Source: Historical / Getty
History is messy. It is tangled, unsettling, full of contradictions, moments of contingency, and is at times brutal. This is especially true when we historicize the experiences of American girls and women within a lens of race and sex.
Come go back with me to early November 1834 to Salubria plantation located in what is now Oxon Hill, Maryland and is the site of a popular shopping outlet at the National Harbor. I want to tell you about a 14-year-old girl named Judah (she didn’t have a last name) who was enslaved there. Depending on who you ask, Judah is either a tragic hero or a depraved monster for what she did while her master and his wife were away from the house on a Thursday night.
According to local press reports from the Alexandria Gazette and Episcopal Recorder, Maryland State Senator Dr. John H. Bayne and his wife returned home to find their two sons John and George, five and seven years of age, “suddenly seized with vomiting and excessive thirst.” The brothers died successively. Dr. Bayne, who owned 70 slaves, suspected that the boys were poisoned.
An autopsy was conducted on one of the boys. A chemical analysis of the contents of his stomach detected more than two grains of arsenic in his system. The news reports, which referred to Judah as “a colored servant girl,” said she was interrogated by several people and confessed to her guilt.
“She said that she had taken the poison from her master’s shop, and put it into some rice and milk, which was the children’s supper,” according to the Gazette.
Judah had more to confess about other crimes she had committed against the Bayne family going back to when she was only 12-years-old.
A year earlier, Judah had tried to burn down her master’s house, but the fire was detected early enough to extinguish it.
“But oh!” the Gazette report continued. “Horrible to relate, she also freely stated, that she had poisoned, about two years ago, an infant of seven months old, daughter of the same unhappy couple, then in her arms, which child died suddenly in convulsions supposed to be by cholera.”
The report is silent about Judah’s emotions, reactions, and words. Can you picture that scene? A 12-year-old holding a dead infant in her arms that she killed, then handing the baby over to her parents who believed she died by a common infant sickness.
When asked why she tried to burn down her master’s house and killed his three children, “her answer was, she could not tell.”
She could not tell.
Centuries of American history have taught us to be suspicious of interrogations and the “confessions” they elicited when white folks are telling the story, ventriloquizing Black folks while simultaneously muting their truths.
The Gazette reporter ended the news piece by saying, “What makes those deeds more atrocious, is that she is the only rotten branch of a family of excellent servants and had a kind and indulgent master and mistress to serve.”
Excellent servants. A kind and indulgent master and mistress.
Records from the Maryland State Archives reveal that Dr. Bayne wrote ads offering hundreds of dollars for the return of slaves who had absconded from his kindness and indulgence. How exactly do you indulge a slave?
The Episcopal Recorder echoed these sentiments by calling Judah “a servant, lost to all sense of gratitude and duty, was the instrument of death.”
Gratitude and duty.
Slave masters and many white interpreters of the American past were always framing themselves as benevolent and humane. They only saw what they wanted to see. Blinded by their own self-deception, they refused to acknowledge that even if they fed, clothed, and didn’t brutalize their slaves, they were still robbing human beings of dignity, self-possession and liberty because they were considered inferior.
The Recorder punctuated its obituary for the Bayne children with a poem:
“Their lives! How cold might they have been
If they had grown in years!
How dark, how deeply stained with sin,
With weariness and tears!
How happy thus to sink to rest
So early numbered with the blest!
Judah on the other hand, was arrested, tried in court, and found guilty of murder by a jury of white men. At her sentencing on November 26, “a profound silence reigned in court as the judge addressed her.
Judge Steven told her: “You have been indicted, tried, and found guilty of a murder of the most cruel and aggravated character; a murder attended by circumstances which shock every tender and sympathetic feeling of human heart. In the perpetration of this enormous and diabolical crime, for which you are about to suffer, and for which you will soon have to account to your God, not one palliating or extenuating circumstance is to be found.”
Not one circumstance could be found.
Never mind the fact that she was enslaved in the first place. Never mind the daily indignities and accumulation of trauma and stresses of plantation life. Never mind the beatings, being overworked, deprived of adequate food, rape and separations from family members. The framing of Judah by the writers and that judge, who all played slack-jawed dumb about her possible motives, is so telling. All of them were so shocked, arrogant and condescending without one ounce of racist self-awareness.
