One day, while perusing the Internet when I should have been doing paying work, I happened upon a website that lists people executed in the U.S. from 1607 to 1976.
If you read my blog regularly, you know I’m drawn to morbid subjects. I can’t help it.
A few months ago, I wrote about “The ‘terrible death’ of Conrad Cramer,” a boy who was trampled to death by a mule. More recently, I investigated a church “stampede” that happened in Lynchburg, Va., in 1878. Eight women were killed, one of which leaped from a window to her death.
Seriously, though, what drives me isn’t entirely morbid curiosity but a desire to tell little-known stories from history. Some of them just happen to be gruesome.
The execution website includes slaves as well as free people. While browsing the section on Louisiana — you can search by state and other criteria — I found lots of people put to death for the crime of “slave revolt.”
The preferred method of execution for this crime in Louisiana, between 1730 and 1754 at least, appears to have been something called “break on wheel.” I’d never heard of this, so I did what all good, amateur historians do: I Googled it.
The breaking wheel, as it was called, was a torture device used to execute people. As one might expect, it used a wheel — think wagon wheel — to which the condemned was strapped. Then, the executed person was bludgeoned to death. Bones were broken, sometimes it took days, and sometimes breaking on the wheel was followed up with the person being drawn and quartered.
There were all kinds of variations.
At least one website claimed the French term “coup de grâce” comes from the breaking wheel. Translated as “blows of mercy,” it refers to when an executioner lands a fatal blow to make the execution go quicker and thus, more mercifully.
In short, death by the breaking wheel sounds terrible and you can read more about it here. There also are pictures.
Numerous Central Virginians were on this execution list, too, including six slaves who were hanged in 1863 for murdering their master. Their names were Armstead, George, Seaton, Bet, Jane and Sarah. Their owner was Gen. Terisha Washington Dillard, an Amherst County lawyer and farmer.
The U.S. Civil War Soldiers Index on FamilySearch lists a Terisha W. Dillard, who served as a colonel in the 90th Regiment (Amherst County), Virginia Militia during the Civil War. Perhaps one of those ranks, general or colonel, was a 19th-century typo. I guess it’s not all that important, but I get bogged down in stuff like that sometimes.
Dillard and his family lived at Islington, a James River plantation near the Stapleton community in Amherst County.
As reported in the May 13, 1863, edition of The Daily Virginian (the Lynchburg newspaper) the murder took place on May 9, while Dillard was supervising work on an island near his home.
According to the book “More Passages: A New History of Amherst County, Virginia,” by Sherrie S. McLeRoy and William P. McLeRoy, the island was called Buffalo Island. It was located in the James River, across from Islington.
Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System, said some plantation owners had gardens on islands in the James River. The well-known Cabell family, for example, owned several islands for this purpose, he said. The Cabells owned Point of Honor, a grand home in Lynchburg’s Daniel’s Hill neighborhood that overlooks the river.
Dillard’s murder was reported in several newspapers, including The Richmond Sentinel, the Alexandria Gazette and The Abingdon Virginian. Here’s what The Daily Virginian had to say about it:
Brutal Murder — Gen. Terisha W. Dillard, of Amherst Co., was brutally murdered by some of his servants, on Saturday last. We learn that he was superintending some work he was having done on an island in the James River, near his residence, in which six hands were employed — four women and two men — when the fiendish purpose of his murder was executed.
He was caught and held by the men, and the women inflicted the fatal blows. His body, we are informed, was horribly cut and mangled, presenting a shocking spectacle of mutilation. After the diabolic deed had been performed, the remains were covered up in the sand, but soon two of the women made confessions of the crime, and with the two men, were arrested. The others are yet at large.
Gen. Dillard was a gentleman of high standing, and much esteemed. At one time, he was director of one of the banks of this city.
The news of Dillard’s grisly murder even made it to Winchester, Tenn., where the Daily Bulletin reported it this way:
Horrible Murder in Amherst, Va. — The distressing intelligence that General Terisha W. Dillard was brutally murdered by two of his own slaves on Saturday evening last reached us yesterday. No particulars of this foul deed have been received, other than the fact that one of the murderers had been arrested and confessed his crime, and the other had made his escape.
General Dillard was a lawyer of prominence and a gentleman of fine talents and popular manners, and the announcement of his untimely and cruel death will fall with crashing force upon his numerous family connections and a number of friends. — Lynchburg Republican, 12th
As usual, newspaper accounts varied, with some papers reporting two suspects and others six, and the number of male and female suspects differing as well. According to the MeLeRoys, some people even thought Dillard’s wife was involved, too. “One local legend,” they wrote, “says the murder was inspired by Dillard’s cruel nature [and] that even his wife Mary Elizabeth was implicated in the plot.”
When the slaves were hanged a few weeks later, the number also differs at five as opposed to the six listed on the executions website. On June 22, 1863, the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported, “The negroes of General Dillard, five in number, convicted of his murder, were hung at Amherst County Court House, Va.”
As described by the McLeRoys, the slaves were hanged at the aptly named “Gallows Field,” which was located “near the modern Amherst Junior High School.” Though it was rumored that Mrs. Dillard was hanged as well, the McLeRoys found no evidence of that.
Notes: For readability purposes, I corrected some misspellings/punctuation issues in the newspaper articles. And thanks to Doug Harvey and the Lynchburg Museum System and Chuck Bradner with Jones Memorial Library for their help with this article.