How (Not) to Murder a Slave in Virginia

Virginian Luxuries


Here, at long last, is the third installment on the story of my arrival at the subject for this book. I have been busy in the archives–wow! What things I’ve found! I think my head might burst open, it’s so full. So many posts now I need to share with you. My book project keeps growing. I hope after you read this post you will understand the reason for my tardiness in posting. I am still awaiting copies of the original documents from the University of Virginia Library and will double-check the details — more later. This information has come courtesy of what turns out to be a distant cousin on the white side, Bev Golden, who does have her hands on the documents. (See her link at the bottom of this post.) If you’re new to this blog, back up to the previous two posts to catch some background on who is who so I don’t confuse you. So, without further ado, let’s go. Put your seat belts on.

July, 1823: That’s the  Night  Month  the Lights Went Out at the Johnsons

1823 was an eventful year in Buckingham County, Virginia, at least for the Johnson family.  For one thing, Johnson patriarch Richard, father of my great-great-great grandfather Jack, penned his Last Will and Testament on September 8th (read more about it in my last post, “And So the Search Begins,” May 16, 2015). Also, although this wouldn’t have anything to do with the Johnson family until his wedding in 1850, Robert Haskins (my great-great grandmother Virginia’s future husband) was born, chattel property of the Haskins family who lived nearby. Another notable event during the summer of 1823: Jack’s brother Christopher became rather notorious in the neighborhood for a heinous act against a slave — even to the whites.

The Master Shall Be Free of All Punishment 

Virginia was a state in which it was almost impossible for a slaveowner to be charged with murder in the death of a slave; the colony of Virginia had established a tradition regarding the treatment of black slaves all the way back in 1705. In that year, the Virginia General Assembly made its position quite clear on the status and rights of black slaves, with a declaration that would help establish the brutality of slavery for many future generations:  “All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.” (See this PBS link for more on Virginia’s slave codes.)  Despite these slaveowner protections against the torture or killing of a slave, during the summer of 1823 — months before patriarch Richard wrote his will — Christopher Johnson was indicted for murder in the beating death of a seventeen-year-old black man, chattel property of the Johnsons, a slave named Will. slave beating

Surprisingly,  Christopher was not just charged with the murder of young Will: he was ultimately convicted. Most interesting is the fact that his conviction was based on the testimony of his very own white neighbors: they were apparently scandalized and incensed at the level of Christopher’s brutality toward another human being, black or otherwise.  This might suggest that Johnson had already earned quite a reputation amongst his neighbors for some pretty savage behavior toward his enslaved brethren (and maybe his white ones as well–more on that later). The fact that Christopher refused to allow the local doctor to be sent for and also refused to allow other slaves to tend to Will after the beating helped convince the Court that the slaveowner had intent to harm or kill, a factor which worked against him despite the protections of the Slave Codes. At the trial, a neighbor, Mr. Pankey (possibly a doctor but I haven’t yet confirmed), testified that none of Will’s wounds should have been fatal, and that he believed Will could have been saved if a doctor had been allowed to provide medical care. Left to suffer in solitude, it took three long days for Will to die, locked up in a hot, stuffy tobacco barn.

Police-Looking for Christopher Johnson

Looking for Christopher Johnson

From the court records, it appears that 45-year-old Christopher became “enraged” at 17-year-old Will while the young man was working a new tobacco field.  A disturbing note for me is that my white great-great-great grandfather, Jack, appears to have testified in support of his brother during the hearing, with a statement that Will was “complaining as usual” that day. Did Jack witness the horrific beating? Did the notion of Will  “complaining” make it okay to beat the young man senseless (actually, beat him to death) in Jack’s mind? Jack, whose own children were mulatto and legally his slaves? (Who openly lived with their mother, also mulatto and slave?) This new information forces me to  re-think my  understanding of my ancestor Jack Johnson. Historically, Julys in Buckingham County are hot ones, averaging in the 90s. (weatherunderground)  I try to imagine what it must have been like for 17-year-old Will, enslaved, probably underfed and hungry (based on details from the testimony–see next post), and out in that hot field with an apparently already angry white man who was probably the son of his owner (Richard), overseeing his every move and (apparently) accusing him of stealing meat. But. One must ask: was Will that much of a rebel? Or does this speak to the general attitudes of the Johnsons about their slaves?  Perhaps it’s a little of both? (Much more on Jack in future posts.)

Stay tuned for the second half of this long post, coming Monday!


This information came to me thanks to my dear cousin John Haskins, who shared a posting on the site written by Bev Golden, which I paraphrase here. I’m glad to have met Bev. Her original source is from a collection at the University of Virginia Library archives, copies of which I am anxiously awaiting now. Here is Bev’s post.

Christopher Johnson’s defense attorney Walter S. Fontaine’s notes of trial testimony and his defense strategy are in a collection of his papers at the African-American Sources: Manuscripts Division Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA:

319. FONTAINE FAMILY PAPERS: Business, legal, and personal papers of Colonel Walter S. Fontaine of Buckingham County and of the Fontaine, Brown, Thompson and allied families. There are … and testimony from relatives and neighbors regarding an accusation that overseer Christopher Johnson beat a slave to death. Reference: (Acc. 4149)

4 thoughts on “How (Not) to Murder a Slave in Virginia

  1. Pingback: How (Not) to Murder a Slave in Virginia, Part 2 | Michele Beller

  2. I really enjoyed your article . Im trying to piece together ancestor names and dates. My ancestor was also Jack Johnson from Buckingham Va area called Tower Hill. Ive heard he was a big plantation owner. I have some other interesting facts about him as well. Feel free to email me if your interested. Keep up the good work.

    • Jerod, wow! We might be cousins then! Researching family history is so interesting, isn’t it? Yes, let’s stay in touch and compare notes. Thanks!

    • P.S. I just realize you posted this a while ago — I have no idea how I missed it! Email me via the Contacts page so I can email you back!

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