Saturday, July 02, 2022


Article Index

II. Polley v. Ratcliff: Then and Now

      In the main, the law was a foe, not a friend to free blacks.

       --Carol Wilson

A. The Nineteenth Century Polley Litigation

      In November 1839, David Polley of Pike County, Kentucky, wrote a will of manumission intended to emancipate his seven slaves. Under the terms of the will, Peyton Polley, along with his six siblings were to “be free and liberated from all servitude” after David Polley's death. After David Polley's death in January of 1847 and the subsequent probate of his estate, the seven Polley siblings of African descendants were emancipated. The African Peyton Polley family, which included Peyton's spouse, Violet, and the couple's twelve children, remained in Pike County, Kentucky, near Nancy Polley Campbell (David's daughter) and her husband, David Campbell. The Polley family and the Campbell family had a good relationship.

      Although the will freed the Polleys under Kentucky law, David Campbell and Nancy Polley Campbell decided to execute a deed of manumission (or bill of sale) to insure the freedom of the Polleys. They took this action because David Campbell, a failed businessman, gained a reputation as a heavy drinker, and allegedly distributed illegal alcohol. He generated a significant amount of debt from his failed enterprises and bad habits, and he feared that his creditors would attach the Peyton Polley family as collateral to secure Campbell's debt.

      To avoid this, David and Nancy sold the Peyton Polley family to Douglas Polley, a free black man residing in Ohio, on January 20, 1849. The Bill of Sale included Violet and seven children. The Circuit Court opinion states that Douglas Polley paid a sum of $5 for the family, as well as other various debts acquired by David Campbell that prohibited him from leaving Kentucky. However, other records show that Douglas Polley paid as much as $800 to emancipate and remove the family to Ohio. Once this transaction was completed, the Peyton Polley family migrated from Kentucky to Lawrence County, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from their former residence in Kentucky.

      After the Peyton Polley family took up residence in Ohio, David Justice, a well-known slave catcher, reached an agreement with David Campbell to settle a $1,000 debt in exchange for ownership of the slave children. On this basis, David Justice claimed that he was the rightful owner of the Polley children and took matters into his own hands to regain his property.

      On the night of June 6, 1850, Justice led a gang of four white men from Kentucky across the Ohio River into Ohio. They assaulted the Polley household and kidnapped seven of the Polley children: Hulda, Peyton (Jr.), Harrison, Nelson, Anna, Louisa, and Martha. Justice sold four of Peyton Polley's children, Harrison, Nelson, Louisa, and Anna, to William Ratcliff of Wayne County, Virginia for $1000. Hulda, Peyton (Jr.), and Martha were sold to James McMillian of Fayette County, Kentucky.

      The cases for the freedom of the Polley children were litigated separately in the separate states where the kidnapped children were taken. Hulda, Martha, Peyton (Jr.), and Mary Jane won their freedom after the case was tried in Pike and Fayette County, Kentucky, in 1853. Securing the freedom of the remaining four children in Virginia proved much more difficult.

      Governor Reuben Wood of Ohio initiated proceedings in Virginia, just as he had in Kentucky. Leroy D. Walton filed a writ of habeas corpus for the case of Peyton Polley v. William Ratcliff in 1851 in Cabell County, Virginia. The writ was issued, but William Ratcliff was allowed to retake possession of the Polley children until subsequent proceedings resolved the matter. The efforts undertaken by the State of Ohio continued through the governorships of Salmon P. Chase and William Dennison. On September 15, 1854, the case finally proceeded to trial, and the court declared the Polley children free persons. However, in 1855, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reversed the decision on the grounds that the Cabell County Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. Under the law at the time, the case should have been tried where the persons in dispute resided, Wayne County, Virginia.

