Zachariah Allen and the Almighty’s Dollar

They found him with stolen goods. On March 23, 1820, Zachariah Allen stole “one Moroco pocket book,” and eighty five dollars from a man named John Allison. The court also accused him of stealing a second “Moroco pocket book” from an unknown person with a further eighty five dollars in it.

Apparently, early north Alabamians carried their money around in style. Nineteenth century pocket books filled the role of wallet, small journal, and occasionally came equipped with a calendar. It’s interesting because although men usually carried them they eventually evolved into contemporary purses after 1) someone added straps and 2) the version designed for men shrank to fit inside newly tailored pants with adequate pocket storage. Around the 1850’s, people renamed the smaller pocket book and it became a wallet.

This distinction between female pocket books and male wallets is important because clothing often differentiated the genders during the nineteenth, and earlier, centuries. Prior to the advent of industrially available make-up and cheap Gillette razors for all America-kind; our ancestors spent a long time lingering on fabric to determine the differences between genders. Occasionally they were helped along by secondary sexual characteristics, like breasts, but these were easily faked with some rolled up socks or other cheap material. Facial hair was another indicator but a regularly shaven male face might easily pass for female, or vice versa, thus all those stories about women enlisting as men during the Civil War.

However, none of that happened yet. It’s still 1820 and men still carried pocket books and Zachariah Allen just stole $170.00. The court came down hard on Allen. Jurors decreed that on September 20, he should “receive on his bare back thirty stripes, well laid on.” They subjected Allen to two hours a day, from September 20-22, in the pillory. This meant that he suffered not only corporal punishment for his theft but also faced about six hours of public abuse, during which time the rule of law suspended itself as people might humiliate him in any way they saw fit.

Of course, one’s sympathy for the man decreases once you learn what he did to William Hampton. On August 2, 1820, just a few days before being tried for his original crime, Zachariah Allen “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil,” got into an argument with his cellmate. The two men both awaited trial in “the comon jail” of Madison county. We don’t know the kind of man William Hampton was because no records have yet been found to indicate his original crime. However, we now know that Allen was a violent sociopath because “with both his hands did throw down, and that he the said Zachariah Allen… with his rights foot did stamp on the center of the breast… of which the said William Hampton, then and there instantly died.” He stomped on this man’s chest until his ribs cracked and his heart gave up.

Two prisoners, James Vinyard and Thomas Goodwin, appeared before the court to give testimony about the murder. Vinyard gave evidence against Allen and Goodwin for him. Goodwin must have regaled the “good and Lawful men,” with a tale of bruised honor or justified homicide; because although the jury found Zachariah Allen guilty of murder they only issued him a one dollar fine.

Then they took him outside to be whipped for his original theft.


The State of Alabama v. Zachariah Allen, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 50-51 (1820).

The State of Alabama v. Zachariah Allen, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 51-52 (1820).