Thomas R. Gray

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Thomas Ruffin Gray (1800 - unknown) was an American attorney who represented several enslaved people during the trials in the wake of Nat Turner's Rebellion. Though he was not the attorney who represented Nat Turner, instead he interviewed him and wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner.


Early life

Thomas Ruffin Gray was born in Southampton County, Virginia in the early 1800s. He was the youngest of six children born to Thomas and Anne Cocke Brewer Gray. Gray's father was a both a slaveholder and a planter, a career Gray wished to pursue in his adulthood. [1]

Later in life, at the age of 21, Gray inherited 400 acres of land at the Round Hill plantation which kickstarted his tentative career as a planter. Several years later, Gray had built his own house on the property, bringing his property worth up to about $500. In 1829, he bought his recently deceased brother's property as well as a house on the Main Street in town, which supplied him with 800 acres of real property. Soon after, he married Mary A. Gray and, together, they had a daughter which they named Ann Douglas Gray. [2]

As a planter, Gray's status in society began to rise; however, simultaneously his family's fortunes began to sink. The years between 1822 and 1830 was a financially unstable time for his family, with his father and brother falling into debt. Gray attempted to provide financial assistance to his family but, in doing so, brought himself down into debt along with them. These financial struggles forced Gray to leave life as a planter behind and pursue a career in law. [3]


In 1834, Gray stated that he had studied law in his youth; however, there is no record of his going to college or attending a law school at any point in his life. Despite this, Gray had had passing experiences with the law that may have included an apprenticeship alongside his cousin in the county clerk's office as well as a run in with the law due to a public fight with one of his brothers. In 1828, he became a Justice of the Peace and served as a magistrate in Southampton County for the first time. [4] In September 1830, less than a year before the outbreak of Turner's rebellion, Gray finally received his license to practice law. [5] In the following month, October, the magistrates certified his qualifications as an attorney, and in December they admitted him to practice in court; Gray then resigned as justice of the peace. [6]

Although Thomas Gray is commonly thought of as Nat Turner's lawyer, James Strange French is the person listed in official records as Turner's attorney. [7] However, neither man actually served: the court assigned William C. Parker to represent Turner. [8] [9]

In 1831, for ten weeks following Turner's rebellion, Gray took it upon himself to research the events of the revolt, completely immersing himself in the factual details of the uprising. He partook in a military observation of the murders committed by the participants of the rebellion and, during the observation, found a survivor, a 12-year-old girl who recounted her experiences of the rebellion. [10]

Before Gray had opportunity to interview Turner, he extensively researched the rebellion, including interviewing several other captured slaves who took part in the uprising and gaining the help of several other legal professionals in this endeavor. [11] One of the professionals Gray worked with was Theodore Trezevant, and together they worked to compile a list of victims. Many errors were made, sometimes accidentally placing survivors in the list of the dead. [12] In the end, there were four revisions over the course of four months, though the number of victims remained a consistent 55 white people killed. In the final revision, Gray was able to give the names of 18 of the deceased, supplying more names than any other person had. [13]

When the time came for Gray to interview Turner, Gray recorded his recollections of his life leading up to the rebellion, and most particularly Turner's experiences with reading and writing, scientific experiments, prophecies, and his spiritual influence on the neighborhood slaves. [14] Additionally, Gray transcribed Turner's confession as well as an account of Turner's motives and actions during the rebellion. [15] Once Gray's transcription was complete, he self-published Turner's confession as a pamphlet in November 1831, titled TheConfessions of Nat Turner.

Today, in large measure because of The Confessions, Gray is widely considered to have been a slavery apologist. [16]


In the 1960s, William Styron published a fictional and controversial account of the Nat Turner's Rebellion using the same title as Gray's pamphlet, The Confessions of Nat Turner . Thomas Gray's pamphlet, the Confessions of Nat Turner, was the first document claiming to present Nat Turner's words regarding the rebellion and his life.

