How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Ten

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Nathaniel Jennison believed he owned Quock Walker, fair and square. He married Walker’s owner and that made all her property his. For Walker to run off to live with the sons of his prior owner and call himself free simply would not do. As soon as Jennison found out that Walker took shelter with the Campbell boys, he went over and seized Walker. Some kind of altercation ensued, where Jennison knocked Walker to the ground, beat him, and then imprisoned him. All that transpired on April 13, 1781. It doesn’t seem like Walker remained in Jennison’s custody too long after that since the complaint, dated May 5, doesn’t ask for his release. Instead Walker sought damages to the tune of three hundred pounds. The affair went to trial on June 12.

Jennison, as one would expect, argued that Walker’s complaint “ought not to be answered” on the grounds that his wife inherited Walker from her deceased first husband. He acquired Walker by marrying her, thus

the said Quork at the time of his suing out the said Writ & long before & ever since was the proper negro slave of him the said Nathaniel

Walker’s lawyers, Caleb Strong and Levi Lincoln -I know of no relation of his to the more famous Lincoln- argued that Walker had his freedom, so Jennison had no case for dismissal. It appears they didn’t argue at all about the facts of the assault. The jury deemed Walker free and awarded fifty poundsand court costs, a large sum of money then but far less than the asked three hundred. Jennison appealed.

Come September, the Supreme Judicial Court took up the appeal. Jennison failed to appear, so the court ruled for Walker by default and added nine pounds, ten shillings, and seven pence to the bill for another round of court costs. The necessary court orders to execute the judgment came down in February, 1782. However, Jennison got ahead of them by petitioning the Massachusetts House to let him re-appeal because, he argued, his lawyer screwed up by not showing back in September. At the start of March, the House obliged temporarily, pending further action. A joint committee of the General Court then resolved that everything should wait until Jennison could produce some evidence of his lawyer’s laxity.

The House got enough evidence to move forward around June 4, 1784, two years after the fact. The chamber voted to give Jennison a stay pending a new trial and kicked the matter upstairs. The Massachusetts Senate either failed to act or did nothing that left a surviving paper trail. There ended one legal challenge to Quock Walker’s personal freedom. Jennison had another proceeding simultaneously.

 

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