The Tragic Life of Cato a Montgomery County Slave

Cato was a seventeen-year-old slave who lived several hundred miles north of the Mason-Dixon line in the Town of Charlestown in Montgomery County New York where people are shocked to find slavery existed until July 4th 1827 after which a few slaves still remained slaves because their owners’ kept them in darkness about emancipation day.

Cato’s life was tragic from the day his mother gave birth to him and his first master, Mr. Benjamin Ward of Middlesex, New Jersey, took possession of him. Ward was a no account drunk, according to Cato “a man of very corrupt and immoral habits, subject to habitual intoxication, and most of the vices which flow from that fertile source of human depravity.” Cato lived with him until he was thirteen-years-old, during which time Ward did not provide adequate food, clothing and shelter for Cato, “Thus we were permitted to spend our time in idleness and want” which led to his associating with “a motley tribe of the most abandoned of the human race,” which caused him to become “extremely wicked.”

Cato’s list of his sins include cursing, profane swearing, lying and sabbath breaking, with a number of other “lewd practices.” The only crime (as opposed to sin) he committed was the theft of a shilling.

When Cato was about thirteen, his parents were able to buy their freedom but not his. Ward sold Cato to Elijah Mount of the Town of Charlestown in New York. Mount was a kinder master but still a master.

By that time, Cato claims, it was too late to repair the damage to his character that was done by Ward. While Cato changed outwardly, inwardly he was the same. His downfall was unrestrained sexual desire, which led him to practice bestiality and eventually much worse.

Cato’s companions in Charlestown, their race not given but probably White, were corrupt and offered him money to rape a young woman who entered an orchard they were hanging out in. They left the orchard and Cato made the attempt “but I did not succeed, for before I could effect my purpose two of her brothers (small boys) came in sight, and I fled.” The anonymous young woman did not report the attempted rape.

On February 13, 1803, Cato attempted to rape Mary Akins, daughter of Samuel Akins, who lived on Mount’s farm. The rape was premeditated.

In his confession, Cato states “I passed by her, she appearing offended at my presence, accosted me saying ‘who wants to keep your company you black devil.’ I replied I was not going to keep her company, upon which she again accosted me in the same manner adding ‘you black son of a bitch’ to which I made the same reply as before and immediately assaulted her, threw her down, and attempted a violation of her chastity, but not effecting it I permitted her to rise.”

Mary threatened to report Cato after which he took a stone and struck her on the head “with such force as I stunned her.” He then attempted to rape her again but was unable and hit her twice again with the stone and left her for dead.

Later Cato returned to the scene, found Mary still alive and “placed two rails crosswise on her neck, and the one end of each under the fence by the side of which she lay, having thus secured her against all possibility of recovery, I retired a second time.”

Mary, who was only twelve-years-old, eventually died and Cato confessed to the crime after self incriminating statements placed him under suspicion. A little more than two months later, he was tried, found guilty and hanged outside the county courthouse in Johnstown, which was then the county seat. After the hanging, the gallows were chopped down except for the posts which stood for a long time. The court turned Cato’s body over to Joseph Ely, a physician, for inspection.

The courthouse where Cato was tried

So Cato died for his sins, but it would be a long time before anyone would die for the sins committed against Cato. His confession was published as THE LIFE AND CONFESSIONS OF CATO A SLAVE OF ELIJAH MOUNT of Charlestown in the county of Montgomery, who was executed at Johnstown on the 22nd day of April 1803, for the Murder of MARY ATKINS Containing many incidents of his life and conduct not before made public. Faithfully written from his own words, while under sentence of death in prison.

You can find Cato’s confession in a dusty drawer in a file labeled HF18-C-24 in the Montgomery County archives, his account being one of the few available biographies of the more than 700 slaves that lived and worked in Montgomery County in 1803.

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