16 May 2011

Polly Barclay - Another Murderous Woman?

[An updated version of this post may be found here at the new Georgia Lynchings blog.]

Lately, it seems like the title of this blog should be Female Murderers of Georgia. While searching for information about Julia Force, and especially Cora Lou Vinson, I was led to other "famous" female murder cases in Georgia's history.

"On the 30th ult. was executed at [Washington], Georgia, POLLY
BARCLAY, as an [accessory] in the murder of her [husband]."
- Charleston Courier (South Carolina), 11 June 1806

Polly Barclay is often misstated as being the first woman hung for murder in Georgia. That is incorrect, as that distinction belongs to Alice Riley of Savannah. (We'll save her story for another post.) Point is, Polly Barclay was actually the second woman to be hung for murder in Georgia.

Mrs. Barclay was tried and convicted for the murder of her husband, most often simply referred to as "Mr. Barclay," in 1806. The murder took place in the fall of the previous year. This all happened near the city of Washington in Wilkes County, GA.

Records regarding the murder are difficult to find, and historians owe a debt of gratitude to Miss Eliza A. Bowen for what is known. She wrote stories about Wilkes County people and published articles in the Washington Gazette and Chronicles from 1886 to 1897. Her manuscripts were compiled into a book, The Story of Wilkes County, reprinted in 1950 and again in 1997.

The final chapter of the book, which is cut off mid-sentence, with no additions yet to be found, is about Polly Barclay and the murder of her husband. Several articles of the murder have been written since, but none that I found contained "new" information. Therefore I regard Miss Bowen's research as most likely the closest thing we have to a portrayal of actual events.

Polly Barclay was actually a conspirator in the murder of her husband. She did not pull the trigger on the gun that fired the shot that killed him. She was, however, the only one convicted and punished for the crime. Miss Bowen states, "All the traditions concur in saying that Mr. Barclay was not killed by his wife's hand. All the stories mention her lover and her brother...All the sources of the story concur in saying that the actual doer of the deed escaped."

Polly's co-conspirators were her brother William Nowland and her lover Mark Mitchum. Some say the motive for murder was money, others say it was committed because Polly wanted to be with her lover. It's likely a combination of the two.

Miss Bowen states, "From tradition we learn that the murder took place in the fall or winter [of 1805], after Mr. Barclay had sold his cotton in Augusta and returned, that his wife was not at first suspected, but that suspicion was aroused through something about the money, that then people talked, and various suspicious circumstances were told which when put together led to a belief in the guilt of his wife and her arrest."

Miss Bowen viewed and transcribed minutes from the superior court sessions that took place 205 years ago this month. In them she discovered that trial commenced after a true bill of murder was put forth against William Nowland and Polly Barclay. On 8 May 1806, William Nowland was tried and found not guilty. The next day he was to be a witness for the State. Seems like a situation we would describe today as striking a deal with the prosecution to testify for the State against another individual and receiving immunity in that deal, but that is speculation on my part.

The next day, 9 May 1806, Polly Barclay was put on trial. Opening statements, witness testimonies, closing arguments, jury deliberation, and the verdict all came in one day. The result was, "We the jury find the prisoner at the bar guilty but recommend her to mercy."

What happened to the mercy, I do not know. According to Miss Bowen's transcriptions, the Judge (future U.S. Senator Charles Tait) in the trial handed down the ruling:
That you Polly Barclay be taken from this bar to the place from whence you came, there to remain until Friday the 30th, day of this present month of May, and that on the aforesaid 30th, day of May you are to be taken by a proper officer to a gallows previously to be erected in or near the town of Washington, and then and there on the day aforesaid, between the hours of ten o'clock in the forenoon and two o'clock in the afternoon, you are to be hung by the neck until you are dead and may God have mercy on your soul.
Here are the particulars of the murder as told by Miss Bowen: "Tradition says that...There were two men who came up the road at night fall [supposedly on a Saturday] from the direction of Augusta and stopped at Mr. Barclay's cotton house which stood on the road a short distance from his house, made some noise, to make him suppose that some person was stealing his cotton. There were some visitors at the dwelling house who reported at the trial, that Mr. Barclay was not disposed to go out, but that his wife urged him to do so. Shortly after he went, a shot was heard, and those present reported that she said, 'that shot killed my husband.' When found, he was still living but the ball had cut off his tongue. He died in a few hours."

