Friday, September 10, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Following his violent capture in Christ Church Parish, the African fugitive Albro was committed to jail in Charleston with a former friend and an infamous pair of convicted White criminals. Days later he returned to the village of Mount Pleasant for a brief and biased trial. His pleas of innocence notwithstanding, Albro was judged guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. After a brief spiritual reprieve granted by the governor, the condemned man made a gallows confession before a crowd assembled at the Red House at the forks of the road.

Albro, an enslaved runaway, had murdered Thomas Deliesseline while trying to flee from Dewees Island on Tuesday, February 8th, 1820. Local authorities initiated a manhunt the following day to track the fugitive across the island and to mainland of Christ Church Parish. He was shot at and wounded the following Friday night while attempting to hide on a seaside plantation near Copahee Sound, and then captured the following evening on another plantation belonging to James Hibben, where he had sought shelter within a slave cabin.

 

Sunday, February 13th, 1820:

On the morning of Sunday, February 13th, the enslaved driver or the White overseer of Mr. Hibben’s plantation transported Albro six miles to the southward to Haddrell’s Point in the village of Mount Pleasant. The entourage probably paused briefly at village residence of James Hibben, to inform him of the fugitive’s capture on his nearby plantation. Next, they proceeded to the landing place of Hibben’s Ferry, the principal water transportation service across the Cooper River at that time. Departing from the mouth of Shem Creek, the wooden ferry boat, powered by enslaved oarsmen, traveled two and a half miles across the river, and landed in the City of Charleston at the east end of Queen Street—a place known since 1810 as Vendue Range.

Albro was probably too weak to walk to the jail, a distance of three-quarters of a mile, so his captors lifted him into a horse-drawn cart or wagon that carried him westward along the length of Queen Street. This was no grand procession, course, but the fugitive’s notoriety attracted the attention of some pedestrians walking to and from church services that Sunday morning. An anonymous bystander who witnessed Albro’s arrival in the city, for example, noted that he appeared to be “almost naked” and was “shivering” from the long exposure to the winter chill. Fortunately for Albro, his journey through the city was direct and brief.

After turning right onto Mazyck (now Logan) Street and passing the city’s Poor House, Albro’s procession turned to the left onto Magazine Street. On the south side of the street stood two large and imposing public buildings dedicated to different branches of the same purpose. The first, called the Charleston Work House, was a city-funded institution for the incarceration and punishment of enslaved men and women. It was a place to lodge captured runaways until they were claimed by their respective owners, and a place where slave owners could send disobedient servants to be “corrected” for a fee. While Albro’s skin color rendered him eligible for admission to the notorious Work House, the nature of his alleged crime disqualified him from that segregated institution. Albro’s captors believed he had committed felony murder, so they delivered him to the large building next door, the Charleston District Jail.[1]

Within the thick masonry walls of the District Jail, Albro was locked within a secure cell that probably included several other prisoners accused or convicted of various felonious crimes. He would have received a blanket, fresh water, and sparse provisions, all which afforded him a modicum of relief after the long duration of his fugitive lifestyle. The jailor might have treated Albro like many other inmates in Charleston’s early jails and chained him to a fixed spot on the floor or wall, in order to prevent scuffles between roommates. Toilet facilities consisted of ceramic pots that were emptied periodically by enslaved servants. There was no privacy, and little concern for human dignity.

There are no surviving jail records from this era to identify all of the inmates held in the Charleston District Jail in February 1820, but the names of two prisoners appeared repeatedly in the local newspapers of that era. John and Lavinia Fisher were arrested in February 1819 and charged with committing a variety of crimes at the Six Mile House on Charleston Neck. The married couple was tried in the Court of General Sessions for Charleston District in May of that year and found guilty of highway robbery. Mr. and Mrs. Fisher then filed an appeal that extended their case for a number of months. A Constitutional Court rejected their petition for a new trial in January 1820, however, and the Fishers were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until they were dead on the afternoon of Friday, February 4th. They jointly petitioned the governor for a postponement, however, asking “for time to prepare to meet their God.” Governor John Geddes complied by ordering a two-week reprieve that deferred the execution of their sentence to February 18th.[2]

