State v. Francis, a Slave
About This Case
Many antebellum cases before Florida’s Territorial Court of Appeals and Supreme Court involved individuals who left little evidence of their lives in the historical record. This is especially true for cases involving slaves.
In 1855, the Florida Supreme Court considered the case of Frances, a slave v. State. Frances stood accused of committing the crime of “assault and battery” against Amelia Hundley. This case presented fairly unique circumstances for the court as Frances, a slave woman, had committed a crime against Hundley, a white woman. Rarely did cases involving slave women reach the courts, especially the Supreme Court, except for those concerning matters of property and inheritance.
The lower court in this case, Putnam County Circuit Court, found Frances guilty and sentenced her to 29 “lashes on the bear back with a cow hide” (the number 50 is given in some case documents). Frances’ lawyer, McQueen McIntosh, objected to the ruling of the jury on several fronts. Some of his objections involved the jury and the application of the law, others related to the way in which the offender was identified in documents submitted to the court.
McIntosh argued that prosecutors in Putnam Circuit court had failed to specify whether Frances was indeed a slave or not. Moreover, if she was a slave, to whom did she belong? The appeals court rejected these two points based on the assumption that the information was readily available and could be gathered from Frances if questioned.
Thereafter, “...a slave” followed Frances in the case documents and her owner was identified as Abner M. Hall. As with other cases involving slaves and slavery in antebellum Florida, the court required precision in order to determine whether to cite the provisions of the 1828 slave codes or the 1832 penal law in their decisions.
Procedural problems aside, the case progressed to the Florida Supreme Court. The high court upheld the decision reached by the Putnam Circuit court. Documents in the case file fail to mention whether the sentence was carried out as specified.
The decision of the court ultimately rested on the principle that an attack upon a white person by a black person, whether slave or free, could not be justified under the law except in cases of self-defense. Since the evidence presented showed that Frances acted with the intention to harm Hundley and not in self-defense, she was found guilty.
If Frances and her lawyer had made the case for self-defense, she would perhaps have received protection under the clause, repeated throughout the case file, “[t]hat a party has a right to expel an aggressor by force if necessary.”
Several subsequent cases cited Frances as precedent in such procedural matters, including Bass v. State; Irvin v. State; and Willingham v. State.