How (Not) to Murder a Slave in Virginia, Part 2


3. (continued) (see here for the first part of this installment)

[Again, I am still awaiting copies of the original documents from the University of Virginia Library and will double-check the details — more later. The following  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.)]

Murder in Buckingham County!

According to court testimony, Christopher beat Will “hard about the head” with a 4-5 foot hickory hoe, continuing to beat him even after he fell to the ground. He then ordered other slaves to haul him to the tobacco barn and lock him inside (evidently a common punishment for slaves in Virginia — see videos below to learn more about Virginia tobacco barns and the tobacco-growing way of life) and wouldn’t let anyone help him. It’s not clear when Will was brought out of the tobacco shed, but he died on a Tuesday, three days after the beating. But the tragedy doesn’t end there. Johnson patriarch Richard then had Will’s body brought into a slave cabin and laid out on a bed of straw. The straw was then set on fire and the body burned, apparently an effort to cover up evidence of the crime. Another interesting twist: based on the locations of the farms of the neighbors who offered testimony, it seems likely that the murder occurred at the father Richard Johnson’s plantation, not Christopher’s, suggesting that Will was owned by Richard and also explaining why Richard was the one who took action to cover up the crime. It would appear that Christopher was the overseer for his father, in this case. (Not yet confirmed.) It might also explain why Jack was present.

Above is the remains of an old Virginia tobacco barn. The (longer) video below gives a much better idea of what they were actually like, taking you on a tour of a barn in much better shape still today.

Johnson Disappears

The charge of murder was based not just on the fact of the beating as the cause of death (which could have been legally excused as an accident resulting from “justified” discipline), but from its viciousness and the fact that medical aid was denied for the several days it took for Will to die. One witness testified that Will was held “prisoner” before his death.

Buckingham Courthouse-1914

The Buckingham County Courthouse, pictured here in 1914. The original Courthouse, designed by Thomas Jefferson and built between 1822 and 1824, was destroyed by fire in 1869.

Interestingly, Christopher didn’t attend the trial; he had managed to escape from jail and by the time of the trial was nowhere to be found. Some of the testimony at the trial touched upon his current whereabouts, and it appears that he stayed in hiding in the local area waiting for the verdict to be decided. He was reported by one witness as having been seen near the courthouse (some miles from his farm), perhaps in an effort to learn what charges if any were pending. Christopher had previously given Will a severe beating earlier that same year. Johnson’s neighbor Joel Flowers testified that he first denied what he had seen, then admitted it because he “had been present when Denny was whipped.” This was probably a reference to William Denny, another witness at the trial–apparently Christopher whipped his neighbor Denny, too, perhaps in an effort to prevent him from testifying.

Christopher Johnson was convicted but was never recaptured, and he never returned home. By 1825 he had completely disappeared; his estate was settled in 1832. I found it also interesting to note that Richard Johnson’s September 1823 will made no reference to Christopher’s crimes nor his disappearance, leaving him a sum of money about the same as the rest of his sons (except Philip — more on him in a future post). Following are some (disturbing) excerpts from the trial notes:

“Commonwealth vs. C. Johnson – ch’d with murder”

The records that survive are horrifying and  remarkable; testimony includes the following comments:

N. R. Powell (appears to be a doctor):  “Many marks of violence — bones of nose broke — one eye out — small fracture in temple — found before he got to place — most (wounds) not dangerous — concussion of the brain most probable result — death proceeded without medical aid — slight inflammation of brain near eye — Inflammation not as great as happens where death ensues concussion — possible from all appearances that he might have died from the injuries all together.”

William Freeland:  “saw Johnson at courthouse day of August, [posing?] about at various places, has reason to believe he would surrender himself.”

Reuben Johnson (another Johnson brother):  “Heard on Sunday that Will was dead, Monday morning afterwards was making [tobacco?] hills — Tuesday night afterwards he died, Wednesday morning he helped make coffin and three negroes carried off the coffin, he heard knocking on coffin as though nailing it on, negroes carried coffin toward the grave –”

tobacco plants

Image credit: US Department of Agriculture.

(See this National Park Service link for more on growing tobacco and an explanation of tobacco hills)

Jack Johnson (Virginia’s father, my 3X great-grandfather):  “was at his Father’s the night Will died, a negro came to his Father’s from the new ground and said Will was dying, his Father sent for Will, he died that night. Saturday he was making tobacco hills and was complaining as usual, straw did burn and his Father got up about the fire.”

Richard Johnson (the Johnson patriarch):  “same as to negroe’s being sick at new ground, put him in the house on straw, he was shrouded and straw and clothes burnt off of him, no marks of violence, negroe was healthy …”

William Denny (neighbor);  heard [Smith?] say that he whipped negroe about meat [March? Or stolen meat?] and then gave him another whipping about [August?] a severe whipping to his satisfaction.

William Wright (neighbor):  [blotted word], said he was inside of said Johnson’s plantation on the [mill?] hill, and Johnson on back part of his plantation, about half a mile off.

Joe Clark (neighbor):  “heard Flowers speaking of distance and pointing to distance [east?] [& etc?].”

Thomas Wright (neighbor):  “was at Johnson’s on Tuesday [that day stated?] Will died Johnson was from house and the headman beat him very much with a hoe he lay stick [& ea?] [stick down?].”

A Slave’s Murder in Buckingham County Makes the Front Page   Richmond Enquirer

After Christopher was convicted, a notice was published in the most prominent Virginian newspaper of the time, the Richmond Enquirer, on July 15, 1823, advertising for his recapture:

“By the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia – A Proclamation:
Whereas it has been represented to the executive by the jailer of Buckingham county that Christopher Johnson and James Smith, confined in the jail of the same county the first named, committed on a charge of murder and the last named for larceny, against whom a verdict was…
Christopher Johnson is about 50 years of age, six feet tall or upwards, stout made, rather corpulent, (stooped?) the shoulders, short black hair, (…) eyes, Roman nose, long chin, and a small puckered (mole?)…

For a longer version of the Virginia tobacco-growing life, take a peek at this video, courtesy of  Preservation Virginia:

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)





7 thoughts on “How (Not) to Murder a Slave in Virginia, Part 2

  1. This is a fascinating amount of research! Such a tragedy involving Will. Makes me seethe, I’ll admit… and I can’t help but wonder had Christopher ever been caught just how much time he would have served and if he would have been forced to serve his full sentence. I’m so looking forward to reading more!

    • Tonya, I can’t tell you how intoxicating it all is! Hard to read through, sometimes, though. Sometimes I just have to just put the stuff down and go away from it and catch my breath…it’s like getting punched in the stomach or something. I wonder, too about Christopher–like, what actually happened to him? Where did he end up? Did he assume a new identity? Did someone help him? Did he die? I am tempted to see if I can find what happened to the family he left behind, but I’m not sure if that would be taking too much of a detour. It’s all so fascinating! Such history!

      • I’ll bet it’s been a whirlwind and each new layer just begs to be found now! Yeah, he may be a detour now, but I’d guess later if Christopher still offers a blip of interest after the primary research is done, look further. He certainly handed over firsthand insight to that particular law regarding violence against slaves. I honestly didn’t know whites could be punished for it. I’m sure another person will uncover something else that many may not know, so his information was valuable, and as an ancestor, even more so to your research.

  2. Agreed. And, right — the shocking thing is that whites usually were NOT punished for beating or even killing slaves, and so the fact that Christopher was makes it that much more sensational to me. It makes me wonder what the guy must have been like — and by association what my grt-grt-grt grandfather Jack was really like. So far he seems to be an anomaly. The search continues!

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