On February 1, in celebration of Black History Month, a new exhibit from Virginia Untold will open to the public. This exhibition represents a small sample of the rich material we’ve reviewed and processed from the City of Richmond Hustings Court as a part of our National Historical Publication and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant from the National Archives. We examined over 250 record center boxes and selected record types that document the lives of enslaved and free Black people in Richmond City from approximately 1782 to 1860. Most of the records (well over 1,500) are Commonwealth Causes or criminal trials brought by the state of Virginia. However, we also discovered a substantial number of other document types including registrations of free people, petitions to remain in the Commonwealth, and jail reports of free people in want of registration. Over the next several months, this material will be prepped for scanning, indexing, and integration into the Virginia Untold database.
Granted its first charter in 1782 by the General Assembly, the first session of the City of Richmond Hustings Court was held in the Henrico County Courthouse on Main Street in July of that year. The Hustings court essentially served in the same capacity as a local county court. The city courts retained the English term: Hustings. In some localities, such as Lynchburg, this court was referred to as the Corporation Court. The Hustings court in Richmond was responsible for handling all criminal cases, civil law cases, probate of wills, fiduciary accounts, deed recordings, marriage licenses, and citizenship applications.
Examples of the City of Richmond “record center” boxes stored on the 4th floor of the Library’s archival stacks.
Image Courtesy of the Author
Cases were heard by the Richmond City mayor or the city alderman or councilman. In 1910, Richmond annexed the City of Manchester, but maintained a judicial separation by renaming the court in Richmond as Hustings Court, Part 1 and the Manchester court as Hustings Court, Part 2.
Established as Virginia’s new capital in 1780, Richmond’s steady rise in industry and trade created a dynamic center for urban slavery. The city appealed to free Black Virginians looking for work and sanctuary. It also drew many enslaved men and women looking to hire themselves out, either on their own or at the behest of their rural owners who had little use of their labor due to fluctuating economic conditions. Richmond’s white, free Black, and enslaved inhabitants played active roles in the domestic slave trade but also in the Underground Railroad. Previously, we had only digitized roughly 500 records from the City of Richmond Hustings Court dating 1861-1866 which are now available in Virginia Untold. These new records, which span nearly eight decades, will complement those records previously digitized. Furthermore, court records from nearly all other Richmond City courts were burned during the Civil War, making the Hustings Court records even more valuable in representing life at the local level during those years. We are actively working to process records from surrounding localities such as the City of Petersburg, Henrico County, and Chesterfield County.
This blog post provides an opportunity to dive further into the individual stories on exhibit. It is arranged in the same order as the documents in the standing cases in the Lobby Pre-Function Hall and the wall cases along the East Wall leading to the Can Can Cafe. There is a case and item list at the end.
Lobby Pre-Function Hall Cases
Case: Enslaved People Going at Large
Increasingly, with the growth of large urban areas such as Richmond, enslavers from surrounding rural counties allowed their enslaved people to hire themselves out in the city where there were more opportunities for work. In large part, the localities were responsible for policing this practice. There was fear that enslaved people would be afforded too much freedom if allowed to find their own employment and thus, many cities began cracking down on the hiring out practice.1 In the City of Richmond Hustings Court records, authorities often referred to the practice as “going at large” and enslavers were fined for permitting their enslaved people to hire their own time. Some of the earliest documented “going at large” cases in the City of Richmond appear in 1790. Enslaved man Isham was jailed for 23 days in August 1797 for “hiring his own time.” He was discharged in September, likely after his enslaver, William Worseley, paid his jail fees.
In 1793, the Virginia General Assembly enacted a law to differentiate between enslaved people going at large for work (or enslaved people looking to escape) and Black and multiracial people who were free. The law required all free people to register in their local court and carry a certificate of free status with them at all times. See Case: Free People Jailed for Want of Register for examples of these documents.
Also on exhibit is the case Commonwealth v. Henry Brown. While it was Brown, the enslaver, who was ultimately sentenced, his enslaved man Ellick served jail time for “going at large and hiring himself out by the permission of Henry Brown his master…” Included as evidence are three handwritten notes written by the individuals who had hired Ellick’s time including Lucy T. Bowles from Hanover County and James F Board. Brown was required to pay a $20 fine and “costs” which likely included minor court costs and the fees for jailing Ellick.
