Sunday, December 20, 2009

Slavery Litigation

From The Bench and Bar of Boone County Missouri by North Todd Gentry, Columbia, Missouri, 1916, pp. 252-262. Available in the Wilson-Wulff History and Genealogy Library at the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum.


The slavery question was not only a troublesome political question, but it caused any amount of trouble in the courts of Missouri, and especially in one of the old slaveholding counties like Boone. The property rights in slaves and the prohibition of a slave from testifying bothered the lawyers then like damage suits and suits of unlawful combinations do now.


In 1848, there was a case in Boone county which showed that a slave was a person and personal property at the same time. “Woodford, a freeman of color”, as the court papers term him, was charged with breaking into the store of Parsons & Moult in Columbia, and stealing some gold, silver and paper money, also one counterfeit ten dollar bill. At the preliminary examination, Woodford was bound over, and in default of a bond for three hundred dollars, was sent to jail. Prior to that, Woodford had been emancipate by Jas. M. Northcutt, his former master, but the master was in debt at the time. The Missouri statute then provided that a master could not legally emancipate his slave at a time when he was in debt. A judgment was soon after rendered against the master, an execution was issued and levied on the former slave, Woodford, and he was sold at public auction to Wm T. Hickman. Accordingly, Mr. Hickman filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, setting up the fact that Woodford had been “manumitted by the said Jas. M. Northcutt”, etc., and asking that he (Hickman) be given the custody of Woodward. The writ was issued, and Woodward was released from prison to go back into slavery.


The case of Milton S. Matthews vs Geo. W. Gordon illustrated how the slaveholders of Missouri would fight when they thought one of their slaves was being imposed upon. It was said that they would resent an injury to a slave as quickly as an injury to a member of the family. Mr. Matthews and Mr. Gordon were prominent business men of Columbia, and lived neighbors on the north side of Cherry street, Mr. Matthews on the east side of Tenth street and Mr. Gordon on the west side of Tenth. Mr. Matthews owned a negro boy about twenty years of age, and Mr. Gordon owned a negro man named Charley (afterwards Charley Boyle, a Columbia blacksmith). On Sunday morning, July 11, 1852, the Matthews boy was passing just south of the Presbyterian church, and saw his dog engaging in a fight with Charley’s dog, and Charley’s dog was on top. The Matthews boy at once took sides with his own dog, and threw rocks at and began to strike Charley’s dog with a stick. Charley appeared on the scene of action and began to whip the Matthews boys. Mr. Matthews came to the rescue of his negro, and began to whip Charley. Some of the Gordon children ran in the house and reported to Mr. Gordon what was going on so close to the church, and Mr. Gordon did not wait for a second announcement. He was in the act of shaving, but he dropped his razor to the floor, and ran to the battleground with his face partly covered with lather. He called to Mr. Matthews to stop, but as the latter paid no attention to him, he dealt Mr. Matthews a blow with his fist, and perhaps with a rock or brick, injuring and disfiguring Matthews’ face. In the fight which followed, Gordon was injured on the face. A suit for damages resulted, and Matthews recovered judgment in the Boone circuit court for three hundred dollars. The answer alleged that the striking of Matthews was done in defense of Gordon and in defense of Gordon’s slave. Among the instructions which the court gave was one to the effect that the defendant Gordon had the right to defend his property from an assault, and if he used no more force than was necessary to protect himself or his slave, then the verdict must be for the defendant. One interesting paper found among the records of that case is a notice to take depositions, and it stated that the defendant would take depositions of March 1, 1853, at the law office of Francis T. Russell, in Columbia “between the rising and the setting of the sun”.

It is said that the Presbyterian Sunday school adjourned informally that Sunday morning.


Two cases which illustrate the relations that existed between master and slave, and the liability fo the master for the conduct of the slave originated in Cedar township.

