A 1739 exact prospect of Charles Town Council Chamber and Half Moon Battery.
Friday, October 04, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Sentenced to hang in 1747, Elizabeth McQueen cried out from the Charleston jail and asked the governor of South Carolina for mercy. She was a poor woman who was ignorant of the law and did not realize that her personal grief amounted to a capital offense. Reviewing the facts of her case and the nature of her crime, the governor and his advisors were drawn into the chasm between patriarchal law and the realities of a woman’s life on the colonial frontier.

At the end of last week’s episode, a jury of twelve white men found Elizabeth McQueen, a poor, half-Creek Indian woman, guilty of murdering her newborn child. The judges of the South Carolina Court of General Sessions, following the prescriptions of a 1623 English law concerning infanticide, condemned her to death by hanging. After the sentence was pronounced, Provost Marshall Rawlins Lowndes or one of his assistants escorted Elizabeth back to the jail house on King Street to await the execution of her sentence.

We don’t know the date appointed for Elizabeth’s execution because there are no surviving criminal court records from this era of South Carolina’s colonial history. Despite this loss, one can find a number of tantalizing details about the workings of our colonial criminal court in the form of snippets of discussions of individual cases recorded in surviving legislative journals and in brief anecdotes printed in surviving local newspapers. Based on the fragments of criminal trials I’ve seen in such sources, I have concluded that the judges didn’t always appoint a date for the execution when they handed down a death sentence. It appears that the judges had to consult with the provost marshal—the man responsible for executing the various sentences imposed by the court—after the end of the court term to determine a schedule of the several upcoming executions, be they whipping, branding, hanging, or otherwise.

Once the judges settled on a date for Elizabeth’s hanging, they would have communicated that information to the governor, who was required by law to issue a death warrant—an official document directing the provost marshal to erect a scaffold and to hang the prisoner at a certain date and time and at a certain place, in accordance with the court’s sentence. The appointed date might be just a few days after the conclusion of the prisoner’s court trial, or several weeks after sentencing. Without a more robust collection of documentary evidence from colonial-era South Carolina, it’s difficult to understand the reasoning behind this flexible schedule of executions.

Bear in mind that a condemned prisoner like Elizabeth McQueen, resting in chains at the jail house in early November 1747, would have been ignorant of these background machinations concerning her fate. It was the provost marshal’s responsibility to confront Elizabeth and officially inform her that the governor had signed the warrant for her death, at such a time and at such a place. Perhaps he read the official document aloud to her as she sat on the wooden floor of the prison on King Street, surrounded by her fellow inmates. Whatever the details of the scene, Elizabeth now knew that her end was drawing near.


An Ally at the Jail

Although we don’t know how much time passed between the end of her trial and the appointed date of her execution, we do know that Elizabeth had an ally who intervened during this finite window of opportunity. Someone, whose identity is now unknown, felt sufficient compassion for Elizabeth that they went to the jail and helped her construct a written petition for clemency and then submitted it on her behalf to the governor of South Carolina and his council of advisors. Who might have done such a thing for this obscure young woman who was now a convicted murderer?

Perhaps it was one of Charleston’s several clergymen, who felt compassion for Elizabeth’s troubled soul and reached out to help her. Or perhaps was it a local attorney, who took a professional interest in the case and sought to use his legal skills to amend what he saw as a miscarriage of justice. Or perhaps it was Rawlins Lowndes, the young provost marshal who was studying law in his spare time and hoping to escape the loathsome jail and embark on a new career. Or perhaps it was a genteel lady from an affluent Charleston family who had heard about Elizabeth’s plight—perhaps even attended her trial—and was so moved by her story that she hired a lawyer to intercede on the poor girl’s behalf. Perhaps it was even a member of the jury that convicted Elizabeth, who felt the law was wrong and sought to amend the course of justice.[1]

I’ll mention one more possible candidate by way of correcting an important omission from last week’s installment of Elizabeth’s story. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that there was a defense attorney present at her trial. Although the use of defense attorneys was uncommon in English and Anglo-American criminal courts in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, that tradition was changing during Elizabeth’s lifetime. A law ratified in South Carolina in 1731, for example, empowered defendants on trial for capital crimes like treason and murder “to make his and their full defence [sic] by counsel learned in law.” If such a defendant expressed a “desire” for legal representation, but did not personally retain an attorney, the court would “assign” counsel to assist the defendant. The text of this 1731 law does not mention who was responsible for paying the defense attorney’s fees, but the court probably expected him to volunteer his time as a sort of colonial-era pro bono program.[2]

