Thomas Ruffin Gray, an enterprising white Southampton County lawyer, assumed the task of recording Turner's confessions. Gray was born in 1800, the same year as Turner. Though their families worked the same Southampton County soil, their birthrights could not have been more different. Gray grew up in a wealthy family with deep roots in Southampton County and powerful connections in local, state, and federal politics. With the help of his father, Gray acquired extensive holdings in land and slaves. With little explanation, he then sold his farmland and most of his slaves, moved to the county seat of Jerusalem, and embarked on a career in law.
Gray met with Turner at the jail on November 1, introduced the "Confessions" as evidence at Turner's trial on November 5, and secured a copyright for his pamphlet on November 10, the day before Turner was hanged. In a prefatory note "To the Public," Gray spelled out his aims. Public curiosity was "at a stretch," he said, to understand the motives behind the rebellion. Gray hoped to replace "a thousand idle, exaggerated and mischievous reports" with a single, authoritative account of the event. To do so, he had to establish that the confession was voluntary, that the transcript was accurate, and that Turner was telling the truth. Gray attached a sworn statement signed by six members of the county court, certifying that the confessions were read to Turner in their presence, and that Turner "acknowledged the same to be full, free, and voluntary." Gray verified that he recorded the confessions of Turner "with little or no variation, from his own words." As for the sincerity and truthfulness of the prisoner, Gray said he cross-examined Turner and found his statement corroborated by the confessions of other prisoners and other circumstances.
Gray depicted Turner as an exceptional figure, distinguished from his followers by his honesty, his commanding intelligence, and his firm belief in the righteousness of his cause. "He makes no attempt (as all the other insurgents who were examined did,) to exculpate himself, but frankly acknowledges his full participation in all the guilt of the transaction." To those who thought Turner "ignorant," Gray responded: "He certainly never had the advantages of education, but he can read and write, (it was taught to him by his parents,) and for natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, is surpassed by few men I have seen."
Gray disputed any suggestion that Turner acted out of base motives, "that his object was to murder and rob for the purpose of obtaining money to make his escape. It is notorious, that he was never known to have a dollar in his life; to swear an oath; or drink a drop of spirits." Nor was Turner motivated by "revenge or sudden anger." Turner's confessions made clear that he viewed Joseph Travis as "a kind master" against whom he had no special grievance. Gray attributed the insurrection to religious enthusiasm and fanaticism of a mind "warped and perverted by the influence of early impressions." That Turner was every bit the madman he appeared to be, Gray had little doubt. "He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably."
Turner's narrative—presented, Gray insisted, "with little or no variation, from his own words"—gave an autobiographical history of the "late insurrection" and the motives behind it. A series of incidents, beginning in childhood, confirmed Turner in the belief that he was "intended for some great purpose" and that he would "surely be a prophet." His father and mother "strengthened him" in this belief, as did his grandmother, "who was very religious, his master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house."
Taught to read and write at an early age, Turner devoted himself to prayer and study and, over time, separated himself from society with his fellow slaves. One day while praying at his plough, the same Spirit "that spoke to the prophets in former days" spoke directly to him: "Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you." This he interpreted as a sign that from God that his "great purpose" would soon be revealed.
Not long afterward, in 1825, Turner had a second vision: "I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled, and the blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, 'Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it." The Spirit confronted Turner again in May 1828: I heard a loud noise in the heavens and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."
Turner was instructed to await the appearance of a sign in the heavens before communicating his "great work" to any others. An eclipse of the sun in February 1831 inspired Turner to confide in four fellow slaves: Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. "It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th July last," Turner noted. Yet, when Turner fell ill, the date passed without action. Finally, when the sign appeared again late in August, Turner decided they could "not to wait longer.
Gray, who claimed to have said little during Turner's narration, asked Turner at one point if he did not find himself "mistaken" now that the deeds to which he had been called by the Spirit had ended in calamity. Turner's reported answer: "Was not Christ crucified?"
The pamphlet created a powerful, enduring image of Turner narrating his own story as Gray looked on in horror: "The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiendlike face when excited by the enthusiasm, still bearing the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins."
It was in August of 1831 that Nat Turner led a rebellion of Virginia slaves that left dozens of people dead, including small children. One-hundred and eighty-five years ago this week, in the early hours of Aug. 22, Turner and a some of his fellow slaves entered Turner’s master’s home, having decided that Turner “must spill the first blood” to start the rebellion, as Turner would later recount. Turner was soon captured and the uprising was suppressed. But in the weeks immediately afterward, Americans everywhere clamored to know something that may now seem obvious: Why had he done it? Nearly two centuries later, the legacy of that question is still evolving.
In November of 1831, shortly before to his execution, Turner gave a jailhouse confession, to attorney Thomas Gray, to answer the question. The story began, Turner said, in his childhood, when he had an experience that seemed to his family an indication of the powers of prophesy. Growing up believing that he was destined for great things, he eventually reached a turning point, as he recalled:
That sense of purpose was why Turner once ran away but soon returned to the plantation and to bondage. That was why, he said, he waited for a sign—and, believing he had seen it, took action. That was why, shortly before his execution, he reflected, “I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.”
Gray’s judgment on all this? “He is a complete fanatic.”
But, even then, some saw his fanaticism in a different context. The next session of the Virginia Legislature was the scene of several speeches that used the rebellion as reason to call for abolition—including one by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the founding father’s grandson, and C.J. Faulkner who, in speaking of the differences between the North and the South, was particularly prescient: “You must adopt some plan of emancipation,” he declared, “or worse will follow.”
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During the mid-20th century, the Nat Turner story was revisited by many, in the course of the movement for the study of black history in schools, an attempt to remedy the fact that many mainstream textbooks glossed over or omitted major turning points in the history of the U.S. if the people involved were black. For example, as TIME explained in 1964, a teacher’s guide had to be distributed to schools to point out to educators and students that “contrary to folklore, slaves hated slavery so passionately that thousands joined bloody revolts. The biggest was led in 1831 by Nat Turner, a Virginia slave preacher, whose rebels killed 60 whites before he was captured and hanged.”
Then, in 1967, the novelist William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner turned Turner’s story into an award-winning bestseller, which he called a “meditation on history” rather than a historical novel. “This novel goes beyond a mere retelling of history to show how the fettered human spirit can splinter into murderous rage when it is goaded beyond endurance,” raved TIME’s critic.
Not everyone, however, loved the novel—which inspired a backlash that culminated in the 1968 publication of William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writer Respond, in which Styron was called out for minimizing the degree to which Turner was just one of many slaves who rightfully harbored rebellious desires, among other critiques. Some of the reaction to that book, at least as expressed by TIME, now reads as dated: the magazine’s review of the responses called the black writers “blinded by their own racism” against Styron, who was white.
The opportunities to assess and reassess Turner’s legacy, however, are far from over: The Sundance sensation Nat Turner film, The Birth of a Nation, arrives in theaters in October.