Two hundred years ago an admitted murderer was publicly executed in St. Albans. Luther Virginia was a free African American who lived part-time in Highgate, and part time with his family in nearby Quebec.
A history of St. Albans (1872) calls him “a youngerly colored man of intemperate and dishonest habits.” He had trouble with his employer, Heman Herrick, of Highgate Falls who ran a hostelry in that town. Virginia had been charged with stealing “money from the till of the bar” and for this crime served a term in the state prison at Windsor
Upon release Virginia took up residence in.Canada, not far from Highgate. One Sunday afternoon in November 1819, he arrived at Herrick’s inn, partially drunk. He asked for more liquor and, when refused, became belligerent. After a heated verbal exchange with Rufus Jackson, a bar patron, he was beaten, ejected from the tavern and, it was believed, started for home in Canada – eight miles distant.
As dusk was approaching, Jackson left the tavern and, crossing the bridge over the Missisquoi River, was set upon by Luther Virginia as he was ascending the hill toward his home. Virginia had pried a stave loose from a roadside fence and used it as a cudgel to knock Jackson from his horse. He then beat him to death with it. Dragging the lifeless body from the thoroughfare, Virginia attempted to conceal his crime. But when Jackson’s riderless horse was discovered back at the tavern, a search party was convened and eventually found the victim’s remains.
The search party then turned their attention to Luther Virginia and quickly apprehended him at his family home in Canada. He was immediately returned to Franklin County and lodged at the St. Albans jail. The Nov. 19, 1819, Burlington Sentinel reported the incident: “Murdered in Highgate on Sunday last, about sunset, Mr. Rufus Jackson, a young man of an amiable disposition, and unimpeachable character, and who had been entrusted as a clerk in the store of Samuel Keyes, Esq. for these five years past, by Luther Virginia, a colored man. The circumstances of this atrocious deed are, that this ruffian lay in ambush about half a mile from the store, and knocked the deceased from his horse and killed him with a sled stake.”
The newspaper account mentioned that Virginia had robbed Jackson’s corpse of his watch and, when Virginia was apprehended in Canada in bed with his wife, the watch was discovered under the mattress. This was considered proof of his culpability. “The horse, in the affray, broke his bits, and returned home which gave the alarm and raised a suspicion that the deceased was murdered by this monster in human shape.”
Virginia was found guilty in a special session of the Vermont Supreme Court held in St. Albans, and he was sentenced to hang on Jan. 14, 1820, “between the hours of ten in the forenoon and two o’clock, p.m.”
An account in the St. Albans Advertiser in 1877 noted, “In those days, if a man was found guilty of murder and was hanged at all, it was done right speedily.” A gallows was hastily erected by local carpenter Jonathan Brush “at the foot of Aldis Hill opposite the site where future Gov. J. Gregory Smith would build his stock barn. Smith had been born in 1818.
Randolph Roth’s 1997 survey of capital punishment in Vermont made this observation: “Few early Vermonters believed that felons could be rehabilitated. Criminals could be forced to obey the law only by surveillance, humiliation, pain, and the threat of more severe punishment.”
The arrangements for Luther Virginia’s hanging fell to the county sheriff, Shiveric Holmes, who was also the executioner. He arranged for a funeral service to precede the hanging. The service was performed at the Court House by St. Albans pastor Phineas Culver, and Luther Virginia was in attendance. Fifty years after the hanging, the St. Albans Messenger recalled “a great crowd of people saw the condemned man sit through the agony of this service.
A hastily organized band provided music to accompany Luther Virginia’s march to the gallows. Fifty years later Solomon Bradley of Fairfax recalled the event for a newspaper reporter. Bradley had been a fifer with the militia in the War of 1812 and was prevailed upon to play the funeral march in the procession from the jail to the scaffold. He recalled the day as intensely cold.
The local militia company was mustered to preserve order on this occasion as thousands of local citizens were on hand to witness the execution. The St. Albans Messenger recalled years later, “Numerous accounts describe a ‘vast concourse of people consisting of men, women, and children.’” Other estimates put the audience at 5,000. The population of St. Albans was, in 1820, just over 1,600.
One anonymous witness to the execution reported in the Woodstock Observer, “The prisoner chose to walk to the place of execution, which was near three fourths of a mile, and he performed the task with a firm step. He ascended the gallows with considerable strength, when a psalm was sung, and the throne of grace addressed in an appropriate and solemn manner.”
After the rope was fitted to the gallows, Virginia said, that he “hoped his fate would be an example to others; that he had progressed from small to the greatest of crimes; that he was ready to die.”
The trap was sprung just before 2:00 p.m. “The knot of the rope unfortunately slipped behind his neck and he struggled on the rope for several minutes.” This witness estimated the crowd at 7,000.
W.B. Story of Fairfax, through the years, was fascinated by this story and interviewed elders in Franklin County to prepare an account that was published in the St. Albans Messenger in 1913.
After Virginia was pronounced dead, Hiram Clark of the militia company helped remove the body and place it in a coffin. The remains were given to members of a small African-American enclave in nearby Fletcher, and the body was interred in a nearby woodlot. Because cadavers were in great demand for medical students, several large logs were pulled over the grave by an ox team to protect the burial from body-snatchers. The grave was never marked with a stone.
In 1891 Heman Herrick’s Tavern was razed and the timbers used to frame a barn in West Sheldon.
One lasting artifact from that time is a ballad composed by William Anderson in 1820. The verses were collected by his grandson George P. Anderson and later published in the Vermont Historical Society’s News and Notes (1981) by his son Philip D. Anderson in 1985. The poem has the title “Jackson’s Son” and begins,
Awake my friend and hear the cry,
There’s blood, there’s murder on the way,
And I the penalty here must pay
For murdering Jackson’s son.
Luther Virginia is my name
On Highgate Plains this deed was done
Now I must pay that debt with shame
I murdered Jackson’s son.
The lofty pines whose heads run high
The feathered songsters fluttering by
All seem to mourn and loudly cry:
“You’ve murdered Jackson’s son.”
The nineteen verses conveyed in the murderer’s voice portray the particulars of the crime and subsequent execution with details that may not be factual. This is certainly well within the tradition of literary treatments. For example, the author suggests that Virginia’s murder of Jackson was unintentional, that his intended victim was the innkeeper, Heman Herrick, an assertion never mentioned in the newspaper reports of the crime.
The final verse concludes with one of the few references to race in these accounts:
I am an African. It’s true.
My skin is black — my crime’s so too.
But oh this crime cost me my life
I die for Jackson’s son
The late Margaret MacArthur, Vermont’s preeminent folklorist/folksinger, wrote of the piece, “The form is traditional, a confession ballad or ‘goodnight’ or ‘come-all-ye’ execution ballad. ‘Awake my friend and hear the cry’ as far as I know is a unique way of saying ‘come all ye and listen.’ I know of no other ‘good night’ where the wrong person is murdered or where the birds and trees mourn. Quite often a moralistic verse appears at the end, missing in this case, warning others not to ‘do what I have done.’”
Surprisingly, the ballad omits the most surprising and unique element of the story: the condemned man forced to sit through his own funeral.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian from Barre.