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The Intriguing Case Of Hezekiah Smith, The Last Danish Prisoner From the Danish West Indies

 

From 1670 until 1917, the Danish West Indies was a Danish Colony in the Caribbean. To date, stories have been told of how some enslaved men and women led fierce revolts against Danish rule and how others succeeded and acquired wealth on the islands even though the system was against them. And on those same islands that were eventually transferred to the U.S. in 1917 lived Hezekiah Smith, whose story continues to intrigue many.

In December 1904, a young female laborer from a plantation on St. Croix was found murdered. Smith was arrested and brought before a special criminal court to face charges of murder. There, he was found guilty and received the standard sentence for murderers in the Danish West Indies since the time of Danish King Christian V of 1683 — “to lose his neck and have his head mounted on a stake”, according to Virgin Islands History.

Fortunately for Smith, authorities in the Danish West Indies had stopped killing people accused of murder. Hence, Smith petitioned the King at the time to reduce his punishment to a life sentence. But Smith didn’t wait for the pardon. He picked the lock of his cell door at Fort Frederick with a nail and climbed over a fence to freedom. Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest right after his escape, promising a reward of 20 dollars, but no one found Smith.

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Smith had apparently stolen a rowboat and gone to sea, Virgin Islands History said. He had with him a bottle of water and six coconuts. In about nine days, he reached Puerto Rico where he started work as a day laborer on the docks and later signed on an American schooner bound for Baltimore. There, he started a romantic relationship with another woman.

But that relationship also didn’t end well. In January 1908, Smith was accused of murdering the woman, who was known as Minnie Smith. He was sent to prison. While there, officials recognized him as the infamous murderer of St. Croix and subsequently extradited him to Horsens State Penitentiary in Denmark.

He was punished several times during his first years in prison there. But by 1919, he started exhibiting good character and showing signs of reform. So the warden recommended him for a pardon. But this came at a time when the Danish West Indies had been transferred to the U.S. The American authorities said they would not take Smith back.

The transfer of the islands to the U.S. meant that Smith no longer had an address on the islands. He had also not requested to keep his Danish citizenship. And having been in prison for so many years, he was now stateless. Thanks to this, Smith spent four more years in Horsens. In the end, King Christian X of Denmark pardoned him on September 15, 1923, and prison officials put him on a Polish schooner bound for Trinidad. No one ever heard from Smith again.

To date, not much is known about his early life and family.

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Written by PH

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