Resources and Context for Chapter 0: Freedom from Slavery in Prison

The bitter irony for the Payne family—that they would find greater freedom from slavery in prison—is historically accurate. The best description and analysis of Catherine Payne’s life and legal challenges is given in Megan Linsley Bishop’s 2007 Master’s Thesis. For the Payne family, three different legal cases emerged. In Virginia, after being taken to the county prison, Catherine Payne filed a suit for damages against Samuel Maddox for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment. Likewise, Samuel Maddox sought to have the manumission of the Paynes nullified on the grounds that the older Samuel Maddox’s will did not permit Mary Maddox to manumit the “property” she had inherited. In Pennsylvania, Tom Finnegan, a known slave catcher and member of Samuel’s party that grabbed the Paynes, headed back to the Gettysburg area to grab another runaway. He was apprehended by Gettysburg authorities and charged with kidnapping.

All three cases hinged on whether the Paynes could be legally captured in line with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 or were legally free and thus victims of kidnapping. Samuel’s argument hinged on confusing wording in his uncle’s will. 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, 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. Samuel used that provision to claim that Mary had no legal right to sell the former slaves as they would be provided to him upon her death.

Similarly, Finnegan’s guilt of being a kidnapper hinged on whether he was indeed kidnapping “free” persons or persons who were owned. Of course, sectional politics heavily influenced both procedures. In Virginia, the judge reduced Catherine Payne’s damages to $1. A jury struggled to decide what interpretation should be placed on the will—the judge then ruled that Mary had never established herself as executrix (that is, in charge of dispensing the materials and monies as stipulated in the will). This seemed to favor Samuel’s interpretation, but the judge, who seemed sympathetic to the Paynes’ plight, also noted that a court of equity would likely find in their favor.

The ne’er-do-well Samuel was good at one thing: spending money and incurring debts. He could have taken the Paynes out of prison while awaiting trial but couldn’t afford the $500 bond that was set. Similarly, the county caused him to pay the $138 of upkeep incurred by the Paynes in the prison, and Samuel had to do so by paying with goods and not cash.

When Samuel learned that a court of equity was likely to rule against him and that defending his claim there would cost more money, he renounced his claims in the Payne family, and they were free to go.

In Pennsylvania, Tom Finnegan’s case cut against him given the sympathies of the judges and juries of the north. The following articles show his capture, his trial, and the fact that he was ultimately pardoned after serving eighteen months of his five-year sentence. And why was he pardoned? The legislature and governor were democrats and sided more with southern democrats (who favored slavery) than with Pennsylvania law, so slave catchers who were swept up as kidnappers tended to get their pardons.

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