Few acts of Congress have so bitterly divided the country as did the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The controversial act strengthened the power of slave owners to recover their "property" -- escaped slaves -- from free states.
Federal support for the "peculiar institution" gained additional legal backing from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case. In that ruling, a majority of the justices said that neither Dred Scott, whose master brought him into a state where slavery was outlawed, nor any other black person could be a citizen and, therefore, could not file a lawsuit to challenge enslavement.
In April 1859, readers of The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette could follow two slavery-related court disputes.
In the first case, a man faced trail for the second time in Allegheny County, charged with abducting a long-time Pittsburgh resident named G.W. Ferris.
G. Shaw -- no first name is given in the newspaper -- had been convicted a year earlier of having "kidnapped and sold into slavery in Alabama, a man whom everybody assumed to be white," the Gazette reported on April 7. His conviction was overturned on appeal, because the jury that found him guilty had only 11 members.
Among the witnesses at Shaw's retrial was Ferris's wife. "She is a very respectable looking white woman, and her child is a little cherub," the Gazette's reporter wrote. The writer's descriptions of the Ferris family emphasized their fair skins. Ferris's four-year-old child had "golden yellow" hair, "hanging in ringlets about its neck."
Mrs. Ferris "testified that she married Ferris in this city, six years ago, and never knew he was a mulatto [of mixed race] until she saw it stated in the newspapers."
At the time of the retrial, she had not seen her husband for two years.
Shaw's defense attorney, Marshall Swartzwelder, argued that neither Ferris's appearance nor his many years of living in freedom in Pittsburgh was relevant. What was important was that he had been born a slave.
His most effective witness was Miles Owen, a slave owner from Memphis, Tenn. Owen told the jury he had owned both Ferris and his mother and later sold him to an Alabama man named George O. Ragland.
"I inherited him by marriage, both him and his mother," Owen testified. ""I knew from the public prints and handbills that he had run away." He identified the man Shaw had forcibly taken to Alabama as Ferris.
The Allegheny County jury took three hours to reach a decision. Shaw was found "not guilty"
The Gazette, the city's Republican newspaper, was dismayed by the verdict. "Under the technical rules of the law, Shaw is declared not guilty, although the wife of Ferris and his wife and child are here dependent and unprotected," the paper said on April 8. "Ferris himself is doomed to a life of hopeless bondage."
The Gazette took more satisfaction from a ruling that same month by a federal commissioner in Philadelphia named J. Cooke Longstreth. Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave act, special commissioners, rather than county judges, would hear cases involving people believed to be escaped slaves.
Daniel Webster -- no relation to the New Hampshire senator who had backed the Fugitive Slave law -- had been arrested near Harrisburg and brought to Philadelphia for a hearing to determine whether or not he should be sent south.
Several white witnesses testified that they recognized Webster -- then known as Daniel Dangerfield -- as the slave of a Virginia farmer named French Simpson. Dangerfield had escaped in 1853, but black witnesses testified that the man they knew as Webster had been in Pennsylvania as early as 1849.
Pointing to the difference in height in the descriptions of Dangerfield and Webster, Longstreth released the black man. "[T]he colored persons outside, who now became the principal actors in the scene, rushed forward, seized him, and gave way to the most extravagant demonstrations of joy," the Gazette reported on April 9. The Pittsburgh newspaper's source was a Philadelphia Bulletin story.
Webster was seated in a carriage and "a double rope about two hundred feet long was attached to the vehicle and Daniel was drawn in triumph through the streets attended by hundred[s] of colored men and women who shouted and cheered."
Recognizing that he could be rearrested and brought before a less sympathetic commissioner, Webster left Philadelphia. The newspaper speculated that he would take the "underground railroad" -- a network of secret routes and safe houses that helped escaping slaves -- to flee farther north or to Canada.
Len Barcousky can be reached at email@example.com or 724-772-0184. Read past stories in the "Eyewitness" series at post-gazette.com/pgh250