Imperfect Justice in the Imperfect Archive: Uncovering Extrajudicial Black Resistance in Richmond’s Civil War Court Records

Imperfect Justice in the Imperfect Archive: Uncovering Extrajudicial Black Resistance in Richmond’s Civil War Court Records

As the guest editors and article authors of the December 2022 JCWE special issue, “Archives and Nineteenth-Century African American History” demonstrate, there is no perfect archive.  Historians must therefore read every imperfect archive with a particular perspicacity, to uncover the histories so many archives were meant to suppress or erase.[1]  Interrogating the proximity of seemingly unrelated items preserved within an imperfect archive can allow us to hypothesize about subversive strategies developed and deployed by African Americans in the nineteenth century, strategies that might otherwise be invisible to us today.

While reading through an artificial collection at the Library of Virginia containing extant (and frustratingly incomplete) court records from Civil War-era Richmond, I happened upon several sets of documents related to very different crimes that occurred in the same neighborhood, a few months apart.[2]  These documents reflect a familiar truth about race and justice:  the judicial system that subjected free and enslaved Black Richmonders to harsh sentences simultaneously treated white criminality with astonishing leniency – at least when the victims of white criminality were Black.  Read together, however, the surviving documents from these ostensibly discrete cases also suggest a more complicated and intriguing possibility:  Black Richmonders, well aware of the white supremacy inherent in Richmond’s legal system, may have pursued extrajudicial efforts to enact punishment for white crimes against African Americans.

One of the cases involved Curtis and Jacob, two enslaved men, and Richard Drew, a free Black man.  All three were arrested on October 15, 1864, accused by a white shopkeeper of breaking into his store the previous night and stealing foodstuffs, cloth and clothing, and other commercial goods totaling $3230 in value.  On October 19, the white mayor ordered the accused held in jail until the trial date, which he set for the following month.  When the case was heard on November 14, the shopkeeper and two of the arresting police officers recounted finding the stolen goods hidden in and around the stable where the Black men worked.  Based on this testimony, Curtis and Richard Drew were convicted.  Curtis was transported out of state for sale (with his owner to be compensated $4000). Richard Drew was sold into slavery. Jacob, the other enslaved man, was deemed not to have participated in the burglary and discharged from the court system.[3]  As devastating as enslavement must have been for Richard Drew and forced removal from the community must have been for Curtis, such harsh sentences might not strike historians as exceptional, given the decades and centuries of legal subordination of free and enslaved Black Richmonders.[4]  White property rights were consistently privileged over Black personhood, with the former so subsuming the latter that even free Blacks were routinely reduced by the courts to becoming white property.

The other case documents revealed a far more horrific series of crimes, in which the victim was Black and the perpetrators were white.  These crimes were so sadistically violent that the archived documents detailing the charges and testimony are disturbing to read, even for those of us whose research regularly exposes the brutality of slavery.  For several months, a three-year-old girl was continually abused by the white couple that enslaved her.  These white adults subjected the child to physical torments that included “very frequently” stripping her naked and “whipping [her]… with a heavy leather strap”; “tak[ing] a brick and strik[ing] the child”; “very frequently … beat[ing] the child [with both the strap and the brick] until it was almost lifeless”; and “often” drenching the naked girl in cold water before leaving her outside in frigid weather.  Both the leather strap and the brickbat were used “upon the naked back, sides, shoulders, belly, loins, chest, and body of her the said female child slave.”  Much of this abuse occurred outdoors, observed by those working on or visiting neighboring properties, some of whom would eventually testify about the violence in court.  But they did so only after the months of torture culminated in a final, fatal beating on August 15, 1864, from which the child “did languish” in pain for another day before dying of her injuries.[5]

The August 19, 1864 document recording Jacob Hoeflick’s release on bail twice referred to the murdered child as “Josephine,” although the name was then crossed out (subsequent documents related to the crime refer to her only as “name is unknown”). While this expunction may have been made to correct an error in an official court document, the pen-strokes also underscore the negation of this child’s full personhood, the erasure of her specific identity, and the obliteration of her young life. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

On August 19, one of the perpetrators, Jacob Hoeflick, the white male enslaver who was head of the household, was charged with “feloniously and of Malice aforethought Kill[ing] and Murder[ing] a certain negro Child Slave … by then and there and on divers other days before that day unlawfully and feloniously, cruelly and inhumanely and brutally assaulting, beating, and otherwise abusing and injuring the person of the said infant negro child.”  The white mayor released Jacob Hoeflick on bail the same day, and he remained at liberty as the legal proceedings against him stretched into the following year.[6]  Despite detailed testimony from multiple white witnesses regarding his role in the abuse and murder, on January 18, 1865, Jacob Hoeflick was acquitted of all charges.[7]

