Saturday, October 20, 2018

Historical accounts report a slave named Manuel burned to death for witchcraft in Illinois in 1779; Is it true?

As reported throughout history: In the Northwest territorial government’s first execution, a slave named Manuel is burned to death for witchcraft. Manuel is the first and only alleged witch executed in Illinois, and the only man put to death by fire on June 15, 1779.
In fact, it is often alleged that nobody has ever been burned at the stake for being a witch in the United States. But that’s demonstrably not true. At least one man was — and it happened in Kaskaskia, Illinois.

Col. John Todd (Mary Todd Lincoln, President Lincoln's wife, was the great-niece of Col. John Todd.) was the first civil governor of what was then the Northwest territory. According to his record book, a black slave named Manuel, “who made a dishonorable sign at the door of the church,” was arrested for practicing Voodooism. He was sentenced June 13, 1779, by Todd to be chained to a post and burned alive with his ashes scattered. Two days later, Sheriff Richard Winston carried out the ghastly execution.

The true story: Around 1878 Edward G. Mason, the secretary of the Chicago Historical Society at that time, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd, in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the Northwest territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a 'warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation

Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he began to search for an explanation and discovered that about that time in history there was an outbreak of Voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason's find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sanctions of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. 

Fortunately the full record of the court's proceedings by which Manuel was condemned were also located. The judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death.

Naturally, it might be supposed as Roosevelt did, that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd, per the law of the land at that time period. The Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. 

It certainly was a surprise that another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in that day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck.

To summarize: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck.

This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events without enough research and information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


Question: How many witches were burned during the infamous trials in Salem, Massachusetts?

Answer: None. Nineteen were hanged, and one, Giles Corey, had heavy stones piled on him to try to force a plea. After two days, he died — a week after his 81st birthday. 

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