Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South

Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South

Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South

Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South


In May of 1857, the body of Duncan Skinner was found in a strip of woods along the edge of the plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where he worked as an overseer. Although a coroner's jury initially ruled his death to be accidental, an investigation organized by planters from the community concluded that he had been murdered by three slaves acting under instructions from John McCallin, an Irish carpenter. Now, almost a century and a half later, Michael Wayne has reopened the case to ask whether the men involved in the investigation arrived at the right verdict. Part essay on the art of historical detection, part seminar on the history of slavery and the Old South, Death of an Overseer is, above all, a murder mystery--a murder mystery that allows readers to sift through the surviving evidence themselves and come to their own conclusions about who killed Duncan Skinner and why.


It was just after breakfast when the slaves first reported that Duncan Skinner was missing. He had gone off at daybreak to do some hunting and that was the last they had seen of him. So they said, anyway. By late afternoon some of his friends became alarmed and organized a search. A little while later they came upon his horse wandering along the road, riderless, its saddle pulled loose. But it was past midnight when, guided by torchlight, they finally found the body of the overseer. It lay sprawled across the exposed roots of a beech tree, no more than a half-mile from his cabin, in a strip of woods running along the edge of the plantation.

The following morning a coroner's jury convened on the site. Their examination determined that Skinner's neck had been dislocated and he had a wound on his temple. Near his body lay his gun and, a little farther off, his game bag, cap, and whip. His death had been accidental, they concluded, caused by a fall from his horse while hunting. If any of the men thought that foul play might have been involved, they kept it to themselves.

Duncan Skinner was thirty-seven years old when he died on Thursday, May 14, 1857. Born in South Carolina, he had come to Adams County, Mississippi, in the 1840s with his brother Jesse, ten years older, as part of the great westward migration that took place in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. A younger brother, Benjamin, had followed them a decade later. At the time of his death, Duncan was employed as an overseer on Cedar Grove, a 900-acre plantation with more than 80 slaves, 13 miles southeast of Natchez along the road to the small village of Kingston.

Overseeing was a demanding job. It involved supervising the work of slaves, monitoring what they did in their spare time, and, in many instances, taking part in the financial operations of the plantation. A man hired to the . . .

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