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Poisoning as revenge for intimate violence against enslaved women

Wells-Oghoghomeh

Jun 1 2022

In 1857, Josephine, an enslaved woman, was tried in the state of Mississippi for the poisoning of the Jones family, who became violently ill immediately after drinking a tea that was allegedly served and prepared by her, the family’s new cook. For Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, this “extraordinary” capital case “illuminates the myriad forms of intimate violence characteristic of enslaved, particularly femaled enslave life [and] the ways that bond women use religious repertoires to respond to acts of intimate violence.” Wells-Oghoghomeh, a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow and assistant professor of religious studies at Stanford, delivered a powerful lecture on “The Ethics of Revenge: Enslaved Women and Poison in the American South” as part of the Institute’s faculty fellows series. 

The voices of enslaved people are largely muted in U.S. petitions or court records. Enslaved people could not testify in court at the time of Josephine’s trial. When an enslaved person was tried and found guilty in a capital crime, death was usually the outcome (although there is no record of what exactly happened to them). If they were exonerated from a capital charge, they usually remained under suspicion, often suffering what Wells-Oghoghomeh calls “social death,” by being sold away from their families and friends. Despite these circumstances, a record of Josephine’s testimony exists, making this case both astonishing and rare. 

The voices of enslaved people are largely muted in U.S. petitions or court records. Enslaved people could not testify in court at the time of Josephine’s trial. 

Although still limited by the historical record, Wells-Oghoghomeh provided an intimate portrait of this case throughout the talk. Josephine and George, another enslaved person, were tried for the poisoning of Lafayette Jones, his second wife Eliza, and their infant daughter, Lelia Virginia. Josephine was implicated in this poisoning because the Jones’ eldest child, a son, and their dinner guests allegedly did not drink the tea and had not become sick. Ultimately, Leila Virginia died, and Josephine was tried for homicide by poisoning. After four years of trials and mistrials, Josephine and George were ultimately exonerated.

With each new trial, Wells-Oghoghomeh states, “we have more details about Lafayette Jones, who was [Josephine’s] slave holder, and his engagement with bond women [… and…] further context for Josephine’s motivations.” One of the most memorable moments of Wells-Oghoghomeh’s lecture took place when she shared a two-minute video of an interactive map of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, giving the audience a sense of the scale of the slave trade across time, as well as the flow of transport and eventual destinations. Josephine was purchased by Jones in New Orleans in February 1857, two weeks before the alleged poisoning. Prior to moving to Louisiana, Josephine was last known to have been in Kentucky. Wells-Oghoghomeh was unable to find a lot of information on Josephine when she was in Kentucky, but she did learn that Josephine was a nurse who may have taken care of small children. This information helps explain Josephine’s literacy, but it does not explain why she possessed a lot of jewelry when she was being sold, and for Wells-Oghoghomeh, “this is where we get to these questions of intimate violence.” 

The possession of jewelry suggests that Josephine was a very highly favored enslaved servant. The jewelry may have been gifted to her by her mistress, which Wells-Oghoghomeh shared was not very common. “What is more likely is that she was someone who had been coerced into serving as a sexual consort, maybe for her slave owner or another wealthy planter.”

Wells-Oghoghomeh argues that bond women are “using things like poison” in “response to the intimate forms of violence they are being subjected to as a condition of their enslavement.” “Being in the household,” Wells-Oghoghomeh notes, “was not a mercy for enslaved people.” She challenges the “common myth” that “somehow proximity [to the household] and not being in agricultural labor was some sort of reprieve from violence.” When enslaved people were in the household, “they were subject to just more consistent forms of violence, because they’re very, very close” to slaveowners, placing women into “closer proximity to sexual violence perpetrated by mistresses and masters.”

There are many layers of intimate violence in Josephine’s story per court records. Lafayette sexually assaulted Josephine two days after he purchased her, before returning to Mississippi. Moreover, on the afternoon of the day before the alleged poisoning, Lafayette had sexual intercourse with Josephine. Additionally, Elisa testified that on the morning of the alleged poisoning, her breakfast was cooked badly. When she confronted Josephine about her meal, Elisa testified, Josephine had replied “impudently and saucily.” Elisa reported the impudence to her husband, who used a cow hide or switch to whip Josephine. At this point, Wells-Oghoghomeh reminds the audience of the assault the day before, stating “there’s [a] running tab of offenses against her.” Josephine returned to the kitchen after being beaten by Lafayette, and when Elisa called Josephine to speak with her again, “Josephine apparently makes a face at her and turns over a chair.” In response to this open defiance, Elisa called the overseer to whip Josephine, “and not even two hours after that she calls Josephine [again] to make her dinner,” which is when Josephine allegedly poisons the entire family. 

Wells-Oghoghomeh notes that women were responsible for “the biological and social reproduction of enslaved humans.” Women, therefore, turned to other means of resistance like conjuring, particularly poisoning, to avenge their enslavement and seek justice. Men resist; women avenge. 

After discussing Josephine’s story and her case, Wells-Oghoghomeh raises the question of role of poison and vengeance in the historiography of resistance to American slavery. Historians overwhelmingly focus on insurrection to define resistance. Wells-Oghoghomeh cites Nat Turner’s insurrection in Virginia in 1831 as an example, arguing that “any sort of open resistance is very much about what enslaved males did.” Enslaved men are overrepresented in the record of resistance because “women just are mired in more webs of interdependency,” signifying that “slavery is a highly gendered institution, and it is an absolute binary.” Wells-Oghoghomeh notes that women were responsible for “the biological and social reproduction of enslaved humans.” Women, therefore, turned to other means of resistance like conjuring, particularly poisoning, to avenge their enslavement and seek justice. Men resist; women avenge. 

To address the ethical dimensions of Josephine’s case, Wells-Oghoghomeh raises the question, “what do these harming acts [such as poisoning], typically subsumed under the umbrella of conjure or superstition or witchcraft, reveal about enslaved people’s ethics and how they understood right, good, just action in response to violation?” Wells-Oghoghomeh leaves the audience to ponder the issue of revenge and whether violations under the brutal system of slavery merited lethal retaliation.

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