Kitty Payne/”…the case in Rappahannock”

young slave woman with children (1)

At the end of July, 1845, a recently manumitted freedwoman named Kitty Payne (1816-1851) was kidnapped, along with her three children, Eliza, James, and Mary, from their home near Bendersville, Pennsylvania. One of the abducters was Samuel Maddox, Jr., who claimed he was the rightful owner of Payne and her children.

Kitty Payne had been supporting herself as a laundress for Quakers who lived in the Bendersville area. But now she suffered a fate familiar to many freed blacks: being abducted and returned to slavery.

19th century drawing of black woman and child being kidnapped by white men
Illustration from “Kidnapping, A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the United States”

Kitty and her young children were loaded onto a wagon in the middle of the night by five men, and taken back over state lines into Virginia, where Kitty had been enslaved on the property owned by Samuel Maddox, Sr. and his wife, Mary, of Rappahannock County, in northern Virginia. 

The Quaker community of Lincoln, Loudoun County, Virginia, heard from the Pennsylvania Quakers, some of whom witnessed Kitty’s abduction; Lincoln Quakers sprang into action on Kitty Payne’s behalf. (Two Lincoln Quakers  jeopardized their own safety, according to the newspaper accounts found below.) 

Kitty and her children were kept in the Rappahannock County jail for over a year as the court case against Kitty’s kidnapper and self-claimed owner, Samuel Maddox, Jr. wound it’s way through the treacherous legal system. 

An excellent account of Kitty’s life story, including her kidnapping, the trial that followed and the context of those events, can be found in a master’s thesis written by historian Meghan Linsley Bishop, Slave to Freewoman and Back Again: Kitty Payne and Antebellum Kidnapping.

The kidnapping received attention in several newspapers, including this Adams County Pennsylvania newspaper:

Adams [Gettysburg, PA] Sentinel August, 11, 1845

Documents from the 1845 Kitty Payne court case are in the Rappahannock County Courthouse, Clerk’s office, including this petition:

Kitty Payne petition page 1 copy

This court petition and the  following document letter signed “Kitty” to Samuel Maddox, Jr. is shown Courtesy of Rappahannock County Courthouse, Washington, VA.

The Rappahannock County, Virginia, Courthouse Chancery Book for year 1845 contains this petition in the case of Kitty Payne to regain her freedom and the freedom of her children. Richard H. Field was the presiding judge over the case. 

Transcription of the petition:

The petition of Kitty the mother, and Eliza, James and Mary her children, all free persons of colour, complaining that they are illegally detained as slaves in the said county in the possession of Samuel Maddox, was this day presented to the Court. And upon inspection of the said petition and of the affidavit thereto subjoined, the court doth assign Zephaniah Turner Jr. gentleman, as Counsel to the Complainants, to prosecute their suit. And the said Zephaniah Turner Jr. gentleman, this day presented to the Court a paper purporting to be an exact statement of the circumstances of the case of the said Kitty the mother, and Eliza, James and Mary her children all free persons of colour, with his opinion thereupon. And the court seeing no reason to deny its interference, doth order the clerk to issue process against Samuel Maddox to appear and answer the said Kitty the mother, and James, Eliza and Mary her children’s complaint. And the said Kitty the mother, and Eliza, James and Mary her children are to be in custody of the Sheriff, until the said Samuel Maddox shall give bond with security, either in Court or with the Clerk, in the penalty of Five hundred dollars payable to the Commonwealth of Virginia, to have the said Kitty the mother and Eliza, James and Mary her children forthcoming to answer the Judgment of the Court, in which case the said Kitty the mother, and Eliza, James and Mary her children are to be returned into his possession. And in case the said Kitty the mother, and Eliza, James and Mary her children are returned into the possession of the said Samuel Maddox, he is not to presume to beat or misuse them upon account of this suit, but is to suffer them to come to the clerk’s office for subpoenas for their witnesses, and to attend their examinations, and the trial.

The court document shown below is connected to Kitty’s effort to prove she had been legally freed by Mary Maddox, the widow of Samuel Maddox, Sr. The letter is from Kitty  to the Samuel Maddox, Jr. nephew of Kitty’s former owner and heir to widow Mary Maddox. This nephew was one of the men involved in her Pennsylvania kidnapping, Samuel Maddox, Jr.  The letter might have been written by someone else, then signed by Kitty herself. Or, it is possible she wrote down words dictated to her, or copied them from a page. (It is unlikely she would have known the legal terms used in the letter.) According to the oral history left by her daughters, Eliza and Mary, their mother Kitty could read and write, perhaps having been taught by one of the Quaker women in the Pennsylvania community where she had been living. 

Letter signed ‘Kitty’ to defendant Samuel Maddox, Jr. Original letter is in the Kitty Payne file of loose papers, Courtesy of Rappahannock Co. Courthouse, Washington, Virginia.

Transcription of the letter signed “Kitty” to defendant Samuel Maddox, Jr.:

     Mr. Samuel Maddox

                                                Take notice that on the 8th day of April next between the hours of sunrise and sunset of that day, at the office of D.M. Snyder in the town of Gettysburg county of Adams and state of Pennsylvania, I shall proceed to take the depositions of sundry witnesses, to be used as evidence for me upon the trial of a certain such at law, now pending in the circuit Superior court of law and chancery for the county of Rappahannock, wherein I’m sueing in forma pauperis for the benefit of myself and my children who are infants – and plaintiffs and you the said Samuel Maddox are defendant and from any cause the taking of the said depositions shall not be commenced, or being commenced Shall not be completed on that day the taking of the same will be adjourned from time to time, until the said depositions shall be completed.

