Slave, artisan, abolitionist. Vesey was probably born on the Danish Caribbean sugar island of St. Thomas around 1767; the names and nationality of his parents are unknown. In 1781 he was purchased by Captain Joseph Vesey, a slave trader, who trained him as a cabin boy during the short voyage to the French colony of Saint Domingue. Captain Vesey sold the boy as one of 390 slaves in the city of Cap François but was forced to purchase him back on April 23, 1782, because the child had displayed “epileptic fits.” These were perhaps feigned, for they ceased once the boy reboarded Captain Vesey’s vessel. This time Joseph Vesey kept him and renamed him Telemaque, after the mythical son of Odysseus. Over time fellow slaves corrupted or punned the name into Telmack and then into Denmark, after the Danish-owned island of his birth.
In the late spring of 1783 Joseph Vesey established himself in Charleston as a ship chandler. Denmark evidently lived with the Vesey family on 281 King Street. For the next seventeen years the literate and multilingual Denmark was responsible for helping to receive imported goods from incoming ships, cataloging items in Captain Vesey’s East Bay Street office, and even conducting minor transactions in his master’s absence. At some point during this time Denmark married an enslaved woman named Beck, who gave birth to at least three of his children: Sandy, Polydore, and Robert. But Denmark and Beck never lived in the same home, and their relationship was further strained in 1796 when Joseph Vesey, now a widower, moved his household to the Grove, an Ashley River plantation.
Denmark’s luck changed on November 9, 1799, when he won $1,500 in the “East-Bay Lottery.” The captain and his wealthy mistress—who by then was Denmark’s legal owner—agreed to let him purchase his freedom for $600. On December 31, 1799, Denmark handed over a portion of his winnings in exchange for his freedom papers. Because he intended to stay in Charleston and learn carpentry, he adopted the surname of Vesey, which was well known among the white businessmen who would be his main clients as the city expanded north up the peninsula.
Vesey rented a modest home at 20 Bull Street. Thomas Bennett, a merchant and politician, constructed his lumber mill at the west end of the avenue on the Ashley River, which made the street a natural home for men who earned their livelihoods in construction. There, following the collapse of his relationship with Beck, Vesey married the much younger Susan, who was born a slave around 1795 but gained her freedom early in the nineteenth century. Despite modern allegations that Vesey practiced polygamy, no evidence exists to support the theory. As the only woman to bear Denmark’s adopted surname, Susan Vesey may have married her husband in one of the city’s churches. To help supplement the family’s meager income, Susan took in laundry and ironing from her white neighbors. Despite later assertions that Vesey died a wealthy man worth more than $7,000, there is no evidence that he ever owned property.
Vesey may have had his marriage to Susan solemnized in the Second Presbyterian Church, which he attended as late as April 1817. But perhaps infuriated by the proslavery brand of Christianity heard within that church’s walls, Vesey became an early member (and lay preacher) in the city’s African Methodist Episcopal Church on Anson Street, commonly dubbed the “African Church.” Although the Reverend Morris Brown’s Sunday sermons included a creative melding of African and Christian elements, Vesey’s nightly Bible lessons turned to “the stern and Nemesis-like God of the Old Testament.” Embittered by the continuing bondage of Beck and his children, Vesey turned his back on the New Testament and what he regarded as its false promise of universal brotherhood.
Recognizing the dangers that the African Church posed to white control, city authorities briefly closed its doors in 1818 and then again in late 1820 and in January 1821. In response, Vesey began to consider a plan by which he might lead his children and disciples into freedom in Haiti. What made his conspiracy unique was not merely the advanced age of its leader (fifty-four years), but that Vesey planned a mass exodus of families out of Charleston. The plot called for urban slaves and bondmen across the Ashley and Cooper Rivers to slay their masters on the morning of Sunday, July 14, 1822, and fight their way toward the city docks. Although Vesey employed several enslaved blacksmiths to forge weapons, the leading conspirators wisely decided not to stockpile weapons nor to recruit thousands of soldiers before mid-July. “Let us assemble a sufficient number to commence the work with spirit,” Vesey remarked, “and we’ll not want men, [as] they’ll fall in behind fast enough.”
On May 22 William Paul, one of Vesey’s chief recruiters, made a fatal mistake. While at the Market Wharf, he spoke of the plan to Peter, a mulatto cook, who passed the alarm to his master Colonel John C. Prioleau. At about the same time another mulatto slave, George Wilson, gave information about the plan to his master, who hurried with the news to Intendant (Mayor) James Hamilton and Governor Thomas Bennett. Exactly one month later, on June 22, Vesey was arrested at the “house of one of his wives,” probably Beck. Four days after his capture, the aged carpenter was brought before two magistrates and five freeholders in the city workhouse. The tribunal found Vesey guilty and sentenced him to hang “on Tuesday next, the 2d July, between six and eight in the morning.” On that morning Warden John Gordon loaded Vesey and five other abolitionists into a “cart” for the two-mile ride north to Blake’s Lands. Before “immense crowds of whites and blacks,” the six men hobbled up the gallows stairs. According to Intendant Hamilton, they collectively “met their fate with the fortitude of Martyrs.”
In all, related to Vesey’s plan, the Charleston courts arrested 131 slaves and free blacks. Thirty were released without trial. Of the 101 men who appeared before the tribunals, the magistrates ordered 35 hanged and 37, including Vesey’s daughter Sandy, transported to Spanish Cuba. Twenty-three were acquitted, 2 more died while in custody, 3 were found not guilty but were whipped, and 1 free black was released on condition that he leave the state. City authorities exiled the Reverend Morris Brown of the AME Church to Philadelphia and razed the building. Vesey’s son Robert rebuilt it in October 1865 at the end of the Civil War.
Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1999.
Paquette, Robert L., and Douglas R. Egerton. “Of Facts and Fables: New Light on the Denmark Vesey Affair.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 105 (January 2004): 8–48.
Powers, Bernard E. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.