On the 12th day of August in 1857, a young girl was brought before Judge William H. Robertson in his chambers at Katonah in Westchester County, New York. Over 30 years after slavery had been legally banned in the state, the matter before the judge was whether she should be set at liberty.
Local constable Zeno Hoyt had found the 5-year-old girl, named Ellen, at the home of David A. Griffin in Ossining, where she was in the charge of two ladies. One of them, Louisa Kerr, was present at the hearing, which came about because Ellen’s grandfather, with the assistance of attorney John Jay, had instituted proceedings to have her placed in his custody.
Ms. Kerr’s testimony provides some very telling commentary on slavery. According to her, Ellen was “one of a large family of slaves belonging to my brother and sister; I cannot say in whom in particular the title to her is vested.” Though, oddly, not totally certain about who “owned” this girl, she thought she was probably the property of her sister Eugenia.
Ms. Kerr (Louisa) had come to New York from Savannah, Georgia, in April 1857 and brought Ellen with her, with the knowledge and consent of her brother, James Kerr. She and her brother perhaps did not understand that the law in New York now forbade slaveholders to bring their slaves into the state, and any that were brought in were to be considered free.
The Kerrs had felt that Ellen’s slave mother neglected her, and James Kerr sold the mother. They had taken a special interest in her daughter. “Ellen,” said Louisa, “was valued at $400; her light complexion increased her value; slaves of that complexion usually make clever servants.”
According to the New York Tribune reporter who gave an account of this proceeding, Louisa “seemed at times greatly affected” over Ellen. She had become “attached to her” and wanted to keep her, and had already started to educate her. She didn’t want her to be returned to slavery, but at the same time, did not want the family to “lose her whole value; my brother having thrown off $50, and being in embarrassed circumstances, could not afford to throw off any more.” She hoped to raise the $350 her brother wanted for Ellen’s liberation.
It cannot now be said if Louisa truly was endeared to Ellen but we have no specific reason to doubt that her feelings were genuine. But, still–Ellen’s value entered into it, distorting whatever good will and concern she had for her.
In another piece of telling testimony, Louisa said of the grandfather: “I long since heard of his having been on board the Peacock when taken by the Hornet, and I believe that part of his story is true.” In doing so, she provided confirmation of the story he told of having been wrongfully enslaved over 40 years previously.
The grandfather, known by the name “Dimmock Charlton” (but also called “John Bull”), had not long before related his history to a New York Times reporter. It was given in an item “Enslavement of a British Subject: Forty-Five Years in Bondage,” printed in the August 10, 1857 issue.
Charlton’s birth name was “Tallen.” He had been taken away from Africa as a boy, but rescued when a British ship intercepted the Spanish slave ship he was on board. Subsequently he became a cabin boy on the Peacock. It was then that he became known as “John Bull.” It seems he was not considered to be a slave per se, but at that time, in the early 1800s, impressment of sailors for British ships was quite common. (The distinction between these two statuses is probably not as great as we might now think.)
On February 24, 1813–during the War of 1812–an American schooner, Hornet, sank the Peacock. Survivors were brought to the United States. John Bull, for whatever reason, was taken to Savannah, Georgia by an officer, Lt. William Henry Harrison (not the Harrison who was later President). There he was given over to Judge Thomas Charlton, who agreed to take charge of the boy until Harrison could find out from his superiors what should be done with him. Later, when Harrison wrote to Charlton, telling him to send the boy to him, Judge Charlton reported (perhaps with crocodile tears) that he had died of a fever. The judge (from whom Dimmock received his surname) soon sold him. This was the first in a sequence of transactions over a number of years, by which Dimmock belonged to various people in Georgia. Some of these sales were prompted by owners learning of his history–and his wrongful enslavement–after which they disposed of this piece of questionable property.
Dimmock’s whole story is much too long to relate here (in addition to the Times article, it was also told in an 1859 booklet Narrative of Dimmock Charlton, A British Subject), but one of the men whom he said had owned him was indeed Kerr (given in the Times as Carr).
Louisa’s testimony that she had known of Dimmock’s history–and therefore the possibility that he had been illegally made a slave–shows that money had trumped rectitude. Rather than suffer a monetary loss, his enslavement had been continued by the family. This is an example of the perversions created by a system that commoditized human beings.
In the end, Judge Robertson declared Ellen to be free, but had some concerns about turning her over to her grandfather, instead temporarily giving custody to Constable Hoyt. Dimmock did eventually get custody, however. In the following years, he took her to Canada, and they also resided in Boston and Philadelphia. Dimmock also went to England, where he was able to find a retired sailor who remembered him from his service on the Peacock, providing additional confirmation of his own account of his life. Though he made efforts to have the British government redress the injustice he’d suffered, this most likely never happened.