1833 · [Wood County, VA
On December 17, 1829, ten days before the expiration of the period of bailment, Spencer departed from Wood County on the Ohio River on two large flatboats, loaded with produce and flour, for Cincinnati and New Orleans with Monroe on board as cook. Monroe's owner did not authorize the voyage as he was unaware of it. On the evening of the first day of departure, Monroe fell overboard and was drowned near Buffington's Island.
Although there was no written agreement, the plaintiff showed that he had hired Monroe with the expectation that he would be employed in agricultural work. Spencer's defense mentions that he considered the boy younger and smaller than he expected him to be when he first hired him, and that he was too small to plough and could only be employed hoeing corn or doing light work. Slaves employed in voyages down the Ohio and Mississippi on boats, however, brought much higher wages to their owners. Therefore, Pilcher contended that Spencer was liable for the value of the slave. For good reason, Spencer based his defense on procedural aspects, but claimed that he made every exertion to save the life of Monroe. Also, he noted that he had tried to obtain permission for the use of Monroe for the voyage, but failed.
The summary statements of two witnesses are recounted in this document, both of whom report they heard Spencer say that he was determined to take the boy down the river with him as a cook on board his boats, and if he did not bring him back again that he would pay for him, "or words to that effect...." After hearing from all parties, the Court "charged the jury, that if, upon a bailment of a slave, the bailer used or employed the slave in any way not expressed in the terms of the contract for hire, such use or employment would amount to a conversion: that it might be fairly inferred from, or implied by, a contract for the hiring of a slave that the slave was to be used and employed only about the ordinary occupation and employment of the bailee, and that any departure, in the use or employment of the slave, would render the bailee liable as for a conversion...." The Court charged that "the jury was bound to make such inference...." The defendant on his part "further excepted; and prays the Court here to sign this his bill of exceptions; and it is done." [no signatures present on this copy.]. The jury found the verdict for Pilcher and assessed Spencer's damages at $317. Spencer later appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals for a writ on procedural grounds.
According to an article by John E. Stealey, "The Responsibilities and Liabilities of the Bailee of Slave Labor in Virginia," published in the American Journal of Legal History in October 1968: "In Virginia the hiring of slaves for various kinds of labor was a very common practice. Although an avenue of escape was supplied by the Ohio River, employment of slaves in river trade was also unsafe owing to the inherent possibility of drowning or other marine accident, furnishing more than the usual hazard for bailor and bailee." Common and statutory law that applied to property and bailments also controlled slaves. Stealey writes that when Alexander H. Pilcher (actually his brother Stephen C. Pilcher--since Alexander was a minor at the time) leased Monroe to William Spencer, an inhabitant and extensive farmer of Wood County, Pilcher had the understanding that he was to be employed in routine farm work. The amount of hire was $15.
The results of Spencer's appeal appear in the Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, Vol. 35, July 1837. Judge Richard E. Parker completely enunciated the responsibilities of the lessee of slave labor in affirming the Wood County decision. He emphatically rejected the notion that a bailee of slave labor could fully exercise all the rights of an owner and use the laborer in any desired way if there was no special agreement. "It cannot be maintained that the bailee of a slave for hire has all the rights of a master during the period of bailment. He must not only observe the covenants of hiring, but is bound to perform what has been omitted to be inserted, but ought reasonably to be done. Such a bailee must take care to use the property according to the fair understanding when he hired it; and if, from his own declaration, or any facts or circumstances, it appears that it was hired for one purpose, and has been used for another attended with greater danger of loss or detriment, he is responsible to the owner, in the event of such detriment or loss. The hirer gains only a transient qualified property in the thing hired, and must use it prudently and reasonably." Upholding the seemingly contradictory values of security of private property and humanity, Parker added: "The master or owner of a slave is bound to treat him as an intelligent, sentient being, and will not be presumed, without proof, to place him under the dominion of a temporary bailee, to be used how and where he pleases. If he hires him with a reasonable expectation that he will be employed in a business comparatively healthy and free from danger to life, it ought not to be permitted to the bailee to immure him in an unhealthy mine, or to subject him to the hazard of distant voyages, and the perils of a business he has never followed. Humanity to the slave requires this, and the security of the rights of property imposes other restrictions on the bailee, for the sake of the owner." Judge Parker, with the full concurrence of judges William Brockenbrough and Francis T. Brooke, in the Supreme Court of Appeals, affirmed that William Spencer was clearly liable and responsible for the death of slave Monroe. (Inventory #: 65720)