A Murder In Mississippi

Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project

Letter from John B. Nevett to Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus; February 12, 1862

Our digital humanities class recently began transcribing documents to get a feel for the process of transcription.  We are working with the Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi digital humanities project.  These are a collection of letters that all sorts of citizens wrote to the Governors of Mississippi, focusing on ones sent during the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras.  The letters are archived at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. They are hand-written in cursive.  The documents are accessible through the program “From the Page” which is very user-friendly.  It contains tools and features that made transcribing the letter easy. I was assigned to transcribe a letter written on February 12, 1862, by John Nevett to Governor John Pettus.  This letter was not too hard to decipher.  The handwriting is pretty readable overall, although there were a few words I just could not discern.  I was able to decipher about 90% of it. 

From the wording of the letter, it seems that John Nevett is lawyer, who is writing on behalf of a person named Patrick Fitzgerald.  Apparently, one time (possibly in Natchez, Mississippi) Mr.  Fitzgerald got intoxicated, got into a fight with another man (and possibly that man’s brother), and during the fight Mr. Fitzgerald stabbed the man and killed him.  The facts of this murder are not disputed in this letter by Mr. Nevett.  The incident does appear to have actually happened.  Mr. Fitzgerald was brought to trial and was sentenced to hang for the murder.  He was in prison awaiting his death sentence, when his lawyers appealed to pre-Civil War Governor John McRae for clemency, asking if the governor would commute the death sentence.  The letter suggests that Gov. McRae did not believe he had the power to grant clemency or commute the death sentence.  He referred the matter to the Mississippi Legislature, and in the meantime Patrick Fitzgerald remained imprisoned.

The Civil War broke out, but nevertheless John Nevett continued to pursue Fitzgerald’s case.  In the letter, Nevett made a legal argument why the new Governor John Pettus should consider granting clemency.  Nevett argued that there was a witness to the fight, who could have testified on Fitzgerald’s behalf, but was bribed into not appearing at the trial.   This witness, by the name of Burns, heard about the death sentence and afterwards was brought to Natchez to record a deposition.  Burn’s deposition was reported to have been submitted to the Mississippi state legislature.  The deposition implied that the man Fitzgerald killed, and this man’s brother, had both reportedly struck Fitzgerald first during the fight.  Nevett argues that if Burn’s had testified at the original trial, then Patrick Fitzgerald would have been eligible and considered for either a self-defense or a manslaughter charge.  Thus, he would not have been sentenced to death.  Nevett is requesting clemency from Gov. Pettus, requesting that Fitzgerald be released from prison with time served.

It is an interesting case, for sure!  There is a lot of information about it packed into just a few pages of this letter.  It makes we want to know more about this murder in Mississippi.  Who was the victim and the victim’s brother?  Where did the murder take place – was it in or near Natchez?  What are the circumstances surrounding the confrontation?  What happened at the trial?  Why did the witness Burns not testify, but give a deposition after the fact?  Who had the legal status to overturn the conviction – the legislature or the executive?  And, most interesting of all, what ultimately happened to Patrick Fitzgerald?  This letter is also interesting in that the murder, trial and outcome overlap with the breakout of the Civil War, which surely must have complicated the wheels of justice and the legal process.