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California 1947: The Last Documented Court Case of Black Slavery In America

Updated on October 29, 2012

Diversity in the American Melting Pot Includes Good and Bad

American History is full of events and people that Americans are not proud to claim. This is the price of being a country of humans and one of the prices of freedom in the republic. One such event is logged in Volume 73 of the Federal Supplement, page 76 (1947) and still makes attorneys, judges, and students of the law shudder and shake their heads in disbelief. The case is 65 years old at this writing and it is still unbelievable though true. In addition few people seem to be aware of it.

The event became a high profile court case in 1947. In it, America discovered that an 18-year-old African American woman was held as a slave by her teacher and "friend" for 40 years.

After several false starts toward freedom, Dora L. Jones was discovered in captivity by California police after receiving a tip. The officers discovered Ms. Jones as she was forced to sleep among bags of luggage in the back of the car owned by her long-time captor and the captor's second husband. There was not much room in most automobiles in those days.

Period Landmarks: 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile

Display atop Hudson's Dept. Store on Woodward Ave. in Detroit to celebrate the Automobile Golden Jubilee in 1946.
Display atop Hudson's Dept. Store on Woodward Ave. in Detroit to celebrate the Automobile Golden Jubilee in 1946. | Source

1946 Telephone at the Henry Ford Museum, Detroit

Can you imagine slavery in this era?
Can you imagine slavery in this era? | Source

In 1946 at age 58, Ms. Jones was found emaciated, with acute swollen ankles related to sleeping confined among the luggage in her "owner's" car (see photo above for relative size). The auto was parked on the street outside the house in which she was forced to work sunup to sundown without compensation "or else." These circumstances had spanned four decades of abuse. The confinement in the car alone could have killed her, as confinement in a tank on assignment killed embedded reporter David Bloom via a blood clot that traveled from his leg to his heart or lungs during the War In Iraq in 2003.

Paper Trail

More about the case is discussed below, but first - how did I learn about it, is not so many people know about it and I'm not a lawyer? It happened through reading and writing. Some unheard-of things are actually contained in history and reveal themselves when you follow a trail of books.

My trail starts with antique books stores, Half Price Books, eBay, and other marketers of reading materials. Being a mystery fan, I stumbled upon a first printing of a paperback copy of Anatomy of a Murder (based on a true story) by Robert Traver in a book shop. The next day, I found another mystery by the same author for 50¢ at the library and discovered that it was a set of stories based on cases in which the author had been involved. He had been a Michigan judge and wrote under a pen name. He mentioned case law references and I was astounded by a reference to slavery in 1947 and began to read the literature on the case. The hunt began in a used book store and I followed a trail, much like the heroes of the mysteries I like would do.

If we lose old books like those in our used book shops and lose all the senior citizens that can remember the events contained in them, we are going to lose history and a measure of truth. Old books and old people are treasures.

Constitution Of the United States Of America, Amendment XIII

Section 1.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Dora Jones's Justice

The Los Angeles California Eagle newspaper carried the story of the modern slave's court case on March 6, 1947. The Kingston NY Daily Freeman ran a related story on March 20 of that year. They reported that a wealthy Boston, Massachusetts couple, Mrs. Elizabeth Ingalls and her second husband Alfred Ingalls, enslaved Dora L. Jones on threat of imprisonment or commitment to an insane asylum. The couple transported Jones across the country to California, forcing her to sleep in the car or on the floor of their motel rooms after she tried to escape.

Alfred Ingalls had been a US Army officer in WWI and WWII, had been a Massachusetts state legislator, and a director of the New England Watch and Ward Society — ironically, a group founded to uphold public morals. For work, Alfred was ironically an attorney.

Police were tipped off by one of Mrs. Ingalls's daughters, Helen, from the older woman's first marriage. Then the FBI was called into the case. A second daughter, Ruth, also testified against her mother in court. Ironically, It was Mrs. Ingalls herself that drew the attention of the FBI by reporting Dora Jones kidnapped after Helen and her husband tipped the police to the illegal activity of forcing a woman who was a senior citizen to sleep among suitcases in the back of a car.

How did this happen?

During Elizabeth Ingalls's first marriage, her husband seduced Dora Jones, who had been a pupil in teacher Elizabeth's school class and who had come into the home to work as a maid of sorts. After the adultery and a subsequent related abortion for Jones, Elizabeth divorced her husband and told Dora that as part of the divorce decree, Dora was on permanent "probation", which meant working for no pay for Elizabeth for the rest of her life. In the early 1900s, with no one to consult about all this, Dora believed Elizabeth. As Jones grew older, she learned differently and made a few failed escape attempts. It was not until the family arrived in California and moved from one county to another, near Helen, that the case was uncovered.

Every time Dora complained of her maltreatment over the decades, Elizabeth renewed her threats to imprison her slave or to send Dora to a lunatic asylum. The latter was easy to do - many women that wanted divorces from their husbands were committed in those days, including a famous female lion tamer. Women were rather easily committed and Black women are at an even greater disadvantage. Elizabeth kept Dora isolated and frightened into submission, a hallmark of abuse.

