Cover image for Death of an overseer : reopening a murder investigation from the Plantation South
Death of an overseer : reopening a murder investigation from the Plantation South
Wayne, Mike.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oxford New York : Oxford University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
257 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1320 Lexile.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV6534.A33 W38 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In May of 1857, the body of Duncan Skinner was found in a strip of woods along the edge of the plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where he worked as an overseer. Although a coroner's jury initially ruled his death to be accidental, an investigation organized by planters from the communityconcluded that he had been murdered by three slaves acting under instructions from John McCallin, an Irish carpenter. Now, almost a century and a half later, Michael Wayne has reopened the case to ask whether the men involved in the investigation arrived at the right verdict. Part essay on the art of historical detection, part seminar on the history of slavery and the Old South, Death of an Overseer is, above all,a murder mystery--a murder mystery that allows readers to sift through the surviving evidence themselves and come to their own conclusions about who killed Duncan Skinner and why.

Author Notes

Michael Wayne teaches history at University College, the University of Toronto. His first book, The Reshaping of Plantation Society, won multiple prizes, including the Francis Butler Simkins Award of the Southern Historical Association.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

While researching plantation life in the Deep South for his doctoral dissertation a generation ago, Wayne uncovered a letter that told a remarkable story. In 1857, three slaves on a Mississippi plantation were charged, tried, and executed for the murder of Duncan Skinner, their overseer. The murder apparently occurred at the urging of a poor white carpenter who hoped to marry their owner, a widow, and promised the slaves an easier life after the overseer was dead. Wayne once viewed the story as a fascinating window into antebellum plantation life. Now, at the prompting of his students and years of subsequent research, he argues that the true story of the death of an overseer remains to be told. Overseer is not only a great mystery story, but also a lively, evocative history of slavery and plantation life that keenly illustrates his arguments. Above all, Overseer is a vivid reminder that the study of history is more than a staid recollection of the past, but a dynamic and timeless exploration of human nature. --Ted Leventhal

Publisher's Weekly Review

Elements of class privilege, social ambition, interracial sex and violent death lend the flavor of a mystery to this crime story-cum-history about the brutal murder of an overseer, set on a Mississippi plantation in 1857. The main characters include the apparent instigator of the murder, John McCallin, an Irish-born carpenter and cotton gin builder who hoped to marry the widowed owner of the plantation; Dorcas, a slave and house servant who was his mistress of 15 years; three slaves who confess to the murder; and assorted blacks and whites of diverse status. The crime story is the matter of the first chapter. Following that, Wayne slips into the role of historiographer, presenting the evidence in original documents and reviewing the protocols of slavery, inheritance law and politics at the time. Although Wayne continues to refer to the characters, the work assumes the tone of a repetitious, academic lecture that's sometimes overtly pedagogical, sometimes collegial, and is not likely to hold the interest of general readers. After an account of McCallin's later years married to a black field hand, the book ends curiously with a fictional document written by Wayne: a letter to his son in which McCallin confesses to having consorted with slaveholders and dreamed of owning slaves, though he sees himself as a victim of the treachery of others. (Feb.) Forecast: Although blurbs from James McPherson and Catherine Clinton (author of Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars) give this book a trade gloss, with its four appendixes of primary documents, an essay on sources and suggestions for further reading, it is essentially a book for the classroom and amateur historians. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Although certain to be touted as a crime thriller replete with sex and issues of race, class, and homicide, this work by Wayne, a fellow at University College, University of Toronto, is a polished study in historical inquiry. An ostensible aim of this exploration of the death of a plantation overseer in antebellum Natchez, MS, is to give readers a chance to weigh the documentary evidence presented to assess whether the correct verdict was reached. This historical investigation serves as a centerpiece for a broader disquisition on slavery, 19th-century democracy and justice, and white perception and depiction of African Americans. An extensive bibliographical essay details the author's steps taken to acquire information on the individuals involved in the case and the character of life in the Natchez district, and it surveys germane works on slavery and the " Old South." A web site ( invites readers to post new evidence or debate issues highlighted in the work. This site also provides biographical details and links to such related information as Mississippi slave narratives, scholarship on Southern farms and plantations, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Recommended for academic libraries. Kathleen M. Conley, Illinois State Univ., Normal (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In 1857 in Natchez, Mississippi, Duncan Skinner, overseer of a large cotton plantation, was found dead. Three slaves were tried for his murder, found guilty, and hanged. A local carpenter, John McCallin, was said to have instigated the murder because Skinner blocked his way to marrying the widowed proprietor. A further complication is that McCallin had long carried on a sexual liaison with a house slave. Wayne (Univ. of Toronto) in effect reopens investigation of the murder using all the relevant documents that have so far come to light, asking whether the three slaves were indeed guilty. The exercise is intended to illustrate how historians use and interpret documentary evidence, and how the blanks in the record require an understanding of social and historical context if reasonable surmises are to fill them. This fascinating book fulfills its objectives. Oddly, although the author argues that historical interpretation is a matter of common sense, the entire exercise demonstrates irrefutably that social, cultural, and historical sense--which are not at all common, but must be learned and cultivated--are needed instead. Index, appendixes, essay on sources, and discussion Web site. No bibliographical list or endnotes. All levels. R. Berleant-Schiller emerita, University of Connecticut

Table of Contents

On History as Common Sensep. 3
1 Investigation and Verdictp. 9
2 The Evidencep. 39
3 The Evidence Reconsideredp. 61
4 Slaveryp. 79
5 The Question of a Frame-Upp. 113
6 Black Images, White Mindsp. 135
7 Democracy and Justicep. 157
8 In Search of John McCallinp. 179
An Epitaph for Duncan Skinnerp. 193
Appendix I First Draft and Fragment of a Second Draft of the Letter from Alexander Farrar to Henry Drakep. 197
Appendix II Court Records from the Trial of Henderson, Reuben, and Andersonp. 207
Appendix III Additional Materials in the Newspapers Relating to the Trial and Execution of Henderson, Reuben, and Andersonp. 211
Appendix IV Additional Archival Materialp. 217
Essay on Sources and Suggestions for Further Readingp. 221
Acknowledgmentsp. 243
Note to Readersp. 247
Indexp. 249