The Scaffold

September 17, 1870


After the murder Joel Gray at the hands of 5 black men, four of the men were found and given a public execution. The fifth member, and presumed leader of the group of murderers, has gone missing, but some think that he was caught and lynched the first night of the search.


There was a fearful tragedy enacted on the scaffold here to-day, witnessed only by a privileged few, though the assemblage could not have been less than two thousand of all races, sexes, colors, and conditions of people. The four negroes sentenced to be executed for the murder of Joel Gray, of this county, in December last, paid the terrible penalty of the crime with their lives. Among the people of both races the excitement was intense - the whites being gratified that the law was vindicated, and the blood of a valued and esteemed citizen avenged: while the negroes were infuriated, even to the pitch of meditating a rescue, that so many of their brethren should be thus summarily ushered into eternity for the murder of just one white man. CAUSE OF THE MURDER. Like a number of other crimes, this murder had its origin in political grievances on the part of one or two negroes, whose votes Mr. Joel Gray, as a challenger, had prevented being accepted at an election. Added to this Mr. Gray had been successful in detecting and bringing to justice several negroes who gained a subsistence by oyster-fishing in the daytime, and by chicken-stealing at night. For these " outrages" on their rights and liberties as free and independent citizens the negroes had sworn to be avenged on the man they regarded as their persecutor, and a most serious obstacle to the course they had marked out in "the pursuit of happiness." An opportunity at length presented itself on the evening of the 11th of December last at Channel's store, in the lower portion of this county, where the negroes usually congregated for the purpose of selling fish and oysters and making purchases. Unluckily for himself, Mr. Gray came there that evening, and had an altercation with one or two negroes, which, however, terminated without becoming serious. AN ATROCIOUS MURDER. About 9 o'clock, the night- being dimly lighted by a partially obscured moon, Gray left Channell's store and proceeded in the direction of Bunkley's store, some two miles distant. Not long afterwards, six negroes, named Guyannetta Meers, Alfred Bunkley, Peter Nuby, Moses Nuby, Henry Costem, and Jacob Wallace, followed. They were met by a party of negroes in the road, of whom they inquired how far Gray was ahead, and upon obtaining this information they started afresh in hot pursuit of their intended victim, whom they soon overtook. As if apprehending danger, Gray, when he heard them approach, commanded them to halt, which they refused to do, and Guyannetta Meers advanced and struck him a powerful blow on the head with a club, which felled him to the ground. Wounded and stunned as he was, Gray threw up his right hand, in which he held a long-bladed knife, in an attitude of defense, but the negro again struck him, and he became senseless.. He was then set upon and beaten by the gang until his head became a mass of broken bones and bruised flesh and blood. Before departing, the fiends robbed the body; and when they had gone some twenty yards off one of them proposed: "Let's go back, an' if he aint dead, let's cut his dam throat." To which another replied: "No danger ob dat. He's done gone dead long afore dis; shu!" On the following morning, which was the Sabbath, citizens going to divine service at Bern's church were appalled by the discovery of a horrible spectacle lying in the road, which proved to be the mangled and disfigured body of a man. The facial bones were all sticking out, bare, the flesh having been eaten off by hogs during the night; the frontal portion of the skull was completely crushed and broken, the brain being exposed and oozing from the large apertures; the hair of the head was matted with bruised blood and dust; the clothes on the body were tattered, torn, and filthy; and the hands, arms, and shoulders, bore marks of great violence, while around were evidences of a most desperate and sanguinary struggle. Papers were found in the pockets of the man, who had evidently been murdered, which at once identified him as Mr. Joel Gray, one of the best citizens of the county, and simultaneously with this there was a thrill of horror in the crowd, followed by an outburst of indignation and great excitement. At once there was an inquest, jury, witnesses, verdict, warrants, and a posse, and that very night all the murderers if Gray were arrested, save one, and that one was Guyannetta Meers, the leader of the gang. They were all arrested at their homes or in the houses of neighbors where they were visitors, and were taken and lodged in the county jail. If you ask here what became of Meers, the invariable reply is "escaped"; but few believe