I am southern. I was born in the south. I was raised in the south. And I still live in the south.

I am a genealogist who researches the pre-civil war era, meaning that I often find records of slave owners. My research includes my own family as well as the families of others who need help finding their ancestors.

I have ancestors who owned slaves. I have an ancestor who was a slave. I abhor the practice. Although I have heard the arguments of how and why slavery was needed and accepted in our country for hundreds of years, I cannot and will never understand how a human being can inflict misery on and profit off the labors of another human being.

I recently ran across the estate settlement of Joseph Burton who died in 1846 in Abbeville County, South Carolina. Among the cows, horses, wheat, corn, and household goods listed in his Last Will and Testament were the names and estimated values of his human property. The dollar amounts in parenthesis are what a woman named Sally and four children sold for at the estate auction.

  • Sally and Child $400 ($610)
  • Boy Jim $175 ($220)
  • William $350 ($350)
  • Thompson $450 ($500)

I believe that these slaves had been given to Joseph Burton from the 1836 estate settlement of his father, John Burton. I also believe that Joseph Burton had not previously owned slaves and that he leased these slaves out to others for unknown reasons. Maybe he did not need their labor, or he did not condone slavery, but he did not go so far as to free them.

In the 1840 Abbeville County Census, Joseph Burton owned 4 slaves:

  • Sally (female age 24 to 35)
  • William (male under the age of 10)
  • Thompson (male under the age of 10)
  • Old Able (male age 55 to 99)

In the document that I discovered, the following yearly amounts were paid to the Joseph Burton estate by the men who contracted labor of the slaves named below:

  • 1843: Sal & William $55; Thompson $10; Old Abel $29
  • 1844: Sal & Child $20; Thompson $7.27; Old Abel $20
  • 1845: Sal & Child $21; Thompson $15.37; William $1.50; Old Abel $10
  • 1846: Sal & Child $19.25; Thompson $25.25; William $2.00; Old Abel HUNG $50
  • 1847: Sal & 2 Children $15; Thompson $30.25; William $5

I will never become indifferent when I see evidence of enslaved persons in my research, but when I read that Old Abel was hanged and that the estate of Joseph Burton was paid $50 for the loss of the old slave’s life, I decided to find out who was responsible for his death by hanging.

Transcribed: February. Rec’d of Thomas C. Perin $50 for old Able that was hung

Thomas C. Perrin paid Joseph Burton $50 for the life of Old Abel who was hanged. This fact is clearly stated in the estate settlement papers. Did anyone actually think that this was moral and just and okay?

I searched newspapers of the late 1840s looking for news of Old Abel’s death, but of course, there was nothing to be found. Old Abel was not considered to be a man. He was property and his death was not a crime. Why was he hanged? Did he commit some offense or was he hanged because he was OLD Abel, no longer useful in the cotton fields because of his advanced age?

I found the answer in the South Carolina Department of Archives. In 1845, Old Abel was leased by William Wilson Fife (b. 1810). His daughter Susan Fife was twelve years old when Old Abel was accused of her rape. I can find no details of the alleged crime; guilty or not guilty, Old Abel was hanged, and the Fife family moved to Mississippi.

Joseph Burton filed a claim in November 1845 for compensation for his slave, Abel. He stated that “in pursuance of said sentence he was hung till he was dead, whereby your Petitioner has entirely lost his said slave.Thomas Roberts, Samuel Cochran, and Thomas Chiles Perrin were responsible for obtaining compensation for Joseph Burton over the loss of his slave. How was the $50 amount decided upon?

What was the value of the life of Thomas C. Perrin? If he had been hanged, justly or not, would his family have accepted the sum of fifty dollars for his life?

Who was Thomas Chiles Perin? Born in 1805 and died in 1878. Graduated from South Carolina College, became an attorney and politician — mayor, state representative and senator –the first signer of the Ordinance of Secession. President of the Greenville & Columbia Railroad, President of the Abbeville District Bible Society, President of Upper Long Cane Society, President of the Society for the Relief of the Disabled Ministers. The list goes on and is long.

