Author: John M. Hemphill


Mary Aggie (fl. 1728–1731)

Mary Aggie was a slave who became a principal in a court case that changed Virginia‘s statute law. Although unsuccessful in suing for her freedom in 1728, she demonstrated her belief in Christianity to the satisfaction of the presiding judge, Lieutenant Governor William Gooch. In 1730 she was convicted by the York County court of oyer and terminer of stealing from her owner, which ordinarily would have doomed her to death or severe corporal punishment. In 1731, however, Gooch had her case sent to the General Court, where he hoped she could secure the benefit of clergy, a privilege in English law dating back centuries in which literate persons could escape death or the severest penalties for first convictions on most capital offenses. Before a final verdict could be rendered, on May 6, 1731, Gooch and the governor’s Council pardoned Aggie on the condition that she would be sold out of the colony. The General Assembly referred to Aggie’s cases in passing a law on July 1, 1732, that allowed virtually all Virginians to plead benefit of clergy except in certain cases, a privilege that continued for another sixty years.