Beatings, Drownings and Quarrels


by James A. Bacon

In September 0f 1810, a slave named Joe disobeyed an order given by his overseer, David Elmore, on the Henrico County plantation of Thomas H. Prosser. The overseer endeavored to “correct” Joe, and Joe responded by attacking him with a pole ax. A fight ensued. According to a coroner’s report filed after the incident, “the said Elmore did give the said Negro man Joe a mortal blow about the body.”

Joe did not die immediately, however. Prosser summoned a doctor, John H. Foushee, to give his slave medical attention. Foushee gave the following account of Joe’s final hours:

When I saw him he complained of great soreness in a part which seemed on inspection not materially injured.  After the Effect of medicine, he obtained quiet as I was informed by the attending servant. On Saturday I heard that Joe was much better, and did not think it necessary to visit him, as his general soreness appeared then to be his only complaint, until late in the afternoon I was hastily called to him, the messenger informing me that Joe was much worse. I walked immediately with Mr. Prosser and found he had expired.

Little is known of Joe’s life, but the circumstances of his demise were recorded in a Henrico County coroner’s report, which in turn was collected by the Library of Virginia and placed in its digital collections.

It is commonly thought that the historical record tells us little about the lives of slaves, and it is true that very few left memoirs or letters. But incidents in their lives (and deaths) were captured in a host of legal records preserved in county courthouses – bills of sale, deeds of emancipation, Free Negro registrations, Freedmen’s contracts, freedom suits, petitions for re-enslavement and many other types of documents. The Library of Virginia has captured these hand-written records, transcribed them, and stored them in a searchable database as part of its “Virginia Untold” initiative.

The Library’s work has been years in the making, but it seems especially relevant since the unveiling last year of the New York Times‘ 1619 project, which reinterprets American history through the lens of slavery and race. In the Times‘ telling, 1619, the year in which African slaves first set foot in an English colony in the North American mainland, should be seen as the true founding date of America. The 1619 narrative sees the nation’s history as a ceaseless, 400-year-long story of oppression. The Times project has inspired a vigorous counter narrative by scholars who acknowledge the horrors of slavery and injustices of the Jim Crow era but view American history since 1776 as a largely successful struggle to implement the ideals of the American Revolution for everyone.

As with everything else in American society today, the interpretation of history has become highly politicized. Those of a leftist persuasion embrace the New York Times view of American history as hopelessly stained and the origins of our core institutions as illegitimate. Emphasizing the extraordinary progress that has been made, other commentators highlight how the Revolutionary ideals — that everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — drove history forward.

The Library of Virginia’s “Virginia Untold” project makes the raw material of history accessible to all Virginians. Anyone can access the underlying documentary evidence and see for themselves what life was like. One of the most fascinating data sets includes the coroner’s reports, formal inquiries into the deaths of Virginians, including slaves.

The coroner’s reports provide vivid glimpses into the world of Virginia slavery from the late 18th century to the end of the slave era in 1865. It shows the brutality and mistreatment of slaves through a series of vignettes that have otherwise been lost to history. At the same time, it portrays a more complex and nuanced picture than is commonly acknowedged. For instance, as in Joe’s case, slaves did not always suffer blows meekly. Sometimes they resisted their mistreatment. Some slaves murdered other slaves in quarrels, and others fell victim to workplace accidents. Some died by their own hand, and infants were slain by their mothers – what we might call today “deaths of despair.” With surprising frequency, slaves expired from drunkenness, passing out, and exposure to the cold.

The chart atop this post provides a breakdown of the categories of slave deaths recorded in 747 coroner’s reports. Greg Crawford with the Library of Virginia describes the courthouse documentation as “fairly exhaustive,” although he concedes that stray records may have been overlooked. He also warns that they don’t encompass all violent slave deaths, only those that required a ruling by a coroner regarding the cause.

Drownings were the largest category – slaves drowned with startling frequency, and no more so than in Henrico County, where they frequently engaged in commercial, artisanal and industrial occupations. Working around the river docks and canal locks was a treacherous endeavor.

