The Winston County Conspiracy of 1859

In Herbert Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts, one revolt is described as follows:

A slave girl betrayed a conspiracy [...] in Winston County, Mississippi. Approximately thirty-five slaves were arrested and once again it was asserted that whites were involved. At least one slave was hanged as well as one white man, described as "an ambrotypist named G. Harrington."

While there were many such revolts being reported throughout south at the time, there being an ambrotypist involved caught my attention. The ambrotype is a photographic process similar to the daguerreotype. Because it was cheaper and faster to produce, it was a popular technique used by itinerant portrait photographers in the 1850s.

Aptheker's source on this alleged conspiracy was the Twenty-Eight Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The research desk of my local library was able to pull this up for me without too much trouble. It quoted from a letter published in the Mississippi Central Inquirer: "on the 20th, as a Mr Kelly was chastising his slave woman, she, to induce him to desist, offer to tell him an important secret. This was, of course, a plot for a negro insurrection." The letter went on to say that this enslaved woman named a G. Harrington, described as a traveling ambrotypist from the North, as the instigator of the rebellion. The Anti-Slavery Society report also quoted the letter as saying that (as usual) a Vigilante Committee had been established and: "knowing well that the law is too tardy in it course, even if it could be effectual in this process to meet the exigencies of the case the meeting unanimously committed to the Council the power of passing sentence on all persons, black or white, that may be impeached before it, of aiding or abetting in the insurrectionary plans or movements, heretofore or hereafter."

Wanting to find the full letter referred to by the Anti-Slavery Society report, I went in search of Mississippi Central Inquirer. Unfortunately I couldn't find any trace of that paper.

I also tried to find more information about the photographer G. Harrington. But here too, to no avail. There is a fair amount of research done about photographers working in the South at the time but none of them mention a G. Harrington. For example Margaret Denton Smith's Checklist of Photographers Working in New Orleans, 1840-1865 list a William H. Harrington as having a daguerrotype studio in New Orleans. But his studio continued to exist well past 1859, so it was certainly a different Harrington.

I contacted the Mississippi Department of Archives to see if they might be able to help. Unfortunately they could only do a court record search for me and since it was a vigilante committee which "investigated" the conspiracy, of course there were no court proceedings to be found. They did however find a C.D. Kelly named in the 1860 Census. Yet, interestingly, this supposed the owner of the enslaved girl that betrayed the conspiracy was not listed as a slave owner in the census' Slave Schedule.

An article by Davidson Burns McKibben, Negro Slave Insurrections in Mississippi, 1800-1865 makes a point that seems relevant here:

Many of the rebellions and reports of discontent published for the first time were later denied in subsequent issues. Only too often a rumor would be printed than an insurrection had taken place in some county, then the public was left to its own imagination as to whether the revolt succeeded, failed, or actually took place. There was seldom a follow-up on notices printed from other newspapers.

While the local papers were happy to publish sensational, unverified reports that catered to their public's fears and biases,  the Abolitionist press too,  says McKibben,

had no qualms about running these articles as they only furthered their argument against slavery.

It is a fact that hundreds of enslaved African descendent men and woman, as well as quite a few White people accused of being instigators or sympathizers, were lynched in the South in general during this period (and continued to be so well into the 20th century). Yet, as I set out to photograph in Winston County, not having found anything about the photographer G. Harrington, nor any direct reports about the conspiracy, I started to wonder if this particular event even happened. Or was it just "fake news"? And as I wrote this it occurred to me: isn't this exactly what people who call things "fake news" want: to confuse, distract from the larger issues?

All this echoed strangely in the ambiguities that I perceived all around me when I visited Winston County.

I found Louisville, the county seat, set on a hilltop amidst a rolling countryside of farms and forests. There is a monument at the crossroads, with a young (White) soldier-farmer at the top of the plinth. Erected in 1921, the main inscription honors the soldiers who fought in the First World War. Yet above that are engraved the 12 Confederate stars, at the base are inscriptions honoring several Confederate soldiers, and at the back is an inscription honoring the women who clothed and fed the Confederate armies. The inscription on one side pays tribute to the "sons who fought in the Confederate War," and on the other to the soldiers of the Spanish-American war.

Louisville has a hansom movie theater — the Strand. Prominently placed at the top of its brick facade is a large reversed swastika. The town's Wikipedia page affirms that since the theater predates the Nazi era, this swastika is "decorative rather than political."

I stayed at a faded lakeside resort just outside of Louisville.

It had a Native-American name. On the back of the restaurant's menu was the resort's story. There was no Native-American connection. Originally a plantation, decedents of the original owners built the resort in the 1950s and are still the owners. There is a vivid description of how during the Civil War the plantation was overrun by the Union Army, and of how the owner, together "with a group of black men" hid livestock in the forest. There is no mention of slavery.

One afternoon 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.

Next: The Second Creek Conspiracy of 1861

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