It’s possible that the jailor lodged Albro in the same cell as Aaron, the enslaved man who was captured on Dewees Island shortly after the murder of Thomas Deliesseline and committed to jail on Friday, February 11th. It was Aaron who gave Albro’s name to the Deliesseline family on the night of the murder, and who first pointed the finger of guilt at the African man. The two runaways had not spoken since their boat landed at Dewees Island the previous Tuesday evening, however, and Albro was probably unaware of the information his fellow runaway had provided to the authorities. After conversing with his jailors in Charleston, Albro no doubt learned of Aaron’s accusations on Sunday morning. Both men, either singly or jointly, were alleged to have been responsible for the death of Thomas Deliesseline, but the terms of their personal relationship in jail remain a mystery. They might have conversed quietly to rehearse their respective stories in preparation for trial, or they might have shouted accusations at each other in a desperate effort to deflect blame for the capital crime.

Shortly after his arrival in Charleston on Sunday morning, Albro faced a series of questions from unidentified White authorities who visited at the District Jail. The African prisoner acknowledged that he had run away from his legal owner, James Brandt, but he steadfastly denied being responsible for the death of Thomas Deliesseline. “The accused has been interrogated and solemnly declares his innocence,” reported the Charleston Southern Patriot the next day. “He persists in saying, that in the dark, one of the party of whites, intending to kill him, missed him and shot Mr. Deliesseline, and that he then fled.”[3]

While Aaron had pointed the finger of guilt at Albro several days earlier, Albro refused to blame another enslaved man for the murder. The Deliesseline family had reported seeing a party or “gang of Negroes” land in a boat at Dewees Island the previous Tuesday evening, but the subsequent manhunt had snared only the two men now in custody. White authorities visiting the pair in jail pressured them to reveal the names and hiding places of the remaining “gang” members, but neither would cooperate. Albro “pretends to deny having perpetrated the deed,” reported the Charleston Courier, “and says that himself and Aaron, (the fellow previously taken) were all that landed upon the island the evening of the murder.—It is believed, however, that there are several others in the gang, and we have no doubt but they will be ferreted out, before the pursuit is given over.”[4]

 

Monday, February 14th, 1820:

Movement towards Albro’s date with justice commenced almost immediately after his incarceration in the Charleston District Jail. On Sunday afternoon or Monday morning, February 14th, an unidentified magistrate from Christ Church Parish issued written notices to one other magistrate, three to five freeholders residing within the parish, and various witnesses, commanding all to meet at Haddrell’s Point on Wednesday morning next to participate in the trial of two enslaved prisoners, Albro and Aaron, for the murder of Thomas Deliesseline.

This ad-hoc form of tribunal, commonly called a “magistrates’ and freeholders’ court,” was the customary manner of trying enslaved defendants in South Carolina from the late seventeenth century to 1865. Although it included elements drawn from the ancient traditions of English jurisprudence, the legal framework of the magistrates’ and freeholders’ court was separate and distinct from the criminal justice system reserved for White citizens. Enslaved men and women did not enjoy the protection of Constitutional rights such as due process, trial by jury, adequate defense, and rules concerning evidence and witnesses. Instead, they were subjected to a deeply paternalistic and discriminatory form of criminal justice conducted by judges drawn from the local White community who might or might not have any legal training. The verdicts rendered by such tribunals were often based on subjective interpretations of limited evidence, and their sentences occasionally crossed the line of humanity into the dark realm of cruel and unusual punishment.[5]

It was in this cultural context that at least one Charlestonian felt a twinge of sympathy for Albro. Motivated by the enslaved prisoner’s wretched physical condition and a foreboding sense of the legal pathway that lay ahead of him, an unidentified citizen put pen to paper and wrote to the editor of one of the city’s daily newspapers. Their brief but extraordinary letter, which appeared in the Southern Patriot on the afternoon of  Monday, February 14th, commenced with a few short statements of fact that merit our attention:

 

“Mr. Editor, The slave accused of the murder of young Deliesseline, is now in the City. I have been told that the shivering wretch was carried through our streets wounded and almost naked.