In 1831 Phil, a slave belonging to William Waddel in Chesterfield County, “Accidentally drowned in James River by falling from a lighter belonging to French and Jordan of Richmond.” In 1823 a slave named Billy Branch was killed “by an accidental fall from the bank of the James River Canal, while engaged in a scuffle or fight with a slave named Shadrach.” And in 1835, the slave Billy Butler “died by accidentally drowning while aiding and assisting in over-turning a boat at the Old Locks on the James River Canal.” Others drowned while swimming, fishing, or accidentally falling into the water.

Many slaves examined by coroners were found to have died of natural causes – “died by the visitation of god in a natural way” was the standard phrase. Occasionally, coroners would note the circumstances of the death. In 1848, it is recorded that a Henrico slave, Reuben Ward, died “during religious worship.” A Lunenberg County slave named Tom died in 1816 in “a natural way” while “being committed to jail for a felony.”

Other reports testified to lives of despair. Various slaves in Chesterfield and Henrico counties were ruled to have taken their own lives. A slave named Sarah was found “alone in a kitchen with certain leather strings which she put around her neck, tied the same so tight as to suffocate herself and cause her own death.” Abraham, a slave of William Pemberton, “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, died when he hung himself with a rope by the neck from a dogwood tree.” Other slaves in the Richmond area cut their own throats or hurled themselves into the James River.

Perhaps most tragic were cases in which mothers killed their own children. An unnamed Henrico child “was killed and murdered by its mother, Kesiah, by smothering or by stopping its breath by putting her hand on its face and keeping it there until it was dead. Kesiah did not have God before her eyes, but [was] moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil.” Even more gruesome, an unnamed female mulatto child was “feloniously killed and murdered by her own mother, Fanny, with blows to the face and head made with a brick.” The victims of some infanticides, speculates the Library of Virginia’s Crawford, might have been the offspring of coerced unions between slave and master.

Coroners examined slaves who died from beatings and abuse at the hands of owners and overseers. Polima, a Goochland slave, “died from severe, unmerciful and inhuman treatment and wounds inflicted by her owner, William T Fletcher.” Another by the name of Jeny, “died from the whipping given her by William Tuggle.”

Slaves had access to alcohol, and like whites, often drank to excess. Drinking frequently led to death by exposure during cold weather. A Henrico slave by the name of Jack Robinson died in January 1805. The coroner described his demise this way: “Died naturally by freezing to death in a field where he had stopped, being overcome with drink and from the severity and inclemency of the weather.” Another slave, Robert, “Died from exposure from the cold, wetness of the ground and from the liquor drink.”

Many slave deaths were classified as homicide. Often these killings were the result of altercations with owners, overseers or other whites. But slaves also argued amongst themselves and with free blacks. A coroner’s report captures one such incident in considerable detail.

In 1841 Spencer, a Negro slave who was the property of Chastaine Porter of Powhatan County, died in a fight with another of Porter’s slaves, Reuben. The two men were working on a boat on the James River & Kanawha Canal. John, a boy slave who was the property of Mrs. Sarah Sowell of Essex County, gave the following testimony:

The witness says [he] was standing on the tow path of the Canal when Spencer & Reuben commenced quarrelling and that Reuben picked up a boat pole jumped on the tow path. Spencer came up to the head of the boat & then Reuben raised the pole and struck at Spencer but missed him. He immediately raised the pole again & struck Spencer & knocked him from the head down on the boat. After he had fallen Reuben [got] up with the pole again & struck at Spencer or in this direction & at the same time let go the pole which fell in the boat.

The witness then leaped on the boat and saw Spencer lying down. [He] called Mr. P. Roach who was in the cabin of the boat & said that Spencer was dead. Reuben then reached on the boat and got a pole and with an oath said he would give him some too. He then ran to the cabin where Mr. P. Roach was.