Married Jane Eliza Wardlaw. Father of twelve children. Plantation owner. Planter of cotton. Owner of slaves. Not just any slave owner, but the owner of 90 men, women, and children in 1850, and 130 in 1860.

Thomas C. Perrin owned two large plantations, the 1200 acre Cotton Level and 1500 acre Fonville. In 1856, he began construction on his Abbeville abode, described as one of the finest in the state. The massive 28-room mansion with 19 fireplaces was completed two years later and used to entertain his many friends and, eventually, even the cabinet of the fallen Confederacy during their retreat from the Union army.

Jane Wardlaw Perrin became mistress of an opulent home built with expensive marble and the finest of woods — walnut and mahogany. A water works system within the house allowed an unheard of luxury — indoor plumbing; and gas chandeliers bestowed soft, glowing light to the rooms. The home extended sheer grandeur and comfort to the occupants.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Perrin had traveled all the way to New York to choose the finest velvet, satin, and silk for carpets and upholstery; the finest silver, the finest crystal, the finest china, the finest furniture. Their very large mansion was filled with the best of the best.

It’s not hard to see that Thomas Chiles Perrin was considered a southern success story in the world of both business and politics. There is a colossal monument marking his grave in the Upper Long Cane Cemetery in Abbeville County. There has been much written about him, from the time of his birth at his family’s plantation on Hard Labor Creek until his death in 1878.

Thomas Chiles Perrin was a very wealthy man. There were many who admired this man, looked up to him, wanted to be like him. Did anyone know or care that he made his fortune on the backs of an enslaved people?

I wonder how the slaves of Thomas Chiles Perrin lived? Did they have fine slave homes built from the best hardwoods, furnished with fine crystal and satin drapes? Or did they live in cabins made of pine with gaps in between the boards so wide that the freezing winter air howled into their one room dwellings? Could they see their breath in the cold air?

Did they have floors made of fine walnut covered with silk carpets or did their bare feet tread on hardened, dirt floors ? Were their beds made not of mahogany and topped with white, fluffy goose-down bedding but of bug infested straw stuffed into old flour sacks?

And what of their indoor plumbing? Were the creeks and the great outdoors their source of water and their bathroom? Did they even have a half-burned candle made from animal fat to chase the shadows of darkness away while the gas chandeliers burned brightly in the Perrin mansion?

Was Old Abel hanged from the tree that the Perrin children played under?

Thomas Chiles Perrin and his wife Jane Wardlaw Perrin lived a very affluent life. It is true that some of the family’s great fortune was lost after the war, but the lifestyle they led never approached the depths of suffering that their slaves had experienced for decades.

Thomas C. Perrin died in his warm bed of a heart attack awaiting the arrival of his doctor. He did not die swinging from a tree limb. His body lies in a grave adorned with an ostentatious monument. His bones do not rest in an unmarked grave, overtaken by wild brambles and overgrown woods, its location long forgotten and lost.

I have written this to bring Old Abel’s name out of the darkness of the grave into the light of present day, to honor his memory, to remember an old man who was born into slavery and who died in a manner that so many of the enslaved did — at the end of a worn out rope that had swung too often from the branch of an old oak tree.

I dedicate this to Old Abel, and to the One Hundred and Thirty Unnamed Men, Women, and Children who deserved a better life. May we never forget them and may God keep their souls in eternal rest.

