Virginia’s 1879 Gallows Ball almost put an end to public executions
Hanging was the preferred method of execution in Virginia since 1622, when a man named Frank Daniell was executed for theft near Jamestown. And for 150 years afterward Virginia hangings were public, and sometimes attended by hundreds or even thousands of people. It was believed that public executions of mostly black men, carried out in the communities where the crimes occurred had virtue; that they were a beneficial influence and was a deterrent to crime.
It dawned on the Commonwealth’s white ruling classes, however, that those public and predominantly black executions were becoming more and more infused with an evangelical fervor until they more resembled carnivals or tent revivals than executions. Facing imminent death, the prisoner for the first time in his life held a commanding moment in a previously uneventful life. He was seen almost as a prophet; his words spoken at the gallows — sometimes for an hour or more — had an authority never carried before. People brought picnic lunches and sang and prayed aloud with the prisoner. Food stands and patent medicine sellers began popping up.
Frustrated by what public executions were becoming, the Virginia General Assembly on March 29, 1879 abruptly passed a law banning them immediately following a strange and very bizarre spectacle that occurred only four days earlier at New Kent Courthouse, just a few miles east of Richmond.
On March 25, two young black men, Julius Christian (age 21) and Patrick Smith (20) were hanged for robbery and murder and their executions in the courthouse yard were witnessed by about a thousand people, mostly blacks. It was reported that the field resembled a country fair. Booths were erected and an “educated pig” entertained, as did itinerant musicians who “enlivened the occasion.” One enterprising northerner even set up a sideshow of some kind.
After the hangings, the whites drifted away, but the blacks reportedly hung around the shallow graves of the recently deceased felons until dark, supposedly determined to have a celebration but not wanting to begin until midnight due to a local superstition.
Then, it was announced among the crowd that a “Grand Gallows Ball” would commence at midnight inside a nearby tobacco barn. As the clock struck 12:00 about 500 people gathered inside the barn, waiting the signal to begin.
An unnamed reporter who covered the hangings also attended the ball. “It was a weird scene,” he wrote in a dispatch to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “the building was lighted by pine torches held by negro boys stationed in the corners,” casting the barn in a mysterious, smoky haze. He also reported the odd ethnic mix of the attendees, including not just “young black men and maidens,” but also “a dozen beautiful quadroons (people ¼ black) from Richmond, and in the center of the building stood seven or eight Indians, belonging to the tribe from Indian Town nearby.” A band consisted of three banjo players and a fiddler set up in a corner.
At midnight, a “burly tobacco hand” named Isaiah Peterson (or Johnson), “the boss negro,” stood on a salt barrel and announced “The hour for rejoicing is at hand! Let the musicians take notice, and all others! Choose your partners!” The band then struck up a tune called “The Mississippi Sawyer” and everyone began dancing with wild abandon. “The Indians danced with quadroons, negro men danced with colored girls, and all went merry as a marriage-bell,” wrote the astonished reporter. “as the music went on, the musicians and dancers grew wilder and wilder, as though possessed by the devil.”
The festivities continued until 2:00 a.m., when Lucina Macon, a local woman considered a “Voudou Negress” made an appearance in the center of the ball-room, wearing a blue and white checkered dress. She waved her hand and the music stopped. Then, she took out small slivers of hemp rope from a red bag, sprinkled them with something from an old jug, and started a series of incantations “… in what the negroes say here is an African dialect.” She claimed in a loud voice that it was the rope cut from the Smith and Christian gallows, and that if the dancers purchased a piece of the rope for 50 cents, they would live 90 years and be safe from all evil, even those who may trick or poison them.
There was such a rush to purchase the rope pieces that a fight broke out, and those who could not get a piece “acted like fiends” and begged others for even a thread. The woman then announced that for those who did not get a piece of rope, that only a small piece of clothing of the recently deceased would “affect the charm” and save them.
A hundred people then reportedly rushed to the graves of Smith and Christian, only to rush back to the barn in horror, claiming the ghosts of the two men were seen up and walking around their burial sites. Lucina then announced that Smith and Christian had not died because she had given them the charm. Several women reportedly fainted at the news.
Later it was determined by the reporter that the dancers had in fact interrupted two resurrectionists (grave robbers), most likely Chris Baker and his partner, Ceaser Roane, who stole freshly-buried corpses for student dissection at the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU School of Medicine) in Richmond.
Most of the agitated crowd hurried home, but a few stayed until 5:00 a.m. when a doxology was sung and the Gallows Ball ended. Lucina announced at the end that all who had danced at the Gallows Ball would be able to dance for the rest of their lives, “even if they lived until ninety.”
When the General Assembly passed their bill prohibiting public executions, the April 2 Petersburg Progress-Index newspaper smugly reported “this shall put an end to all such gallows picnics and jollifications as was witnessed at New Kent Court-house.”
Maybe not. “The Gallows Ball in New Kent was such a success that the darkies are talking about getting one up in Chesterfield [April 25],” stated the April 3, 1879 Alexandria Gazette. “The passage of the bill by the Legislature prohibiting public executions, while [keeping] the crowds from watching the dying of the poor wretches, will not prevent the gallows ball — the new departure in colored circles.” The article added that Henry Lewis, “a comely looking negro youth,” would be hung because he was convicted of killing his grandmother with an axe when she refused to give him a piece of ginger cake. It was also announced that Lucina, the “old Virginia negro Voudou doctress” would also be in attendance.
Governor Claude Swanson, however, commuted Henry Lewis’s conviction to life in the penitentiary, so there was no Chesterfield Gallows Ball.
The law had little to no effect on limiting crowds at hangings. It wasn’t until 1908 when the General Assembly voted to switch from hanging to the electric chair in the basement of the State Penitentiary in Richmond that they effectively ended public executions for good.
Legislators and newspapers around the Commonwealth overwhelmingly approved of this new law, which moved executions from open-air hangings accompanied by long speeches and parties to an electric chair in a grim basement in front of a handful of somber white witnesses. The October 14, 1908 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch explained that:
The publicity, the excitement and the general hurrah-and-holiday air attending the old-time hanging were a positive allurement to the negro … The electric execution wholly does away with that … the whole affair is conducted with secrecy and mystery, well calculated to inspire terror in the heart of the superstitious African.
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