Roach corroborated the slave boy’s testimony:

The witness was coming from Richmond on the boat with Spencer, Reuben & John – at the Lock No 2. Spencer the headman ordered Reuben to cut the head of the boat from the bank. From this the two commenced quarrelling & Spencer said to Reuben unless he would attend to his business he should not come in the cabin. Reuben then threatned to strike Spencer with the boat pole. Spencer then walked up towards the head of the boat & witness heard the pole strike the boat. In few moments John came running to the cabin where witness was & said that Reuben had killed Spencer & had threatned him. Witness, went immediately up from the cabin and examined Spencer & found him dead. Reuben acknowledg to witness that he struck Spencer but did not intend to kill him

Poring through these records creates the impression that slave life in 19th-century Virginia was one of unremitting brutality and despair. But remember, Virginia’s African-American population ranged from roughly 300,000 in 1790 to 500,000 in 1860, and the Library of Virginia database collected reports over a 100-year period. While there may be missing records, and while not all violent deaths were recorded by coroners, the incidence of homicide, suicide, and fatal injury may have been no more common among slaves than among Virginians living today — most likely less. More research needs to be done to determine how accurately the stories contained within these records reflect the routine reality of slavery.

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14 responses to “Beatings, Drownings and Quarrels

  1. Probably my ignorance but if slaves were considered property why would their deaths be investigated by a coroner?

    Were there laws against those who might have killed or injured them?

  2. No shit sherlock (no offense to fellow blogger) but how were slaves expected to record their experiences when it was forbidden how to teach them to write?

  3. Jim, you are working way too hard to avoid saying that slavery was a horrific experience for those who were slaves. Why?

    You are correct that slavery was not unremittingly brutal on a daily basis, but it was brutal according to the whim of the owner, who could choose to beat (to death) men and rape women without penalty.

    It is rather depressing when a libertarian defends the least libertarian of social relationships. Perhaps you would like to revise Patrick Henry’s proclamation, “Give me liberty, but slavery wouldn’t be such a bad alternative.”

    Your previous comment that slaves might be better treated than penniless Irish immigrants strikes me as typical of whites who are having a hard time admitting that America has a suffered from racism that continues to impact our current lives.

    As long as you’re digging deep into history, maybe you can enlighten us with some data:
    – How many penniless Irish immigrants yearned to be slaves?
    -How many slaves were yearned to be free?

    The Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott suggests an answer – no law was needed to prevent whites from voluntarily becoming slaves; but a law was needed to keep blacks from escaping slavery.

    • Inthemiddle, I guess I need to add append this statement to every post I make about the history of slavery:

      Let me state the obvious so the enforcers of PC rectitude don’t accuse me of defending slavery. Slavery was a moral abomination. As practiced in the United States, the institution expropriated the value of the slaves’ labor, sexually exploited slave women, broke up the families, subjected them to mistreatment and brutality, and inflicted a multitude of other harms. Slavery was a hideous stain on American history. There is no moral “defense” of slavery. None.

      My points in this post are simple: (1) The Virginia Library maintains an online database of primary sources so people can go see for themselves what the evidence is, (2) there’s a lot of really interesting information in there. Where else but this blog post have you read of the kinds of anecdotes I highlighted?

      How anybody could construe this post as a defense of, or apology for, slavery is absolutely beyond me. Your comment does make me wonder about you, though, Inthemiddle! Documentation? We don’t need no stinkin’ documentation. Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts! We know everything we need to know!

      As for your reference to my reference to Irish immigrants. I didn’t say they were “better treated.” That would be a ridiculous assertion. The Irish were not deprived of their liberties, sexually exploited, whipped and beaten without legal recourse, separated from their families, bought and sold, etc. I asked the question whether slaves were “better off” from a material perspective (shelter, food, etc.) than Irishmen stepping off the ship. That’s an empirical question, not a value judgment or a “defense” of slavery.

      I am saddened that you seem to have suspended your critical reading faculties, but slavery is such an emotional and contentious issue that I don’t expect you will be the only one to do so.

  4. Fascinating post. I have never considered quantifying slavery in this aspect. Most revealing. It does make sense to me. If you examine the Autobiography of Harwood Lockett he reveals much about slavery. His memories of Halifax and Mecklenburg Counties during the Age of Jackson does somewhat mirror the pie chart.

