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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

The Ugly Truth

The stories we find about our families are often enriching, surprising, or complicated. Sometimes they are heinous and despicable. We have to be prepared for any outcome when we begin the search.


On July 11, 1800, a coroner’s inquest was held at the home of John Creasey in Henry County, Virginia. Obedience Creasey, John’s daughter, had lay dead there since the previous day. The inquest found that the wounds on her arms and the backs of her hips were consistent with having been held down by force of arms in the water. The charge of felonious murder was leveled against a Tom, “one Negro man slave…the property of John Creasey.” Twelve men signed their names to the inquest’s findings.


The court record dated eight days later states that Tom pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. It was ordered that on Wednesday, August 20, between the hours of one and two in the afternoon, Tom would be taken to the gallows, which were ordered to be at least 12 feet from the ground. There he would be hanged by the neck until dead. There is more specificity in the time and place of Tom's death than there would have been about any other detail of his life.


Like Tom, Obedience's life was existed in the context of her death. Based on the ages of her siblings, she would have been no older than 15. Tom was a person enslaved by another and convicted of murder. John Creasey served in the American War of Independence but owned human beings, whom the state protected to the extent that they were property. The court valued Tom at less than £100, to which John Creasey would be legally entitled for his economic loss.


There are many terrible elements of this story. Among them may have been Tom’s trial. Some of the text in the court record is obliterated. The first draft of the story was edited. It now simply states that Tom pleaded guilty. But the revision of history suggests perhaps he didn’t. I can't, even with photo manipulation, determine what the original text had been. Perhaps Tom did not commit this crime, but more powerful men insisted he did. Perhaps someone else drowned this girl in the creek near her house and watched as someone considered expendable was sent to the gallows for it.


These court records might be the only time Obedience and Tom were documented in history. All I can do is acknowledge that they existed and that much was taken from them. Whatever the truth in this ugly story, it happened—in my family, in the summer of 1800.


Photo: The Henry County, Virginia, court record of Tom's sentence. I can't determine whether Tom was valued at £80 or £90.

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