chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
June 01, 2011

Legal Lore: The Killing of a Master by His Servant

Fred L. Borch

Download a printable PDF of this article. (membership required).

On January 23, 1746, “Eve, a Negro woman slave lately belonging to Peter Mountague” was found guilty of murdering her master. All that is known about Eve, her trial, and the horrific punishment meted out to her is contained in a two-page handwritten “memorandum” in the record books of the Clerk of Court, Orange County, Virginia.

Although Eve was accused of murder, Mountague’s status as her master made the homicide a more serious offense. The killing of a superior by a subordinate struck at the very heart of the hierarchical society that existed in England and had been transplanted to Virginia.

Every man and woman had a specific, well-defined place in the societal hierarchy, and superior-subordinate relationships were the rule—no exceptions. Con-sequently, the killing of a master by his servant was “regarded as particularly heinous by all ranks of society” because it threatened this societal framework. Such aggravated murders had been classified as petit treason in England since 1352. A Court of Oyer and Terminer was constituted, and the charge of petit treason was brought against Eve.

As a slave, Eve did not enjoy any rights or liberties but was too valuable to be hanged without due deliberation and, consequently, received a trial. According to the memorandum, her case was heard by five “gentlemen” who took oaths of office as justices of the court. These were white males who owned land as “freeholders.” To serve, these justices had to be worth at least £100—a considerable amount at the time.

The charge against Eve was brought by “Zachary Lewis, Gent[leman] Attorney for . . . the King.” The prosecution was by information; the memorandum states that Lewis “gives this court to understand and be informed that Eve, a Negro Woman. . . .” Indictments by grand jury were reserved for Englishmen.

The memorandum records that the court believed that Eve had acted at the instigation of Satan in failing to obey her master—and in poisoning him.

Mountague was convinced, long before he died, that Eve had poisoned him. The crime had allegedly occurred on August 19, 1745, when Mountague drank the poisoned milk. Yet, he had lingered until dying on December 27, 1745. It is just as likely that Mountague died because the milk he consumed was contaminated. The process of pasteurization was not invented until the 1860s, and raw milk had the potential of carrying disease-causing bacteria, including E. coli, which can cause kidney failure and death. But the members of the court did not know about germ theory or bacteria.

The memorandum indicates that “diverse witnesses” were called upon to testify. Certainly, someone from Mountague’s household presented sworn testimony that repeated the claims made by the deceased slave-owner. There was probably evidence about the milk and how Eve had the motive and opportunity to poison it. There may have been evidence about Eve’s character and reputation. But we know the identity of only one witness, Hugh Noder, and what he said is not recorded; only that he wanted to be reimbursed for his expenses in traveling to the court as a witness.

According to the memorandum, Eve was allowed to testify and denied poisoning Mountague or having had any role in his death. The court “demanded of Eve if any Thing for herself she had or knew to say . . . [but] she said she had nothing to say but what she had before said.” This underscores the conclusion that Eve denied murdering Mountague; if she had confessed, or made any incriminating admissions, the memorandum would have so stated.

The court found Eve guilty. Under English common law, capital offenses like murder, rape, and robbery were punished with hanging. Those guilty of treason and petit treason, however, faced a more severe penalty. Offenders “were dragged to the place of execution on a hurdle,” which was a piece of wooden fencing that was used as a sledge. John Bellamy, Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages 188 (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1973). The arms and legs of the convicted prisoner were tied to the hurdle, which was dragged by a horse to the place of execution. The “men were [then] hanged, but women were burned.” The court’s decision to burn Eve to death was consistent with the common law and, while horrific, had nothing to do with her status as a slave.

The last point about the sentence itself: In medieval England, women sentenced to be burned at the stake were burned alive. By the 1700s, however, the executioner would strangle the defendant before lighting the fire. Whether that occurred in Eve’s case will never be known.

Based on what appears in the memorandum recording Eve’s case, there seems to have been scant evidence that the death of Mountague was a homicide. But the wealthy white men hearing Eve’s case were in no mood to acquit. Mountague was dead; he believed Eve was responsible for his death; it must be so.

Murder in Virginia? Possibly, but unlikely. Injustice in Virginia? It is hard to reach any other conclusion.

Fred L. Borch

The author is the regimental historian and archivist for the Judge Advocate General’s Army.