This Day (One Time Only Edition)

Published:November 7, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1730, the slave Mary Aggie was indicted, tried, and convicted for stealing three sheets valued at forty shillings from the house of her owner, Annie Sullivan, a Williamsburg tavern keeper. Under normal circumstances, Aggie likely would have hanged—except that, as unlikely as it must seem, she had the lieutenant governor, William Gooch, in her corner. He had known her from a previous court appearance, in which Aggie had sued for her freedom on account of her Christian faith. She must have made an impression because now Gooch made a deft legal argument on her behalf. She should be able to plead benefit of clergy, he said, referring to an old English tradition of allowing condemned prisoners an opportunity for a one-time pardon if they can recite a verse from the Bible.

Aggie was eventually pardoned, and the General Assembly extended benefit of clergy “to any Negro, mulatto or Indian whatsoever,” although it limited the instances in which it could be invoked. As it happens, Prosser’s Gabriel was only alive to plan insurrection the summer of 1800 because a couple years before he had escaped the gallows by pleading benefit of clergy.

Too bad for him you can only do that once.

IMAGE: Iron shackles used in the slave trade and dating to the seventeenth or eighteenth century (Virginia Historical Society)