Mary Aggie, an enslaved woman, was convicted of theft in York County in 1730. Lt. Gov. William Gooch, impressed with Mary’s profession of faith when she sued previously for her freedom, supported her 1730 claim for “benefit of clergy,” which then allowed only white men to escape the harshest penalties for most first offenses. Gooch’s support resulted in Mary’s pardon. In 1732, the General Assembly extended a limited form of benefit of clergy to all races and women. Mary was sold out of Virginia in 1731, probably never knowing her appeal’s significant legal effect. The benefit was abolished in 1849.
Mary Aggie was an African American slave in the mid-eighteenth century and was often related as the Dred Scott of the next century. Mary Aggie was and still remains and obscure person in history, but her case, however, earned her a place in history as the central figure for an important legal case resulting in laws with respect to convicted felons: white, women, Indians, mulattos and African Americans alike. There is not much background on Mary Aggie as there are no records of her birth or her parentage. Mary Aggie had previously attempted to sue for her freedom in the 1720s from her owner. During this case, Mary Aggie had impressed the current governor with her proclamations of faith in Christianity – something that would prove to be in her favor when she was facing her conviction (Encyclopedia Virginia). At this time, Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch presided over her case and thus denied her the freedom she so desired.
In 1730, Mary Aggie was accused and convicted of stealing three sheets from her owner of a value of forty shillings, a crime that often yielded the penalty of death or severe corporal punishment. Fortunately for Mary Aggie, Sir William Gooch also presided over this case and was able to send her case to the General Court in which she would possible receive the benefit of clergy. Benefit of clergy was best known to be provided to literate persons only which allowed the convicted persons to escape death and other serious penalties – dating back to the Middle Ages English law (Encyclopedia Virginia). However, before the final verdict, Gooch was able to pardon Aggie on the condition that she be sold out of the colony. Her case was a precursor for the law in 1732, which allowed for almost all Virginians to plead benefit of the clergy in most cases for the next sixty years.
After her case, it was still unclear as to whether women and slaves of Virginia were entitled to plead benefit of clergy during a first capital conviction. The General Assembly, thus, using references to Aggie’s cases, presented evidence to the General Court and ended up passing that law in 1732. However, though this was extreme progress, there was still a specific list of people who could not plead benefit of the clergy. The law also allowed for courts to apply other punishments and to deny the rights of the criminals to give testimonies in court (Snyder).
Hemphill, John M. II. “Aggie, Mary.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1. Edited by John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tartar, and Sandra Gioia Treadway. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
Hemphill, J. M., II, & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “Mary Aggie (fl. 1728–1731)”. Encyclopedia Virginia. http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Aggie_Mary_fl_1728-1731 (Accessed March 13, 2012).
Snyder, Terri L. Brabbling Women. Disorderly Speech and the Law in Early Virginia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
“Dred Scott,” PBS: Africans in America, www.pbs.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“Lt. Gov. William Gooch,” Brooklyn Museum: American Art, www.brooklynmuseum.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“Mary Aggie’s Pardon,” Encyclopedia Virginia, www.encyclopediavirginia.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
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