Please sir, pray sir, Massa!
The early settlers instituted in Virginia, as in other colonies, a code of punishment at least as severe as that of the mother country. For minor offences, doing penance in church, standing in the stocks, and ducking were the usual penalties; for more serious crimes, lashing, branding, and dismemberment—usually of the ears—were customary. So scarce was manpower in the first few decades of the century that hanging was rare. Jails in this period were chiefly places for administering punishment.
The ex-slaves’ stories of brutality must be read in their relation to an era in which human suffering elicited scant sympathy, when a public hanging drew curious crowds, when mentally deranged persons and imbeciles furnished amusement for jeering onlookers, and when society sought not to reform the criminal but to place upon him a mark that would serve as both safeguard and warning. The institution of slavery gave to the sadist opportunities for the perpetration of the sorts of crimes Kraft-Ebing has collected from a later day. Because these, interesting as they are to the psychologist, prove only that those perversions that have always existed had more serious consequences when men held other men in bondage, only a few such stories are included in this chapter that deals with punishment of slaves, and emphasis is placed upon the laws that governed Negroes. Before slavery was legally recognized, the same general laws of conduct governed Negro and white servants. The type of punishment, moreover, later imposed upon slaves was administered also to free white offenders.
In the decade that slavery was written into Virginia law, the code governing offenses of servants was revised. Laws providing penalties to take the place of extension of service were passed. In 1668, one year after baptism and Negro slavery were found not to conflict, the house of burgesses decreed that “the infliction of moderate corporal punishment on a runaway servant…is as necessary to restrain the servant as extension of service.” A decree of the following year, specifically for Negro servants, provided that, “if any slave resist his master or other by his master’s order correcting him, and by extremity of the correction
should chance to die…his death shall not be accompted a felony…since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice, which alone makes murder felony, should induce any man to destroy his own estate.” Soon afterwards there occurred one case in point. A respected clergyman of Middlesex County, the Reverend Samuel Gray, felt compelled to correct a young slave boy of his who had left the plantation for a short period. When the boy returned, the Reverend Mr. Gray “bound him to a tree and compelled another slave to beat him until he died.” Under the law, the master escaped legal censure.
Slaves, during this period, might resist neither master nor white servant. In 1680 it was decreed that “if any Negro lift up his hand against a Christian he shall receive thirty lashes.” For many centuries, however, and in many countries thirty and nine lashes had been customary—the number that Paul had received at the hands of the Romans. “Well-laid on” with the English cat-o’-nine-tails, they were severe punishment. The cat-o’-nine-tails was a yard-long rope of twisted rawhide. An expert flip of this weapon across a bare back could draw blood from rib to rib. In 1705, the penalty for the first offense of hog-stealing was twenty-five lashes for “any person,” but “thirty-nine lashes well laid on, at the common whipping post” for Negoes or Indians. For the second offense, any culprit must stand for two hours with his ears nailed to the pillory, after which the ears were to be chopped off “close to the nails.”
Virginia established in 1692 special courts for slaves. A commission took the confession of a Negro suspected of a capital offense, or, if there were no confessions, the sworn word of two witnesses, or of one “with pregnant circumstances” was required before conviction. Capital crimes were “lying out” and resisting lawful apprehension, carrying powder and shot, lifting a hand against a Christian, housebreaking, conspiracy, rebellion, and third-offense crop stealing. After 1723, the oath of a “credible witness,” or of a Negro, mulatto or Indian, bond or free, was sufficient to acquit or convict a slave “without the solemnity of a jury.” If a Negro or Indian, not a Christian, gave false testimony, he was sentenced to have one ear nailed to the pillory one hour and then cut off, after which the second ear was to be treated similarly. Thirty-nine lashes accompanied the dismemberment.
The provisions of 1723 also granted amnesty to any one who killed a slave during dismemberment, “unless it shall be proved that such slave was killed willfully.” But the final provision of the act set aside even this exception. It declared that no person indicted for the murder of a slave and found guilty shall “incur any punishment for the offense or misfortune.”
