Week 27: James Scott, A Free Man
At 9 o'clock in the morning on one of the first days of September in 1803, William C. Simmerton was traveling to Sweet Springs along the main road just north of Stoverstown (a.ka. Strasburg), when someone attempted to rob him. According to the Virginia Herald, he had been found in a pool of his own blood, having been clubbed on the head by a hickory stick, and shared his dying words, I've "been robbed by a negro or mulatto man," to two Germans passing by not long after the incident. Thereupon, W. C. Simmerton fainted and was pronounced dead. The only item missing: a large trunk, most likely containing clothes. A pocketbook, including "145 dollars, in bank notes, and 4 dollars and six cents," was still on his person. Upon investigation, Simmerton had declared bankruptcy roughly a year before and was in failing health, hence traveling to the springs for physical benefit.
The magistrate suspected two persons, based on his investigations: a "tall dark mulatto" enslaved on the Hoker plantation and described as someone ill-used in life: one who "stoops much in his walk, is blind of an eye, and was dressed in coarse linen cloaths - carried a budget, and a large club." This unnamed man was on his way to Rockingham County on an undisclosed purpose. A posse was in his pursuit, but he apparently had left the main road.
The second suspect? A free mulatto man known as James Scott, who had lived in Middletown for some time. The magistrate apprehended him on charges of suspicion and put him in jail; however, there was doubt to his guilt, according to S. Kercheval, who reported the incident.
A jury gathered on September 4, 1803 and "pronounced it a most atrocious willful and malicious murder, perpetrated by the hand of a mulatto man, by the information of the deceased, but by what particular person was not known to the jurors." The only person that had seen this man was dead.
All of the above quotes are from page 3 of Vol 16, No 1260 of the Virginia Herald. The Shenandoah County Minute Book, 1800-1803, shares the following information: "At a court called and held at the court house of Shenandoah County, on Monday the 12th day of September 1803 for the examination of James Scott a free mullatto charged with the murder of William C. Simmerton" (p354). Scott, referred to as a prisoner, was brought to the bar and pleaded not guilty.
There were approximately 16 men present at this examination, eight of which were sworn in on behalf of the commonwealth. Their examination was enough to convince the rest of James Scott's guilt, even though the only person that saw what happened was Simmerton, himself, and he was dead. Scott was ordered to remain in Jail until he could be transferred to the District Jail in Winchester. In addition the eight testifying men were recognized and paid $200 each, "conditioned for their personal appearance before the judges of the next District Court" (p. 354).
When the District Court convened, a few weeks later, their records state: "James Scott a free mullatto man and was a slave late of the County of Shenandoah Parish of Beckford labourer who was convicted of murder in the first degree" (Superior Court Order Book, District Court, 1807-1809, Reel 97, p. 198). When pressed for a response from Scott, he shared the same things he had already said. The court pronounced "that he be hanged by the neck until he be dead... on Friday the eleventh of November such between the hours of ten o'clock in the forenoon and in the afternoon of the same day at the usual place of execution and thereupon he is again remained to Jail" (p. 198).
James Scott, based on these records, was guilty of only being a now freed slave, formerly of Shenandoah County. First degree murder is defined as "premeditation and deliberation;" however, the newspaper article would suppose it was an attempted robbery, with the accident of death resulting. That's not first degree murder. In addition, would James Scott have really shared his plans for murder to eight people that could then convict him of it? What was the real reason behind this unfair trial? Why were eight "white" men paid by Shenandoah County's government to convict an African American man of first degree murder? What happened to the other unnamed African American, enslaved on the Hoker plantation? These are questions we have to ponder. The records are piecemeal and share no conclusive reason why James Scott was convicted of first degree murder and hanged.
This situation, as we will see in other trials from Shenandoah County, is not justice. This was a wrongful conviction that demonstrates not only the abuse of the justice system, but also why knowing this history is so important when we define community identity and what we claim as our legacy.
Leave a Reply.
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over seven years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.