Judah was taken from the court and hanged by her neck. She subsequently held the dubious distinction of becoming the youngest female to be publicly hanged in America. As required by a Maryland State law at that time, Dr. Bayne was compensated $250.00 for losing his “property” in a state execution.
So, how do we frame and contextualize this teenager’s story? What insights do we take away from this history? Is Judah a tragic hero, or is she a monster created by white racism?
What about Bayne’s dead children? Were they merely innocents and unnecessary collateral damage in a plantation hellscape? Those children played no part in oppressing enslaved people, right? But how could we be sure that Dr. Bayne’s children wouldn’t grow up to become new masters?
Slavery was a dastardly institution that drove the young and old to respond sometimes in brutal ways. I suppose the Bayne children represented to Judah whatthose 10 white children represented to Nat Turner who instructed his soldiers to kill during his 1831 rebellion in Southampton, Virginia. Those children, all under age five, were decapitated or thrown into fires. Perhaps she was inspired by Turner’s rebellion and realized that the Bayne children were her future oppressors.
Judah’s actions must be understood as a byproduct of trauma and rage under a system that ignored the humanity of Black people regardless of age. As Sarah Roth noted in her essay explaining why Nat Turner and his rebels killed children, their decision was a calculated strategy and a bold statement that “slavery must end.” Like Turner and his soldiers, Judah also put her life on the line to prevent the rise of new generations of whites from continuing slavery.
Judah’s case was a local story that did not garner national news coverage. But she wasn’t the only young Black female to use the art of poisoning on white slaveholding families. News reports and court cases out of South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Mississippi described enslaved teenagers and girls as young age 10 using herbal preparations, roots, minerals, animal parts, strychnine, morphine and arsenic to poison white children and whole families.
In April 1859, an unnamed slave girl poisoned the whole family of the president of Washington College in Virginia. In July 1858, a 10-year-old girl enslaved in Louisville, Kentucky poisoned the family of Patrick Pope. The following year, on May 2, 1860, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Ann Zedrick poisoned Samuel Davis’s infant.
The stories of these killings are often more complicated than they seem at first, and so we must keep our brains limber to consider other possibilities.
For example, in February 1858, a slave girl in Henry County, Kentucky poisoned her slave master’s wife. Upon deeper investigation, it was discovered that he had been keeping the girl as his mistress and ordered her to murder his wife with poison he provided. In Georgia in 1823, Woodard Framel was condemned to death for procuring an enslaved girl to murder his sister’s infant. In Newberry, South Carolina an enslaved girl named Fanny was sexually involved with a white man who lived near her master’s plantation. The man’s name was intentionally withheld by the press to spare his family the embarrassment. When her master discovered the relationship, he whipped her. Her lover purchased poison from a druggist and gave it to her to assist in her revenge which resulted in her execution.
These incidents beg us to consider the possible motives that may have driven Judah’s actions. Remember,Judah supposedly told her interrogators that she “could not tell.” Maybe Dr. Bayne had some local enemy who wanted to harm his family. Perhaps the good doctor was having an illicit affair with Judah. Maybe his wife killed her own children and coerced Judah into taking the fall. Or, maybe Judah made a clear-eyed strategic decision to harm the people her master valued most.
These poisoning cases had different outcomes. Some people died; some people survived. But generally, white folks with enslaved cooks were forced to eat with misgivings. Some of the young, enslaved females were tried and acquitted while others were either imprisoned, transported out of state, or hanged. The problem was so serious that southern states enacted laws which made poisonings, or providing poisons to enslaved people, crimes punishable by death.
Regardless of how you might feel about Judah’s actions, she is a symbol of resistance. Her story shines a light on some of the hellacious circumstances which our foremothers and sisters found themselves and how they reacted. We can never get inside Judah’s head because her true thoughts and words are lost to history. She did what was in her power to fight back. The truth about resistance is that it is messy, ugly, horrible, and the human response is not always a moral preference.
Dr. Bayne’s children were not Judah’s victims. Neither were the children killed by Nat Turner and his rebels, nor were the scores of other white children killed by other enslaved women and girls. They were the victims of the same sadistic culture of racism that inspired Black women and girls to resist the way they did.
Oh, by the way, perhaps in a stroke of karma, Dr. Bayne’s beloved Salubria was destroyed by fire in 1981.