Dismemberment was never clearly defined, though the lobes of the
ears were usually cut off. It served a two-fold purpose in that it identified Negro and white criminals and served as a warning to others. Laws “for the better government” of servants and slaves, in 1769, noted that dismemberment is “often disproportionate to the offense and contrary to the principles of humanity.” Castration of Negroes was unlawful except on conviction of an attempt to rape a white woman. These laws were not at all times rigorously enforced. Though toward the end of the eighteenth century severity was mitigated by several revisions, a code for the protection of the slave owner and not the slave remained on the statute books of Virginia until the Civil War had brought about emancipation.
In spite of the law’s leniency toward brutal masters, sentiment was against inhuman treatment. In 1792 Miss Polly Davis of Spotsylvania County wrote her brother about a slave owner who had whipped his black wench almost to death. “Such a black-hearted Rascal oughtn’t (be) allowed to have black People,” she declared. “The poor thing’s back was cut up like a piece of raw meat, and the People are all stirred up over it.”
In the same year, 1792, a slave of Bowling Green on suspicion of robbery was whipped “very severely” by a storekeeper named Kuhn, not his owner. Hoomes, owner of the slave, whipped Kuhn with equal severity. As an aftermath, Kuhn charged the slave with stealing and Hoomes with assault and battery, and Hoomes charged the storekeeper with whipping another’s slave without authority. Both slave and master were acquitted. Hoomes was awarded £17 “personal damages” to his “property”; the slave was given a brief resting spell to recover from his injuries.
The practice of hiring out slaves was responsible for much of the ill treatment of Negroes in Virginia. In 1786 Thomas Sorrell of Westmoreland County was charged with the murder of a slave whom he had hired from Ebenezer Moore. The county court found a true bill against Sorrell for manslaughter and sent him to the grand jury, which changed the charge to murder after reviewing the evidence. Sorrell was tried and acquitted. St. George Tucker, the famous Virginia barrister, noted that “the acquittal was, as I thought, directly contrary to evidence.”
In 1817 one Nicholas hired several Negroes from Frederick Harris. Nicholas’ overseer whipped one slave, Joe, so “unlawfully, cruelly, and excessively,” that he died. Nicholas could not be held responsible, declared the court, for Joe’s death was a “willful or unauthorized trespass,” and the overseer could not be held responsible, for he was neither owner nor hirer of Joe.
Although planters had grown up with the Negroes they inherited and had known them as nurses and playmates, most of them believed
that they were masters by divine right. In his Notes on Virginia Thomas Jefferson showed the effect of slavery upon the slave owner:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions—the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other … The man must be a prodigy who can retain his circumstances … Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.
More succinctly, George Mason told the Virginia legislature the same thing when he declared somewhat later: “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.”
A wealthy tobacco manufacturer of Richmond was brought into court in the 1820’s charged with having whipped a 15-year-old slave girl to death. At the hearing it was disclosed that, as he lashed the girl, his wife applied a hot iron to her body in various places. The verdict of the coroner was that the girl had “died of excessive whipping,” but, since a wife could not testify against her husband, he was acquitted. A few years later the manufacturer was hauled into court for killing single-handed another slave. Although the evidence showed that the slave had died under the lash, the manufacturer was acquitted of the crime, since “none but blacks saw it done,” and Negro testimony against white persons was inadmissible.
A case that occurred in 1827 brought about a decision of far-reaching significance. When a planter named Turner was charged with cruelly beating his own slave, attorneys for the defense reviewed all Colonial records on master-slave relationships and proved that there never was “an act of the Legislature … for the punishment of this offense.” The court thereupon threw out the case for want of jurisdiction. Four years later a planter named Brooks of Henrico County was arrested for beating his slave to death. The first and second juries failed to agree. A third jury found him guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to serve two years in the penitentiary, where he was to be “kept in a solitary cell, on low and coarse diet, for one sixth of the term of imprisonment.” Brooks appealed and the sentence was affirmed, except that the diet was limited to one twelfth the term.
