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Lydia Plath - Current Research

Honour, Race and Violence in the Mississippi Insurrection Scare of 1835

My thesis examines how white Southerners reacted to rumours of an intended slave insurrection or conspiracy in their area. While actual slave rebellions themselves were relatively rare in the United States, especially in comparison with Latin America or the Caribbean, insurrection scares were fairly common, and usually resulted in the summary execution of any slaves or whites alleged to be involved. This will allow me to advance our understanding of Southern identity and race relations in the nineteenth century by analysing the hidden fears and anxieties of American whites in the antebellum period. I contend that the widespread panic and excessive brutality inflicted on slaves, free blacks, and some whites throughout the South during insurrection scares can only be explained using a cultural framework that takes into account the complexities of white Southern values. I contend that the slaveholder’s emphasis on the importance of having honour above all else created a volatile cultural setting in which whites often regarded ritualised violence as the only effective method of securing order.

Southern Violence and Honour

Recent historiography on violence as a cultural phenomenon in the South has primarily focused on interpersonal violence between elites (Greenberg 1996; Spierenberg 1998). Although some have examined how whites continually denied honour to blacks (Jordan 1968; Forret 2004), few historians have looked at how male slaveholders strived to defend their honour against other elements of southern society. These included blacks but also included some whites, especially those who were regarded as attempting to undermine the social order, particularly northerners, abolitionists, and criminals. White southerners were continually attempting to define their society as based on notions of race; to divide people in terms of slave or free, black or white. However the existence of free blacks and people of mixed race meant that a clear delineation along racial lines was impossible. The concept of whiteness became about more than the colour of a man’s skin.

Honour, on the other hand, was a category without ambiguity. As it could only be given by others, and could not be self-defined, the community had complete control over who was considered honourable, and who was not. Honour was not only conferred to elites, but to any southern white who advocated ‘southern values’. For example, white criminals who did not threaten the social order, such as those who committed violent crimes, could have honour, whereas those who undermined notions of race or property by trading with or stealing slaves, could not. There was also a gendered dimension to honour, as men were responsible for defending the honour of the female members of their family. Therefore elites maintained social solidarity (and control) by making sure all the whites in the community subscribed to the same value system. The idea of planter hegemony, which Fredrickson (1972) calls ‘Herrenvolk democracy’, is important because it explains why nonslaveholding whites in the community supported the elites in their local communities rather than allying with outsider whites or blacks who were of a similar economic standing.


I will be focusing on the 1830s because this was a decade in which wider social changes significantly affected the lives of white southerners, and often caused them to panic about any signs of discontent amongst their slaves. This was the period in which slavery as an institution was first really threatened by outside influences, especially the rise of abolitionism in the northern states. This growth was marked especially by the publication of the Liberator from 1831 and the establishment of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. These developments, combined with the abolition of slavery in the British colonies of the Caribbean in 1834, mean it is no wonder that Southerners thought that the institution was threat. The 1830s was also an era in which political tensions between North and South came to the fore as South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union during the Nullification Crisis in 1832.

The Mississippi Insurrection Scare of 1835 and John A. Murrell

I am looking in depth at the state of Mississippi as a case study. In the first week of July, 1835, six white men and at least a dozen slaves were put to death for their involvement in a conspiracy in Madison County. Historical discussions of this insurrection scare have largely focused on the lack of community structure in Madison county to account for the events there (Shore 1982; Morris 1988; Libby 2004). However these historians have tended to neglect the cultural dimensions of the violence. In contrast, Eaton (1964) has argued that Virgil A. Stewart’s controversial pamphlet, A History of the Detection, Conviction, Life and Designs of John A. Murel, the Great Western Land Pirate, Together with His System of Villany, and Plan of Exciting a Negro Rebellion, and a Catalogue of the Names of Four Hundred and Forty Five of His Mystic Clan Fellows and Followers (1835) was the catalyst for the events in Mississippi. This pamphlet told the story of Stewart’s encounter with John A. Murrell; a known criminal who Stewart said was planning a slave rebellion on an unimaginable scale. Murrell apparently claimed to have hundreds, if not thousands, of other white men working for him, all ready to incite slaves in all of the Southern States to rebel on the same day, which he gave as 25 December 1835. Historical discussions of the Murrell story have varied between disregarding it as complete fiction (Penick 1982), and horrifying truth (Wellman 1964). Although it was unlikely that Murrell really had the power to cause such devastation, the fact that the pamphlet had such an impact in Mississippi demonstrates that white communities there must have believed that such a thing was possible. However, the pamphlet was largely dismissed as a fabrication in other states, including Murrell’s native state of Tennessee.

Power and Punishment

I also intend to look more deeply at the power structures related to punishment. Over the nineteenth century, there was a movement away from means of punishment related directly to the body towards more institutionalised methods (Foucault 1977). However the lynchings that took place in both the antebellum period often focused on the body as the site of retribution, using whipping, dismemberment and other forms of torture to punish their victims. These lynchings were often ritualistic, as the mutilation of the victim was part of a symbolic restoration of the status quo. This has been used to explain lynching during Reconstruction (Harris 1984; Patterson 1998; Cardyn 2002), but not in the antebellum period. As honour disputes could only be resolved using violence, an examination of lynching during insurrection scares will therefore further our understanding of violence as a whole.

Therefore I would like to have a more nuanced discussion of identity in the South. The white men who were executed during insurrection scares were outsiders, mostly of Northern birth, and were ‘known’ to associate with slaves. Southern whites regarded these men as without honour. They died because they failed to live up to the values and expectations of their communities. Insurrections were regarded as attempts by slaves to assert qualities that were not rightly ‘theirs’ and so whites responded to these events with sadistic brutality.


The Lynching of the Gamblers at Vicksburg

In my thesis, I will also be examining the lynching of the gamblers at Vicksburg, Mississippi, that same summer. Five gamblers were hanged in early July 1835 after failing to leave the city on orders from the 'people'. When the vigilantes came to force the gamblers out of town, one of them, Dr. Hugh Bodley, was killed. The people at Vicksburg later erected a monument to Dr. Bodley, which still stands today on the corner of Farmer Street and Openwood Street. These are some pictures of the monument that I took during my research trip to Mississippi in September 2007.



The inscription reads:






JULY 5, 1835

while defending the morals of Vicksburg


Other research interests

I am also interested in death and mortality in the nineteenth-century United States, in particular methods of execution, and the treatment of executed bodies after death. This links to my current research on lynching rituals, which I would like to study further. Related to this, I am interested in the 'othering' of the bodies of ethnic minorities and the way that racial characteristics were portrayed in this period.




Contact Me:

History Department

University of Warwick



United Kingdom




Dr. Tim Lockley


Useful Links:

Mississippi Department of Archives and History