In last month’s Virginia Untold blog post, we shared about the exhibition currently on display in our pre-function hall to celebrate Black History Month: “I have this day committed to jail…” In one of the cases along the East Wall, we chose to feature a few documents from the court case Commonwealth v. Jane Connelly. The small case could hardly do Connelly’s story justice, so this blog post attempts to provide more pieces of the narrative.
On January 11, 1856, Jane Connelly, a free Black woman living in the City of Richmond, was committed to jail for falsely forging a copy of a certificate of her free Black register. According to evidence submitted with the court case documents, Connelly altered her free papers for the purpose of helping an enslaved man named James escape. It’s unclear how Jane Connelly and James knew one another. James was enslaved. Jane was a free woman. Jane had been registered as a free person in the Richmond City court in March 1851. She was issued a copy of her registration in 1853. Jane used this copy to forge James a free registration paper that he would eventually use to attempt escape.
The forged registration paper is included as evidence in the court case documents. Whether it was Connelly or another literate accomplice, the forger took Connelly’s 1853 certificate and changed the “n” in Jane to an “m” and added an “es” to the end to create the name James Connelly. They erased the letters “w” and “o” of “woman” to read “man.” The certificate noted that Jane Connelly was the daughter of Cynthia Connelly. The forger erased the word “daughter” and replaced it with “son.” They also changed the order of date to 1843. The original clerk who wrote Connelly’s certificate described her with a scar on the back of her right hand; the forger changed the pronoun “her” to “his.” One wonders if James scratched or drew a scar on the back of his hand to mimic Connelly’s own identifying mark.
In the years 1793 and 1803, the Virginia General Assembly passed laws requiring that each locality record their “free Negroes or mulattoes” in a register book kept by the clerk. The register books include details such as name, age, height, skin complexion, and how individuals became free. In 1834, the General Assembly added the requirement that clerks also record identifying marks and scars and the instrument of emancipation, whether by deed or will. Free people were required to register in their local court. Once the clerk recorded a free person’s information, he issued them a “copy” or loose certificate that contained the same identifying information. Unfortunately, no register books were created or survive for the City of Richmond, making loose registration documents like Connelly’s especially valuable for telling the stories of free Black Virginians.
The documentary trail provides more clues about Connelly than it does for James, whose last name may have been Robinson. Evidence suggests that he was trying to get to Washington, and from there farther north. Also included in the case files was a document with various names and phrases written in pencil. On one side at the top, someone wrote: “bearer James Robinson to Washington and return to Richmond.” The name James Robinson and the names of other cities such as Baltimore, Boston, and New York are printed several times.
Was someone practicing their penmanship? Perhaps this was the document that the forger used to sketch out various practice phrases in preparation for the final draft.
We also wonder, if Connelly did this for James, were there others? There is a very worn and degraded copy of a Richmond City registration for an Edward George as well as an affidavit statement testifying to George’s free status. How George is related in this case is unclear. He is not mentioned anywhere else in the court case papers and his name is not sketched out in the practice document. The statement claims he was fifteen years old when registered in 1852.
Connelly’s indictment papers charge her with forging “a certain paper writing, being a copy of a certificate of her register as a free negroe” but the court ultimately dropped the case. There was not enough evidence to charge her for this crime. The court entered into court a “Nolle Prosequi” (the Latin phrase meaning to abandon suit) on January 16, 1856, but Connelly remained in jail. She was a now free person without registration papers, which was a crime in Virginia. Or was she? Jane had not lost or destroyed her free papers; she had only altered them. The court decided to issue Connelly a new registration document and she was hired out to pay off her jail fees which had amounted to $1.90 according to the entry in the Richmond City minute book.
The story of Jane Connelly and James Robinson is just one of thousands waiting to be told from the City of Richmond Hustings Court records. These records will soon be available through Virginia Untold, but in the meantime, come check out our exhibition on display in the Library’s lobby through Tuesday, February 28, or read some of the other Richmond City stories we’ve been posting for almost a year now. If you’d like to dive into this material and contribute to its accessibility, join us on Saturday, February 25, from noon to 2 p.m. for a Virginia Untold themed transcribe-a-thon. where volunteers will have a chance to transcribe Commonwealth Causes such as this one featuring Jane Connelly. Free to participate, but please register.
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.