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"Dirge" from The Liberator


In March 1832, the Liberator reprinted a poem from the Albany Argus grieving the loss of the whites who had been killed in the rebellion. The focus of the poem is largely on the victims and the ways in which they met their deaths, including details of the Travis infant who was beheaded and the “unripened virgin” whom Nat Turner killed. The fact that such innocents were not spared is often the focus of such portrayals of Turner and his men as less than human. A single verse paints a picture of Turner as a barbarian.

A shriek was heard by night!
The startled eye but saw
The gleaming axe, and the ear just caught
The sable fiend’s hurra! 

Though his name is never mentioned, it is clear that the author is referring to Turner as the leader of the rebellion. The use of the word sable in describing Turner has double meaning. In addition to identifying him by the color of his skin, it equates him with an animal. The “fiend’s hurra!” further dehumanizes him, suggesting that this animal relishes in the bloody massacre.

Though this poem seems out of place in an abolitionist newspaper especially considering the praise for Turner in the Liberator of later years, the theme fits in with the editor’s antiviolence approach to abolitionism. In printing this poem, the editors can express sympathy for the victims of the massacre, condemning the actions of Turner while still supporting his desire to bring freedom to his fellow slaves.

Dirge,” Liberator. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.