A chapter from a book-in-progress, Carolina Crimes.
Lexington County, South Carolina
Saxe-Gotha in South Carolina was originally called the Congaree Township, located on the south side of the Congaree River in what is present-day Lexington County. As part of the Township Act of 1730 the Congaree was a grant of 20,000 acres. Royal agents were sent across Europe to recruit families as settlers, offering inducements such as free transportation to South Carolina, free provisions for one year, and free land. The Congaree Township was mainly settled by German Lutherans who renamed it Saxe-Gotha in 1735 as a reflection of their native land.
This township movement of the Carolina backcounty created a region that was economically, culturally and politically distinct from the lowcountry and Charleston. The backcountry tended to be more loyal to the British government than their lowcountry counterparts. It was also a more diverse religious area. Whereas the lowcountry was heavily Anglican, the backcountry was a “mix’d Medley [of] Sects and Demoninations” which included Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans.
The folks in the backcountry also had to deal with more volatile relations with Indians. As more white settlers encroached on Indian’s lands, skirmishes between the groups were more common, and just as common, was the quick brutal rebuttal. The more refined lifestyle of Charlestown was far removed from Saxe-Gotha. Many of the backcountry settlers were illiterate farmers. Lutheran minister, Henry Muhlenberg, described them such:
The people in the country, in general, grew up without schools and instruction. Occasionally a self-taught minister may labor for awhile amongst them, yet it continues only a short time. The people are wild, and continue to grow wilder …
Rev. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican priest who traveled as an itinerant minister throughout the backcountry, was horrified by their lifestyle. He wrote that:
The Open profanation of the Lords Day in this Province is one of the most crying Sins in it – and is carried to a great height – among the low Class, it is abus’d by women frolicking and Wantoness. By others in Drinking Bouts and Card Playing … the Taverns have more visitants than the Churches. They delight in … low, lazy, sluttish heathenish hellish Life and seem not desirous of changing it. Out of 100 Women that I marry … six are without child.
Jacob Weber was born in Switzerland on December 30, 1725 and was “reared and instructed in the Reformed church.” At age fourteen he and his brother Henirich immigrated to South Carolina and settled in Saxe-Gotha in 1739. Heinrich died shortly after arriving in the colony leaving Jacob in “much adversity and suffering.”
By this time Jacob was married. He and his wife, Hannah, had two children and acquired 200 acres of land in the Dutch Fork area west of Saxe-Gotha, north of the juncture of the Broad and Saluda Rivers. He also completed a spiritual crisis which had begun with his brother’s death. Weber wrote that he was taking:
More pleasure in …. Godliness, and in god’s word that in the world. I was often troubled about my soul’s salvation when I thought of how God would require of me a strict accounting and how I would then hear the judgment pronounced upon me, not knowing what it would be.
Weber began to invite his neighbors to gather at his house on Sunday for worship, which consisted of singing hymns and listening to Weber read from a book of sermons. In his journals, Rev. Muhlenberg discussed Jacob Weber, writing that “gradually, the hearers began to admire and honor and praise the reader, which in turn caused him to begin to admire himself.” That led Weber to preach more “out of his own spirit” and ignore written texts. Soon the “astonished” neighbors” began “to deify him.”
Like any cult of religious fanatics, it is difficult for outsiders, in particular in hindsight, to understand the dynamic that created the atmosphere leading to the establishment of a sect called the Weberites. But within this remote, enclosed society a new Holy Trinity was established, with Weber as God. A man named John George Smithpeter was the Son and a slave known only as Dauber was deemed to be the Holy Spirit. Hannah Weber was elevated to the role of the Virgin Mary.
According to Muhlenberg, the Weberites began to practice:
atrocious blasphemies … as groups of both sexes went about unclothed and naked, and practiced the most abominable wantonness. In their religious rites, they often fell into trances. They sanctioned nudity and marital confusion.
The sect quickly grew in number.
Reverend Christian Theus, a Reformed minister in the region, attended a Weberite meeting. As he reported to Rev. Muhlenberg, it nearly cost him his life. Theus described the Trinity was seated on an elevated platform as the congregation sat at their feet. Smithpeter asked, “Little parson, do you believe that I am the redeemer and savior of the world and that no man can be saved without me?”
