The Burlington County Court Book has little to offer about Thomas Greene, but there was one incident witnessed by him that tells us a lot about life (and death) in West New Jersey in the 1680s.

On August 9, 1686, Thomas Greene and Katherine Greene were called as witnesses in the case against James Wills, who was accused of beating “a Negro woman” to death. More specifically, he pleaded not guilty to “giving the woman Negro any blowes that occasioned her death.” He did admit to burying the woman without notifying any official of her death, “not knowing that the Lawe required there should have beene an Inquest touching the cause of her death” (Reed and Miller 1944, 56).

Katherine Greene testified that “the Negro woman Servant [was] by said James Wills sent to be a while at the house of the said Katharine.” She had come to get some advice from “a Negro that belongs to the said Katharine” regarding “some distemper [she had] upon her.” That “distemper,” which sounds so mild, was a “back very sore.” The Negro woman told Katharine it was caused by “Fum, fum, which is (beating) and that further shee the said Katharine found a small Scarr upon her Belly which was sore,” which had also come from a beating. But Katharine did not think any of these injuries would cause the woman’s death. Thomas Greene testified to the same.

Throughout the testimony of this case, the woman’s name was never mentioned and she was never described as a slave, even though Wills was called her “Master.” But her use of the expression “fum fum” suggests that she came from Jamaica, for the term does appear in the Dictionary of Jamaican English.  (Thanks to Ben Zimmer for that tip.) Perhaps the most poignant testimony was given by William Myers:

“. . . hee heard at a Considerable distance many blowes or stripes and walking onward as hee thought hee heard a Negro Cry out many tymes, and soe heard stripes or lashes continued till hee gott home, and then he supposed it to be James Wills beating his Negro woman, and heard still many Lashes more and Crying out, until hee was greevd and went into his owne house and shut the dore, and said to his wife oh! Yond cruell man, and sayth hee believes hee heard full a hundred stripes or lashes, but did not see James Wills beat his Negro” (Reed and Miller 1944, 57).

But there were a couple eye-witnesses—blacksmith Thomas Gladwyn and William Peachee. They appeared in court to say what they saw, but despite being “greeved,” they returned to the Smithy to continue with their work, and so could not testify that the woman died of her wounds. Worse testimony came from James Hill who said he saw Wills

“Beat his said Negro and tye her hands, and hang her up, but that her feet reached the ground and might sustaine the weight of her body, but hee believes it was painfull to her and the hee [James Hill] took her downe, but sayth the Negro was soe stubborne and willfull that might well provoke any Master to use her sharply: But sayth hee saw nothing done to the Negro that in his Judgment might be the cause of her death; But that hee this Deponent believes she was unsound.”

The Jury found Wills not guilty of the woman’s death. Either they thought murder was not proved or that her ‘stubborn and willfull’ character made lawful what Wills’ had done–in other words, justifiable homicide. They seem to have been a little uncomfortable about this, noting that she was “unsound,” meaning ill.

“But in regard it appears the said Negro was unsound, it was a fault, that hee did not therefore be the more spareing; and for that hee buryed her without a Jury or Inquest.”

And so, for punishment, he was required to pay all court costs. Such a slap on the wrist for what we would consider a heinous offense. And so mild compared to the punishment meted out to the rapist Charles Sheepey.

These were godly Quakers, after all, and yet they seemed to believe that severely beating a Negro woman was permissible. Distasteful, perhaps, but nothing to interfere with. And yet it would be wrong to conclude that these people were heartless. They were good people, but they were blinded by custom to acts that are now unacceptable. It tells you a lot about the power of culture to influence our judgments and blind us to the humanity of others.