During the 1800s, the mid-colonial era of the Bahamas, theft of property, was a very serious a crime. Serious theft, or larceny, actually carried a death sentence. The reason for this is quite simple – there was very little personal property, and what property there was, on a small island, was held dear and valuable. Theft of a few oranges could carry, more or less, the same penalty as a watch. The more you stole, the higher the risk that, a roughly twisted noose around the neck, would be your sentence.

Conversely, sometimes murder and manslaughter, brought some surprising mild verdicts. These verdicts of course depended on who was killed.

George Farrington, a cripple from San Salvador, Jailed For Stealing Some Sweet Potatoes – Dies In Prison in Nassau From Twisted Bowels – 1882

“His time was up on the day after his death.”

George Farrington was a cripple sentenced to three months with hard labour. Farrington, from the Bight in San Salvador, was convicted of larceny for the theft of some sweet potatoes. He was brought all the way, by boat, from San Salvador to Nassau to court and then prison. He died at 7 p.m on Thursday, 2nd March 1882 after taking sick in his prison cell on the 25th February. Due to his already impaired condition, being a cripple, the prisoner was seized by an inflammation of his bowels. Farrington was due to be released the following day, having served his sentence for larceny.

Coroner’s verdict: Prisoner died by the visitation of God.

The Nassau Guardian and Bahama Island’s Advocate and Intelligencer, Saturday, 4th March 1882

Betsey Seeley, a free black woman, charged with larceny of two spoons and a teapot – 1830

“On Thursday last, in the General Court, Betsey Seeley a free black woman, was tried under a bill of Indictment found against her for Grand Larceny, in stealing two silver spoons and a blue and white teapot, of which she was found guilty by the jury, and remanded to prison.”

The Royal Gazette and Bahama Advertiser, Saturday, 24 April, 1830

Slave Fined 10 shillings for Killing Boy Slave Thief

The King v John Bretton, a slave —-Manslaughter – 1832

The killing of a slave, during the commission of a crime, even a child, carried comparably little penalty in 1832.

John Bretton, a slave, was under suspicion of theft of fruits from his master’s garden. At risk of severe punishment himself, if the true culprit was not found, Bretton decided one night, to hide in the garden with a shotgun, to lay in wait for the real fruit thief.

Stock photo:

John Bretton claimed that on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1831, he shot out into the dark, making a direct head shot, as the real alleged thief, of his master’s property, came over over the wall. Bretton had to be an incredible marksman, or sat at very close range, to make a direct headshot in the pitch black darkness.

The unnamed victim, a slave boy, shot in the face, died 14 agonising days later.

The penalty of 10 shillings charged, must have been payment related to the destruction of property, namely, the slave boy. To put the penalty into some perspective, a shilling was worth 1/20 of a pound or around 24 cents.

The Bahama Argus, Saturday, 31st January 1832

It appeared in evidence, that the prisoner was the hired servant of a gentleman in this town; that the garden of his master has been repeatedly robbed, and that suspicion had fallen upon the prisoner, who, in consequence, determined to watch for the thief; that, accordingly on the night of the 31st December last, armed with firearm, he posted himself in the garden, where he had not remained any great length of time, before he observed a person getting over the wall; that he immediately fired and lodged the load in the face of the deceased, who proved to be a boy slave. The deceased lingered until the 14th instant. The prisoner was without council. The jury returned for a short time, and returned a verdict of guilty. The court sentence the prisoner to pay a fine of 10 shillings.”

The Bahama Argus, Saturday, 31st January 1832

GRAND LARCENY CASES – Fines and White Woman Sentenced To Death

The King vs Catherine Eve —- Grand Larceny. The prisoner pleaded guilty, and threw herself upon the mercy of Court. Sentenced to pay a fine of twenty shillings.

The King vs Charles Nelson—- Grand Larceny. The prisoner was indicted for stealing a calf-akin, (value 16s) the property of Peter Trico. Verdict, guilty.

