Kidnapping of Rachel Parker
Kidnapping and Murder: How the Rachel Parker Case Galvanized Pennsylvania Popular Opinion Against the Fugitive Slave Law
In the last cold days of December 1851, sixteen-year-old Rachel Parker answered a knock at the door of the Miller farmhouse in rural Chester County. It was midmorning and the household was alive with activity as Rebecca Miller supervised her four young children who were busy with their daily chores. Although the Millers were not considered a wealthy family, their small farm was profitable enough that they, like many other central Pennsylvania farmers, could employ an African American domestic servant to aid in the management of the household. Rachel had come to live with the Millers when she was about ten years old to help Mrs. Miller with the daily maintenance of the home and with the rearing of her two daughters, Rachel and Henrietta. The Miller family soon increased in size with the birth of sons Levi and Jacob, and Rachel's role in helping with the four small children made her not only an indispensable servant, but a part of the family.
Upon opening the door, Rachel was confronted with a stranger who inquired for her mistress. Inviting the man in, she called for Mrs. Miller, who left the children to see what the man's business was with her household. The man inquired about a neighboring family, but as Rebecca Miller began answering, the stranger suddenly grabbed Rachel, declaring her to be his prisoner as an escaped slave. The horror of what was happening rushed in on the two women almost at once. Immediately Rebecca Miller protested, denying that Rachel could be an escaped slave as she had lived with them for six or seven years. Not only that, she argued, she knew that the girl had been born in Pennsylvania and was a free person. The man ignored her pleas and started for the door with the struggling Rachel in his grasp. Rebecca Miller took hold of Rachel's arm and tried to pull her away but the stranger was stronger and wrenched his captive free of her employer. By now Rachel was crying out for help and Mrs. Miller began shrieking for her husband Joseph, who was working outside and unaware of the drama unfolding in his home. The commotion brought the Miller children, who ranged in age from five to eleven, into the room. Frightened and confused by the sight of a strange man struggling with Rachel and their mother, the four children began crying and screaming.
The assailant, Thomas McCreary, a slave catcher from Elkton, Maryland, got the door open and the tumult moved outside into the cold December air. Another man, an accomplice of McCreary who had remained outside, ran up and helped the kidnapper hurry the young girl down the lane from the farmhouse to the road leaving Rebecca Miller and her four children wailing and in shock at the sudden violent events.
Joseph C. Miller was working outside in the brisk air, attending to some of the many winter chores on the family's small farm in West Nottingham Township. The forty-year-old farmer's land had been valued at $2,000 in the 1850 census, making it one of the smaller farms in the area, but it kept him quite busy as his children were still too small to help with the more strenuous jobs. The oldest boy, Levi, was only six this year, and Jacob, the baby of the family, was five. The girls, at eleven and nine years, were old enough to perform chores for their mother inside the house as well as water the livestock and perform light work during the warmer months. Joseph Miller was a respected and popular man among his neighbors. In the summer he could always count on their help with the harvest, just as he and Rebecca helped them out when their crops matured. But in the winter it was only Joseph who took care of the outside work, and there was still much to do before January's harsh weather arrived.
It was not yet eleven o'clock in the forenoon when Joseph heard the screams coming from the front of the house. He hurried to the narrow lane that connected his farm to the township road, homing in on the cries of his wife and children, and upon the cries of his young servant, who was being forced toward a carriage with yet a third accomplice, which stood waiting at the end of the farm lane. Joseph Miller ran to the struggling group and caught Rachel's arm, attempting to pull her from McCreary's grasp, but the man pulled out a knife and forced the farmer to back away. Upon reaching the carriage, the Maryland men stuffed rags into Rachel's mouth to muffle her screams and pushed her inside. The carriage lurched away from the gate with Rachel and the kidnappers inside, heading down the public road toward the Maryland state line, only a mile or two away.
Chasing the speeding carriage on foot, Miller caught up with it in a narrow private lane belonging to his neighbor, James Pollock. Pollock's farm wagon was sitting in the middle of the lane, effectively blocking the kidnapper's carriage from passing, and the Maryland men were having a heated discussion with Pollock, who refused to move his vehicle to let them by. Seeing Miller approach, one of the kidnappers pulled an edged weapon-either a long knife or a sword-and threatened Miller with it. The carriage then turned and sped down a road to the left, leaving Miller and Pollock behind.
The man in charge of the abduction of Rachel Parker was Thomas McCreary of Elkton, Maryland. McCreary was quite familiar with the lower townships of Chester County, having run abduction operations in the area before. While all African Americans living in Pennsylvania--both those born free and re-settled fugitives-- were always in danger of being kidnapped and returned to or sold into slavery, Chester County seemed to experience an extraordinarily high number of these incidents. In 1839 the West Chester Village Record reported on the case of a local woman, Rachel Harris, who was arrested and taken before the local magistrate, accused of being a fugitive slave, despite having “resided in the borough for five or six years.” Harris managed to escape from the courtroom during a break in the examination, and was never seen in the vicinity again.
