Joe Popp: A Case of Ultimate Resistance
In the pre-dawn hours of November 5, 1839, Joe Popp somehow freed himself from the heavy iron shackles that bound his legs and escaped from the detention cell on the Annaberg plantation. After quietly making his way to Water Lemon Bay, Popp swam out to the estate’s boat — a sloop named the Kitty Berg — and fled to the nearby British island of Tortola. Only after his escape did witnesses begin to come forward and provide details of the crime that Joe Popp had long been suspected of committing two years before [SJPP, 1839].
Early in the year 1837, John Edwards had taken over the duties of overseer on the Annaberg plantation. Upon setting up household on the estate, Edwards and his wife chose two slaves to serve as their house servants. A young girl, Maria Rosina, was taken on as “house girl,” and a young man, Joe Popp, was given the position of “house boy” [SJPP, 1837].
From the start there had been trouble in the Edwards’ household. On numerous occasions Joe Popp was caught stealing food and other items, and for each offense overseer Edwards dealt out harsher and harsher punishments. Soon, Popp began to speak openly among his fellow slaves, saying that someday he was going to take either “…himself, or Edwards, out of the way.” Popp was also heard to threaten others that “…if either white or colored plagued him too much, he had something to give them that they would not be able to be rid of.”
For a time Joe Popp simmered, but his emotions soon overflowed. After Pop was absent from the estate without permission for a whole day, Edwards publicly flogged him with an oxtail whip on the following morning. For Popp this was the final insult; he swore aloud that it would be the last beating he would ever endure from Edwards [SJPP, 1837].
As was the customary routine, a few days later Mrs. Edwards instructed Joe Popp to fetch Mr. Edwards’s medicine and prepare him his morning tea. After handing Popp the key to the cupboard where the medicine was stored, she instructed the girl, Maria Rosina, to accompany him to make sure Pop didn’t remove anything else from the shelf. Alongside the medicine in the cupboard was kept a bottle of arsenic used for poisoning rats on the estate, and it was a portion of the contents of that bottle, not the medicine, that Joe Popp added to Mr. Edwards’ tea. Maria Rosina, too afraid to speak, later testified that she watched as Joe Popp served the overseer the poisoned mixture. Around 2 o’clock that afternoon, Edwards came in from the fields and lay down in his bed complaining of a fever. He never rose from his bed again [SJPP, 1837].
At the time of the incident there was only circumstantial evidence that pointed to Joe Popp as the perpetrator of the crime. However, it later came out in hearings after his escape that it was common knowledge among the slaves on the plantation that Popp had poisoned Edwards with a cup of tea. Laborers on neighboring estates were also aware of the incident, as the story had been passed from property to property by way of a song that the field gang would sing as they worked [SJPP, 1837].
It was also revealed during Popp’s extradition hearings that the Annaberg gang had been heard singing a similar song while the overseer who replaced Edwards, Thomas Hyland, lay dying of an undetermined illness on Christmas Eve of the same year [SJPP, 1837].
In the end, efforts to bring Joe Popp to justice proved futile. After making his escape to Tortola in November 1839, Popp quickly left that island and found his way to Trinidad. According to witnesses, he was last seen on St. Thomas in 1853 when a steamship he was engaged on as crew stopped over at the port of Charlotte Amalie [SOFS, 1854].
- [SJPP] West Indies Local Archives, St. John Landfoged, Police Protocols, 1832 – 1878 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
- [SOFS] Record Group 55, Slave Owners and Former Slaves, 1854 (U. S. National Archives II, College Park, Maryland).