The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Boston: Jewett, 1854



  HAVING been obliged to record so many trials in which justice has been turned away backward by the hand of law, and equity and common humanity have been kept out by the bolt and bar of logic, it is a relief to the mind to find one recent trial recorded in North Carolina, in which the nobler feelings of the human heart have burst over formalised limits, and where the prosecution appears to have been conducted by men who were not ashamed of possessing in their bosoms that very dangerous and most illogical agitator, a human heart. It is true that, in giving this trial, very sorrowful but inevitable inferences will force themselves upon the mind, as to that state of public feeling which allowed such outrages to be perpetrated in open daylight, in the capital of North Carolina, upon a hapless woman. It would seem that the public were too truly instructed in the awful doctrine pronounced by Judge Ruffin, that “THE POWER OF THE MASTER MUST BE ABSOLUTE,” to think of interfering while the poor creature was dragged barefoot and bleeding at a horse's neck, at the rate of five miles an hour, through the streets of Raleigh. It seems, also, that the most horrible brutalities and enormities that could be conceived of were witnessed, without any efficient interference, by a number of the citizens, among whom we see the name of the Hon. W. H. Haywood, of Raleigh. It is a comfort to find the Attorney-General in this case speaking as a man ought to speak. Certainly there can be no occasion to wish to pervert or overstate the dread workings of the slave system, or to leave out the few comforting and encouraging features, however small the encouragement of them may be.

  The case is now presented, as narrated from the published reports by Dr. Bailey, editor of the National Era, a man whose candour and fairness need no indorsing, as every line that he writes speaks for itself.

  The reader may at first be surprised to find slave testimony in the Court, till he recollects that it is a slave that is on trial, the testimony of slaves being only null when it concerns whites,



  We find in one of the Raleigh (North Carolina) papers, of June 5, 1851, a report of an interesting trial, at the spring term of the Superior Court. Mima, a slave, was indicted for the murder of her master, William Smith, of Johnston County, on the night of the 29th of November, 1850. The evidence for the prosecution was Sydney, a slave-boy, twelve years old, who testified that, in the night, he and a slave-girl, named Jane, were roused from sleep by the call of their master, Smith, who had returned home. They went out, and found Mima tied to his horse's neck, with two ropes, one round her neck, the other round her hands. Deceased carried her into the house, jerking the rope fastened to her neck, and tied her to a post. He called for something to eat, threw her a piece of bread, and, after he had done, beat her on her naked back with a large piece of light-wood, giving her many hard blows. In a short time, deceased went out of the house, for a special purpose, witness accompanying him with a torch-light, and hearing him say that he intended “to use the prisoner up.” The light was extinguished, and he re-entered the house for the purpose of lighting it. Jane was there; but the prisoner had been untied, and was not there. While lighting his torch, he heard blows outside, and heard the deceased cry out, two or three times, “O Leah! O Leah!” Witness and Jane went out, saw the deceased bloody and struggling, were frightened, ran back, and shut themselves up. Leah, it seems, was mother of the prisoner, and had run off two years, on account of cruel treatment by the deceased.

  Smith was speechless and unconscious till he died, the following morning, of the wounds inflicted on him.

  It was proved on the trial that Carroll, a white man, living about a mile from the house of the deceased, and whose wife was said to be the illegitimate daughter of Smith, had in his possession, the morning of the murder, the receipt given the deceased by Sheriff High the day before, for jail fees, and a note for thirty-five dollars, due deceased from one Wiley Price, which Carroll collected a short time thereafter; also the chest-keys of the deceased; and no proof was offered to show how Carroll came into possession of these articles.

  The following portion of the testimony discloses facts so horrible, and so disgraceful to the people who tolerated, in broad daylight, conduct which would have shamed the devil, that we copy it just as we find it in the Raleigh paper. The scene, remember, is the city of Raleigh.

  “The defence was then opened. James Harris, C. W. D. Hutchings and Hon. W. H. Haywood, of Raleigh; John Cooper, of Wake; Joseph Hane and others, of Johnston, were examined for the prisoner. The substance of their testimony was as follows:—On the forenoon of Friday, 29th of November last, deceased took prisoner from Raleigh jail, tied her round the neck and wrist; ropes were then latched to the horse's neck; he cursed the prisoner several times, got on his horse, and started off. When he got opposite the Telegraph-office, on Fayetteville-street, he pulled her shoes and stockings off, cursed her again, went off in a swift trot, the prisoner running after him, doing apparently all she could to keep up; passed round by Peck's store; prisoner seemed very humble and submissive; took down the street east of the Capitol, going at the rate of five miles an hour; continued this gait until he passed O. Rork's corner, about half or three-quarters of a mile from the Capitol; that he reached Cooper's (one of the witnesses), thir-


