Matthew Brooks lived in Caswell County, North Carolina. He was a farmer and grew tobacco. On June 19, 1857, he hauled a portion of his prior year's crop (or a portion of his early current-year crop) to Milton, North Carolina, and sold it. His load was on a wagon pulled by two horses. With cash in hand he made several purchases in Milton and drove out of Milton late in the day, intending to camp at a crossroads about three miles distant.
On his way to the intended campsite Brooks stopped to water his team. While watering his horses at just about dark a negro came over the bridge from Milton and asked which road Brooks intended to travel. Brooks provided the information, and the negro moved along the indicated road. Brooks soon overtook the negro with whom he had spoken while watering his horses and they traveled a while together, sometimes in conversation. The negro was afoot and Brooks sitting in and driving his wagon.
After a while, the negro told Brooks that he had found a billfold of money on the streets of Milton and that he wanted Brooks to look at it to determine how much money was there. Brooks did not want to do this, partly because it was growing dark. The negro insisted, and a torch light was struck using matches and pine wood. While examining the bills, Brooks felt the negro's hand in his pocket, upon his pocketbook.
Brooks immediately seized the negro's arm. The negro snatched the billfold of money, the two scuffled, Brooks was thrown to the ground under the tongue of the wagon, and the negro ran off, having taken Brooks's pocketbook and the billfold of money they had been looking at. Brooks said his pocketbook contained $227. Brooks stated that the struggle happened at a point in the public road about a mile or so from Milton at nine o'clock. He remembered that the negro was a large and powerful-looking man.
This negro, named John, was a slave owned by Caswell County resident Samuel Watkins. He was tried based upon the facts set forth above, convicted of the felony of highway robbery, and sentenced to death. The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed and ordered a new trial. What happened at the retrial is unknown.
State v. John, Supreme Court of North Carolina, 50 N.C. 163 (1857).