13 March 2005

Servant Ayres, with a lathing hamer, in the bedroom

I am comfortably esconsed these days as a research fellow at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In 1997 the Foundation opened its brand-new John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library which boasts a fine collection of Virginiana. The working conditions are great, and I have more material to go through than I know what to do with. The fine folks at the York County Records Project are allowing me to use their transcriptions and indices of the York County Records, which begin in 1633. Reading court records case by case from 1633 to about 1720 on microfilm would have taken me an age; the wonderful resources these people have spent decades working on are helping me immensely. At any rate, I often find cases that are useless for my dissertation, but deeply interesting from a human perspective. This one is a case in point, which caused me to have a CLUE moment:

Wee the subscribers being this day Impannelled upon a Jury of Inquest by Jerom Ham High Sherr for this County of Yorke concerning the manner & cause of the death of Francis Hall and Elizabeth his wife doe give our Report as followeth That they were both knocked on the head lying in their Bedd in the dead of the night wth a lathing hamer by their servant Huntington Ayers as by the Confession of the said Ayers before us did appeare shewing us the manner In witness hereof wee have sett our hands this 21 Jan 1658/59 Richard Burnett RB Adam Straughan X Tho Bromfeild Samuel Fenne John Moor Humphrey Street Jno Margretts I Willm Newman X John Gun I Josuof Frandy John Woode John Dickeson P

Huntingdon Ayres was an indentured servant. He killed his master and mistress with a lathing hammer, a tool (as I learned in the OED 3rd Edition online) that carpenters used to fashion small strips of flexible wood to make into chair seats and the bases of beds, among other things. He knocked them on the head while their were sleeping late one night, and showed the jury how he did it. This is the only notation about the murder of the Halls until the County paid the General Court at James City for Ayres' incarceration and execution by hanging in April 1659.

Ayres confessed, and demonstrated how he killed his masteer and mistress, but nowhere did the jury record a motive, a reason for killing two unarmed people. Like other servants, Ayres could have been the victim of a "lost" indenture: without written verification of the expiration of his term of service, the Halls could have kept him in servitude for years, drawing out the legal process of freedom. Or, like other masters, Francis Hall might have beat his servant mercilessly. I have read more than one account of the abuse of servants. Servants also seem to have been disproportionately more likely to commit suicide: of the seven cases of suicide I've encountered between 1633 and 1670, six of them were by servants. One servant hanged himself in his master's tobacco shed "with one bridle Reyne of the value of 10 pence."

I tend to read this murder case as the result of an exploitative system of indentured labor and budding slavery that flew in the face of English traditions of labor. Trapped in a system that made long service and physcial violence not only possible but acceptable, Ayres struck back and in the process lost his own life. But on the other hand, how can I really know? Seventeenth-century juries of inquest didn't care about motives, apparently, Otherwise, they might have recorded them.


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