On July 7, Charleston will observe a dark and ugly centenary. On that day in 1911, Charleston County and the State of South Carolina hanged Daniel Duncan at the old jail on Magazine Street. It was the last execution in Charleston County before the General Assembly transferred the dreadful business of capital punishment from local jurisdictions to the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia in 1912.
It is also an execution that probably should not have taken place. In light of 21st-century legal standards, many are firmly convinced that Duncan — a black man — was wrongly accused and wrongly convicted by an all-white legal system. One of those is Daniel J. Crooks, co-author of the 2008 book, Charleston’s Trial: Jim Crow Justice.
Crooks’ book has inspired a burst of new interest in the trial and execution of Duncan, including the 2010 novel Dead Weight by Batt Humphries and Deuce Theatre’s play The Duncan Storm.
The Daniel Duncan story begins in 1910, when Max Lubelsky, a Jewish store owner on King Street, was found murdered in his shop in broad daylight. A few weeks later, Lubelsky’s widow was also attacked in the shop. An angry mob seized a 23-year-old black man who happened to be on the street nearby and would have lynched him if police had not intervened. The man was taken into custody and soon charged with the murder of Max Lubelsky.
The young man, of course, was Daniel Duncan. He was subsequently tried for the murder of Lubelsky. In his book, Crooks presents pages of testimony from the trial. The contradictions between witnesses and various statements by one particular witness compel the reader to conclude that the critical witnesses against Duncan were lying. Further testimony revealed deep factions and rivalries within the Jewish community of Charleston. The implication is clear enough. In reading Crooks’ account, one sees there was at least as much circumstantial evidence against one of Kubelsky’s King Street neighbors as there was against Duncan — if the police, the prosecutors, and the jury had chosen to see it. Looking at the shabby case the prosecution presented, it is depressing to think that a jury could have convicted him.
But convict they did, and they did it in less than an hour, with no recommendation of mercy. A request for a new trial was quickly denied, and the judge read the sentence: that Duncan “be hanged by the neck until his body be dead.”
An appeal was filed at the state Supreme Court and denied. The Court of General Sessions set the execution date for July 7, 1911. Throughout the ordeal, Duncan reportedly maintained a stoic dignity.
On the appointed day, the walls surrounding the jail were filled with hundreds of the curious, as well as hucksters and hawkers. Others watched from trees and rooftops.
The execution device was not a conventional gallows, but a dead-weight system, with a weight on one end of a rope, which would drop, snatching the condemned off the ground and snapping his spinal cord. But on this day, it malfunctioned, and Duncan spent a total of 39 minutes swaying at the end of the rope, slowly strangling, before he was declared dead.
On the day of his execution, Duncan handed a note to his minister, which the local newspaper ran in full. It was not a last-minute confession, as local authorities had hoped and expected. It was Duncan’s forgiveness to all who had lied and manipulated to bring him to this moment. “Tell them that I am at rest,” he wrote in part, “because I am innocent and the Lord knows that I am today.”
Throughout history, the death penalty has always been about more than punishing a person for a crime. It has been about the way one group establishes its dominance over another. The group differences may be social, economic, or religious. In the South, of course, they are racial. As Crooks points out — and as any cursory review of Southern jurisprudence will quickly prove — blacks receive the death penalty far more often than whites, and blacks are much more likely to be executed for crimes against whites than against blacks.
Crooks will be part of a candlelight service at the front of the Old City Jail on Magazine Street, which will begin at 7 p.m. on July 7. Some of the performers from The Duncan Storm will be on hand to sing “Swinging Free” from the show and read Daniel Duncan’s parting words to the city of Charleston. State Rep. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel AME Church will lead the brief service.
Sometimes the only justice we can offer is to remember. This is one of those times.