      Once the matter had been dismissed, John Laidley, a representative of Ohio and resident of Virginia, filed suit against Ratcliff to sue for the freedom of the three remaining Polley children. Laidley filed this lawsuit in 1856 in Wayne County, Virginia. Both Governor Chase and John Laidley shared Ralph Leete's sentiment that “it is wrong to let the case be abandoned now; if the Federal Government could spend $100,000 to reduce one man to slavery, certainly the State of Ohio should not withhold the necessary amount of means to restore three persons to The Polley case remained pending until March 22, 1859, when an incomplete and unsigned order was filed by the court on the record. The order suggests that counsel for Ratcliff was to show cause why the assignment of John Laidley as counsel should be set aside, reversed, and annulled. Ohio had spent more than $3,000 in prosecuting the suits and it was unlikely that the Virginia Polleys would be returned to freedom. After entry of this incomplete order, there was no further record, entry, or action in the case until 2012.

B. The Twenty-First Century Polley Trial

      In 2012, James L. Hale, the great, great grandson of Harrison Polley, petitioned the Wayne County (now West Virginia) Circuit Court to hold a trial in the Polley case. The Circuit Court granted Mr. Hale's petition and a trial was held on April 6, 2012.

      At trial, the court heard the matter through deposition testimony collected from the original trial in Polley v. Ratcliff, as well as depositions taken from the related Polley family cases. The court heard deposition testimony from Campbell and other witnesses. This testimony explained the nature of the intention to emancipate the Peyton Polley family both by will of manumission and by deed of manumission and to convey them to Ohio. Mr. Hale and other descendants of the Peyton Polley family presented this testimony. Additionally, members of the bar of Wayne County read into evidence deposition testimony from William Ratcliff, David Campbell, and David Justice. The essence of the defense was that David Campbell had engaged in a sham transaction in order to protect his “property”--the Polley children--from his creditors, including David Justice. On this basis, as the argument goes, Justice was justified in returning his property from Ohio to Kentucky, and the sale of his property to William Ratcliff was proper.

      Judge Pratt, speaking for the Circuit Court of Wayne County, West Virginia, rendered an Order and Judgment declaring that the Polley children should have been declared free as of 1859. In order to exercise its power to do so, the court relied on the equitable doctrine of nunc pro tunc (“now for then”) in rendering its decision.

      The nunc pro tunc doctrine allows courts the equitable power to remedy an injustice which existed due to the court's mistake or oversight in making a ruling. The doctrine is designed to remedy injustices where a delay of judgment effectively causes that judgment to be denied. In its modern usage, the doctrine is applied to correct mistakes that affect the rights of the burdened parties in matters such as criminal sentencing, post-conviction relief, murder convictions, bankruptcy, and immigration proceedings. Where the equities mandate application of the doctrine, the present court exercising nunc pro tunc power is obligated to apply the law that existed at the time the matter was being considered (that is the “now for then” element) and either render the ruling that was never made or render the correct ruling that is appropriate. The doctrine cannot apply where there is no evidence of a delayed disposition or an incorrect disposition. Interestingly, courts have applied the nunc pro tunc doctrine once in relation to fugitive slave cases, and in relation to matters stemming from slavery, it has never been applied since the mid nineteenth century.

      In Polley v. Ratcliff, the court reasoned that the delay of over 150 years had prejudiced the plaintiffs and that the case was appropriate for a nunc pro tunc disposition. The court in its Conclusions of Law applied the law related to fugitive slaves and the emancipation of slaves, as it existed in Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia during the 1850s, to the facts presented. Specifically, the court reasoned that under the law in effect in the 1850s, the family of David Polley had adequately affected the emancipation of the family of Harrison Polley. This was true both through the valid will of manumission that David Polley had properly executed and duly probated and through the deed of manumission (or bill of sale) of the Polley family by David and Nancy Campbell to Douglass Polley. Thus, it followed that the detention of the Polley children by David Justice and the detention of the children (and their return to slavery) by William Ratcliff was unlawful. Moreover, the court rejected as a common and outlawed strategy that the defense raised by Ratcliff that the bill of sale was fraudulent. On this basis, the Circuit Court of Wayne County, West Virginia reached the conclusion that the Polley children should have been, and are, declared free persons as of 1859.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law