Part 2: Ann of Keen Fables
During the strange and complex tale of Emiline Coleman’s affair with Henry Riley an unlikely actor emerged in the form of Ann. Although Ann is described only sparingly throughout the case of Coleman v. Coleman; her actions and agency ultimately serve as the catalyst that propels the divorce.
Due to Ann’s status as an enslaved young woman she is often referenced as an afterthought by the white protagonists. However, she gets a lot of screen time in comparison to other enslaved blacks in 1830’s court battles.
It appears that Ann served as Emiline Coleman’s handmaiden and gofer. She carried letters and acted as an occasional chaperon and sometimes confidant for the 22 year old married woman. Narcissa Coleman, Emiline’s sister-in-law, described Ann as “a negro Girl… about 13 or 14 years of age, worth at that time 800$ at least.” When Emiline’s husband, John Coleman, banished her from his household he sent Ann with her to Marengo County to continue her services.
However, the thing that made Ann an integral player in this melodrama was her betrayal of Emiline Coleman to her sisters-in-law. For several months she carried correspondence between Emiline and an actor from Nashville named Henry Riley.
Riley stayed at the Bell Tavern and spent weeks at a time in the city performing at different theaters. It would be inappropriate for Emiline to spend so much time around Henry without her husband. By sending an enslaved person, she circumvented this social norm and managed to communicate to her heart’s desire.
It appears that higher class white women in Huntsville all used some form of this system. Often cloistered in their homes they needed to develop what amounted to personal spy-rings to both stay abreast of news in the city and exercise a measure of influence. We know that Narcissa and Delia Coleman suspected Emiline of infidelity as early as September 9, 1836, some 11 days before she wrote Exhibit J. Both women mentioned that “reports were whispered about amongst the negroes to the discredit of [Emiline],” and that they began turning their attention towards Emiline’s business, and by extension, the comings and goings of Ann.
It appears that Ann either communicated the purpose of her errands to enslaved people attached to Narcissa Coleman’s household, that they spoke to her, or she noticed their presence. Either way, Narcissa learned why Ann went out so much and it appears that she instructed the young errand runner to bring her evidence of Emiline’s indiscretions.
Which she did.
Emiline wrote a letter to Henry Riley requesting he return a photo of her. Now this was most likely a small painting, but apparently it was highly prized her husband because he’d been inquiring about it for months. Emiline lied and said that a friend of hers named Mary Crampton borrowed it and had yet to give it back.
Instead of carrying it to Henry Riley, which she had done so many times before, Ann presented the letter to Narcissa Coleman and quickly left. This gave Narcissa the evidence she needed to begin whispering in her brother’s ear.