Nat Turner's skull turns up far from site of his revolt

Va. slave leader was hanged in 1831

June 15, 2003|By Lon Wagner | Lon Wagner,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NORFOLK, Va. -- Shortly after Nat Turner led a slave revolt that killed nearly 60 white Southside residents in 1831, his head was chopped off and carted away for study.

His captors hoped that it would offer clues to his motives and to what many thought to be the Southampton County man's exceptional intelligence.

But the answers never came. Turner's skull disappeared somewhere along the way, creating another twist in the story of a man who was either a ruthless murderer or a courageous liberator.

Now Turner's skull has turned up in an unusual place: Gary, Ind., in the hands of the city's former mayor. Richard Hatcher aims to build a National Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Someone recently donated the skull to Hatcher to display in the museum.

Hatcher was unavailable, but his announcement that he had been given the skull has raised questions back in Southampton County, where 172 years later Turner's insurrection remains controversial.

Where has the skull been all these years?

How did it end up in the Midwest?

Turner led his revolt here, just miles west of Franklin. He was hanged here, and his descendants and those of families he killed still live here. His body was buried in the center of Courtland.

Shouldn't his skull come home?

Turner was born on a Southampton County farm on Oct. 2, 1800, and became the property of Benjamin Turner. His mother had been brought over from northern Africa. Turner married a woman named Cherry, and had a daughter and one or two sons -- history is unclear.

He was thought to be extraordinarily smart, which is why his skull would be a key artifact.

"He probably had greater intelligence than some of his owners," said Rick Francis, a Turner history buff who had numerous ancestors killed in the raid. "He could read and write. Benjamin Turner signed his will with an X."

Turner had learned to read and write along with his master's children, and some thought he might be clairvoyant. He would go to other farms on Sundays and preach to slaves.

On Aug. 21, 1831, Turner and a handful of recruits led a brutal revolt, racing across fields and through the woods south of Capron and, house by house, hacking white families to death.

Turner was bent on getting to what was then Jerusalem, now the county seat of Courtland. He hoped other local slaves and those across the South would rise up with his band, but a full-scale rebellion never took hold.

After two days and the slaying of dozens of men, women and children, Turner went into hiding. He was found in a cave six weeks later, then tried and hanged, and his torso buried at a pauper's cemetery.

The county coroner took his head for study. What happened to it after that, nobody really knows.

The skull was reputed to have been whisked to Ohio via the underground railroad that transported slaves north, said Katherine Futrell, who is considered Southampton County's Turner historian.

The story goes that the skull then made its way to Chicago, where it was kept in a university laboratory and later destroyed in a fire.

Then, a few years ago, a collector of Southampton County history died and donated some things to the historical society. In one box was a news clipping that offered yet another turn:

"Lo and behold," Futrell said, summarizing the story, "when the fire was over and done with, the skull had rolled out a window and down a hill."

Then it disappeared, until Hatcher said he had it.

Elizabeth Nabors lives not too far from Capron and is Turner's great-great-granddaughter.

She remembers her grandparents throttling their voices to a whisper any time Nat Turner came up. In the days after Turner's raid, many blacks were killed. Those with bloodlines connected to Turner feared for their lives for decades after the insurrection, Nabors said.

"I didn't know about his skull," Nabors said, "but I do remember hearing that his skin was made into a change purse."

She thinks enough time has passed that, regardless of what he did, Turner's remains should be afforded some dignity.

"It should not be in a museum on display," Nabors said of the skull. "I'd like to see it buried."

If so, and if the skull can be authenticated, the question would be where. Turner's legacy is such a raw issue locally even after nearly two centuries that many people might not want his skull buried in Southampton, Futrell said.

Francis said a burial would give those trying to learn Turner's history a focal point.

The tree from which he was hanged died long ago. Years back, a road was built through the pauper's cemetery, some bones found and moved, and nobody is sure where Turner's torso is.

Francis knows how controversial Turner is, but he thinks the brush where Turner's torso was buried should be cleared out and the skull buried there. He thinks that would be the most respectful way to mark the horrors of the slavery Turner lived in, and the mayhem he brought to the county's whites.

"Now, golly day, I can see the battle over what to put on his gravestone," Francis said.

"It should be simple: Nat Turner, 1800-1831. That's it. Leave the commentary out."

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