Bring Me the Body: Habeas Corpus and Legal Innovation in the 19th-Century North American West

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:50 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Katrina Jagodinsky, University of Nebraska
John Heo petitioned for habeas corpus against the Indian Agent who arrested him for living off reservation in 1880, claiming that he had “severed tribal relations,” thus joining the ambiguous legal category of non-citizen that free blacks had occupied prior to the 14th Amendment. Although not eligible for civil or political rights, Heo believed he was also not subject to reservation internment, but the judge failed to see the merits of Heo’s gendered claims and denied the petition, assigning him to internment on the Puyallup Reserve. Five years later, Fannie Fowle filed for habeas corpus against George Finleyson, claiming that he had kept her as an unwilling consort. Fowle applied the writ to escape a marriage she correlated to enslavement, arguing that Finleyson had used the cloak of marriage to convince others of his entitlement to Fowle’s body. Pacific Northwest court records tell the stories of Indigenous and female petitioners, but also of antebellum African Americans who used habeas corpus to protest their enslavement in free territories, and the thousands of Asian immigrants resisting deportation through habeas corpus after the Chinese Exclusion Act. Marginalized Westerners’ critical applications of habeas corpus counter misperceptions of western legal history and broaden our appreciation for the flexibility and utility of habeas corpus petitions. This paper concentrates on petitions that challenged white citizens’ ownership of Black bodies, the federal and industrial criminalization of Asian bodies, Indian agents’ authority over Indigenous bodies, and men’s access to women and children’s bodies. Highlighting the creative contributions to American legal history of those excluded from citizenship—Indigenous and immigrant alike—and of those whose citizenship status remained restricted in the nineteenth century—women, minors, and non-white men, this project promises to revitalize the fields of western and legal history.