Comfort Taylor

Comfort Taylor

Birth & Death Dates Unknown — Appears in a 1742 Record

A Rhode Island Court case involving an enslaved man of Portsmouth and a white woman from Little Compton brought another example of unfair treatment to light in 1742. Cuff, an enslaved man owned by Thomas Borden of Portsmouth, operated a local ferry. Comfort Taylor, a young widow, was returning to Little Compton after visiting relatives. Comfort claimed that Cuff attacked her on the ferry, and she sued him for “trespass” which in this case meant attempted rape. The court ordered Cuff to be sold in order to compensate Comfort for the attack, but there was more to the story.[1]

Several witnesses testified that Comfort’s injuries were minor, not as she described to officials, and much more in keeping with those of a woman who simply fell when the ferry boat she was riding alone with Cuff, ran aground. Witnesses also testified that Comfort seemed focused on monetary compensation after the incident and did not want Cuff whipped because it would decrease his value. A jury quickly found Cuff guilty of attempted rape but instead of hanging, branding or being sold out of the country, all punishments threated or doled out to men of color previously accused of the same crime, Cuff received a £20 fine.

Comfort immediately requested a civil trial suing Cuff for £1000 for her suffering, an enormous sum. Cuff, who had an attorney, pled not guilty a second time. The court awarded Comfort £100, only a tenth of what she requested. Cuff appealed, and the higher court ruled against him, doubling Comfort’s award. Unable to pay, Cuff remained in jail. Comfort then petitioned the General Assembly to sell Cuff in order to pay his debt to her. The sheriff sold Cuff at public auction for £100, deducted Cuff’s fine and court fees from the amount and gave Comfort the remainder. Less than a year later, Cuff ran away from his new master.[2]

In the eyes of the law Cuff was both person and property. As a person he was entitled to a trial, an attorney and the right of appeal, but as an enslaved man he could also be sold, as property, to pay his debts. Throughout the incident’s criminal and the civil cases people questioned the veracity of Comfort’s story, and Cuff received punishments that were lighter than they could have been. In the hope of financial gain, Comfort seems to have manipulated a system that automatically privileged her testimony over that of a black man. The court may have wanted to believe Cuff, as shown by his light punishments, but could not quite bring themselves to do so. [3]  During this case, and certainly as a result of it, Rhode Island became the only New England colony with a law pertaining to attempted rape by a black man. After 1743, any man of color convicted of attempting to rape a white woman would be branded on both cheeks with the letter “R,” publically whipped and then sold to any person who would transport him out of Rhode Island forever. His victim could demand damages that would be paid by his sale.[4]

Marjory Gomez O’Toole, Executive Director, LCHS

First published in “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island,” by the Little Compton Historical Society, 2016.

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[1] Benjamin Franklin Wilbour, Notes on Little Compton, p. 51.

[2] Elaine Forman Crane devotes a whole chapter in her book (below) to this court case.  She does an excellent job pointing out the nature of slaves as both person and property and clearly indicates how Cuff’s personhood allowed him to be tried for the crime and his status as property allowed him to be sold. Crane also writes (p.230) that the imprisoned Cuff was baptized in Little Compton in 1742/3. This is very unlikely. There were several Cuffs (various spellings) living in Little Compton at the time who were far more likely to be baptized there than an enslaved man from Portsmouth imprisoned in Newport.

[3] See Crane.

[4] Crane, p. 137-138.

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