Bronze statue of Harriet and Dred Scott in front of St. Louis Old Courthouse, St. Louis, Missouri, October 2019 (Shutterstock)
Naturally, we don’t know her full name. That we know her at all is only because of a gun aimed at her by a man who aimed to control her. The shot John Mann fired at the fleeing Lydia, in Edenton in 1829, was not heard ’round the world, at least not immediately. Among all the acts of violence great and small routinely inflicted on enslaved people, this one might never have been remembered. But John Mann was called to account in criminal court. And so the repercussions of his deed spiraled, at first locally when a jury found him guilty of assault, then broadly when the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the conviction and absolved him of responsibility. In upholding the right of John Mann to punish the disobedient Lydia with gunfire, Judge Thomas Ruffin wrote in State v. Mann (1829), “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” Legal historians consider State v. Mann, 13 N.C. 263 (1829), to be the law’s starkest, most cruel justification of the violence at the heart of the slave labor system. This essay relies on archival research that brought the facts of the case to light. With one exception, noted below, all facts cited in this essay are documented here.
Mann suffered no consequence for firing a bullet from his porch at a woman whom he did not own, but had only hired for a time. The import of State v. Mann spread from the pages of the North Carolina case reporters to widely distributed manuals instructing enslavers just how far they could go: perhaps a better way to say it would be that Ruffin’s language eased their minds, relieving them of any pang of guilt for their regular acts of abuse.
But let us return to Lydia. Let us start where we first find her. She is listed as an asset of the estate of one Thomas Jones, a Chowan County farmer. He died in November 1822 without a will, leaving a wife, eight children, and some 640 acres of land. He also left twenty-one slaves, among them the sixteen-year-old Lydia….