The laws of our country, Mr. Editor, presume every man innocent (white or black) until he has been tried and found guilty. Law, therefore, and Justice require that he should be mercifully treated until his trial.”

 

These words, which must sound reasonable to modern audiences, represented a potentially incendiary statement in the highly discriminatory atmosphere of antebellum South Carolina. Some White readers of that era might have taken offense to such words because the contemporary laws of this state did not extend the benefits of citizenship to the enslaved population. Recognizing this sober fact, the writer quickly clarified his or her motives. In order to recommend Albro as man deserving of fair and humane treatment, the writer had to first disavow any notion of defending the enslaved prisoner:

 

“I do not mean to call for any improper sympathies in his favor, but such is the state of excitement of the public mind, that we may, however unintentionally, do an act of injustice. The accused has been interrogated and solemnly declares his innocence—he persists in saying, that in the dark, one of the party of whites, intending to kill him, missed him and shot Mr. Deliesseline, and that he then fled. How gratifying, sir, would it be to many in this community, if some humane Gentleman of the Bar would attend and see the trial fairly conducted. If he is guilty, he ought to and will suffer; if innocent, let him be acquitted.

‘JUSTICIÆ.’”[6]

 

After the passage of two centuries, it’s difficult to gauge the effect of this letter on Albro’s condition. It’s possible that someone in the community felt completed to bring him a new suit of clothes, or at least some reasonable hand-me-downs appropriate for the season; that a physician or nurse went to the jail to dress his wounds; that he received at least one warm meal during his incarceration. In the brief interval before his trial commenced, however, it appears that at least one local attorney, skilled in the laws of South Carolina, stepped forward to help Albro. This unknown party might have visited and interviewed the prisoner in jail on Tuesday, but there was little time to prepare his defense before his trial commenced the following day.

 

Wednesday, February 16th, 1820:

On the morning of Wednesday, February 16th, the enslaved prisoners Albro and Aaron traveled from the Charleston District Jail to Christ Church Parish, the legal jurisdiction in which Thomas Deliesseline had been murdered one week earlier. Their journey from the jail to the ferry and across the Cooper River was probably led by Charleston District Sheriff Francis Deliesseline, uncle of the murdered victim, at least one deputy sheriff, and probably a small band of armed militiamen to discourage the prisoners from attempting an escape. These parties landed at Haddrell’s Point in the village of Mount Pleasant and joined with the magistrates, freeholders, and witnesses who attended according the summons issued earlier in the week. The precise venue for the trial is unknown, but it might have taken place in the Ferry House—a building owned by the Hibben family and used as a gathering place for travelers waiting to take the ferry over the Cooper River.[7]

Newspaper reports of the trial did not identify the magistrates, freeholders, and witnesses, but we can deduce a few plausible names from the earlier scenes of this story. Captain Deliesseline and his son, John Jr., likely testified to the events on Dewees Island during the evening of Tuesday, February 8th, as well as the mysterious Mr. Laval who visiting the island on the night of the murder. Charleston City Coroner, Thomas Crafts, probably attended to provide testimony relating to the physical evidence of the victim’s wounds and to explain the verdict of his inquest on Friday morning. The White overseer on Captain Toomer’s plantation might have described his encounter with Albro on Friday evening, and the Black driver who subdued the prisoner on Saturday night might have been invited to testify as well. Finally, Albro’s legal owner, James Washington Brandt of Long Island, might have attended to offer some insight into the African’s behavior and character over the preceding decade, during which time he ran away several times.

