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Denmark Vesey Trial: 1822

The Secret Plot Is Revealed

Vesey had managed to keep his conspiracy secret for a remarkably long time considering the number of persons involved. He had warned that any traitor would be "put to instant death." He had also largely avoided involving mulattos and house slaves, whom he considered a security risk. But three weeks before the appointed day, Peter Prioleau, a house servant of Colonel John Prioleau, was approached by a strange black man while he was on an errand down by the wharves. "We are determined to shake off our bondage," the stranger told Peter. "Many have joined, and if you go with me, I will show you the man, who has a list of names, who will take yours down." Stunned, Peter Prioleau left quickly. Eventually, he told his master about the encounter.

Surprisingly little happened at first. Colonel Prioleau rushed to tell Charleston's mayor, Intendent James Hamilton. Peter told his story to the governor and the city council, all of whom initially refused to believe that anything serious was afoot. Colonel Prioleau, acting on his own initiative, arrested William Paul, the man who had approached Peter. After a week of solitary confinement and physical abuse, Paul revealed the outline of Vesey's plan and the identity of all of Vesey's main lieutenants. Still the authorities did little. The governor claimed, upon learning that his slave Ned was involved, that Ned's "attachment and fidelity" to him were beyond question. Several other conspirators were questioned and released. But Vesey himself was neither named nor suspected, and all the while he was working to move up the date of the revolt before the white population could learn more about it.

Meanwhile, Major John Wilson, who was more suspicious than the governor, arranged for his mulatto servant George to make undercover inquiries. On June 14 George confirmed that the plot was real and that midnight of Sunday June 16 was the appointed time. This convinced Hamilton, who summoned the state militia to reinforce the city guard, but he raised no public alarm.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Denmark Vesey Trial: 1822 - A Long Brewing Plot, The Secret Plot Is Revealed, Vesey And Others Finally Arrested