Because there were so many, Virginia Gov. James Monroe lost track of the hangings of slaves judged guilty of conspiring to rebel against their bondage in August 1800. Concerned about this spectacle of humiliation and death, Monroe sought advice from former governor and U.S. Vice President Thomas Jefferson. "Where to stay the hand of the executioner is an important question," Jefferson agreed.
On condition that Monroe keep his views secret, Jefferson added, "There is a strong sentiment that there has been hanging enough. The other states & the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge in a principle of revenge."
The nation's first massive slave revolt was conceived by a powerful, 6-foot-plus blacksmith and carpenter named Gabriel. Born in 1776, he belonged to the Prossers of Brookfield Plantation in Henrico County and was referred to as "Prosser's Gabriel."
Thomas Henry Prosser allowed Gabriel to hire himself out to whites around Richmond, and the slave learned the basics of reading and writing which was illegal according to Virginia law. As a contract laborer, Gabriel also gained a proscribed freedom and access to some money. He associated in work and leisure with fellow tradespeople, black and white, freed and slave.
Historian Douglas E. Egerton argues in Gabriel's Rebellion that the slave may have listened to political rhetoric at social occasions and heard about Toussaint L'Ouverture's revolution in Haiti.
In September 1799, Gabriel stole a pig with his younger brother Solomon and fellow slave Jupiter. When neighbor Absalom Johnson caught them, Gabriel wrestled Johnson to the ground and bit off most of his left ear.
Jupiter received 39 lashes, and Gabriel avoided execution by using the "benefit of clergy" loophole. After reciting a Bible verse, he received a brand on his left hand and a month in jail. This was the first of several offenses that hardened Gabriel's resolve to live as a free man, or not at all.
In December 1799, Virginia's legislature voted to nullify federal laws viewed as unconstitutional, the latest being the Alien and Sedition Act imposed by the John Adams administration. Simmering conflict with the French on the high seas, "the Quasi-War," threatened to erupt.
In the spring of 1800, pamphleteer James Thomson Callender was sentenced to nine months in the Richmond jail for circulating anti-Adams materials (approved of by Jefferson). In city taverns, there was talk of civil war.
With these political rumblings, Gabriel sensed an opportunity and began recruiting lieutenants, including Solomon. They found sympathizers in the grog shops, at barbecues and fish fries, and began molding bullets and hammering swords out of scythes.
The rebel slaves planned to kill Thomas Prosser and other white families. After that, a force of about 200 blacks was to enter Richmond, burning warehouses along the James River and ultimately seizing the Capitol, the Virginia State Armory and Mayo's Bridge. With Gov. Monroe as his hostage, Gabriel would bargain for the freedom of Virginia's slaves.
Rumors of the plan circulated around the countryside, but not enough to cause general alarm; in the end, it was nature that caused the rebellion to collapse. Torrential rains fell on the evening of Aug. 30, when the rebels planned to meet at Brook Bridge on Brook Road. The area flooded, and many other roads became muddy morasses.
That night, Pharaoh, a new recruit to the rebellion, told what he knew to Mosby Sheppard, owner of Meadow Farm. Word got to Monroe, who dismissed the warnings at first, but then called out municipal militias to prevent panic.
That's when the slave courts — and hangings — occurred throughout Central Virginia. Gallows were set up at 15th and Broad streets. Throughout Virginia that fall, 26 members of Gabriel's conspiracy were hanged. Another allegedly killed himself.
Gabriel himself eluded capture for two weeks. He'd gotten aboard the schooner Mary, bound for Norfolk and captained by Richardson Taylor, a former overseer turned Methodist and possible abolitionist. But a slave onboard recognized Gabriel and turned him in for a $300 bounty. Gabriel and Taylor were arrested. The slave was rewarded just $50.
Gabriel was tried on Oct. 6 and refused to make a statement in his defense. His execution was ordered for the next day, but he asked for postponement until Oct. 10, so that he could meet his fate alongside six of his fellows.
The court agreed, but instead the slaves were sent to three different locations, leaving Gabriel to die alone.
Eight days later, in Southampton County, a boy was born on the plantation of Benjamin Turner. He was named Nathaniel. And in 1831, he led his own bloody revolt.