About Mary Aggie
Mary Aggie was a slave who became a principal in a court case that changed Virginia's statute law. Although unsuccessful in suing for her freedom in 1728, she demonstrated her belief in Christianity to the satisfaction of the presiding judge, Lieutenant Governor William Gooch. In 1730 she was convicted by the York County court of oyer and terminer of stealing from her owner, which ordinarily would have doomed her to death or severe corporal punishment. In 1731, however, Gooch had her case sent to the General Court, where he hoped she could secure the benefit of clergy, a privilege in English law dating back centuries in which literate persons could escape death or the severest penalties for first convictions on most capital offenses. Before a final verdict could be rendered, on May 6, 1731, Gooch and the governor's Council pardoned Aggie on the condition that she would be sold out of the colony. The General Assembly referred to Aggie's cases in passing a law on July 1, 1732, that allowed virtually all Virginians to plead benefit of clergy except in certain cases, a privilege that continued for another sixty years.
Mary Aggie, like the much better known Dred Scott of the next century, was an otherwise obscure African American who earned a place in history as the central figure in an important legal case. The place and date of her birth and the names of her parents are not recorded. She was probably the enslaved adult named Mary Aggy who was living in Williamsburg in 1717 as the property of Susanna Allen, but all that is known with certainty about the court principal named Mary Aggie relates to two cases heard in Virginia courts between 1728 and 1731 and to a law the General Assembly enacted in 1732. The paucity of personal data about Mary Aggie stands in sharp contrast to her significant role in changing Virginia's statute law with respect to the rights of convicted felons, including women and all African Americans, Indians, and persons of mixed-race ancestry.
Of Aggie's first case in the General Court late in the 1720s, by which time she was at least twenty-one years old, we know only that she sued for her freedom from slavery, that "she was examined touching her Faith of which she gave a tolerable Account," in the words of Lieutenant Governor William Gooch, and that her bid for freedom failed. She had, however, established her belief in Christianity to the satisfaction of Gooch, the presiding judge at the trial.
The other case involving Aggie is better documented and had further-reaching significance. On November 7, 1730, Aggie was indicted, tried, and convicted by a court of oyer and terminer in York County for stealing three sheets valued at forty shillings from the house of her owner Annie Sullivan, a Williamsburg tavern keeper. Ordinarily the court would have sentenced Aggie to death or some severe corporal punishment, but Aggie's was not a routine case. Gooch had sent an attorney to observe the trial and to secure for her, if she were convicted, the benefit of clergy to which Gooch thought she would have been entitled if she had not been enslaved. Under English law dating from the Middle Ages, benefit of clergy was a privilege entitling ostensibly literate persons to escape death or the most serious penalty of the law on a first conviction for all but a specified few of the many capital offenses. Learning from the attending lawyer that the York County justices might deny Aggie's plea for benefit of clergy, Gooch arranged for her case to be called up to the General Court. As Gooch explained to the bishop of London, he had resolved "to have this Matter argued in the most public manner by our best Lawyers, as a thing of great consequence, by which all the Courts in the Country for the Future should govern themselves, not doubting but it would be carried in favour of the Christian though a black one." Four of the five attorneys whom Gooch asked to prepare legal briefs later argued that Mary Aggie had the right to plead benefit of clergy, but when the lieutenant governor, as presiding judge of the General Court, put the question in April 1731, the bench was divided, six to six.
Gooch ordered the case referred to the attorney general and solicitor general in England for a final ruling, but on May 6, 1731, Gooch and the Council, sitting in executive session, pardoned Mary Aggie "upon condition that she be transported out of this Colony to Some other of his Majesties plantations there to be sold as a Slave." Gooch had saved Aggie's life, but the deadlock in the General Court left unanswered the question of whether women and slaves were entitled in Virginia to plead benefit of clergy in mitigation of a first capital conviction. To settle that question, the General Assembly, making circumstantial but unmistakable references to both of Aggie's cases in the General Court, passed a sweeping law on July 1, 1732, that allowed virtually everyone to plead benefit of clergy except in certain cases in which such pleas were not allowed under English or Virginia statutes. Although the act explicitly extended benefit of clergy "to any Negro, mulatto or Indian whatsoever," it added to the number of felonies for which those persons could not plead benefit of clergy. The new law also allowed courts to inflict other corporal punishments, and it denied to all Indians and persons of African descent the right to give testimony in court except "upon the trial of a slave, for a capital offence." What the statute granted in some clauses in the names of mercy and justice, it took away in others for the protection of the institution of slavery and the property of slaveholders. Nonetheless, as a result of the actions of Mary Aggie, William Gooch, and the General Assembly, for more than sixty years all Virginians enjoyed the right to plead benefit of clergy on first conviction. Even after benefit of clergy began to disappear from Virginia law in 1796, Virginia slaves retained some limited rights to make the plea until its use was abolished in 1849.
No known source indicates whether Mary Aggie learned of the important consequences of her trials, nor does the record disclose to which colony she was sent to be sold or tell when or where she died.
1717 - An enslaved adult woman named Mary Aggy is recorded as living in Williamsburg as the property of Susanna Allen. This is likely the same woman who would become a principal in two Virginia court cases between 1728 and 1731. Late 1720s - An enslaved woman named Mary Aggie unsuccessfully sues for her freedom. Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch presides at the trial. November 7, 1730 - Mary Aggie is convicted of stealing three sheets valued at forty shillings from the house of her owner, Annie Sullivan, a Williamsburg tavern keeper. This sort of crime is typically punished by death or severe corporal punishment, but Lieutenant Governor William Gooch attempts to secure benefit of clergy for her. April 1731 - Four of the five attorneys arranged for Mary Aggie by Lieutenant Governor William Gooch argue before the General Court that Aggie has the right to plead benefit of clergy. When it comes time to make a ruling, the bench is divided, six to six. Gooch orders the case referred to England. May 6, 1731 - Lieutenant Governor William Gooch and his Council pardon the enslaved woman Mary Aggie, who was convicted of stealing from her owner, on the condition that she leave the colony to be sold elsewhere as a slave. July 1, 1732 - The General Assembly passes a law that allows virtually anyone to plead benefit of clergy, except when such pleas are not allowed under English or Virginia statutes. The law also adds to the number of felonies for which slaves, free blacks, and Indians cannot plead benefit of clergy. 1796 - Benefit of clergy, a privilege that allows literate persons to escape death or other severe penalties on a first conviction, begins to disappear from Virginia law, but Virginia slaves still retain some limited rights to make the plea. 1849 - The ability to plead benefit of clergy is abolished from Virginia law.
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, 42–43. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
Contributed by John M. Hemphill II and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. The Dictionary of Virginia Biography is a publication of the Library of Virginia.
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).