teen miles from Raleigh, about four o'clock, P.M.; that it was raining very hard; deceased got off his horse, turned it loose with prisoner tied to its neck; witness went to take deceased's horse to stable; heard great lamentations at the house; hurried back; saw his little daughter running through the rain from the house, much frightened; got there; deceased was gouging prisoner in the eyes, and she making outcries; made him stop; became vexed, and insisted upon leaving; did leave in a short time, in the rain, sun about an hour high; when he left prisoner was tied as she was before; her arms and fingers were very much swollen; the rope around her wrist was small, and had sunk deep into the flesh, almost covered with it; that around the neck was large, and tied in a slip-knot; deceased would jerk it every now and then; when jerked it would choke prisoner; she was barefoot and bleeding; deceased was met some time after dark, in about six miles of home, being twenty-four or twenty-five from Raleigh.”

  Why did they not strike the monster to the earth, and punish him for his infernal brutality?

  The Attorney-general conducted the prosecution with evident loathing. The defence argued, first, that the evidence was insufficient to fasten the crime upon the prisoner; secondly, that, should the jury be satisfied beyond a rational doubt that the prisoner committed the act charged, it would yet be only manslaughter.

  “A single blow between equals would mitigate a killing instanter from murder to manslaughter. It could not, in law, be anything more, if done under the furor brevis of passion; but the rule was different as between master and slave. It was necessary that this should be, to preserve the subordination of the slave. The prisoner's counsel then examined the authorities at length, and contended that the prisoner's case came within the rule laid down in the State v. Will (1 Dev. and Bat. 121). The rule there given by Judge Gaston is this: 'If a slave, in defence of his life, and under circumstances strongly calculated to excite his passions of terror and resentment, kill his overseer or master, the homicide is, by such circumstances, mitigated to manslaughter.' The cruelties of the deceased to the prisoner were grievous and long-continued; they would have shocked a barbarian. The savage loves and thirsts for blood, but the arts of civilized life have not afforded him such refinement of torture as was here exhibited.”

  The Attorney-general, after discussing the law, appealed to the jury “not to suffer the prejudice which the counsel for the defence had attempted to create against the deceased (whose conduct he admitted was disgraceful to human nature) to influence their judgments in deciding whether the act of the prisoner was criminal or not, and what degree of criminality attached to it. He desired the prisoner to have a fair and impartial trial. He wished her to receive the benefit of every rational doubt. It was her right, however humble her condition; he hoped he had not that heart, as he certainly had not the right, by virtue of his office, to ask in her case for anything more than he would ask for the highest and proudest of the land on trial, that the jury should decide according to the evidence, and vindicate the violated law.”

  These were honourable sentiments.

  After an able charge by Judge Ellis, the jury retired, and after having remained out several hours, returned with a verdict of NOT GUILTY. Of course, we see not how they could hesitate to come to this verdict at once.

  The correspondent who furnishes the Register with a report of the case, says,

  “It excited an intense interest in the community in which it occurred, and, although it developes a series of cruelties shocking to human nature, the result of


the trial, nevertheless, vindicates the benignity and justice of our laws towards that class of our population whose condition Northern fanaticism has so carefully and grossly misrepresented, for their own purposes of selfishness, agitation, and crime.”

  We have no disposition to misrepresent the condition of the slaves, or to disparage the laws of North Carolina; but we ask, with a sincere desire to know the truth, Do the laws of North Carolina allow a master to practise such horrible cruelties upon his slaves as Smith was guilty of? and would the public sentiment of the city of Raleigh permit a repetition of such enormities as were perpetrated in its streets, in the light of day, by that miscreant?

  In conclusion, as the accounts of these various trials contain so many shocking incidents and particulars, the author desires to enter a caution against certain mistaken uses which may be made of them, by well-intending persons. The crimes themselves, which form the foundation of the trials, are not to be considered and spoken of as specimens of the common working of the slave system. They are, it is true, the logical and legitimate fruits of a system which makes every individual owner an irresponsible despot. But the actual number of them, compared with the whole number of masters, we take pleasure in saying, is small. It is an injury to the cause of freedom to ground the argument against slavery upon the frequency with which such scenes as these occur. It misleads the popular mind as to the real issue of the subject. To hear many men talk, one would think that they supposed that unless negroes actually were whipped or burned alive, at the rate of two or three dozen a week, there was no harm in slavery. They seem to see nothing in the system, but its gross bodily abuses. If these are absent, they think there is no harm in it. They do not consider that the twelve hours' torture of some poor victim, bleeding away his life, drop by drop, under the hands of a SOUTHER, is only a symbol of that more atrocious process by which the divine, immortal soul is mangled, burned, lacerated, thrown down, stamped upon, and suffocated, by the fiend-like force of the tyrant Slavery. And as, when the torturing work was done, and the poor soul flew up to the judgment-seat, to stand there in awful witness, there was not a vestige of humanity left in that dishonoured body, nor anything by which it could be said, “See, this was a man!”—so, when Slavery has finished her legitimate work upon the soul, and trodden out every spark of manliness, and honour, and self-respect, and natural affection, and conscience, and religious sentiment, then there is nothing left in the soul, by which to say, “This was a man!”— and it becomes necessary for judges to construct grave legal arguments to prove that the slave is a human being.


