HumanitiesWeb.org - The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter IX: Moderate Correction and Accidental Death-- State v. Castleman.) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter IX: Moderate Correction and Accidental Death-- State v. Castleman.

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The author remarks that the record of the following trial was read by her a little time before writing the account of the death of Uncle Tom. The shocking particulars haunted her mind and were in her thoughts when the following sentence was written:--

What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear. What brother man and brother Christian must suffer, cannot be told us, even in our secret chamber, it so harrows up the soul. And yet, O my country, these things are done under the shadow of thy laws! O Christ, thy church sees them almost in silence!

It is given precisely as prepared by Dr. G. Bailey, the very liberal and fair-minded editor of the National Era.

From the "National Era," Washington, November 6, 1851. HOMICIDE CASE IN CLARKE COUNTY, VIRGINIA.

Some time since, the newspapers of Virginia contained an account of a horrible tragedy, enacted in Clarke County, of that State. A slave of Colonel James Castleman, it was stated, had been chained by the neck, and whipped to death by his master, on the charge of stealing. The whole neighbourhood in which the transaction occurred was incensed; the Virginia papers abounded in denunciations of the cruel act; and the people of the North were called upon to bear witness to the justice which would surely be meted in a slave State to the master of a slave. We did not publish the account. The case was horrible; it was, we were confident, exceptional; it should not be taken as evidence of the general treatment of slaves; we chose to delay any notice of it till the courts should pronounce their judgment, and we could announce at once the crime and its punishment, so that the State might stand acquitted of the foul deed.

Those who were so shocked at the transaction will be surprised and mortified to hear that the actors in it have been tried and acquitted; and when they read the following account of the trial and verdict published at the instance of the friends of the accused, their mortification will deepen into bitter indignation.

From the "Spirit of Jefferson."

"COLONEL JAMES CASTLEMAN.--The following statement, understood to have been drawn up by counsel, since the trial, has been placed by the friends of this gentleman in our hands for publication.

"At the Circuit Superior Court of Clarke County, commencing on the 13th of October, Judge Samuels presiding, James Castleman and his son Stephen D. Castleman were indicted jointly for the murder of negro Lewis, property of the latter. By advice of their counsel, the parties elected to be tried separately, and the attorney for the commonwealth directed that James Castleman should be tried first.

"It was proved on this trial, that for many months previous to the occurrence the money drawer of the tavern kept by Stephen D. Castleman, and the liquors kept in large quantities in his cellar, had been pillaged from time to time, until the thefts had attained to a considerable amount. Suspicion had, from various causes, been directed to Lewis, and another negro, named Reuben (a blacksmith), the property of James Castleman; but by the aid of two of the house-servants they had eluded the most vigilant watch.

"On the 20th of August last, in the afternoon, S. D. Castleman accidentally discovered a clue, by means of which, and through one of the house-servants implicated, he was enabled fully to detect the depredators, and to ascertain the manner in which the theft had been committed. He immediately sent for his father, living near him, and after communicating what he had discovered, it was determined that the offenders should be punished at once, and before they should know of the discovery that had been made.

"Lewis was punished first; and in a manner, as was fully shown, to preclude all risk of injury to his person, by stripes with a broad leathern strap. He was punished severely, but to an extent by no means disproportionate to his offence; nor was it pretended in any quarter that this punishment implicated either his life or health. He confessed the offence, and admitted that it had been effected by false keys furnished by the blacksmith Reuben.

"The latter servant was punished immediately afterwards. It was believed that he was the principal offender, and he was found to be more obdurate and contumacious than Lewis had been in reference to the offence. Thus it was proved, both by the prosecution and the defence, that he was punished with greater severity than his accomplice. It resulted in a like confession on his part, and he produced the false key, one fashioned by himself, by which the theft had been effected.

"It was further shown, on the trial, that Lewis was whipped in the upper room of a warehouse, connected with Stephen Castleman's store, and near the public road, where he was at work at the time; that after he had been flogged, to secure his person, whilst they went after Reuben, he was confined by a chain around his neck, which was attached to a joist above his head. The length of this chain, the breadth and thickness of the joist, its height from the floor, and the circlet of chain on the neck, were accurately measured; and it was thus shown that the chain unoccupied by the circlet and the joist was a foot and a half longer than the space between the shoulders of the man and the joist above, or to that extent the chain hung loose above him; that the circlet (which was fastened so as to prevent its contraction) rested on the shoulders and breast, the chain being sufficiently drawn only to prevent being slipped over his head, and that there was no other place in the room to which he could be fastened, except to one of the joists above. His hands were tied in front; a white man who had been at work with Lewis during the day was left with him by the Messrs. Castleman, the better to insure his detention, whilst they were absent after Reuben. It was proved by this man (who was a witness for the prosecution) that Lewis asked for a box to stand on, or for something that he could jump off from; that after the Castlemans had left him he expressed a fear that when they came back he would be whipped again; and said, if he had a knife, and could get one hand loose, he would cut his throat. The witness stated that the negro 'stood firm on his feet,' that he could turn freely in whatever direction he wished, and that he made no complaint of the mode of his confinement. This man stated that he remained with Lewis about half an hour, and then left there to go home.

