Abolitionists win rare 1859 victory as black man accused of being runaway slave is set free

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The black man in the red shirt and the battered hat was buying fish at the Harrisburg market for his wife's breakfast when three federal marshals cornered him. When he cried out for help, the marshals used their Colt revolvers to wave off the crowd.

The time was April 1859. The marshals were seeking a fugitive slave from Virginia named Daniel Dangerfield. But people in Harrisburg knew the arrested man as Daniel Webster -- a "peaceable, honest, and industrious" fence-maker.

The marshals quickly handcuffed him and put him on a train to Philadelphia. As the locomotive raced east, so did a telegram from anti-slavery forces in Harrisburg, alerting their Philadelphia counterparts.

The arrest was a gauntlet thrown at the feet of Pennsylvania's "hard-core abolitionists," as historian Richard S. Newman calls them. White and black, male and female, they set out to rally public opinion to Webster's side.

The deck was stacked against them. The Compromise of 1850 put iron teeth in the Fugitive Slave Act.

Under the law, slaveholders need only sign affidavits like the one a Virginian had sworn against Dangerfield. Bystanders were required to help marshals grab their prey. Federal commissioners decided the cases, and defendants could not testify. The law, in historian Eric Foner's words, "made slavery a national institution."

"The most we expected to do was to make a good fight," abolitionist Miller McKim wrote, "and build up public opinion." Vowing to "dispute every inch of ground," he and Robert Purvis, both Underground Railroad men, lined up lawyers and rushed to the courthouse at Fifth and Chestnut streets.

There they found Webster in manacles. The slaveholders' lawyer, Benjamin Brewster, was already demanding a swift, "summary" ruling.

The new commissioner, J. Cooke Longstreth, granted the defense two days to find witnesses. The trial would begin Monday.

From years of anti-slavery work, McKim -- "that prudent, rash man," an admirer said -- knew the value of good press. "The Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning papers gave publicity to the facts," McKim would write. "The community was deeply moved."

When court opened Monday, "the city was in a hopeful state of excitement," McKim wrote. A Brewster confidant described "an immense throng of Negroes and abolitionists who surrounded the building."

They ranged in age from 19 to 70. Lucretia Mott and Mary Grew led two dozen other white women. There was Passmore Williamson and Purvis, and his niece, young Charlotte Forten.

As the trial began, a tiny, bent white woman in a pale blue bonnet sat by the defendant. Thus ensconced, Lucretia Mott, 66, fixed her gaze on Brewster.

For decades Mott had been fighting slavery and racism. She put herself in peril from other whites -- by meeting with and walking with Negroes, even inviting them into her home. She had stared down mayors and mobs and now she commenced to stare down the slaveholders' lawyer.

Years later, he remarked that "having dared to face Lucretia Mott, he could dare to face anything."

The throng outside the courtroom grew, filling halls and stairwells. Pro-slavery men hissed at the prisoner. Police cleared the halls, ejecting more blacks than whites. Mott's sister Martha Wright told of elbowing her way in "amid the roars of the crowd."

Having been warned by his lawyers that the law made victory all but unattainable, Webster asked only one thing: "a chance on the pavement."

'Webster would get his chance'

Abolitionists were already plotting that chance. The crowd would provide cover. When a carriage pulled up and a signal was given, volunteers would surround each marshal and hold him while Webster sprinted for the carriage. They would be arrested, probably bludgeoned. But Webster would get his chance.

In the morning, young men made ready, easing through the crowd in Chestnut Street. The carriage pulled up. But the chance faded. The trial had been moved to a larger room with a different entrance.

Rev. William Furness, the Unitarian who had been a lonely anti-slavery voice among the white clergy, told of peering into "that low, dark and crowded room, in which one of the most wicked laws that man ever enacted was in process of execution." He saw the prisoner, "in his old hat and red flannel shirt," and Mott, "cheering her poor hunted brother with the sisterly sympathy of her silent presence."

Not entirely silent. During a recess, Mott approached Longstreth.

"I ventured to step forward, and, in an undertone, expressed to him the earnest hope that his conscience would not allow him to send this poor man into slavery. He ... replied that he must be bound by his oath of office."

By Tuesday, the case boiled down to two knotty discrepancies.

One was time: The Virginia witnesses said Dangerfield ran away in 1854. Webster's witnesses swore they'd known him in Harrisburg since 1853; one claimed to have met him in Philadelphia in 1849.

The other was height.

The Virginians said the missing slave was about 5-foot-6. So Longstreth had the prisoner stand -- and be measured. Brewster objected. Get his boots off, your honor.

Webster removed his boots. Longstreth made a note: boots on, 5-foot-10; boots off, nearly 5-9.

As the lawyer for the side that generally said Negroes were better off enslaved, Brewster could hardly argue that, after five years' freedom, a man might stand taller.

Final arguments began Tuesday evening and lasted through the night.

McKim watched in awe as Brewster dropped "his vaunted gentlemanly bearing" to argue for three hours that the fugitive act, however disagreeable, was the will of Congress. "I came here not to indulge in camp-meeting oratory," he said, "but to speak of what is law."

By noon on Wednesday, anticipation of a verdict was "painful" in intensity, McKim wrote. Revivalists meeting in Sansom Street prayed "for the deliverance of Daniel." At 4 p.m., the courtroom filled again. The crowd outside was enormous.

"All was silence and suspense," Mary Grew wrote, "and none dared hope for a favorable conclusion."

Longstreth began reading his decision.

He noted that along with property, the case "involved the liberty or bondage of a human being." He said the slaveholders had proven a lawful claim on Dangerfield, who had fled in 1854. But the testimony persuaded him that the defendant had lived in Harrisburg since 1853.

Thank God, McKim heard someone in the courtroom whisper.

When Longstreth noted that Webster was 5-foot-10 -- taller than the fugitive -- tears and hurrahs filled the room. He ordered the prisoner "discharged."

Someone threw open a window and waved a handkerchief to signal the outcome -- and the street answered with a roar.

Mott hooked her arm through Webster's. Slowly, the woman in the blue bonnet and the man in the red shirt made their way out.

Black men hoisted Webster into a carriage, unhitched the horses and pulled him through the city. "You never saw such an excited and happy crowd," Mott's sister wrote.

'We hear with joy that ...'

Rumors said white kidnappers -- a well-known trade in antebellum black Philadelphia -- were preparing to snatch Webster and take him South. So the Purvis-Forten family hid him on its farm at Byberry, and entrusted him to the Underground Railroad. Weeks later, Charlotte Forten wrote: "We hear with joy that he is safe in Canada."

Why the victory? Some believed "the pressure of public sentiment -- which was, strange to say, almost universally on the right side -- was too overwhelming for the commissioner," Forten wrote. "Even his wife, it is said, declared that [she] could discard him if he sent the man into slavery."

The case spotlights "the continuing importance of black and white abolitionists in Pennsylvania and the nation just before the Civil War," says Mr. Newman, a professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology.The outcome "gives one some hope," Forten wrote, "even for Philadelphia."


Daniel R. Biddle, an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is co-author, with Murray Dubin, of "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America," from which this article is adapted (dbiddle@phillynews.com, 215-854-2529).

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