The disclosure was unworthy of attention.

by Lisa Y. Henderson


Between one and two o’clock in the morning of Saturday last, Rev. Mr. Lawrence was surprised in his dormitory by the glare of a light.  Rushing to the door, he beheld the roof of the brick jail recently built, in flames.  Having rung his tavern bell for a few moments, he made haste to the courthouse, and rang the court bell to give all our citizens alarm.  In a few minutes many were at the scene of the conflagration, and, among the first, Col. Drake, jailor.  With nothing to protect his person but his sleeping vestments, he, not without great risk, made his way up to the cell of James, a run-away slave advertised in last week’s paper.  When he had opened one day, the smoke and falling flames being beyond endurance, he was compelled to retreat, and was not even able to do so without slight injury.  A ladder was procured, and Mr. Cooper, chief engineer of the Plank Road, who had come to our village on the preceding evening, ascended it with a sledge, and made a strong but unsuccessful effort to break in the window grates of the prisoner’s cell. The last ray of hope for the rescue of James departed with those efforts.  During the continuance of efforts for his release, his account of the origin of the fire was, that some one came into the jail with a candle and ignited the building. – When Mr. Cooper informed him that he must perish in the flames, being then asked how the fire originated, he was distinctly understood by several to acknowledge himself the incendiary.  He then most fervently implored mercy, wrapping his blanket closely around his body, and laid himself down, after which no more was heard save the piercing shrieks at the falling in of the roof.  His body was of course entirely consumed.

Al the doors were safely locked by the jailer [sic].  That the negro was the builder of his own pyre there is not a doubt, and it is little less certain how he procured the means.  On Thursday last William Mataw, a free mulatto, was committed to jail for the cost of some misdemeanor, and confined in the cell with James for own night.  Mataw had matches in his pocket, and informed the jailer the next day, after he had been set at liberty, that his pockets had been searched; but the latter, considering him drunk, thought the disclosure unworthy of attention. – The fire appeared to have been started in the partition between the prisoner and the entry, and it was perfectly clear to every one present that it was kindled in the cell.

Notwithstanding the jail was immediately surrounded by a high plank paling, Mrs. Hoover’s stables standing a few paces north and Mr. Worth’s store but a little farther south, the fire was communicated to noting beyond its wall, the wind blowing from the west and carrying the flames in a direction where no buildings were.  It is singular that the negro was not heard to make the slightest noise till the citizens had assembled.  His object doubtless was to escape.  In consequence of fears entertained by the Sheriff that he might break out, as did two prisoners some weeks ago, he had been chained, but had picked or broken the lock when burnt.  Such are the facts, so far as we have been able to collect them, connected with this sad loss of life and destruction of public property.  We are now without a jail, the old one having been torn down and the new one being in ashes.  The brick wall is still standing, but entirely ruined, having cracks from top to foundation in various places.  Ashboro’ Herald.

Carolina Watchman, Salisbury, 20 Feb 1851.