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Henny Helmsley, the Daughter of a Free Woman Abducted into Slavery After the Battle of Yorktown, Sues and Wins Her Freedom
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In 1816, George Walls fights Henny Hemsley’s petition for freedom for herself and her daughters Susan, Juliana, and Priscilla. This document, written for her alleged owner and signed by the judges of the initial trial that confirmed her freedom, objects to the court’s handling of the case and seeks to go to the Court of Appeals. (The appeal was successful in 1817, and ordered a new trial.  Her freedom was confirmed in 1818 after the second trial).

SLAVERY ON TRIAL. Manuscript Document in Petition for Freedom Case. [Baltimore, Md.], May 14, 1816. 3 pp., legal folio.

Inventory #23415       Price: $4,500

Historical Background

On May 6, 1815, Henny Hemsley and her three children petitioned through their attorney William Carmichael for their freedom in the county court of Queen Anne’s County on the eastern shore of Maryland. Juliana was one year old, and Priscilla was a newborn; Susan was presumably a little older than Juliana. Hemsley petitioned the court at Centreville that she and her daughters “are entitled to their Freedom being descended on the female line from a free woman named Susan and that they are now unjustly held in Slavery by a certain George Walls who is now in Queen Ann’s County but is a resident of the State of Kentucky.”[1] Chief Judge Richard Tilghman Earle and Associate Judges Samuel Purnell and Thomas Worrell presided.

After Walls appeared in response to a summons, the court returned Hemsley and her children to Walls to “feed, Cloath and use them well” until the October term of court, so long as he did not remove them from the state or obstruct their petition for freedom. Again in October 1815, the court continued the case. In the May 1816 term, a jury of twelve men heard evidence of Henny Hemsley’s claim to freedom.

One witness, Greenberg Griffin, testified that he accompanied Captain James Sweat to the James River before the British surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781.  Later, Griffin transferred to the Baltimore Galley and visited the area a few weeks after the British surrender. He went ashore at Gosport and saw the “negro Suck, the mother of Henny one of the Petitioners selling cakes and beer without controul.” [Note: quotes in italic are in our document]. The latter phrase was a euphemism for an African American who was free and had no master.  He saw her repeatedly afterward in the same activity at Yorktown. 

One night, five or six men brought Susan/Suck[2] aboard Captain Sweat’s vessel, where he “purchased” her. Another black woman brought on board Sweat’s ship by the same persons was released and returned to shore “in consequence of her cries and screams.” Griffin testified that Sweat told Suck that he would make her his wife, though Suck told Griffin on their trip to Maryland that she “was sorry she had come away as she was free in Virginia and had a white husband there.

Another witness, John Denny, testified that he had lived in the same neighborhood as Suck and William Sweat, brother of Captain Sweat. He heard a conversation between Suck and his mother “in which the said Suck stated herself to have been free in Virginia and to have been stolen from thence by Capt. Sweat.” He also testified that it was the general understanding in the community that Suck was a free woman.

After hearing the testimony, based on the freedom of the petitioners’ mother and grandmother Susan/Suck, the jury declared that the Hemsleys were free. Walls’ attorneys objected to the verdict, but the court overruled their objections and ordered “they be free and discharged of and from the Service of the said George Walls” and that they recover $24.51 from Walls for their court costs.[3]

After the judgment, Walls’ attorneys filed this Bill of Exceptions[4] for the Court of Appeals, alleging two mistakes on the part of the judges.  First, they objected to the court having allowed John Denny to testify on the “reputation of the neighborhood” that she was a free woman.  Second, they objected that the court would not allow the declaration of John Gibson, deceased, who had purchased Suck from Captain Sweat, that Suck was a slave. Judges Earle and Worrell signed the first exception, and all three judges signed the second exception, and forwarded the case to the Court of Appeals for the Eastern Shore.

