The T is for Thief

Charles T. Collins did not care about the little things. Property law, the goodwill of his neighbors, and the bodily autonomy of enslaved peoples meant little to him. We know this much about the man from the events of August 24, 1820. Collins farmed in Madison county during the later territorial period and early statehood. During the summer of 1820, he looked at all this new wealth pouring into the Tennessee Valley and said ‘I’m gonna get me some of that.’

Nobody knows why he snapped. Maybe he got tired of looking at corn. Maybe his fields ran fallow more often than he cared to admit. Maybe he woke up on that hot August day without any intention of robbing multiple people. His motives are unclear but we know his actions.

Nicholas Sheffield owned a horse. It was a beautiful beast, “one bay gelding with forked ears of the value of one hundred dollars.” Due to its status as a gelding, an Old Norse for castration that survived into modern English, the animal made little noise while Collins stole it. Like most mammals that undergo genital mutilation prior to puberty, geldings were agreeable and gentle and often proved a perfect addition to any farm that required the heavy labor of equines without the frustration of a stallion, donkey, or mule.*

As such, Charles T. Collins hardly needed the gun he held, but he held it anyway. He may have felt embarrassed about going all out for such a quick theft. Which is why he kidnapped somebody. After securing the horse Collins looked around the farm of Nicholas Sheffield and spotted a thirty year old enslaved man named Tom. Tom stood nearby as his enslaver’s horse was stolen. He may have even found the situation humorous, right up to the point that Collins gestured with the gun and said something along the lines of ‘you’re coming with me.’**

Charles T. Collins then set off to the farm of the Brandon brothers because he had plans, big stealin’ plans, and was thus not content to rob Sheffield of his horse and Tom of his non-existent liberty. When Charles and Tom pulled up to the Brandon farm they found two other enslaved persons tending the fields. Edmund and Lewis watched as Charles T. Collins rampaged across the landscape with Tom in tow. He pointed the gun at them and demanded they come with him.

At this point, one of the three separate court cases against Collins insinuates that he planned to take the men to the woods outside of town and turn them over to an unspecified buyer. However, the random nature of the abductions and the terrible logistical planning involved makes it more likely that Collins planned to take them back to his own farm and hope that nobody noticed.

Unfortunately everyone noticed.

He appeared in court on September 1, 1820. A mere week after his thefts the court retaliated in spectacular fashion. First, Collins received a $300.00 fine to be paid from his lands and possessions. Second, the grand jurors decided that “on this day, between the hour of two and the hour of four he the said Charles T. Collins… on his bare back receive thirty nine stripes well laid on.” Third, not content to impoverish him and add interesting new horizontal patterns to his flesh via bull whip – Madison county decreed that a T be branded into the flesh of his right hand at some random point during the whipping. Fourth, he received six months in the county jail.

Charles T. Collins made poor life choices.


The State of Alabama v. Charles T. Collins, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 24-25 (1820).

The State of Alabama v. Charles T. Collins, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 25-26 (1820).

The State of Alabama v. Charles T. Collins, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 26 (1820).

*Which is why empires throughout history employed eunuchs to guard harems, perform administrative functions, and collect taxes. You become far less aggressive when your ability to reproduce is removed from the equation. A further side effect is a high pitched voice capable of caressing notes unknown to male or female musicians with fully developed sexual organs. As such, castrated men often became singers of surreal and ethereal renown. Their music proved so sweet that the Italians waited until 1870 to outlaw the practice; while the Vatican itself waited until 1903. Southern Europeans friggin’ loved to saw off young boys’ testicles for musical purposes.

**I imagine him whispering something like “Way to go, Charles T. Collins, you steal that horse. Nicholas Sheffield is an asshole.” Followed almost immediately by “oh shit, you’re stealing me too? goddamn white people.”

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