The Caroline Chronicles:
A Story of Race, Urban Slavery, and Infanticide in the Border South
Part VI – “Poison, Infanticide, and Female Slave Resistance”
Matthew C. Hulbert
We’ve left it to you to determine—based on what documentation survives—whether or not Caroline’s case warranted a pardon from Governor Thomas E. Bramlette. (In case you missed, she did receive one. Bramlette’s decision not only stayed her execution, but exonerated her completely.) This week, we’ll look more closely at the death of Blanch Levi itself, both victim and manner, to understand where it fit within an older American tradition of gendered assumptions about female slaves and resistance. Doing so will help explain some of the cultural baggage that white prosecutors, jurors, and observers brought with them into an urban, Border South courtroom in 1862–1863.
Despite the chronic fear of nineteenth century slaveholders that the morrow’s sunrise might bring with it a rebellion, large-scale slave uprisings didn’t happen often in the antebellum South. Logistically speaking, they were just too hard to pull off. And slaves—especially moving into the 1840s and 1850s—generally knew it.
After weeks or even months of planning, it took just one doubting, would-be rebel—looking to safeguard his or her own individual future by sabotaging those of the group—to inform and bring the conspiracy to a screeching halt. Even when slaves managed to kill their white owners or overseers and escape from immediate bondage, a sustained self-liberation movement (a la Haiti) simply wasn’t a viable option in the United States. Rebellious slaves needed somewhere permanent (and safe) to go. More important still, they had to reach that place, presumably on foot, poorly provisioned, and without the benefit of a well-traveled guide, before being hunted down by well-mounted, well-armed, and ill-intentioned white posses. The Stono Rebellion (South Carolina, 1739) and Nat Turner’s Revolt (Virginia, 1831) are illustrative of this fundamental difficulty. In both instances, insurgents initially managed to spill much blood, but in the end, were corralled and executed en masse.
Of course, this isn’t to say that slaves did not oppose their captivity with violence, only that such violence more frequently took the form of individual, localized acts of resistance. And, if we still subscribe the tenets of “resistance and accommodation” blueprinted by the late Eugene Genovese (and I think we do for the most part, regardless of how fashionable or not it might be to admit it), these acts of resistance were carried out with the basic understanding that they would not ultimately result in freedom. Instead, they would make life in the immediate more bearable. For enslaved women tasked with domestic responsibilities (in other words, for female house slaves as opposed to female field slaves) the nature of their work—as cooks, wet nurses, and nannies—put them in immediate proximity to the food consumed by their white masters and to the offspring of their white masters. As it related to resistance, this literal dual-proximity to matters of white subsistence and reproduction spawned a double-edged arrangement for enslaved women. Poisoning and infanticide gave some women the ability to resist by hitting white masters where it hurt most. On the other side of the coin, however, this relatively untapped potential also affixed to slave women a much broader stigma, or better still, an inherent “tradition of suspicion,” that had a very real ability to influence—or even poison, if you’ll pardon the pun—white perceptions of an individual like Caroline at trial.
For a detailed example of a slaveholder’s poison-related paranoia, we have to look no further than the prolific diarist Mary Chesnut, who recounted the gruesome story of a Dr. Keitt—brother to Lawrence Massillon Keitt, of Brooks-Sumner infamy.
Kate told a wonderful tale which I must set down. Laurence M. Keitt’s brother—a Dr. K that I knew full well was poisoned by his negroes—he was very indulgent. Spoiled them utterly—but was passionate & impulsive. Mr. Taylor, who married an acquaintance of ours, Miss Baker of Sumter, said to him, “Keitt, these negroes are poisoning you. Do not let them know you suspect them unless you take them up instantly, but I advise you to go away at once, say to say–& see if this extraordinary disease will not stop.” He promised. Just after Mr. Taylor left the house a woman brought him a cup of coffee & as he stirred it—it was so evident some white powder was at the bottom of the cup—that in a passion he dashed the cup in her face without drinking it. That night his throat was cut. Afterwards, by their confession it [was] provided they had been giving him calomel for months every morning in his coffee. Thre[e] were hung—but two suspected men escaped because a bother of his believed them honest and guiltless.