Abigail Hoeflick, Jacob’s wife, was indicted on the same charges on November 21, 1864.  According to the witnesses’ testimony, she had committed an equal and perhaps greater share of the violent and ultimately fatal abuse.  Yet, Abigail Hoeflick was never tried for her crimes.  She allegedly fled the Confederacy sometime after the child’s death. She possibly returned to her birth state of New Jersey or to Pennsylvania, where she and Jacob had married and resided in the late 1840s prior to moving to Richmond.  In the final document related to the case, dated December 23, 1865, the charges against Abigail Hoeflick were dismissed.[8]

The extant court documents related to these cases are preserved within an artificial collection created by archivists at the Library of Virginia in 2013 to assist researchers seeking to learn about criminal cases “involving African Americans (slave and free) … that were heard by the Hustings Court and Judge’s Court (also referred to as Mayor’s Court) held in the city of Richmond.”[9]  Entries in this physical collection are arranged chronologically, beginning with 1843 court documents and extending through cases from 1866.  I read through this collection as part of my research for a book in which I am examining the strategies for survival and resistance developed by Black Virginians during the antebellum period, and exploring how African Americans extended those strategies during the Civil War to undermine the Confederacy.  Neither the legal proceedings that left the abusive and murderous white couple unpunished, nor the conviction and harsh sentencing of an enslaved man and a free Black man for larceny, might have seemed relevant to my topic, except for one striking detail.  The white storekeeper who accused the Black men of burglarizing his property in October 1864 was Jacob Hoeflick, the same man who had been arrested yet remained at liberty on bail (and whose wife had fled Richmond) after murdering a three-year-old Black girl two months earlier.  This detail led me to reread the extant materials, probing for what official court documents and archived materials obscured.  Could Jacob Hoeflick’s status as both unpunished perpetrator and self-identified victim of two such disparate crimes be more than a coincidence?  Might it suggest a new way to understand perspectives and motivations that are otherwise absent in the archive?

The crimes took place on Tenth Street between Cary and Main Streets, part of the busy commercial district portrayed in this drawing by the British artist Eyre Crow, published by the Illustrated London News on July 26, 1862, under the title “The Civil War in America: High-Street, Richmond, Virginia.” Digitized newspaper accessed via Google Books.

Consider how the Black men would have experienced both sets of crimes, not as discrete events but as purposefully interconnected ones.  For years, Richard Drew and Curtis had labored at a stable on a busy block of Tenth Street, near the property where the Hoeflicks resided, ran their store, and over the course of several months in 1864 tortured a child to death.  For everyone working at or visiting the stable, “It was an every day occurrence to see the child thus cruelly treated,” as one white witness testified in the proceedings against Jacob Hoeflick.[10]     In addition to their daytime labors, Richard Drew “ha[d] charge of the stable at night,” and Curtis slept there as well, further exposing them to the sounds and sights of this three-year-old Black girl being tormented.[11]  The legal system denied African Americans any means to disrupt, deter, or ameliorate the abuse during the child’s brief life, nor did it allow them a role in the official justice system’s (ultimately inadequate) effort to hold the Hoeflicks accountable after the murder.

Richard Drew, Curtis, and other enslaved and free Blacks who worked and lived in this area knew what horrific things the Hoeflicks did.  They knew these crimes were openly committed on a busy commercial corner just blocks from the edifices of white power that dominated Capitol Square.   They saw Jacob Hoeflick continue to go at liberty even after his arrest, his business thriving as he retained a respected place in the white community (for example, Hoeflick’s testimony against the Black men reveals that he continued to serve as a member of Richmond’s fire brigade).  Perhaps the only punishment this wealthy white enslaver might undergo was one the Black men could enact themselves:  depriving him of some of the property and profit he valued far more highly than he did the life of an African American child.

A red arrow indicates the block of Tenth Street where the crimes took place, revealing that the Hoeflicks’ extended abuse of the child occurred in close proximity to a range of government buildings, religious institutions, and businesses owned and frequented by white elites, none of whom intervened to save the girl. Detail (arrow added) from the United States Coast Survey, Map of the City of Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Crossing into criminality would not have come easily to these Black men.  During their trial, Robert Crow, Ben Green, and Joseph Hix – three white men who had known and employed them for years – testified to the African American men’s long-standing honesty and good character.  (Crow and Hix each made a point of declaring that the Black men’s accuser, Jacob Hoeflick, lacked honesty, trustworthiness, and good character.  Crow also served as a witness in the separate court proceedings against the Hoeflicks for the abuse and murder of the enslaved girl, breaking ranks with the greater preponderance of elite white men who continued to approve of Jacob Hoeflick, most notably the twenty-four grand jurors who found Hoeflick not guilty.)  Like all Black Richmonders, Richard Drew and Curtis were accustomed to having their lives surveilled, curtailed, and disciplined by white supremacist laws, ordinances, and systems.  They would have calculated the enormous risk involved in enacting revenge upon Jacob Hoeflick, even if they felt justified in their actions.  And, as the archive evidences, unlike the white perpetrators, these men suffered dearly as a result of their arrest and conviction.  Moreover, they and other Black Richmonders would continue to bear the trauma of witnessing a young child slowly tortured and killed, and the horror of knowing the perpetrators remained at large.  Yet these details make this interpretation of their actions all the more poignant and significant.

