Priscilla Queen v. Francis Neale

United States. Circuit Court (District of Columbia) - Washington (D.C.)

Claim for Freedom Made

Descent from Free Woman

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Summary

Priscilla Queen filed a petition for freedom on January 8, 1810 against Rev. Francis Neale, a Jesuit priest and the incoming president of Georgetown College. She claimed that her great grandmother, Mary Queen, was a free woman of color. Priscilla's case went to trial in June 1810. Queen's attorney, Francis Scott Key, called Simon Queen, a free black, as a witness. The D.C. Circuit Court allowed the testimony of Simon Queen even though he testified against a "free Christian white man," holding that "a freeborn negro is a competent witness in a case of freedom." But the D.C. Court disallowed as evidence some critical testimony about Mary Queen's origins and status in depositions taken in the 1790s in Maryland cases brought by Queen relatives. The Court ruled parts of these depositions to be "hearsay" and inadmissible. Priscilla's case was dismissed in June 1813. Neale later served for two years as the seventh president of Georgetown College from 1810 to 1812. He returned to St. Mary's County where he served in Port Tobacco as pastor of St. Ignatius Church at St. Thomas' Manor. The fate of Priscilla Queen after 1813, however, remains unknown.

Jesuit Slaveholding

William Cranch's Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, from 1801 to 1841 (1852) p. 3 titled the case "Priscilla Queen, a Negress v. Francis Neale." Priscilla Queen's case against Rev. Francis Neale in 1810 was one of many Queen cases against Roman Catholic priests and Jesuits. Of the four cases the Queens filed in 1810 in the D.C. Court, only Priscilla's named a priest as a defendant. In the 1790s, various members of the Queen family filed cases in Maryland county courts against Catholic priests, most prominently against Rev. John Ashton, S.J., the manager of White Marsh plantation. Other cases were filed against Rev. Henry Pile, Rev. Charles Sewall, and Rev. Sylvester Boarman.

Hearsay

In some respects, the D.C. Court offered a lenient series of rulings for the plaintiffs. Black's Law Dictionary, 4th ed. defines hearsay evidence as that which does not come from "the personal knowledge of the witness, but from the mere repetition of what he has heard others say." In this case the court allowed some hearsay testimony but struck out double hearsay—that is statements that the witness heard someone heard from another person. Although the court disallowed the seating of a juror who expressed "his detestation of slavery," the Court allowed the testimony of Simon Queen, a free negro, even though the defendant was white. Cranch reported on Priscilla Queen's case his court's ruling regarding hearsay, "The declarations of an ancestor, while held as a slave, cannot be given in evidence. Declarations of deceased persons, that the ancestor was free, may be given in evidence, to show that the ancestor was in fact free, that is, not held in slavery." As a result the Fredus Ryland deposition, the only deposition that contained evidence of Mary Queen's own account of her origins, was disallowed. And substantial portions of the depositions of Caleb Clark, Thomas Warfield, and Richard Disney, all favorable to Queen, were omitted. See also Mima Queen v. John Hepburn .

This case summary has been written and edited by project scholars.