Rascals on the Antebellum Mississippi: African American Steamboat Workers and the St. Louis Hanging of 1841

By Buchanan, Thomas C. | Journal of Social History, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Rascals on the Antebellum Mississippi: African American Steamboat Workers and the St. Louis Hanging of 1841


Buchanan, Thomas C., Journal of Social History


I have bid farewell to life and all its hopes and joys. I go to meet my doom ...

Charles Brown, St. Louis 1841 [1]

The execution riveted St. Louis. Over twenty thousand people, about three quartets of the city's population, traveled to Duncan Island on July 9, 1841 to witness the hanging of four rivermen convicted of robbing a local countinghouse, killing two clerks and then setting the building ablaze. At one o'clock in the afternoon the four men, who included one slave, Madison Henderson, and three free blacks, Amos Warrick, James Seward, and Charles Brown, mounted the scaffolding. Minutes later, in the words of one observer, they were "launched into eternity together." [2] When Charles Brown finally succumbed to a weak knot, after several minutes of agony, the crowd dispersed, having seen stern justice done. The show was not over though. In the days after the hanging the men's heads were displayed prominently in a local storefront. The meaning of the severed heads was unmistakable: the city would not stand for insubordination from its slave and free black population--particularly its river workers. [3]

The grisly execution and decapitation punctuated rising sentiment in St. Louis, and the broader western region, that the river economy was a breach in the South's carefully constructed system of racial control. In the months following the execution newspaper editors from Louisville to New Orleans expressed alarm about the freedoms of the black urban underclass, particularly of free black rivermen. The St. Louis Gazette encouraged the "disuse, on board steamboats navigating the western waters, of all free negroes" as they "caused excitement and discontent among slaves of the states through which they pass ... " [4] In New Orleans, where worry about African American boatmen had been building for years, outcry was particularly vociferous. Following the hanging the New Orleans Picayune editorialized that free black steamboat workers were "prowling about the cities of the South." According to the newspaper they were a "dangerous body of incendiaries" that were "fomenters of disturbance." [5] The New Orleans Bee n oted that there "was no evil ... more dangerous to the institutions of the South" than "the employment of free blacks on steamboats whereby the free negro and the slave are brought frequently together." [6]

The four men's confessions, sold at their hanging, make it clear that such fears had merit. While their deaths symbolized the strength of the South's systems of control, their lives illustrate the weaknesses inherent to that system. The men created a world of their own on the docks, levees, plantation landings, city quays, and steamboat decks of the Mississippi River economy. While these men were not above occasionally swindling other working-class people, for the most part their actions were directed at the region's elites. They lied to, cheated, and stole from bankers, shopkeepers, plantation owners, and merchants--the people who possessed the wealth they coveted. When the Louisville Journal called them "desperate rascals, thieves, robbers, cut-throats, and blacklegs" the newspaper's editors were not far from the truth. [7] But money was not the only thing that mattered to these men. Charles Brown, for instance, combined the pursuit of ready money with efforts to liberate runaway slaves.

The men termed their activities "rascality." In a world of danger and exploitation, where death was only a steamboat explosion away, and the plantations of Louisiana and Mississippi loomed with an ominous omnipresence, they referred to rascality as any of a number of illegal acts that allowed them to create a life on their own terms. The men took pride in their ability to avoid what they called "honest labor," to out think the world around them, and to take advantage of the weaknesses of the slave economy. [8] In a world that commodified humanity they were independent men. They lived by their own wits as confidence men and tricksters. …

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