"After punishing Reuben, the Castlemans returned to the warehouse, bringing him with them; their object being to confront the two men, in the hope that by further examination of them jointly, all their accomplices might be detected.

"They were not absent more than half an hour. When they entered the room above, Lewis was found hanging by the neck, his feet thrown behind him, his knees a few inches from the floor, and his head thrown forward--the body warm and supple (or relaxed), but life was extinct.

"It was proved by the surgeons who made a post-mortem examination before the coroner's inquest, that the death was caused by strangulation by hanging; and other eminent surgeons were examined to show, from the appearance of the brain and its blood-vessels after death (as exhibited at the post-mortem examination), that the subject could not have fainted before strangulation.

"After the evidence was finished on both sides, the jury from their box and of their own motion, without a word from counsel on either side, informed the Court that they had agreed upon their verdict. The counsel assented to its being thus received, and a verdict of "Not Guilty" was immediately rendered. The attorney for the commonwealth then informed the Court that all the evidence for the prosecution had been laid before the jury; and as no new evidence could be offered on the trial of Stephen D. Castleman, he submitted to the Court the propriety of entering a nolle prosequi. The judge replied that the case had been fully and fairly laid before the jury upon the evidence; that the Court was not only satisfied with the verdict, but, if any other had been rendered, it must have been set aside; and that if no further evidence was to be adduced on the trial of Stephen, the attorney for the commonwealth would exercise a proper discretion in entering a nolle prosequi as to him, and the Court would approve of its being done. A nolle prosequi was entered accordingly, and both gentlemen discharged.

"It may be added that two days were consumed in exhibiting the evidence, and that the trial was by a jury of Clarke County. Both the parties had been on bail from the time of their arrest, and were continued on bail whilst the trial was depending.'

Let us admit that the evidence does not prove the legal crime of homicide: what candid man can doubt, after reading this ex parte version of it, that the slave died in consequence of the punishment inflicted upon him?

In criminal prosecutions the federal constitution guarantees to the accused the right to a public trial by an impartial jury; the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witness in his favour; and to have the assistance of counsel; guarantees necessary to secure innocence against hasty or vindictive judgment--absolutely necessary to prevent injustice. Grant that they were not intended for slaves; every master of a slave must feel that they are still morally binding upon him. He is the sole judge; he alone determines the offence, the proof requisite to establish it, and the amount of the punishment. The slave, then, has a peculiar claim upon him for justice. When charged with a crime, common humanity requires that he should be informed of it--that he should be confronted with the witnesses against him--that he should be permitted to show evidence in favour of his innocence.

But how was poor Lewis treated? The son of Castleman said he had discovered who stole the money; and it was forthwith "determined that the offenders should be punished at once, and before they should know of the discovery that had been made." Punished without a hearing! Punished on the testimony of a house-servant, the nature of which does not appear to have been inquired into by the Court! Not a word is said which authorises the belief that any careful examination was made as it respects their guilt. Lewis and Reuben were assumed, on loose evidence, without deliberate investigation, to be guilty; and then, without allowing them to attempt to show their evidence, they were whipped until a confession of guilt was extorted by bodily pain.

Is this Virginia justice?

Lewis was punished with "a broad leathern strap;" he was "punished severely:" this we do not need to be told. A "broad leathern strap" is well adapted to severity of punishment. "Nor was it pretended," the account says, "in any quarter that this punishment implicated either his life or his health." This is false; it was expressly stated in the newspaper accounts at the time, and such was the general impression in the neighbourhood, that the punishment did very severely implicate his life. But more of this anon.

Lewis was left. A chain was fastened around his neck, so as not to choke him, and secured to the joist above, leaving a slack of about a foot and a half. Remaining in an upright position, he was secure against strangulation, but he could neither sit nor kneel; and should he faint he would be choked to death. The account says that they fastened him thus for the purpose of securing him. If this had been the sole object, it could have been accomplished by safer and less cruel methods, as every reader must know. This mode of securing him was intended probably to intimidate him, and, at the same time, afforded some gratification to the vindictive feeling which controlled the actors in this foul transaction. The man whom they left to watch Lewis said that, after remaining there about half an hour, he went home; and Lewis was then alive. The Castlemans say that, after punishing Reuben, they returned, having been absent not more than half an hour, and they found him hanging by the neck, dead. We direct attention to this part of the testimony to show how loose the statements were which went to make up the evidence.

