Over the years guests at Belle Grove Plantation, James Madison’s birthplace in King George County, have asked if anything is known about the slaves who once lived and worked there.
One even offered a tantalizing clue to Michelle Darnell, who runs the historic mansion as a bed and breakfast with her husband.
Did she know anything about a Belle Grove slave who’d tried to poison her master and his family, the guest asked?
As luck would have it, the crew of the Travel Channel show “Kindred Spirits” were filming at Belle Grove two weeks later and mentioned that they’d heard about the incident and that the slave had been a cook named Eliza.
Darnell dug into records at the Library of Virginia in Richmond and found the handwritten court documents about Eliza’s trial and a more legible transcript. They revealed that she had attempted to poison Carolinus Turner, his wife, their two children and another slave by putting strychnine in their water. She didn’t kill them, but did succeed in making them ill.
Eliza was condemned, sold to the federal government for $887 and then sold to a new master who lived either farther south or in Barbados. Her husband, who lived on a neighboring plantation, pleaded to be sold with her.
“It’s an amazing story,” said Darnell.
She speculated that Eliza was angry because she wanted Turner to buy her husband and bring him to Belle Grove, but he’d turned her down.
“It’s stories like this that get lost to time,” Darnell said. “We follow up on any story we can find.”
She has been able to find the names of a few of Belle Grove’s other slaves in wills and death records as well as through the Federal Census. Often only their first name was given, or they were listed as “unknown” at their death. Three slaves, Anthony, Suny and William “Billy” Gardener, for example, are known to have left Belle Grove, which was owned by Madison’s maternal grandparents, for Montpelier, Madison’s home in Orange County.
The plantation changed hands several times over the years. By the time of the 1840 Federal Census, Carolinus Turner was listed as having 57 slaves. He had 72 in the 1850 census and 92 in the 1860 census. The oldest slave that Darnell has been able to find mentioned was an 80-year-old female.
Belle Grove docent Hope Rivers shared the story of Turner’s slave, Eliza, and those of several other slaves during a two-hour Enslaved Experience and History Tour on Sunday. It’s one of a number of programs being offered at the plantation during Black History Month.
Darnell said that she did research and studied programs about enslaved populations at other historic sites get ideas. She struggled with the script for Enslaved Experience until she toured Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, S.C., where she found a collection of slave narratives collected by the Federal Writing Project in the 1930s.
She decided that slaves’ stories could best be told in their own words, and chose those of three slaves who wrote books about their experiences. None had lived at Belle Grove, but their stories offer a window into horrors slaves suffered.
Rivers first shared the story of Olaudah Equiano, an African who was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child. She read passages from his best-selling autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” in which he graphically describes the horror of enduring the Middle Passage across the Atlantic in a slave ship, and how he and others became so desperate that they thought of throwing themselves overboard. The book helped people view slavery from slaves’ view, and became an important contribution to the abolitionist cause.
Moses Roper, a mulatto slave who was separated from his mother and sold when he was 6, exposed the horrific forms of torture that he endured in “Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery.” One master in particular beat and flogged him so often that he wrote that his accounts might appear unbelievable, “but the marks which they left at present remain on my body, a standing testimony to the truth of this statement of his severity.”
Rivers said that some people might think that house slaves had an easier time than field slaves, but Harriett Jacobs’ autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” prove otherwise. House slaves were exposed to the worst of the owners’ whims, and slave girls were often preyed on by their masters, she said.
In her book, Jacobs described how she fought off her master’s attentions, but incurred his wrath when she had two children by another white man. She hid in a small space above her grandmother’s front porch for seven years before she was able to smuggle aboard a ship bound for Philadelphia and freedom.
Belle Grove’s website cautions people that some may be offended by the graphic nature of some of the slaves’ stories. Darnell said that she tried to lighten up the program a bit by including a section on the slave trade’s impact on cuisine. Many plants such as okra, rice and watermelons came over on slave ships. Okra, which was introduced in the 1600s, became especially popular in New Orleans where it’s a staple of gumbo. Gumbo is actually an African word for okra, Rivers said.
The program also includes a tour of three original outbuildings at Belle Grove that are being restored. One is the summer kitchen, where some of the plantation’s slaves not only cooked but lived. The other two are the smoke house and the dairy.
Belle Grove has been holding the Enslaved Experience and History Tour since 2017, and it’s available through the year. It’s being offered for $7.50, which is half price, during February. The fee for school or home schooled groups is $5. To make reservations for it or any of the plantation’s other programs, events and teas, visit bellegroveplantation.com.