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A Window into Slavery


In his Memoirs, Cassius M. Clay describes an event that had a lasting impact on his psyche and influenced him in his beliefs against slavery.  Clay states, “I early began to study the system, or, rather, began to feel its wrongs.” 

As a young boy Cassius had been interested in gardening, a young slave named Mary assisted him in laying out a garden.  According to Cassius a few years later Mary had been sent to a separate plantation to cook for the whites, the “hands,” and the overseer, named John Payne, and his family.  Cassius states that Payne verbally abused Mary, and when she retorted she angered not only Payne but his whole family.  The family sent her upstairs in their cabin to shell seed corn for planting.   Mary was suspicious that something was up and hid a butcher knife in her clothes before she went upstairs.  Meanwhile the Payne family plotted below.  Eventually the Paynes came upstairs and attempted to attack her, but Mary turned on them and fatally stabbed John Payne.  At this point she was able to make her escape, and ran back to Clermont.

In June 1820 Mary went on trial for the murder of John Payne. The trial took over a year and half to complete.  At first the court proceedings took place in Madison County, but after it was determined that Mary might not receive a fair hearing, the trial moved to Jessamine County.  At one point it was debatable whether Mary would last the trial, as the horrid conditions of her jail cell resulted in compromising her health.  A doctor was called in to examine her and provided an affidavit that stated for Mary to survive she had to be removed from the open to the elements, unheated jail.  It took Mary several months to recover from her illness.  Throughout the trial numerous witnesses were called for the Commonwealth while many other witnesses spoke on behalf of Mary the slave.  The trial finally came to a close in October of 1821. 

Cassius M. Clay seems a little bit hazy on the actual proceedings of Mary’s trail, because he states in his Memoirs that Mary was acquitted of the murder, “…held guiltless by a jury of, not her ‘peers,’ but her oppressors!”  According to the official court documents Mary was actually found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution on December 1, 1821.  The pardon by Governor John Adair on November 13, 1821 is what saved her life.

Although she was pardoned by the Governor of Kentucky, after Green Clay’s death it was placed in his will that she and a number of other slaves be “sent beyond the limits of this state” and sold “for the best price that can be had with a warranty that they non neither of them shall ever return to reside within this state thereafter.”

Whether or not Clay remembered the exact proceedings of Mary’s trial is not as relevant as the impact his father’s will made on Mary’s life, and as a result, on Cassius M. Clay’s own life.  Clay’s older brother, Sydney Payne Clay, was executer of Green Clay’s estate. Although an emancipationist himself, Sydney was required to execute his father’s last orders.  Cassius recalls his final time seeing Mary, “Never shall I forget—and through all these years it rests upon the memory as the stamp upon a bright coin—the scene, when Mary was tied by the wrists and sent from home and friends, and the loved features of her native land—into Southern banishment forever…Never shall I forget those two faces—of my brother and Mary—the oppressor and the oppressed, rigid with equal agony!”

A Window into Slavery

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