“Richmond Va November 4 1855 Allick has permison By James F. Board By Order of Mst Henry Broon to work for wone week on the warfs and James Town and Return Any time of Night She five up work on Acount of no place to sleep.”
Commonwealth v. Henry Brown, Nov 16, 1855.
Fears of insurrection motivated white legislators to pass laws restricting enslaved and free Black people from gathering in large groups. Both white and Black citizens could be charged with “permitting unlawful assemblies.” In November 1860, Allen Nunnally was charged with keeping “an illgoverned and disorderly house where unlawful assemblies of negroes meet in the night and day for the purpose of drinking, and gambling and making a great noise and disturbing the neighborhood in which he lives…”2 He was also charged with permitting “negroes” to gamble in his house and for associating with them. To this charge, Nunally submitted a bill of exception (an appeal) to the court’s ruling. He was sentenced to jail and to pay a $100 fine.
Case: Free People Jailed in Want of Register
Free registration papers are some of the most degraded records in the Virginia Untold collection. The example on display of Mary Elizabeth Davis’s registration appears to have been folded several times, possibly worn in a shirt or dress pocket. Davis was previously registered in King William County. When she arrived in Richmond, she submitted her old registration paper to the Hustings court, along with the oath of a free white woman testifying to her free status, both of which the clerk filed in his papers. He issued Davis a new City of Richmond registration.3 We don’t know what her Richmond registration paper would have looked like exactly, but we do have examples of other Richmond City registrations, like that of Charles Cook, a ten year old boy, registered in Richmond City on April 18, 1822.
After receiving Davis’s previous registration, the Richmond City clerk recorded the order for a new registration in the minute book. He inserted a note about the oath of Mary C. Pollard, who had apparently testified on Davis’s behalf.
Free people who did not have their registration papers could be jailed. By the late 1840s, city authorities were arresting so many people that instead of writing up individual indictment papers for each person, the city sergeant began creating reports. These half sheet reports listed each free Black or multiracial person by name and often tallied up their jail fees. The sergeant submitted these reports to the mayor where they were filed with other papers in the Hustings Court. The number of reports increased dramatically in the years leading up to the Civil War. Free people were typically issued a new registration document by the clerk which is sometimes indicated on the back on the report, but they were also required to pay the jail fees they incurred by working for hire. Most reports indicate this as “being hired out.” The cost of jail time varied but we know that in 1853 it cost James Smith $7.65. He was responsible for paying these fees by being “hired out.” See East Wall Cases: Jail Reports for more about tallying up jail fees.
Sometimes, free people obtained the help of white individuals to get them out of jail. Charles Tensley testified to the free status of John Anderson who was jailed in 1828, likely for traveling without his free papers. This blog post from November describes more stories of Black individuals who harnessed the support of white men to testify on their behalf while in jail.
The Hustings Court records provide some glimpse into the conditions of the public jails in Richmond. Several reports submitted to the Hustings Court illustrate deplorable conditions within the public city jails. In the 1820s, the jury described the “old jail” as a “horrible dungeon” and a “mansion of horrors.”4 They included details about the conditions such as “sinks which have been used as Privies & as general receptables [sic] for filth for many years are now filled…and have led to the necessity of scattering the same filth about the yard.”5 Any fugitives from slavery caught within the City of Richmond would have been kept in this jail. Sometime in 1825, an enslaved man named John escaped from his enslaver in Tennessee and made it all the way to Richmond. John Carter attempted escape from his enslaver in Norfolk City and was jailed in Richmond in 1838. Both were recorded by the city sergeant and filed in the Hustings Court records. Unfortunately, no detailed records of prisoners for the city jails were kept or remain extant. The reports in the Hustings Court records make a few infrequent mentions of “runaways.” A breakdown of prisoners from December 1824 included “runaways, 5 slaves in charge of sheriff & sergeant under execution & security” and an 1823 report addressed the “situation of Runaways, and slaves confined by their owners for safe keeping, who are frequently if not generally very destitute of clothing when committed or confined…”6 This former quote reveals some uncanny parallels in the ways slave pens operated by independent slave trading businesses and public jails operated by local government both functioned as holding spaces for fugitive enslaved people in preparation for sale into the domestic slave trade.7
The commonwealth causes from the City of Richmond Hustings Court reveal an inconsistency in forms of conviction and punishment for white versus Black and multiracial individuals. Throughout the early nineteenth century, Virginia legislators revised the laws in ways that reduced the legal status of free Black and multiracial people to that of enslaved, thereby creating a legal system based on race. For purposes of this exhibition, we wanted to give some examples of how the white court system punished Black people (both enslaved and free). This is only a sample; there is much left to be explored on this topic.
