IN 1856, just five years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Charter Oak Life Insurance Company printed a pamphlet offering slave owners in six Southern states the option of insuring the lives of their slaves.
For just $2, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee residents, for example, could purchase a 12-month policy from the Hartford-based insurer on a 10-year-old domestic servant that would yield $100 if the slave died. Policies for older slaves, like a 45-year-old, were more expensive, costing the slave owner $5.50 a year.
Though the company no longer exists, these policies are drawing increasing attention nearly 150 years later because of a lawsuit that was filed in United States District Court in Brooklyn, in late March against Aetna Inc. and two other companies, claiming that they profited from the slave trade.
In Connecticut, where insurance has long been a principal industry, the documents exhibit a painful reminder of the past, especially in a Northern state that is proud of its abolitionist ancestors like John Brown.
''It's not pleasant to talk about it today, to put it mildly, but slaves were insured just like any other thing that the farmers owned, that the slave owners owned,'' said Tom Baker, director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law. ''If you were selling insurance in slave states to people who had plantations, that was one of the things that you sold.
''It was very common,'' he added. ''Basically, insurance and slavery go all the way back as far as American history.''