HumanitiesWeb.org - The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter III: Souther v. The Commonwealth--The Ne Plus Ultra of Legal Humanity.) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter III: Souther v. The Commonwealth--The Ne Plus Ultra of Legal Humanity.

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

"Yet in the face of such laws and decisions as these, Mrs. Stowe," etc.
--Courier and Enquirer.


The case of Souther v. the Commonwealth has been cited by the Courier and Enquirer as a particularly favourable specimen of judicial proceedings under the slave code, with the following remark:--

And yet, in the face of such laws and decisions as these, Mrs. Stowe winds up a long series of cruelties upon her other black personages, by causing her faultless hero, Tom, to be literally whipped to death in Louisiana, by his master, Legree; and these acts, which the laws make criminal, and punish as such, she sets forth in the most repulsive colours, to illustrate the institution of slavery!

By the above language the author was led into the supposition that this case had been conducted in a manner so creditable to the feelings of our common humanity as to present a fairer side of criminal jurisprudence in this respect. She accordingly took the pains to procure a report of the case, designing to publish it as an offset to the many barbarities which research into this branch of the subject obliges one to unfold. A legal gentleman has copied the case from Grattan's Reports, and it is here given. If the reader is astounded at it, he cannot be more so than was the writer.

Souther v. The Commonwealth. 7 Grattan, 673, 1851.

The killing of a slave by his master and owner, by wilful and excessive whipping, is murder in the first degree; though it may not have been the purpose and intention of the master and owner to kill the slave.

Simeon Souther was indicted at the October Term, 1850, of the Circuit Court for the County of Hanover, for the murder of his own slave. The indictment contained fifteen counts, in which the various modes of punishment and torture by which the homicide was charged to have been committed were stated singly, and in various combinations. The fifteenth count unites them all: and, as the Court certifies that the indictment was sustained by the evidence, the giving the facts stated in that count will show what was the charge against the prisoner, and what was the proof to sustain it.

The count charged that on the 1st day of September, 1849, the prisoner tied his negro slave, Sam, with ropes about his wrists, neck, body, legs, and ankles, to a tree. That whilst so tied, the prisoner first whipped the slave with switches. That he next beat and cobbed the slave with a shingle, and compelled two of his slaves, a man and a woman, also to cob the deceased with the shingle. That whilst the deceased was so tied to the tree, the prisoner did strike, knock, kick, stamp, and beat him upon various parts of his head, face, and body; that he applied fire to his body; * * * that he then washed his body with warm water, in which pods of red pepper had been put and steeped; and he compelled his two slaves aforesaid to wash him with this same preparation of warm water and red pepper. That after the tying, whipping, cobbing, striking, beating, knocking, kicking, stamping, wounding, bruising, lacerating, burning, washing, and torturing, as aforesaid, the prisoner untied the deceased from the tree, in such a way as to throw him with violence to the ground; and he then and there did knock, kick, stamp, and beat the deceased upon his head, temples, and various parts of his body. That the prisoner then had the deceased carried into a shed-room of his house, and there he compelled one of his slaves, in his presence, to confine the deceased's feet in stocks, by making his legs fast to a piece of timber, and to tie a rope about the neck of the deceased, and fasten it to a bed-post in the room, thereby strangling, choking, and suffocating the deceased. And that whilst the deceased was thus made fast in stocks as aforesaid, the prisoner did kick, knock, stamp, and beat him upon his head, face, breast, belly, sides, back, and body; and he again compelled his two slaves to apply fire to the body of the deceased, whilst he was so made fast as aforesaid. And the count charged, that from these various modes of punishment and torture the slave Sam then and there died. It appeared that the prisoner commenced the punishment of the deceased in the morning, and that it was continued throughout the day; and that the deceased died in the presence of the prisoner, and one of his slaves, and one of the witnesses, whilst the punishment was still progressing.

Field, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

The prisoner was indicted and convicted of murder in the second degree, in the Circuit Court of Hanover, at its April term last past, and was sentenced to the Penitentiary for five years, the period of time ascertained by the jury. The murder consisted in the killing of a negro man-slave by the name of Sam, the property of the prisoner, by cruel and excessive whipping and torture, inflicted by Souther, aided by two of his other slaves, on the 1st day of September, 1849 The prisoner moved for a new trial, upon the ground that the offence, if any, amounted only to manslaughter. The motion for a new trial was overruled, and a bill of exceptions taken to the opinion of the Court, setting forth the facts proved, or as many of them as were deemed material for the consideration of the application for a new trial. The bill of exception states: That the slave Sam, in the indictment mentioned, was the slave and property of the prisoner. That for the purpose of chastising the slave for the offence of getting drunk, and dealing as the slave confessed and alleged with Henry and Stone, two of the witnesses for the Commonwealth, he caused him to be tied and punished in the presence of the said witnesses, with the exception of slight whipping with peach or apple-tree switches, before the said witnesses arrived at the scene after they were sent for by the prisoner (who were present by request from the defendant), and of several slaves of the prisoner, in the manner and by the means charged in the indictment; and the said slave died under and from the infliction of the said punishment, in the presence of the prisoner, one of his slaves, and one of the witnesses for the Commonwealth. But it did not appear that it was the design of the prisoner to kill the said slave, unless such design be properly inferable from the manner, means, and duration of the punishment. And, on the contrary, it did appear that the prisoner frequently declared, while the said slave was undergoing the punishment, that he believed the said slave was feigning, and pretending to be suffering and injured when he was not. The judge certifies that the slave was punished in the manner and by the means charged in the indictment. The indictment contains fifteen counts, and sets forth a case of the most cruel and excessive whipping and torture.