Considering Elizabeth’s impoverished background, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that she was entirely unfamiliar with criminal court procedure prior to the commencement of her murder trial in the autumn of 1747, and thus did not know that she was entitled to have legal representation. Judge Thomas Dale, the senior assistant judge presiding over her case, might have stated at her arraignment that the court would assign a counsellor for her defense if she so desired. We can imagine that Elizabeth understood sufficiently the gravity of her situation to embrace the opportunity to gain a legal ally, so the court summoned and appointed a lawyer to represent her during the trial.[3]

The identity of Elizabeth’s defense attorney, if indeed she had one, is now lost along with the vast majority of the criminal court records of colonial-era South Carolina. No matter who he might have been, however, we can surmise that he would have quickly become more intimately acquainted with the details of her life and her alleged crime than anyone else in the province. To represent his client’s case most effectively, the aforementioned South Carolina law of 1731 empowered the defense counsel “free access [to the defendant] at all seasonable times, either before, at or after the said tryal [sic].” That is to say, he probably visited Elizabeth in jail before the commencement of her trial and asked detailed questions in order to prepare her defense. He would have spoken with his client repeatedly in the courtroom during the trial, and was empowered to visit her again at the jail after her conviction. During the course of all this activity, compressed within a relatively short period of days or weeks, it’s possible that the court-appointed lawyer developed some affinity or at least compassion for the young woman. Familiar with both the letter of the law and the details of his client’s story, he more than anyone would have seen the injustice of condemning her to death. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Elizabeth McQueen’s anonymous defense counsel is the most likely candidate for having been the author of her petition to the governor asking for mercy.


The Petition for Mercy

Elizabeth’s unidentified ally likely went to see her in the jail after the conclusion of her trial and expressed his regret for the unfortunate outcome of her case. Perhaps Elizabeth asked if there was not some course of action that might save her from the noose, and perhaps the ally tried to comfort her by advising Elizabeth to maintain hope of a reprieve. The governor of South Carolina, as chief executive of the province, was empowered to dispense clemency and to pardon convicted felons at his discretion. Elizabeth’s last hope to save her life was to appeal in writing to the governor and to beg for his mercy.

As a poor, uneducated woman of half-Creek ancestry who probably grew up on the rural frontier of southwestern South Carolina, it seems very likely that Elizabeth never learned to write. She might have learned to read at some point, as did many poor women in colonial America, but writing was a separate skill generally reserved for the more affluent classes of men and women. To compose a petition for mercy, therefore, Elizabeth needed the assistance of an amanuensis—a competent scribe to record her thoughts and words with quill pen and ink. But drafting an effective petition for mercy wasn’t simply a matter of transcribing the prisoner’s statements onto paper. The document had to adopt a specific tone and employ certain language calculated to inspire the royal governor to grant clemency to a lowly convicted murderer. To accomplish these goals, Elizabeth needed an experienced ally to act as her co-author.

If we accept that that Elizabeth McQueen’s 1747 petition to the governor is the fruit of her collaboration with an unidentified assistant, then we must bear in mind that this document does not necessarily represent her “authentic” voice. As with all petitions to the civil government of this era, it is written in a formal third-person voice and contains several stock phrases that suggest an experienced author familiar with the political and legal conventions of the day. Before we delve into a closer reading of its text, let’s review the brief document in its entirety:

The petition of Elizabeth McQueen to His Excellency the Governor, a condemned Person for the Murther [sic] of her Child

Praying for Mercy

That Your Petitioner hath the misfortune to be under sentence of Death for the murder of her Bastard Child after having sufferd [sic] many hardships dureing [sic] a long imprisonment since the committing of the aforesaid rash inconsiderate act of leaving the Child exposed which to the best of your Petitioners [sic] belief was born dead But your unhappy Petitioner is now to[o] late informed that a Bastard Child born dead and concealed by the Mother is by the law deemed to be born alive and murthered [sic].

Your Petitioner begs leave to informe [sic] your Excellency that her Mother was a Creek Indian and her Father an Englishman.

