Friday, February 02, 2007

Winny v. Whitesides I: A Suit for Freedom

Winny v. Whitesides, 1 Mo. 472, 1824 WL 1839 (1824), decided by the Supreme Court of Missouri in 1824, is a wonderful case to use as a primer on pre-Dred Scott slave emancipation law. My discussion is aided by the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, which has made available online a wonderful collection of photographic images of some of the original pleadings in the trial court.

Let’s look first at the facts.

As of about 1794 or 1795, Phebe Whitesides and her husband resided in “Carolina” with a slave, Winny. In about 1794 or 1795, the Whitesides moved from Carolina to “Illinois” (then part of the Northwest Territory), bringing Winny with them. The Whitesides resided in Illinois about three of four years, “retaining [Winny], during the term of their residence in Illinois, in slavery, in Illinois.” A witness described Winny during this period as a “negro girl.” Assuming she was twelve years of age in 1795, she would have been born about 1783.

Thereafter (about 1798 or 1799), the Whitesides moved to Missouri, bringing Winny with them “and still holding her as a slave.” They apparently resided in the St. Louis area.

The jury found, and the Missouri Supreme Court assumed for purposes of its decision, that the Whitesides continually claimed and held Winny as a slave in Missouri for the next twenty years, until Winny filed suit in 1818. (Mr. Whitesides died some time after 1814, and upon his death, Mrs. Whitesides became Winny’s owner.) One witness, however, submitted an affidavit in which he asserted that, in about 1814, the Whitesides executed an instrument conveying Winny to Mrs. Whitesides’ children. Whether the witness failed to testify at trial, or he did testify and the jury did not credit his testimony, I do not know.

Winny filed suit to obtain her freedom against Mrs. Whitesides in the Superior Court of Missouri Territory in 1818. After Missouri achieved statehood, the case was transferred to the state Circuit Court of St. Louis County.

The decision and court records do not explain why Winny waited twenty years to sue, or what prompted her to sue when she did. I do have a theory, though. In 1818, Winnie was about thirty-five years of age. The court records reveal that she then had nine children. My guess is that Winny hoped that her suit would also mean freedom for her children, some of whom were in their teens and approaching legal age. Again, just a guess.

The decision explains how such suits typically worked. There was not a separate cause of action to be declared free. Instead, using “the common form,” Winny sued Mrs. Whitesides for “assault and battery.” This did not mean that Mrs. Whitesides had physically hit or assaulted Winny. Rather, it was, in effect, an assertion that Mrs. Whitesides was restraining Winny in a way that would not be lawful if Winny were free. You should think of it as a suit for “unlawful imprisonment.”

In accordance with usual procedures, Mrs. Whitesides denied liability on the ground that Winny was her slave. In other words, Mrs. Whitesides did not deny that she had “imprisoned” Winny, but she did deny that she had “unlawfully” imprisoned her. She asserted, in effect, that she was justified and entitled to “imprison” Winny because Winny was a slave and not free. Winny, in turn, challenged Mrs. Whitesides’ defense of justification. By this roundabout procedure, the parties effectively placed before the trial court the issue of Winny’s status as slave or free.

After delays, a jury trial was held in February 1822. The thrust of Winny’s case, of course, was that her residence in the Northwest Territory had made her free. Mrs. Whitesides’ counsel asked the trial judge to instruct the jury that Winny’s residence in Illinois “did not render the said Winny free, under and by virtue of the ordinance of Congress of 1787.” The trial judge refused to give this instruction. Instead, he instructed the jury (as paraphrased by the Supreme Court):

“that if they [the jury] believed the defendant and her then husband [the Whitesides], resided in Illinois, with an intention to make that place their home of themselves and of the said Winny, they should find the issue for the plaintiff [Winny], and assess damages to her in this form of action, on the same principles as any other plaintiff might recover in an action of false imprisonment.”

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Winny and awarded her damages of $167.50. Mrs. Whitesides appealed from the resulting judgment against her to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which heard the appeal in late 1824.

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