Greenock's Case: A Note on Gender, Race, Class, Politics, and Punishment in Early Virginia

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Lee was a single, white woman living in Prince George County at the turn of the nineteenth century. On 22 August 1800, she appeared before William Harrison, one of the commonwealth's justices, to report that on 30 July a "negro man slave" named Greenock "by force, and against her Will had unlawful and carnal knowledge of her body." Harrison immediately ordered Greenock's arrest, but Greenock was not apprehended until 2 January 1801. Greenock probably relied on a network of friends to keep him in hiding, and the late-August eruption of Gabriel's Rebellion likely postponed his recapture. Whatever his methods, a fourmonth lag between warrant and arrest may not have been unusual, given the long periods many runaway slaves remained at large. On 13 January 1801, Greenock was tried before five county magistrates at a court of oyer and terminer. He plead not guilty, but on the testimony of Lee and three other women, the court found him guilty of rape, valued him at £120, and sentenced him to hang on Friday, 20 February.1

Three weeks before his scheduled execution, Greenock escaped from jail. At the request of Prince George County authorities, Gov. James Monroe offered a $100 reward for his recapture, but Greenock managed to avoid the law for more than three months. He was finally recaptured in May, probably in the neighborhood of Ward's Run, and brought before the court on 9 June 1801 for identification. Greenock was in poor condition, having been "thrice severely wounded. . . . almost to death." After confirming his identity, the court resentenced Greenock to hang, but it recommended to the governor that "the punishment of death be changed to a transportation of the said Greenock out of the United States," a recommendation only made possible by the Virginia legislature on 15 January, two days after Greenock's original trial. Although Greenock's escape was short-lived, it would seem that it ultimately saved his life.2

On the very day that the court made its recommendation, nineteen local men of influence signed a petition on Greenock's behalf, repeating the request that the governor change his sentence from hanging to transportation. Because Greenock was tried at a regularly scheduled meeting of the court, it is likely that many of these men were at the Prince George County courthouse, witnessed Greenock's resentencing, and then quickly gathered signatures from their friends and colleagues. Perhaps sentiment for such an action was building among the men of Ward's Run even before Greenock was presented to the court. In either case, it is clear that the petitioners acted with haste to make their sentiments known.3

The petitioners commented on Greenock's wounds and confessed a feeling of "commiseration for his sufferings." They questioned the reputation of Elizabeth Lee and cited the incongruity of punishment for blacks and whites. The petitioners also argued that transportation would be more humane than execution and that the emotional trauma caused by expulsion from the country and separation from loved ones would be no "slight punishment." Lastly, the petitioners appealed to financial concerns: Virginia law stipulated that slaveowners be recompensed the full value of any slave executed by the commonwealth. In the decade preceding Greenock's case, slave executions cost the state of Virginia almost $36,000, roughly 1 percent of the annual state budget. Although owners of transported slaves were also guaranteed full compensation, the sale and transportation of the slave generated some revenue, causing less of a drain on the state treasury; following the twenty-seven deaths associated with Gabriel's Rebellion, this was an increasingly appealing prospect.4

Under the Virginia constitution of 1776, the governor could grant pardons or reprieves only with the advice of the council of state. A majority of the sitting councilors agreed with both the court's recommendation and the petition and advised that Greenock be transported. …