Rachel was a slave living in Kittery, Maine in the late 17th Century. Her identity remains a mystery, as does her age and background. What is known, is that in 1695 or thereabouts, poor Rachel was murdered by her owner who savagely beat her to death. The circumstances are not recorded however the owner concerned, one Nathaniel Keen, was arrested and put on trial for her murder in May 1695.
Two of the three Justices present for the case were Samuel Sewall who achieved notoriety for being involved in the recent Salem Witch trials a few years previously, for which he had later apologized, and Thomas Danforth who had not sat on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, but contrary to Arthur Miller’s depiction of him in ‘Crucible’ had been a strong influence in the termination of the trials and the witch-hunts. Danforth was Governor in Maine for several years, and his sympathy for those accused led to his relocation of several of them to his own land in Framingham, for safety, in an area now known as Salem End Road. Sewall would become known as a leading early slavery abolitionist, standing pretty much out on his own in his community.
Keen, a married man with at least seven surviving children, owned a large piece of land, around two hundred acres near Kittery. It is thought that Rachel was his only slave, in his will following his death in 1722, no other slaves are mentioned either as “stock creatures” as part of the estate assets for general inheritance, or named individually as inheritance for his sons.
The verdict rested solely on the definition of Rachel as “property”, with the ruling that although as a slave she was the property of Keen, every resident of New England was still a person whether they were free or not, and as such had a right to life. It was ruled that, as a slave-owner, Keen had the right to moderately correct or chastise his slave, however the deliberate murder of his slave was a capital crime.
Keen was eventually found guilty of cruelty and was fined 10 guineas. His assets were some years later valued by York County taxation assessors as generating an annual income of around seven pounds making Keen one of the wealthier members of the community, however for purposes of his will, his holdings were valued at 705 pounds. His fine equated to five pounds for the charge and five pounds ten shillings for court costs, a sum which exceeded his estimated annual income; as a result, this ‘sentence’ was suspended until a later date.
My next case is that of Margaret Garner. Margaret was born into the dying stages of slavery, in the early 1830s on a plantation in Kentucky. Described as a ‘Mulatto’ it is thought the plantation owner John Pollard Gaines may have been her father. By 1849 Margaret was married to a fellow slave, Robert Garner. Gaines sold his plantation including all slaves to his younger brother the same year. By this time Margaret was pregnant with her first child, Thomas who was born in 1850.
It is not clear how many children Margaret and Robert had together in total however three of her younger children were also described as mulatto, being very fair-skinned and bore according to some, a striking resemblance to Archibald Gaines, the only white male on the plantation. As each child was apparently conceived in the period when Gaines’ wife Sally was in the late stages of her own pregnancies, it is felt that Gaines turned to Margaret when his wife was “unavailable” sexually to him as a result. Samuel, Mary and Pricilla were therefore later assumed to be the natural children of their own great-uncle.
In January 1856, Robert and Margaret – pregnant again, escaped with their four children and several other slaves after stealing horses and a gun, and made their way to her Uncle’s property in Cincinnati, after crossing the frozen Ohio river in what was the coldest winter for 60 years. After arriving at Joe Kite’s property, the other members of the party continued on their way to other safe houses before escaping via the Underground Railway to Canada. Joe meanwhile had Robert and Margaret barricade themselves inside his cabin and went to seek the advice of leading abolitionist Levi Coffin, who advised him to relocate them further west of the city and move them out under night cover until further arrangements could be made.
Unfortunately, in his absence, the Garners were surrounded by US Marshals and slave-catchers, and after a small fire-fight during which Robert shot and wounded one of the Marshals, the family were taken prisoner. But not before Margaret had killed two-year-old Mary with a butcher’s knife, and attempting to kill the other children and herself. Lucy Stone testified on her behalf that Margaret had killed her child, and would do so again, rather than take her back into the abuse she had suffered.
Gaines tried to argue for Federal law over state law in the precedence of the case. By federal Fugitive Slave laws, his slaves were his property and as a result should be returned to him. If the trial was tried under state murder laws, the Garners would be tried as “persons” not property and as a result, would be exempted from the slave laws. The defense further attempted arguing that on a previous occasion, for a period of time, the Garners – specifically Margaret – were taken out of state into a free state for purposes of alternative employment. Under an earlier slave law, slaves removed to a free state for work, were allowed to take and keep their freedom by self-determination.
Under this clause, Margaret was by definition a free woman and as such could be removed to a free state for murder trial, following which a guilty verdict could quite conceivably be terminated by pardon. It was eventually decided that Margaret would stand trial for federal charges, which meant her murder charge would not immediately come to court. Due to the delay, Robert, Margaret and baby Pricilla were returned to Gaines to await trial. This was all the result Gaines needed. For the following few weeks he kept the family moving around, always one step ahead of the federal marshals sent on numerous occasions to take Margaret back to stand trial. Finally, by March of 1856, officials caught up with Gaines in Louisville only to discover that he had put them on a steamboat bound for Arkansas and his brother’s plantation.
The Henry Lewis collided with another boat, and began to sink. Margaret and baby Pricilla were thrown overboard; the baby drowned. Margaret was said to be extremely happy about this and would happily have drowned too. Nevertheless, they ended up in Arkansas, and from there, vanished. Robert later claimed that they spent some time working in New Orleans before being sold the following year to Judge Bonham of Mississippi where Margaret subsequently succumbed to a typhoid fever outbreak in 1858. Nothing further is stated about the whereabouts of the two boys, who were kept behind when their parents were released back into their owner’s custody. Nor about the baby Margaret was carrying when she escaped and killed her daughter.
My final case is a similar one which took place in April 1787, in Philadelphia. That of young Alice Clifton, a slave owned by a ruthless man Jack Shaffer, well known for his corpulence and brutality both physical and sexual, towards his slaves. After forcing himself repeatedly on young Alice, she eventually gave birth to a baby girl, whom after a matter of weeks or months had passed, she subsequently murdered by slitting the infant’s throat with a razor.
Alice was just fifteen when she was arrested and brought to trial. Doctors examined her body and that of her child, which Alice initially claimed was born dead; they dismissed this claiming the baby was obviously not a newborn. A doctor Foulkes did however testify that Alice had been habitually raped by Shaffer and that she claimed he enticed her to kill the baby, with promises of giving her freedom, and setting her up in a house. Several material witness were questioned both before and during the trial; Alice however was not afforded right to defend herself with testimony, just as legally she had no right to ownership over her own body.
Alice was found guilty of the charges of infanticide, on the basis not that she had necessarily killed her child, more because it was felt that under terms of slavery, by doing so she had willfully destroyed her owner’s property – the baby. Upon receiving a death sentence the public reacted with a riot. They felt that too harsh for a young girl in Alice’s situation. It is not clear what happened following the riot, however Alice was not put to death, and she vanished from public record. Shaffer, for his sins was charged with destruction of property rather than rape and assisting murder of an infant. He was found not guilty.
Keep watching for the next in the series… where I will be discussing some well-known slaves of well-known people.