YORK, JACK, black slave; fl. 1800.
The life of Jack York is known only through a single criminal act. In 1800 he was one of several black slaves living on the farm of James Girty of Gosfield Township in the Western District of Upper Canada. Girty had served during the American revolution as a “partizan” in the Indian department with his brother Simon* and his fellow Pennsylvania loyalists and friends Matthew Elliott* and Alexander McKee. In this period all of these men became slave-holders by treating captured slaves as personal booty rather than prisoners of war. It is possible that Jack York was acquired in this manner and in 1788 was brought to the District of Hesse. Slavery had been common in that area as early as 1782. By 1807 it was becoming increasingly unpopular, but the renowned anti-slavery statute of 1793 had not changed the lot of slaves such as York; rather it had secured them as the legal property of their owners. Indeed, as late as 1798 Christopher Robinson had sponsored a bill in the House of Assembly which would have extended slavery within the province, although the efforts of Richard Cartwright* and Robert Hamilton* in the Legislative Council prevented it from passing. York’s life seems to have been spent in relative ease, tending to his master’s animals, possibly fathering children by a female slave Hannah, and devoting his idle hours to hunting. His relationship with his master seems to have been one neither of deference nor strict discipline.
In late August 1800 York’s life changed abruptly when he was charged with burglary with intent to commit a felony. He was tried on 12 September before Justice William Dummer Powell* and an associate judge, Alexander Grant*. After a short trial a petit jury of 12 men deliberated only momentarily before finding York guilty. But the charge masked the real nature of his supposed crime, the rape of a white woman, Ruth Tufflemier. The burglary charge was sufficient to support the indictment, and spared the crown the difficulty of establishing the “usual technical Evidence of the rape being perpetrated.”
The only record of the testimonies of the seven witnesses is in Powell’s bench notes. Ruth Tufflemier testified that on a “star light night” about 20 August she was awakened and discovered York peering into her cabin. Being alone she took her husband’s rifle and waited. Some 15 minutes later she heard a noise and noticed that the device fastening the door had been removed. Fearful of letting York know she had recognized him, she threatened to shoot if he breached the door, whereupon he burst in, hit her with a large stick, “treated her with great violence, entered her body, and did not leave untill he had completed his purpose.” The removal of the door fastener was crucial to the burglary charge. Powell questioned her in order to make sure that the door had been locked in the usual manner and that she could positively identify the accused. Under cross-examination she said that “she could distinguish between a white man and a black man” and that “no private Picque or resentment” had motivated the accusation.
The sole supporting evidence was circumstantial, from a friend, Hannah Boyles, who recounted that Mrs Tufflemier had visited her home on 20 August, claiming that “she had been abused by Mr Girty’s black man Jack” and had recovered from unconsciousness to find “he had ravished her,” and who described injuries to Mrs Tufflemier body suggesting that “the woman was forced” – “Her breast [was] scratched, her loins [were] bruised, and her left thigh just above the Knee was much bruised.”
The testimony of Jacob Tufflemier was surprisingly ambivalent. He stated that when York was arraigned his wife had “not sworn positively to the Prisoner, but to the best of her belief.” Moreover he introduced the possibility that resentment had motivated the charge by recounting a dispute he had had with York “a long time ago” over Girty’s hogs which had culminated with an exchange of violent threats. Tufflemier was absent on the night of the alleged rape but he too contended it was a “Starlight night.”