Your Petitioner will not attempt to deceive your Excellency with any falacious [sic] defence [sic] of the act for which the law hath sentenced her to suffer Death. But with the greatest Humility and most sincere Repentance throws her self at Your Excellencys [sic] feet and implores that Mercy in this World which your Petitioner is taught God Almighty hath promised to Repenting sinners in the next. If Your Excellency shall be pleased so farr [sic] as to incline your Ear to this Petition as to make any inquiry concerning the Tryal your Petitioner flatters herself it will appear that no Circumstances were alledged [sic] that aggravated the Offence [sic] while the Custom of the Indians and the Ignorance of that usually attends persons in her low Situation being poor and half Indian and being no common prostitute may plead for some extra extinuation [sic] of her guilt and to interceed [sic] so far with your Excellency as to represent your unhappy Petitioner a proper object of Mercey [sic] And your Petitioner as in duty bound will spend the days which she shall owe under God to your Excellencys [sic] Humanity in amending her life and in Praying for your Excellency[.]

Elizabeth McQueen.[4]

Taken at face value, Elizabeth’s petition for clemency is written a suppliant, apologetic tone designed to arouse the governor’s patriarchal sympathy. Looking more closely at the text, however, I see a clue that suggest the collision of two competing perspectives on the so-called “crime” she committed. On the one hand, the petition speaks of humility, ignorance, and repentance for Elizabeth’s acknowledged guilt. The petitioner begs the governor to remember that she is “poor and half Indian.” Although she was convicted for violating a 1623 law designed to punish “lewd women” who murder their “bastard” children, Elizabeth’s petition humbly asserts that she is “no common prostitute.”

On the other hand, the petition contains one passing phrase that I find especially intriguing and significant: “the custom of the Indians.” More precisely, Elizabeth hoped that the governor’s recognition or acknowledgment of “the custom of the Indians . . . may plead for some extra extinuation [sic] of her guilt.” This brief statement alludes to a practice that seems to have been widespread among the indigenous peoples of early North America. They viewed the act of giving birth as a deeply personal experience, and it was not uncommon for pregnant women to venture alone to a secluded spot to deliver their children without assistance.[5] By deploying the phrase “the custom of the Indians,” I believe Elizabeth was asserting that the lack of witnesses to her child’s birth and death was simply part of her cultural tradition, not a malicious attempt to circumvent an English law of which she was entirely ignorant.

Elizabeth’s brief reference to “the custom of the Indians” points to the heart of this entire story. In the eyes of the Anglo-American law in force in South Carolina in 1747, she was an ignorant, uncivilized woman of loose morals who had committed a capital crime. In the eyes of her Creek (or Muscogee) ancestry, however, she had done nothing wrong. The fact that Creek culture recognized a woman’s control over her own body endowed Elizabeth with more sexual freedom than most Anglo-American women of the eighteenth century. Speaking about the background of her case, Elizabeth might have admitted that she willingly engaged in a sexual relationship with a white man who may or may not have promised to marry her. She became pregnant and, as Creek woman were empowered to do, carried the child to term without shame. Following the “custom of the Indians,” she went into the forest alone to deliver the child, which was born dead. She left the child’s corpse in the care of Mother Nature and returned to her dwelling place to continue her life. From the perspective of her Creek culture, she did not consider herself a poor, ignorant creature or a callous murderer. She was merely following the path of the meandering river of life. If anything, she was a victim of the cultural prejudice inherent in the English law enforced by the strangers who were encroaching on the homelands of the indigenous population, a place the strangers called the frontier of their colony of South Carolina.

From the surviving documentary evidence of Elizabeth’s story, it’s easy to construct an image of a meek, young, country girl who was overwhelmed by the flood of accusations and insults she received from the white urban strangers who sat in judgment of her fate. As a hypothetical rebuttal to that characterization, however, I’d like to offer a contrasting viewpoint that endows her with more of a pulse. Perhaps Elizabeth was angry about this entire affair. Perhaps she resented being judged and slandered by strangers, and vocally expressed her displeasure. Perhaps she contested her treatment throughout this story, from her arrest to her incarceration to her trial, with verbal and even physical resistance.

