On occasion, common everyday "irritations" from enslaved women gave way to charges of violent criminal activity. Generally such crimes were against single individuals, as in the case of Mary, who in 1696 was charged with being an accessory to the murder of John Bogee.16 But in some instances, multiple murders resulting from collaborative efforts were undertaken. In 1708, for instance, the actions of an unnamed bondswoman sent reverberations of fear through the communities where enslaved people were concentrated. The woman was charged with inciting a fellow enslaved person (a Native American man) to murder every member of the Hallett family—husband, pregnant wife and five children. The crime allegedly resulted from the owner’s refusal to allow the pair to go about the city on Sundays. New York authorities wasted little time in condemning them both to suffer horrible deaths; he was "hung in gibbets and placed astride a sharp iron," while she was burned at the stake.17

     The extraordinary pressures suffered by women occasionally led them to pursue even more uncommon acts of defiance. Already overtaxed by daily "drudge" work, they carried the extra burden of caring for their own children in an environment hostile to those enslaved Blacks too young to contribute to the household economy. The nature of housing in this urban environment discouraged the raising of a future labor force (as was common in a plantation setting). Owners realized that the need to care for enslaved children would distract a woman from her obligations to the owner’s household. As the following advertisement indicates, women whose owners deemed their fertility a liability often found themselves and their offspring offered up for sale:

To Be Sold, an excellent Negro Wench, about 20 years old, with
A male child, about three months old; the Wench has had the Small-
Pox, can cook, wash, and iron, can be well recommended, and is
Sold for no other Fault than being too fruitful.

     The frustration of having to meet the demands of motherhood and those of an owner sometimes pushed women beyond the point of endurance. Illustrative of this is the case of Diana. At one point, this mother of an infant set fire to the roof of her owner’s house, but when it was discovered, she paid the would be informant to keep silent. Finally, suffering the wrath of her mistress, Diana "took her own young child from her breast, and laid it in the cold" where it froze to death.19


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August 2000