The remaining witnesses were York’s fellow slaves and master whose testimony suggested that he could not have committed the rape at the time in question. A black woman Hannah testified that she had been “in bed with him that night, untill about 10 or 11 oClock.” Another slave, James, said he had seen York “strip to go to bed” and had later awakened with him to shoot an owl, after which they returned to their huts. When questioned by the prosecution, James said that he did not “know the Prisoner is attracted to white women, or that he ever expressed a desire to have connection with Stofflemire’s wife.” The testimony of James Girty, “a black man,” who may have been Girty’s illegitimate son, added to the impression that York’s only activity that night had been shooting an owl. Girty’s own testimony substantiated this incident; moreover he asserted that the night was overcast and that York could not have left his but without Girty’s noticing. Girty told the prosecution he evaluated York at £121 and said his only complaint about York’s character was his tendency of “being free of his Tongue and that only to such as made free with him.” When York himself took the stand he described a long-standing association with Ruth Tufflemier. They had met “alone in the woods and other places frequently, and [he] had never offended her.” He confirmed the quarrel with Jacob Tufflemier which resulted in his own banishment from the Tufflemier abode and he proclaimed his innocence stating that he had been “in his bed at Mr Girty’s all night.”
During the trial Powell received personal attestations to York’s “good Character from long acquaintance” from Thomas McKee*, the son of Alexander, George Ironside*, and William Hands, all three prominent in the local community. McKee had succeeded his father as deputy superintendent of Indian affairs and was a member of the assembly for Kent. He was also the son-in-law of one of the most powerful men in the district, John Askin*. McKee tried to impugn Ruth Tufflemier’s character, claiming that she “had been an Indian Prisoner, redeemed by his father, and had lived in his Kitchen, and He did not think her credit good.” Ostensibly because this information was not given under oath, Powell chose to ignore it.
Powell’s address to the jury was the critical juncture in the trial. Reiterating that the charge was burglary, he declared that the evidence was clear and consistent, and only the visibility possible on the night in doubt. He admonished the jury about Girty’s “avowed Interest . . . in saving the Prisoner” and said “all depended upon the Credit due to the witness Ruth which was unimpeached by anything on the Trial.” After the jury’s speedy verdict Powell sentenced York to death.
Powell’s reasoning is a matter of conjecture. In two earlier burglary cases involving black slaves prejudice does not seem to have affected his judgements, and there is no evidence it played a role in the York case. The trial of William Newberry invites comparison. Powell had sentenced him to death a month earlier after conviction on a charge of burglary, but convinced that the charge was bogus (the “real crime” was attempted rape) and the penalty of execution unjust, although he admitted the conviction was legal, he had written to Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter* to get the sentence reduced. Newberry’s father had been a loyalist spy executed “for bearing arms in the Royal Cause” and this background may have influenced Powell. In contrast, Powell’s long acquaintance with Indian department frontiersmen such as Simon Girty may have had something to do with his distrust and outright dismissal of the evidence of Girty and his slaves which was in York’s favour. Powell had acted on Haldimand’s behalf against Girty, Alexander McKee, and James Duperron Baby* earlier when they were involved in 1780 in seizing slaves on a raid into Kentucky, and he had come into conflict with certain of them again on the land board of the District of Hesse between 1789 and 1791. In a note written in 1809 on the prospect of his son joining the department, Powell expressed “my personal aversion to the Indian Department . . . it holds out too many Temptations to Honesty & if persevered in has no Credit with the World.”
But regardless of Powell’s opinion of them, these men, and McKee in particular, were powers to be reckoned with. McKee had financed York’s defence and had made it known that he intended to apply for mercy on York’s behalf. Powell had no reason or wish to defer the execution of a criminal “convicted of the most atrocious offence, without any circumstances of doubt or Alleviation.” But in a move calculated to preclude political repercussions, he withheld signing the warrant for execution until Hunter could be consulted. Hunter upheld Powell’s decision rejecting McKee’s plea for mercy, but York was not executed. On 1 November the sheriff of the Western District, Richard Pollard*, had notified Powell of York’s escape. When after several weeks York had not been recaptured, an enraged Powell informed Hunter on 24 November. Clearly Powell suspected collusion and urged Hunter to order a “serious Enquiry,” but it is not known whether any action was taken.
Jack York disappeared after his escape. James Girty died in 1817 and his will of 1804 leaves a clue which may pertain to York’s fate after 1800. Among his property Girty listed six slaves, aside from his “negro wench Sall,” including James, Hannah, and one named Jack!
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