A tall tale of Nat Turner and the Jews

May 10, 1994|By Ken Ringle

WHEN a mystical slave named Nat Turner was formally hanged by the deputy sheriff of Southampton County, Va., on Nov. 11, 1831, after leading a short-lived but bloody insurrection, he could never have imagined the use to which his death would be put 163 years later.

For Turner, whose inquisitive mind taught him to read and immersed him deeply in the Bible, saw himself, by virtually all accounts, as an Old Testament prophet called by God to lead his people. Like the vast majority of 19th century American blacks, whose spirituals repeatedly call forth the image of the Children of Israel in bondage in Egypt, he identified with the Jewish people.

Yet last Feb. 23, in a now-famous evening at Howard University, a law student named Malik Zulu Shabazz opened a call-and-response chorus of Jew-baiting with his audience by asking, "Who is it that caught and killed Nat Turner?"

"Jews!" came the shouted response.

This should have been big news. In the long history of anti-Semitism, Jews have been hysterically accused of all sorts of wondrous offenses, from murdering Jesus to controlling the Federal Reserve. But until that night at Howard, as best as can be determined, no one ever linked them with the death of Nat Turner.

There's good reason for this. While Jews have a long and prominent history in many areas of the South, particularly in port cities like Charleston and Savannah and New Orleans, they were never drawn to rural Tidewater Virginia. There has never been a single synagogue or temple in Southampton County. The Jewish population even today is virtually nonexistent. In Turner's time the closest Jews -- no more than a handful -- would probably have been in Petersburg 50 miles away. The very idea of a Jewish vigilante mob in Southside Virginia is absurd.

For another thing, whatever the mysteries of Nat Turner's rebellion -- the eclipse of the sun he saw as a sign from God, his vision of blood drops on ears of corn in the field -- the story of his capture and execution is unusually well-documented, thanks to numerous court records and independent written accounts at the time.

He was captured single-handed by one Benjamin Phipps on Oct. 30, 1831, nine weeks after he and a few drunken colleagues began chopping up men, women and children, and long after all but one of his few confederates had been captured and put to death. He was tried and convicted on Nov. 5, 1831, before Justices Jeremiah Cobb, Samuel B. Hines, James D. Massenburg, James W. Parker, Robert Goodwin, James Trezevant, Ores A. Browne, Carr Bowers, Thomas Preston and Richard A. Urquardt. He was executed six days later by Deputy Sheriff Edward Butts. All this is in the official legal records of the county and the state. There was no lynch mob. There was no lynching. There were no Jews.

Neither historian Henry Irving Tragle, who compiled records in a detailed book on the rebellion, nor William Styron, who wrote "Confessions of Nat Turner," nor Southampton blacks nor Mr. Styron's most militant critics, such as the Black Panthers, ever suggested that Jews had anything to do with Nat Turner. Just where this has come from is not altogether clear.

The closest thing to a source for the idea appears to be the strange volume called "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," published two years ago by the Nation of Islam. That book finds dark portents of conspiracy in a highly selective gleaning of Jewish writings, including those claiming that such historical figures as Columbus and pirate Jean Lafitte were secret Jews. Significantly, however, even that suspect volume makes no claim that Jews killed Nat Turner.

In the emotionally charged racial politics of Howard's campus these days, it appears that Turner himself has taken on a heroic role, though his rebellion, by every account, amounted to little more than a 24-hour orgy of bloodletting by a few dozen slaves. Of the 50-odd persons his band killed -- all of them whites -- 15 were women, 29 were children. The vast majority of slaves refused to join him, some fought against him and others testified against his band in court.

However appealing his rebellion may look today to some, the most significant thing it appears to have accomplished, Mr. Tragle's book persuasively demonstrates, was to snuff out the antislavery sentiment that had been growing in the South since the American Revolution.

Ken Ringle is a staff writer for the Washington Post, from which this article is reprinted by special arrangement.

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