Capital Cases in 1850s Virginia

Totals of Women in VAThis semester, I’m taking my very last course in the PhD program–the Doctoral Research Seminar. The purpose of the course is to research and write a substantial paper related to our dissertations.

I’ve chosen to explore the circumstances of capital cases involving women in Virginia in the 1850s. As seen in this graph, my research thus far leads me to believe that the largest volume of Virginia’s women were executed in this decade. I’d like to understand why.

My driving questions are as follows:

  • What are the circumstances of cases in which women were executed in the 1850s. What of the women who were pardoned or acquitted?
  • Are there trends or patterns that I can identify among and between these crimes?
  • Are these crimes/outcomes affected at all by the changing social and political situation in Virginia in the decade? Are there other macro circumstances that influence these trials?
  • Can I draw any conclusions about the effect gender, race, and class had on capital crime in Virginia in this decade? Are there specific constructions of deviance that influence the outcome of cases involving women in Virginia at this time?

Very early working argument: The thirteen slave women who were executed in Virginia in the 1850s had a larger burden to bear in the courtroom than their white sisters in crime. Due to the unsteady nature of master-slave relations in the Old Dominion during this decade, the murder of a member of the master’s family–as each of these cases represents–proved too threatening to manage on the plantation. Once the courts were involved, the possible mitigating circumstances in each of these individual murders were irrelevant.

I’ve made contact with the archivist in charge of local papers at the Virginia Archives and he’s helping me to identify the best way to answer these questions. I’ll begin my research with the papers of Governors John Floyd, Joseph Johnson, and Henry Wise to help me identify those cases where pardons were requested, and either accepted or denied. (The courts were required to send complete capital case files to the governor to review for pardoning reasons, so these records should be pretty robust.) Once I’ve identified cases by name, I can do a more thorough newspaper and county records search. From there, I’ll work my way out to identify cases in which the defendant women were acquitted. Admittedly, these will be more difficult and time consuming to find, but I’ll see what I can do in a semester.

If I find I have too much information to complete this study in a semester, I’ll dial it back to compare two locales–probably Richmond and Culpeper county, based on the initial research I have.

At some point, I’ll have digital components to share–hopefully a database and some visuals of the trends I find. Either way, I’ll document my progress here, so stay tuned.