'For the Murder of His Own Female Slave, a Woman Named Mira…': Slavery, Law and Incoherence in Antebellum Culture
64 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2013
Date Written: February 26, 2013
On March 28, 1839, a coroner’s inquest presented at the rural Iredell County, NC farm of Mr. John Hoover, to investigate the alleged death of “one Mira a female slave the property of… the said John Hoover…”. An examination of the freshly exhumed body of Mira, then but one short day dead, led to only one conclusion: Mr. Hoover was “taken into penal custody on the spot, under the capital charge of murder.” In trial before the North Carolina Superior Court, Iredell County, Hoover was convicted of the charge and sentenced to hang. This stark verdict was affirmed summarily by the North Carolina Supreme Court in early 1840, Mr. Hoover being publicly executed in May of that year, for “the murder of his own female slave…”. The scant, 3-page 5-paragraph opinion of Mr. Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin for the Court has garnered little academic attention over the years, the few scholars addressing it generally hailing its “progressive stance” in favor of slaves facing institutional mistreatment, reflecting the court’s consistent “liberality toward slaves in all cases involving their personal security as human beings…”.
Not so fast. For if law was rightly used to hurry Mr. Hoover off into eternity for the taking of a human life, it must not be missed that it was law – the common law of human slavery – that uniquely devalued that life in such a way as to deliver it to that man for the easy taking. In exempting the ‘slave’ victim from the protection of the common law of battery as the state Supreme Court had done in State v. Mann 10 years prior, could it not have imagined the inevitable results where such physical ‘correction’ was wholly undergirded by law? If the law turned a blind eye to every fierce stroke against the flesh of a human being within the legally created and garrisoned institution of ‘slavery’ in the midst of a republican democracy, how could it legitimately be concerned with the one stroke that extinguished that legally diminished life? With regard to the broader matter of justice at the heart of this singular event, what is really going on here?
This paper seeks to look carefully at this unique opinion in the context of the developed and developing common law of slavery of that day, recovering a very different view of its ultimate place in the edifice of the relevant legal culture constraining and animating the society in question. Turning from the case’s factual importance to its artifactual significance and value, the paper seeks to consider the place of law in both refining and defining culture, to its benefit or, here, to its ultimate confusion and distress, it is suggested. Though the case at its heart is small in scope and regional in focus, this study suggests that it in fact implicates a much larger and more visceral story, one of intellectual significance and of contemporary importance and application. Sampling from a broad area of intellectual inquiry – legal history, law and society, jurisprudence, justice and the like – the study attempts to place the case at the significant crossroads of law and culture, asking questions of it that are both far-reaching and contemporarily significant. In this way, in sampling broadly from a host of relevant social interests, it should appeal to a broad reading audience.
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