Theus answered the “blasphemous question with a stern rebuke.” The Trinity and the congregation sentenced him to death and discussed whether he should be “hanged from the nearest tree or drowned in the deepest depths.” Theus managed to escape on foot to the Broad River where he was rescued by a passing boat.
February 23 & 24, 1761
The Trinity had a falling out, most likely over the heavy-handed behavior of Smithpeter. Smithpeter decided that Dauber had failed in “properly exercising the office of the Spirit.” According to Muhlenberg:
They placed a mattress on the bottom of a pit, threw Dauber in and piled more mattress and pillows on him. Members of the sect leaped in upon Dauber and trampled him until he suffocated. The corpse was taken out of bed and thrown into a burning pile of wood, to be consumed to ashes.
Michael Hans, an indentured servant who refused to join the Weberites, was then murdered. Webe and Smithpeter then quarreled over the two murders. According to the account written by Muhlenberg, Weber then:
declared him [Smithpeter] to be the Dragon … and chained him to a tree. The members of the band surrounded him, struck him with their fists, and beat him until he fell to the ground, and finally danced around him and trampled upon his throat until he had had enough.
Four Weberites were arrested by the Charlestown militia and put on trial for murder. Some sources claim that seven were arrested, three of them were pardoned and four executed:
- Jacob Weber
- Hannah Weber
- John Geiger
- Jacob Bourghart
However, a look at the record indicates that only one may have been executed, Jacob Weber.
April 25, 1761
The South Carolina Gazette wrote:
Some unhappy wretches, who in a fit of religious fervor and enthusiasm, had in a most barbarous manner, murdered on Michael Hass and Captain John George Smithpeter on the 23rd and 24th February last, at Congaree. Were brought down from thence and committed to jail. This delusion was so great that they acknowledged the murders, and for some days attempted to justify themselves; but at March sessions they were too well convinced of their error, that seven of them were indicted and tried and four convicted. Jacob Weber, John Geiger, Jacob Burghard and Hannah Weber, who all received sentence of death on the 31st and on the 17th, Jacob Weber was hanged pursuant to his sentence, behaving in a very becoming manner and dying a true pentitent. The other three were reprieved until May.
April 26, 1761
Lt. Governor William Bull wrote a letter to William Pitt, the British Secretary of State, requesting pardons for Hannah Weber, John Geiger and Jacob Burghard.
I am to acquaint you that at the last General Sessions … held at Charles Town, Jacob Weber, Hannah Weber, John Geiger and Jacob Burghard were tried and found guilty of murder, and received the sentence of deaths on the thirty-first of March last, and in pursuance thereof Jacob Weber was executed. I though Hannah Weber, John Geiger and Jacob Burghard, who acted by his commands, to be objects of His Majesty’s mercy and therefore reprieved them till His Majesty’s pleasure therein shall be known.
I thought it necessary that one, the Chief, should suffer, and as Public Justice is thereby satisfied for the blood of Murder, and as Hannah Weber, John Geiger, and Jacob Burghard each with numerous Families, bear the Character of being long known, orderly and industrious to recommend them as Objects worthy of His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon.
I must further take the liberty of representing to you, that as they are very poor, they have no Friend but your Compassion to solicit for their Pardon, no money to defray the expense of issuing this Act of Royal Grace through the usual Channel particular persons, and stand no chance of receiving this Benefit, if they shall fortunately be thought worthy of it, but by being inserted in some General Pardon.
I have the Honor to be with the greatest respect, Sir,
Your most humble Servant,
Contrary to the claims of the Gazette, Weber did not die as a “true penitent.” In his written confession before execution he blamed Satan and Smithpeter for his “great calamity.” Like many convicted criminals, Weber claimed that was a victim, lured into sin by Satan who used Smithpeter as the “author and instrument of my ghastly fall.” He also wrote:
I am again experiencing the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is bearing witness with my spirit that I am the child of God.
According to Francis Asbury, Methodist bishop, Weber also promised “to rise the third day” after his execution, certainly not the words of a penitent man.
Weber never rose.