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History Civil War Period (1850-1877)

Death of an Overseer

Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South

by (author) Michael Wayne

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2001
Civil War Period (1850-1877)
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2001
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2001
    List Price

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In May of 1857, the body of Duncan Skinner was found in a strip of woods along the edge of the plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where he worked as an overseer. Although a coroner's jury initially ruled his death to be accidental, an investigation organized by planters from the community concluded that he had been murdered by three slaves acting under instructions from John McCallin, an Irish carpenter. Now, almost a century and a half later, Michael Wayne has reopened the case to ask whether the men involved in the investigation arrived at the right verdict. Part essay on the art of historical detection, part seminar on the history of slavery and the Old South, Death of an Overseer is, above all, a murder mystery--a murder mystery that allows readers to sift through the surviving evidence themselves and come to their own conclusions about who killed Duncan Skinner and why.

About the author

Michael Wayne is a professor of history, emeritus at the University of Toronto. He is the prize winning author of three books of American history: Death of an Overseer, The Reshaping of Plantation Society, and Imagining Black America. In Lincoln’s Briefs, his first novel, he gives himself free rein to explore the satiric side of historical possibilities. He comes by his affinity for parody honestly, or perhaps genetically. His father is the late Johnny Wayne of the iconic comedy team Wayne and Shuster.

Michael Wayne's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"A fascinating history that faces still-difficult questions "Elements of class privilege, social ambition, interracial sex and violent death lend the flavor of a mystery to this crime story-cum-history about the brutal murder of an overseer, set on a Mississippi plantation in 1857."--Publishers Weekly

"Death of an Overseer will appeal to the historian and the general reader alike."--American Studies Online Today

"A good historian must have not only a thorough knowledge of the past, but also the instincts of a detective, the insight of a psychologist and the literary skill of a gifted novelist. When these abilities are brought to bear on a particular historical problem, the results are invariably fascinating. Such is the case with Death of an Overseer... Refreshingly, Wayne is neither judgmental nor sanctimonious about what he finds."--The Mobile Register

"Sex, race, slavery, and murder provide a rich mix in Wayne's deft deconstruction of the violent death of a Mississippi overseer. This finely textured volume echoes elements of Faulkner, with its characters entangled by passion, greed, and betrayal. Wayne not only skillfully excavates evidence from the nineteenth century, he also takes us behind the scenes of a twentieth-century historical investigation, offering up doubts, deductions, and imaginative speculation."--Catherine Clinton, author of Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars

"Overseer is not only a great mystery story, but Wayne has written a lively, evocative history of slavery and plantation life that keenly illustrates his arguments. Above all, Overseer is a vivid reminder that the study of history is more than a staid recollection of the past, but a dynamic and timeless exploration of human nature."--Booklist

"Elucidates the texture of slave life, the nature of planters' attitudes towards slaves as well as toward other whites, and the sources and forms of prejudice against blacks throughout history....It suggests a lifetime's worth of sifting and weighing ideas and information about the Old South."--Oxford American

"Michael Wayne has written a genuine old-South detective thriller-but this one happens to be true. Death of an Overseer not only unravels the mystery of who murdered Duncan Skinner and why; it also reveals new insights into the nature of slavery and race relations in the nineteenth-century South."--James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

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