Try and get 14 Days FREE!




  In English common law, pregnant convicts could delay a death sentence by "pleading the belly." Unless a woman was already "with child" when she was imprisoned, she found opportunity to become impregnated during incarceration by either a guard (called a "child-getter") or a man serving along side; prisoners were not segregated by sex.


728x90 Free Genealogy Search blue


"Pleading the Belly"—
How Angela Barnett Avoided
18th Century Death Sentence

By James Pylant


"Why, she may plead her Belly at worst; to my Knowledge she hath taken care of that Security.
But, as the Wench is very active and industrious, you may satisfy her that I'll soften the Evidence."

The Beggar's Opera (1765) Act I, Scene 21

A British woman convicted of a crime and sentenced to death (mostly commonly for murder but also ranging to lesser crimes such as theft or pick-pocketing) could chance the gallows by claiming pregnancy, or as it was called "pleading the belly." This practice was not uncommon for women between the sixteenth and eighteen centuries. She was first examined by what was termed a "jury of matrons," and if movement of a fetus was detected, her execution was postponed, for it was against the law to execute a pregnant woman. Unless a woman was already "with child" when she was imprisoned, she found opportunity to become impregnated during incarceration by either a guard (called a "child-getter")2 or a man serving along side; prisoners were not segregated by sex. However, after the mid-1700s, women found guilty of murder had little hope of "pleading the belly" with the advent of the Murder Act of July 1752, which mandated that a murderer shall hang within two days of sentence. In a study by Dave Mossop, he found that, of 1,600 women and teenaged girls sentenced to hang—or rarely, burn—seventy-eight percent won a reprieve. Of the number of respites due to pregnancy is not stated in the Mossop study, however.3 An electronic database search of the Old Bailey, London, between 1674 to 1830, reveals two hundred and sixty-eight instances were women sentenced to death claimed pregnancy.4 Between 1674 and 1834, twenty-seven percent of defendants at the Old Bailey were women. Curiously, between the 1690s and the 1740s, females represented forty percent of the defendants, yet by the dawn of the eighteenth century, only twenty-two percent of defendants were female.5

Since Virginia's law was patterned from the English system since from the Colonial era, the case of a Virginian named Angela Barnett mirrored that of contemporary British females facing the death penalty.

On the first day of April, 1793, jurors from the Virginia counties of Chesterfield, Powhatan, Goochland, Hanover and Henrico heard the Commonwealth's case against "Angela Barnett, Spinster, late of the county of Henrico," who, on 4 September 1792— "not having the fear of God before her Eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil"—fatally struck Peter Franklin in the left side of the head with "a certain Iron Instrument, called an Adze." The jury found the defendant guilty of murder.6

On 11 August 1793, Angela Barnett (whose name first appears interchangeably as Angelia, Angelica and Angilla), having been found guilty of murder, was sentenced to death. The following day James Henry and Richard Parker wrote a letter to the Commonwealth's Governor Henry Lee and made a plea for her life. That letter, in part, states:7

In the case of Angilla Barnett, there was a direct contradiction in the testimony, except to the act of killing. The Evidence on the part of the Commonwealth was positive; that the condemned person was very abusive and violent; that the conduct of the deceased was calm & persuasive, until provoked by a torrent of virulent abuse—he threatened to whip her with a cowskin he had in his hand; that he never saw the deceased strike her with it, nor did he hear a stroke; that the woman stooped down, took up an Instrument, which afterwards proved to be an Adze, and struck the deceased with it, which occasioned his death.

The witness for Angilla Barnett swore that the deceased grossly abused her, and in violent rage struck her three times with the cowskin; that he called upon his companion, the witness for the Commonwealth before mentioned, to give him a Bludgeon concealed under his coat; that it was delivered to the deceased, who swore he would kill her; that as he advanced she stooped down, picked up some Instrument, and struck him as before mentioned.

It rested then with the Jury to determine on the credibility of the witnesses, with whom it is supposed they were acquainted.