1860 List of Slaves owned by Thomas Chiles Perrin

Female 12
Male 6
Male 2
Female 20
Male 22
Male 3
Female 20
Male 11
Male 9
Male 5
Female 3
Male 10
Male 45
Male 1
Male 6/12
Male 17
Male 17
Male 3/12
Male 6/12
Male 18
Male 5
Female 4/12
Male 6/12
Male 13
Male 10
Male 5
Male 11
Male 1
Female 65
Female 40
Female 11
Female 9
Female 55
Male 19
Female 35
Female 14
Female 12
Female 10
Female 6
Female 4
Female 1
Female 28
Female 25
Female 6
Female 4
Female 2
Female 1
Female 40
Female 17
Female 12
Male 90
Female 10
Male 17
Male 45
Male 35
Male 1
Male 35
Male 25
Male 32
Male 16
Male 50
Male 60
Male 32
Male 38
Male 28
Male 8
Male 6
Male 33
Male 30
Male 2
Male 35
Male 28
Male 26
Male 11
Male 50
Male 34
Male 27
Male 18
Male 45
Male 25
Male 25
Male 26
Male 50
Male 20
Male 2
Male 45
Male 45
Male 23
Male 32
Male 30
Male 30
Male 9
Male 22
Male 44
Male 30
Male 15
Male 8
Male 25
Male 26
Male 5
Male 35
Male 50
Male 50
Male 60
Male 60
Male 48
Male 38
Male 26
Male 17
Male 18
Female 12
Male 12
Female 9
Male 4
Male 5
Female 5
Male 7
Male 3
Male 6
Female 7
Male 4
Female 48
Male 20
Female 14
Female 12
Male 8
Female 4
Male 5
Male 3
Female 16



1 South Carolina Wills and Probate Records 1670-1980; Abbeville County; Box 113, Pack 3328: Estate of Jos. Burton Dec’d 1846; pages 198-222

2 South Carolina Wills and Probate Records 1670-1980; Abbeville County; Box 113, Pack 3328: Estate of Jos. Burton Dec’d 1846; page 200

3 South Carolina Wills and Probate Records 1670-1980; Abbeville County; Box 113, Pack 3328: Estate of Jos. Burton Dec’d 1846; page 202

4 South Carolina Index and Wills, Abbeville County; Vol. 2-3; 1815-1855; page 368 John Burton; Probate date: July 25, 1836

5 1840 United States Federal Census; Abbeville, SC; Joseph Burton; p. 28

6 South Carolina Wills and Probate Records 1670-1980; Abbeville County; Box 113, Pack 3328: Estate of Jos. Burton Dec’d 1846; pages 206-210

7 South Carolina Wills and Probate Records 1670-1980; Abbeville County; Box 113, Pack 3328: Estate of Jos. Burton Dec’d 1846; page 210

8 The honorable Thomas Chiles Perrin of Abbeville, South Carolina : Forebears and Descendants; Authors: Harrison, Thomas Perrin, 1897- (Author). Perrin, Thomas Chiles, 1805-1878 (Subject); Publication: Greenville, South Carolina : N.M. Perrin, 1983

9 The Abbeville Press And Banner; Abbeville, South Carolina; The obituary of. Hon. T.C. Perrin; 15 May 1878, Wed • Page 3

10 Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current: Thomas Chiles Perrin; Birth 1 Oct 1805 Abbeville County, SC; Death 14 May 1878 Abbeville County, SC; Cemetery: Upper Long Cane Cemetery; Memorial ID 85142221

11 1850 U.S, Federal Census Slave Schedules; Abbeville, SC; Thomas C. Perrin

12 South Carolina, U.S. Compiled Census and Census Substitutes Index 1790-1890; Thomas C. Perrin, Abbeville County, 1860 Slave Schedule

13 University of NC at Chapel Hill; The Southern Historical Collection # 02471, Perrin Family Papers, 1803-1880; Business papers of Thomas C. Perrin of Abbeville District, S.C., chiefly 1830-1862 consisting of indentures, contracts, slave Records, lists of cotton raised by each slave, births and deaths of slaves.

14 Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current: Thomas Chiles Perrin; Birth 1 Oct 1805 Abbeville County, SC; Death 14 May 1878 Abbeville County, SC; Cemetery: Upper Long Cane Cemetery; Memorial ID 85142221

15 The Abbeville Press And Banner, Abbeville, South Carolina; Wednesday, February 14, 1877 – Page 3 “The Burning of the Perrin Mansion”

16 Historical Marker Database, Abbeville County, South Carolina; the Thomas Chiles Perrin House, Marker Number 1-10

17 University of NC at Chapel Hill; The Southern Historical Collection # 02471, Perrin Family Papers, 1803-1880; Business papers of Thomas C. Perrin of Abbeville District, S.C., chiefly 1830-1862

18 Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current: Thomas Chiles Perrin; Birth 1 Oct 1805 Abbeville County, SC; Death 14 May 1878 Abbeville County, SC; Cemetery: Upper Long Cane Cemetery; Memorial ID 85142221

