This Day (Mea Culpa Edition)

Published:January 13, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1891—which was a Tuesday that year and not a Friday—the Virginia writer Mary Spear Tiernan died of pneumonia in Baltimore, where she was born. She grew up in Richmond, though, and two of her brothers fought for the Confederacy; one of them died at the Second Battle of Manassas.

Tiernan went on to write three novels the most famous of which was her first: Homoselle (1881), a fictional romance based on Gabriel’s Insurrection, an aborted slave rebellion in Richmond in August 1800.Tiernan depicts an English journalist named Halsey who visits an idealized, bucolic Virginia, and discovers—in time to intervene—a plan to revolt among northern white abolitionists and scheming slaves. Although Tiernan’s story concentrates on a romance plot, critics have focused on her fictional slave Gabriel. Ironically, Tucker did not model Gabriel after his historical namesake but after another famous rebel slave, Nat Turner, whose uprising in August 1831 killed between fifty and sixty whites and resulted in the execution of many more slaves. Tiernan invests her character with the fierce intelligence often attributed to Turner, describing him as “one of the few Heaven-taught leaders of men who have figured in world history.” In the end though, Gabriel, unlike the Turner who is portrayed in his reputed confessions, is repentant: “Sometimes I think I was doin’ the Lord’s will in tryin’ to free my brethren; and then agin I feel like I was wrong.”

IMAGES: The Discovery of Nat Turner (1881), an illustration accompanying William Cullen Bryant and Sydney Howard Gay’s A Popular History of the United States, From the First Discovery of the Western Hemisphere by the Northmen, to the End of the Civil War, Volume 4 ; Mrs. Mary Spear Tiernan in a photograph that appeared in The Tiernan Family in Maryland (1898), a work of family research and history by Mary Tiernan’s husband, Baltimore merchant Charles B. Tiernan