Even if we accept the possibility Elizabeth possessed more spirit and agency than her petition suggests, we must also acknowledge that she was obliged to swallow her pride and beg for mercy. Elizabeth’s co-author might have told her that he understood her point of view, but in order to save her life it was necessary to bend her story and her attitude and to adopt an unreservedly apologetic tone in the petition. The young woman, surrounded by strangers and trapped in a desperate situation, must have conceded the wisdom of his point and trusted her new ally to complete the text of the petition as he saw fit.

Because I believe that Elizabeth’s ally and co-author learned the details of her case from earlier conversations with the young woman, or heard them recited during the trial, I suspect he did not draft the text of the petition within the depressing confines of the incommodious jail. I believe the two parties probably discussed the idea of the petition and debated its contents at a post-trial meeting somewhere within the jail house, but their previous conversations had provided him with sufficient material to frame the text of the petition. While Elizabeth entrusted her last mortal hope to the kind stranger, he returned to his comfortable home or office to complete the final draft of the petition.


The Governor’s Perusal

The intended recipient of Elizabeth’s petition was the governor of South Carolina and his council of advisors. From the early 1730s to the late 1760s, the spacious office of the provincial executive and his council was located on the second floor of a brick structure on the east side of East Bay Street, at the east end of Broad Street. This building, which housed the Watch House (police station) on the ground floor and the Council Chamber above, was demolished in 1768 to make room for the present Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, which was completed in 1771. There was no mail delivery system in place at this time, so Elizabeth’s ally probably walked to the Council Chamber and personally delivered her petition into the hands of the governor’s staff.

Access to South Carolina’s civil government was not free during the colonial era. Most civil servants did not receive a salary, but earned an income by charging a number of small fees for performing routine actions. According to a table of public fees adopted by the provincial legislature in 1736, for example, citizens had to pay a fee of one shilling and six pence (South Carolina currency) to the Messenger of Council for carrying a private petition to that body. Then the Clerk of Council charged two shillings and six pence for reading a petition to the Council, and the same amount for making a copy of a petition.[6] In early November 1747, one man, William Backshell, briefly held both offices of Messenger and Clerk of Council. When Elizabeth McQueen’s ally presented her petition to Mr. Backshell at the door of the Council Chamber, therefore, he was obliged to tender such sums in advance to grease the wheels of government.

In the late afternoon of Tuesday, November 10th, 1747, William Backshell presented Elizabeth’s petition to Governor James Glen (1701–1777) and the assembled members of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina. Governor Glen was a native of Scotland who had arrived in South Carolina nearly four years earlier.[7] His council of advisors at that time included ten of the most distinguished men in the colony (Edmund Atkin, William Bull Sr., Joseph Blake, John Cleland, John Colleton, John Hammerton, James Kinloch, William Middleton, Charles Pinckney, and Alexander Vanderdussen), but their full attendance was irregular, and not all of them were present on this day.[8]

Governor James Glen and his council were busy men in the autumn of 1747, preoccupied with an ongoing war between Britain and her colonies against the allied powers of France and Spain. The war had depressed the overseas market for Carolina rice, and local efforts to create an indigo industry were just getting off the ground. At that moment, a squadron of enemy privateers was harassing merchant ships trying to enter and exit the port of Charleston, and the Royal Navy was doing little to help defend the colony. As the governor and his advisors listened to William Backshell read aloud “the petition of Elizabeth McQueen . . . a condemned person for the murther [sic] of her child,” their minds might have been a million leagues distant from the topic at hand.

Governor Glen was at least vaguely familiar with Elizabeth’s case because some days earlier, after the conclusion of the young woman’s trial, he had signed a warrant for her execution. At the very least, he would have known that she had been arrested, arraigned, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The members of His Majesty’s Council might have been ignorant of the details of Elizabeth’s case, however, and therefore unable to advise the governor on the merit of her petition. The surviving manuscript journal of this meeting does not record any reaction or commentary from the governor or his advisors, but they did not dismiss the matter entirely. They were willing to entertain a discussion of the petition at a future date, when they had more information about the case.

At the end of a long afternoon of executive business, Governor Glen turned to the Clerk of Council, Mr. William Backshell, and gave a verbal order that the clerk transcribed into his journal with the following poor spelling and grammar: “Order’d that the coppey of Elizabeth McQueens Petition be referr’d to the Judges of the Court to report their oppinion whether there is any favourable Circumstainces attending the Case of the Petitioner.”[9] With that pronouncement, His Majesty’s Council adjourned for the day. Because Mr. Backshell acted as both clerk and messenger for the council, he probably completed his clerical duties that evening and postponed the delivery of Elizabeth’s petition to the following day.