When Negroes and whites reversed their customary roles, justice was usually satisfied less easily. William Grayson, a free Negro, was, in 1849, charged with the murder of David Miller, a white man. Grayson was sentenced to be hanged but was granted a new trial on grounds of insufficient evidence. Although police officials screwed the Negro’s hands tight in a vice, he would not confess. Whereupon the court dismissed Grayson a second time, declaring itself “unanimously of the opinion, that it (the evidence) is wholly insufficient to sustain the ver-
dict and judgment.” An armed mob took the Negro from the jail in broad daylight and hanged him to the nearest tree.
Not always did slave-torturers go scot-free, however. In June, 1850, Mr. Souther of Hanover County, a sadist whom students of abnormal psychology would have found interesting today, was arrested on the charge of murdering one of his slaves. Souther’s indictment read in part:
The Negro was tied to a tree and whipped with switches. When Souther became fatigued with the labour of whipping, he called upon a Negro man of his, and made him cob Sam with a shingle. He also made a Negro woman of his help to cob him. And after cobbing and whipping, he applied fire to the body of the slave; about his back, belly and private parts. He then caused him to be washed down with hot water, in which pods of red pepper had been steeped. The Negro was also tied to log and to the bed post with ropes, which choked him, and he was kicked and stamped by Souther. This sort of punishment was continued and repeated until the Negro died under its infliction.
Found guilty of murder in the first degree, Souther filed a bill of exception that asserted: “But it did not appear that it was the design of the prisoner to kill the said slave, unless such design be properly inferrible from the manner, means and duration of the punishment.” A second court reaffirmed the act as murder and sentenced Souther to serve five years in the penitentiary.
Within the memory span of ex-slaves, the master-slave relationship had fallen a long way from the patriarchal system of Colonial Virginia. Plantation lands were unproductive, tobacco was no longer king, and many estates had been divided or abandoned. Two rebellions—Gabriel Prosser’s in 1800 and Nat Turner’s in 1831—had made slave owners suspicious, at times, even of house servants. And finally, the pressure of abolitionism and the interference of Northerners were sorely trying the harassed slaveowner. The serenity of Colonial days was gone.
Slaves were considered the root of most Virginia evils—of economic failure as well as of Garrisonian maledictions. While some slaveowners were of the moral fibre to withstand the pressure, others—according to the ex-slave Frank Bell—”took out dey tempers on de slaves.” Charles Grandy says he “oughter know” whether they ever whipped slaves in Virginia.
Marsa whup me once wid de bull whup. Ole bull whup was made outa cowhide. He whup all de bull whup off, an’ den he fas’ dis cowhide to de handle. Fust he whip me straight lak dis, see? Straight up an’ down. Den he check me, dat is beat me cross-wise so’s to square it off. Reckon he meant to give me 100 lashes, but
I guess he los’ count. Spec’ he gave me mo’n dat. Arter de lashin’ he rubbed me down wid nigger-plaster—dat was a mixture of salt an’ pepper an’ mustard an’ vinegar. Pickled me fum haid to feet jus’ like you paint a house or sompin’. Dat was to keep de fester out, an’ it stung wus dan de lashin’. Fust chance I get arter dat whuppin’ I stole de whup. I took it an’ hid it in de woods.
Ex-slaves declare that many masters felt that “niggers needed a whuppin'” at regular intervals, “jus’ so dey know what’s what.” Jane Folkes of Pittsylvania County says her master had “so many niggers he didn’t know ’em when he seed ’em.”
Ole Bob Wilson use to git on his hoss an’ ride down de road. One day he seed a black man comin’ his way in de fiel’ an’ he stop him an’ say, “Hey you! Whose nigger is you?” Nigger say, “Ise yo’ nigger, Marse Wilson.” Bob Wilson say, “You is, is you? Musta run ‘way ’cause I don’t recollec’ ever whuppin’ you. Git dat shirt off.” An’ ole Bob Wilson rode up close to dat black man an’ gave him thirty-nine lashes ‘cross de bare back jus’ ’cause he ain’ ‘member ever whuppin’ dat one befo’.
Sometimes trivial offenses brought lashings. It was not so much the wrong that demanded punishment; it was rather the effect that chastising would have on others. Horace Muse tells of old Toots Smith, too frail for labor, who made her master mad one day.
