BLOG POSTPODCAST EPISODE

He Danced His Way to Jail

In Season 3, Episode 1, of Not Even Past, host Brendan Wolfe introduces us to Christopher McPherson, a free black man who knew Jefferson, dined with Madison, and worked for George Wythe. He also predicted the end of the world. Wolfe and producer Miranda Bennett also interview Deborah Murdock who owns properties where McPherson once worked.

RESOURCES
Read Christopher McPherson’s autobiography.
Read a letter from Madison to Jefferson mentioning McPherson.
Read a letter from Jefferson to Adams mentioning McPherson.
Read a newspaper notice announcing McPherson’s new school.

Click below to read a transcript of the show.

IMAGE: These images, taken by producer Miranda Bennett, are from inside the Fluvanna County house where Christopher McPherson worked.

TRANSCRIPT

Brendan Wolfe: All day Christopher McPherson walked up and down the streets of Richmond—

Knocking his cane on dirt and the occasional sidewalk—

Shouting and singing every song he knew.

He even danced a few steps when he sensed that someone might have noticed him.

Dressed in his finest Sunday suit, he walked from Shockoe Bottom, where in a decade or two the slave auctions would hang their red flags—

All the way up to the fine green lawn of Capitol Square, as Greek as you please. Stolid and democratic.

He probably passed the Richmond Theatre. In an apocalyptic burst of flame, it would tumble to ground in the coming winter. Women, children, and the state’s new governor—all burned to ashes.

He even made it to Church Hill, where some old Patriot had famously demanded liberty or death.

As he walked he belted out hymns he’d learned in church and field songs he’d heard back home.

He tried to be conspicuous, to be a bother. And when the police finally arrived and dragged him off to court, he pulled himself up straight before the judge—

Arranging his collar. Brushing off his jacket.

“I have a new name,” he intoned, “and it’s Pherson, son of Christ, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.”

All he’d done is shed the “Mc” in McPherson. “Mc” means “son of.” He was no longer connected to this world, but to the next.

The judge leaned back in his chair and sighed.

*

I’m Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia at Virginia Humanities. On this episode of NOT EVEN PAST, we consider the life of Christopher McPherson.

He was a free black man in Virginia. And considering that, he was well educated and successful, even compared to many white men. McPherson traveled. He knew important men. He’d earned money.

But he also had a bad habit of airing his grievances. And of telling people that the end of the world was nigh.

In response to this behavior—

To the walking and dancing and singing and prophesying—

Let’s just say the world was not always kind.

First, though, we should back up because his journey to that day in Richmond is a remarkable one.

Christopher McPherson was born enslaved about 1763. His mother was the slave of a store owner. His father was a white Scottish merchant. At some point the store owner sold McPherson to a different Scottish merchant, a man named David Ross.

Ross arranged for his slave to be educated and trained as a clerk. Then Governor Thomas Jefferson appointed Ross the commercial agent for Virginia, with McPherson as his clerk.

The two men traveled across Virginia during the Revolution. They were at Yorktown during the siege. Then, in 1782, Ross resigned his post and returned home to Columbia, in Fluvanna County. McPherson went with him.

He kept Ross’s store. And when Ross closed the store, he kept Ross’s books. It was an unusual amount of responsibility, but McPherson had more than earned it.

In 1792 Ross freed his clerk.

McPherson continued his work but then seven years later everything changed.

That’s when the epiphany came.

*

Deborah Murdock: It happened on the fifteenth of February in 1799. At that point Christopher McPherson is a free man and has these three to five white men working under him as clerks I assume at the tobacco grading station or stores. So he has this incredible vision, which is written in gothic prose, extraordinary prose.

BW: Deborah Murdock lives in Fluvanna County and has owned two Ross properties including his office. She’s spent the last forty-five years trying to piece his life together.

DM: We think, I think this was the office that David Ross established up on the hill above Columbia. This is the building as it was then. We used to have gatherings on the fifteenth of February called Christopher McPherson day. I still honor it and think Valentine’s Day, boring. Christopher McPherson day is the next day when he had the ultimate image. And we used to gather here and wait. And I would read the piece and lots of people would come, honoring this extraordinary event. There’s so few occasions where you’ve got times and dates and somebody says, this happened then and this happened then.

*

BW: McPherson had been doing paperwork in David Ross’s office when the visions arrived. The Holy Spirit appeared to him, he later wrote.

“And he came to understand that these United States were the new Zion, the new Jerusalem of the Lord God. And he held them as the apple of his eye.

“And a new name was given me,” McPherson wrote, “and I was appointed a messenger to the world.”

*

He traveled to Norfolk a few months later. And on the Fourth of July, with the mayor’s permission, he and a friend led a procession through the city.

Later that day McPherson was baptized in the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth.

This was in 1799.

Soon after McPherson began writing letters.

First he wrote to George Washington, asking for an introduction to President John Adams.

