Missouri’s last slave: Edie Hickam

In 1889, twenty-four years after slavery ended in Missouri, Edie Hickam finally learned she was free. Her “owner” under slavery, James Hickam of Boonville, Missouri, never told her of the emancipation of Missouri’s slaves in 1865.

When she learned of it upon Hickam's death she brought suit against his estate for $1400, the value of her labor as she reckoned it, at $5 a month for twenty-four years.  A Boonville court awarded her $700, but Hickam’s family appealed to the Kansas City Board of Appeals which remanded the case to the Circuit Court of Cooper County. On May 15, 1893 the award was denied.

The court held that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, even if, in the court’s words, “a girl, born and raised a slave, ignorant and unable to read, is kept for a series of years under a strict surveillance and in utter ignorance of her emancipation, and allowed to believe that she is still the property of her own master, and, under this impression, continues to work for him without intending to receive any pay for her labour, he having no intention to give any pay on his part.”

Kansas City Daily Journal, May 16, 1893, p. 1

Kansas City Daily Journal, May 17, 1893, p. 4

Nevertheless, the court concluded, Edie’s case for recovery of lost wages “must rest on the fraud practiced upon her,” not on her or on Hickam’s “intention,” since intention “is not regarded in the law." 

The report on the court’s denial of the award appeared in the May 16, 1893 edition of the Daily Journal,  in an article reprinted from the St. Louis Chronicle. Edie's story attracted worldwide attention, appearing in the New York Times and in legal journals in the U.S. and U.K.

The Irish Law Times and solicitors’ journal (Vol XXVIII, 1894) speculated that although “She is an uninformed person and unable to read; but still she must have been resident in an ideally sequestered clime to render possible the continued suppression of the fact that she was free…. Who got at her ear and imparted the knowledge of her true condition and rights does not appear," write the Irish lawyers, suggesting cynically it may have been "some one with an ancient grudge against the wily Hickam, perhaps, or some speculative lawyer, or perhaps only some ex post facto enthusiast for emancipation.” The Daily Journal  editors  suggest  she acted "under the advice of friends."  

The editors describe the reversal of the award as the product of “a corner in Missouri so wedded to the forms and sentiments of the past that this victim of oppression cannot yet get what is so clearly her due.”

Although Edie’s lawyers promptly filed a motion for a new trial, she apparently never received any back pay (Civil War 150).