Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South


257 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Index
ISBN 0-19-514004-4
DDC 364.15'23'0976226




Reviewed by Ashley Thomson

Ashley Thomson is a full librarian at Laurentian University and co-editor or co-author of nine books, most recently Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide, 1988-2005.


In May 1857, the body of Duncan Skinner was found along the edge of the
plantation where he oversaw the slaves owned by Clarissa Sharpe, a
widower. Although a coroner’s jury ruled his death accidental, an
investigation organized by area planters concluded that he had been
murdered by three slaves acting under instruction from John McCallin, an
Irish carpenter purported to be in love with the plantation’s owner.

University of Toronto historian Michael Wayne, author of The Reshaping
of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860–1880, reviews the
evidence about the murder and comes to his own conclusions, particularly
about the role McCallin played. His book is not a traditional historical
monograph complete with footnotes (in fact, there are none). Rather, its
overall aim is to explore the problems scholars typically face in their
attempts to reconstruct the past. At the same time, the book provides a
splendid overview not only of the immediate events but of the
historiography of the Old South.

Death of an Overseer is a must-read for all students of history,
whatever their area of specialization. Readers who want to continue the
debate over the murder are directed to the book’s Web site


Wayne, Michael., “Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 29, 2024,