In 1853, one Hiram, the slave of Edward Young, was arrested and charged with an assault with intent to rape Miss Nancy Hubbard. Both the Young and Hubbard families lived northeast of Ashland. The trial of Hiram on this charge was commenced, but was never finished, as a mob took him from the court house and attempted to hang him, but did not succeed in the first attempt. The next day Hiram confessed, and the day following, the mob returned to Columbia, held a meeting and elected Eli E. Bass chairman of the meeting. Mr. Bass, on motion duly carried, appointed a committee consisting of George N. King and others, and that committee secured the services of a blacksmith, and broke open the jail and Hiram was taken out and hanged in the presence of this mob.

After the excitement had cooled off, Edward Young brought suit against Eli E. Bass and others, and recovered judgment for twelve hundred dollars for the killing of his slave. Then in July, 1854, Nancy Hubbard, a mnor, by her next friend friend Eusibius Hubbard, brought suit against Edward Young for damages, on account of the assault made on her by Hiram, and she recovered judgment for eight hundred dollars.


General Odon Guitar told the following, which occurred in the Boone circuit court; but the names and dates cannot be given. A negro named Sam was charged with the murder of a white man, and was defended by General Guitar. The negro’s master was the keeper of a grocery (later known as a saloon), and a man in the grocery raised a disturbance one night. The master told Sam to put the man out, and Sam tried to do so; but the resistance was so great that he could not. The master told Sam to hit him, hit him on the head, and Sam promptly obeyed. The lick on the head was so great that death ensued a few days later, hence the criminal prosecution. The defense interposed was that the negro belonged to the proprietor of the grocery, and was acting in obedience to the orders of his master. A Boone county jury, which then had strong slavery sentiments, decided that the negro was not guilty.


Mr. Jas. H. Reid, ex-public administrator of this county, tells the following of the crime and punishment of Tony, a negro who was janitor of the Missouri University for many years, and who at one time belonged to President James Shannon:

“My father, R.P. Reid, owned a pair of mules for which he paid four hundred dollars in gold. One day he had those mules hitched to a tree in front of William Gordon’s blacksmith shop, which was situated on the east side of Eighth street in Columbia, on the present site of the Boone County Mill, and just north of the alley. My father had accused Tony of stealing a hog, and Tony felt aggrieved, and got a bottle of vitriol from Dr. Norwood’s office or laboratory at the University and poured it on these mules. In a moment, the mules began cutting all kinds of capers, and Mr. Gordon did what he could to relieve them, and in a hurry sent for my father. Both mules were practically ruined, and we began a search for the guilty party. Some of the drug dropped on the plank sidewalk, and burnt a hole in it, so we ascertained that it was vitriol. Inquiry at the various drug stores proved that no such stuff had been sold to any one; so the University laboratory was the only other place in town where such a drug could be obtained, and Tony was the only person who carried a key to the laboratory, except Dr. Norwood. Accordingly Tony was arrested, and he confessed. A trial was had before Joseph W. Hickam, justice of the peace of Columbia township, and Tony was convicted and sentenced to have thirty-nine lashes on his bare back. J.G. Slate was then constable, so he took Tony and stripped him, tied his hands with a rope and swung him up in the old meat market, kept by John Lange, Sr., situated at the southwest corner of the court house square, and gave Tony the Biblical number ‘forty lashes, save one’. Every lash either raised a blister or drew the blood. At that time, which was early in 1861, Tony belonged to Dr. Walter T. Lenoir, who was a son-in-law of President Shannon, and my father sued Dr. Lenoir and made him pay for the damage done to the mules, which was three hundred and forty dollars.”

On the first day of the next term of the Boone circuit court, which was May 20, 1861 (see circuit court records book “H”, at page 297), the following entry appears in regards to Tony: “Walter T. Lenoir, who was personally known to the judge of this court, came and acknowledged a deed, emancipating a slave, Tony, about forty-five years old, black in color, five feet, 4-1/2 inches high, and with certain scars on his body, to be his act in deed for the purposes therein mentioned.” This deed was recorded on the same day, in deed book 31 at page 198. The scars on Tony’s body were the result fo the whipping that he received.

As soon as he was emancipated, Tony left Boone county, and the last time he was heard from, he was living in the free state of Iowa.