When her daughters testified against her, Elizabeth Ingalls called one a Communist and the other a Nazi. She was fined $2,500 in 1947 and ordered to pay Dora $6,000 for unpaid wages - probably not enough. Prison time was suspended, but it would have been poetic justice for Ingalls to serve time. Presiding District Judge Jacob Weinberger felt that United States vs. Ingalls was a hallmark case, published his opinion denying Elizabeth Ingalls's motion for a new trial, and the story went to the newspapers.


The evidence was sufficient to warrant the jury in finding that the defendant Elizabeth Ingalls did entice, persuade and induce Dora L. Jones to go from Berkeley, Alameda County, California, to Coronado, San Diego County, California, with the intent that Dora L. Jones be held as a slave, as charged in Count One of the indictment.

Free at last, Dora L. Jones went to live with a brother in St. Louis after the trial and nothing recorded about her thereafter has revealed itself. It would be interesting to know how she spent her remaining years.

Lawyers, judges, and law students still shake their heads about this case, and I join them. Different sorts of human trafficking besides slave labor exist in our country today and they should be stopped.


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    • kristyleann profile image

      Kristy LeAnn 4 years ago from Princeton, WV

      Wow, that is absolutely insane. That poor woman. It's a shame her captor didn't serve any time in prison for that but I guess one thing remains consistent all throughout history and that is the ability to get away with just about anything if you have enough money.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 4 years ago from California, United States of America

      Incredibly fascinating. It is telling that Ingalls essentially got a slap on the wrist for enslaving someone for forty years; there is a bad habit of this sort of thing in this country; slavery has been continued through the prison system too, some regions of the country finding ways to convict people so they can be used as free labor. Great piece, I definitely never heard about this story before.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      Thank you for these comments! The situation is definitely insane and the punishment not near enough for Mrs. Ingalls, in my opinion, either.

      I wonder how many households in our country might hold a captive to some degree in them? The elderly come to mind and I did know about one of those cases that was uncovered and solved. Poor Dora, though - working 12 and more hours 24/7/365, being fed table scraps, and sleeping in a car on the street in all weather. Six MILLION dollars would not have been enough to pay her in return.

    • u-turn profile image

      Arthur George Rettell jr. ( 4 years ago from AZ. STATE

      The chain and eyes are like when reading an ad with red and or yellow combination. Interesting. This would not surprise me, as out side of my ole hood, in Lockhart Fl. There was a slave plantation as teens and old fashion big wide mansion and painted white with the big pillars and big windows and two story, might have been three, trying to picture as when first seen when like 14 of age! Just as You see in movie, the Georgia plantation homes. Slave huts as i call them on the east side and front of mansion faces due north. There is cemetery in fork of rd, that is north of home and not far distance in front of home. Slave graves i say by names and mostly flat head stones. Real History ... To top it off they years later built apartments ans the fork is still in road and head stones intact at entrance of to side. They named the apartments Plantation Cove in the beginning and eventually changed name as i mentioned latter to people and went to make sure they did not remove grave or head stones.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      Thanks for your testimony, u-turn. The name "Plantation Cove" would certainly hold dubious implications. The headstones would be really interesting.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      It is certainly an interesting case. Thank you for letting us know about this ase of modern slavery. sharing.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      Isn't it amazing the events we still find happening, when we thought the problem was solved by the law? I wonder what the 2000s and 2010s have hidden in them, besides all we have seen in the media? Thanks for your comments, dahoglund.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 4 years ago from USA

      It is amazing the things people get away with. Here are some stats from 1946:

      Average Annual Salary: $3,150

      Minimum Wage: 40 cents per hour

      The fine was a slap on the wrist, since it is only about two year's worth of work. I wonder if she actually paid it.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      I don't know if she paid it! What a crummy outcome.

    • sweetie1 profile image

      sweetie1 4 years ago from India

      Totally unbelievable..

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      Yes, reprehensible.

    • Mark Monroe profile image

      Mark Monroe 4 years ago from Dover De

      Well written interesting piece

      thank you

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      History is probably full of such interesting tists and tuyrns. Can we find them all? Thanks for coinmmenting Mark!

    • Mark Monroe profile image

      Mark Monroe 4 years ago from Dover De

      What is even e disturbing is that this behavior still goes on today. The following is from a 2006 ABC report.

      "In November 2006, the couple were each sentenced to four years in prison for "forcing a woman to work as their domestic servant and illegally harboring her for 19 years in their residence," according to the Justice Department.

      The Calimlims were convicted of using threats of serious harm and physical restraint against their victim, whom they had brought to the United States from the Philippines when she was 19.

      According to a Justice Department summary of the case, "The victim testified that for 19 years she was hidden in the Calimlim home, forbidden from going outside, and told that she would be arrested, imprisoned and deported if she was discovered."

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      This is ghastly, Mark, and I know that a few parents even try this with their children. I am always happy when these cases are uncovered and the victims removed from harm. 19 years is a lifetime.

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