The Winston County Conspiracy of 1859

What caught my attention about this revolt is that there was an ambrotypist involved. The ambrotype was a photographic process, similar to the daguerreotype, that was widely used by itinerant portrait photographers in the 1850s.

The Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society cites a letter published in the Mississippi Central Inquirer, telling of how a Mr C.D. Kelly, "chastising his slave woman," got her to reveal a plot for insurrection. She named a White man, G. Harrington, identified as a traveling ambrotypist, as the instigator. Harrington was hanged, as was at least one unnamed slave. Reading this I wondered: was there really a plot? Was Harrington really implicated, was he an Abolitionist, or was he perhaps simply someone who had expressed views against slavery?

I tried to learn more but haven't found any trace of a Mississippi Central Inquirer, nor have I found anything about Harrington.

I contacted the Mississippi Department of Archives to see if they might be able to help. They told me that since it was a vigilante committee which "investigated" this conspiracy, there would be no archived court proceedings. They did however find a C.D. Kelly named in the 1860 Census. Yet, interestingly, this supposed owner of the enslaved woman was not listed as a slave owner in the census's Slave Schedule.

In Negro Slave Insurrections in Mississippi, 1800-1865 Davidson Burns makes the point that local papers often printed sensational rumors of insurrection, leaving it to the public's imagination as to whether the revolt succeeded, failed, or even took place. The Abolitionist press was only too happy to carry those stories as they reinforced their augmentation against slavery.

I started to wonder not only if there was really a conspiracy, but also if the hangings really happened. Or was it all just disinformation? As I write this it occurs to me: isn't this exactly what disinformation is all about: to confuse, distract from the larger issues?

All this echoed strangely in the misinformation that I seemed to see all around me when I visited Louisville, the county seat. There was its typical soldier-farmer monument that pretended not to be a confederate monument, and a movie theater adorned with a prominent reverse swastika, and then there was the old plantation which had been given a Native-American sounding name back when it was converted into a resort. A description on the back of the menu tells of how the plantation was overrun by the Union Army during the Civil War, and of how the owner, together "with a group of black men," hid livestock in the forest. No mention of slaves.

Leaving Louisville I drove by a large factory just outside town. The motto Faith Vision Work is inscribed in an arch over the gate. I couldn't help but be reminded of the motto inscribed over the gate at Auschwitz—Work Sets You Free.

Truth Church. Louisville, Mississippi. 2021

Louisville, Mississippi. 2021.

Louisville, Mississippi. 2021.

Louisville, Winston County, Mississippi. 2021 / The Winston County Conspiracy of 1860