In October, 1824, when Abiel Leonard was circuit attorney, Tony and Nancy, both slaves, were indicted for stealing “five pieces of silver of the value of five dollars” from David Jackson, of Columbia.  The trial resulted in the acquittal of Tony and the conviction of Nancy.  Her punishment was assessed at twenty lashes on her bare back, to be inflicted immediately by the sheriff at the public whipping post in Columbia.  And the record shows that the sheriff thereupon made oath that he would execute said judgment of the court.  The order further directed that Nancy be committed to jail till the costs of the case were paid.

At the August term 1848, Patsy, a slave belonging to Montgomery P. Lientz, of the Woodandville neighborhood, was indicted for attempting to poison James Howlett, to whom she had been hired.  A trial resulted in the conviction of Patsy, and her punishment was assessed at thirty-nine lashes on her bare back.

Section 20, page 1474, R.S. Mo. 1855, prohibited a slave from going upon the plantation of any person not his master, unless sent there on lawful business.  About one year before the civil war, Mr. Joel H. Haden was a farmer living north of Columbia, and the owner of a number of slaves.  One Saturday night, his slaves gave a dance and other slaves of the neighborhood were in attendance, the dance continued till the small hours.  For having such a gathering, complaint was made to a Columbia justice, and twenty of the negro men were whipped at the John Lang meat market, on the court house square.  Each negro received ten lashes, and Buck Lampton, the constable of Columbia township, officiated.

Four negro men were accused of breaking into a store in Columbia, where the Victor Barth Clothing Company is now located, and carrying a small iron safe out to about where Moore’s Station is now situated, breaking open the safe and stealing the money.  While there was some suspicion against the four negroes, there was no proof against them so each one was given twenty lashes at the whipping post, by order of the justice of the peace, and the master required to “sell them down South.”


In August, 1854, John H. Lynch, of Columbia, brought suit against Moss Prewitt, at that time Columbia’s leading merchant and banker, alleging that in April, 1850, plaintiff was about to go to California in quest of gold, and that it was agreed that plaintiff would deliver to the defendant a certain negro man slave, named Jerry, aged about twenty-three years, a good painter by trade and of great value, in consideration of one thousand dollars.  That it was further agreed after plaintiff’s tour and adventure in pursuit of gold on his return home, plaintiff would have the right to redeem said slave upon paying said one thousand dollars and interest.  That plaintiff remained in California until September, 1853, when he left for home, arriving in Columbia on November 6, 1853, sick, discouraged and unable to attend to business.  As soon as his health would permit, on February 4, 1854, he tendered said money to defendant and offered to redeem said slave, when to his very great surprise and astonishment, defendant refused to deliver said slave.  The defense interposed was that the paper that was executed was an absolute sale of said slave.

So great was the feeling in this case that Odon Guitar, James M. Gordon and Peyton R. Hayden were employed to represent the plaintiff, and James S. Rollins, John B. Clark, and R.T. Prewitt, the two latter being Howard county lawyers, represented the defendant.  The court decided in favor of the plaintiff.

Killing of Slave.  The case of Nash vs Primm, which originated in Boone county and was taken to St. Charles county on change of venue, was the first Missouri case to hold that a man was liable in damages for the killing of another man’s slave, although there had been no conviction or prosecution for the homicide.  The case was tried in 1822, and the opinion of the supreme court is not much longer than this pargraph 9see Nash vs Primm, 1 Mo. 178).

Sabbath Breaking.  At the June term, 1828, the grand jury indicted a man for distilling liquor on Sunday.  There was a second count, which charged that the defendant “on the 20th day of January, 1828, it being the Lord’s Day, with force and arms at the county of Boone aforesaid, did then and there compel his slaves to labor and perform services, and did then and there complel them th said slaves to labor in attending a certain distillery there situated, and in bringing wood for the same and in making fires for and in the same, and in hauling wood; and the jurors aforesaid in fact say that none of said labor and services were ordinary household offices of daily necessity or charity, nor were heyother works of necessity or charity, against the form of the statute in that case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the state”.