The Judicial Report

The path of Elizabeth’s petition from the Council Chamber to the hands of the judges is not recorded in any surviving documents, but we can reconstruct a reasonable route with a bit of imagination. According to the governor’s order, William Backshell had to transcribe by hand a copy of the petition and then deliver that document to the three judges who had adjudicated Elizabeth’s recent trial. Implied in the governor’s order was another task routinely performed by the Clerk of Council: he was expected to compose a letter to the judges explaining the governor’s order and requesting them to prepare a written opinion on the merit of the petition.

Mr. Backshell probably accomplished these three tasks on Wednesday, November 11th, at which time the three assistant judges—Dr. Thomas Dale, Dr. William Bull Jr., and Dr. John Lining—were conveniently assembled together at the provincial courtroom within Thomas Blythe’s tavern at the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets. The quarterly session of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas (civil court) had commenced, as usual, on the second Tuesday of November, and Mr. Backshell probably delivered his letter and Elizabeth’s petition to the judges during a recess in the court’s proceedings. He might have also stated to them that he would return the following afternoon to receive their written reply to the governor.

At some point on the 11th or 12th of November, perhaps at the end of a busy day of hearing tedious civil suits, the three assistant justices who had presided over the trial of Elizabeth McQueen read and considered the condemned young woman’s plea for mercy. The governor had asked specifically whether there were any favorable circumstances attending the case. The three men might have consulted their trial notes, or refreshed each others memories of the recent proceedings. I’d like to think that Elizabeth’s case was sufficiently memorable that they readily saw the merits of her petition, but we have no written record of their conversation. We have only a brief summary report, which Mr. Backshell later copied into the surviving manuscript journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina. Because this undated report includes a small bit of additional biographical information about Elizabeth that was apparently revealed in the course of her trial, I’d like to share with you its full text:

To His Excellency the Governor in Council

Whereas a Coppey [sic] of Elizabeth McQueens [sic] Petition to your Excellency praying Mercy and forgiveness hath been referr’d to us by Order of your Excellency and His Majestys [sic] Honourable [sic] Council upon perusing the same we are of opinion that the Facts therein stated are true and that considering her birth and Education being an [sic] half Indian she was the more easily seduced and deluded upon a promise of Marriage and as the majestrate [sic] who committed her and the People with whom she had lived for several years Past gave her a very favourable [sic] Character as to the Innocence and sobriety of her life before this Mellancholly [sic] and unhappy affair, We are therefore of opinion upon considering the Premises that the said Petitioner is no improper object of your Excellencys [sic] Mercy and Compassion, which is humbly submitted by your Excellency and Honours [sic] most obedient Servants

Thomas Dale, William Bull junior, John Lining.[10]


The Council’s Opinion

By the morning of Friday, November 13th, William Backshell had visited the courtroom in Mr. Blythe’s tavern and received the judges’ report on Elizabeth’s petition. He then carried it to the Council Chamber at the east end of Broad Street and prepared for another day’s work as clerk of South Carolina’s executive council. In the course of their never-ending train of weighty political matters, Mr. Backshell presented to Governor Glen and his council the “report of the judges on the petition of Elizabeth McQueen which was referre’d to them the tenth instant.”

After the clerk had read the report aloud to the assembled politicians, “His Excellency,” Governor Glen, “asked the oppinion [sic] of his Majesty’s Council” on the matter at hand. The elite white men then briefly discussed the fate of the poor, half-Creek woman. The facts of her case presented at trial had proved that she was indeed guilty, but there were extenuating circumstances that merited consideration. The law she had transgressed was enacted more than a century earlier to punish a certain class of English women, including unmarried sex workers, who sought to dispose of their unwanted children. Although it was adopted into South Carolina’s legal code in 1712, that 1623 law was not necessarily suited to the realities of frontier life in the colonies. Elizabeth McQueen was quite literally caught between two worlds—the old world of her Native American traditions and the new world of European culture that every day spread further westward from Charleston.

