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Was there any punishment for killing slaves, and what punishment was given for it, and was it enforced?

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    a better question would have been how many murder cases involved a master killing a slave.. – sofa general May 17 at 17:32
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    Please note that murder is, by definition, an illegal form of homicide, so this title makes no sense. If killing a slave was legal, it wouldn't be termed murder. It's like the difference between taking something vs stealing it. – forest May 17 at 20:02
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    @forest it makes sense even if it’s technically incorrect. – Tim May 17 at 21:44
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    @forest: Interesting point, but it makes sense if you interpret "murder" in terms of modern morals (and/or laws), and "illegal" as "illegal at the time" under historical laws. I can't think of an equally compact wording that still conveys the same meaning to 21st century human readers, otherwise an edit would be appropriate. "killing" includes causing death indirectly when that wasn't your goal, e.g. forcing a slave to do a dangerous job, or malnourishing them, etc. – Peter Cordes May 18 at 22:13
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    @PeterCordes You're right. I didn't mean that it literally doesn't make sense (which it obviously does), but that it's incorrect usage of the term which, ironically, ensures that the question can always be correctly answered with "no, because murder is illegal". – forest May 19 at 0:36
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Yes, murder of a slave was illegal in the antebellum South, and it was a capital offence.


An example is the case of John Hoover of North Carolina. He was arrested on 28 March 1839 for the murder of one of his slaves named Mira. He was brought to trial on 12 September 1839 before a jury of his peers (i.e. 12 male slaveholders).

At his trial, it was recorded that Hoover had declared that:

“the negro was his own property and he had a right to do as he pleased with his property ...”

Perhaps surprisingly, given that they were also all slave-owners, the jury disagreed. On Friday 13 September 1839, he was convicted on the charge of murder. An appeal was heard at the North Carolina Supreme Court in Raleigh which upheld the verdict.

John Hoover was executed for the murder of his slave in May 1840.


Details of the case can be found in:

Anthony V. Baker: “for the murder of his own female slave, a woman named Mira...” : Law, Slavery and Incoherence in Antebellum North Carolina


Interestingly, Anthony V. Baker's paper shows how the laws of North Carolina had changed over time. In particular, a 1774 statute which had criminalised the murder of a slave (“willfully and maliciously killing a slave”), but which had also reduced the punishment for such a murder, such that an offender would:

“suffer twelve Months Imprisonment...” for the first offense and back to the more traditional punishment, “suffer[ing] Death, without benefit of Clergy....” for the second.


However, how often these laws were enforced in practice is a different question.

Not only that, but the difficulty in obtaining a conviction should not be underestimated. This was illustrated in the relatively well-known case of Eliza Rowand, who was charged with, & acquitted of, the murder of one of her slaves in 1847.


For a wider view of the question, I'd recommend Andrew T. Fede's recent book: Homicide Justified: The Legality of Killing Slaves in the United States and the Atlantic World. This includes discussions around the issues raised by both of the cases mentioned above, and also includes an entire chapter dedicated to The Antebellum States' Law on Slave Homicide (Chapter 11).

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    Did the deliberate murder of a slave legally differ from working them until they died, or other forms of causing their deaths through deliberate negligence (e.g. denying health care)? – nick012000 May 17 at 4:22
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    That wouldn't necessarily be murder, perhaps criminal negligence or manslaughter, as the intention would not be to kill the slave. – IlludiumPu36 May 17 at 6:40
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    @nick012000 The 1774 statute mentioned above described the act of “willfully and maliciously killing a slave” as murder. Obviously that left some room for legal interpretation. Anyone charged with murdering a slave would be tried before a jury of other slave owners, who would probably not consider the actions you describe to be murder. Further, if the intent had been 'reasonable chastisement' then killing a slave would also not be a crime. This was the defence claimed by Eliza Rowand (despite the weight of circumstantial evidence against her). – sempaiscuba May 17 at 8:48
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    @nick012000 - "health care" in the 19th century wasn't exactly great shakes no matter who you were. – T.E.D. May 17 at 13:52
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    @MasonWheeler Anthony V. Baker is the name of the guy who wrote the paper. – sempaiscuba May 17 at 18:32
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As sempaiscuba has said, it was illegal to kill a slave in the slave-holding states of the United States. Premeditated murder of a slave has always been illegal in the slave-holding states.

However, it was not until December 20th, 1821 that all of the slave-holding states held that the first degree murder of a slave was a capital offense.

Slave law has a long history. Different states had different laws at different times. Massachusetts was the first colony to authorize slavery through enacted law in the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties. Section 91 related to slavery.

There shall never be any bond slaverie villinage or Captivitie amongst us, unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly belie themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.

At this time in Massachusetts slaves had some rights. A study of what "all liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons" means will have to be taken up in a different question.

As time went on the number of slaves in the United States grew and laws restricting the rights of slaves were put in effect. By 1691 in Virginia

slaves are denied the right to a jury trial for capital offenses. https://www.history.org/history/teaching/slavelaw.cfm

In 1856 George Stroud noted:

There was a time when, in all the old states in which slavery is still maintained, the murder of a slave, whether by his master or a third person, was punished by a pecuniary fine only. South Carolina was the last of these states in which a change in the particular was made. Since then (Dec. 20, 1821) the wilful, malicious and premeditated killing of a slave, by whomsoever perpetuated, is a capital offence in all the slave-holding states.

A Sketch of the Laws Relating to slavery in Several States of the United States of America by George M. Stroud 1856

William Goodell wrote:

In former times, the murder of a slave in most, if not all the slaveholding regions of this country, was by law, punishable by a pecuniary fine only. At present the wilful, malicious, and deliberate murder of a slave, by whomsoever perpetrated, is declared to be punishable with death in every State. The exclusion of all testimony of coloured persons, bond or free, is a feature sufficient of itself to render these laws nugatory.

According to the South Carolina Slave Act of 1740

"To restrain and prevent barbarity being exercised towards slaves, Be it enacted, that if any person shall wilfully murder his own slave, or the slaves of any other person, every such person shall, upon conviction thereof, forfeit and pay the sum of seven hundred pounds, current money, and shall be rendered for ever incapable of holding, exercising, any office. And in case any person shall not be able to pay the penalty and forfeiture hereby inflicted and imposed, every such person shall be sent to any of the frontier garrisons of the province, or committed to work-house in Charleston for the space of seven year at hard labor"

further

Another provision in the same Act is as follows: "If any person shall, on a sudden heat or passion, or by undue correction, kill his own slave, or the slave of any other person, he shall forfeit the sum of three hundred and fifty pounds, current money"

Even after 1821 unpremeditated murder or correcting a slave to death was punished with a fine.

This act continued in force till 1821, when the wilful murder of a slave was made punishable by death, without benefit of clergy; while the penalty for killing in "sudden heat", or "undue correction," was reduced to five hundred dollars, but authorizing an imprisonment for six months

American Slave Code by William Goodell 1853

A much longer answer could go into the details that made getting a conviction, even after 1821, very difficult.

For transparency, both Goodell and Stroud are noted abolitionists. My focus has been on their references to the South Carolina Slave Code rather than their opinions.

For further reference:

Complete text of the 1740 Slave Code of South Carolina. See section 37
West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. S.v. "South Carolina Slave Code." https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/South+Carolina+Slave+Code

Negro Law of South Carolina collected by John Belton O'Neall 1848
Contains the changes from the Act of 1821

  • 1
    Was always illegal in the slave-holding states, unless there're some slave states lying around today that I hadn't heard of. – Sean May 18 at 22:02

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