Ole Toots answer Marse Riles back one day. He tied her to de drum of de wheat thrasher. Den he let de fan beat her ill she fell an’ tol’ er ole man if he want her, to come an’ git her. He took her to his cabin, an’ de po’ thing died de nex’ mornin’. He tol’ de res’ of us, “Dat’s what you git effen you sass me.” An’ you sho’ would. Git yo’ thirty an’ nine fo’ looking’ hard. Thirty and nine? Dat was ’bout fo’ty licks an’ sometimes mo’.
Israel Massie recalls the worst whipping his master gave him.
I was fourteen years ole when I was bought by my third Marsa. When Wyche bought me, he took me dat same night and give me to his son-in-law. Don’t recollect now what I did, but once he made me take off all my clothes, strip down jus’ lak I was born, an’ laid it right on my natchel hide. See dis back? Laid it wide open. De blood seem lak it was all over me. It sting so bad I couldn’t stan’, couldn’t set, an’ couldn’t walk. I try not to think ’bout dem terrible times ’cause it git me so upset, but God gonna keep a-punishin’ white folks.
There are abundant stories told of how slaves “fooled ole Marsa outen a lickin’.” A typical one involves Negro stewards detailed to mete out punishment to their fellow slaves. West Turner tells of Gabe who used to whip slaves for his master.
Anytime old Marsa got a slave dat been cuttin’ up or somepin’ he ell Gabe to give dat slave a lashin’. Sometime he come down to de barn to watch it, but most times he jus’ set on de porch an’ listen to de blows. Ole Gabe didn’t like dat whippin’ bus’ness, but he couldn’t he’p hisself. When Marsa was dere, he would lay it on ’cause he had to. But when ole Marsa warn’t lookin’, he never would beat dem slaves. Would tie de slave up to one post an’ lash another one. ‘Cose de slave would scream an’ yell to satisfy Marsa, but he wasn’t getting’ no lashin’. After while Gabe would come out de barn an’ ast Marsa if dat was enough. “Sho’, dat’s plenty,” say Marsa. Once ole Gabe was beatin’ de post so hard an’ de slave was yellin’ so dat Marsa call out to Gabe, “Quit beatin’ dat nigger, Gabe. What you tryin’ to do, kill him?” Slave come runnin’ out sreamin’ wid berry wine rubbed all over his back an’ Marsa tole Gabe, if he didn’t stop beatin’ his slaves so hard, he gonna git a lashin’ hisself.
Of great significance, however, is the common statement of ex-slaves that worse conditions prevailed “on the next plantation.” How authentic their accounts of these conditions may be, one may doubt. Numerous living ex-slaves have scars and welts to show—raised, they say, by cow hides in slavery days. These marks are usually on the arms, back or shoulders. But Henrietta King bears the scars of slavery on her face. She lives in West Point, Virginia, in a ramshackle hut and is listed in the county records as being ninety-eight years old. Henrietta King is a ward of the town and gets along “tol’able well.” Her face is a hideous mask—her mouth horribly twisted across one cheek with the jagged fangs of rotted teeth protruding. One cheek is speckled with lumps—”ends of de jawbones,” she explains. She says she has no idea what she looked like before her face was smashed. “I musta been a good lookin’ gal,” she admits.
See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, ain’t it? Been dat way fo’ eighty-some years now. Guess it gonna stay dat way tell I die. Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.
Wanta know ’bout slave days, do you? Well, set on dat chair. I’ll tell you what slave days was like. Marsa was a well-meanin’ man, but ole Missus was a common dog. Was twenty-some o’ us slaves, an’ dat was one house where de men workin’ in de fiel’ git
mo’ to eat den de house servants. In de house ole Missus was so stingy-mean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.
Well, here’s how it happened. She put a piece of candy on her washstan’ one day. I was ’bout eight or nine years ole, an’ it was my task to empty de slop ev’y mornin’. I seed dat candy layin’ dere, an’ I was hungry. Ain’t had a father workin’ in de fiel’ like some of de chillun to bring me eats—had jes’ little pieces of scrap-back each mornin’ throwed at me from de kitchen. I seed dat peppermint stick layin’ dere, an’ I ain’t dared go near it ’cause I knew ole Missus jus’ waitin’ for me to take it. Den one mornin’ I so hungry dat I cain’t resist. I went straight in dere an’ grab dat stick of candy an’ stuffed it in my mouf an’ chew it down so quick so ole Missus never fin’ me wid it.