* * * * * * * *

It is believed that the records of criminal jurisprudence do not contain a case of more atrocious and wicked cruelty than was presented upon the trial of Souther; and yet it has been gravely and earnestly contended here by his counsel that his offence amounts to manslaughter only.

It has been contended by the counsel of the prisoner that a man cannot be indicted and prosecuted for the cruel and excessive whipping of his own slave. That it is lawful for the master to chastise his slave, and that if death ensues from such chastisement, unless it was intended to produce death, it is like the case of homicide which is committed by a man in the performance of a lawful act, which is manslaughter only. It has been decided by this Court in Turner's case, 5 Rand, that the owner of a slave, for the malicious, cruel, and excessive beating of his own slave, cannot be indicted; yet it by no means follows, when such malicious, cruel, and excessive beating results in death, though not intended and premeditated, that the beating is to be regarded as lawful for the purpose of reducing the crime to manslaughter, when the whipping is inflicted for the sole purpose of chastisement. It is the policy of the law, in respect to the relation of master and slave, and for the sake of securing proper subordination and obedience on the part of the slave, to protect the master from prosecution in all such cases, even if the whipping and punishment be malicious, cruel, and excessive. But in so inflicting punishment for the sake of punishment, the owner of the slave acts at his peril; and if death ensues in consequence of such punishment, the relation of master and slave affords no ground of excuse or palliation. The principles of the common law, in relation to homicide, apply to his case without qualification or exception; and according to those principles, the act of the prisoner, in the case under consideration, amounted to murder. * * * * The crime of the prisoner is not manslaughter, but murder in the first degree.

On the case now presented there are some remarks to be made.

This scene of torture, it seems, occupied about twelve hours. It occurred in the State of Virginia, in the county of Hanover. Two white men were witnesses to nearly the whole proceeding, and, so far as we can see, made no effort to arouse the neighbourhood, and bring in help to stop the outrage. What sort of an education, what habits of thought, does this presuppose in these men?

The case was brought to trial. It requires no ordinary nerve to read over the counts of this indictment. Nobody, one would suppose, could willingly read them twice. One would think that it would have laid a cold hand of horror on every heart-- that the community would have risen, by an universal sentiment, to shake out the man, as Paul shook the viper from his hand. It seems, however, that they were quite self-possessed; that lawyers calmly sat, and examined, and cross-examined, on particulars known before only in the records of the Inquisition; that it was "ably and earnestly argued" by educated intelligent American men, that this catalogue of horrors did not amount to a murder! and, in the cool language of legal precision, that "the offence, IF ANY, amounted to manslaughter;" and that an American jury found that the offence was murder in the second degree. Anyone who reads the indictment will certainly think that, if this be murder in the second degree, in Virginia, one might earnestly pray to be murdered in the first degree to begin with. Had Souther walked up to the man, and shot him through the head with a pistol, before white witnesses, that would have been murder in the first degree. As he preferred to spend twelve hours in killing him by torture, under the name of "chastisement," that, says the verdict, is murder in the second degree; "because," says the bill of exceptions, with admirable coolness, "it did not appear that it was the design of the prisoner to kill the slave, UNLESS SUCH DESIGN BE PROPERLY INFERABLE FROM THE MANNER, MEANS, AND DURATION OF THE PUNISHMENT."

The bill evidently seems to have a leaning to the idea that twelve hours spent in beating, stamping, scalding, burning, and mutilating a human being might possibly be considered as presumption of something beyond the limits of lawful chastisement. So startling an opinion, however, is expressed cautiously, and with a becoming diffidence, and is balanced by the very striking fact, which is also quoted in this remarkable paper, that the prisoner frequently declared, while the slave was undergoing the punishment, that he believed the slave was feigning and pretending to be suffering, when he was not. This view appears to have struck the Court as eminently probable--as going a long way to prove the propriety of Souther's intentions, making it at least extremely probable that only correction was intended.

It seems also that Souther, so far from being crushed by the united opinion of the community, found those to back him who considered five years in the Penitentiary an unjust severity for his crime, and hence the bill of exceptions from which we have quoted, and the appeal to the Superior Court; and hence the form in which the case stands in law-books, "Souther v. the Commonwealth." Souther evidently considers himself an ill-used man, and it is in this character that he appears before the Superior Court.

As yet there has been no particular overflow of humanity in the treatment of the ease. The manner in which it has been discussed so far reminds one of nothing so much as of some discussions which the reader may have seen quoted from the records of the Inquisition, with regard to the propriety of roasting the feet of children who have not arrived at the age of thirteen years, with a view to eliciting evidence.

