On 16 Aug 1753, the Rev. Edward Jackson of Woburn petitioned the Superior Court to reconsider the verdict against him in his libel suit against the Rev. Josiah Cotton, a verdict which implied he really was the father of Kezia Hincher’s illegitimate child. New evidence had come to light, he said.
A local tradition held that one of Jackson’s local enemies gave an enslaved servant a letter for Hincher. That slave asked one of Jackson’s own slaves for directions to where the widow lived, and Jackson’s slave took the letter to the minister. The local historian Samuel Sewall wrote:
The letter may reasonably be supposed to have been unsealed; for what the need of seals to letters, carried by the hand of a poor ignorant African, that had never learnt the alphabet, and to whom English and Latin, Greek and Hebrew were all alike?This tale flatters the racist wish to see black people as foolish, and it excuses Jackson from looking at someone else’s mail. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on several counts:
Seeing it to be in this condition. Mr. Jackson ventured to open it; and finding that its contents furnished a complete exposure of the falsity of the charge against him, or a direct clew to such a discovery, he quickly copied it, and’ keeping the original for his own use, he returned the copy...
- There was no need for Jackson’s slave to take the letter and return it to the other man’s slave if he simply went to ask the minister for directions.
- Some enslaved people did know how to read, and some letters did get lost, so anyone sending a potentially embarrassing document would seal it—if he was foolhardy enough to put such remarks in writing at all.
- Folks in Woburn had been living in the middle of ministerial feuds for twenty years. And people aren’t stupid just because they’re held in bondage (though thinking they are makes that bondage thing easier to do). The idea that a slave of one of Jackson’s enemies would blithely walk up to the minister’s servant and had over a private letter is ridiculous.
- Locating Kezia Hincher in a town of only 1,575 people (per the 1765 census) shouldn’t have been hard. She was still living with her brother-in-law, Ebenezer Richardson. (By this time her sister Rebecca had died, leaving Ebenezer a widower.)
TOMORROW: What happened in court—and what didn’t.