Mary Norris was a black Virginian. In 1857, Norris and her family, who had been enslaved by George Washington Parke Custis on Arlington Plantation, came under the control of Robert E. Lee, the son-in-law of Custis and the executor of his estate. Custis's will provided that the 200 people he had enslaved should be freed once his white granddaughters had been paid and his estates cleared of debts, to be completed within no more than 5 years from his death. Many of the slaves, including Norris, had been given to understand by Custis that they would be freed immediately; meanwhile, Lee misrepresented the terms of the will to say that the slaves would be freed after a fixed term of 5 more years' enslavement.
Many of Custis's former slaves felt that they were being deceived and that Lee intended to cheat them of their freedom. In June 1859, Mary Norris, together with her brother Wesley Norris, and a cousin of theirs, escaped from Arlington Plantation and headed north towards Pennsylvania. They were captured by slave-hunters in Maryland, near the border with Pennsylvania; after their capture, the Norrises were imprisoned, and forced back to Arlington, where Lee had them taken into a barn, tied to a post, and whipped by the county constable, and then had their backs washed with brine to rub salt into the wounds. A pair of anonymous letters were printed in the New York Tribune (one signed "A Citizen" and one signed "A") giving garbled third-hand accounts of the events, claiming (among other things) that Lee had the captives taken to a barn to be whipped by an officer, but that, when the officer refused to whip a woman, Lee himself stripped off Ms. Norris's clothes off and whipped her. In his biography The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000), Michael Fellman writes that:
- Enlightened [sic] masters in the upper South often sent their rebellious slaves to jail, where the sheriff would whip them, presumably dispassionately, rather than apply whippings themselves. [...] That Lee personally beat Mary Norris seems extremely unlikely, and yet slavery was so violent that it cast all masters in the roles of potential brutes. Stories such as this had been popularized early in the 1850s by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and they stung even the most restrained of masters, who understood that kindness alone would have been too indulgent, and corporal punishment (for which Lee substituted the euphemism "firmness") was an intrinsic and necessary part of slave discipline. Although it was supposed to be applied only in a calm and rational manner, overtly physical domination of slaves, unchecked by law, was always brutal and potentially savage.
- --Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House. 65-67. Emphasis added.
After the whipping, Mary's brother Wesley and their cousin were both sent to jail for a week and then forced to work on a series of railroad jobs in Virginia and then Alabama. In January 1863, they were sent back up to Richmond, where Norris escaped and made his way through the Union lines, where he was given his freedom. After the end of the Civil War, in April 1866, Wesley Norris gave an interview to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, in which he gave the first first-hand description of the treatment he and his sister received from Lee. According to Wesley Norris, Lee had all three captives stripped to their waists, and whipped by the county constable, Dick Williams, whipping the men 50 times each and Mary Norris 20 times. (According to Norris, Lee "stood by" throughout the whipping, "and frequently enjoinyed Williams to 'lay it on well,'" and then, after the whipping, ordered the overseer to wash all three prisoner's lacerated backs with brine.
- Testimony of Wesley Norris, from the National Anti-Slavery Standard, April 14, 1866.
- "Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery", from Rad Geek People's Daily 2005-01-03.
- Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee, with commentary by Charles Johnson, 24 February 2006