The Witness for the Commonwealth delivered his testimony with clearness and dispassionately, but it must be observed, that it was this Witness that carried the deceased with him in the night to Search for concealed slaves—by what authority did not appear. The witness for the unhappy woman told a very consistant [sic] tale, and with great clearness, but she told it with warmth.

We have thought proper to give your Excellency this minute detail of the Testimony, that the door of mercy might not be shut against her. . .

The following day, three of Angela Barnett's former employers signed statements on her behalf to Governor Lee. "Angelica Barnett in my family twelve or thirteen years since, during which time she conducted herself in a very decent & orderly manner," wrote William Richardson. Mary Barnett added a brief statement that "Angelica has lived with me as wet nurse & appeared to be a very well disposed woman." William Duvall stated that, "Angelica Barnet lived in my Family a year, to-wit: in 1790, during which time she conducted herself as a faithful servant, and had the care of my children, which Trust she discharged with Integrity & Fidelity."8

Citizens, including several women, showed support for the servant by signing their name to a petition:9

We recommend Angela Barnett for mercy

Katherine Greenup, Susan Pope, Lucy Bell, Elizabeth Greenhow, Eliza McCraw, Elizabeth Galt, Mary Seaton, Elizabeth Rootes, Katherine Stewart, Anthony Geoghegan, Amos Wray, Mary Strobier, Eliza Finnie, Jean Wood, Martha Graves, Fanny Allison, Diana Morgan, Mary Warrock, Philadelphia Dunscomb, Frances Trent, Lucy Duval, Ann C. Braxton, Eliza Braxton, Ann Washington, Sarah Brown, Mary Blair, Sally Lambert, Lucy Hopkins, Margaret Pickett, Mary W. Marshall, Anne Ambler, Ann Dobie, Eliza Quarrier, R. Pafley, Sarah T. Hay, Elizabeth Duval.

Have mercy on the commended criminal, We Beseech you.


In Angela Barnett's petition from the Richmond Jail, dated 9 May 1793, she made a "plea for the belly." What differs in this petition, however, is the identity of the father:10

The humble petition of Angelia Barnett Showeth that your unhappy petioner [sic] now under sentence of Death, is with child by a certain Jacob Valentine, who was a debtor arrested by the sheriff of Henrico, by virtue of an execution, and committed to the Jail of this city about the first of November last, 1792. That your petitioner about that time was over persuaded, & yielded to the desires of the said Valentine in repeated acts of coition for the term of three weeks, when the said Valentine was discharged by payment of the debt; and again some time in the month of February last, 1793, he was committed to Jail as aforesaid, and from the connections your petitioner have had with him, she is fully confident of now bearing a live child, and therefore humbly & penitentially [sic] implores your generous mercy & Pardon, the more especially for the preservation of the Guiltless infant your unhappy petitioner now carries, which she humbly prays may not be murdered by her execution, but at least to grant her a respite until the child is born, and confiding in the mercy of your Excellencies, she continues to pray.

On the 16th of that month, Dr. James Currie and Dr. J. K. Read presented the State of Virginia with their findings of a medical examination, along with a bill. "We found the uteras [sic] in that situation which it generally is, in a gravid State—an enlargement of the Belly—& on external application of the hand we distinctly felt the motion of the Fetus. On these principles, we give it as our opinion that the aforesaid Anglia is in a state of pregnancy."11

On 31 May, William Rose acknowledged the receipt of a "Reprieve for Angilla Barnett until the third Friday in June next.":12

The Governor of Virginia received another petition on Angela's life, dated 5 September, and signed by Peterfield Trent, Samuel Dobie, George Pickett, John Rowsey, James Wray, Geddis Winston, Benjamin Lewis, Nathan Anderson, John Livingston, Henry Banks and George Richardson. The eleven men reminded the governor of her plight, writing:13

Your petitioners have been told that except in the late unfortunate instance, the said Angellica has so conducted herself as to have acquired very respectable patronage and confidence, and when the savings of Industry and care had enabled her to seek that comfort which can flow only from domestic content and independence; when she had collected her little all, the earnings and savings of many, many years of toil and difficulty, at the dead of the night her house was attacked, her doors forced, & unknown people tumultuously entered, manifesting the most disorderly disposition, using the most aggravating and abusive Language, even proceeding to Blows.

