Black History We Choose to Forget
Spoiler Alert: If you like a good whodunit, and haven’t read: When God turned his Head by Cygnet Brown, (you will want to read the book before reading this post as the book was based on the research of the facts of this event. Click here to get your copy.)
The John Codman Murder
In my research for the Locket Saga, I have found numerous amazing historical accounts of African Americans in America’s early history. This month, in honor of Black History Month, I want to share some of the accounts that I found from our history and how they relate to the Locket Saga series.
This week, I want to share the account of the slaves of John Codman who played an important part in my first novel in The Locket Saga: When God Turned His Head.
Slavery Was Not Just in the Southern Colonies
Most people don’t know that Negro slaves were owned in the 1700s, not just in the south, but in every British colony. Most wealthy families owned slaves. Although the nature of slavery in the North differed somewhat from the slavery of the South, there were slaves living in Boston, and in other Massachusetts towns, until 1783, when slavery was legally abolished in Massachusetts.
Boston merchants became rich from their ties to shipping and industries like rum-distilling that were inextricably linked to slavery. The bulk of the sugar imported into North America in the eighteenth century, including the sugar merchants brought back on their ships to be sold to shopkeepers and distillers of rum, came from Caribbean plantations worked by slaves. Robert Howard, the man who first owned what later became known as the Paul Revere House, owned at least one slave, and possibly as many as five. He was a wealthy trade goods merchant of goods that were produced by forced African slave labor in the Caribbean and West Indies. Although Paul Revere never owned slaves, his maternal grandmother had been part owner a slaved named Nulgar.
African slaves in the north, as in the south, were often discontented with their condition and sought to improve it whenever they could. Although free Africans lived in Massachusetts at the time, getting freed was not an easy matter. A law passed in 1703 required slave owners to post a £50 bond for each slave they freed. This bond served as a guarantee that a freed slave would not become a financial burden on the own.
In 1755, John Codman, a former ship’s captain, was a wealthy fifty-eight-year-old slave master and landowner in Charlestown a slave owner was found dead in his bed. It didn’t take long for the authorities to realize that foul play had been involved and that the man had been poisoned.
Because there was both an investigation and a trial, a considerable record exists which allows some insight into the conspirators’ thoughts and motivations.
On July second, the day after Captain Codman’s death, a coroner’s jury found that he died from poison feloniously procured by Mark.
The investigation uncovered the fact that six years earlier, they set fire to his workshop, hoping by the destruction of this building that he would be obliged to sell them, they, in the year 1755, they conspired again to gain his end through poison. At the trial, when the judges asked Phoebe about Mark’s reason for poisoning Codman, she only replied that “he was uneasy and wanted to have another master” and that “he was concerned” for the well-being of herself and Phyllis, another Codman slave. The judges did not press Phoebe for details.
Although it is uncertain whether John Codman was a habitually violent or cruel master, the record does show that Codman, in a fit of rage following the death of his wife in 1752, struck a slave named Tom so hard in the face that one of his eyes was seriously injured. Therefore, the other slaves of the Codman household were subjected to episodes of violence in addition to the inherent trials and tribulations of slavery.
Mark was unhappy because he was separated from his own family. For a time, Codman had allowed Mark to live in Boston with his wife and children if Mark hired himself out for work and provided his master with his wages. However, in February 1748, Boston city officials “warned him out” of Boston and Codman forced him to return to Charlestown and refused to allow his family to join him. Around the same time, Codman either sold or gave one of Mark’s children.
Six years before Codman’s murder, Mark had desperately attempted to compel his master to sell him to another person. In 1749, hoping that he might be sold to a new master who would be kinder and enable him to rejoin his family, Mark and several other slaves burned down Codman’s blacksmith shop and workhouse. Mark hoped that the financial distress would force Codman to sell him. Codman refused to sell any of his slaves.
The idea that they could get away with poisoning Codman came from the idea that the slaves believed that a Mr. Salmon had been poisoned to death by one of his slaves, without anyone discovering of the crime. Mark attempted to get poison first from Kerr, Dr. John Gibbons’ servant, and then to Robin, Dr. William Clarke’s servant. The poison was galena, or plumbum nigrum, a native sulphuret of lead, probably used for a glaze by Charlestown potters.
Kerr refused to give Mark the poison, but Robin got it for Mark two different times along with some arsenic. This poison, Phoebe and Phyllis kept in a vial and from time to time mixed into Codman’s water-gruel and sago and at times was innocently administered to him by one of his daughters. They also mixed with his food some of the ‘black lead,’ which Phyllis seems to have thought was the efficient poison, though it appeared from the testimony that he was killed by the arsenic.
Quaco, — the nominal husband of Phoebe, the servant of Mr. James Dalton, of Boston, and implicated in the murder— was examined before William Stoddard, a justice of the peace, and on the same day Robin was arrested and committed to jail. Later in the month, Mark and Phyllis were questioned by the Attorney-General and Mr. Thaddeus Mason.
The jury found both Phyllis and Mark guilty of murder and petit treason. Petit treason, as distinct from high treason, was the charge brought when a servant was accused of killing his master; a wife her husband; or a clergyman his canonical superior. According to the indictment, only Phillis was charged with murder and petit treason. Mark and Robin were charged with being accessories before the fact. Apparently, the jury found Robin not guilty, as he is not mentioned in the record of the judgment. Mark was found guilty of the greater charge for reasons which are not specified.
Criminal conspiracies were taken very seriously by the Yankees of Massachusetts. According to later accounts, the judges sentenced Phoebe to be transported to the West Indies, although oddly her name does not appear anywhere in the indictment or record of judgment. Mark was hung, and his body tarred and suspended in chains for all to see in Charlestown. Although, in When God Turned His Head, Phyllis was hanged, according to court records, she was burned to death. This case has become well-known as one of only two times in American history when a woman was sentenced to be burned to death. The only one other case in Massachusetts history was when Maria, also an African servant, attempted to murder her owner by setting his house on fire. It is likely the other conspirators were sent to the sugar colonies in the Caribbean to work the fields, a standard form of punishment at the time.
Mark’s Mention later in The Locket Saga
Mark’s body remained chained on the Charleston Neck for twenty years. In my second book of the Locket Saga, Soldiers Don’t Cry, the Locket Saga Continues, there is a scene where Elizabeth Thorton was spooked by the knowledge that Mark’s body was hung in chains on the Charleston Neck. This was based on an account written in Paul Revere’s autobiography where he wrote “After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains,” he was referring to this well-known local landmark along his route through Charlestown (present-day Somerville).
How Can We Relate Today?
The slaves may have been found guilty, but the system was just as guilty for its role in the man’s murder. This story reminds us that there were no innocents in the country as it related to the chattel slave system. The northern colonies was just as inhuman and brutal as that which was later condemned in the South. They were motivated by the same greed that is rules the world today. It also reminds us that everyone desires freedom over slavery and that many will do whatever it takes to reach that place.
When God Turned His Head and Soldiers Don’t Cry, the Locket Saga Continues, as well as the other books in The Locket Saga series can be found
In Print at Lulu.com check out Cygnet Brown’s Author Spotlight page at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/cygnetbrown
On Amazon Kindle, The Locket Saga series page at
There was a show on PBS about Rhode Island slaves…fascinating in a sad way. Such is our history. We would do well not to ignore it.
I think the worst of the problem is that the continues today all over the world. Young women sold into sex slavery. Children sold into slavery to pay for their parents’ debts. The problem is more rampant today than we realize.