  5. Gosh Jim, have I offended your sensibilities? I apologize.

    But you had two posts in a row that discussed slavery, and apparently you were not making the point that slavery was not as bad as its critics make out. So what was your point? That there is interesting information in the Virginia Library? That might explain the second blog, but some of us might understand the second blog in context with your first. Especially, when the context of your first was a disagreeable cultural competency and sensitivity training program at which a school board member made the comment that Jim Crow was worse than slavery. (While I understand the point he was hoping to make, his comment was wrong, empirically.)

    I understand the value of empirical research on the lives of slaves. I remember when Fogel & Engerman came out with Time on the Cross. And, empirically, I don’t think you can make the argument that slaves were better off than impoverished Irish arriving our shores, materially or otherwise. (I realize that you were just asking, but really, why would you if not to make a point?)

    And, yes, if you regularly run columns that suggest that slavery might not have been so bad, empirically, it might help to add your disclaimer. Because some of us might miss the critical difference between the point you hoped to make and the point I think you actually made.

    • Don’t disagree that slavery is clearly the worst part of American history bar none as it is based on the assumption that one person could own another person, a concept I think violates natural law. But William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the Liberator that many Irish had it worse than slaves as the latter were fed. I’m not defending the statement as I don’t have the appropriate information to do so. I have a hard time accepting its truth but a friend showed me a photocopy of the article. I’m just repeating what one of the major abolitionists wrote based on his knowledge and views.

      • I haven’t seen Garrison’s comment, but I don’t doubt that he wrote it. I’d be interested in the context that he made it. My guess is that he was hopting to enlist Irish immigrant support for his abolitionist movement. The immigrants, however, had their own struggles and found a more welcoming home in the Democratic Party, in part because of its acceptance of Catholics, which also happened to be the party of the southern planters.

        I should add that, in another context, I would be more sympathetic to Jim’s study of slave life. Life for individual slaves was very different depending on their specific circumstances. Some slaves worked for their own benefit and paid for their freedom. Some slaves owned rifles and shot game to supplement their diets. Some slaves learned to read. But this does not represent the totality of slavery. (Jim’s data represents 741 coroners’ reports for a population that reached 500,000.) And without acknowledgment of the larger picture, these individual circumstances do not give an accurate portrayal of slave life. Especially in the context of a discussion of the Loudoun County diversity training program.

        By the way, I would add that the ethnic cleansing of the continent was an equally dark part of American history. Together with slavery, they constitute our national ‘original sin’. It’s something we have to accept as part of our national heritage, even as we enjoy the benefits of our continental nation and the liberty that is also part of our national heritage.

        • Knowing the context would, indeed, be interesting. Garrison could have had lots of motives. All I know is that I read it a few years ago. I wrote what I read.

          I think we’d be better off if we could accept and acknowledge that we probably all had ancestors who did terrible things to others whom they regarded as different and others who had terrible things done to them because they were regarded as different.

          Does anyone really think indigenous nations didn’t wipe out other indigenous nations before Europeans came to North and South America? Does anyone think that white slave traders didn’t obtain many African slaves from other Africans. None of this diminishes the evils that humanity did, including ones done in America.

          But let’s put the sanctimonious attitudes away and just try to treat our fellow humans with some level of respect. And respect includes telling as many factual accounts of history as possible.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            I could not agree more with TMT’s comments. Life was pretty brutish, short, violent and miserable for all by a very very few lucky ones until a few decades into the 20th century. Slaves were everywhere, in every disguise imaginable. And few, if any, were victors in wars then as now, the rest even more miserable then.

            Certitude is impossible on all these sorts of issues as we frame here, whether in general or particular. But highly informed essays are growing in numbers, arguing all angles and claims, none of which you will find here. Try those found in National Association of Scholars website, and all the responses to them, for starters. Only then there is hope for a useful discussion. And I am hopeful. This very Sunday morning a 9 year old 3rd grader, who had just prepared for her first upcoming trip to Jamestown, told me that only some 650 of the originally roughly 18,000 emigrants to America were still alive there in 1618, the rest having perished. She got it in school. If I were quick witted, I would have asked her, “How many were free?” At the rate her mind was working, she might well have said, “15 at most of the very few left alive, maybe.”

