What I Found in Her Bible
Bibles are always a source for inspirational information and almost every household has a family Bible. This is where not only scripture could be found but the Bible also was where our ancestors would record births, deaths and marriages. If we are lucky enough some of us still have those old Bibles with our genealogy in them. It seems that the most logical place for someone to keep something important or something that is relevant to the family was put in the Bible for safe keeping.
A newspaper clipping, a handwritten note and a recipe for mouthwash was found in one of my ancestor’s Bible and after reading these papers I started wondering why it was in the Jackson Family Bible. I read the newspaper clipping to see if any of my known relatives was in it. There was no mention of anyone with the surname White, Jackson, Davis or Sawyer. Knowing it was from a Jackson Bible and seeing the note by the clipping that was a recipe for making mouth water involving tree root, grape vine root, sage, and other stuff mixed with honey and signed M.L Jackson I knew that was my first clue. Looking back in my family tree the M.L. Jackson was for Mary Louisa (Morgan) Jackson wife of William Servidis Jackson who was the brother of my great grandfather, William Lemuel Jackson, Sr.
Being inquisitive as I am known to be, I decided to do a little research on this story to figure out first WHY the clipping was in a Jackson family Bible and second what was the story all about. No court records were available in Pasquotank Co for this case so I gathered most of my facts from the internet and from Newspapers.com. Many newspapers picked up the story and reported on every aspect of the case. Piecing all these articles together here is what I know.
Florence Swain, the white girl in the article, is listed as 6 years old in the 1880 Pasquotank Co Census living in the Salem Providence Township with her parents and siblings. Her father was John Swain and mother Cathern Swain with siblings, John, Ellen and Jesse. Matthew Banks, the black boy in the article is listed as 7 years old in the 1880 Pasquotank Co Census living also in the Salem Providence Township with his parents and siblings. His father was John Banks and mother Jane Banks with siblings, Samuel, Louis, Cathern, Mary and Maynard. The alleged assault took place in 1889 making Florence 15 years old and Matthew about 16 years old at the time of the attack.
The crime for which Matthew Banks was hanged was committed on the first Sunday in July 1889 on a country road in Pasquotank County. Banks was arrested and place in jail. The trial was scheduled to be heard in Superior Court in September 1889. The local newspaper, “The Falcon” reported on 20 September 1889 the following article.
State vs. Banks
The all important case at the present Term of the Superior Court has been the case of State vs. Matthew Banks, colored charged with rape of Florence Swain, a white girl of 13 years of age.
The arraignment took place on Monday at which time the court ordered the sheriff to summon 75 special jurors. As the prisoner in obedience to the direction of the Solicitor, stood up in the bar and listened to the reading of the indictment, every eye in the crowded room was instinctively turned upon him. He is a small black negro, with small sunken eyes, thick lips and exhibiting in his general appearance the type of a ‘thorough-bred’ criminal. He did not even to realize fully the gravity of the offence. On Wednesday the case was called for trial. By 1 o’clock the following had been tendered and accepted by the prisoner as the jury into whose hands was placed the life of Banks.
N.R. Zimmerman, C.A. Banks, Reuben Morres, Enoch Cartwright, Walter Scott, W.S. Jackson, G. W. Hasket, Lemuel Wilson, P.H. Ives, Malachi Twitty, C.D. Ives, J.W. Walker.
Florence Swain was the first witness for the state. She is small and delicate in appearance. She testified with candor, and did not seem to be in the least desirous of keeping back one fact in the whole evidence. She answered the questions of the defendant’s counsel in the same frank and open manner in which she replied to the questions of the Solicitor, and impressed every one present with the truth of her statement. Her testimony on cross-examination was not shaken in the smallest particular. She testified: That on Sunday in July last she went to Sunday School in the morning, a distance of more than 2 miles from her home. After Sunday School, she proceeded to her aunt’s at which place she took dinner. After dinner, between 3 and 4 o’clock, accompanied by her aunt, her aunt’s husband, and one or two of her cousins, she started home. At a certain point known as the ‘new road’ her relatives cousins, she started home. At a certain point known as the ‘new road’ her relatives turned back, and left her to proceed homeward alone. The defendant, Matthew Banks, had been walking in the same direction with Florence and her relatives and almost immediately after they left, he overtook the witness at a point on the new road bordered on each side by woods. As he came up he seized her by the shoulders and made an insulting proposition, which was indignantly declined. He then pushed her across the road, into the edge of the woods, where he accomplished his purpose. She screamed ‘murder’ whereupon Banks struck her in the mouth, and filled it with dirt and leaves. After the accomplishment of the deed the boy arose and ran, and at a short distance looked back and said that if she informed any one of what he had done, he would kill her. She had never seen the boy before that day, and was then more than a mile from home. She arose, holding her torn clothes proceeded back to her Aunt’s and informed her of the attack made upon her by Banks. Her aunt supplied her with pins with which she pinned her garments, and then her aunt and her husband carried witness to her mother’s home. After her aunt left she informed her mother more fully of the occurrence than she had her other relatives and submitted to as examination by her mother.