South Carolina’s senior judges, although trained as physicians, had reviewed the facts and character of Elizabeth’s case and recommended her as “no improper object” of the governor’s “mercy and compassion.” The Scottish governor and his erudite, cosmopolitan board of advisors took this judicial advice to heart. “Considering her birth and education,” as well as the complexities of Elizabeth’s cultural roots and her former life of “innocence and sobriety,” and “after having maturely considered the same,” Governor James Glen and the members of His Majesty’s Council “unanimously agreed she was a proper object of mercy.”[11]

With those words, recorded by William Backshell’s hand in the council journal, ends the documentary trail of the dramatic story of Elizabeth McQueen. The governor and his advisors immediately thereafter turned their attention to other, unrelated matters of colonial administration. Moments later, however, Governor Glen asked Mr. Backshell to show him his written journal of the Council’s recent proceedings. The governor was not pleased with what he saw. Besides the clerk’s awkward penmanship that reflected poorly on the character of South Carolina’s government, Glen “found fault with some incorrectness of spelling” and “then told the said Backshell that he was no longer Clerk of the Council.” Alexander Gordon, the previous clerk, recently suspended, immediately resumed his chair at the table, and Mr. Backshell returned to his sole duty as Messenger of Council.[12]

In the wake of this abrupt end to Elizabeth’s story, we are left to wonder what happened next. I haven’t found any evidence of how the governor and his council defined more specifically the intention of their mercy, or if the governor gave any further instructions regarding Elizabeth’s clemency. In the course of my research through the surviving journals of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, however, I have found a paper trail for the resolution of a few other criminal cases similar to that of Elizabeth McQueen. More specifically, I’ve found four other cases, all dating from the early 1750s, in which men convicted of murder and sentenced to death petitioned Governor Glen for mercy and received written pardons that were properly copied into surviving legal records.[13] It’s a bit of mystery to me, therefore, why I cannot find so much as a mention of a written pardon for Elizabeth. Did the governor and his council consider Elizabeth, a young half-Indian woman from the colonial frontier, too inconsequential to merit an official pardon? Or did the governor’s mercy simply reduce Elizabeth’s sentence to something less than death by hanging?

Punitive sentences of long incarceration were uncommon in Anglo-American law during Elizabeth McQueen’s lifetime. Sentences for criminal offenses, including both felonies and misdemeanors, almost always included some degree of corporal punishment, after which the convicted parties were “enlarged,” or set free. Perhaps Elizabeth’s death sentence was reduced from hanging to a series of public whippings, or branding with a red hot iron in the palm of her hand, or a period of standing with her neck and wrists clamped within the town pillory while the community pointed and gossiped about her notorious crime.


A Welcome Reprieve

Despite the archival silence regarding the specific quality of the government’s mercy, we can conclude that Governor Glen almost certainly intended the clerk of Council to draft a letter containing news of the Council’s decision on Elizabeth’s petition, and for the messenger of Council to deliver that letter to Provost Marshal Rawlins Lowndes. The prisoner was in his charge, after all, and Mr. Lowndes would have been responsible for informing Elizabeth of the change in her sentence. We might imagine that the messenger, Mr. Backshell, also carried news of the governor’s mercy to the co-author of Elizabeth’s petition, along with a request or invoice for the charges incurred by Backshell’s several services over the preceding days.

The marshal, followed by his turnkey, and perhaps Elizabeth’s unidentified ally, would have confronted the young woman shackled within the jail house and addressed her by name. Awaiting her dreaded appointment with the hangman, Elizabeth must have been terrified to see the several white men approaching her with skeleton keys in hand. Rather than marching her to the place of execution, however, Marshal Lowndes informed Elizabeth that the governor and his council had considered her petition and determined her to be “a proper object of mercy.” Death, though inevitable, would have to wait for another time. The young half-Creek woman was saved from the noose.

Friday the 13th of November, 1747, proved to be a very lucky day for Elizabeth McQueen. It marked the end of a sad and painful chapter in her life, and perhaps the beginning a new era of happiness and prosperity. In reality, however, the surviving paper trail of Elizabeth’s life ends on that day, and the rest of her story is now lost. It is possible that she returned to the neighborhood where she had lived before her arrest, but I think she probably felt disinclined to return to the community of people whose actions and testimony had launched this miserable business. Perhaps the kind soul who helped Elizabeth draft her petition invited her to reside in his household and begin her life anew in the relative anonymity of urban Charleston. Or perhaps she remained in the provincial jail on King Street for some time, assisting Marshal Lowndes with the female prisoners and preparing meals of a more wholesome nature for the inmates.

