Driving down Goosley Road near the Yorktown Battlefield, a historic highway marker pops out from the overgrowth: MARY AGGIE AND THE BENEFIT OF CLERGY.
But, who was Mary Aggie, and what was “Benefit of the Clergy?”
In 1730, York County was an area of major economic activity.
Being heavily involved in the growth and supply of tobacco, wealthy landowners depended on human slave labor in order to keep their businesses booming. This wealth allowed other business ventures like the Shields Tavern, kept by Anne Sullivant, a widow who held an ordinary license, to thrive. A member of the Bruton Parish, Sullivant relied on slave labor to help run her business too.
And one of her slaves was a young woman named Mary Aggie.
Not terribly much is known about Aggie other than she was listed in documents as having a value of £25. She was one of eight slaves kept by the Sullivant family, who also had two male indentured servants working for them. Aggie unsuccessfully attempted to sue for her freedom in 1728, but the records of this trial have not survived. (so how do we know this is true?..)
What is known is that she made a declaration of her faith before Lieutenant Governor William Gooch, who was moved by her religious testimony.
Two years later, Aggie was arrested after Sullivant accused her of stealing items worth approximately 40 shillings. Aggie entered a plea of not guilty but the York County Court of Oyer and Terminer still convicted her. The penalty was severe, corporal punishment or execution.
According to historian Thad Tate, she “prayed the benefit of the statute made in the third and fourth years of William and Mary.” This obscure English law that hadn’t yet found precedence in the colonies was called “Benefit of Clergy,” which stated that, with a satisfactory profession of faith, the convicted could have their life spared.
Aggie did something absolutely unheard of by defending herself in open court. However, the justices were unable to determine if “Benefit of Clergy” would apply to Aggie’s case since she was not a free woman. Gooch heard of Aggie’s plight and remembered how much her profession of faith moved him. He readily endorsed her plea, moving her case to England for judgment.
As a result, The Benefit of Clergy was not only established in Virginia, but was also extended to women, slaves, indigenous people, as well as freed African Americans.
RELATED STORY: Enslaved Woman Honored with Historical Marker in Yorktown
In May of 1732, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that stated if the “Benefit of Clergy “were to be evoked by an African American or indigenous person, they would not receive the death penalty but rather receive a branding on their hand in open court.
It is not known how Aggie knew of this obscure law, but what she did was extraordinary. She defended herself in open court as a slave during a time when free women didn’t often do so, was able to garner the support of the lieutenant governor, and influenced a change in the law that likely saved lives.
Anne Romberg Willis, the long-time historical interpreter and educator for Colonial Williamsburg, wrote, “… by her actions she transformed the way justice was dispensed to all women … in the future.”
What happened to Aggie is unknown but for more than sixty years, enslaved Virginians were able to evoke the “Benefit of Clergy” for their first conviction. Even after “Benefit of Clergy” was struck from Virginia law in 1796, slaves still were able to retain limited rights to make just such a plea until it was completely abolished in 1849.
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