark Vesey Trial: 1822 - Vesey And Others Finally Arrested

charleston witnesses city blacks

By Sunday June 16, Vesey noticed the influx of armed troops into the city and canceled the insurrection. Soon most of the ringleaders had been arrested, except for Vesey. Interrogators remarked later that he "enjoyed so much confidence of the whites, that when he was accused, the charge was not only discredited, but he was not even arrested for several days after, and not until proof of his guilt had become too strong to be doubted."

On June 18, Hamilton summoned seven prominent merchants and lawyers to convene as a pro tempore court for all blacks arrested for insurrection. This special court had no jury and its sentences could not be appealed. The seven judges both heard cases and prosecuted them. This practice was legal under the state Negro Act of 1740, which was still in force and allowed for special courts for blacks, "severe" physical interrogation, and capital punishment. The defendants did have the right to counsel, to know the identity of hostile witnesses and to cross-examine other slaves, and to challenge hearsay evidence.

Of the four witnesses called against Vesey, only one specifically testified that Vesey urged slaves to seize weapons and fight for freedom. The only other evidence came from an unidentified white barber, who claimed that Vesey had hired him to make wigs from Caucasian hair. (Vesey had hoped that wigs and white paint would deceive the city guard in the dark sufficiently to let slaves near enough to them to kill them,) Vesey denied knowing the man, but when Hamilton produced one of the wigs, Vesey remarked "Good God!" and confessed he knew the hairdresser and said he had had the wig made for his own use.

Vesey himself did not take the stand, and from jail he urged other defendants to die like men and say nothing. He was allowed to cross-examine witnesses and to act as his own counsel. In the end, however, Judge Lionel Kennedy pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to death. "It is difficult to imagine what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary," Kennedy remarked. "From your age and experience you ought to have known that success was impracticable." On July 2, 1822, Vesey and five of his main conspirators were hanged. By the end of August an additional further 131 blacks were arrested and 35 hanged.

The conspiracy had two long-term results. First, the city of Charleston established the Citadel to help protect its citizens against "an enemy in the bosom of the state." Second, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun ordered U.S. military forces to take up indefinite duty in Charleston to help "in quelling the disturbances" there, and established a military presence that would last until, and ultimately trigger, the Civil War.

Carol Willcox Melton

Suggestions for Further Reading

Lofton, John. Denmark Vesey's Revolt: The Slave Plot That Lit the Fuse to Fort Sumter. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1964.

Pearson, Edward A., ed. Designs against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Robertson, David. Denmark Vesey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

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