If Elizabeth did remain at the jail as a sort of guest for some time after her reprieve, that residence was of short duration. Early on the morning of December 16th, 1747, a fire ignited under the roof of the jail on King Street. According to a newspaper report published a few days later, the fire “burnt with such fury that the whole building was consumed in a few hours.” The provost marshal and his assistants managed to evacuate the prisoners to the nearby Work House, and only one man—a suspected murder—escaped during the confusion.[14] A few months later, in the spring of 1748, Elizabeth McQueen’s former fellow inmate, John Collins (or Collings), was a free man strolling the streets of Charleston when someone overheard him boasting that he was the one who started the fire that “burnt the prison in Charles Town” by burning a rope match while he was incarcerated in the attic.[15]

As the winter solstice of 1747 approached and Charlestonians prepared for relative darkness of winter, Provost Marshal Rawlins Lowndes was shopping for another rental property in which to house his criminal prisoners. Governor James Glen and his council of advisors continued to address the daily business of the colonial government, and William Backshell could be seen carrying executive messages around the capital town. The court season at Thomas Blythe’s tavern was over, soon to be followed by a series of dancing and musical assemblies in the multipurpose courtroom. In short, life in Charleston continued along is usual routine. After nearly a year of grief and humiliation, Elizabeth McQueen stepped away from the shackles of injustice and returned to a life of freedom.



[1] John Derry (aka Dearry), for example, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death at the October sessions of 1753, but the jurors asked the court (i.e., the judges) to recommend Derry to the governor “as an object of his favour [sic] and clemency.” See South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Records of the General Assembly, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 23 (1754), pages 29 (2 January 1754). 

[2] Act No. 530, “An Act confirming and establishing the ancient and approved method of drawing Juries by ballot, in this Province, and for the better administration of justice in criminal causes, and for appointing of Special Courts for the trial of the causes of transient persons, declaring the power of the Provost Marshal, for allowing the proof of deeds beyond the seas as evidence, and for repealing the several Acts of the General Assembly therein mentioned,” ratified on 20 August 1731, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 3 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1838), section XLIII, page 286.

[3] Section XLIII of the aforementioned 1731 law empowers persons indicted for treason or capital crimes (including murder) to receive a copy of the “whole indictment . . . three days at least before he or they shall be tryed [sic] for the same.” This fact suggests that “three days at least” transpired between the indictment of Elizabeth McQueen and the commencement of her trial.

[4] South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Records of the General Assembly, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 15 (1747–48), page 44 (10 November 1747). The original petition does not survive, but its text was copied into the journal of Council.

[5] The website TeachingHistory.org provides a good synoptic overview of “Native American Customs of Childbirth” and a relevant list sources for further reading on this topic.

[6] See Act No. 596, “An Act for ascertaining publick officers’ fees,” ratified on 29 May 1736, in Cooper, ed., Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 3, pages 421–22 (of 414–23).

[7] For more information about the governor, see Walter Stitt Robinson, James Glen: From Scottish Provost to Royal Governor of South Carolina (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996).

[8] The council was supposed to include twelve men, but two seats were vacant at the time of this story. Edward Fenwick took his seat among the Council in late November 1747, and Hector Beringer de Beaufain was seated in early December 1747. For a description of the council and a list of its members, see M. Eugene Sirmans, “The South Carolina Royal Council, 1720–1763,” William and Mary Quarterly 18 (July 1961): 373–92.

[9] Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 15, page 45 (10 November 1747).

[10] Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 15, page 60 (13 November 1747).

[11] Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 15, page 61 (13 November 1747).

[12] Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 15, page 63 (13 November 1747).

[13] The pardons of Joseph Butler (31 October 1752), John Morrison (5 December 1752), and John Dearry (aka Derry; 15 January 1754) are recorded in SCDAH, Records of the Secretary of State, Miscellaneous Records (Main Series), 2I: 311, 329, and 609, respectively. The pardon of James McCrannell (6 June 1754) is recorded in the same series, 2K: 20. Their respective petitions are found in the contemporary manuscript journals of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina.

[14] South Carolina Gazette, 14–21 December 1747 (Monday).