Very recently, I discovered the names of the runaway couple involved in the August 1856 incident involving Capt. John W. Potts.

Here’s one of the newspaper accounts of the saga:

Weekly Raleigh Register
Raleigh, North Carolina
20 Aug 1856, Wed • Page 4

I’ve written about how, in 2016, I was able to learn the name of the property-holding emancipated mother of four, who became debt-entangled with the “Benevolent Gentlemen…”

There is a wealth of information, as many people know, on the FamilySearch website. What may not be as known is the fact that there is a literal treasure trove of unindexed documents, including court records, on their site.

In searching the unindexed court records of Greensville County on FamilySearch recently, I was able to find out something very important, the names of the persons who, as a couple, attemped to escape the clutches of slavery:

Greensville County, Virginia Court Minute Book, 1856, page 276

Transcribed as follows:

Five Justices being present TIMOTHY SPEIGHT, a free negro, was set to the bar in the custody of the Sheriff of this County, and charged with a felony in this, to wit: that he did, on the 5th day of August 1856, in the County of Greensville carry or came to be carried out of the said County and aided connived at and was concerned in the escape and the attempt to escape of IRVINIA a negro slave, the property of CLARA MABRY with intent to defraud and deprive the said owner of the said slave and without the consent of the said owner and Justices sitting as a court of Oyer and Terminer (four being present) proceeded to try the said TIMOTHY SPEIGHT for the offence (sic) aforesaid-Whereupon the prisoner hearing pleaded that he is not guilty of the felony charged as aforesaid and sundry witnesses being sworn and examined and the prisoner being heard by counsel in his behalf and the Commonwealth by the attorney for the Commonwealth and the Court having weighed all the circumstances of the case is of the opinion that the said TIMOTHY SPEIGHT is not guilty.

WOW. Not guilty! I am just as shocked now as I was when I first read this. First of all, it is amazing that we finally have the names of those whose perilous moments were fodder enough for the news articles, while still omitting their names.

So, yes—we say their names: IRVINIA AND TIMOTHY.

The 1856 court record is super important in that it documents the who, what, when, and where, but one very important fact is left out, the why. However the news accounts of this incident may have tried to tiptoe around the who (in terms of all the persons of color involved), their accounts were revelatory in ways that the court minutes never approached.

Greensville County fails to mention their own “Benevolent Gentlemen.” According to the court record, Clara Mabry was the “owner” and therefore the one who was most “deprived” and “defrauded.” The court minutes fail to mention that Clara was Irvinia’s mother, and that she was indebted to several prominent white men of Greensville, including the clerk of court, John W. Potts, who -also according to the news accounts—-was the actual “owner” of Irvinia.


Timothy, a brave soul indeed, pleaded not guilty. Good for him! The court minutes indicate that there were “sundry witnesses” who were sworn and examined. Also, Timothy was his own witness and was cross-examined by the Commonwealth’s attorney. The Court “having weighed all the circumstances of the case” found Timothy NOT GUILTY.

It is stunning that in such a horrific time as 1856, Timothy was able to find justice.

See, the thing about genealogy and tracing family history—for me, anyway—is that the more you learn, the more you want to learn more.

What were “all the circumstances of the case?” Who were the sundry witnesses? What was their testimony? What was Timothy’s testimony? What happened to Irvinia?

While I remain confident in my search to find out more about the events of 1856, there is a sad update that potentially means that most of this history is lost to time.

In my recent search of the Greensville County court books, I found that the Court Order book, in the exact place where the 1856 trial of Timothy Speight should be documented, is missing pages/leaves.

A note from subsequent Greensville County Clerk, Etheldred Lundy Turner:

“The Book was cut in the manner it is by the last clerk, Jno. W. Potts. The Record was cut to get paper at a time when it could not be had—+in cutting the Book some of the pages containing writing were cut.” E.L. Turner Clk


Not hardly. The search and find continues. Thank you for continuing to check in!

The Genealogy Situation Room

4 thoughts on “1856 BREAKTHROUGH…

    1. Thank you! While it’s very true that there are accounts of paper shortages during the Civil War, those missing court records seem to be a convenient object for “repurposing.” We’ll see where the facts lead. Thanks again, I appreciate your interest.


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