Unrecorded Colonial Virginia broadside relating to a suspected poisoning by two enslaved women

Robert Dinwiddie, [Document appointing a commission to investigate and try two enslaved women accused of poisoning in colonial Virginia]. [Williamsburg, Virginia: William Hunter], August 15, [1754].
Letterpress broadside on laid paper accomplished in manuscript, 15 5/8” x 12” (sheet size), remains of colonial wax seal and ribbon. Toning and soiling, repairs along old folds, occasional loss of printed and manuscript text, with a later hand filling in missing text. Mounted on sheet of modern paper.
On Hold

The only recorded example of this grim Virginia broadside enforcing a 1748 law respecting the trial and punishment of slaves accused of capital crimes. Accomplished in manuscript and signed by Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie in 1754, appointing a commission to investigate an accusation of poisoning against two enslaved women in Norfolk County.   

This order commissions William Crawford and twelve other men as “Justices…to enquire of, and to hear and determine all Treasons, Petit-Treasons, or Misprisions thereof, Felonies, Murders, or other Offences, or Crimes, whatsoever, committed or perpetrated within the said County, by the [in manuscript] said Violet and Beck….” The justices are ordered to arraign and try the two women, and sentence them appropriately if guilty. The clerk writes that “Violet, a negro girl slave belonging to Mary Falkner and Beck, a Negro girl slave belonging to Alexander Bruce” had been detained by the sheriff on suspicion of “having prepared & administered a poisonous medicine” to Mary Falkner’s son, though he does not state whether or not the boy died as a result. Dinwiddie signed the document at the lower right, and affixed the royal seal to the lower margin.

This particular form was created to assist with the enforcement of Act XXXVIII (1748) “an Act directing the Trial of Slaves committing Capital Crimes, and for the more effectual Punishing Conspiracies and Insurrections of, and for the better Government of, Negroes, Mulattoes, and Indians, Bond or Free.” Article I of the act explains that this law was necessary because “effectual provision should be made for the better ordering and governing of slaves, free negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, and detecting and punishing their secret plots, and dangerous combinations, and for the speedy trial of such of them as commit capital crimes….” Article II continues: “That if any negroe, or other slaves, shall at any time consult, advise, or conspire the murder of any person, or persons whatsoever, every such consulting, plotting, or conspiring, shall be adjudged and deemed felony, and the slave or slaves convicted thereof, in manner herein after directed, shall suffer death, and be utterly excluded all benefit of clergy.”

But even more relevant for this case, Article III states: “And whereas many negroes, under pretence of practising physic, have prepared and exhibited poisonous medicines, by which many persons have been murdered, and others have languished under long and tedious indispositions, and it will be difficult to detect such pernicious and dangerous practices, if they should be permitted to exhibit any sort of medicine, Be it therefore further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if any negroe, or other slave, shall prepare, exhibit, or administer any medicine whatsoever, he, or she so offending, shall be adjudged guilty of felony, and suffer death without benefit of clergy.”

Thus, not only were these two enslaved women, Violet and Beck, accused of attempted murder, they were also by default accused of practicing medicine, the penalties of either being death without benefit of clergy; it would have made no difference whether the boy died. However, there is a small loophole included in Article IV: “Provided always, That if it shall appear to the court before which such slave shall be tried, that the medicine was not prepared, exhibited, or administered, with an ill intent, nor attended with any bad consequences, such slave shall have the benefit of clergy.” Their only hope then was that the jury would not believe that they intended to harm the boy, in which case the benefit of clergy would apply, and so “he, or she, shall be burnt in the hand, by the gaoler in open court, and suffer such other corporal punishment as the court shall think fit to inflict….” (Article VIII).

Beck and Violet
I have been unable to find any other record of the circumstances recorded in this broadside. In particular, the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative mentions neither a Violet owned by Mary Falkner nor a Beck in the service of Alexander Bruce, much less the deadly accusation made against them. For what it is worth, Ancestry.com mentions a Mary Falkner of Norfolk marrying one George Wilson on March 16, 1772 and an Alexander Bruce resident in the Borough of Norfolk, who married widow Elizabeth Curle in February 1762/3. Bruce’s will, dated 1764, indicates that at the time he owned a single slave, named Jupiter.

It seems plausible that The Virginia Gazette would have reported some account of the proceedings against Violet and Beck, but I have found no digitized issues for August-September 1754. Considering that British colonists were terrified by the prospect of revolt, arson, violence, or poisoning by the people they enslaved, not to mention attacks by Native Americans and unnamed “secret plots” by “negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, bond or free,” it seems unlikely that Violet and Beck’s story ended well.

Robert Dinwiddie
Robert Dinwiddie (1692-1770) was a colonial administrator who served as lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1751 to 1758, first under Governor Willem Anne van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle and then under John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun. Both governors were largely absentee: Albemarle never set foot in Virginia, and Loudoun was also Commander-in-Chief during the French & Indian War. Dinwiddie was thus de facto head of the colony for most of the time. He is among other things credited with giving George Washington his first official assignment, a mission in the Fall of 1753 to warn the French against encroachments in the Ohio Valley.

William Hunter and early Virginia printing
The broadside was almost certainly produced by Williamsburg printer and publisher William Hunter (d. 1761), who for just over a decade held a monopoly on printing in the colony.

For more than a century Virginia’s governors opposed the introduction of printing to the colony as a potentially disruptive force. It was only in 1728 that Lieutenant Governor Gooch authorized William Parks as the colony’s first printer, granting him a monopoly, which he held until his death in 1750. He was succeeded by his former apprentice Hunter, who in his short career became one of the great figures among American printers and publishers of the Colonial era. Hunter served as official printer to the Virginia colony (1750‐1761) as well as publisher of the Virginia Gazette (1751‐1761) and Virginia Almanack, and also developed a strong retail business specializing in books and blank forms. He was also deputy postmaster general for British North America (1753‐1761), working closely with Benjamin Franklin to develop the postal system in the southern colonies… a role clearly aligned with his private business interests. Unfortunately in the mid-1750s his health broke down, and management of his business was taken on by others. Seemingly recovered, he again took control but died suddenly on August 14, 1761.

Hunter’s printings of the Virginia General Assembly’s session journals and laws are encountered with some frequency: they are well represented in institutional collections, and as of this writing AbeBooks lists no fewer than three volumes of Acts printed by Hunter.

Broadsides such as that offered here are another matter entirely. RareBookHub lists but three broadsides (dated 1750, 1754 and 1757) printed by Hunter offered in more than a century, most recently by Christies in 1982. The broadside offered here may be a unique surviving example, as it is absolutely unrecorded in the standard bibliographic sources. A similar broadside, also enforcing Act XXXVIII and probably printed by Hunter’s successor Joseph Royle, is held by the Virginia Historical Society.

A remarkable survival of early Virginia printing, and important evidence of an otherwise unknown event in the dark history of Virginia slavery. 

Not in Index of Virginia Printing, Hummel’s Southeastern Broadsides before 1877 and More Virginia Broadsides, ESTC, OCLC, or the on-line catalogs of the Library of Virginia, University of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, or William & Mary. Background on William Hunter from David Rawson, “Printing in Colonial Virginia”, at EncyclopediaVirginia.com (accessed June 2022) and the entry for Hunter at the Index of Virginia Printing.