William Pitman and Justice



It didn’t happen often in the antebellum South, but occasionally a white man was sentenced to death for murdering a slave.  The first man sentenced to death for murdering his own slave in colonial America was William Pitman.  Pitman had beaten to death a slave boy he owned, whose name, alas, is lost to history as far as I am able to determine.  The Virginia Gazette of Fredericksburg, Virginia reported on April 21, 1775 that, a jury finding him guilty, the General Court sentenced Pitman to death.  The paper editorialized that Pitman had incurred the just penalty of the law and that it hoped this would serve as a lesson to other masters to treat their slaves with moderation.

I hope that the jurors were motivated in part by sentiments similar to those expressed by Richard Hetherington to the jury in the trial of Arthur Hodge, a member of the legislature and council in the British Virgin Islands, in 1811 when Hodge was on trial for the murder of his slave Prosper:

“…the law makes no distinction between master and servant. God created white and he created black creatures; and as God makes no distinction in administering justice, and to Him each is alike, you will not, nor can you alter your verdict, if murder has been proved – whether on white persons or on black persons, the crime is equally the same with God and the law.”

Hodge was found guilty, sentenced to death and hanged.  Slaves were treated as property, but even in the days of slavery the law, and juries, could not but help to recognize occasionally that this species of property consisted of men, women and children created by God.

Published in: on April 10, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on William Pitman and Justice  
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