In the 1830s and 1840s, tensions in Gettysburg ran high because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. In 1837, the death in Virginia of a moderately wealthy planter, Samuel Maddox, would touch off a constitutional crisis that involved kidnapping, imprisonments in both Virginia and Pennsylvania, and three different complex court cases.
While simple on the surface, the story was complicated from the start. Samuel Maddox died in 1837, and his will left both his enslaved persons and his farm to his wife, Mary, with a small payment going to his nephew, also named Samuel Maddox. But the living situation wasn’t simple. At least one source states that one of the enslaved women, Catherine Payne, was Samuel Maddox’s daughter.
Catherine was married to a free black man named Robert Payne, and they had four children together: Eliza Jane, Mary, James Arther, and George. To our eyes, Samuel’s will was straightforward, but the following clause proved to be a problem:
A so-called “whole estate” would give the power of property determination to the receiver. That is, people inheriting the property could do anything they wanted with it—sell it, keep it, set “it” free (in the case of enslaved people), etc. A “life estate” will meant that people inheriting the property could use said property for particular purposes until their lives expired, and then the remnant of the property was to be given to another. The older Samuel’s will expressly stated that Mary was to receive the whole estate but also allotted any residual property, upon Mary’s death, to nephew Samuel.
On February 25, 1843, Mary Maddox went to court in Virginia and manumitted “Ben aged fifty three, James [later known as Jim Green] aged thirty seven, Kitty [Catherine Payne] aged twenty seven, Eliza Jane aged five years, Mary aged four years, [James] Arthur aged two years and George aged two months.” Virginia law required manumitted people to leave the state within a year. Hence, Mary took the liberated people to Pennsylvania where she again filed manumission papers. She then stayed with Catherine and her family in Fairfield, PA, (just outside Gettysburg) for the period of a year before returning to Virginia in 1844. Catherine, her children, and then settled among the Quakers in Menallen, north of Gettysburg and in Adams County.
All was well between Mary Maddox, the Paynes, Jim Green, and Ben. But all was not well with the younger Samuel Maddox who interpreted his uncle’s will as being a “life estate.” Why? Though the clause above gave the “whole” of the estate to Mary, promising any “residual” at the end of her life gave Samuel enough wiggle room to claim that the will was, in fact, a “life estate.” Using this interpretation, Samuel employed a slave catcher named Tom Finnegan and headed north in 1845 to reclaim his “property” under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Devastating consequences followed.