Jenny Slew

Illegally Enslaved Woman

Jenny Slew was born circa 1719 to a free white woman and an enslaved black man. That fact would become the core of an historical legal case forty-six years later in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jenny contended that her parents had married and established a home and family. Jenny Slew had been raised free and lived all her life as a free woman, but in 1762 she was kidnapped and enslaved by John Whipple.

In most of the colonies, she would not have been able to turn to the law for help. As a slave, she would have been banned from the courts. However, by that time in Massachusetts an enslaved person could bring a civil suit.

In 1765, Jenny Slew was able to get an attorney to represent her, and went to court and sued her master for her freedom, charging that Whipple had held her in bondage illegally. Jenny simply stated that because her mother was free, she was free. The case was initially decided in Whipple’s favor, but Jenny kept fighting.

John Whipple attacked Slew’s legal right to sue him at all, for any reason. He pointed out that Slew had been married. As a married woman, she had no identity separate from her husband, and therefore could not sue on her own behalf. In other words, a slave could appeal to the law but a married woman could not.

Slew almost did not get her case to court for this reason. She had indeed been married, and more than once. She was saved by the fact that she had been married to slaves, so the validity of her marriages was called into question.

In 1766, Jenny took her case to the Essex Superior Court of Judicature in Salem, Massachusetts, and they agreed to hear her case. At a jury trial, Jenny won a judgment against John Whipple for capturing her “with force and arms,” and keeping her as his slave from January 29, 1762 to March 5, 1765, and doing “other injuries against the peace” and to her.

She was freed and awarded four pounds in damages. The judgment read that your status as a slave was based on the status of your mother, but Jenny’s mother was white. So by law she was not a slave. Hers was one of the first successful cases that was won by using that argument.

Jenny Slew

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