William Turner Lawsuit Collection

Identifier: MSS.0897

  • Staff Only

Scope and Contents

The William Turner Lawsuit Collection is comprised of original, handwritten legal documents from an 1848-1852 dispute over the sale of a fourteen-year old enslaved girl, Phebe. The collection is contained within one half-Hollinger box and has 27 folders. 17 of those folders contain original letters; the other 10 are transcriptions created in 2017. The transcriptions are placed directly behind the original letter and transcriptions are noted in the Container List.


  • 1848-1852

Conditions Governing Access

This collection may be viewed only in the reading room of Special Collections in the Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Collections should be requested 2-3 days prior to visiting in order to facilitate easier access. For questions or to request a collection, contact specialcollections@vanderbilt.edu.

Historical Sketch

The William Turner lawsuit began on December 4, 1848 when William Turner filed a formal complaint against Samuel L. Anderson, William Sheppard and James Fussell. Phebe, a fourteen-year old enslaved girl was traded to William Turner for another enslaved girl named Dianna. Phebe was later found to be "laboring under a virulent gonorrhea". Mr. W. Turner alleged that Phebe's sellers knew of the disease and demanded compensation. Between June 11 and June 15, 1849, Dr. William Warren and several witnesses testified to Phebe's condition. Dr. William Warren examined Phebe and testified that she had "not yet arrived at the age of womanhood" and that she reported "her purchasers had given her the disease" and "forced her to illicit connections." Phebe's testimony was largely ignored throughout the trial. One of the largest discrepancies, however, was over Phebe's actual owner. A slave trader named Johnson was with Mr. Anderson and Mr. Fussell at the time of Phebe's being sold. Dianna was supposedly taken off to Mississippi by Anderson and since there was no way to reverse the trade and end the dispute, Phebe's condition at sale needed to be established.

Several witnesses testified to Phebe's condition-some testified that she was sound and without ailment. The plaintiff's children testified that Mr. S. Anderson gave Phebe a dime to dance and that they heard Mr. Anderson deeming Phebe sound after that performance while their mother did not want an unsound enslaved person in her home. These discrepancies continued throughout the case. Several attempts were made to establish what Phebe's value at sale would have been if she were sound or unsound. The case was resolved in September 1852 when Phebe was deemed to be unsound and the defendants were ordered to pay the Plaintiff, William Turner $300 and court fees. Phebe received nothing as a result of the lawsuit.

In 1946, Emma Inman Williams published Historical Madison: the story of Jackson and Madison County, Tennessee from the Moundbuilders to World War I. Phebe's sale was mentioned in a photocopied document. It references "Phebe, aged about thirteen years" who was purchased by Samuel Anderson in a group with 34 other enslaved people in November 1847 (p. 202). The book also makes mention of some of the men who were involved in the lawsuit-John Fussell, who was fined $10 for contempt of court for having "had a fight in the court yard with one certain John Montgomery" and a reference to William Johnson who, in 1867, entered into an agreement with the state of Tennessee to import formerly-enslaved, freed laborers from South Carolina to Tennessee.


.21 Linear Feet (1 Half Hollinger box)

Language of Materials



The William Turner Lawsuit Collection is a small collection comprised of original, handwritten legal documents from an 1848-1852 dispute over the sale of a fourteen-year old enslaved girl, Phebe. 17 folders contain original letters; the other 10 are transcriptions created in 2017.

Physical Location

Special Collections & Archives

Literary Rights Statement

Permission to publish, copy, reprint, digitize, orally record for transmission over public or private airways, or use materials from the William Turner Lawsuit in any and all other current or future development methods or procedures, must be obtained in writing from the Special Collections and University Archives Division of the Vanderbilt University Libraries. All rights reserved and retained regardless of current or future development or laws that may apply to fair use standards.

Finding Aid for the William Turner Lawsuit Collection
2017 September
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository

Special Collections Library
1101 19th Ave. S.
Nashville TN 37212 United States


About this Site

This site contains collection guides, or finding aids, to the archival collections held by Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives, the History of Medicine Collection, and the Scarritt Bennett Center. Finding aids describe the context, arrangement, and structure of archival materials, allowing users to identify and request materials relevant to their research.

Requesting Materials

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