In June 1817, the Court of Appeals reversed the judgment. They found no error in the second bill of exceptions, but Chief Judge Jeremiah T. Chase for the court cited “manifest error” in the court’s judgment noted in the first bill of exception. The court ordered a new trial, “in the same manner as if no trial had taken place.”[5] A different jury heard the case in Queen Anne’s County in May 1818. The new jury again found for Henny Hemsley and her daughters. Again, Walls’ attorneys appealed, claiming that they “proposed to enter into the declarations of negro Suck made at that time in order to prove from her own confessions that she was not free.”[6] We don’t know if Walls failed to pursue that appeal, or if the court refused to hear it. He had to pay a total of $66.45 to Hemsley for her court costs.

After living as a slave for all of her 27 years, Henny Hemsley navigated the legal system to gain freedom for herself and her three daughters. Nearly two decades after the trial ended, she applied for a certificate of freedom from a justice of the peace in Queen Anne’s County. A local farmer, slaveowner, and former sheriff Thomas Ashcom (1783-1867), testified that Hemsley was the same person who had obtained her freedom in 1818. On April 30, 1836, the justice of the peace issued a certificate of freedom, and Hemsley’s daughters Juliana and Priscilla, then in their early twenties, obtained theirs on May 13, 1836.[7]

Henny Hemsley (1791-after 1836) was the mulatto daughter of an African American woman named Suck/Susan and a white man, perhaps Captain James Sweat, or his brother William Sweat.  Because her mother was enslaved, she and her children were also considered slaves.  She had three daughters by 1815, and in that year, with the help of white attorneys, she began a suit for freedom in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. Over three years of legal battles, she won freedom for herself and her daughters in 1818.

George Walls, possibly the man involved here, was born in Charles County, Maryland in 1752, and died in Prince George’s County, Maryland in 1831. He served as a sergeant in the 1st Maryland Infantry in the Revolutionary War.

The Hemsley last name may relate to William Hemsley (1737-1812), a planter, owned Clover Fields Farm and was a colonel of the militia in 1777. He served in Maryland’s House of Delegates and Senate, and represented the state in the Continental Congress from 1782-1783. Married three times, he had twelve children. His youngest daughter was named Juliana Hemsley. Whether any member of this family ever owned Henny Hemsley or she took their surname for another reason remains unknown. It is possible that one of William Hemsley’s sons was the father of Henny Hemsley’s children. William Hemsley (1766-1825), Alexander Hemsley (1772-1834), Philemon W. Hemsley (1777-1822), and Thomas Hemsley (1781-1830) all lived in Queen Anne’s County.

Richard Tilghman Earle (1767-1843) attended Washington College and studied law in Chestertown, Maryland. In 1801, he married Mary Tilghman, with whom he had fourteen children. He served as a judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals from 1809 to 1834.

Samuel Purnell was an associate justice of the Queen Anne’s County Court.

Thomas Worrell (1767-1825) served as sheriff of Kent County, Maryland, from 1788 to 1794.  By 1815, he was an associate justice of the Queen Anne’s County Court.


Good. Toned, weakness at folds, water staining to lower left margin of p 3.

[1] County court transcript, June 6, 1816, Court of Appeals (Eastern Shore), No. 21, George Walls vs. Henny Hemsley and children, SC 4239-1-7, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, MD.

[2] Some documents, including the one offered here, refer to Henny Hemsley’s mother as “Suck,” a somewhat common name for enslaved African American women. Perhaps she changed her name to Susan after coming to Maryland, or perhaps a later owner decided to call her Suck after he purchased her.

[3] County court transcript, June 6, 1816.

[4] A bill of exceptions was a list of written objections to a trial judge’s rulings or instructions, which the trial judge or judges had to sign. The exceptions then served as the basis for an appeal to a higher court, in this case to the Court of Appeals.

[5] Court Record, June 14, 1817, Queen Anne’s County Circuit Court, Miscellaneous Court Papers, Henny Hemsley and others against George Walls, Maryland State Archives.

[6] Bill of Exceptions, c. May 1818, Queen Anne’s County Circuit Court, Miscellaneous Court Papers, Henny Hemsley and others against George Walls.

[7] Certificate of Freedom for Henny Hemsley, April 30, 1836, Queen Anne’s County Court, Certificates of Freedom, 1828-1837, Maryland State Archives.

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