"A Black Man's Joke"
Harper's Weekly, May 2, 1857, page 278 (News Brief)
Four negroes have been arrested in Chicago, Illinois, for stealing poultry. They filed the following humorous plea in abatement:

"Recorder's Court of the City of Chicago . -- April Term, 1857. 

"Alexander Pierce, John Williams, John Taylor, Alfred Nicholson against The People of the State of Illinois. -- Indictment for Larceny. -- And now cometh into court the above-named chattels, erroneously indicted as persons, in their own proper bodies, and having heard the said indictment read, say that the above-named Recorder's Court ought not to take cognizance of the alleged crime in the said indictment above specified, because protesting (if as such bodies they have the right to protest) that they are not guilty of the same, not being in any manner recognized or known by or to the Constitution of the United States of America, or of the Constitution or laws of the State of Illinois as persons, protected by or responsible to the laws of the land; nevertheless, for plea in this behalf, the said bodies so as aforesaid erroneously indicted and compelled to answer, say that no cause of complaint ever accrued to the people of this State against them, for this, to wit: that the said bodies so, as aforesaid indicted, are not persons capable of committing crime and of being tried therefore in this Court, but are articles of merchandise and mere property by the supreme law of the land; because they say that they 'are negroes of African descent, their ancestors were of pure African blood, and were brought into the country and sold as negro slaves.'

"Therefore they pray judgment, if the Court now here will or ought to take cognizance of the indictment aforesaid, and that by the Court here they may be dismissed and discharged."

The plea was upset on demurrer, but the case failed for want of evidence.
Harper's Weekly, May 2, 1857, page 278 (News Brief)


One ironic ramification of the Dred Scott decision was the use of its ruling as a legal precedent for black criminal defendants. This news brief tells of four black men, charged with larceny, who employ (unsuccessfully) their non-person status as a legal defense. Two years later, the lawyer for John Copeland, one of John Brown’s black co-conspirators at Harper’s Ferry, would offer the same plea. It was again unsuccessful, and Copeland was hanged.


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