Execution in Virginia, 1859: The Trials of Green and Copeland

BY Steven Lubet

This essay tells the story of Shields Green and John Copeland, two black men who joined John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Along with Brown and several others, Green and Copeland were taken prisoner in the aftermath of the failed insurrection, and they were brought to trial in nearby Charles Town on charges of murder and treason. Unlike Brown, who was treated respectfully by his captors, Green and Copeland were handled roughly. Copeland in particular was subjected to a harsh interrogation that was criticized even by pro-slavery Democrats in the North. The black prisoners did, however, have the benefit of a remarkable attorney—George Sennott of Boston. Unlike virtually all of the other lawyers at the Harpers Ferry trials, Sennott boldly condemned slavery and announced that he was honored to defend the black insurrectionists. Sennott also employed a creative legal strategy in which he raised the Dred Scott decision as a defense to the treason charge. If black men could not be citizens, he argued, they likewise could not be guilty of treason. The tactic was only partially successful. Green and Copeland were acquitted of treason but convicted nonetheless of murder. Even after pronouncing the death penalty, the Virginia authorities continued their racist treatment of the prisoners. Green and Copeland were executed separately from their white comrades—segregation on the gallows—and their corpses were turned over to medical students for dissection, despite the frantic efforts of Copeland’s family to retrieve his body for decent burial. Throughout his ordeal, and right up until the time he faced the noose, John Copeland held to his ideals. On the morning of his execution he wrote a moving letter to his parents in which he expressed devotion to the “holy cause” for which he would die, while condemning “the demands of the cruel and unjust monster Slavery.”



 

DOWNLOAD PDF | 91 N.C. L. Rev. 1785 (2013)