19 The Abbeville Press And Banner; Abbeville, South Carolina; The obituary of. Hon. T.C. Perrin; 15 May 1878, Wed • Page 3

20 The Abbeville Press And Banner; Abbeville, South Carolina; The obituary of. Hon. T.C. Perrin; 15 May 1878, Wed • Page 3

21 Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current: Jane Eliza Wardlaw Perrin; Birth 26 Dec 1811 Abbeville County, SC; Death 9 Sept 1881 Abbeville County, SC; Cemetery: Upper Long Cane Cemetery; Memorial ID 83468920

22 Union Times, Union, South Carolina; Friday, May 17, 1878 – Page 2; Death of Hoin. Thos. C. Perrin

23 South Carolina, U.S. Compiled Census and Census Substitutes Index 1790-1890; Thomas C. Perrin, Abbeville County, 1860 Slave Schedule

4 thoughts on “A Study in Contrasts: The $50 Life of Old ABEL and Slaveowner Thomas Chiles Perrin

  1. Your research is truly enlightening and in my opinion deserves publishing as I feel the more information of this sort should be not only known but taught in school systems worldwide!
    Thank you for sharing this with me and hopefully many more people

    Like

    1. Dionne, thank you so much for reading my article and for your comments! You know that I have always highly valued your opinion and it means a lot to me that my work honoring Old Able met with your approval. All of those long nights researching and writing after all of those concerts around the world may one day pay off by educating others about the ones who came before us.

      Like

  2. Thomas Perrin is a distant ancestor of mine — great, great, great uncle I think. Like you, it sounds, I struggle with the knowledge of my family’s participation in the enslavement of so many people in such a brutal system–all for the economic enhancement of a few at the expense of so many.

    I’m curious about your story of Old Abel. If he was leased to William Fife, why did Perrin pay the $50 to Joseph Burton? Wouldn’t Fife had been the one held responsible for his death? Or do you think Perrin had a role in the hanging of Old Abel?

    Thanks for sharing your research.

    Like

    1. George, thanks so much for your comments. When I originally wrote the story of Thomas Perrin and Old Abel, I did not know that Abel was under contract to Mr. Fife. I only had the Burton estate settlement document showing that Thomas Perrin had paid Joseph Burton $50 for the hanging death of Abel.

      Upon further investigation, I discovered that Abel had been accused of raping the 12 year old Fife daughter, and Abel had been hung. I modified my article to reflect this, and used the lifestyle of Thomas Perrin, a large slaveowner living an opulent life, to contrast the lifestyle of the slaves on whom he built his fortune. The document below was one of two sources that linked Thomas Perrin to the payment of $50 for the life of Old Abel.

      Petition 11384503 Details
      State: South Carolina
      Location: Abbeville
      Location Type: District/Parish
      Salutation: To the Honorable the Legislature of the State of South Carolina
      Filing Date: 1845-November-12

      General Petition Information
      Abstract: Joseph Burton seeks compensation for a slave, Abel, who was convicted of “the offence of a Rape on a white Girl by the name of Susan Fife.” Burton states that “in pursuance of said sentence he was hung till he was dead, whereby your Petitioner has entirely lost his said slave.”
      Result: referred to Claims Committee
      # of Petition Pages: 2
      Related Documents: Certificate, Thomas Roberts, 12 November 1845; Affidavit, Samuel Cochran, 13 November 1845; Sponsor: Thomas Chiles Perrin, House, Abbeville District (1842-1845)
      Pages of Related Documents: 1
      People Associated with Petition 11384503
      Slaves: 1
      Free Persons of Color: 0
      Defendants: 0
      Petitioners: 1
      Other People: 0

      Citation Information
      Repository: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina

      Records of the General Assembly
      Document Number 1845 #29
      Page: frames 1285-87
      Microfilm: Reel #1, frames 1285-87

      Processing Information
      Record Created: 1/27/1994
      Record Final Edited: 4/1/1998
      Record Last Updated on: 11/15/2008 11:22:00 AM

      Like

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