Poisoning and racial controversy, 1860

The sentencing of three African-American teenagers in 1860 on charges they tried to poison the employers of two of them highlighted differences in how courts and the newspapers treated blacks and whites at the time.

Perhaps inevitably, the case also became a political issue during a presidential election campaign in which the two leading candidates – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas – were closely tied to Sangamon County.

Two of the suspects, Margaret and Eliza Lucas, were sisters from Ohio whose father had indentured them to two white families from Springfield; one of the sisters apparently was 15 and the other 13, although it’s not clear from newspaper accounts which was the older. The indentures bound them to remain in service until age 18. The third accused was Robert Jones, 15, who had worked in a local barbershop.

Court records in the case are terse, recording only the charges, the judgements (the Lucases pleaded guilty to poisoning; Jones went to trial and was found guilty by a jury), and the sentences: all three were committed to the Sangamon County Jail for a year.

Coverage in the Illinois State Journal and Illinois State Register filled in details of the allegations, although the Register – anti-Lincoln and virulently anti-black – did so in far more inflammatory fashion.

The sisters were accused of mixing arsenic into the drinks of their employers – the families of William Huey, a salesman, and Robert P. Officer, a lumber dealer. Jones instigated the plot, the Journal reported, because he was romantically involved with one of the sisters, but Officer, her employer, had ordered her not to see Jones. (Again, the newspaper stories are muddled about which sister worked for which family and whether it was Eliza or Margaret who was seeing Jones.)

The Journal outlined the allegations in a relatively straightforward story published Sept. 8, 1860.

The young blacks had gone too far to recede. An illicit intercourse had commenced between them, and it was necessary that one, or the other, or both, should marry. The girl’s master standing in the way of any such arrangement, it was determined that he should be removed. Accordingly, young Jones instigated the girl to procure poison, and administer it in the food; it would kill both master and mistress, and then he would marry her and take her back to Ohio. In order that her sister might participate in the benefit to be derived from this pleasant little project, she also was induced to put her master and mistress out of the way.

By comparison, here is how the Register reported the accusations a day earlier:

It is conclusive that a fiendish attempt has been made on the lives of two unsuspecting families. The reader must form his own conclusions as to the motives that could have prompted the actual offenders, and the far more guilty parties who urged them to it. It is clear that they were urged on to this hellish deed by older and more experienced parties than themselves. Two ignorant negro girls, whose ages average 13 and 15 years, could never have dreamed of perpetrating such a diabolical deed without the aid of a skillful adviser.

According to the newspapers, the youths’ plans were exposed because, while the arsenic killed no one, it did cause the victims to vomit. When questioned, the girls admitted they had put poison in coffee and chocolate consumed by their employers, the reports said. Here is more from the Register’s Sept. 7 story (the Register apparently had a reporter attend a hearing in the case Sept. 6; that may not have been true of the Journal):

R.P. Officer testified that Eliza Lucas had been living in his family since the 7th of May. On Wednesday morning they took breakfast and immediately after he and Mrs. Officer were seized with fits of violent vomiting. They suspected that Eliza had mixed something with the coffee and in order to confirm their suspicions made her drink some of it. She did so, and was soon similarly affected. She then acknowledged that she had mixed arsenic with it. Mr. Officer further deposed that he had heard one of the girls say that the negro preacher told her that she and her sister were held as slaves, and that if they did not get away, they would be sold by Mr. Officer. He also stated that some time ago, a negro teamster in his employ, named Elliott, asked him (Mr. Officer) if the girls were slaves, and on being told not, he observed that he understood they were.

Historian Stacy Pratt McDermott, who studied the case for her 2012 book The Jury in Lincoln’s America, said the defendants’ race played a major role in their prosecution and convictions. She wrote:

In the context of Illinois’ stringent Black Laws – which restricted African American settlement and movement within the state – the crime itself, however unsuccessful, most likely furthered racial stereotypes and heightened racist feelings and beliefs. The race of the defendants may well have guaranteed the indictments against them.

The Register even drew a direct line between the poisoning allegations and what the newspaper saw as inevitable slave rebellions if Lincoln was elected president. In a diatribe Sept. 10, the Register claimed – without citing any evidence – that Jones had been “an attentive listener” at local Republican Party meetings and that his supposed instigation of the poisonings was the result of Lincoln’s stance on slavery.

(T)his man Jones sought out the two negro apprentice girls, and told them that as apprentices they were deprived of wages to which they were as much entitled as if they were not apprentices, that they were in the exact condition of slaves bound to serve, bound to follow their masters from place to place, and bound to accept submissively, such food and clothing as might be doled out to them. He might have read to them Lincoln’s opinion … that such a condition was a denial to them of that which had been given to them directly by their Maker. …

From step to step he led them on until they were induced to mix poison with the food of their masters and their families, who for weeks languished under the terrible effects of the deadly drug. (Editor’s note: the Register’s own coverage suggested the vomiting, assuming it occurred at all, was a single momentary incident, not a weeks-long ailment.)

If this is the actual result of Lincoln’s teachings and Lincoln’s doctrines upon the minds of the free negroes here at Lincoln’s own door, what may be expected of negroes elsewhere, of negroes who are not able to read, and who receive Lincoln’s precepts from men who desire a revolt of the slave population.

Let men who desire to see peace and tranquility in our borders, who have friends in other states who will be exposed to the knife and the bludgeon of the infuriated slaves, pause and deliberate before they give the sanction of their votes to the election of Lincoln and thereby incite a slave insurrection.

Hat tip and more information: Stacy Pratt McDermott analyzed the composition of both the grand jury and the trial jury in the Jones/Lucas cases in The Jury in Lincoln’s America. That discussion made SangamonLink aware of the incident. Our thanks to her.

However, when she researched the case, McDermott did not have access to some major recent improvements in history resources. While the Illinois State Journal had been indexed, neither the Journal nor the Register was readable, and searchable, online, as they are today. That was a particular handicap in the Jones/Lucas case because, while the Register’s conclusions were often grotesque, its reporting on the factual allegations was more detailed than the Journal’s and apparently more likely to be firsthand.

Also, an unfortunate set of circumstances – a poorly scanned document in the online Legal Papers of Abraham Lincoln; Judge Edward Rice’s scheduling of an unrelated forgery case in between the sentencings of Jones and the Lucases; and the crabbed handwriting of Rice’s clerk, Presco Wright – led McDermott to conclude that Robert Jones was sentenced to state prison rather than a county jail term.

schs-logo-2Jones’ lawyer, William Herndon (Lincoln’s law partner), was unable to convince the trial jury to acquit his client. However, he did prove that Jones, at age 15, was too young to be sent to the Joliet penitentiary. A close reading of Rice’s original docket, available at the Illinois Regional Archives Depository in the University of Illinois Springfield’s Brookens Library, shows that all three defendants – Jones as well as the Lucases – were sentenced to one-year terms in the Sangamon County Jail.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

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