this, and the more knowing will tell you that " Meers was lost"; a very significant expression, which, properly defined, means that he was lynched the very night that the capture of the others was ejected. This is, however, a mystery that is destined to remain so until Meers makes his appearance in the flesh. At the trial in August last Alfred Bunkley, one of the prisoners, who, it is alleged, jumped over the fence and took no part in the murder, was used as state's evidence, and a nolle prosequi in his case was entered by the prosecution. Twenty-six witnesses besides him were examined, and the case was given to the jury after a brief argument. In a short time a verdict of "guilty of murder in the first degree" was returned against each of the prisoners, and on the day following they were sentenced "to be hanged by the neck until dead, on Friday the 16th September." Owing to fears of an attempted rescue by the negroes of the county and those of Elizabeth City, adjoining, the condemned men were removed to the jail of Norfolk city, where they remained until this morning when they were brought here in charge of a large posse. In anticipation, however, of a rescue to-day, the sheriff, a few days since, applied to the Governor for instructions, receiving in reply a letter informing him that "the law must be carried out at all hazards, if it took the military force of the entire county to do it." Until this morning the prisoners scarcely seemed to realize their horrible doom. The condemned men were taken from Norfolk this morning at 6 o'clock, and conveyed under charge of a portion of the sheriff''s posse on cars to Windsor, and thence by carts here. They became fearfully excited by the now scaffold which they saw while passing through the yard into jail. Their countenances became blanched, they shook violently, and the voices of two became husky. The scaffold was substantial, of ordinary construction, but built for four, as the eye-bolts in the cross-beam above indicated. In accordance with the instructions contained in the Governor's letter, the sheriff summoned a posse of 140 men, armed with shotguns, rifles, and pistols, in the event of an attempted rescue, which many anticipated from repeated threats of negroes throughout the county. While in the cell, Moses Nuby acknowledged that a man named J. D. Waill was also to have been killed about the same time Gray was. He also disclosed four large sticks, or clubs, which were used to murder Gray. At a quarter to 1 the prisoners were brought on the scaffold. They made brief addresses warning the crowd against bad company and the use of intoxicating liquors, which they alleged had brought them to the gallows. The executioner then placed the black caps over their heads and adjusted the nooses, when they broke into the wildest supplications for Heaven's mercy. The two auxiliary props were removed at 1 o'clock, and the main prop was knocked from beneath the drop with a terrible crash. Two of the criminals were precipitated to the earth by the breaking of the rope, while' the middle two remained suspended. Two strands of the rope around the neck of Moses Nuby also broke. A cry of horror arose from the crowd without, which made a rush for the door of the jail-yard, but they were forced back by the guard. The two middle criminals fell about three feet and a half - the necks of neither being broken. Within everything was confusion; without, intense excitement. The prayers of the two wretches who temporarily escaped death for mercy were mingled with the oaths and curses of the mob. The bodies of Costen and Moses Ruby remained hanging seventeen minutes, and during all this time the two other wretches were left standing beneath the scaffold, the witness of their own fearful doom that was soon to follow. Life being declared extinct, the executioner, whose name was Murphy, walked upon the platform of the scaffold and severed each of the ropes to which the bodies of the two men were attached, precipitating them in rapid succession, with a heavy thud, at the feet of the other two trembling wretches. This inhuman monster then jumped on the ground, and, seizing the ropes, still on their necks, dragged each of the dead bodies and threw them into the coffins prepared for them in a manner unworthy of a savage. He was a volunteer hangman, too; but he disgraced and degraded even that office. Again the drop was placed in position, and the remaining two criminals were marched up the steps of the scaffold and placed in the identical positions just occupied by their dead companions. At half-past 1 the drop fell again, the bodies struggling fearfully for nearly eight minutes; but life was declared extinct, when the hangman repeated the barbarity of a few moments before. It was a scene of horror never to be forgotten.
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Travis Terry




“The Scaffold,” Reconstructing Virginia, accessed February 1, 2023,