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Exclusive: Inside the Quest to Return Nat Turner's Skull to His Family

A DNA test will determine if this is actually the skull of the Virginia slave rebellion leader.

For the past decade, what's believed to be Turner's skull has been in the possession of Richard Hatcher, former mayor of Gary, Indiana. Recently, he turned it over to Turner's descendants, who have enlisted forensic experts for testing.

Update: October 13, 1:45 p.m. — The family has temporarily given the skull to the Smithsonian Institution, which will conduct a DNA test to determine if it is, in fact, Turner's. If the tests confirm it to be his, it will be buried next to his descendants.

A small group gathered last week in a hotel suite on the outskirts of Gary, Indiana. The nine formally dressed guests joined hands while standing around a table holding only a white box. Reverend John Jackson of Trinity United Church of Christ started the prayer.

“Eternal God, we are gathered here today to honor you, and to honor the legendary liberator, emancipator of the enslaved, and revolutionary of righteous, the Reverend Nathaniel Turner.”

The gathering’s 83-year-old host, Richard Gordon Hatcher, who served as Gary’s mayor from 1968 to 1987, planned the event at which a skull alleged to be Turner’s was turned over to his descendants. The guests of honor, Shanna Batten Aguirre and Shelly Lucas Wood, both descendants of Turner, flew in from Washington, D.C., to accept the remains.

In 1831, after receiving what he believed to be prophecies from God, Nat Turner led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. Accompanied by a small army of his brethren, the group fought their way through the countryside of Southampton County, Virginia, with hopes of ending the scourge of slavery. When the bloodletting ended, 55 whites lay dead.

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This skull is believed to have belonged to Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831.

The local militia quelled the uprising within 48 hours, but Turner managed to elude his pursuers. After two months he was captured and tried, and on November 11 he was hanged from a tree in the town of Jerusalem, now Courtland, Virginia. It is here that the facts surrounding Turner end and speculation and lore begin. (Read about Turner's complex legacy.)

Mystery of Turner's Remains

Many stories have circulated about the fate of Turner’s remains after his hanging. Several versions claim that he was flayed, quartered, and decapitated before his torso was finally buried in the local pauper’s cemetery. His skull and brain were then sent away for study.

During the recent filming of the National Geographic Studios documentary Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner, there were frequent discussions with descendants and historians about the fate of Turner’s remains. Several had heard reports or read newspaper articles stating that the skull had been donated to Hatcher at a 2002 charity gala for the Civil Rights Hall of Fame, a museum project Hatcher has long championed.

Aguirre, the Turner descendant from Washington, expressed strong interest in contacting Hatcher to see if he’d be amenable to returning the skull to Virginia for a proper burial. The filmmakers arranged the call.

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Shanna Batten Aguirre, a descendant of Nat Turner, holds a box containing what some believe is Turner's skull.

“I really can’t believe I’m talking to you,” Hatcher told Aguirre when they spoke. “I’ve been waiting years for this phone call.”

Family Stories and a Letter

How did the skull of a man born into slavery in Virginia wind up in Gary, Indiana? The chain of transmission includes Franklin and Cora Breckinridge, civil rights activists who donated the skull to Hatcher in 2002. They received it from Bob Franklin of Elkhart, Indiana, who says the skull was passed down in his family for three generations.

“I spent my whole life with this skull,” Franklin says. “My father typed a letter that he kept in the box with the relic just in case anything unexpected happened to our family. He thought it was important that people would know who the skull belonged to.”

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After two months as a fugitive, Turner was captured, tried, and hanged. Some remember him as a fanatical killer, others as a freedom fighter inspired by his faith.

The letter states that the skull was given to Franklin’s grandfather, Albert Gallatin Franklin, a physician in Richmond, Virginia, around 1900 by a female patient who inherited it from her father—one of the doctors who handled Turner’s body after he was executed.

Bob Franklin made many attempts to find a fitting home for the heirloom, including offering it to the Smithsonian Institution. The museum declined the donation on the grounds that it doesn’t display human remains. Eventually Franklin entrusted the skull to the Breckinridges, who in turn donated it to Hatcher’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame project.

Hatcher added the relic to his collection of historical artifacts, including a pair of sunglasses from musician Stevie Wonder, and a shirt worn by performer Sammy Davis, Jr. But deep inside he felt that Turner’s remains should be reunited with his descendants.

Aguirre and Wood, the guests of honor at the ceremony, shed “tears of joy” when they were handed what they believe are their ancestor’s remains.

“The legacy of Nat Turner has had enduring impact, not simply upon our family, but upon American history,” Aguirre said. “Certainly, this fragile fragment holds enormous emotional value for me, for my family. But it is of immeasurable value because it is a poignant reminder of the price of freedom. In a very tangible way, it asserts the humanity of people who were systemically dehumanized. Its incredible existence demands acknowledgment that, yes, this black life mattered.”

Plans call for the skull to be temporarily housed at a secure location where forensic anthropologists, in cooperation with National Geographic Studios, will conduct a full study, including isotope analysis and DNA testing. The Turner family will provide genealogical information as well as DNA samples in hopes that the skull matches their genetic profile. If it is confirmed as Turner's, it will be laid to rest alongside other descendants.