"Criminal law was the master class' tool. Thus, in the first case recorded in Virginia (1729) in which a jury convicted an overseer for the murder of a slave, the colonial governor commuted the death sentence, reasoning that 'executing him for this offense may make the slaves very insolent, and give them occasion to contemn their masters and overseers, which may be of dangerous consequences in a country where the Negroes are so numerous and make the most valuable part of the people's estates.' For a similar reason the bodies of slaves convicted and executed for crimes were allowed to hang in in public until they rotted, or pieces of the body were impaled on stakes and displayed, for the express purpose of making all slaves stand in fear of the power of their masters' government. Visibility was all-important: on one occasion the chimney of a colonial Virginia courthouse served as the display case for the severed heads of four slaves convicted of plotting the murder of their master.
Behind the gory display of body parts lay the masters' pervasive fear of slave conspiracies. Only by grisly deterrence, the master class reasoned, would slaves be dissuaded from rebelling against their condition. The obsessive concern with conspiracy, a striking feature of the Barbados code, would find its way into the law of almost all the colonies." -From, The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime, and Colonial Law" By: Peter Hoffer