Your petitioners do not pretend to impugn the verdict which they presume has the Law for its basis. Their appeal is to the Tribunal of mercy, and they presume to aid their plea by observing that the Law of Nature as well as the Law of Man has established an universal maxim that self-preservation is the first principal of human Nature, and they believe that even Sophists will not attempt to make great and decided distinctions between the preservation of property and of Life; but in this Instance, the Unfortunate Angellica was assailed as to both. In such a situation, suddenly roused from Peace, Quiet, & Repose, she gave a sudden an unpremeditated, a decisive blow, which proved to be fatal; and who is he so stoical, so philosophical, who can passively receive and bear insult, Injury, and violence, when the conscience pronounced an internal innocence? If it be admitted that the wise, the illumined, and the philosophical, and they whose minds soar above the common incidents of Life would act in like manner, and if it be a permissive principle, wide and extended as human life that self-defence [sic] is justifiable, Shall a change of principle be now introduced and extended towards an ignorant Unknown, whose fate as relates to the police of this land can have no operation, whose humility of situation will forbid an enquiry into inate [sic] causes, but to whom Life is not on that account the less desirable.

Your petitioners seek not to satisfy the hand of vindictive Justice where it ought to fall. They seek to show that the which was no more than a fault Should not be punished as a crime, and their application is made to those where only the law has vested the power of pardon.

In the case of Angela Barnett, it is impossible to say that say whether she plotted to become impregnated by Jacob Valentine or if he, as she says, "over persuaded her." On the surface, her story typifies the plight of her imprisoned female contemporaries: conceive a child or death by hanging.

However, there is another facet that made Angela Barnett's situation remarkable; she was "a woman of color." Her saga unfolded when Peter Franklin and Jesse Carpenter, two white men, found a runaway slave boy at Angela's house outside of Richmond, in Henrico County. After interrogating the boy, Franklin and Carpenter concluded that Angela was hiding other fugitive slaves. It was the following night that the fateful confrontation happened with the return of the two men to Angela's house, where she killed Franklin in self-defense.14 But it was Angela Barnett's pregnancy, with the continued support of prominent white Henrico Countians, that persuaded the Governor of Virginia to grant her a pardon in September of 1793. She continued to live in Henrico County and died there seventeen years later.15 Interestingly, Jacob Valentine—the father of her prison-conceived child—became a vocal supporter of abolishing slavery, vowing, "I shall set all of your Blacks free."16

Regardless of who seduced whom in the Richmond prison, the interracial pregnancy of Angela Barnett apparently did not scandalize and turn away her white allies. Instead, they showed an uncommon compassion in an intolerant era for the "Unfortunate Angellica."


  1. The Beggar's Opera, online <>, downloaded 5 September 2005.
  2. Pleading the belly, online <>, downloaded 5 September 2005.
  3. English female executions 1735-1799, online <>, downloaded 5 September 2005.
  4. Advanced Search, online <>, downloaded 5 September 2005.
  5. Gender in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, online <>, downloaded 5 September 2005.
  6. Sherwin McRae, editor, Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts From August 11, 1792, to December 31, 1793, Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond (Richmond: A. R. Micou, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1886), p. 337-338.
  7. Ibid., pp. 342-343.
  8. Ibid., p. 344-345.
  9. Ibid., p. 345.
  10. Ibid., pp. 363-364.
  11. Ibid., pp. 373-374.
  12. Ibid., p. 393.
  13. Ibid., pp. 512-513.
  14. Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 1.
  15. Ibid., p. 2.
  16. Ibid., p. 3.