The aunt was placed on the stand, who corroborated the statements of Florence and related further, upon the girl appearing at her gate, and calling her out she (the aunt) observed that Florence was extremely nervous and crying and before the girl said anything, asked what was the matter. She saw the torn under garments, and spots of blood. The mother testified to the statement that the girl had been outraged from her appearance on examination. The girl was not examined by any physician.
The defense put the accused on the stand. He testified that he had met the girl on the afternoon referred to, and on passing her spoke politely, and she replied, don’t speak to me you black son of a b------, whereupon he knocked her over. This was all that happened. He said he was 14 years old last fall. He denied making any statements of admission to any one in reference to the matter.
Witnesses were then introduced to prove the good character of the accused.
The State then placed Mr. Gray upon the stand, who swore that he was one of the party who arrested the defendant. That at the time of the arrest, the father of the boy, in the boy’s presence, said the boy had been home all day long on the Sunday in question. On the way to the magistrate the boy was asked why he had committed the assault upon the girl, he said that she had cursed him and he knocked her over and that she hurt her person in the fall. This was before day on the morning following the assault. That at the time none of them knew of any injury to the girl, and the boy had not been informed of any injury the girl had received. Another witness testified to meeting the boy about 4 o’clock on that particular Sunday near the place described by Florence, that he had the appearance of being exceedingly warm, so much so witness asked the defendant what was the matter, the boy replied he had been running.
The defense was represented by Mess Grandy and Ayylett, and was ably conducted.
The case was given to the jury at 12 o’clock and in 15 minutes they returned with a verdict of ‘guilty’ Sentence was pronounced this morning.
Judge George H. Brown, Jr. sentenced Matthew Banks to be hung on Friday, Oct 25th, 1889. The Falcon newspaper reported on Friday, Sept 27th, 1889 “The hanging is on the last day of the Elizabeth City Fair, but it need not prevent your coming to the Fair on Friday, Oct 25th”. Another paper mentioned that the execution was advertised as one of the great sights of the County Fair. It was later reported that His Honor didn’t know that the two great events collided until Tom Skinner called the fact to his attention stating “Come to the Fair. The hanging won’t interfere with the grand exhibition of the Elizabeth City Fair of October 23rd, 24th and 25th”.
On the 1st of October the newly elected Governor Daniel Gould Fowle granted a respite until Friday, November the 29th. A few days later an application for commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment was made. In this petition it was alleged that Banks was a very young with a great lack of intelligence and utter ignorance of the consequences of this act. The petition was carried around by a negro who felt great sympathy for Banks and thus a great many signatures were obtained by the best citizens of the place, irrespective of party. Among it were those of Florence Swain and her mother. None of the jurors which had consisted of ten white men and two black men signed the petition. The physicians are of the opinion that the boy was of unsound mind.
“The North Carolinian” newspaper reported 16 October 1899 the following:
“There is a feeling in this community and it is largely increasing that the sentence of the colored boy Banks should be commuted to imprisonment for life. Prominent physicians give it as their opinion that he is not of sound mind, and now that the excitement has subsided, there are grave doubts, whether in the full sense, he is guilty of the crime charged”.
The governor gave the case careful and considerate attention. Solicitor John H. Blount declined to recommend commutation and on or about the 20th of November Judge Brown telegraphed the governor “I regret I cannot recommend executive clemency in Banks’ case.’ The governor then declined to interfere further with the course of the law also having given due attention to a certificate of two physicians who had examined Banks, and who had stated that he was quite youthful in appearance and in their judgment and not over sixteen years of age far below the average of his race in intelligence.
The county commissioners ordered on Monday November 25th that the execution would take place. Earlier reports were that the hanging would take place in the Thomas Pritchard field and the execution would be private. Later it was decided that the hanging would take place inside the county jail.
