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Udderly Milked Dry

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A cow milked by stealth was the subject of an 18th century Court case in Accomack County. Punishment for theft was not as harsh on Virginia’s Eastern Shore as it was in 18th century England. In 1735 in the British Isles, Mary Walton was bound to a "mistress" to serve her as a virtual slave. The mistress charged Mary with stealing 27 guineas. Mary was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Mary was nine years old.

In the local courts of Colonial Virginia punishment such as the death penalty, could not be inflicted. Therefore the "culprits" were treated much more leniently than Mary Walton. In fact, local court justices were eminently fair for their era.

William Bagwell was bound over by the Accomack County Court for what can only be described as "cowslaughter". The records of 5 Mar 1699 read "Upon suspicion of a cow by him feloniously killed this is a matter worthy of affirmative deliberation".

Apparently Bagwell was eventually found not guilty of cowslaughter and set free.

The cow in early Virginia was prized property, valued far above its worth today. Old wills reveal that a cow was the most valued and frequent inheritance left the daughters of a family, the sons inheriting the real estate. Owners of cows became quite fond of the animals, endowing them with such names as "Daisey" and "Sweete Lips".

Goodwife Powell was a lady, who in the summer of 1635, took note that her cows were not giving as much milk as they should. In a stakeout one morning she discovered the reason. A man in the neighborhood was creeping into the cow stall and udderly milking her dry.

Records read "At the Court Goodwife Powell made it appear by sufficient testimony that Christopher Bryant milked the cows by stealth". Cristopher was ordered to the County whipping post, where he received a number of lashes "well laid on".

Hog stealing seemed to be, along with a bit of cattle rustling, a frequent crime on the Eastern Shore.

Hogs and cattle were marked with certain cuts in their ears. If these cuts were recorded in Court they were considered identification in matters of theft. A cow or a hog might be marked as "cropped on ye right eare and slit in the lefte".

In 1734 a man was brought before the Northampton Court and charged with the "altering the mark of hoggs". In another case, two servants of Matilda West were bought to Court in 1702 for "suspicion of hogg stealing". One of them, Robert, was found Not Guilty, but the other, Daniel was "sentenced to 39 lashes well laid on at ye Common whipping post".

A "hogg in controversy" was the source of one Northampton County court action. It seems that the hog had been bitten on the ears by a dog, or in some manner had its marks altered. Richard Hudson, Thomas Streete, and John Foster all claimed the animal as theirs.

The original marking had been a fancy fleur-de-lis (lily like ) pattern, which apparently involved some delicate knife work. There was suspicion that instead of dogs doing the altering, it may have been done by human hands, but this was impossible to prove. A final decision was made in this matter when Thomas Streete got the hog by taking an "oath Poynt Blanke that the sowe is mine".

One man met a most embarrassing fate for stealing a pair of trousers.

Samuel Powell of Accomack County was arrested by the High Sheriff for, "purloyning of a pair of breeches". The Court which found him guilty ordered, "Powell to sitt in ye stocks on the next Sabbath day with a ribbon in his hatt and a pair of breeches about his neck".

Often the charges of theft were made for stealing of items that would seem insignificant today. For example, the purloined item might be a piece of ribbon, a night shirt or even a hat. But in fact, the average 17th century resident of Accomack and Northampton Counties had little personal property compared to that of this day, and even small things were of considerable value.

A hat was missing from church in 1711, and resulted in a Grand Jury hearing. "Whereas Henry Armitrader the 22 of July beinge at Pungoteague church and lost his hatt and being informed that Phillip Fisher had stoled it . . . took a warrant to search for ye hatt and bringe ye suspicious persons before ye constable".

The first place searched was "ye house of John Fisher, father of Phillip . . . . .where was found ye said hatt". Phillip was promptly installed in the County jail, but the trial revealed "not sufficient evidence". Apparently Fisher and Armitrader had the same head size.

It seems Sundays in church were times and places of considerable potential court action. Mary Hinman was taken to Court charged with stealing a piece of ribbon.

"Mary Hinman, for feloniously stealing a bonnet string or a yard of ribbon of ye value of six pence from Patience Dunton in the Parish Church on the fourteenth of April . . . In the indictment of Our Sovereign Lord the King against Mary Hinman" she pled and was found Not Guilty.

One leading Eastern Shoreman, Anthoney West, was brought to Court by an Indian Empress and charged with theft.

"Upon a petition by Mary Empress of ye Eastern Shoare, complaining of several goods taken out of her son Charlton’s cabin by Anthoney West."

If this matter was finally resolved it was apparently done out of court because no record could be found of Anthoney coming before the Justices.

Sebastian Cropper, grandfather of General John Cropper, barely escaped being sent to General Court in James City on a felony charge.

Sebastian Cropper was accused by George Pouncey for feloniously taking of some pine plank from an old house on ye plantation." Cropper was arrested but, "there was not sufficient matter that did appeare to send or transfer ye prisoner to General Court." The case was dismissed.

Elizabeth East was quite unfortunate. Arrested on "suspicion of feloniously taking one and one-half pounds of flax belonging to Robert Carruthers . . . the sheriff take the said Elizabeth to the common whipping post and give her twenty lashes on her bare back well laid on". She also was ordered kept in jail until she could pay court costs.

Either flax was a most valuable commodity or the Justices had had a bad day. At least she wasn’t hanged by the neck until dead.

By A. Parker Barnes
With the kind permission of his wife, Virginia

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