A LOOK INTO HISTORY

In Pittsburgh, visiting abolitionist Northup was suspected to be slave catcher

New Yorker had rescued from bondage the free man featured in Oscar-nominated '12 Years a Slave'


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Henry Northup, the New Yorker who rescued Solomon Northup, a free black man, from illegal bondage, found himself suspected of being a slave-catcher himself when he visited Pittsburgh in 1855.

Reports in the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette and the Daily Morning Post that year laid out the tale of mistaken identity. The Gazette, which was sympathetic to the abolition movement, said the incident also provided evidence that "the mass of our citizens are sound on the slavery question." Today, the movie "12 Years a Slave," which dramatizes Solomon Northup's ordeal, competes for nine Oscars.

Many members of Pittsburgh's African-American community were on edge during the summer of 1855.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which made it a crime to assist blacks escaping from the South, was in full force, and all law-enforcement officials were required to carry out its provisions. Citizens who violated it faced fines and jail. Pittsburgh, nevertheless, remained an important stop on the Underground Railroad. That was the name given to an anti-slavery network whose members identified and operated safe houses where escaping slaves could find shelter and aid while they made their way north to Canada.

A story published June 20 in the Gazette described how anonymous "agents of the underground R.R. Co." acted to assure a group of ex-slaves freed by their late master in Virginia held on to their freedom.

The Underground Railroad supporters persuaded the former slaves not to travel any farther with the man charged with bringing them north after he "refused to give them any satisfaction as to what disposition he was going to make of them," the story said. That created "the presumption that he might take them beyond the place designated in the will" and sell them back into bondage.

The Gazette was the city's Whig and Republican newspaper, and its editorial policy opposed slavery. The Post, on the other hand, was sympathetic to the South and its "peculiar institution." In a story that appeared July 17, an anonymous reporter made fun of the idea that the newly freed slaves had been in any danger. When the "select committee of the Underground Railroad ... caused a number of manumitted negroes in charge of Capt. M'Henry to be carried off," they did not free them from the danger of re-enslavement, the newspaper said. Instead they had relieved "that gentleman of the further trouble of taking care of them, and obliging him exceedingly."

Nor surprisingly, the Post relished retelling the tale of how Henry Northup was mistaken for a slave catcher when he arrived in Pittsburgh on July 15. His apparent mistake was to immediately ask for information on the whereabouts of the local U.S. marshal and other federal law enforcement officials. Making contact with federal authorities often was a first step in seeking their assistance in recovering what was considered stolen property: an escaped slave.

"Several of the 'affiliated' [with the Underground Railroad] soon heard of the circumstance ... and quickly sent word to their brethren in all parts of town that there was a negro-catcher in our midst," the story said. Black ministers, preaching that day, "even went to so far to announce the news from their pulpits, accompanied by the warning that if any fugitives were present, they should conceal themselves," the newspaper reported.

The Post took advantage of the story of Henry Northup's mis-identification to print not once, but twice, what is considered the most derogatory term for African-Americans.

The Gazette then picked up the story. Northup was staying at the Monongahela House, the city's finest hotel. That night after the out-of-towner had gone to bed, "a committee of gentlemen waited upon him to ascertain the truth of the reports and to take such action as might be deemed proper, provided they were true," the Gazette story said on July 17. There is a strong hint of menace in the newspaper's description of the night-time call on Northup.

Even after "H.B. Northup," identified himself as the resident of Sandy Hill, N.Y., who rescued his former neighbor, Solomon Northup, from slavery in Louisiana, at least one of his interrogators remained unconvinced. The suspicious questioner asked whether Henry Northup "might have stolen the livery of a saint to serve the devil in," according to the Gazette.

The next day Northup went to the office of the clerk of U.S. District Court where he talked with a reporter from the Gazette and was again questioned by Pittsburgh abolitionists. "He was waited on by two committees of white and colored persons at the United States Building, but his explanations were of course satisfactory," the newspaper said.

The Gazette story identifies Solomon Northup as "the hero of the book so extensively circulated, entitled 'Twelve Years a Slave.' " In the final pages of his first-person story, Solomon Northup describes how Henry Northup, a lawyer, arrived at the last Southern plantation where he had been enslaved after his kidnapping more than a decade earlier.

"I seized my old acquaintance by both hands," Solomon Northup wrote. "I could not speak. I could not refrain from tears.

" 'Sol,' he said at length. 'I am glad to see you.' "

Although the two men were not related, they share the last name via a connection with Solomon Northup's father, Mintus. Before he was freed upon the death of his owner, Mintus Northup had been a slave owned by the Northup family and took their name. Henry Northup was a relative of that family.

Despite Henry Northup's critical role in proving that Solomon Northup was a free man, a character by that name doesn't appear in the movie version of "Twelve Years a Slave." In the Academy Award-nominated film, a Saratoga, N.Y., merchant named Parker comes to Louisiana and provides the written evidence of Solomon Northup's legal status as a free man.

While the Post concluded that Underground Railroad supporters should follow the adage "look before you leap," the Gazette drew another lesson from the incident with Henry Northup.

Winking at abolitionist activities that were clearly illegal under the Fugitive Slave Law, the Gazette concluded that city residents, black and white, were following a higher commandment in obstructing slave catchers.

"The prompt action taken by our anti-slavery friends shows that the mass of our citizens are sound on the slavery question," the story concluded. They "are fully resolved that no fugitive slave shall be taken from this city without an effort to resist it."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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