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The Codman Slaves Plot to Kill their Master, 1755

By Jacqueline Fernandez

When Paul Revere wrote in his account of his midnight ride, “After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains,” he was referring to a well-known local landmark along his route through Charlestown (present-day Somerville). On this site twenty years earlier a slave named Mark Codman had been hanged and his body gibbeted (suspended in chains) for murder and petit treason for killing his master, John Codman. A former ship’s captain, John Codman was a wealthy fifty-eight year old slave master and landowner in Charlestown when he was murdered by his three slaves, Phillis, Phoebe, and Mark Codman in 1755.* This celebrated case has become well-known as one of the few times in American history when a woman was sentenced to be burned to death; it is also of interest to legal scholars for the unusual charge of petit treason brought against the defendants; perhaps most important, however, the story of Mark, Phillis, and the other slaves involved in the plot serves as a window through which the modern observer may view a topic many would like to forget — the functioning of the chattel slave system in the northern colonies in all its inhumanity and brutality.

Although the nature of slavery in the North differed somewhat from the slavery of the South due to the relative scarcity of large plantations, there were slaves living in Boston, and in other Massachusetts towns, until 1783, when slavery was legally abolished in Massachusetts. Most wealthy people, and even many “middling” families owned slaves. At least one slave, and possibly as many as five were owned by Robert Howard, the first owner of the house now known as the Paul Revere House. Howard, who bought the Revere house at a time when it was considered a mansion, had made much of his wealth as a merchant trading goods produced through the toil and forced labor of African slaves in the Caribbean and West Indies. The bulk of the sugar imported into North America in the eighteenth century, including the sugar Howard brought back on his ships to be sold to shopkeepers and distillers of rum, came from Caribbean plantations worked by slaves. Although Paul Revere’s maternal grandmother partly owned a slaved named Nulgar at the time of her death, Revere himself never owned slaves. Many of his wealthier patrons, however, were merchants who had become rich from their ties to shipping and industries like rum-distilling that were inextricably linked to the institution of slavery.

The North End was home to enslaved Africans and African Americans, but it was also home to a free black population. The majority of the few free blacks living in the North End resided on several streets in and around Copps Hill, where one can still see a smattering of their gravestones in the burial ground today. They worked in wind and water mills near their homes, and were compelled by Boston selectmen, as a result of a 1707 ordinance, to clean and repair the streets of Boston from 1708 through 1725 without pay. Free North End blacks also established the first black church congregation in Boston, which Reverend Cotton Mather, who lived in a home that stood on the site of the Revere House prior to 1676, attended at least once. Some black residents, like Adam Saffin, successfully sued for their freedom. Some may even have joined the black regiments that fought for the patriot cause during the American Revolution, like Colonel George Middleton, a free black man of Beacon Hill, who commanded an all black regiment, the Bucks of America. Many black North Enders and their descendants eventually resettled in Middleton’s neighborhood, on the north slope of Beacon Hill. These individuals formed a sizable and successful self-sustaining African community in the early nineteenth century and supported one of America’s most powerful movements to end slavery.

African slaves in the north, as in the south, were often discontented with their condition and sought to improve it whenever they could. In the case of Mark and Phillis, because there was both an investigation and a trial, a considerable record exists which allows some insight into their thoughts and motivations. At the trial, when the judges asked Phillis about Mark’s reason for poisoning Codman, she only replied that “he was uneasy and wanted to have another master” and that “he was concerned” for the well-being of herself and Phoebe, another Codman slave. The judges did not press Phillis for details. Although there is uncertainty about whether or not John Codman was a habitually violent or cruel master, the record does show that Codman, in a fit of rage following the death of his wife in 1752, struck a slave named Tom so hard in the face that one of his eyes was seriously injured. It is therefore plausible that the other slaves of the Codman household were at times subjected to episodes of violence in addition to the inherent trials and tribulations of slavery. For Mark, a great source of his unhappiness stemmed from his inability to live with his own family. Codman had allowed Mark to live in Boston with his wife and children as long as he hired himself out for work and provided his master with his wages. However, in February 1748, Mark was “warned out” of Boston by city officials and Codman forced him to return to Charlestown without making arrangements for his family to join him.** Around this time, in what must have been a devastating experience for Mark, Codman either sold or gave one of Mark’s children to someone in the country.

Mark strongly desired to be with his family, but he knew that his chances of leaving the Codman estate to reunite with his wife and children were slim. He was not likely to be freed by Codman because of the expense his owner would incur. A law passed in 1703 required slave owners to post a £50 bond for each slave they freed (this bond served as a guarantee that a freed slave would not become a financial burden on the own). Nor was it likely Codman would sell Mark. He had een offered £400 for him at an earlier date, but had refused. Even if Mark managed to escape without being caught he ould be unwelcome in any town where he might attempt to settle.