Excavating episodes like these from imperfect archives is crucial for understanding not just what people did in the past, but why they did it.  Historians can strengthen our interpretive approaches to archival holdings by adopting the practices long honed by African American feminist literary critics, “to read the silences, read the gaps, be attentive to the ellipses.”[12]  Proceeding with curiosity and informed conjecture in this way yields insights far beyond what the original creators of the items in the archives intended to preserve.  Such elucidation is especially significant for understanding the experiences of individuals and groups whose history has been decentered, distorted, or denied by most archives.

[1] Leslie M. Harris and Daina Ramey Berry, “Researching Nineteenth-Century African American History,”; Thomas A. Foster, “‘No Perfect Archive’: Recovering Histories of Enslaved People at Abingdon Plantation”; Kimberly Welch, “The Stability of Fortunes: A Free Black Woman, Her Legacy, and the Legal Archive in Antebellum New Orleans”; Jasmine Nichole Cobb, “Partial Portraits: African Americans in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine“; and Brandi C. Brimmer, “Tracing the Intimate Histories of Poor Black Women in the Late-Nineteenth-Century US South,” JCWE 12, No. 4, (December 2022).

[2] As noted in the Society of American Archivists’ Dictionary of Archives Terminology, “Artificial collections, as distinguished from organic collections, typically do not grow out of a single, specific function, and are often arranged for the convenience of description or retrieval rather than in an order originally established by the creator.”

[3] Richard Drew, Commonwealth Cause, 1864, held in Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866, Local government records collection, Richmond (City) Court Records, Library of Virginia.  This Cause also contains the court documents related to Jacob and Curtis.

[4] For an extended discussion of how structural racism within Richmond’s legal system affected enslaved people, free Blacks, and whites, see James M. Campbell, Slavery on Trial:  Race, Class, and Criminal Justice in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia, (Gainesville:  University Press of Florida, 2007).

[5] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1864; and Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1865; both held in Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866, Local government records collection, Richmond (City) Court Records,Library of Virginia.  Here and elsewhere, the surname was sometimes recorded as Hoeflich.

[6] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1864.

[7] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1865.

[8] Abby G. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1865, held in Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866, Local government records collection, Richmond (City) Court Records, Library of Virginia.  “Local Matters,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 30, 1864.  “Pennsylvania, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Marriage Records, 1512-1989”, database, FamilySearch ( : 13 January 2021), Jacob N Holflick, 1848.  Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.  For an extended discussion of white women enslavers’ active participation in brutalizing enslaved African Americans, see Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property:  White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2019), especially 78-80.

[9] A Guide to the Richmond (Va.) Ended Causes, 1843-1866 (bulk 1860-1866),  I am grateful to Gregory Crawford and Lydia Neuroth at the Library of Virginia for their dedication in making these materials available to researchers.  This physical collection has been scanned, transcribed, and indexed, and can now be searched and accessed online as part of Virginia Untold:  The African American Narrative, a larger digital collection that includes a great variety of materials from counties and cities across Virginia involving African Americans residing in Virginia from the 1600s through 1865.  As valuable as this digital resource is, particularly to researchers working remotely, Virginia Untold works best when one is seeking information about a particular individual or family.  Searching more generally by keyword or record type or locality often yields an unwieldy number of results, and the interface for delving into those results is cumbersome.

[10] Jacob N. Hoeflick, Commonwealth Cause, 1864.

[11] Richard Drew, Commonwealth Cause, 1864.

[12] Charles H. Rowell, “An Interview with Farah Jasmine Griffin,” Callaloo 22 (Autumn 1999), 872-892.

Lois Leveen

Dr. Lois Leveen earned degrees in history and literature from Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and UCLA. Her writing has appeared in scholarly journals, academic collections, and in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and similar outlets. Having turned a footnote from her dissertation into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser (HarperCollins 2012), it is now her pleasure and her penance to be researching the first scholarly biography of Mary Richards Denman, the real figure behind the Mary Bowser myth. She is a 2020-21 Virginia Humanities Fellow at the Library of Virginia and a Mellon Research Fellow at the Virginia Historical Society.

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