Albro and Aaron undoubtedly spoke separately at their trial, each man asserting his own innocence. Immediately after his capture on evening of February 8th, Aaron had identified Albro as the man who shot Thomas Deliesseline earlier that night, but it’s unclear if Aaron repeated or recanted that damning testimony during the proceedings of February 16th. For his defense, Albro repeated his assertion that Thomas was the accidental victim of a shot fired by another gunman. “In the dark” of that winter’s night, he claimed, “one of the party of whites, intending to kill him [Albro], missed him and shot Mr. Deliesseline.”[8]

The framework of the customary magistrates’ and freeholders’ court in antebellum South Carolina was a lopsided judicial forum that was inherently prejudiced against the enslaved defendants on trial, but Aaron and Albro enjoyed a small advantage not available to most of their peers. One newspaper report of their trial noted that “counsel has been employed in their defence.” From this terse comment, we can deduce that some unknown party, concerned for the proper administration of justice, hired an attorney or volunteered to advise the enslaved defendants during their trial.[9] Despite this professional assistance, however, the weight of evidence and prejudice against Albro sealed his fate.

Following the presentation of evidence and witnesses, the ad-hoc court of two magistrates and three freeholders discussed the case amongst themselves and soon reached a conclusion without the aid of an impartial jury. In their opinion, the enslaved man Aaron was not guilty of the murder of Thomas Deliesseline. The all-White tribunal judged Albro guilty of murdering the white man, however, and immediately pronounced his sentence. The enslaved man of African birth was to be remanded into the custody of the Sheriff of Charleston District until Saturday, February 19th, on which date, between the hours of 12 and 1 p.m., he was to be hanged “at the Red House, forks of the Road, in Christ Church Parish.”[10]

The brief trial concluded with little fanfare in the village of Mount Pleasant, and Albro once again boarded the ferry with his armed escort to return to the District Jail in Charleston. His former fellow fugitive, Aaron, though acquitted of murder, was still a captured runaway; authorities likely released him into the custody of his legal owner, Moses Whitesides. The two men went their separate ways to suffer different punishments, and the other parties returned to their normal lives. Justice had been served in the customary fashion, although modern audiences would point to innumerable flaws in the state’s legal system. Nevertheless, the contemporary local newspapers described the trial as “a proper investigation of the all the circumstances connected with the case” and reported that both defendants received “a fair and impartial trial.”

 

Friday, February 18th, 1820:

Following Albro’s return to the jail on Wednesday afternoon, the scuttlebutt within that gothic edifice swirled around the upcoming execution of convicted felons John and Lavinia Fisher. The couple had been sentenced in January to hang on February 4th, but had successfully petitioned the governor for a two-week deferment of their execution to facilitate a period of spiritual preparation. Albro, who was sentenced to hang on Saturday the 19th, now pursued a similar path. Through his own initiative, or under the advice of an unknown party, someone applied to Governor John Geddes on Albro’s behalf to request a temporary stay of execution. In the words of a newspaper report, the advocate representing the African man asked “for a few days respite, that the condemned [might] have the assistance of the Rev. clergy, to prepare him for another world.”[11]

Albro’s anxiety about his impending death was likely enhanced on the morning of Friday, February 18th, by the drama surrounding the prelude to another execution. The fatal day had arrived for John and Lavinia Fisher, but only one of the married couple had prepared for their final moments. Counseled and comforted by days of spiritual reflection, John acknowledged his guilt and departed the jail with calm dignity, while Lavinia protested her fate and resisted to the end. “Agreeably to their sentence,” the Fishers were escorted from the jail by an armed guard around 12:45 in the afternoon, placed in a carriage, and driven to an undisclosed location in “the suburbs of the city,” in the vicinity of their various crimes. The year-long narrative of their arrest, trials, scandalous accusations, and John’s brief jailbreak, had captured the public attention. An “immense” concourse of spectators crowded around the gallows at 2 p.m., at which time the felonious Fishers were “launched into eternity.”[12]

Meanwhile, back at the Charleston District Jail at the west end of Magazine Street, Albro received news that the governor had granted his request for a temporary stay of execution. Rather than following in the footsteps of the Fishers on the next day, Albro’s date with eternity was postponed for two weeks, to Saturday, March 4th.[13] This brief respite was ostensibly sought and granted for spiritual purposes, but nothing is known of how Albro used the time. He remained incarcerated within the jail, where he might have been visited by one or more members of the local clergy. Following a dialogue frequently heard at the jail, a spiritual leader might have urged Albro to acknowledge his crime and to pray for repentance. Albro’s religious convictions are completely unknown to us, however, so it’s impossible to know if he embraced such suggestions or clung to a different ethos rooted in his native Africa.