The defendant was tried by a jury, ound guilty and fined ten dollars on each count.

He Wanted to be Free.  “Tom, a man of color”, through his attorneys, John B. Gordon, Austin A. King and A.W. Turner, filed a bill in equity in 1832, which was the first suit brought in Boone county by a negro.  The substance of his bill was that he had entered into a contract with his former owner for the purchase of himself, that he had paid the purchase price in full, and that a deed of emancipation, “emancipating, liberating and freeing your orator from the bonds of slavery” was executed, but that the defendant, after delivering said deed and before it was recorded, fraudulently obtained the same and held possession thereof.  This case was dismissed, as a deed of emancipation was afterwards duly recorded.

His Witness Could Not Testify.  In 1840, the case of Ira P. Nash vs J. & W. Kuykendall was tried in Boone county, and attracted considerable attention.  Nash was a shrewd town boomer and promoter, as well as a physician, surveyor, horticulturist and agriculturist.  He did not have the proper respect for the rights of others, but enjoyed playing a trick on his fellow man; hence his extreme unpopularity.  He took some wool to the Kuykendalls, who were merchants at Nashville, and left it for sale, with the distinct understanding that the wool must not be sold for less than a certain price, which was twice the market value.  In the course of some months, the wool not having been sold, Nash sent one of his slaves to get it.  The wool was delivered to the slave, who in turn took it home and delivered it to his master.  After a few more months, Nash brought suit against the Kuykendalls for failure to return the wool.  When Kuykendall attempted to prove by the slave that he took the wool home to Dr. Nash, objection was made, and the slave was not permitted to testify.  Judgment was therefore rendered in favor of Nash, and for the value that he had placed on the wool.  This case had much to do with the enactment of our present statute, which permits a plaintiff to be sworn, in behalf of a defendant, and vice versa.
Dealing with Slaves.  R.S. Mo. 1835, page 583, section 7, prohibited the master, or owner of a slave to suffer the slave to “go at large, upon a hiring of his own time, or to act, or deal as a free person”.  In February, 1840, Joseph Estes, a well known farmer of Boone county, was indicted by the grand jury for permitting a negro man, named Armstead, the property of said Joseph Estes “to go at large upon a hiring of his own time, and to act and deal as a free person”.  Mr. Estes pled guilty and was fined twenty dollars cost.  In February, 1859, Mr. Estes was foreman of the grand jury that indicted Robert Schooling for the same offense, and Mr. Schooling pled guilty and was fined a similar sum.  At the same term of court, Thomas Whittle, who had recently moved to Boone county from England, was indicted on a similar charge, and he too was fined twenty dollars.  And in October, 1859, a similar indictment was returned against James S. Rollins, but the case was afterwards dismissed.

In February, 1857, Thomas White, a Columbia merchant, was indicted on to charges for dealing with a slave, and was fined forty dollars in each case, as was Lafayette Hume in November, 1860.       

Slaves Murder Master.  In 1843, five negroes, Henry, American, David, Simon and Mary, were charged with the murder of their master, Hiram Beasley, a farmer who lived between Columbia and Providence.  The murder was the result of cruel treatment, so it was said.  At the trial, Mary was acquitted; Simon and David were convicted of murder in the second degree, and given thirty-nine lashes and banished from the state; and Henry and American were convicted of murder in the first degree and hanged.  The hanging of these two slaves was one of the few legal executions in Boone county.

Slaves Caused Will Contest.  In 1846, Zadok Riggs died near Sturgeon, in Boone county, and his will was soon probated.  By its terms, Mr. Riggs gave to his widow two slaves, Charlie and his wife, and provided that they should belong to her during her lifetime; but at her death, both slaves “were to become free, the same as if they had never been in bondage”.  As Charlie and his wife were very valuable, and as the will gave the heirs no interest in them, suit was brought to break the will.  Mrs. Riggs, so her niece, Mrs. B.F. Tucker says, was devoted to these two slaves, and she was determined that they should be freed.  Accordingly, Mrs. Riggs wrote out a pass for Charlie and his wife, signed and gave them the money with which to go to Canada.  After giving them directions about traveling, she started Charlie and his wife on their long journey one night; and, as she then lived on another farm, away from her children, she concealed from them for a day or two the flight of Charlie and his wife.  When the heirs learned that the two negroes had safely reached the English dominion, the will contest was abandoned.

