While browsing the true crime offerings in the Sony e-book store, I discovered an Oxford University Press publication titled Death of an Overseer. The synopsis described it as a cultural and sociological re-interpretation of an 1857 murder in Adams County, Mississippi. I enjoy crime books that aren’t limited to a basic narrative so I bought it, despite its unusually high price for an e-book.
In May 1857 the battered corpse of Duncan Skinner, an overseer on a plantation owned by wealthy widow Clarissa Sharpe, was found in a wooded area near the estate. The original investigators concluded that he’d been killed by an accidental fall from his horse, but the dead man’s brother and other sceptical locals dug deeper and found evidence of murder. Three of Mrs. Sharpe’s slaves confessed to killing Skinner, whose harsh treatment of them was notorious, and were hanged after a brief and sensational trial.
Many Adams County residents believed that a fourth party should have joined them on the gallows: a white Irish laborer named John McCallin. During the investigation, several plantation slaves claimed that McCallin had actively incited the murder by telling them that if Skinner were dead, his way would be free to marry Clarissa Sharpe and give them all “better times.” But in 1857 Mississippi law forbade blacks from testifying against whites, and McCallin escaped arrest. He did not go unpunished, however: the plantation aristocrats ordered him out of the community. His intention to marry a social superior seemed to anger them more than his alleged crime.
Author Michael Wayne, a professor of American history, questions McCallin’s guilt. He analyzes the customs and prejudices of the antebellum South as well as the crime and its racially-biased investigation, and concludes that the Irishman may have been a scapegoat. This approach makes Death of an Overseer a detective story in some parts, a history and sociology lesson in others.
I was pleased to see that Wayne reproduced most of his primary sources verbatim and showed in painstaking detail how and why he reached a particular conclusion. He freely admits that the evidence is open to alternative interpretations and encourages the reader to play armchair detective by placing his voluminous research material at their disposal. (The book’s website at www.deathofanoverseer.com actively solicits new evidence and alternative theories.) This approach is a refreshing respite from the slew of authors who sprout fangs and claws when their ‘definitive’ accounts are questioned.