Authentic and Impartial Narrative
In this first pamphlet to come off the press describing the massacre before Nat Turner was even captured, conjecture abounds. Samuel Warner describes Turner’s religiosity as a ruse: “To enable him to effect his nefarious designs, [Turner] assumed the character of a Preacher.” In reality, Warner explains, Turner used religion “to persuade and prepare” his minions “in the most sly and artful manner to become the instruments of their slaughter!” Turner and his band of “blood thirsty monsters” subjected their victims to “wanton barbarity” that Warner describes in considerable detail. The wood engraving in the front matter depicts this “tragical scene” and is obliquely referred to in the body of the text: “Their mangled remains presented a spectacle of horror the like of which we hope our countrymen will never again be called upon to witness; a spectacle from which the mind must shrink with horror, when it contemplates whole families murdered, without regard to age or sex, and weltering in their gore.” The idea that all whites—no matter “age or sex”—were considered possible victims is captured in the far left of the top pane of the “Horrid Massacre” print, in which a black man wields a machete over a white woman holding an infant.
Though Warner acknowledges that “various are the conjectures as regards the real motives of the Blacks in this sudden and unlooked for revolt,” he presents many “facts.” Many of these “facts” run counter to both Gray’s Confession and synoptic accounts. Warner assumes that Turner was inspired by the 1791 rebellion in St. Domingo; that the group had “secret[ed] arms”; that Turner had a post-rebellion plan in place; that Turner alone insisted on the “total extermination of the whites, without regard to age or sex.” The Impartial and Authentic Narrative includes lists of the dead; the names of the enslaved people, their owners, and the times of execution; and excerpts from newspapers; and it closes with an account of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 to conclude that the same level of “bloodshed and murder” would have been realized in Southampton had Turner been successful. The pamphlet ends on a surprisingly conciliatory note—“We cannot hold those entirely blameless, who first brought them from their native plains….”—as it celebrates that the “New-England States (as well as that of New-York, New-Jersey and Pennsylvania) is no longer tarnished with this foul stain” of slavery.
As scholars such as Alex Mazzaferro have recently pointed out, the block from Authentic and Impartial Narrative was reused in a pamphlet published five years later describing the Seminoles’ rebellion against forced removal and killings, with no written reference to Turner or the Southampton Massacre. This wood engraving, it would seem, stands in for generic interracial violence, but this second Authentic Narrative relates a different story. Forced to flee her home under imminent attack, Mary Godfrey hides her four children in a nearby swamp for four days. Near starvation ensues, and the cries of Godfrey’s infant lead a black man who had joined the Indian rebels to Godfrey’s hideout. As depicted in the relief print, “the negro, grinning a ghastly smile, as if elated with the discovery, approached them with an unlifted axe, apparently intent on their immediate destruction!” Godfrey pleads her case, and the “relenting African” not only spares her life, but leads her to safety at a nearby plantation. In this way, the reuse of the print sends the opposite message of the “Horrid Massacre,” though as Mazzaferro has recently argued, the “generic style and technological reproducibility of the ‘Horrid Massacre’ wood cut---militated against efforts to present the revolt as unprecedented, exceptional, and unlikely to recur.”
Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County (Virginia) on Monday the 22d of August Last. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.
An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.