From The Baylors of Newmarket: The Decline and Fall of a Virginia Planter Family, by Thomas Katheder. The specific “Baylor” referenced in this text is John Baylor III, a slave merchandising heir then in the midst of squandering the family fortune through his passion for horseracing. (In the latter capacity, Baylor also imported the legendary colonial stud Fearnought.) Baylor died in 1772, still straining his creditors for maintenance of his oligarchic station … but his son John Baylor IV died in a debtor’s prison that his “gentleman justice” father had helped to construct. We have the date of the hanging, although not the explanation for the delay between trial and execution, via a different book, Murder at Montpelier.
In colonial Virginia, the county courts, which were controlled by “gentleman justices” like Baylor, governed the counties with an oligarchic, unchecked, and largely self-perpetuating rule utterly unthinkable in modern America. [sic]
With legislative, executive, and judicial functions combined into a single governing body, the county courts impacted the day-to-day lives of Virginians more than any other civil authority. The county court adjudicated most civil matters, including debt and contract disputes, presided over nonfelony criminal cases (accused felons were bound over for trial at the General Court in Williamsburg), and determined whether wills were admitted to probate and whether deeds, mortgages, or other instruments were worthy of being recorded in the county records.
The justices established the amount of the county levy each year and decided who was exempt from taxation and exactly how the money would be spent — no road, bridge, or public building could be built without their approval. They issued bonds, permits, and licenses, including permits for ferries and mills, as well as licenses for taverns and inns; they even set the prices that could be charged for alcoholic beverages.
They appointed all county officers, including tax collectors, the county clerk, militia officers, the coroner, and the sheriff (some of these positions were subject to the royal governor’s usually perfunctory assent). As historian Jack P. Greene points out, in colonial Virginia “[n]ot a single local civil or judicial officer was elected.”
The justices also apprenticed orphans to artisans or tradesman; they fined the parents of illegitimate children or sometimes ordered they be publicly whipped; and they put able-bodied paupers to work or exiled them from the county if they were from somewhere else (under ancient English custom and law the poor were supposed to be dealt with in their home communities.)
The justices were most powerful when they sat as a “Court of Oyer and Terminer” under special commission from the governor. In that capacity the justices could — and did — try slaves for capital offenses and order their execution, without any right of appeal.
In the summer of 1767 one of Col. Baylor’s slaves, Tom, was tried and found guilty of breaking into a white planter’s house and stealing items worth about five shillings. The Orange County Court, presided over by James Madison Sr. (father of the future president) [and a man who had lost his father to an alleged slave murder -ed.], noted that Tom was “precluded from the Benefit of Clergy” because he had already received it once before and ordered him executed.