Let us now come to the decision of the Superior Court, which the editor of the Courier and Enquirer thinks so particularly enlightened and humane. Judge Field thinks that the case is a very atrocious one, and in this respect he seems to differ materially from judge, jury, and lawyers of the Court below. Furthermore, he doubts whether the annals of jurisprudence furnish a case of equal atrocity, wherein certainly he appears to be not far wrong; and he also states unequivocally the principle that killing a slave by torture under the name of correction is murder in the first degree; and here too, certainly, everybody will think that he is also right; the only wonder being that any man could ever have been called to express such an opinion, judicially. But he states, quite as unequivocally as Judge Ruffin, that awful principle of slave-laws, that the law cannot interfere with the master for any amount of torture inflicted on his slave which does not result in death. The decision, if it establishes anything, establishes this principle quite as strongly as it does the other. Let us hear the words of the decision:--

It has been decided by this Court, in Turner's case, that the owner of a slave, for the malicious, cruel, and excessive beating of his own slave, cannot be indicted.

* * * * * *

It is the policy of the law, in respect to the relation of master and slave, and for the sake of securing proper subordination and obedience on the part of the slave, to protect the master from prosecution in all such cases, even if the whipping and punishment be malicious, cruel, and excessive

What follows as a corollary from this remarkable declaration is this--that if the victim of this twelve hours' torture had only possessed a little stronger constitution, and had not actually died under it, there is no law in Virginia by which Souther could even have been indicted for misdemeanour.

If this is not filling out the measure of the language of St. Clare, that "he who goes the furthest, and does the worst, only uses within limits the power which the law gives him," how could this language be verified? Which is "the worst," death outright, or torture indefinitely prolonged? This decision, in so many words, gives every master the power of indefinite torture, and takes from him only the power of terminating the agony by merciful death. And this is the judicial decision which the Courier and Enquirer cites as a perfectly convincing specimen of legal humanity. It must be hoped that the editor never read the decision, else he never would have cited it. Of all who knock at the charnel-house of legal precedents, with the hope of disinterring any evidence of humanity in the slave system, it may be said, in the awful words of the Hebrew poet:

He knoweth not that the dead are there,
And that her guests are in the depths of hell.


The upshot of this case was, that Souther, instead of getting off from his five years' imprisonment, got simply a judicial opinion from the Superior Court that he ought to be hung; but he could not be tried over again, and as we may infer from all the facts in the case that he was a man of tolerably resolute nerves and not very exquisite sensibility, it is not likely that the opinion gave him any very serious uneasiness. He has probably made up his mind to get over his five years with what grace he may. When he comes out, there is no law in Virginia to prevent his buying as many more negroes as he chooses, and going over the same scene with any one of them at a future time, if only he profit by the information which has been so explicitly conveyed to him in this decision, that he must take care and stop his tortures short of the point of death--a matter about which, as the history of the Inquisition shows, men, by careful practice, can be able to judge with considerable precision. Probably, also, the next time, he will not be so foolish as to send out and request the attendance of two white witnesses, even though they may be so complacently interested in the proceeding as to spend the whole day in witnessing them without effort at prevention.

Slavery, as defined in American law, is no more capable of being regulated in its administration by principles of humanity than the torture system of the Inquisition. Every act of humanity of every individual owner is an illogical result from the legal definition; and the reason why the slave-code of America is more atrocious than any ever before exhibited under the sun, is that the Anglo-Saxon race are a more coldly and strictly logical race, and have an unflinching courage to meet the consequences of every premise which they lay down, and to work out an accursed principle, with mathematical accuracy, to its most accursed results. The decisions in American law-books show nothing so much as this severe, unflinching accuracy of logic. It is often and evidently, not because judges are inhuman or partial, but because they are logical and truthful, that they announce from the bench, in the calmest manner, decisions which one would think might make the earth shudder, and the sun turn pale.

The French and the Spanish nations are, by constitution, more impulsive, passionate, and poetic, than logical; hence it will be found that while there may be more instances of individual barbarity, as might be expected among impulsive and passionate people, there is in their slave-code more exhibition of humanity. The code of the State of Louisiana contains more really humane provisions, were there any means of enforcing them, than that of any other state in the Union.

It is believed that there is no code of laws in the world which contains such a perfect cabinet crystallisation of every tear and every drop of blood which can be wrung from humanity, so accurately, elegantly, and scientifically arranged, as the slave-code of America. It is a case of elegant surgical instruments for the work of dissecting the living human heart; every instrument wrought with exactest temper and polish, and adapted with exquisite care, and labelled with the name of the nerve or artery or muscle which it is designed to sever. The instruments of the anatomist are instruments of earthly steel and wood, designed to operate at most on perishable and corruptible matter; but these are instruments of keener temper, and more ethereal workmanship, designed in the most precise and scientific manner to DESTROY THE IMMORTAL SOUL, and carefully and gradually to reduce man from the high position of a free agent, a social, religious, accountable being, down to the condition of the brute, or of inanimate matter.
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