The Bahama Argus, Saturday, 31st January 1832

Hannah Harris Sentenced To Death For Larceny

The King vs Hannah Harris represents a strange and extreme case in colonial Bahamas. Hannah Harris was white. If she wasn’t, the newspaper would have stated as much. This is a strange case in that Hannah Harris repeatedly refused to plead anything or than guilty. She did so despite legal advise that she would be given the ultimate, most severe sentence. The case is extreme in the sentence handed down for larceny. Why would anyone be handed down a death sentence for theft.

“The crime with which Hannah Harris was charged was stated to have been committed several months past, at Harbour Island; and after the return of the Indictment, the prisoner was brought to the bar and the arraigned in the usual form. On being questioned whether she was “guilty or not guilty,” she replied “Guilty” and although admonished to plead in the negative, she still persisted in her plea.”

The Royal Gazette and Bahama Advertiser, Saturday, 8th February, 1834

The nature of the offence stated in the Indictment was then explained to her by the Court, and that if she was to be put on her trial before the jury, the evidence might be such as not to affect her life; but if she persisted in pleading guilty, as she had done, the Court must proceed to pass the sentence of Death. – Notwithstanding which on being again questioned by the Clerk, of the Crown she said as before that she would not tell a lie that she was guilty.

The Royal Gazette and Bahama Advertiser, Saturday, 8th February, 1834

Hannah Harris’s appearance, gave the Court the impression that she was ensient or pregnant. She testified that she was indeed with child. When it was proved that she lied to the Court, Harris was sentenced to Death for Larceny.

She was then called to appear at the Bench and examined, by one of their honours and having returned to the bar, what utter no other plea. Her appearance indicating her being ensient, she was questioned to that effect by a medical gentleman who was in Court, and she acknowledged that to be the case. The Court and everyone present appeared perplexed and astonished at the persistency of the woman; and it was a length ordered that her plea should be recorded and the prisoner remanded to prison.

Hannah Harris was remanded to prison. She was brought to court at the next sitting and a sentence of Death was passed on her. While in Court, the Jury directed the matrons to intimately examine her. They found her not be pregnant.

The King vs Hannah Harris – Larceny in our last we gave some account of this woman’s unaccountable conduct in court, on being arraigned under the Indictment, when, on persisting in her plea of guilty, she was remanded to prison. She was brought to the bar yesterday and a sentence of Death passed on her. Today, a jury of matrons was impanelled and sworn to examine into her state, and they have returned a verdict, that she is not pregnant.

The Royal Gazette and Bahama Advertiser, Wednesday, 12th February, 1834

Assaulted But Could Not Testify Because, Catharine Hyen, A Liberated Slave Had Not Been Free For At Least 5 Years According To Law – 1832

We can call this for what it probably was – rape. In the 1800s, all manner of sexual crimes were lumped together with slaps, punches and brawls, under the one legal umbrella of assault. Catherine Hyen was an American slave, who had been aboard a wrecked vessel and brought to Nassau, the previous year. Upon arriving in Nassau, she became a liberated slave. However, according to law, a slave had to be free for at least 5 years before being able to give testimony against a white person in court. As a result, the case of assault she brought against Thomas Conyers was dismissed. The Attorney General called another witness, but she too, had not been free the requisite 5 years.

The prosecutrix being sworn, stated that she was an American by birth; that she was born a slave and had continued in slavery until wrecked on these islands, at the commencement of the last year, when she had been liberated. Upon this, Mr Anderson, the counsel for the defendant, objected to her evidence being received, upon the grounds that she had not enjoyed a state of freedom for five years, that the term being required, by the act of assembly of fourth Geo fourth chapter 2.

The Bahama Argus, Thursday, 19th January 1832

The Court having declared in favour of the validity of the objections, the Attorney General called another witness, Mary Eve, who, however, labouring under the same disability, was also rejected. No other witnesses being forthcoming, the Jury, of course, acquitted the defendant.

The Bahama Argus, Saturday, 21st January 1832