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The Power to Die or the Power of the State? The Legalities of Suicide in Slavery

The Power to Die or the Power of the State? The Legalities of Suicide in Slavery

Chapter:
(p.82) Four The Power to Die or the Power of the State? The Legalities of Suicide in Slavery
Source:
The Power to Die
Author(s):
Terri L. Snyder
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226280738.003.0004

This chapter examines the legalities of suicide in slavery which reached back into the seventeenth century, originating with lawmakers' efforts to establish control over and property rights in enslaved men and women. Colonial legislators revised English legal concepts of forfeiture, compensation, and outlawry, fusing together the legalities of suicide, slavery, and criminal justice in an original and, on occasion for slaveholders, a remunerative way. This chapter examines the legalities of slavery and suicide in order to gauge the extent and implications of colonial legal innovation and then analyze petitions for compensation made to colonial and state legislatures. These petitions, of course, reflect the point of view of masters, but they also reveal the circumstances under which enslaved people jumped into rivers, dashed their heads against rocks, took poison, and hanged themselves before the state or their owners had the opportunity to execute them. When slaves stood accused of crimes – for instance, murder, insurrection, theft, running away – they sometimes chose the power to die in order to escape state prosecution and execution.

Keywords:   law, forfeiture, outlaw, compensation, petitions

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