Why was Lewis chained at all, and a man left to watch him? "To secure him," say the Castlemans. Is it customary to chain slaves in this manner, and set a watch over them, after severe punishment, to prevent their running away? If the punishment of Lewis had not been unusual, and if he had not been threatened with another infliction on their return, there would have been no necessity for chaining him.

The testimony of the man left to watch represents him as desperate, apparently with pain and fright. "Lewis asked for a box to stand on." Why? Was he not suffering from pain and exhaustion, and did he not wish to rest himself without danger of slow strangulation? Again: he asked for "something he could jump off from." "After the Castlemans left, he expressed a fear when they came back that he would be whipped again; and said, if he had a knife, and could get one hand loose, he would cut his throat."

The punishment that could drive him to such desperation must have been horrible.

How long they were absent we know not, for the testimony on this point is contradictory. They found him hanging by the neck, dead, "his feet thrown behind him, his knees a few inches from the floor, and his head thrown forward;" just the position he would naturally fall into had he sunk from exhaustion. They wish it to appear that he hung himself. Could this be proved (we need hardly say that it is not) it would relieve but slightly the dark picture of their guilt. The probability is that he sank, exhausted by suffering, fatigue, and fear. As to the testimony of "surgeons," founded upon a post-mortem examination of the brain and blood-vessels, "that the subject could not have fainted before strangulation," it is not worthy of consideration. We know something of the fallacies and fooleries of such examinations.

From all we can learn; the only evidence relied on by the prosecution was that white man employed by the Castlemans. He was dependent upon them for work. Other evidence might have been obtained; why it was not is for the prosecuting attorney to explain. To prove what we say, and to show that justice has not been done in this horrible affair, we publish the following communication from an old and highly-respectable citizen of this place, and who is very far from being an Abolitionist. The slaveholders whom he mentions are well known here, and would have promptly appeared in the case had the prosecution, which was aware of their readiness, summoned them.

"To the Editor of the Era.

"I see that Castleman, who lately had a trial for whipping a slave to death, in Virginia, was 'triumphantly acquitted'--as many expected. There are three persons in this city, with whom I am acquainted, who stayed at Castleman's the same night in which this awful tragedy was enacted. They heard the dreadful lashing and the heart-rending screams and entreaties of the sufferer. They implored the only white man they could find on the premises, not engaged in the bloody work, to interpose; but for a long time he refused, on the ground that he was a dependant, and was afraid to give offence; and that, moreover, they had been drinking, and he was in fear for his own life, should he say a word that would be displeasing to them. He did, however, venture, and returned and reported the cruel manner in which the slaves were chained, and lashed, and secured in a blacksmith's vice. In the morning, when they ascertained that one of the slaves was dead, they were so shocked and indignant that they refused to eat in the house, and reproached Castleman with his cruelty. He expressed his regret that the slave had died, and especially as he had ascertained that he was innocent of the accusation for which he had suffered. The idea was that he had fainted from exhaustion; and, the chain being round his neck, he was strangled. The persons I refer to are themselves slaveholders--but their feelings were so harrowed and lacerated that they could not sleep (two of them are ladies); and for many nights afterwards their rest was disturbed, and their dreams made frightful, by the appalling recollection.

"These persons would have been material witnesses, and would have willingly attended on the part of the prosecution. The knowledge they had of the case was communicated to the proper authorities, yet their attendance was not required. The only witness was that dependant who considered his own life in danger.

"Yours, &c., J. F."

The account, as published by the friends of the accused parties, shows a case of extreme cruelty. The statements made by our correspondent prove that the truth has not been fully revealed, and that justice has been baffled. The result of the trial shows how irresponsible is the power of a master over his slave; and that, whatever security the latter has, is to be sought in the humanity of the former, not in the guarantees of law. Against the cruelty of an inhuman master he has really no safeguard.

Our conduct in relation to this case, deferring all notice of it in our columns till a legal investigation could be had, shows that we are not disposed to be captious towards our slaveholding countrymen. In no unkind spirit have we examined this lamentable case; but we must expose the utter repugnance of the slave system to the proper administration of justice. The newspapers of Virginia generally publish the account from the "Spirit of Jefferson," without comment. They are evidently not satisfied that justice was done; they, doubtless, will deny that the accused were guilty of homicide, legally; but they will not deny that they were guilty of an atrocity which should brand them for ever in a Christian country.
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