Saturday, January 21, 2012

Trial of Henrietta Jeffries

Still another illustration of the sympathetic relationship that has existed between the races in Caswell County is found in the files of the Caswell County Historical Association, Inc. The account is typed but unsigned, and the facts related in that source are substantially as follows: At the December, 1911, term of Superior Court in Caswell County a case of unusual interest was scheduled for trial. A true bill had been found by the Grand Jury on an indictment of an old black woman named Henrietta Jeffries charged with practicing medicine without a license. The case had been widely discussed in the county and when the case was called the courtroom was filled to capacity.

Judge Charles M. Cooke was presiding and the solicitor or state prosecutor was S. P. Graves. The state carefully picked its jury, but when the defendant was asked if she was satisfied with the jury she replied: "If the Judge has no fault with the jury, it suits me all right." The solicitor then began the usual questions: "Are you ready for trial?" "Yes, I'se ready." "Are you guilty or not guilty?" "I don't know zackly what you mean by that, but if you mean that I helped these white women when they needed me the most, the I'se guilty." As she said this Judge Cooke became quite interested. A tear glistened in his eye, and his old wrinkled face took on a glow. It was evident that she had the judge's sympathy. He looked at her for a moment, and he realized that she was "an old granny woman" and a midwife of the old school. Then he asked: "Aunt Henrietta, who is your lawyer? You'll need one." In her childish way, and with a faith that was beautiful to behold, she said: "Judge, I'se got no lawyer, but you am Judge and I'se depending on nobody but you." Judge Cooke, as if manifestly affected, said in a husky voice: "You have done chose the right lawyer this time."

Then came the unfolding of one of the most gripping stories in the history of Caswell County jurisprudence. A witness to the event said that it was as if Charles Dickens had come to life in the crowded courtroom and was telling one of his best stories.

Judge Cooke had taken the case in hand, and he began to develop it in a masterful way. He inquired of Aunt Henrietta: "How many children have you got?" She said: "I'se been the mother of 18 children." Then the kindly judge interrupted her by saying: "Yes, eighteen times you went down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death and came back with a living soul. And God bless your black heart."

"And they say you have been practicing medicine without a license. Is it true?" "No, Jedge, I have not been practising medicine. I only went to those white women when they needed me. When they were in pain, I held their hands, and I was the first to love their little children when dey come into this world." It was then the judge told her: "Aunt Henrietta, my mother had 12 children, and an old midwife like you was at the borning of them all. No, Aunt Henrietta, they sha'n't do a thing with you. I am gong to send you back to your humble home. You have given a wonderful service to Caswell County, more than you realize and when you have gone the people will say of you, as they honor your memory, 'well done thou good and faithful servant.'"

It was at this point that Solicitor Graves sprang to his feet and said: "Your honor, I must protest. Some of the women to whom she gave service developed childbed fever and died." Judge Cooke, with a merry twinkle in his eye, replied: "Well, Mr. Solicitor, I specks that is true, but I'll bet my bottom dollar that a heap more of them died who the doctors went to see."

Sitting near the judge in the witness chair, Henrietta Jeffries waited. The judge continued: "Aunt Henrietta, it looks like it's going to be bad weather. I speck it will snow or sleet tonight, if the night is bad and it snows, the snow will fall around your humble cabin. Or maybe the sleet will beat on the roof. And just when you get warm in bed you'll hear a knocking at the door, and you'll say 'Who dar?' And the voice will come to you through the storm, 'Mrs. Smith is might sick and she wants you to come to her at once.' What would you do, Aunt Henrietta?"

"Judge, I would get up and go."

"Yes," said the Judge, "I know you would. I can see you now as you pulled to your bedside with your cane, your old ragged socks, and fastening your shawl about you, then get up behind the messenger and ride away into the night on your mission, and may God bless you, and He will."

"Now there is one thing I would warn you from doing. You must not give any of those women to whom you are called any medicine. You don't know anything about the actions of drugs. Now I don't mean that you shouldn't give them some turpentine and ditney tea, for these are about the best medicines in the world."

"I want to shake your hand, Aunt Henrietta So good-bye, and God spare you long to bless humankind."

Then Judge Cooke turned to the clerk and said: "Mr. Clerk, take this judgement: 'In the case of State vs. Henrietta Jeffries,' the defendant is not guilty."

Source: When the Past Refused to Die: A History of Caswell County North Carolina 1777-1977, William S. Powell (1977) at 534-537.


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  2. I like this alot, I'm actually a descendant of Henrietta Phelps Jeffries. (her great great granddaughter)I've also been told she was a midwife on Indian reservations also. (told by my grandmother which is Henrietta Phelps Jeffries granddaughter)

    1. I just found out she is my great great grandmother too

  3. Ive been online searching for more information about Henrietta Phelps Jeffries (my great great grandmother) because I was told this story from my grandmother (which is Henrietta Phelps Jeffries granddaughter) and wanted to learn more about her, amy way I ran across this and decided to read it, I like it alot. I've also been told she was a midwife on idian reservations.

  4. I just learned all of this in one day my mom told me she was my Great Great grandmother

  5. I just learned all of this in one day my mom told me she was my Great Great grandmother