ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Sec. 5, Ch. 30 — Blood on the Cross


Acts of Desecration & Demystification


Turner rocked the moral foundations of Southampton society. The Christian slaveholders were spiritually unsettled and agitated. Instead of reform and repentance, their energies, however, gravitated toward greater evils. For the Virginia slaveholders, Turner’s death was not sufficient to expiate his crimes. When Turner’s neck snapped, Southampton authorities were not yet finished with him. They sought to rub him out utterly. 

Virginia newspapers joined this campaign. Southampton slaveholders had been outdone, masterfully, and they did not like it. Turner not only used the physical weapons of the slaveholders, but also used their spiritual and intellectual notions against them.

Turner thoroughly adapted established English biblical modes of interpreting natural and public events to prepare Christian slaves for “the great work.” The “long English tradition of reading Scripture typologically, a tradition which Cotton Mather brought to a peak in his Magnalia Christi Americana” became the mode by which Turner brought the blacks of Cross Keys to a vibrant and vital Christianity (Noll, p. 45). 

Turner stood the slaveholders’ biblical exegesis on its head. He transformed their biblical method of oppression to a Christian method of liberation. Considering him a very dangerous man, even though dead, the slaveholders of Southampton sought a way to expiate Turner’s “crimes,” to despoil him so that he could never be resurrected for good.

The first news account of Nathaniel Turner’s death appeared in The Norfolk Herald (14 November 1831). The next day The Richmond Enquirer reprinted the article so that a broader audience could know the news of the demise of the great “demon” of Southampton. In a precious snapshot, this news item presents the spirit of the white response:

NAT TURNER:–This wretched culprit expiated his crimes (crimes at the bare mention of which the blood runs cold) on Friday last. He betrayed no emotion, but appeared to be utterly reckless in the awful fate that awaited him and even hurried his executioner in the performance of his duty! Precisely at 12 o’clock he was launched into eternity. There were but a few people to see him hang (Tragle, p. 140).

Two details of the execution repeated often are that Turner showed “no emotion” and “hurried” the executioner, as if time were still of some symbolic import. John Brown was not so fortunate as Turner in his death. According to Lacey Baldwin Smith, John Brown waited “an eternity . . . in the darkness of his hood, hanging by a thread between heaven and earth, for the trap door to be sprung” (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 398).

In his account of Turner’s execution, F. Roy Johnson used another source than the Virginia papers. His version differed on two accounts: 1) Who was at the execution? and 2) What happened before the execution? Turner, Johnson wrote, “exhibited the utmost composure throughout the whole ceremony, and although assured that he might, if he thought proper, address the immense crowd assembled on the occasion, declined availing himself of the privilege, and told the Sheriff in a firm voice that he was ready. Not a limb nor muscle was observed to move” [italics mine] (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 149). 

In this account, Johnson contradicts the Virginia papers’ statement that “there were but a few people” at the execution. John Brown was hooded to keep him from speaking to the crowd. In one account, Johnson reported that Turner “declined” to speak. In another, he reported that there was a gallows speech in which Nathaniel prophesied a drought at his death.

Virginia news editors printed whatever that would diminish Turner and his credibility as a holy man, as a person deserving of respect. In that era, newspaper collusion with slaveholders was a matter of course. They were also anxious to assist the State in restoring order. It was their public duty. These men did not want to know the truth of Southampton. Turner was a convenient scapegoat for the moral corruption of Virginia slave society. The foremost goal of newspapers editors was to assuage the fears of Virginians, to return the public’s psychology back to the mundane, to familiar categories of thought, namely, the patronizing mockery of Christian slaves.

In addition, the slaveowners feared their Christian slaves would read Turner’s life against that of Jesus, the savior God and hero of the oppressed. The justices and leading men of the community knew that the events of Turner’s life would be viewed in this religious context. They decided quickly to counter the likelihood that their Christian slaves would uphold Turner as a praiseworthy figure, a religious martyr, a type of Christ. To muddy this conception of Nat Turner among the blacks, the best men of Southampton County, Virginia, conspired to debase the body and memory of Turner.

In several aspects, Turner’s death mirrored the gospel representation of Jesus’ death. In all four gospels, catastrophic natural events were reported when Jesus “gave up the ghost.” There was either an earthquake below or a great storm above. These were conventional signs of a divine presence or a divine consciousness at work in the world. In the gospels, these natural events occurred just before or just after Jesus died. In the earthquake, “the veil of the temple was rent.” The nature of this sign conveyed either God’s disfavor or token Jesus’ return to his full identity as the Christ. Or both.

