Tales from The Chew Family Papers: The Charity Castle Story
Although I mostly studied science classes in college and throughout medical training, I’ve always had a special interest in history. I first learned the story of an enslaved woman named Charity Castle at John Hopkins University’s Homewood Museum. I have since followed up to learn more about her. This story draws from the letters that were generated between at the time by the wealthy plantation owners. These letters were part of the documents from the historic Cliveden Mansion in Philadelphia. The mansion is the historic home of Benjamin Chew, father of Harriet Chew Carroll, to whom you’ll soon be introduced.
The story begins in the early nineteenth century with the only Catholic signer of The Declaration of Independence. Charles Carroll of Carrolton was one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. He owned a plantation near Baltimore that consisted of thousands of acres, hundreds of slaves, and fields of tobacco.
Carroll’s son, Charles Junior, was expected to learn the family business to eventually inherit his family’s fortune. After obtaining an education in Europe, Junior returned to Baltimore. Wishing to begin his life, he traveled to Philadelphia and found a wife, Harriet Chew, who was beautiful and from a wealthy influential family.
The couple married in 1800 and returned to Baltimore, but they did not live happily ever after.
Junior grew up into an abusive alcoholic.
Harriet endured for years and, in the process, bore seven children. After fourteen years of marriage, Harriet had enough and left to her hometown of Philadelphia for a trial separation. In the back of her mind, she thought she would be willing to try with him if he would become sober during her absence.
After living in Baltimore, Harriet had become quite used to her Black servants. She decided to take a young slave woman, Charity Castle, with her when she traveled back to Philadelphia.
Although Maryland was a slave state, Pennsylvania was not. The law in Pennsylvania was clear: any slave brought into Pennsylvania and staying six months would automatically become free.
As the six-month limit drew near, Harriet informed Charity that a coach would be coming for her and return her to Baltimore. Charity had a reaction that was swift and passionate. She begged not to be sent back home with Junior, as she feared to be alone with him.
Harriet understood, and Charity described an assault by the hands of Junior.
Later that day, Charity either fell or jumped from a carriage onto a woodpile. She had a head injury; doctors explained that Charity would have to rest until she recovers. No traveling for her.
Two months later, Charity was healthy. An abolitionist society became aware of her situation and asserted that Charity was a free woman having stayed in Pennsylvania more than six months. The Carrolls said no, pointing to their provided rest and care for Charity as an act of goodwill.
The question went to a magistrate. One magistrate sided with Charity. A second magistrate sided with the Carroll family.
Unfortunately, in the end, we don’t know what happened to her. Charity Castle was lost to history.
She didn’t return to the Carrol home, but she may have simply been sold to another farm. She may have gotten married, and, with a name change, it would be near-impossible to find more information about her.
This story touched me and makes me think about our world today. Charity had the immense courage to reveal what had happened to her. Even more so, she revealed her abuse to a person with absolute power over her.
Charity may have been one of the first women of the #MeToo movement. We can only pray that her courage and actions saved her from further anguish.
Slavery in the United States was horrible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to say the least. Unfortunately, vestiges of racism still exist in our enlightened society.
I have found learning about history through encounters in museum homes like Homewood or Cliveden enriching and thoroughly enjoyable.
The letters I have read and discussed can be found from The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.