Slaves Fleeing the U.S. South, 1864

Slave Crimes

Slave crimes of the 18th century present another unique connection toward the African-American experience in Maryland. During the colonial period, many slaves were subjected to colonial "justice" for crimes ranging from horse-theft to passing counterfeit money. Colonial "justice" consisted of publicly hanging a person by the neck, cutting off his or her hand, and hanging the person and severing his or her head, and quartering his or her body. Typically, slaves were hanged for murder, attempted murder, burglary, and conspiring an insurrection. Other crimes included rape, arson, robbery, escaping from jail, and theft.

Often, the slave would plead "not guilty," but the jury would rule otherwise. Many crimes were based upon circumstantial evidence. Usually that evidence was enough to convict the slave of the crime they were accused of committing. Some slaves were pardoned for their crimes if there was a lack of evidence. The reasons for pardoning a slave included having a good reputation, being young and/or valuable, confessing to the crime and apologizing, and having no criminal record.

C. Ashley and Beverly B. Ellefson spent a great deal of time finding and citing various records, including the Maryland Gazette, Criminal Records, Judgment Records, Maryland State Papers, Executive Papers: Petitions, Proclamations, Pardon Papers, Letters, 1715-1783, and Commission Records, etc. Through this research, the Ellefsons created charts listing sources pertaining to each slave and their alleged crime from 1726 to 1775. Using the list of sources, case studies have been developed to tell the stories of many of the tried slaves, either hanged or pardoned.