Matthew Banks spent Thanksgiving Day his last day on earth in the jail where the gallows were being constructed. He ate nothing during the day and completely broke down, since the work on the gallows almost in his immediate presence was commenced.
In the presence of about two hundred spectators with only two of them reported to be black, the hanging was scheduled for 11 o’clock. Sheriff T. P. Wilcox had Company E First Regiment form a military guard at the jail. Sheriff Wilcox had taken precaution to make sure everything took place in an orderly matter. Captain Wood marched the Pasquotank Rifles in front of the jail, where he detailed guards at each corner of the square, to keep the public from encroaching upon the restricted areas. Their services were really not needed, as there was not the least sign of any disturbances.
Around 10 o’clock on the morning of Friday 29th of November 1889, Sheriff Wilcox read the death warrant to Matthew Banks. Rev. Williams, rector of Christ Church, who had been with him during the morning, then read the prayer of the Episcopal Church which the condemned boy slowly repeated after him.
“The Falcon” reported 6 December 1889 the following account:
“Sheriff Wilcox assisted by his deputy, Capt. John Balance and accompanied by B.F. Bray, George Waters, Jerry Waters, Fred Zeigler, Dr. O. F. Baxter, Cordell Gard, Bat Easton, Emerson Davis, Charlie Eaves, R.C. Lowry, W.P. McPharland, J.S. Wilcox, Amariah West, M.S. Simpson, Horton Charles, Solomon Mathews, Barney Murden proceeded to prepare the boy for execution upon a gallows that had been constructed in the old jail the drop having been arranged to fall through the floor. The drop was from four to five feet, the rope was placed around the criminals neck, and the draw rope that slides through the noose was passed under the chin and the noose came right back of the left ear, which was drawn quite tight. The boy when asked by the sheriff if it was too tight replied that he could draw it a ‘little tighter.” The sheriff read the death warrant to him, pinioned his arms and placed him on the platform of the gallows. Prayers were once more read to him by Mr. Williams who shook hands with him and bade him good bye. The black cap was then placed over his head, his feet were tied, and at a given signal from Sheriff Wilcox the drop was sprung and the boy died without a struggle not a muscle was contracted, the rope did not even twist. The body hung some twenty minutes during which time the heart continued to beat, when the doctors pronounced him dead. A few outsiders rushed into the jail to look at the body. It was taken down, placed in a coffin and removed to the Pear tree burying ground. By twelve o’clock there was nothing left to show any signs of the awful tradegy except the old jail and the gloomy gallows inside its walls. The whole morning’s work was done in the coolest and most deliberate manner, the sheriff was not one whit excited, the boy did not lose control of himself and the only feeling manifested was while Mr. Williams was talking to him. There was not half a dozen negroes in sight until after the execution and the crowd of whites did not assemble to any extent until the affair was over. Within an hour afterwards the streets had resumed their usual appearance and every one was about his usual avocation. The feeling against those of the Commissioners who ordered the execution to take place in the jail on the court house square in the heart of the town, in close proximity to half a dozen families, some of whom could not get away from home on account of sickness, is not of a grateful character. There are persons who are uncharitable enough to say that the feelings of a delicate and refined community were outraged by these Commissioners to further the political ends of the sheriff who did not wish to be brought too conspicuously before the negroes in such an unsavory position. That is denied however by the Commissioners who refused all overtures made them to have the execution in the country and they declared as a matter of law that they only had the right to pass upon the question of public or private execution, having decided that it must be private, it necessarily took place in the jail. Their position on that point did not prevent them however from taking a vote and ordering it to be done in the jail, Mr. Bradford of this township voting with the two country members, Mr. Robinson protesting against the action, Mr. Godfrey acting as legal advisor for the board.”
What started out as a newspaper clipping in a Bible of one of my ancestors has led me to this tragic story of Matthew Banks. His story has now been told and I now know why it was in the Jackson Bible. Obviously my great grand uncle Williams Servidis Jackson was one of the jurors. I am not proud of that fact at all and feel sorrow for all those that played a part in this tragedy. The last newspaper heading after the hanging says it all
A HANGING IN THE OLD COUNTY JAIL
A Scientific Job--Died Without a Struggle
--Mathew Banks has Filled a Page in History.
(Everything in bold print was written as a direct quote from the newspapers that reported on this sad story. The spellings, punctuation and names are as reported.)