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A 200 year old Murder Story on Dewees Island

Dr. Nic Butler, the historian for Charleston County Public Library and the author of the fascinating Charleston Time Machine podcast, researched a 200 year old murder on Dewees Island. He came out to discuss it with us as part of Charleston County Public Library’s celebration of the book launch of The Islanders. If you’re not already a subscriber to this free podcast, it’s totally worth the time.

He provides a nuanced context of a historical crime given the culture of the time period. In a series of three podcasts (linked below, but you really should subscribe) he explores the crime, the chase, and the trial.

Dr. Butler says:

I stumbled into today’s story while searching through the newspapers of early South Carolina for information related to the history of Dewees Island.[1] It’s worth mentioning that I first encountered this narrative in reverse order; that is, I first read about Albro’s execution, then moved backwards to learn about his trial and crime. Here I recognized this material as the sort of murder-mystery story that captivates the imagination of many adults through dramatized novels and screenplays. 

from the Charleston Gazette via the Charleston County Public Library

Dr. Butler’s research delved into the story of Albro, an enslaved man who was sought by J.W. Brant, who owned a plantation on what was then called Long Island, or the Isle of Palms.  Albro, whose original name may have been Fulliman, had run away before.  Dr. Butler has created three 30 minute podcasts, which are well worth the listen and gives the situation some context with more background on fugitive slaves, escaping as an act of resistance, and the local culture at the time.

Thomas Deleisseline was shot and killed on February 8, 1820

Anna King Gregorie, a local historian who lived 1887-1960, wrote a short history of Dewees, which is part of our Archives Collection, and was one of the resources Jim Cochrane used in his book Dewees: The Island and Its People. In her article, she describes a murder that took place on Dewees:

In the 1820’s a tragedy took place on the Deleisseline’s plantation.  A negro outlaw, fleeing from capture, hid himself on the island.  His pursuers appealed to young Thomas Deleisseline to help them find him,  As the young man opened the door and stepped out, the negro fired from cover and Thomas Deleisseline fell dead, shot in the mouth with a marble.  The outlaw then fled to the mainland and was later shot by a posse...

More to the Story

Dr. Butler researched several renditions of the story in the newspapers, and his podcast uses those primary documents and his own historical research to pull the whole story together. We’re not sure where Dr. Gregorie got the marble detail writing 60+ years later, but that doesn’t seem to fit with Dr. Butler’s historical research. In addition, the fugitive was captured by a posse, but awaited his fate from a cell in Charleston.  Both newspapers of the time have more details, and describe the Dewees Island plantation owners being suspicious of runaways landing on the shore, with three men: John and Thomas Deliesseline and a Mr. Carval investigating and attempting to apprehend the visitors.  

Play the whole podcast : Part 1

Part 2: The Fugitive and the Search

In his Part 2, Dr. Butler looks at the geography of the area: imagining Albro’s desperate slog through the cold marshes between Dewees and Mount Pleasant, looking at the bereaved father’s journey to downtown Charleston to meet with the sheriff (his brother Francis Deleisseline) and request a coroner’s inquiry. They petitioned the Governor for a search party, and then Thomas Deleisseline returned to Dewees to bring the body of his son to downtown Charleston.

Thomas’s father, Captain John Thompson Deliesseline, grieved for his murdered son that night, but he maintained sufficient clarity to commence efforts to track down the assailant. Another runaway captured on Dewees Island, Aaron, identified Albro as the man they wanted, but efforts to find him on the island that night proved fruitless. To initiate a broader manhunt for the murderer, Captain D. needed to speak with public officials who commanded greater resources across the plantation landscape. In short, he was obliged to travel to Charleston in person to set the wheels of justice in motion.

The Final Chapter

Once captured in a manhunt, Albro was thrown in jail in Charleston with a pair of infamous criminals. The journey and capture covers territory from Dewees, to Mount Pleasant, to Charleston by horseback and boat.  Dr. Butler describes the geography and political climate of the day, as he describes Albro’s admission to the Charleston district jail.  Two other criminals, John and Lavinia Fisher (perhaps the first recorded female serial killer) were also housed there awaiting execution.  Listen to(or read) the final Charleston Time Machine podcast on this topic to learn more:

I thoroughly enjoyed learning from Dr. Butler, and I have now listened to a large number of Charleston Time Machine Podcasts. If you’re interested in the primary documents (all of these were provided by the Charleston County Public Library) you should always check out the written version podcast to see the illustrations.  We can’t wait to follow the Charleston Time Machine’s next chapter, and we’re hoping Dr. Butler himself will come visit us and tell us more about his research!