On this date in 1801, the teenage slave “negro Chloe” — as the press reports almost invariably called her — was hanged at Carlisle, Penn., for murdering her owner’s two young children.
Although a slave by every experience of her short life, Chloe and others of her generation actually existed in a legal twilight space between slave and free. Pennsylvania in 1780 had taken a step towards emancipation that was pioneering for its time but the halfest of half-measures: the Gradual Abolition Act made the children of slaves born in Pennsylvania after 1780 into indentured servants who would be manumitted by age 28.* As a result, dwindling numbers of grandfathered legal slaves remained in Pennsylvania until 1847, even as the state became an antebellum hotbed of abolitionist activism with a huge population of free blacks and slaves fled from Southern plantations via the Underground Railroad.
In Chloe’s case, she had been born to a slave in 1782, then willed when her owner William Kelso died in 1789 to William’s daughter Rebecca, who eventually sold Chloe on to a dealer.
In 1794, Chloe was bought and sold repeatedly: she was sold in July of that year, and then again in August, and then again in October, until an Irish merchant named Oliver Pollock finally bought her in March of 1795 and gave her a little bit of stability. In her eventual last confession, Chloe credited Pollock and his daughter as the only owners who took any care for her education.
Pollock, however, sold Chloe as well at the end of 1796. One wonders if the “high passion” to which she would eventually attribute her murders made her a notably ungovernable slave-child for all these passing masters, or whether it was all just happenstance — that she was just a commodity that could be liquefied in a pinch.
Whatever the case, Andrew Carothers — the man who bought Chloe from Pollock — would be her last master.**
The hard-working Andrew Carothers and his wife, Mary, had a little log cabin in Cumberland County, home to six children. Chloe was their first slave, to relieve Mary of her household labors while Andrew cleared a plot of forested land nearby, and the tone of Chloe’s last confession — widely published at the time of her execution — clearly implies a going resentment for Mary. Chloe will have just turned 18 years old when she commits her capital crimes; she’s grown out of childhood and through adolescence in this family, working as Mary’s constant domestic drudge and probably sleeping in the barn.
On January 24, 1801, the family realized that four-year-old Lucetta had gone missing. Andrew found her dead in the nearby creek where they drew water.
Since we’ve begun our story at the end we know the author of the deed in advance. Chloe would say that she had been given of late to “temptations” to do violence to her owners — sudden fancies that she would unthinkingly indulge. She had already tried and failed to murder the family’s youngest son, she said, and twice attempted to fire the barn.
On that fatal Saturday, Chloe had taken Lucetta to the creek when she needed to retrieve some water without, she said, intending any mischief. But the “temptation” came upon her there and she yielded to it readily, suffocating Lucetta and leaving her in the creek.
By returning nonchalantly and playing surprised that evening, Chloe evaded suspicion in this instance. It wouldn’t have been so implausible that an unattended little girl in a rural family might have fallen into a river and drowned, and a relieved Chloe “promised myself good days” without violent urges.
But, she said, Mary’s strict discipline soon undid those better angels. After Lucetta was buried on Sunday the 25th, Mary “made me strip off my short-gown, and gave me a severe whipping, with a cowskin; also on Tuesday she gave me another, and on the following Saturday she gave me a third.” For one who had so lately experienced the cruel pleasure of visiting lethal violence upon her tormenter’s own flesh and blood, this treatment was too much to bear. That weekend she lured another daughter, six-year-old Polly, to the creek and did her the same way.
Chloe was reported to have forsworn “any spite or malice against” her victims — “on the contrary, I loved them both.”
But, she said, she murdered them because their tattling on her misbehaviors set her up for Mary’s corrective hidings (“far beyond the demerit of the fault”); and, “the second and greatest motive … to bring all the misery I possibly could upon the family, and particularly upon my mistress.”
If suspicion had escaped Mary the first time around, it now insisted upon itself.
Mary’s account of matters also hit the papers; she said that on the Monday following Polly’s death she accused Chloe of the horrible crime. “She [Chloe] said she did not do it, had no hand in it, and full denied it till Monday was a week.” That must have been an excruciating week, doing the wash and preparing dinner with the sullen teenager who you’re also convinced is picking off your family and torturing to that effect. “I was much whipped by my master, to extort a confession,” Chloe recalled. At last the Carothers’ pressure overwhelmed their slave.
I said [to Chloe] it was not worth while to deny it, her countenance would condemn her, it was plain she had a hand in it — it was plain, for the children would have crawled on their hands and feet out of the run if somebody had not held them in … she might as well tell as not — I could not bear the sight of her about the house; I was sure she had done it.
Chloe eventually consented to confess not to Mary Carothers but to a neighbor, Mrs. Clendinen, who had a lighter personal touch and not so much acrimonious history with Chloe. Even so it was still another two weeks before they escorted Chloe to the sheriff. The spiritual instruction that her many owners had never bothered with in her life now became available to her as she approached death — obviously all-inclusive with ghostwriting services as well.
Oh! what have I done? In revenging the injuries I suffered, I have drawn the fierce indignation of heaven upon myself. The voice of the blood of two innocent children crieth against me from the ground. Is my sin too great, for the mercy of God to pardon? Is my stain too deep for the blood of Jesus to wash away? I am full encouraged to trust that, loud as the blood of these innocents cries for vengeannce, the blood of Jesus cries louder still for mercy and pardon and I trust that his unbounded goodness will not suffer me to perish.
The original source of both Chloe’s and Mary Carothers’s accounts are separate 1801 articles in Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette: July 22 (Chloe) and June 24 (Mary). Both were subsequently reprinted by other newspapers around the young country.
* This law inconvenienced the political elites of the early Republic, since it also prohibited importing new slaves — even for the Southern congressmen who came to Philadelphia while that city served as the U.S. capital during the 1790s. George Washington, famous for crossing the Delaware, had to run his black slaves over that river to New Jersey periodically while he was president, lest they become automatically liberated by residing continuously in Pennsylvania for six-plus months.
That said, the Gradual Abolition framework did sustain a market in human chattel inasmuch as somebody’s compulsory labor unto age 28 was still a value that could be calculated and sold. The way to import slaves to Pennsylvania was to bring them in under the same transit auspices that Washington used, legally manumit them there into “indentured servitude” pending their 28th birthday, and then sell the indenture contract.
** John Carothers, Andrew’s cousin, had been poisoned in 1798 with his own wife Mary in another, unrelated Cumberland County death penalty case.