 

Saturday, March 4th, 1820:

Albro’s brief stay of execution ended on Saturday, March 4th, 1820, on which date he made one final journey from the Charleston District Jail, across the Cooper River ferry, to Haddrell’s Point. From there he was transported, probably in a horse-drawn cart and escorted by local cavalry militiamen, northward on the main road leading toward Georgetown. The slow-moving cavalcade traveled just three and a half miles up the road, however, and stopped at a fork in the road familiar to past and present inhabitants of Christ Church Parish (encompassing the modern town of Mount Pleasant).

In this neighborhood during the nineteenth-century, the phrase “forks of the road” referred to a triangular intersection created by the convergence of two ferry roads—the road from Haddrell’s Point and the road leading from both Hobcaw Point and Milton or Mathew’s (now Mathis) Ferry. Four miles to northeast of Hobcaw Point, these two roads converged to form the main highway running northward along the coastline, then known as the Georgetown Road (now Highway 17). Mathis Ferry Road now intersects with Highway 17 at a right angle, but that ferry road originally continued a bit farther to the north and terminated in front of the present Olive Branch A.M.E. Church. On the opposite or southeastern side of that junction once stood a stone mile-marker called the four-mile stone. To the southeast of the stone once stood a public house open to travelers, known as the Red House, located approximately 500 feet northeast of the road leading to Mr. Venning’s plantation.[14]

Arriving at the forks of the road on March 4th, Albro would have seen a gallows in front of the Red House, perhaps erected in the center of the triangular field framed by the intersecting roads. By noon, a crowd of both White and Black spectators had gathered at the site, streaming from nearby plantations and from the village of Mount Pleasant. The sheriff’s entourage traveling from the ferry might have pushed its way through the crowd to reach their destination, and likely parked the cart carrying Albro directly beneath the rope suspended from the gallows. He was made to stand, and his hands fastened behind his back.

Pursuant to the sentence imposed by a court of magistrates and freeholders on February 16th, Albro was to be hanged between the hours of 12 and 1 p.m. At some point after the noon hour, an officer of the law called for silence and commenced the usual protocol. The death warrant issued by the court was read aloud, commanding the district sheriff to convey the convict, Albro, to the designated place within the parish where his crime occurred. There, at the appointed time, he was to be hanged by his neck until he was dead.

At this point, one of the White men standing in the cart next to Albro asked if he had any last words. The African man did speak aloud to the crowd, and though his exact words and the duration of his speech are unknown, we know that he made some impression on the audience. One newspaper simply reported that “He died penitent, acknowledging his guilt and the justice of his sentence,” while another provided a bit more detail. “We understand that he died truly penitent,” wrote the City Gazette, “and that previous to meeting his fate, he gave an impressive exhortation to the people of color who were assembled at the place of execution, in which he admonished them to beware of all improper and sinful conduct, lest their lives should have a termination similar to his.”[15]

Albro’s end came swiftly after his penitent speech. With the noose fitted around his neck, the cart supporting the prisoner drove away. Like every other execution by hanging at this time, the victim dangled, kicked, and gasped until he could breathe no more. The assembled crowd began to dissipate soon afterwards, many of the witnesses returning to nearby plantations to resume their lives of enslaved servitude.

Albro’s body might have been cut down from the gallows and buried nearby, or his corpse might have remained suspended at the forks in the road for some time, as a visible reminder to the local population. Like his final speech, Albro’s death served as a warning to all those living under the yoke of slavery. The laws of South Carolina, which justified and defended the ownership of human beings, did not tolerate resistance. Albro’s quest for freedom, in the eyes of the ruling minority, was the root of his destruction. He had killed a man in a heated battle to preserve his liberty, and the law of the land rewarded his actions with swift and fatal punishment. By publicizing Albro’s death within the neighborhood where he had recently sought help, the ruling free minority hoped that enslaved people would learn to stay in their place and banish all thoughts of escape.