Other instances aren’t hard to find. According to historian Deborah Gray White, “as early as 1755 a Charleston slave woman was burned at the stake for poisoning her master.” In 1850, a family of Missourians headed by Wade Moseby was poisoned when a female slave laced their coffee with arsenic. And, two female slaves kept at Fort Riley were accused of poisoning an ordnance sergeant—though interrogation (that bordered on torture) later convinced authorities of the duo’s innocence. Despite their eventual exoneration, the idea was fixed: when unknown or unfamiliar ailments suddenly struck white slave-owners, enslaved cooks would be suspected from the outset.
Cases of infanticide are also fairly common, though the discussion is complicated by the fact that the best-known of them typically involved female slaves killing their own children as a way to not only rob white owners of future labor, but also to spare the children themselves a lifetime of emotional trauma, physical abuse, and involuntary servitude. The plot of Toni Morrison’s Beloved immediately comes to mind. The book is based on the real-life plight of Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave who fled across the Ohio River in 1856 with several small children in tow. Garner was eventually tracked down by marshals and slave-catchers, but managed to kill one of her youngest daughters with a butcher’s knife before being subdued.
Even so, the record does contain numerous instances of female slaves killing or being accused of killing their adolescent charges. In 1769, White notes that “a special issue of the South Carolina Gazette carried the story of a slave woman who had poisoned her master’s infant daughter.” In 1848, a female slave cook belonging to Joseph Parks was “sent away at once” after being accused of intentionally poisoning a white child. In Tales from the Haunted South, Tiya Miles unpacks the story of Chloe, a female slave at the famed Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana. According to popular lore, Chloe baked oleander into a birthday cake—only meaning to make her master’s children sick—but used too much of the poison and killed multiple members of the family.
Chloe’s story is interesting because it fuses fears of poisoning and of infanticide into a single narrative—the worst case or “double-whammy” scenario for white slaveholders who had created a counter-intuitive system in which their own survival and that of their children frequently depended on the obedience of slaves who despised them. Further still, as Miles eventually sleuths, Chloe was a complete fabrication; an apocryphal ghost created by site owners for the purpose of drumming up commercial notoriety and attracting tourism. (The book, not coincidentally, analyzes the rise of ghost tourism in the South.) For our purposes, however, Chloe’s ahistorical roots are particularly enlightening because they allow us to read backward into the extent to which the aforementioned stigma or “tradition of suspicion” was entrenched in southern culture prior to emancipation: easily deep enough to have been passed down into the present without a hint of doubt from virtually anyone, save for Miles.
None of this is to say that Caroline did not intentionally poison Blanche Levi—nor is it to say that Caroline did not also attempt to poison Anne Levi and simply failed. Murder isn’t an exact science, after all. Unfortunately, given the [lack of] surviving documentation and real evidence, we will probably never know what actually happened on the front lawn of Willis Levi’s home that September morning. But we should at least now have a better understanding of what cultural baggage strode into that Louisville courtroom with Caroline, a female slave charged with infanticide by way of poison. Guilty or not, to say the proverbial deck was stacked against her would constitute a gross understatement.
Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.
SOURCES: Special thanks to Kristen Epps, Joshua Rothman, and Carole Emberton for suggesting examples of poisoning/infanticide. Woodward & Muhlenberg, The Privary Mary Chesnut, 181-182; Miles, Tales from the Haunted South; White, Ain’t I a Woman?, 79; W. H. Mackey to George, March 26, 1902, in Slaves and Slavery Collection, KHS; Christopher, “Captain Joseph Parks,” 16; “Daring Attempt to Murder,” Liberty Weekly Tribune, April 5, 1850; “Family Poisoned,” Liberty Weekly Tribune, May 3, 1850.