Of Course it was the Women

An important part of generating new scholarship is presenting that scholarship for critique. I had the opportunity in April to present what I have learned about the generation of jail debt in antebellum Virginia at the Business History Conference. The “BHC” is a group of historians and economists who study business, capitalism, and economic history in all areas of the world. It’s a fun bunch!

(I kid. They are actually very interesting people. And evidently John Lithgow attends every year because his wife is a business historian. So there’s that.)

Today I’d like to share some graphics from my presentation to illustrate what I have learned so far in my research.

This first graph below shows the legal status and sex of individuals incarcerated in the Richmond city jail from 1841 to 1846. (The data I have represents African American inmates only; the records of white inmates were kept separately and have been lost to time.) This graph shows that, as expected, enslaved people made up a larger portion of those incarcerated than did free blacks. This was because in large part the jail served as a secure location to keep men, women, and children suspected of being runaways. I was surprised to find however that, of the free people, a full third were women. I am still trying to understand the circumstances that led to a person being arrested for “want of free papers,” but I assumed that it would be predominantly men who found themselves in these situations.
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The bar chart below shows the average fees assessed by the jail. Individuals incarcerated in the jail were expected to pay for their own room and board. Most people remained in the jail for a little more than two weeks before either their master came to claim them or they were able to prove their freedom in court. On average enslaved and free, men and women, had to pay $8.58 per jail stay. I expected that free people would end up paying more as they had to remain in the jail and wait for a court date to prove their freedom. However I was surprised at the difference between the fees paid by free men and free women. As you can see in the chart below, free women paid more than double free men and more than triple what enslaved people paid (or their master’s paid for them).
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The final chart below shows the outcome of this discrepancy between free men and women. Of the ninety-seven free people incarcerated, eighty one percent ultimately proved their freedom. However thirty six percent, more than a third, were ultimately hired out to pay their fees.
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The data shows that a full forty two percent of women incarcerated in the Richmond city jail for want of free papers were hired out to pay their jail fees, while only twenty seven percent of men suffered the same fate.

Some historians of the carceral state have argued that imprisonment was (and is) slavery. In this case we see clear evidence of free people forced into uncompensated servitude. The evidence also shows that those disproportionately affected were women.