This is the second in a series of four blogs related to the “To Be Sold” exhibit which opens on October 27 at the Library of Virginia. Each post will be based on court cases found in LVA’s Local Records collection and involving human traffickers. These suits provide insight into the motivation of individuals to get into the business of selling forced labor as well as details on how they carried out their operations. Even more remarkably, these records document stories of enslaved individuals purchased in Virginia and taken hundreds of miles away by sea and by land to be sold in the Deep South. The following is the story of an enslaved woman named Elizabeth (also known as Lizzy or Betsey) found in Norfolk County Chancery Cause 1853-008, Thomas Williams vs. William N. Ivy, etc.
As told in last week’s blog post, Thomas Williams and William Ivy formed a partnership to purchase enslaved individuals in Virginia, transport them to Louisiana, hire them out to a local timber company for a year, and then sell them for a profit. Elizabeth was one of the women purchased by Williams and placed on a ship headed to Louisiana where Ivy was awaiting them. When Ivy received the first shipment of forced laborers, he was not happy to see Elizabeth coming off the ship. He could not understand why Williams purchased her.
“(She) could be of no service to the concern in Louisiana & was in fact purchased by the said Williams in manifest opposition to the intents and interests of the concern.” In order to spare the partnership a financial loss, Ivy sold Elizabeth to Ethan Allen for $480 at a public auction in Franklin, Lousiana, on 15 February 1839. In the sale agreement, Ivy declared that Elizabeth was “free from all mortgages or encumbrances, and the defects termed redhibitory” (that is to say, she was in perfect health).
Bill of sale, 1838
Norfolk County Chancery Cause, 1853-008, Thomas Williams versus William N. Ivy, etc., Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia
Elizabeth’s story does not end there. The very next day after purchasing Elizabeth from Ivy, Allen sold Elizabeth to John Johnson who then sold her on 8 March 1839 to William B. Lewis for $613. On 4 April 1839, Lewis sold Elizabeth to a relative named Thomas H. Lewis for $650. Thomas H. Lewis brought Elizabeth to his home in Opelousas, Louisiana, 85 miles north of Franklin, to work as a house servant for his family. About two weeks after being purchased by Lewis, Elizabeth had “a most violent fit that lasted nearly three hours, it incapacitated her from work for three or four days. She had several fits afterwards. She was often deranged, and forget [sic] everything told her.”
The attacks occurred on a regular basis, hampering Elizabeth’s work. On 29 April 1839, Lewis asked a local physician named Dr. John M. Jewell to examine her. When he arrived, Dr. Jewell found Elizabeth experiencing convulsions. “She was unable to attend to her duties as a slave for four or five days afterwards and even then was not capable of attending as a sound slave.” He observed how she would forget about going from one room to another, or being told what to do or bring. Elizabeth had difficulty comprehending what was said to her. He regarded the “services of the said slave were not worth the price of her medical attendant bill.”
Dr. Jewell diagnosed her with epilepsy which meant Thomas H. Lewis’ relative sold him a enslaved individual with a “redhibitory” defect. For this reason, Thomas H. Lewis returned Elizabeth on 23 May 1839 to William B. Lewis, who traced back Elizabeth’s past traffickers and discovered William Ivy to be her original trafficker in Louisiana. He filed suit against Ivy to recover the amount he paid for Elizabeth plus interest. Lewis’ family members, Dr. Jewell, previous traffickers of Elizabeth, and others provided extensive testimony concerning Elizabeth. They presented a chronology of her being bought and sold. They testified to Elizabeth’s poor health and how it diminished her monetary value. In August 1839, William B. Lewis placed Elizabeth in the care of Dr. Jewell. Two months later, Elizabeth experienced a series of “strong convulsions” and died on 23 October 1839, almost one year after being sold in Norfolk. Elizabeth was 13 years old. Following her death, one person offered this summation of Elizabeth’s life: “the negro slave must have been burthensome [sic] to her owner and totally valueless as a slave.”
Thomas Williams vs. William N. Ivy, etc., 1853-008, is part of the Norfolk County Chancery Causes, which are available for research at the Library of Virginia. The processing of this collection was made possible through the LVA’s innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP) which seeks to preserve the historic records of Virginia’s circuit courts.