                                    Given under my hand this 21st day of March 1846

                                                                                    Kitty –

On a technicality, the long court case involving former slave Kitty Payne ended in her once again gaining her freedom. This was such a rare outcome that the Kitty Payne story is famous to those studying 19th century African American history. 

Quakers helped cover expenses for the impoverished Kitty, and when her case ended with the satisfying result of returning her and her children to freedom, the young freed family spent a winter in Lincoln, at the home of William and Priscilla Tate. When spring came, the Payne family attended Goose Creek Meeting for Quaker service, then went home with the Steer family, who lived nearer to the Potomac River. The Steers saw the Payne’s onto a train, taking them back home to Pennsylvania. Kitty went back to her former community, supporting herself and her young family by laundry work. 

slave laundress (2)

There are as yet no known pictures of Kitty Payne, but there are photographs of two of her daughters, who were very young when the kidnapping occurred but both remember the event, the subsequent time spent in Virginia winning back their freedom, and then the long journey back to Pennsylvania. 


Tucked between two murder notices, a small paragraph in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, issue dated September 12, 1845, has an ominous headline: “Supposed Abolitionists Arrested” –  then names two Goose Creek Meeting members, Elisha Holmes and [William] Tate, as well as fellow Friend “Sales [Cyrus] Grist [Griest] of Menallen, Pennsylvania:

Liberator sept 12, 1845

Yardley Taylor of Goose Creek Meeting wrote to his friend Cyrus Griest, weeks after the arrest. That letter is transcribed below by Society of Friends’ historian Albert Myers Cook, from the original letter that was in Chester Historical Society. The original letter is now lost; here is the letter transcribed in Myers handwriting:

yardley taylor letter to Cyrus Griest 1845 page 1
Yardley Taylor letter to Cyrus Greist page 2
Yardley Taylor letter to Cyrus Greist page 3
Yardley Taylor letter to Cyrus Greist page 4

Transcription of the Yardley letter to Cyrus Griest: 

Loudon [sic] County Va 10th mo 2nd 1845
Dear friend
Thinking that you would like to be made acquainted with circumstances as they transpire, in the case in Rappahanock [sic], I have been desired by friends here to inform you as far as known. Some short time since Elijah Holmes received a letter from Frnaklin Turner stating among other things that he expected to be at a sale yesterday in the neighborhood of Upperville and invited Elijah to come up as he wished to see him. Accordingly he and his brother William & William Tate went up and met him. Turner informed them that the Judge of the court had considered the case of sufficient importance to justify a full investigation, and accordingly had assigned counsel to take up the case and had laid it over till next term which will be some time next spring. The counsel is said to be one of the best at that bar. The counsel has expressed his opinion that if a pretty liberal fee was offered him to justify his devoting his time to the case he could clear them and asserts that if he did not he would charge nothing. Turner thinks that a fee should be given him and he seems very desirous that a fair investigation should be had and all the testimony collected that can bear upon the case. Some of this may have to come from Adams Co. and it is believed now that no danger need be apprehended by any of you going into Rappannock [sic] again on this business, as Turner says that quite a reaction has taken place the conduct of the leaders in that disturbance is condemned, and public sentiment there is becoming changed and he told Elijah that he believed that if he –have come up to the court that he would have been protected and not have been sufferen to have been imposed upon. He seems quite disposed to stand his ground and says that he has done nothing but what was his duty, and that he will not be detered from doing what he believes to be right by any number of such men as headed the disturbance in your case.

Friends here after a short consultation today thought a fair investigation should be had and were willing to bear at least a part of the expense in paying counsel, but think perhaps it would be better to appear as coming from you. It is thought that if $100 could be raised and one half given to the counsel that is assigned in the case and the other half to Wm Smith as Elijah told him when he went to the courth house, that if the case was prosecuted he might expect a fee, and he is considered a shrewed and able lawyer, this we think would be sufficient to induce them to exert themselves in the case. It is thought best to address a letter to the counsel in the case, stating the circumstances and that the money would have to be raised by persons entirely disinterested in the case personally, and with a desire to know how large a fee would satisfy them for their services and desire an answer soon so that at Y [yearly] meeting something could be concluded on, as some friends from here and some of you might there consult together in the case —

We write of the sad loss of his little son William “since you were here.” died “two weeks ago today” croup “between 6 and 7 years” “doubtful about my getting to Y. meeting with much love to thee and thy wife Wm Ellis & wife & Jesse Cook  & to all friends I remain Yardley Taylor

Cyrus Griest
Cyrus Griest (1803-1869) and wife Mary Ann Griest of Menallen township, Pennsylvania

Cyrus and Mary Ann Griest were bona fide members of the Underground Railroad. They lived in an area of Pennsylvania where Quakers lived and many of their neighbors were supportive of abolitionism. The story of their efforts can be found in multiple sources on the topic of the Underground Railroad, including this Hallowed Ground website page devoted to Menallen, Pennsylvania abolitionists, and gives more information on the Griests.

After the trial, Kitty Payne and her three children eventually returned to Pennsylvania to resume their independent lives. They had endured a tramatic event, kidnapping to be returned to slavery, that played out many times across the South. The Rappahannock County court case of 1845 against Samuel Maddox, Jr. was one of the few cases in the South – are there others? – in which a black woman won in a trial against a white man. She was a woman who inspired others to rally to her defense, with joyful results.