State of Missouri vs. Drew, a slave – 1847

In 1847, Drew, a slave belonging to Edward Thomson, poisoned a fellow slave named Lige. The exact details of the murder may never be known, but other slaves on the estate submitted depositions in court. Such documents are rare because slaves had limited access to the courts in Antebellum America. Since no white persons were involved, slaves were allowed to testify with little or no restrictions. The validity of these depositions is questionable as some are hearsay, but they offer valuable insight into the lives and living conditions of slaves in Greene County, Missouri.

In the spring of 1847, Drew and Lige had several disagreements. The exact origins of the arguments are unknown, but their arguments were public knowledge. Abram, a fellow slave, witnessed Lige and Drew arguing on the Springfield Square in May 1847. The argument ended with Drew threatening to “fix” Lige. Mahailey, a female slave, added, “I heard Drew say that he allowed to give Lige his dose for whipping of him – I heard him threaten him Lige more than once making use of about the same Language.”1 Within the next month Lige became extremely ill. Doctors treated his Typhoid Fever like symptoms with “large portions of Opium.”2 Lige died two weeks after becoming sick.

Shortly after Lige’s death, Nancy, a fellow slave, saw Drew and Yellow John, another slave, having an argument. Approximately a week later, Yellow John contracted very similar symptoms to Lige. By July, Drew was charged with murder. Nancy learned that Drew and Titus, a younger male slave, purchased a pint of whiskey from a store in Springfield. They then brought the whiskey back to the estate and shared a portion of it with a third slave named Old John Haden. Obtaining the whiskey did not draw suspicion to Drew, as one slave noted, “It is common for the boys to have flasks of Liquor.”3

Moses, also a slave, testified that Drew, Titus and Old John met in John’s quarters. After ushering all of the children from the room they locked the door to meet. Several slaves saw Drew with a fine white powder, similar in appearance to flour. Some of the witnesses identified the substance as ratsbane, a white powdered trioxide of arsenic. Ratsbane was used as a pesticide (rat poison) and weed killer. According to Moses, Drew offered Old John five dollars for mixing the powder and whiskey. Other witnesses testified that aqua fortis was also added to the whiskey. Aqua fortis is a solution of nitric acid and water, and was another pesticide. Moses testified that the trio became paranoid that someone might peer between the cracks in the wall and spot their mischievous deeds. They dispersed and relocated to a large “ruff” in the back of the field to mix the substances. This new location offered more privacy, as very few people passed through the area.

Once the poison was mixed it was given to Titus to pass to Lige. Perhaps Lige would have been suspicious of a gift from Drew, but Titus appeared as an innocent third party. Titus found Lige in the Layton shop with a couple other slaves.

I was in Layton shop when Titus came there with a bottle of liqour and asked Lige if he did not want a draw Titus handed Lige the bottle and he drank some of the Liquor

Finis and Horace slaves were in there at the time and he never asked them or myself to drink anything – When he gave Lige the bottle he told him to keep the bottle until he came after it and Lige set it down by him on the bench – Lige was taken sick the evening of the day he drank the Liqour
Jim Sims Deposition – July 2, 1847

Finis reported that he, Lige and Yellow John planned to meet later that night. Lige, however, became very sick. He offered the whiskey to both Finis and Yellow John, who drank from the flask. It is unknown if Finis or Yellow John became sick from their single draw.

The doctors had difficulties determining the source of Lige’s illness. They treated him with different types of medicine, which resulted in varying degrees of success. Lige eventually died from his illness. The doctors reported that Lige did not show signs of being poisoned, and they could not determine a cause of death without a postmortem examination, which was not completed.

Nancy added to her deposition that she saw Drew arguing with Yellow John shortly after Lige’s death. She then saw Drew with a strange red liquid. She asked Drew about it, and he told her it was whiskey. Nancy noted it was too red to be whiskey, and about a week later Yellow John became very sick. One of the doctors that treated Lige also treated Yellow John. He noted that Yellow John displayed similar symptoms as Lige before he died. It is unknown if Yellow John was indeed poisoned, if he recovered or if he died from the illness.

Drew pled not guilty to the murder charge. He claimed to have no knowledge of the poison mentioned by the witnesses. Drew’s fate and the ultimate outcome of the case are unknown, as the historical records did not survive. Drew posted $500 for bail, paid for with his labor and produce from his master’s estate. While the outcome of the trial is unclear, the witnesses offer depositions condemning Drew’s actions.

Contributed by the The Greene County Archives and Records Center

View this collection

  1. Greene County Circuit Court. State of Missouri vs. Drew, a Slave. 09 Apr. 1847. African American Civil Court, Folder 12. Greene County Archives and Records Center, Springfield, Missouri, 6.
  2. Greene County Circuit Court. State of Missouri vs. Drew, a Slave. 09 Apr. 1847. African American Civil Court, Folder 12. Greene County Archives and Records Center, Springfield, Missouri, 11.
  3. Greene County Circuit Court. State of Missouri vs. Drew, a Slave. 09 Apr. 1847. African American Civil Court, Folder 12. Greene County Archives and Records Center, Springfield, Missouri, 9.