Although the pamphlet is a primary source, some historians and literary scholars have found bias in Gray's writing indicating that Gray may not have portrayed Turner's voice as accurately as he claimed to have done. Kenneth S. Greenberg, professor, and Chair of the History Department at Suffolk University explains in his book why Gray's pamphlet is not as reliable as one may think, cautioning readers to analyze the source with great care. [17] On the other hand, other scholars have extensively analyzed Gray's confession and have deemed it to be an, overall, reliable source. Christopher Tomlins, a professor in the Legal Studies department at UC Berkeley's Law School, mentioned in an essay on the Confessions, that despite Gray's indirect transcription of Turner's words the source is a largely accurate narrative based on an extensive interview with the rebellion's leader. [18] Although, similar to Greenberg, Tomlins stressed the importance of caution in regard to using the confessions as historical evidence.  

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  1. Allmendinger, David F. (2014). Nat Turner and the rising in Southampton County. Baltimore. p. 216. ISBN   978-1-4214-1480-5. OCLC   889812744.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  2. Allmendinger, David F. (2014). Nat Turner and the rising in Southampton County. Baltimore. p. 218. ISBN   978-1-4214-1480-5. OCLC   889812744.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  3. Allmendinger, David F. (2014). Nat Turner and the rising in Southampton County. Baltimore. p. 219. ISBN   978-1-4214-1480-5. OCLC   889812744.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  4. Allmendinger Jr., David (2014). Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County. Baltimore. p. 218. ISBN   978-1-42141479-9.
  5. Allmendinger, David F. (2014). Nat Turner and the rising in Southampton County. Baltimore. p. 216. ISBN   978-1-4214-1480-5. OCLC   889812744.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  6. Allmendinger, David F. (2014). Nat Turner and the rising in Southampton County. Baltimore. pp. 219–220. ISBN   978-1-4214-1480-5. OCLC   889812744.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  7. Brophy, Alfred L. (June 2013). "The Nat Turner Trials". North Carolina Law Review . 91: 1817–1880. Archived from the original on 2016-04-07. Retrieved 2020-07-23.
  8. Southampton Co., VA, Court Minute Book 1830-1835. pp. 121–123. Archived from the original on 2017-11-11. Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  9. Proceedings on the Southampton Insurrection, Aug-Nov 1831, archived from the original on 2016-08-25, retrieved 2018-04-27
  10. Allmendinger Jr., David (2014). Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton. Baltimore. p. 220. ISBN   978-1-42141479-9.
  11. Brundage, W. Fitzhugh; Greenberg, Kenneth S. (2004-05-01). "Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory". The Journal of Southern History. 70 (2): 24. doi:10.2307/27648419. ISSN   0022-4642. JSTOR   27648419.
  12. Allmendinger Jr., David (2014). Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton. Baltimore. p. 221. ISBN   978-1-42141479-9.
  13. Allmendinger Jr., David (2014). Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton. Baltimore. p. 222. ISBN   978-1-42141479-9.
  14. Brundage, W. Fitzhugh; Greenberg, Kenneth S. (2004-05-01). "Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory". The Journal of Southern History. 70 (2): 37. doi:10.2307/27648419. ISSN   0022-4642. JSTOR   27648419.
  15. French, Scot A. "The Confessions of Nat Turner". Encyclopedia of Virginia. Archived from the original on 2013-05-30. Retrieved 2013-08-21.[ dead link ]
  16. Fabricant, Daniel S. “Thomas R. Gray and William Styron: Finally, A Critical Look at the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner.” The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 37, no. 3, 1993, pp. 332–61. JSTOR website Retrieved 23 Sept. 2023.
  17. Brundage, W. Fitzhugh; Greenberg, Kenneth S. (2004-05-01). "Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory". The Journal of Southern History. 70 (2): 7. doi:10.2307/27648419. ISSN   0022-4642. JSTOR   27648419.
  18. Tomlins, Christopher (2016-04-02). "Looking for Law in 'The Confessions of Nat Turner'". Rochester, NY. SSRN   2760657.{{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)