Nex’ mornin’ ole Missus say:
“Henrietta, you take dat piece o’ candy out my room?” “No mam, ain’t seed no candy.” “Chile, you lyin’ to me. You took dat candy.” “Deed, Missus, I tel de truf. Ain’t seed no candy.” “You lyin’ an I’m gonna whup you. Come here.” “Please, Missus, please don’t whup me. I ain’t seed no candy. I ain’t took it.” Well, she got her rawhide down from de nail by de fire place, an’ she grabbed me by de arm an’ she try to turn me ‘cross her knees whilst she set in de rocker so’s she could hol’ me. I twisted an’ turned till finally she called her daughter. De gal come an’ took dat strap like her mother tole her an’ commence to lay it on real hard whilst Missus holt me. I twisted ‘way so dere warn’t no chance o’ her gittin’ in no solid lick. Den ole Missus lif’ me up by de legs, an’ she stuck my haid under de bottom of her rocker, an’ she rock forward so’s to hol’ my haid an’ whup me some mo’. I guess dey must of whupped me near a hour wid dat rocker leg a-pressin’ down on my haid.
Nex’ thing I knew de ole Doctor was dere, an’ I was lyin’ on my pallet in de hall, an’ he was a-pushin’ an’ diggin’ at my face, but he couldn’t do nothin’ at all wid it. Seem like dat rocker pressin’ on my young bones had crushed ’em all into soft pulp. De nex’ day I couldn’ open my mouf an’ I feel it an’ dey warn’t no bone in de lef’ side at all. An’ my mouf kep’ a-slippin’ over to de right side an’ I couldn’t chaw nothing’—only drink milk. Well, ole Missus musta got kinda sorry ’cause she gits de doctor to come regular an’ pry at my mouf. He git it arterwhile so’s it open an’ I could move my lips, but it kep’ movin’ over to de right, an’ he couldn’t stop dat. Arter a while it was over jes’ whar it is now. An’ I ain’t never growed no mo’ teef on dat side. Ain’t never been able to chaw nothin’ good since. Don’t even ‘member what it is to chaw. Been eatin’ liquid, stews, an’ soup ever since dat day, an’ dat was eighty-six years ago.
Here, put yo han’ on my face—right here on dis lef’ cheek—dat’s what slave days was like. It made me so I been goin’ roun’ lookin’ like a false face all my life. What chilluns laugh at an’ babies gits to cryin’ at when dey see me. ‘Course, I don’t min’ it no mo’. I been like dis so long now dat I don’ never think on it, ‘ceptin’ when I see someone starin’ hard an’ wonderin’ what debbil got in an’ made me born dis way. An’ it was a debbil dat done it—a she-debbil what’s burnin’ an’ twistin’ in hell. She never would bother me much arter dat. Maybe it was ’cause Marsa raised such a rumpus ’cause of what she done. Never did beat me again. Used to see her sometime lookin’ at me whilst I was dustin’ or sweepin’. Never did say nothin’, jus’ set there lookin’ widdout knowin’ I knew it. Guess she got tired of havin’ me round. When I got ’bout thirteen years ole she an’ Marsa give me to Marsa’s cousin. Dey was good; all I had to do was mind de chillun. Was wid dem when freedom come an’ dey let me stay on dere same as befo’, ‘ceptin’ dey give me money each month. Stayed wid dem ’till I got married. Soon arter I got married, I heard dat ole Missus had died. Didn’t make me drap no tears.
The experiences told by Henrietta King and other ex-slaves, though illustrating the exception rather than the general rule and doubtless embellished through the passing years, round out the picture of slavery. Just as front page stories of crimes in America do not prove that criminals constitute the majority of the American population, so it may not be assumed that all masters and mistresses took advantage of the opportunities for brutality that slavery threw their way. As in all eras, individuals were usually better than the laws that gave them license.