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Local History Notes

Local History Notes

Apr 06

[ARCHIVED] Was Woman Burned at the Stake in Iredell

The original item was published from February 27, 2020 9:34 AM to April 15, 2020 8:41 AM

Award winning author and historian Randell Jones will present a special program on “Famous and Infamous Women of North Carolina” at the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville on Thursday, February 27, at 7 p.m. Randell Jones is a wonderful speaker and storyteller and is a member of the Road Scholars Speakers Bureau of the North Carolina Humanities Council. This project is made possible by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Randall Jones received his MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1985 and is the author of several books about America’s first frontier. In 2011, Mr. Jones, received the Willie Parker Peace History Book Award from the North Carolina Society of Historians for his book, Before they were Heroes at King’s Mountain. His other works include, In the Footsteps of Daniel Boone, In the Footsteps of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone Wagon Train: A Journey Through the Sixties, and Trailing Daniel Boone.

Mr. Jones is a past-president of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association and in 2014, received the national History Award Medal from the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution. He is co-editor of Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the Old North State. Thursday’s program is free and will serve as a kickoff to March as Women’s History Month at the library.

So, who is the most infamous woman in Iredell County’s history? In “The North Carolina Booklet,” published in October 1911, North Carolina Chief Justice Walter Clark, writes in his article, “A Forgotten Law”, that “Blackstone tells us (4 Com., 75 and 203) that for a servant to kill his master, a woman her husband, or an ecclesiastical person his superior was petit treason, and that this offence was punished more severely than murder, a man being drawn as well as hanged, and a woman being drawn and burnt. It is said that the records of Iredell County show that this barbarous punishment was inflicted upon a woman in that county for the murder of her husband.”

This incident is repeated in the History of North Carolina, Volume II, The Federal Period 1783-1860, by William K. Boyd, PH.D. Professor of History, Trinity College. Published in 1919 Boyd’s work on page 259 says, “The right of the husband over the person of his wife to the extent of imprisonment or other correction was not restricted at the common law. Indeed, the penalty of death at the stake for slaying her husband who was exercising his right of correction was imposed on a woman of Iredell County in 1787. Six years later, in 1793, the penalty was abolished by statute.

Robert Digges Wimberly Connor was born in Wilson, N.C. and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He was an American historian and the first Archivist of the United States overseeing the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Connor publishes, North Carolina: Rebuilding an Ancient Commonwealth 1584-1925, Vol. 2, in 1929 and states that, “Sex made no difference in the punishments for crime, which were usually enforced against women as brutally and inexorably as against men. The “penalty of death at the stake for slaying her husband who was exercising his right of correction was imposed on a woman in Iredell County in 1787.”

I am not sure about being the most infamous, but this poor woman certainly sounds like the most unfortunate woman in Iredell County’s history. A woman being drawn and burnt at the stake for apparent self-defense also leaves a stain on Iredell County’s historical record. It is in those historical records or the lack thereof that we encounter a lively discussion in the pages of The Landmark in 1913.

On May 8, 1913, North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Clark spoke before the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs in New Bern. In his speech Clark reminded the ladies (some of whom were members of the Statesville Woman’s Club) that up through the end of the 1700s’ “The husband had the right to imprison his wife, and if in her terror she was driven to take his life, she was guilty of petty treason, as was a slave who took the life of his master, and the penalty as to both was to be burned alive at the stake.  This last law was not repealed in N.C. till 1793, and even after the Revolution, in Iredell County a widow was thus “drawn and burned at the stake” for the murder of her husband.”

The Landmark reported on Judge Clark’s address before the N.C. Federation of Women’s Clubs in a column on June 10, 1913, noting that Clark stated, “it is a matter of record that in Iredell County a woman was sentenced to be quartered and burned for the murder of her husband. The date at which Judge Clark fixed this event has not been learned and the records of Iredell do not show it.” The article goes on to correctly note that, “If this sentence was passed before Iredell was formed in 1788, the records of Rowan County, of which this territory was then a part, should show it.” The Landmark then requests that Clark site the records he bases his statement upon.  

Judge Clark replies in a letter to The Landmark published on June 17, 1913, on page 3, stating that “I have not examined your records in person but I will give you my authority. Several years ago, when Judge Furches was associated with me on the Supreme Court, I published an article entitled “A Forgotten Law,” in which I called attention to the fact that at common law it was petty treason for a servant to kill his master, or a woman her husband and that in such case the man was drawn and hanged and the woman drawn and burned.”

Clark goes on to admit that, “In that article I stated on authority of Judge Furches” his account of the woman in Iredell County. Judge David Moffatt Furches was born in Davie County on April 2, 1832 and died in Statesville on June 7, 1908. He was a politician and jurist who served as an associate justice on the N.C. State Supreme Court from 1895-1901 and as Chief Justice from 1901-1903. Judge Furches had told Clark of the incident without offering any evidence of its truth.

Judge Clark points out that records do show this punishment being given to a male slave on Oct. 21, 1773 in Granville County and again to another slave on March 5, 1778 in Brunswick. In both cases the accused was convicted of murder.  The Landmark notes that, “Judge Clark cites Judge Furches as saying, “It is said that the records of Iredell show,” but even Judge Furches is speaking from second hand information having not seen the records himself.

The Landmark concedes that while Iredell County would have been under the same law and that such punishment did occur in other counties the paper “will lodge a motion to have Iredell stricken from the list of counties in which such punishments were inflicted” since there are no Iredell County nor Rowan County records to support such a claim. Historians Boyd in 1919 and Connor in 1929 are basing their information on Walter Clark who is basing his on what he was told by Judge Furches who again got his information second hand.

Does that close the case and acquit Iredell County of the charge? Not exactly, a fire in December of 1854 burned the Iredell County Court House and some records may have been lost. W.F. Stevenson of Statesville in a letter to the editor published on June 24, 1913, points out that under the slave laws of that time slaves were tried in a magistrate’s court and that recording of such cases may not have been made. In closing I would point out that Iredell County historians have searched for a record of this case for decades without success nor does it appear in newspapers or other published writings until Judge Clark’s 1911 article.

By Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as, “Get a Closer Look at Famous, Infamous N.C. Women” on February 27, 2020.