In 1822, the City of Richmond Hustings Court recommended a special committee to oversee the “erection of a public jail and prison, one pillory, a whipping post and stocks…”8 Whipping or flogging as a form of punishment has a long history dating back to ancient civilizations. In Britain, whipping was formally codified as punishment in the 1530s and the whipping post was introduced in the 1590s.9 In late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Virginia, the whipping post had high social visibility. The constant threat of the lash was meant to instill as much fear as the act itself and no doubt took cues from the plantation social order.10 Whipping could be coupled with other forms of punishment such as branding one’s hand with a red-hot iron. This is the punishment that Dick received, an enslaved man, who was charged and convicted of stealing an iron chest with gold, dollars, and other silver coins in 1797. His accomplice, an enslaved man named Harry, was acquitted. In 1848, the Virginia General Assembly outlawed public whipping of white people. Referred to as “stripes” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and “lashes” in the later part of the century, both enslaved and free Black people continued to receive this sentencing until the Civil War. Anderson, also enslaved, received the sentencing of “39 lashes today and 39 lashes tomorrow” for committing assault in 1858.
Lewis was initially sentenced to “transportation” before the governor commuted to his punishment working on public works projects for life—an early form of convict labor. Because he was considered property, the State valued Lewis at $400. His enslaver, Erastmus Chandler submitted a claim to the state treasury requesting this full amount for the loss of his enslaved property.
In the late 1850s, Virginia legislators more directly utilized punishment as a means to rid the state of its free Black population. In 1860, Frank Banks, a free Black man, was convicted of stabbing an enslaved man named Henry. He was sentenced to be “sold into slavery.” Other examples show free Black men convicted of even lesser crimes, such as stealing, who were sold into slavery. For example, Richard Curtis, a free Black man, was sentenced to be sold into slavery for stealing a bed the value of ten dollars from Peter Quickley in May 1860 (not on exhibition).
White people did not receive this sentencing. In 1860, when William Godfrey, a white man, was charged with committing “fornication with a negro woman,” the case was dropped. The “negro woman” is not identified by name in the court case. Conversely, in 1853, when enslaved man Henry verbally assaulted a white man, he was sentenced to receive “15 lashes” at the public whipping post. The punishment for Black people accused of physical assault was even more severe. In 1860, enslaved man Lewis was accused and convicted of beating a white man. He was sentenced to “transportation,” or, in other words, Lewis was to be transported beyond the limits of the United States. A quick search in records already digitized for Virginia Untold reveals that after being sent to the Virginia State Penitentiary, the governor commuted Lewis’s sentence to laboring on the public works for life.1 A previous blog post about an enslaved woman named Fanny explains what this meant for an enslaved person in 1860 Virginia.
Case: Commonwealth Causes—Stealing
While white legislators used the state system to traffic enslaved people, they also punished the illegal sale and kidnapping of those who were enslaved. Enslaved people were property, often valued at high monetary figures, and enslavers wanted justice when their property was stolen from them. In 1822, Samuel Rauland tried to sell Henry who was enslaved by Archibald Lacy. The case was sent to the Superior Court. Unfortunately, almost all City of Richmond superior court records were destroyed by fire during the evacuation of Richmond on April 3, 1865.