Mr. Barclay was buried, "it is said," on the spot where he fell. It was marked "by two unhewn stones which were placed upon it and they can be still pointed out on the old Elberton and Augusta road a few miles beyond Sandtown. The grave is on the edge of the road..."

In addition to the scenario described previous, another major witness was revealed at Polly's trial. In short, it was a young boy who witnessed a conversation in which Polly offered her brother $200 to kill Mr. Barclay.

So what about Mark Mitchum, you ask? Well, charges were never brought against him -- nolle prosequi (to be unwilling to pursue). He supposedly ran away upon hearing of the possible indictment.

Legend has it that Polly Barclay was in denial when it came to her death sentence. Even when the officer came to take her to the hanging tree, she grappled for a piece of paper she saw in his pocket, believing it was a stay of execution.

Something else that is often commented on regarding Polly Barclay is her beauty: "All the lines of tradition unite in reporting that the unhappy woman possessed uncommon beauty...It also come down to us, that she put on a fine silk dress to go to execution."

On the 30th day of May, in the year of 1806, Mrs. Polly Barclay was hung on a large white oak tree "which once stood on the north side of Main Street." Legend has it she was not hung by a rope, but by a chain. Mrs. Barclay was buried in an unmarked, undisclosed grave.


PalmsRV said...

Another good one!

Anonymous said...

Hi - I am definitely happy to discover this. Good job!

1821 Henry Citizen said...

Well I am a relation of Mary "Polly" Jenkins Barclay, and a former Newspaper reporter, I am amazed just how much "FAKE" News has been incorporated as "FACT" to this crime since 1806. First of all a first hand account is given in the Georgia Republican March 28, 1806, page 2, column 4. This includes the statements made by John H Barclay and Mary prior to the crime and after the crime. Even the Date of March 1, 1806 has been moved around to Fall of 1805. There are also reports of the crime in the Augusta Chronicle and Gazette of the State March 22, 1806 page 3, column 1. Even the Charleston Courier June 11, 1806 carried a story of the crime.These articles continue right down to present day when the The News-Reporter of Washington, GA July 2, 2015, where a female descendant of the couple came to find out since she had a collection of newspaper clippings and photographs of later generations.I have spent years trying to get a true first hand account of what was known at the time. I found ads run by John where he dared and person from trading with Mary. In today's word, you can see a Domestic abuse case, let alone his Alcohol dating back to 1799 which was proven by legal documents filed with the courts in Wilkes Co, Ga from John's prior crimes of Horse Stealing while drunk. He was sued in the courts also for debts and then too is the age difference she was born in 1775 and he was old enough to have fought in the American Revolution from Georgia, I have even seen a "FAKE" news story about him being a Scottish Freemason and he was only forced to leave Scotland in the 1800's. That Scots Magazine Story even has the crime happening in July of 1801.It is all about the Money today to get views, likes and then have somebody pay for it. Please consider this when you post something that can be proven with a little research. The Three person Mary Barclay and her future Step Brother William Nowland as her father had not married Katherine Anderson Nowland in 1806. And the Marcus or Mark Mitchum, who I have articles saying he was farm hand, hard to believe since he had more land than did John Barclay. Even to from being hung by the neck with a rope to it being a chain because Black Folks fear that. Even her fine Silk Dress gets a color of gray and then the sheriff cutting the rope and she living to be a old lady. All "Fake" News built upon pure lies and slander. To this day poor Mary Barclay lies buried in the same cemetery as that of her mother and father on what had been her father's home until 1823. This was just another case of how Georgia Quarter was still active in 1806 in the Hornet's Nest. Political sides showed their ugly heads, and how the beauty of Mary cost her her life. Because all of these "Baptists" wanted to keep their wives in their place. Yes some things have not changed in over 200 years. Thanks for your understanding in this matter. Rest In Peace Mary "Polly" Jenkins Barclay.