Trial of Ben, a Negro Slave

Trial of Ben, a Negro Slave

Halifax County Courthouse, 1838. Vintage Postcard Image, 1970.

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The Halifax County, Virginia, court records go back to 1752 when Halifax was cut off from Lunenburg County. In 2001 when I was doing online research looking for information about my Hart ancestors in these counties, I discovered the account of the Trial of Ben, a Negro slave punished for the felony of stealing a handkerchief and nine buttons. The transcript details haunted me deeply, and I wrote a poem at the time, imagining me sitting in the courtroom among the spectators and looking across to see my ancestor sitting among them. When I originally wrote the poem I see that I was somewhat vague about which ancestor it would be, and imagined Caleb present as a newly married man. Since this is purely imaginary and I am not even sure when they lived in Halifax County, John and Caleb, father and son, could both have been in attendance. Or not. However, it is easy to imagine them there, and then returning home later to talk of what they saw, perhaps making sure their slaves heard the grim tale as well. My poem incorporates wording from the trial notes presented in italics as part of the poem–a form of “found language,” if you will accept it that way. Presented after the poem is the summary of the trial from the USGenweb Archives Project for Halifax County, Virginia. James Hart 

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While Browsing for Ancestors in Virginia

I Read the Trial of Ben, a Negro Man Slave

Belonging to William Hoskins for Felony, 1764

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James Hart

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At a Court of Oyer and Terminer, held at the

Courthouse of Halifax on Friday, August 12, 1764

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They assemble under the King’s oak timbers,

roof beams raised from forests like a judgement

over them, Gents present, and Justices sworn:

Robert, Hugh, Nathaniel, Theophilus, and John

men with surnames from England’s communal pool,

someone’s ancestors, landscape we think we know.

The document I read speaks only for them:

the aforesaid Ben was led to the bar in custody

of Thomas Cobbs, Gent, Sheriff of Halifax,

I hear Ben’s chains rattle and drag the floor,

and it being demanded of said Ben if he is

guilty of said charge, and he answered not guilty.

I listen to divers witnesses on behalf of the King

as well as behalf of Ben, who was fully heard

in his own defense.  The Court finds that Ben

is not guilty of burglary, but he is guilty

of the felony in stealing a handkerchief and 9 buttons,

which the Court values at 2 shillings.  I listen to it

being demanded of said Ben if he knows anything

to say for himself, why the Court should not award

a judgement of death against him, prayed for benefit

of Clergy.  I listen to the sentence as it is ordered

that said Ben be burned in the hand by said Sheriff

here in Court, and that he have both ears nailed

to the pillory and cut off in part, and afterwards

(yes, afterwards, another timber falls) to receive

39 lashes on his bare back, well laid on, (I can hear

the Justice’s enunciation laid on here as well)

at the Public Whipping Post, and it is said to the

Sheriff that he do the execution thereof immediately.

Perhaps my own ancestor, a young man then

and maybe newly married, sits among the Gents;

perhaps he’s sitting next to me, or over there;

perhaps not. Did he take this news back home

as the example for the rest of them?  I imagine

he did, smelling burning skin as he spoke,

his remnant men and women listening to him

with gut instead of ears, a few lashing words

perhaps touching his own pale ears as he paused

somewhere in the details, remembering hammer

raised into the King’s air, nails piercing ears.

Just as I smell Ben’s skin smoldering now among

black texts of history scrolling over gray pixels

like a memory I’ve acquired, and can’t put back,

past lashed to bloodied timbers, the King’s justice

meted out under beams supporting temple sky.

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July 19, 2001; April 13, 2002

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Here is a link to the original source submitted

by Kathy Welder, and the text presented below it:

Trial of Ben, a Negro man slave belonging

to William Hoskins for felony – 1764.

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Trial of Ben, a Negro man slave belonging to William Hoskins for felony, 1764

(The first court case occurred in August of 1764, found on page 430.)

At a Court of Oyer and Terminer, held at the Courthouse of Halifax on
Friday, August 12, 1764 for the trial of BEN, a Negro man slave belonging to
William HOSKINS, Gent. for felony. Present, Robert WOODING, Hugh INNES, 
Nathaniel TERRY, Theophilus LACY and John DONELSON, Gents, Justices.
 
A dedimus potestatem directed to Thomas DILLARD, Gent. and others were
read, whereupon Nathaniel TERRY and Hugh INNES administered the usual oaths to
Robert WOODING, who then administered the usual oaths to said Nat'l TERRY,
Hugh INNES, Theophillis LACY and John DONALDSON.  The Court thus being
constituted, the aforesaid BEN was led to the bar in custody of Thomas
COBBS, Gent, Sheriff of Halifax to whose custody he was committed by Mr.
Justice GREEN, and it being demanded of said BEN if he is guilty of said
charge, and he answered not guilty.  Whereupon divers witnesses on behalf of the
King as well as behalf of BEN, who was fully heard in his own defense, testified
on consideration whereof, the Court is of the opinion that he is not guilty of
the burglary, but he is guilty of the felony in stealing a handkerchief and 9
buttons, which the Court values at 2 shillings, and it being demanded of said
BEN if he knows of anything to say for himself, why the Court should not award a
judgement of death aganist him, prayed the benefit of Clergy, and thereupon it
is ordered that said BEN be burned in the hand by said Sheriff here in Court,
and that he have both ears nailed to the pillory and cut off in part, and
afterwards to receive 39 lashes on his bare back, well laid on, at the Public
Whipping Post, and it is said to the Sheriff that he do the execution thereof
immediately.
 
These proceedings were signed by Robert Wooding, Gent.

Submitted by Kathy Welder

Halifax County, Virginia – USGenweb Archives:

http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/halifax.htm
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Unfortunately, the Bible records at the top of the Genweb
page have been moved and are no longer current.
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Reprinted with permission - March 11, 2013
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