  6. Posted on behalf of Jane Twitmyer:

    Thanks for this little journey into history as I nurse my bad back …
    What I found is a whole lot more than I learned in school and evidently teaching the history of slavery is in a state of flux, including what is still printed in high school textbooks.

    Here is another story like the one from Loudoun County.
    “a charter-school teacher in San Antonio, Texas asked her 8th-grade American history students to provide a “balanced view” of slavery by listing both its pros and cons, a wide public outcry ensued. The homework assignment was drawn from a nationally distributed textbook.” Outrageous!

    Let me say up front that a view of the legal right to OWN another human being can never be “balanced”. It is just plain morally wrong. That said, as I read these history posts, slavery was about making money. Yesterday’s slave owners can, in some very real ways, be equated with our ‘community be damned’, ‘profits over all’, major corporations. Check the tobacco companies, and the oil majors with their 40 years of knowledge about climate change, and now the food and big Ag’s toxic practices.

    Greed evidently can override all else in any age. The tobacco planters, and then the cotton planters, needed cheap labor. The British obliged. Their slave trade was one of the biggest businesses of the 18th century. (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/aug/15/400-years-since-slavery-timeline)

    In America slavery started early. The Spanish tried to establish a colony in 1586 in what is now SC with slaves who revolted. The colony failed. St. Augustine, FL was known to be home to slaves in 1586. “What played out in places like Virginia were the result of things that had already happened in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Peru, Brazil and elsewhere.” (https://www.history.com/news/american-slavery-before-jamestown-1619)

    In 1682 Virginia declared all imported black servants to be slaves for life, but slavery wasn’t really codified until 1705 in Virginia, when a series of laws stripped away any legal rights from slaves. The law declared all non-Christian servants entering the colony to be slaves. The laws define “slaves as real estate, acquits masters who kill slaves during punishment, forbids slaves and free colored peoples from physically assaulting white persons, and denies slaves the right to bear arms or move abroad without written permission.” SC followed in 1738 with a series of slave laws that forbid learning to read and earning money.

    So, if slavery was developed over time, abolishing slavery happened over time as well. The first Abolitionist Society was founded in Phila. in 1775. Ben Franklin became its leader in 1787. Vermont abolished slavery and enfranchised the whole population in 1777, and by 1804 “all of the northern states abolished slavery, but the so-called “peculiar institution” of slavery remained absolutely vital to the South.“ In VA in 1775 the ratio of slaves to free colonists was 1-1. In SC it was 2-1.

    The country’s founders kicked the can down the road in order to form the US. In 1800 Jefferson proposed abolishing slaves in the territories but his proposal was defeated in Congress. The U.S. Congress did outlaw the “African slave trade in 1808, but the domestic trade flourished, and the enslaved population in the U.S. nearly tripled over the next 50 years.”

    Anyone looking for a quirky list of slavery facts in the states … https://r.search.aol.com/_ylt=AwrJ7J_3m1peoyYASAJpCWVH;_ylu=X3oDMTByaWg0YW05BGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwM4BHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzcg–/RV=2/RE=1583025271/RO=10/RU=https%3a%2f%2fsharondraper.com%2ftimeline.pdf/RK=0/RS=zDGajcJHusSq6WU6Fl9bQsZMeQA-

  7. johnrandolphofroanoke

    Charles Fenton Mercer tried to do something about slavery. He helped to spearhead the American Colonization Society. 13,000 born free or manumitted slaves were sent to Africa and they created the nation Liberia. The motives and results were less than promising. Nat Turner’s revolt made any form of gradual emancipation impossible for southerners in power.

  8. “Nat Turner’s revolt made any form of gradual emancipation impossible for southerners in power.”

    I’ve not come across that in such stark terms. If true it sealed a monumental tragedy, as the need for a civil war vastly compounded problems of all sorts, rendering the south chronically devastated, incompetent to take care of itself, much less taking proper care of freed slaves. Hence matters spiraled into chronic long term easily manipulated dysfunction on all levels of society over many generations. This is William Faulkner’s central driver, and lesson.

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