As the nineteenth century wore on, so did the domestic slave trade. White speculators and the men who worked for them preyed upon free Black and multiracial people, tricking, capturing, and ultimately selling them into slavery. In 1854, Matthew C. Johnson was charged with selling Thomas Henry Swan, a free Black child from Goochland County, as enslaved property for $375. The original bill of sale is included as evidence in the case as well as the deposition of four individuals. One deponent, Lindsey Clarke, testified that she knew the “negro sold” to be a “free boy, the son of Mary Jane Swan of Goochland County.”12
One of the most common charges leveled against enslaved and free Black people from the City of Richmond records is the crime of stealing, sometimes coupled with breaking and entering. Stolen goods could be sold or traded to use for passage on ships bound north to flee enslavement. After 1832, any white person who received stolen goods from an enslaved or free person was to be charged in the same manner had they stolen the goods themselves.13 The sentencing, however, differed. In 1840, Catharine Mond was charged with receiving a box of lemons from enslaved man Christopher and sentenced a $10 fine.14
East Wall Cases
Case: Commonwealth Causes
Deposition documents are an important part of criminal case files and often provide details of everyday life in addition to the details of the crime. Descriptions of a locality’s architecture, relations between neighbors, foodways, and descriptions of dress are just some of the minutiae documented by deponents. For example, in the case against Frank Banks, the police officer John J. Mann explained that after arresting Banks near the “market” he took him to the “cage.” Mann’s description of this event aligns with maps and other evidence that a cage-like structure was located near the Richmond City market.
The case against Lott Mundy, a free Black boatman onboard the schooner Danville, also includes witness deposition (not included in the exhibition). Six people were deposed including the two enslaved men that Mundy was accused of helping to freedom. According to one of the ship mates, Joseph A. Chadwick found Tom hiding in the chain box in the galley of the ship. At first it appeared that Martin would go unnoticed, but after carrying Tom to the cage and searching the chain box again, the captain and mates found Martin. Tom and Martin both deposed that Mundy arranged the plan of escape and hid them in the chain box. It was Tom’s idea to escape north, and he paid Mundy $50 for his aid. Mundy was convicted of helping an enslaved person to abscond and was sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary.
The Richmond City clerk wrote at the bottom of Dinah’s indictment paper, “advertised & attempted to be sold 23rd Oct”
Other criminal trials on exhibition demonstrate an imbalance in the legal system. In January 1859, enslaved man Israel was charged with wounding and beating William A. Furcon, “a white person.” Furcron was the only person to provide testimony. In 1847, Dinah was arrested for hiring herself out. Her enslaver, James Swain, was required to pay a $10 fine to release Dinah from jail but it appears he failed to do so. Dinah was discharged so that she could be advertised and sold.
Case: Petitions to Remain
In May 1806, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law stating that all formerly enslaved people freed after this date who remained in Virginia more than twelve months could be put on trial by the state. After 1831, if these people were found guilty, they could be re-enslaved and sold by state officials. This is what happened to Phil Robertson in 1839. It’s unclear what became of these individuals after they were sold at public auction.
Individuals who wished to remain in the commonwealth could petition the state legislature, and after 1815, the local courts, for permission to remain in Virginia. Many individuals submitted supporting evidence for proving their free status such as a will or a deed of emancipation. In 1859, former enslaved woman Ellody Hunter submitted an application document that included a copy of a deed of emancipation. According to the deed, Hugh Nelson of Petersburg freed Rosetta (50), Ellody (27), her daughter Mary Susan (4), Arianna Carter (24), and her child George (2). Nelson received Rosetta, Ellody, and Arianna from his sister Elizabeth Nelson of Dinwiddie County. Because they sometimes include supporting documentation, we can often learn more about a former enslaved person’s origin of birth, family members, and other important life details from petition to remain documents.
Ellody may have used this deed of emancipation as proof of her registration in addition and prior to submitting her application to remain. These identification details are included at the end of the deed of emancipation.
Case: Jail Reports
In this exhibition, we wanted to give ample attention to the resources spent by the city government to restrain free Black people moving about the city. This is portrayed in a relatively “new” Virginia Untold record type that we have not previously processed for other localities: jail reports. In addition to reporting on individuals “in want of register,” the sergeant might also tally up their total jail fees and record it in the report as he did for James who owed the court $2.60. According to the tally, James was in jail for 7 days and charged 30 cents per day, totaling $2.10, plus the cost of confining and releasing which was 50 cents.
Eliza Purg was jailed at least three separate times throughout the years 1847 to 1853 for want of register. When she was arrested in 1847, she was hired out to pay off her jail fees. It took her two years beginning in July 1847.15 Eliza was jailed again in October 1851. Her jail fees totaled $1.60 and she was again hired out, but the minute book entry does not state for how long.16 It’s unclear if the other individuals jailed in 1853 were also hired out or given new registration papers.