Six years before Codman’s murder, Mark had desperately attempted to compel his master to sell him to another person. In 1749, hoping that he might be sold to a new master who would be kinder and enable him to rejoin his family, Mark and several other slaves in the Codman household risked their lives by burning down the blacksmith shop and workhouse on Codman’s property. Mark hoped that the financial distress caused by the destruction of Codman’s property would force Codman to sell him. Although several of the buildings were lost, causing Codman considerable expense, he did not sell any of his slaves and Mark remained separated from his family.

Mark, along with two other slaves, Phoebe and Phillis, had become very unhappy in the Codman household, but they were without recourse and relegated to a life of slavery on the Codman estate. Seeing no other possible alternative the three slaves resolved to murder Codman with poison. A literate man, Mark had examined the Bible and concluded that it was no sin to kill a person if it could be done without shedding blood. Mark met secretly with Robin, a black man also separated from his family by slavery, on June 21, 1755, in front of Doctor William Clarke’s house in the North End.
Robin provided Mark with some arsenic Robin had stolen from his master’s apothecary shop. After obtaining the arsenic, Mark returned to Codman’s estate in Charlestown. He hid both the arsenic and a measuring tool that he had fashioned in Codman’s workshop in a hollow over a window in the third floor garret. Phoebe, Phillis and Mark then added a mixture of water and arsenic to Codman’s food. They administered the poison seven times in meals of porridge and drinks of tea and hot chocolate. The three had agreed not to add poison to any food of the other Codman household members. Soon after, Codman fell ill, and after several days of consuming the poison he died on July 1, 1755.

Although they succeeded in their plot to kill their master, Codman’s slaves were quickly discovered, charged and tried. The jury found both Phillis and Mark guilty of murder and petit treason. Petit treason, as distinct from high treason, was the charge brought when a servant was accused of killing his master; a wife her husband; or a clergyman his canonical superior. According to the indictment, only Phillis was charged with murder and petit treason; Mark and Robin were charged with being accessories before the fact. Apparently, the jury found Robin not guilty, as he is not mentioned in the record of the judgment; it also saw fit to find Mark guilty of the greater charge for reasons which are not specified. In order to send a message to other would-be dangerous slaves, the judges sentenced Phillis to be burned alive, and Mark to be hung, and then his body tarred and suspended in chains for all to see in Charlestown. These were the usual sentences for anyone found guilty of petit treason. According to later accounts, the judges also sentenced Phoebe to be transported to the West Indies, although oddly her name does not appear anywhere in the indictment or record of judgment.

When reading Paul Revere’s account of his midnight ride, or strolling through the North End past Paul Revere’s former home, visitors might take the opportunity to consider the neighborhood’s history of free and enslaved Africans, to think about Phillis and Mark Codman, Robin Clarke, and the many anonymous individuals of African descent who once resided, prayed, and worked here. Many of these individuals left the North End to fight in the War of Independence, and they or their descendants continued to struggle for liberty for their enslaved compatriots through their contributions to Abolitionism. Like Paul Revere their stories contributed to and are inextricably woven into the fabric of the neighborhood’s and our nation’s history.

Jacqueline Fernandez served as an historic interpreter at the Paul Revere House from June to October, 2009. Jacqueline received a B. A. in International Relations and African Studies from Mt. Holyoke College in 2005 and an M. A. in Museum Education from Tufts University in 2008.

This article originally appeared in The Revere House Gazette, Number 97 (Winter 2009). Copyright Paul Revere Memorial Association 2009. The Paul Revere House was restored by and is owned and operated by the Paul Revere Memorial Association, a private, 501 ( c ) 3 organization. The Revere House Gazette is quarterly benefit of membership in the Association. To join or to learn more visit www.paulreverehouse.org.

*In the eighteenth century, enslaved persons were often referred to by the last name of their owners. This similarity in names did not necessarily imply any blood or marital relationship,
either between the master and the slaves or between the slaves themselves.

**In colonial New England, town officials periodically “warned out” transients and poor persons who did not have legal residence in a community. Warned out individuals were supposed to leave within a short time (usually 10-21 days). In practice, however, many poor people remained in town recognizing that they would not be entitled to poor relief if they became indigent. Thewarning-out system was designed to ensure that a town’s resources would not be overstrained caring for individuals who were not legal residents.

For further reading: Patricia Bovers, “African Americans in Early Boston,” The Revere House Gazette,No. 23 (Summer, 1991); Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, pp. 36-39; Abner Cheney Goodell, Jr., The Trial and Execution, For Petit Treason, of Mark and Phillis, Slaves of Capt. John Codman (1883); Alex R. Goldfeld, The North End – A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood, pp. 33-46 (2009); Elise Lemaire, Black Walden – Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, pp. 41-55 (2009).

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