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  • Thrice Condemned: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Practice of Leniency in Antebellum Virginia Courts
  • Tamika Y. Nunley (bio)

During the Christmas holidays of 1856, Prince William County local G. A. Hutchison stumbled upon a fire that was consuming the home of George E. Green. As Hutchison approached the burning house, he discovered to his horror what was described as the “charred spine & pelvis of an adult.” Hutchison proceeded down the path from the house to the barn, where he found traces of blood smeared along the road and on the slats that lined the gate. Evidence of blood, broken gates, and a split latch gave indication that a struggle had occurred before the fire. A blood-stained hatchet that survived the fire confirmed suspicions of a “scuffle.” An enslaved woman named Nelly, along with her children, Betsy and James, and her grandchildren, Elias and Ellen, were jailed and charged with the murder of their owner, George E. Green. The court identified Nelly as the ringleader.1

This article examines the homicides of white Virginians and the enslaved women held responsible for their deaths. The cases included in this study focus on murder and attempted murder as a primary form of enslaved women’s resistance. From the perspective of the enslaved, the legal and personal meanings of resistance served as moments of retribution that contested the years of wrongs inflicted on their lives, minds, and [End Page 5] bodies—their own articulations of justice, even as the law categorized these actions as crimes. In some instances, enslaved women accused of murder avoided the death penalty and, instead, received a commuted sentence. Deemed the most egregious of crimes, murder cases reveal the gendered contours of leniency in cases involving enslaved women.

The cases highlight what nineteenth-century jurists referred to as acts of “leniency” or “mercy” in their deliberations over sentencing. Historian Philip J. Schwarz has definitively characterized the experiences of enslaved people accused of crimes as “twice condemned” by southern law and slavery, but here, I show how in criminal cases enslaved women were thrice condemned when gender is taken into consideration, even with the prospect of clemency.2 More specifically, trial records, governors’ papers, and local newspapers reveal the multilayered contexts in which courts, locals, and the news accounted for the gendered contexts of enslaved women’s lives and applied racialized gender stereotypes either to strengthen or to undermine the case for condemnation. Murder trials involving enslaved women and white Virginians illuminate competing ideas about the relationship of gender, paternalism, and leniency and, more specifically, about the contradictions built into the meaning and the administration of justice in antebellum Virginia. Indeed, these cases underscore that enslaved women employed their own understandings of justice after years of gendered exploitation and violence.

Before the emergence of scholarship about slave resistance, enslaved women were largely regarded as the least likely to engage in the most visible forms of resistance, despite the general knowledge of these incidents among antebellum Virginians. The cases analyzed in this article show not only that gender did not presuppose violent responses toward white southerners but also that ideas about gender, race, age, and sex influenced local opinion and the possibilities for a commuted sentence. Reports of bondpeople on trial for murder fortified white fears of alleged and actual violent retaliation. As Schwarz argues, slave laws, local customs, and the grievances of slaveholders changed over time as a result of the actions of the enslaved. Furthermore, he demonstrates that resistance not only exposed the volatility of slavery but also inspired initiatives to reorient and adjust laws to counteract the actions of the enslaved.3 In instances that led to trial, Ariela J. Gross observes, the [End Page 6] paradox of “double character” or slaves’ “double identity” as human and “property” became increasingly apparent, causing southerners to contend with the contradictions of slave law.4 Malick W. Ghachem refers to this contradiction as “the slave’s two bodies,” or the tension between the legal fiction of human property and personhood that pervades the liberal themes of southern law.5 In the cases that are the focus of this article, however, the racial, gendered, and sexual conditions of...