On 30 March 1857, Joseph Elam and two other white men broke into the house of Reubenetta Dandridge, a free Black woman living in the city of Richmond. Drunk and outraged upon finding another white man named Marx Levenger in her room, Elam began to attack him. Levenger tried to defend himself with an axe but, recognizing he was outnumbered, fled the house. Reubenetta did the same. Joseph Elam caught up to her however and stabbed her multiple times.
Joseph Elam had been at Reubenetta’s home two evenings prior as well. He had tried to break in but was prevented from doing so by two white men, one of whom was Marx Levenger. Elam left angry, threatening to cut Reubenetta’s throat. Albert Ball, the night watchman, testified that he had seen Joseph Elam and another man, James Franklin, standing outside of Reubenetta’s home that Sunday evening. Elam wanted Ball, the watchman, to enter Reubenetta’s home, but did not specify the reason why. Ball refused to do so without a warrant. The two men persuaded Elam to let the matter rest. Apparently Reubenetta had encouraged Ball and Franklin to enter her home to confirm there was no one else in the house. Ball had also heard Elam threaten “something about ‘cutting her damned guts out.’” He thought nothing of the threat at the time.
On the night of the stabbing, Elam had been out drinking with friends Richard C. Hazlegrove and William Gentry at several different bars. On the way home from the bars, Elam started for Reubenetta’s house, against the advice of Hazlegrove. He burst into the back door and began attacking Marx Levenger. Hazelgrove attempted to pull him off the man, but Elam pulled out his knife, and Hazlegrove released Elam. Elam ran after Reubenetta who had run into the street and next door to an adjoining lot.
According to Marx Levenger, he had gone to Reubenetta’s home to get some clothes she had washed for him. While he was waiting for Reubenetta to make a meal, Elam broke into the house, threatened to kill Levenger for being there and picked up a chair, breaking it over Levenger’s head. Levenger reported that Elam was assisted by another man. Levenger escaped through a side door, locking it behind him and fled to an adjoining house. Reubenetta followed him. Elam pursued them, breaking open the door. Levenger pushed him out. Elam broke open the door a second time. At this point, Levenger left “seeing nothing further.” He verified that the night before Elam had also been at the house and threatened to cut Reubenetta’s guts out.
Hazelgrove reported that after Levenger and Reubenetta had fled the scene with Elam in pursuit, they heard someone holler. The men followed the noise and found Elam with a knife and Reubenetta with blood on her dress. Elam had stabbed Reubenetta in multiple places. Someone called Dr. Peterfield Trent to attend Reubenetta. He deposed that when he arrived a piece of Reubenetta’s left lung was protruding through the open wound on her chest which eventually caused her an attack of pneumonia. Elam also stabbed her in her lower side and Dr. Trent found a cut on Reubenetta’s hand where she had attempted to grab the knife from Elam in self-defense. In spite of the severity of her lung wound (the membrane had been cut but not the lung itself) Reubenetta survived.
The Richmond Hustings court found Elam guilty of stabbing a free Black woman with the intent to kill. His trial was set to the fall term of the circuit court. Unfortunately for us, the circuit court records were burned during the Civil War.
However, an article in the Daily Dispatch published months later explains that Elam served several months’ incarceration in the city jail. Less than a year earlier in 1856, the Richmond Hustings Court had charged Joseph Elam with wounding a free Black man with the intent to kill. On 15 August 1856, Elam had struck William Robinson on his head with an iron pan and broken his skull. Elam was discharged.
Who was Reubenetta Dandridge? Reubenetta’s name appears as “Reubenetta”, “Rubenetta” and “Rubinetta” in the court documents and newspapers. I have chosen to use the former version as it appears this way in the court documents most often. However, we can’t know for sure how Reubenetta would have spelled her name had she been given the choice. Sometime in 1849, Reubenetta was emancipated. A newspaper account from June 1857 (published only a few short months after the trial) describes that Reubenetta came before the judge on new charges for remaining more than twelve months in the Commonwealth. Virginia Law required that any enslaved person emancipated after the year 1806 was required to leave the state. If they did not do so within twelve months of their emancipation, they could be re-enslaved. The Richmond City minute books record that in September 1858 Reubenetta came before the judge for a misdemeanor. The case was moved to the next term of court and Reubeunetta was discharged. This “misdemeanor” could have very well have been Reubenetta’s remaining in the state for more than twelve months.
The newspapers described Reubenetta as “notorious for quite some time as the keeper of a house of bad reputation.” In the same year in which she was charged, Reubenetta attempted to kill herself by consuming laudanum. Accounts from November 1857 claimed she took an ounce and a half of the drug and someone called for Dr. Peterfield Trent (the same doctor who was called to scene of her stabbing) and he “relieved her from the effects” of the drug. The papers described her as an “emancipated slave and a bad resident” and directly called for her removal from the Commonwealth.
At some point, Ruebenetta petitioned the court to leave the state. In January 1859, the court, by testimony of Martha Coutts, ruled that Reubenetta was a free woman and allowed to travel to a free state with her three daughters (also free), Jane S. Dandridge, Sarah Dandridge, and Caroline Dandridge. A note in the margin reads: “copied with seal of court” probably indicating that this was a freedom register that Reubenetta would carry and present to anyone who questioned her freedom status.
I came away with more questions than answers as I tried to follow Reubenetta’s sparse paper trail. Perhaps, as I continue to process the records from the City of Richmond, more documents detailing her identity will surface. Until then, we are left with a portrait of a complex individual: a free Black mother struggling in a world working against her race and her gender.
This week, August 22-28, is Virginia’s 2nd annual Racial Truth and Reconciliation week. Reconciliation begins by examining untold truths within our archives, but we must push beyond storytelling towards acknowledgment, towards action. The injustices that Reubenetta suffered have left their own paper trail in our present day world.
Editor’s Note: Reubenetta Dandridge’s court case is part of the Richmond (City) Ended Causes, 1840-1860. These records are currently closed for processing, scanning, indexing, and transcription, a project made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. NHPRC provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program. An announcement will be made when these records are added to the Virginia Untold project.
Commonwealth versus Joseph Elam, Commonwealth Causes, 1856-1860, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
Minute Book, 1858-1859, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records, Barcode #1109097. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
Richmond, Virginia, April, looking westward. [Photographed 1865, printed between 1880 and 1889] Photograph. Library of Congress.