Case: Jane Connelly
Some of the richest material from the City of Richmond Hustings Court may be the court cases revealing intricate networks of free white, free Black and multiracial, and enslaved people working towards freedom for those enslaved. Both free Black and white individuals were charged with the crime to “entice, advise, or persuade any slave to abscond…” In 1856, Jane Connelly did just this—but she was charged with a separate crime, of altering her free papers for the purpose of helping enslaved man James to escape. The case includes the forged registration paper. Stay tuned for next month as we dive fuller into the story of Jane Connelly, who altered her own free registration document to create a copy for her friend James, an enslaved man who she was trying to get to freedom.
Pre-Function Hall Exhibition Cases
Case: Enslaved People Going at Large
- Commonwealth v. Isham, Aug 19, 1797
- Commonwealth v. Henry Brown, Nov 16, 1855
- Commonwealth v. Allen Nunally, Nov 16, 1860
- Commonwealth v. Samuel Rauland, October 8, 1822
- Commonwealth v. Catharine Mond, June 9, 1840
- Commonwealth v. Matthew C. Johnson, Jan 10, 1854
Case: Free People Jailed in Want of Register
- Free Registration: Mary Elizabeth Davis, Nov 1858
- Jail Report: Harrison, May 15, 1822
- Jail Report: John Anderson, May 10 1828
- Jail Report: Sarah Ann Pleasants, Nov 8, 1858
- Jail Report: Jacob Smith, May 10, 1858
- Runaway Record: John, Jan 12, 1826
- Runaway Record: John Carter, Jan 5, 1838
- Report on the Jail, Aug 15, 1850
- Report on the Jail, Aug 21, 1822
- Commonwealth v. Dick, Nov 1794
- Commonwealth v. Frank Banks, Dec 11, 1860
- Commonwealth v. Anderson, Dec 14, 1858
- Commonwealth v. William Godfrey, Sep 11, 1860
East Wall Niche Exhibition Cases
Case: Commonwealth Causes
- Commonwealth v. Israel, Jan 12, 1859
- Commonwealth v. James Swain, Nov 8, 1847
- Commonwealth v. Lott Mundy, Aug 12, 1856
- Commonwealth v. Lott Mundy, Aug 13, 1856
Case: Petitions to Remain
- Petition to Remain: Ellody Hunter, 18, 1859
- Commonwealth v. Phil Robertson, June 8, 1840
Case: Jail Reports
- Jail Report: Eliza Purg, June 16, 1847
- Jail Report: Eliza Purg, Oct 17, 1851
- Jail Report: Eliza Purg, Jan 10, 1853
- Jail Report: James, Sep 17, 1853
Case: Jane Connelly
- Commonwealth v. Jane Connelly, Jan 16, 1856
- Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 48-52.
- Commonwealth v. Allen Nunally, Nov 16, 1860.
- Minute Book, 1858-1859, City of Richmond Circuit Court Records, Barcode #1109097. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia: (November 1858 entry, p. 87).
- Report on the Jail, March 21, 1823.
- Report on the Jail, February 26, 1823.
- Report on the Jail, January 15, 1823; Report on the Jail, December 10, 1824.
- City of Alexandria, Virginia Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) and SmithGroup, 1315 Duke Street Historic Structure Report, (Alexandria, Virginia, 2021) 2.A https://media.alexandriava.gov/content/oha/HSR1315DukeReport2021.pdf.
- Report on the Jail, August 21, 1822.
- Philip J. Schwarz, Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia: 1705-1865, (Clark: The Lawbook Exchange LTD, 1988), 10.
- Chandler, Erastus: Public Claim, 1860, Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.
- Commonwealth v. Matthew C. Johnson, January 10, 1854
- June Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia, (Fauquier: Afro-American Historical Association, 1995), 108.
- Commonwealth v. Catharine Mond, June 9, 1840.
City of Alexandria, Virginia Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) and SmithGroup. 1315 Duke Street Historic Structure Report. Alexandria, Virginia, 2021. https://media.alexandriava.gov/content/oha/HSR1315DukeReport2021.pdf.
Guild, June Purcell. Black Laws of Virginia. Fauquier: Afro-American Historical Association, 1995.
Schwarz, Philip J. Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia: 1705-1865. Clark: The Lawbook Exchange LTD, 1988.
Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
These documents are a part of the Richmond (City) Commonwealth Causes, 1782-1860. 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.
Supplementary information about these records was pulled from the City of Richmond Minute Books for various years from City of Richmond Circuit Court Records, Local Government Records Collection.