Decoying Slave.  In 1848, “Lewis, a free person of color”, was prosecuted for “aiding and assisting in decoying Caroline, a slave, the property of Thomas Selby”.  My [Mr.?] Selby was proprietor of Selby’s Hotel in Columbia, and Caroline waited on the hotel table.  Lewis, who had been liberated by his former master, visited Caroline and told her of the benefits of freedom.  So Lewis had to g to jail.

Negroes Stole Turkeys.  Wm. I. Sexton says that his uncle, Geo. H. Sexton, while justice of the piece of Perche township, had a new case to come before him.  It seems that Joseph Lefler died, and by his will emancipated his negroes, Amos and wife.  Then these negroes were accused of stealing a turkey gobbler, a turkey hen and a setting of eggs, and were convicted.  The question as to their punishment was then an important one.  If they were slaves, the statute provided that they must be whipped; if not slaves, the punishment was a term in jail.  Having no precedent to follow, and meting the punishment to fit the case as he thought best, Justice Sexton held that, as they had been slaves, the punishment must be thirty lashes, and accordingly the constable administered them.

License of Free Negro.  In accordance with the provisions with chapter 123, R.S. Mo. 1845, entitled “Free Negroes and Mulattoes”, the county court of Boone county on September 9, 1850. Made the following order in regard to a well known Columbia citizen (see county court record book “I”, page 571):

“John Bateste Lange, a free man of color, thirty-seven years of age, five feet, seven and three-fourths inches high, of yellow complexion, by profession a butcher, came into court and made application for a license to reside within this state and it appearing to the court that he is of the class of persons who may obtain such license, that he is of good character and behavior, and he having further more entered into bond as the law directs with James Shannon his security in the penalty of one hundred dollars, it is ordered by the court that such license be granted him”.

John Batest Lange was the father of John Lange, now of Kansas City, the manager of Blind Boone.

And as late as February, 1864 (after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation), Pearce Buffington, a citizen of the southern part of Cedar township, who was active as an abolitionist, was indicted for dealing with slaves without permission from their masters.  This case was continued until the February term, 1865 when Buffington was tried and acquitted.

Selling Liquor to Slaves.  The opposition to the sale of liquor began to assert itself as early as August, 1855, when Leopold Grossman and Charles Mason, Rocheport merchants, were each fined twenty dollars for selling liquor to a slave.  And one Hatton was indicted for sufferring his slave to sell liquor, in violation of R.S. Mo. 1835, sections 17 and 18, page 584.

Inciting Slave to Leave State.
  In May 1862, William Berry, of Boone County, was arrested on a charge of attempting to induce a slave to leave the state.  He was bound over by the justice of the pece, but the grand jury declined to indict him.

Replevin Cases.  One of the most pathetic incidents in our court procedure was the trial of the case of James M. Robinson vs Elizabeth A. Street, in November, 1862, which was a replevin suit for the possession of Isabella, a negro girl aged nine years.  The court decided that the plaintiff was entitled to the possession of the child and she was taken away from her mother. [Editor’s note: Replevin is a legal proceeding in court to recover personal property unlawfully taken.]

