Nathan Corder was the person most responsible for Arthur Jordan’s murder. He was also an enslaver from a long line of enslavers. Was there a link between the two? Did Corder’s past lead to his later cruelty?
In his 1845 autobiography, Frederick Douglass, a former enslaved person, said that slavery was harmful to both enslaver and enslaved. The burden of owning another human being, “the exercise of irresponsible power,” was a fatal poison, he said.
Douglass cited the example of his former enslaver. He said that she was new to enslaving others when he joined her household. “When I went there, she was a pious, warm, tender-hearted woman,” he wrote. “Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.”
Did the need to instill fear and submission in another person have a similar effect on Nathan Corder? It is an interesting question, and one I wish I had asked in Condemned for Love in Old Virginia.
Corder, a white farmer, was the father of Elvira Corder and the employer of Arthur Jordan, one of his Black farmhands. When Elvira and Arthur began a romance and ran away to Maryland from Fauquier County in 1880, Nathan organized a group of neighbors to pursue and capture them. Jordan was dead within the week, and Elvira was never heard from again.
It is interesting to consider how the long history of slavery within Nathan’s family might have contributed to this fierce reaction when his daughter fell in love with a Black man. In his 1835 will, John Corder, Nathan’s grandfather, bequeathed two enslaved people, Frank and Beck, to his wife. His children received his other enslaved people, to be divided equally “according to lot and valuation.”
Tacey Corder, Nathan’s mother, enslaved one person. Butler Corder, Nathan’s brother, enslaved four adults in 1857 when Nathan moved from Rappahannock County to Fauquier to farm with him. Nathan and Butler eventually added a fifth enslaved person to help with the farm work. The brothers also rented five enslaved people from their neighbors.
Few details are available, though it appears that life for the enslaved people at the Corder farm was difficult. Nathan reported to county officials when three of his enslaved people died. They included a year-old female who died of “cold” in 1858, an 18-year-old female and a year-old female who died of pneumonia the following year.
In his autobiography, Douglass also recounted the story of one of his overseers who shot and killed an enslaved person for disobeying an order. The shooting was necessary to enforce discipline, the overseer said. The enslaver did not object, because he was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of enslaving others, Douglass said. Perhaps the same could be said of Nathan Corder.