  Such extreme cases of bodily abuse from the despotic power of slavery are comparatively rare. Perhaps they may be paralleled by cases brought to light in the criminal jurisprudence of other countries. They might, perhaps, have happened anywhere; at any rate, we will concede that they might. But where under the sun did such TRIALS, of such cases, ever take place, in any nation professing to be free and Christian? The reader of English history will, perhaps, recur to the trials under Judge Jeffreys as a parallel. A moment's reflection will convince him that there is no parallel between the cases. The decisions of Jeffreys were the decisions of a monster, who violently wrested law from its legitimate course to gratify his own fiendish nature. The decisions of American slave-law have been, for the most part, the decisions of honourable and humane men, who have wrested from their natural course the most humane feelings, to fulfil the mandates of a cruel law.

  In the case of Jeffreys, the sacred forms of the administration of justice were violated. In the case of the American decisions, every form has been maintained. Revolting to humanity as these decisions appear, they are strictly logical and legal.

  Therefore, again, we say, Where, ever, in any nation professing to be civilised and Christian, did such TRIALS of such cases take place? When were ever such legal arguments made? When, ever, such legal principles judicially affirmed? Was ever such a trial held in England as that in Virginia, of SOUTHER v. THE COMMONWEALTH? Was it ever necessary in England for a judge to declare on the bench, contrary to the opinion of a lower Court, that the death of an apprentice, by twelve hours' torture from his master, did amount to murder in the first degree? Was such a decision, if given, accompanied by the affirmation of the principle, that any amount of torture inflicted by the master, short of the point of death, was not indictable? Not being read in English law, the writer cannot say; but there is strong impression from within that such a decision as this would have shaken the whole island of Great Britain; and that such a case as Souther v. The Commonwealth would never have been forgotten under the sun. Yet it is probable that very few persons in the United States ever heard of the case, or ever would have heard of it, had it not been quoted by the New York Courier and Enquirer as an overwhelming example of legal humanity.

  The horror of the whole matter is, that more than one such case should ever need to happen in a country, in order to make the whole community feel, as one man, that such power ought


not to be left in the hands of a master. How many such cases do people wish to have happen?—how many must happen, before they will learn that utter despotic power is not to be trusted in any hands? If one white man's son or brother had been treated in this way, under the law of apprenticeship, the whole country would have trembled, from Louisiana to Maine, till that law had been altered. They forget that the black man has also a Father. It is “He that sitteth upon the circle of the heavens, who bringeth the princes to nothing, and maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.” He hath said that, “When he maketh inquisition for blood, he FORGETTETH NOT the cry of the humble.” That blood which has fallen so despised to the earth—that blood which lawyers have quibbled over, in the quiet of legal nonchalance, discussing in great ease whether it fell by murder in the first or second degree—HE will one day reckon for as the blood of his own child. He “is not slack concerning his promises, as some men count slackness, but is long-suffering to usward;” but the day of vengeance is surely coming, and the year of his redeemed is in his heart.

  Another Court will sit upon these trials, when the Son of Man shall come in his glory. It will be not alone Souther, and no doubt the other, and such as he, that will be arraigned there; but all those in this nation, North and South, who have abetted the system, and made the laws which MADE Souther what he was. In that Court negro testimony will be received, if never before; and the judges, and the counsellors, and the chief men, and the mighty men, marshalled to that awful bar, will say to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

  The wrath of the Lamb! Think of it! Think that Jesus Christ has been present, a witness—a silent witness through every such scene of torture and anguish—a silent witness in every such Court, calmly hearing the evidence given in the lawyers pleading, the bills filed, and cases appealed! And think what a heart Jesus Christ has, and with what age-long patience he has suffered! What awful depths are there in that word LONG-SUFFERING! and what must be that wrath, when, after ages of endurance, this dread accumulation of wrong and anguish comes up at last to judgment!