Practical illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law

Aryannah Pendleton: A Fugitive Slave Case

This article about Miss Pendleton’s case was published in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on October 15, 1840.

A trial which excited much interest, was held in this town on Thursday last, before Hon. Joseph Eaton, Judge of the County Court, for the purpose of recovering a colored girl, by the name of Aryannah Pendleton, claimed to be a fugitive slave belonging to a Mrs. Price, of Richmond, Virginia.

The girl, it seems, came to New-York with Mrs. Price, and although strictly guarded, found means, prompted by the love of Liberty, of escaping to Hartford, and from there to Hampton, where she has resided for about three years past, and until arrested at the instigation of Doctor Price, son of the above named Mrs. Price, on a writ of Habeas Corpus and brought before Judge Eaton for trial.

The residence of this girl, it appears from what information we can collect, was made known to Doctor Price, by a contemptible fellow named Fuller, formerly a resident of Hampton, but now of the South, to whom, it is said, Doctor Price is indebted, and that the girl was, if found a slave, to be sold to satisfy such demand.

The girl claimed that she, although formerly held as a slave, yet was not legally such–that her mother was a free citizen of the West Indies, but when young, was stolen, brought to Virginia, and forcibly held as a slave; yet never was such according to the laws of Virginia; consequently, that she (the Girl) was a free person, and that Mr. Price had no more legal claim on her as a slave, than on any other free person. This statement we are inclined to think, substantially correct, from the facts connected with the trial, and also that it was made by the girl at various times, and under such circumstances that she could have no possible motive to deceive.

Whatever may have been the real character of Doctor Price, we presume not to say, but as developed during the trial, the impression created was very unfavorable in regard to his honesty. He made the attempt to get possession of the girl without a trial; being aware probably, that he could not substantiate his claim before a court and jury, but failing in this, as the girl refused to go with him, his next resort was to legal proceedings.

The trial commenced about 9 o’clock in the morning, and as it appeared to be a new case under the Act passed by the Legislature in 1838, some considerable delay was experienced in arguing various points of law. The first move was for the Plaintiff to give bonds; but whether those bonds were to be sufficient to cover the damages which a jury might award to the girl in case the plaintiff did not make good his claim, or only costs of trial, was a question which was argued at some length. On this point, the court did not decide, but stated that as it was in the power of the court to increase the bonds at any stage of the trial, he would for the present fix the bond at $200.

CourtroomSuch, however, was the strong sympathy excited in behalf of the defendant, that no one would consent to give bonds, although the offer was made to put into their hands as collateral security the full amount of the bond in cash, excepting J. A. Welch, Esq., counsel for the plaintiff, who through the power of a $50 bill or something else was “conscienciously” induced to employ his talents and energies to enslave a free and friendless girl. He, however was objected to, and the amount of the bonds finally put into the hands of the court. Gen. C. F. Cleveland, counsel for the defendant, then demanded that the girl should be released on bonds, which was fixed by the court at $500, and instantly given.

The defendants counsel then called for the power of Attorney, giving Price authority to arrest this girl. An instrument purporting to be such, was produced; but whether it was genuine or manufactured here by Price, could be determined only by the evidence of Price which the Court decided was admissible;– thus giving a man the privilege of substantiating his own power of Attorney by his own oath. Strong suspicions were manifested, however that this instrument was forged, from the fact that Price could not produce it on the evening preceding the trial, as testified by Welch, and also from the appearance of the document.

Price was then questioned about his interest in the case, on which point his evidence was vague and contradictory He testified that his mother gave him money to pay the expense of recovering the girl; but when interrogated how much she gave him, he fixed it at various amounts; but at last said it was $300. He then stated that his mother gave him a $500 bill; which was produced; which in case he did not recover the girl, was to be his own; and that if the girl was found a slave, she was to live in his family. Thus showing his direct interest in the case, and disqualifying himself as a witness.

This point was not decided when the defendants proposed going to a Jury trial forthwith. The plaintiff wished it put off until November, so that he might return to Richmond and collect more evidence in the case; but when notified by General Cleveland that he had an Attorney in Richmond, who would attend to the taking of depositions, Doctor Price withdrew the suit, although otherwise advised and urged by his counsel.

The girl had previously been taken care of, and is now at liberty, and in safe hands. Great credit is due Gen. Cleveland for the able and ingenious manner in which he managed the defense, in which he volunteered his services after having refused to engage for the plaintiff, and it must be a source of consolation to that gentleman to reflect that his influence was on the side of Justice and Humanity, and also, that he has with him, the sympathies of a generous community.

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