Then he reached out to Adams himself. It was a letter full of alarming references from the Book of Revelations.

McPherson declared himself to be the white-horsed prophet, his eyes like blazing fire, his robe dipped in blood.

He received no reply.

McPherson would not be deterred, however. His education and skills coming in handy, he hired on as a clerk to Congress. And while in that position he composed an address to President Adams and the United States Senate.

He wanted them to know that a prophet was in their midst. That God’s judgment was at hand.

Again, he received no reply.

McPherson quit the job and returned to Virginia. On his way home, he stopped at Montpelier and dined with James Madison.

The two had been introduced by their common acquaintance, Thomas Jefferson.

McPherson sat at Mr. Madison’s table, he later wrote, and enjoyed a full share of the conversation.

His epiphany was not so much the end as it was the beginning.

*

McPherson married and had children. He worked—

For the judge George Wythe and for practically every government office in Richmond.

He testified in court, and his word was taken over that of two white witnesses.

He was the executor of a white man’s will.

And he began to accumulate wealth and buy property.

By the year 1810 the beginning had ended and the end had begun.

The life of a well-to-do black man in a slave state had finally caught up with that of a prophet.

Something had to give.

In 1810, the Richmond city council passed an ordinance that prohibited black people from riding on hired-out carriages except as maids or servants.

McPherson was outraged. He expressed his “great astonishment” to city officials and told them such injustice had caused him “to reflect on the whole tenor of my life.”

Remember that McPherson had been born a slave. Had he somehow forgotten that the very essence of Virginia was an injustice to black people?

He petitioned the General Assembly. And he tucked into the letter a pamphlet written by Nimrod Hughes, of Washington County.

Like McPherson, Hughes was biracial and given to quoting Revelations. And his own visions had narrowed the end of the world down to a single date on the calendar:

June 4, 1812.

“Although to my knowledge, I never saw the man,” McPherson wrote to the assembly, referring to Hughes, “yet I have the fullest belief in his prophesy.”

He received no reply.

*

McPherson was nothing if not stubborn. If the city would not let him pay for a carriage ride, he would purchase his own carriage for hire. He advertised his plan in the paper. Another ad, a few weeks later, announced that he had established a night school for black men.

Twenty-five students were enrolled, he declared, and he expected that number to double.

A public outcry ensued. The education of slaves was frowned upon generally. And the education of Christopher McPherson, in particular—

Well, some were wondering what good that had done the world.

The editor withdrew the ad and apologized to his readers. And McPherson appeared in court on charges of creating a nuisance with his school.

About the same time, McPherson and his wife were arrested for disturbing the peace after getting into an argument with another man.

Again, Christopher McPherson rose his voice with an eloquent and completely un-ironic exasperation.

“Under existing circumstances,” he wrote, “in the State of Virginia, a man of color at present, had but a slender chance of success.”

That, then, is when McPherson donned his best suit and marched through Richmond. On May 11, 1811, he sang and danced his way to jail.

“I have a new name,” he told the judge, “I’m the son of Christ, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” And the judge just sighed.

Richmond was a small town then. The population was less than 10,000, and 40 percent of those were enslaved.

The judge must have known McPherson well—

He was a man who could not accept his place.

A man who had come to see the end, if not of the world, then at least of his own world. Perhaps even of himself.

*

McPherson stewed in a Richmond jail for almost three weeks. Eventually he was ordered to the asylum in Williamsburg. And there the doctors ruled him sane.

Filled with a renewed sense of fervor, McPherson wrote his life’s story. He complained bitterly that the world had not listened to him, and was sure to include in his book copies of letters he had written to Napoleon, King George III, and James Monroe.

You can pretty much guess by now that he received no reply.

A newspaper in Alexandria did write about his prophesy, but only to mock it.

John Adams, meanwhile, referenced McPherson in a letter to his old friend Jefferson: “I find that Virginia produces Prophets.”

Jefferson just sighed. He’d known Christopher McPherson for twenty years, he told Adams. And the man had become “crazy, foggy, his head always in the clouds.”

Jefferson, of all people, would have known something about having your head in the clouds. But Virginia was no place for a black man to be—

“rhapsodizing,” as Jefferson said, “what neither himself nor anyone else could understand.”

McPherson moved to New York and he died a few years later.

While it’s true, the doctors had once deemed him legally sane, there were other ways to lose your head.

“Under existing circumstances,” he had written, “in the State of Virginia, a man of color had but a slender chance of success.”

Saying this was like observing—

No, complaining—

That the sky was blue.

And yet maybe McPherson, in his own way, was right. Maybe the end of the world, the end of his world, was to come.

But instead of in 1812, it arrived a few years later and a few miles to the south—

At Appomattox.

To read more about Christopher McPherson and a transcript of his narrative, go to EncyclopediaVirginia.org.

Music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.
This podcast was produced by Miranda Bennett.

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