Such a catastrophic event was reported to have occurred in Jerusalem, Virginia, at Turner’s execution. In one account, F. Roy Johnson reported a “gallows speech,” and many people were there in Jerusalem to hear it. Nat Turner then prophesied that “after his execution the sky would grow dark and it would rain, but the rain would be for the last time.” When Turner’s necked snapped, “the cloud and rain came as promised, and then the fearful people had to wait out a long dry spell.” According to Johnson, “many people, both whites and blacks, were greatly alarmed” by the fulfillment of Turner’s prophecy (The Nat Turner Slave Rebellion, p. 180). For the slaveholders, this “coincidence” was troubling.

All four gospels also expressed concerns about the disposal of Jesus’ body. The Jesus party, Joseph and others, feared that the enemies of Jesus would desecrate his body. So they were the first to go to Pilate and ask for the corpse. This concern for Jesus’ body is more earnestly expressed in the gospel of Matthew than in the other three. There was another party that had an interest in the corpse. The day after Joseph and Mary dressed the body of Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees went together to see Pilate:

Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver [Jesus] said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.

Command therefore that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, he is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worst than the first.

Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch. (Matthew 27.63-66).

The divine through his angels caused the watchmen to fall asleep and Jesus left the tomb without hindrance.

The aftermath of Turner’s death differs radically from that of Jesus. Nathaniel  Turner did not steal away from his tomb. The good Christian white men of Turner’s Methodist Church made certain that historic event would not occur. The men of Virginia decided “the last error” would not “be worst than the first.” Christian slaveholders decided to rob Turner’s family of his corpse. 

Like the “chief priests and the Pharisees” of ancient Jerusalem, the Southampton slaveholders feared Turner would “rise again.” But for Turner, there was no party or authority to redeem his body. As Christian slaves, neither mother nor friends had rights to lay claim to his body. The State had paid $375 for Turner’s body to the Putnam Moore estate.

Turner was just pounds of flesh, a certain height, a certain weight, a certain color. The State and local slaveholders had full rights and discretion to the disposal of Turner’s body. These Christian men took full advantage of those inhumane rights. They made certain no rumors would develop concerning Turner’s “risen body.” They prevented anyone from making merry with the memory of Turner. Christian slaveholders dismantled Turner utterly–skin from flesh, flesh from bone, and made a joke of his very existence.

“All of Nat’s followers were given a decent burial, but the body of the ‘General’ was not so honored,” according to F. Roy Johnson. “instead, it was turned over to the surgeons for dissection” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 149). In his chapter entitled “Tales Made Horrid and Sad,” Johnson further elaborated on the desecration of Turner’s remains. “After the doctors had skinned the ‘General’s’ body and dissected it, the skeleton was said to have fallen into the possession of one Doctor Massenberg,” Johnson wrote. 

Several people of Southampton “animalized” Turner’s “curious skull,” which they felt “resembled the head of a sheep and was at least three quarters of an inch thick” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 181). This treatment of Turner’s remains, I suppose, was the “civilized way” of reconciling Turner’s “crimes.” Or maybe it was a type of cult magic–the white version of “hoodooing the hoodoo man.”

The Christian officials of Southampton placed a story in the papers to justify their barbarism. The Norfolk Herald article (14 November 1831) that first reported Turner’s death added blithely the following comment, “General Nat sold his body for dissection, and spent the money on ginger cakes” (Tragle, p. 140). What outrageousness! That Nathaniel Turner, a religious ascetic, would be that cavalier about his remains seems thoroughly manufactured. 

Clearly, the idea of dissection did not arise from Turner, nor the idea of the selling of his body. Christian officials of Southampton attempted to cover their gross crimes with a purported voluntary contract, as if Turner were a free man. Or maybe this manufactured tale of the ginger cakes was another attempt to substantiate Turner’s “madness.” Turner’s enemies, however, are not the best sources for truth in these matters.

To conceal this barbarism behind such sheer nonsense is an absurdity. To make the victim responsible for his own public debasement is the worse of moral crimes. According to Johnson, the doctors “made Nat’s body up into grease . . . and the blacks didn’t put it beyond these same doctors to use ‘Old Nat’s grease in preparing castor oil.” To give such desecrating acts respectability by associating them with the medical profession is the very height of hypocrisy. 

But there was more. One Southampton souvenir collector claimed to own a purse made of Turner’s skin. (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 181). This public dispersal of Turner’s body was a ritual designed to dispel Turner’s spiritual influence. If there was no body to rise, the slaveholders figured, no viable myth could develop around Turner’s resurrection. There is, however, no glory in evil.

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Related files:  Hatchers Skull Letter    Richard Hatcher’s  Skull    Hatcher Hampered By Post Tribune  Acts of Desecration and Demystification