Nearly 200 Years Later, Nat Turner’s Skull Finally Returned to Family

Nat Turner illustration courtesy of

Nat Turner illustration courtesy of

In the wake of Fox Searchlight’s highly anticipated release of The Birth of Nation, the incredible story of Nat Turner’s slave revolt — and the mystery surrounding his remains after death — stays in the minds of viewers long after they’ve seen the film.

The new movie, overshadowed by controversy surrounding previous rape allegations against the film’s lead actor, chronicles the life of Rev. Nathaniel Turner, an enslaved Black man who led one of the bloodiest slave insurrections in American history.

In 1831, Turner and a small army of his fellow Black brethren fought their way through Virginia’s Southampton County, killing every white, slave-holding family in their path with the hopes of escaping and eradicating the throes of slavery. The revolt raged on for about two days before the town’s militia stopped the group in its tracks.

But the militia failed to quell the spirit of Turner, who was a fugitive for the next two months. He was ultimately captured and hanged from a tree on Nov. 11 in the present-day town of Courtland, Virginia.

Questions regarding what became of the revolutionary emancipator’s remains went largely unanswered for decades — that is, until now.

According to National Geographic, Turner’s great-great-great-great granddaughters Shannon Batton Aguirre and Shelly Lucas Wood recently received what’s believed to be their relative’s skull remains from former mayor of Gary, Indiana Richard Gordon Hatcher, 83. Hatcher also served as the city’s first African-American mayor.

So how did the remains of an enslaved Black man from Southampton County, Virginia end up all the way in Gary, Indiana? The journey begins with many differing accounts of what actually happened to Turner’s body after he was lynched.

Per National Geographic, several versions claim that Turner was flayed, dismembered and decapitated before his torso was buried in the local cemetery. His skull and brain were later sent off for study. Decades later, historians and Turner’s descendants reported hearing stories that the skull had been donated to Hatcher at a charity gala for the Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2002, the history site reports.

That’s when Aguirre, a descendant from Washington, reached out to the former mayor to see if he’d be willing to return the skull for a proper burial in Virginia.

“I really can’t believe I’m talking to you,” Hatcher said to Aguirre when they spoke for the first time. “I’ve been waiting years for this phone call.”

Before the skull wound up in the hands of Hatcher, however, it belonged to civil rights activists Franklin and Cora Breckinridge. National Geographic reports that they got it from Bob Franklin of Elkhart, Indiana — who said the skull had been passed down in his family for three generations.

“I spent my whole life with this skull,” Franklin Breckinridge said. “My father typed a letter that he kept in the box with the relic just in case anything unexpected happened to our family. He thought it was important that people would know who the skull belonged to.”

Franklin Breckinridge’s grandfather, Dr. Albert Gallatin Franklin, who was also a physician in Richmond, Virginia at the time, received the relic circa 1900 from a female patient whose father had handled Turner’s body after he was hanged, according to the letter.

So down the train of transmission the skull went as each of its inheritors sought to find a fitting home for the remains. Per the history site, Hatcher added the relic to his collection of historical artifacts before ultimately deciding to turn it over to Aguirre and Wood, who he said shed “tears of joy” upon receiving it.

“The legacy of Nat Turner has had enduring impact not simply upon our family, but upon American history,” Aguirre said. “Certainly, this fragile fragment holds enormous emotional value for me, for my family. But it is of immeasurable value because it is a poignant reminder of the price of freedom.”

The skull is expected to be housed in a secure location as forensic anthropologists work to conduct a full study on it using isotope analysis and DNA testing. According to National Geographic, Turner’s descendants will provide genealogical information and DNA samples to see if the relic matches their genetic profile. If so, Turner’s remains will be laid to rest alongside other family descendants.

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