Fake News in Old Virginny

Published:January 3, 2017 by Brendan Wolfe

I was reading an otherwise excellent history the other day when I came across mention of an event I’d never heard of before: a slave revolt in the Richmond area during the summer of 1810. The description cited a letter from Virginia that appeared in several northern newspapers. Above left is a version that appeared in Spooner’s Vermont Journal on July 9, 1810; the original was apparently published by Reif’s Philadelphia Gazette.

It’s pretty graphic stuff: “So sudden and unsuspected was the occurrence, that before a sufficient number of patrole could be collected to disperse [the slaves] they murdered several families! among which were capt. Heath’s, Mr. Canife’s and Judge Flemming’s. The governor has ordered out the militia throughout the State;—and I fear there will be much blood shed before tranquility can be restored.”

Surprised I hadn’t run across this before, I began searching for confirmation by attempting to discover who these victims were. The “capt. Heath” may have been Captain John Heth, who operated the Black Heath coal pits in Chesterfield County and whose son was Henry Heth, the Civil War general. (Heath and Heth are pronounced the same.) Only problem is that Captain Heth was a child in 1810. So perhaps it was his father, Colonel Henry Heth, an English immigrant who had fought with George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Like his son after him, Colonel Heth operated the coal pits near present-day Midlothian and did so using enslaved African American labor. But according to this Wikipedia stub, he died in 1822 in Georgia.

So maybe a “capt. Heath” wasn’t involved after all. And yet if anything had happened like what the newspaper described—the murder of prominent white men by slaves—surely the Richmond paper would have mentioned it. So I began looking through old issues of the Richmond Enquirer, and what do you know? Above right is the first part of an angry rebuttal issued by the paper’s editor, Thomas Ritchie, on July 6, one in which he insists no such killings ever took place. “There is no insurrection—no patrole—not one drop of blood shed—no requisition of the Militia,” he wrote. In fact the whole letter was without “foundation or substance.” Ritchie even went so far as to suggest that spreading such “false rumors and reports” was against Virginia law and he offered a twenty-dollar reward for the name of the letter’s author.

I admit that my research into this has been cursory, but it probably would have been difficult for Ritchie to so forcefully deny these events had they actually taken place. Which leads one to wonder: What was the motivation behind the initial report?

I suspect it was the work of antislavery activists attempting to sow discord and distrust in Virginia, or to at least suggest that discord and distrust existed. Such reports forced men like Thomas Ritchie to insist that they “have no fears of the danger” of a slave uprising, which was not true. Gabriel’s Conspiracy, exposed during the summer of 1800, had scared them plenty. That original letter, in other words, called attention to the contradictions in the thinking of slaveholders.

In that sense, it was effective propaganda. Which is much how fake news works today! And notice how the Vermont item ran after Ritchie’s correction. The truth has always tended to lag well behind the well-told lie.

Discussion

2 Comments on “Fake News in Old Virginny”

  1. Lynda Kachurek

    Brendan,

    Great post, and one I will use as an example when talking information literacy with history students! A quick question — what year was the history you were reading published?

    Thanks.

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