Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 25
The Courthouse and the Jail

AT SOME POINT, Harriet must have called upon the attorney, Mr. Murdoch, who took more than his share of freedom suits. He had filed Lucy’s initial papers.1 Murdoch had been centrally involved in the legal fall-out of the incident that shaped the region’s racial consciousness. As Alton’s city attorney during the Lovejoy shoot-out, it was his task to prosecute both sides of the mob violence that resulted in Lovejoy’s murder, the pro-slavery and the abolitionist combatants. Several men bragged about killing the abolitionist, though the jury refused to convict them. Failing to get a conviction, Murdoch left Alton in the aftermath of the riots and crossed the river to settle in St. Louis—not as a broken man, but as someone now willing to represent slaves in freedom suits.2

When Harriet told her story to Murdoch (where she came from, that she was once the slave of Lawrence Taliaferro), he must have recognized her former master’s name because he even spelled it correctly in the complaint. This was the Lawrence Taliaferro of Bedford Falls, Pennsylvania, where Murdoch himself had read law as a young man. He must have known Harriet’s former master personally, since the two men were about the same age and belonged to the same Presbyterian Church in the tiny town. As peers, and with so much in common, they were quite likely acquainted. By reading law in Pennsylvania, Murdoch certainly knew that as Taliaferro’s slave, under that state’s law Harriet would become free at age 28.3 By reckoning from the time of her publicly recognized marriage, she had reached that age in 1846, the year she filed the suit. Murdoch could conceivably have pled Pennsylvania law to free Harriet,4 but the choice of law was complicated when applied to a slave such as Harriet, who had lived in different jurisdictions, with different laws regarding slavery. It was easiest to plead Missouri law in the St. Louis courts because it entitled the Scotts to freedom simply and directly, given their residence in free territory.

An important part of the complaint was the slave’s personal affidavit, yet it is difficult to know just how literally to believe the allegations in the couple’s legal

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