 

Conclusion:

As I mentioned at the beginning of this short series, the story of Albro’s flight from slavery is just one among thousands of similar narratives of enslaved men and women in early South Carolina who struggled to gain their freedom by running away. While Albro’s journey included a fatal confrontation that led to his death, the vast majority of runaway narratives ended in a less dramatic fashion. I chose to focus on his story because surviving documents illuminated many interesting details and provided a clear plot line with a beginning, middle, and end. Our knowledge of most runaway experiences is limited to fragments of evidence that, while intriguing, require a great deal of investigation to discover even a rough outline of the story. By teasing out the historical context and meaning of the limited clues related to Albro’s life, my goal was to demonstrate the sort of rediscovery that is possible.

Enslaved people left behind precious few written statements about themselves and their experiences, but various archives within South Carolina and beyond contain fragments of many thousands of stories of runaway resistance. While some stories might now remain eternally incomplete, some, like Albro’s, can be reconstructed with sufficient depth and breadth to help modern audiences view the distant past from a new perspective. Whether they end in tragedy or triumph, I believe these narratives represent an important resource for learning about the shared history of our community.

 

 

 

[1] Southern Patriot, 14 February 1820, page 2, says Albro was “committed to Jail” on Sunday; Charleston Courier, 14 February 1820, page 3, says he was “committed to the jail in this city, yesterday morning.” This institution is frequently referred to as the “city jail,” but that name is incorrect. The Charleston city jail, located within the Guard House at the southwest corner of Meeting and Broad Streets, was used to detain persons arrested by the City Guard or the City Sheriff within the city limits during the hours of the nightly curfew. Such prisoners were arraigned in the morning and either fined, bailed, or remanded into the custody of the District Sheriff at the District Jail for later trial.

[2] City Gazette, 18 January 1820, page 2; City Gazette, 4 February 1820, page 2.

[3] Southern Patriot, 14 February 1820, page 2.

[4] Courier, 14 February 1820, page 3.

[5] For a brief overview of this topic, see Terry Lipscomb, “The Magistrates and Freeholders Court,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 77 (January 1976): 62–65. The earliest South Carolina statute relating to the slavery, “An Act for the better ordering of slaves,” ratified on 7 February 1690/1, mentions trials by two magistrates and three freeholders, as do the later revisions of this law. See David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 343–47.

[6] Southern Patriot, 14 February 1820, page 2, “Communication.”

[7] According to a report published in Courier, 16 February 1820, page 2, “Trials for Murder,” Albro and Aaron were “taken to Haddrell’s Point” for their trial.

[8] Southern Patriot, 14 February 1820, page 2, “Communication.”

[9] Courier, 16 February 1820, page 2, “Trials for Murder.”

[10] Southern Patriot, 17 February 1820, page 2; City Gazette, 17 February 1820, page 2; Courier, 18 February 1820, page 2.

[11] Courier, 18 February 1820 (Friday), page 2.

[12] Courier, 19 February 1820, page 2; City Gazette, 19 February 1820, page 2.

[13] City Gazette, 21 February 1820, page 2; City Gazette, 22 February 1820, page 2.

[14] References to a parcel of property known as the “Red House tract” are found in the antebellum Charleston newspaper (see, for example, Courier, 5 May 1855, page 3, “Under Decree in Equity, Hunt vs. Hunt”), and among the records held within the office of the Charleston County Register of Deeds, including McCrady Plat No. 5556, 5572, 5674, and 5950.

[15] Courier, 6 March 1820, page 2; City Gazette, 6 March 1820, page 2, “Execution!!!”

 

NEXT: The Roots of Spain’s Claim to South Carolina, 1513–1670
PREVIOUSLY: Murder and Manhunt in 1820: Albro’s Flight from Slavery, Part 2
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