Stephen Todd, an old negro still residing in Columbia, told the following about his master, Judge David Todd, which must have happened about 1836, as Judge Todd retired from the circuit bench in 1837:       

“Two men had a law suit over a nigger (a replevin suit).  Each man claimed to own him.  Old Mahster was judge then, and he made one of the men give bond for two thousand dollars that he would produce the nigger on the first day of the next term of court.  Two or three nights before court met, some men stole the nigger and tried to run away with him.  One of the men who was on the bond got the sheriff and took after them and caught them near Cedar creek, and all were brought back to Columbia.  So the nigger was produced when the trial came up, and the men who stole the nigger were sent to the penitentiary”.
Was It a Sale?  A most unusual case was tried in this county, and, like the other slave cases, it was a hard fought case.  Mr. W.S. Pratt says a negro trader visited a Boone county farmer, living just west of Columbia, and desired to buy a certain negro man named Al, and the negotiations were pending for an hour or ore.  By eavesdropping, some of the negroes ascertained what was going on, and told Al that he was sure to be “taken down south”, which was the dread of all negroes.  Al went to the woodpile, picked up an axe and cut off the fingers of one hand, hoping thereby to prevent the trader from buying him.  He then went to the house and showed his maimed hand.  The trade had already been closed and the payment in gold had been made, but the trader did not want Al then.  A suit resulted, and it was claimed on one side that the injury to Al’s hand occurred before the trade was closed, and it was claimed on the other side that the injury occurred after the trade was closed.  The jury decided against the negro trader.

Breach of Guaranty.  Judge Jno. F. Philips says that the first case that he remembers to have heard tried in Boone county was a suit for damages on account of a breach of guaranty in the sale of a slave.  It was claimed that the slave was guaranteed to be of sound health, but that the purchaser afterwards ascertained that the slave was suffering with the piles; hence the suit.  After much expert evidence from physicians and slave traders, the jury decided in favor of the plaintiff.

Partition of Slaves.  On April 1, 1860, the county court, which then had probate jurisdiction, appointed Jas. L. Stephens, Wm. B. Selby and Geo. T. Laxton, commissioners to partition the slaves belonging to the estate of Dr. Henry M. Clarkson, deceased.  The commissioners, as was the custom in that time, made an appraisement of the different negroes, set apart some of them to the widow, as her dower, and others to the children of the deceased (county court record book “N”, page 637).

Old citizens say that while Buck Lampton was constable and auctioneer of Columbia, he sold and hired most of the negroes at public auction, in front of he court house; and that his favorite expression was, “This is a valuable slave; he will prove a fire in the winter and a shade in the summer.”

White Man Whipped.  Mr. Wm. J. Babb says that he saw a white man striped to the waist and given nineteen lashes, the offense being playing cards with a slave.  This occurred on the court house square.

Slave Had a Gun.  R.S. Mo. 1845, section 21, a page 1016, prohibited a slave from having possession of a gun or other weapon, and provided that whenever found in possession of any weapon, the weapon should be forfeited to the person making the seizure and the slave should be whipped.  In 1850, “Henry, a slave”, was prosecuted before a Rocky Fork township justice for having a shotgun at his house, and the informant was a lawyer named John M. Myers, also of that township.  Henry was convicted, the gun declared forfeited to Myers and Henry was given thirty lashes.

Former Slave Bought Husband.  In 1850, John Copelin [Copeland?], of the Woodlandville neighborhood, liberated his slaves by will, and gave them some land.  Shortly after his death, one of the slaves, Theodocia, gave a mortgage on her land to Andrew McQuitty to secure payment of the purchase price of sam, a slave to whom Theodocia was married.  The mortgage not being paid, it was necessary to foreclose by suit.

Apprenticeship.  For several years after the Civil War, young negroes, whose parents were unable to support them, were “bound out”, as it was commonly called, or “apprenticed”, as termed by our statute, until such negroes arrived at twenty-one years of age.  The county court had jurisdiction over such matters, as will appear from the following order of that court, dated July 2, 1867:

“Thomas, a boy of color, comes into court, and by the consent and approbation of the court, binds himself apprentice to P.T. Christian to learn the business of husbandry, until he arrives at the age of twenty-one years.  Whereupon the parties entered into an indenture with covenants in duplicate according to law”.

A similar order was made by the court on the same day, regarding “Elizabeth and Laura, girls of color”, who were apprenticed to Matthew R. Arnold, to learn the business of “housewifery”.

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