Monday, February 15, 2010

Murder in Colonial Virginia

Violence and murder between masters and slaves in colonial Virginia was not a one way street. Blacks sometimes found ways of quietly settling the score with cruel masters. The most common forms of black resistance were arson, poisoning and running away. Poisoning was especially terrifying to slave owners. The closeness of house servants to their masters, for whom they cooked and washed in the very house where the master slept, made the threat of poisoning terrifying. Nor was this fear groundless. The records of colonial Virginia document the trial of 180 slaves tried for poisoning.

In 1737, a case of poisoning in Orange County, Virginia, involved the murder of a master by a slave named Peter. The slave Peter was not only executed for the crime but subsequently, had his head cut off and displayed on a pole at the courthouse building, “to deter others from doing the Like.” Nine years after this, in January 1746, also in Orange County, a female slave named Eve was convicted of attempting to kill her master Peter Mountague by poisoning. Mountague suffered severe illness from August through December 1745 before recovering (and living until at least 1771). Although Montague recovered, Eve was convicted of poisoning him and was sentenced to death. The sentence was medieval. She was condemned to be burnt alive, a sentence carried out shortly after her trial. The case of Eve was considered particularly diabolical because she put the poison in Mountague’s milk. Virtually one hundred percent of the slaves living in central Virginia at the time were from eastern Nigeria, and were genetically predisposed to be lactose intolerant. No slaves would be drinking milk, there could be no unintended victims when milk was poisoned, only slave masters and their kin were in mortal danger. This was a calculated and premeditated attempt at murder stemming from deep hatred.

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