An incident in Page County that may have been inspired by the Nat Turner years, earlier, occurred on February 14, 1842. On that day, 29-year-old John Wesley Bell was murdered by two of his slaves, “Captain” and “Martin”.

Having been out about 250 yards from the Bell Home, the slaves had been busy cutting bushes along a branch. Apparently, Bell came out to the job and while speaking to “Captain” was struck a blow from behind by “Martin”. The ax-blow easily busted Bell’s skull and killed him instantly.

At once setting to hide the evidence of the murder, “Captain” repositioned Bell’s head into the stream so that the blood from the crime would be washed away. A larger problem was the cedar log that their master had fallen against and spattered with blood. Chopping away the bark of the log the slaves piled it on the grounds and concealed it under the brush. The snowfall the same night aided in disguising the bloodied chips. After the slaves disposed of the body in the river, they told a story about how Bell had drowned. When the body was found, however, the slaves were arrested under suspicion of murder. When the snow melted away and exposed the crime scene, “Martin” and “Captain” confessed but gave no motive.

The two Bell slaves were soon tried in the March court, presided over by Colonel Daniel Strickler, and found guilty, The sentence for the crime was that the two were to be “hanged by the neck until they were dead-dead-dead.”

Ordered to carry out the sentence, Sheriff Daniel Blosser held the execution between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., on April 8, on the Bixler Ferry Road, in the first hollow after leaving Main Street, in Luray. The account of the execution was published years later on August 12, 1898 in the Page News:

The prisoners were marched on foot from the jail with their hands tied behind them and ropes around their necks, lead by Sheriff, Charles Flinn. The funeral sermon, half an hour in length, was preached before the execution by Elder William C. Lauck. The preacher stood on the spring wagon and upon the same vehicle the condemned men… sitting on their coffins waiting their death. When the sermon was concluded the preacher closed the book and without looking behind him hastily left the scene of the execution. When this was done, “Martin” and “Captain” were made to stand erect in the wagon while the sheriff and the deputy tied the ropes attached to their necks to the arm of the gallows and then the wagon was driven from beneath leaving the bodies swinging in the air. The tops of the surrounding trees were filled with people as thick as blackbirds…

While this account implies the two men knew they were to be buried, there is also a contradiction within the same account, which states:

Their bodies were never buried but were turned over to two Luray physicians who had bought them for cakes and beer of the Negroes themselves during their confinement in jail.

Of course, written over fifty years after the actual event, there is reason to be skeptical of the accuracy of the story.

A month following the execution, the Page court assessed the value of “Captain” and “Martin” as $914.28, which was subsequently paid to the Bell estate.


This article appeared in the “Heritage and Heraldry” column, in the 11/20/1997 edition of the Page News & Courier, but has been revised for the author.  



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