Not quite ten years later, in April 1848, a young African American servant girl was abducted from a Downingtown residence. A more publicized incident happened in August 1849, when George Mitchell of Unionville was kidnapped and taken to Baltimore, where he was held in a slave cell. The kidnapper in the Mitchell case was Thomas McCreary, the same man who orchestrated the abduction of Rachel Parker. Just as McCreary was familiar with the townships of Chester County, the anti-slavery advocates of those townships were just as familiar with him. When news of the Unionville kidnapping was published in the National Era, McCreary was apparently already well known, because the paper identified him as “a professional slave-catcher from Elkton.”
Indeed, the Chester County kidnapping cases all seemed to share a similar method of operation. In the Downingtown incident, witnesses reported that three white men were lurking near the door, waiting for it to be opened in the morning. When a younger African American boy opened it as part of his morning chores, they rushed inside and went directly upstairs to where the girl was sleeping, grabbed her and carried her screaming down the stairs and into a waiting carriage. George Mitchell, of Unionville, was taken in the middle of the night by three or four men who broke down his door, threatened his wife with a pistol, and hurried the half-dressed man into a carriage. In both cases, the carriage proceeded to a train station a safe distance away from the abduction site and the party boarded a train for Baltimore. About two weeks before the kidnapping of Rachel Parker, her sister Elizabeth, then working for a man named Matthew Donnelly in East Nottingham Township, was kidnapped by McCreary and another man in the early evening, when she stepped out of doors after clearing the supper table. She was put into a wagon and driven to Elkton, then taken by train to Baltimore. Because Elizabeth was too surprised to cry out and alert her employer, Donnelly may have assumed she ran off. He never sounded an alarm or alerted anyone to her disappearance. McCreary and his team had been lucky in this instance, and turned their attention to capturing her sister in West Nottingham.
Whether Joseph Miller knew, at the time his servant Rachel Parker was disappearing down a side road, that her kidnapper was “the infamous McCreary,” as The North Star had taken to calling the Elkton slave-catcher, is not known. Left standing in the road beside his neighbor, James Pollock, Miller could only sound the alarm among his friends and neighbors and head toward the Maryland line, where he would have assumed they were headed.
In later testimony, Rachel Parker would tell what happened after the kidnappers pulled away from Pollock's private lane. “One of the men tore a hole in the back of the carriage, to look out to see if they were coming after us, and they said they wished they had given Miller and Pollock a blow,” she remembered. Upon reaching the railroad station at Perryville, the party waited for the train at a nearby tavern. Rachel told the innkeeper that she was free, but was ignored. She told several persons at the railroad office, but the most reaction that she could get was from a man who “thought that they had better take me back again.” By seven o'clock that evening, Rachel found herself in Baltimore, in the holding cells of slave dealer William L. Campbell.
Unknown to Rachel, she was recognized in Perryville by Eli Haines, a friend of Joseph Miller, who just happened to be at the train station at the same time, on his way with an acquaintance to Philadelphia. Haines also recognized McCreary, saw Rachel's obvious distress and understood what was happening. Changing their plans, Haines and his traveling companion boarded the cars to Baltimore to keep watch over her. They followed the group in the city to Campbell's place of business, then returned to the train station to wait for Miller, whom they knew would be following in pursuit.
Guessing correctly, Haines met Miller and three other men from West Nottingham when they arrived and together the rescue party went to the home of Francis Cochran in Baltimore to ask for his aid. Cochran, a Quaker, summoned the police and took the party to Campbell's where they identified Rachel and insisted that she was free. Campbell, faced with a number of angry men and a city constable, agreed to let Rachel be removed to the city prison until the matter could be sorted out. About that time, McCreary arrived, intending to move Rachel, but the Elkton man was arrested instead on charges of kidnapping. A city Justice of the Peace set his appearance for January 7th, 1852. Joseph Miller and his companions, feeling somewhat relieved that they had found the girl and rescued her from certain enslavement, prepared to return home.
Although the rescue party seemed to secure the cooperation of city legal authorities fairly easily, Baltimore was far removed from being a friendly place for abolitionists. The charge of kidnapping was straightforward, and McCreary had clearly disregarded the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law by bringing the girl directly from Pennsylvania to Baltimore. This was also not the first time that McCreary had been in legal trouble due to his snatch and run techniques. Two years before, his involvement with the kidnapping of an African American woman, Ann Brown, near Wilmington resulted in a trial in which she was freed, in part because McCreary did not show for the trial, but also due to “the illegality of her commitment.” The North Star reported “fearing for their own safety, the whole robber gang left for Maryland before the trial came on.”
But legal justifications aside, Joseph Miller and his neighbors were now in Baltimore only three months after the Christiana Resistance incident, and emotions, as well as anti-abolitionist rhetoric, were running red-hot. Pro-slavery advocates, satisfied with the new provisions in the Federal Fugitive Slave Act, were shocked by the violent turn of events in the small community on the border between Lancaster and Chester Counties. In the wake of the event which left Edward Gorsuch dead and his son Dickinson seriously wounded, southern slaveholders trusted northern courts to uphold the tenets of the Fugitive Slave Law and find the rioters guilty of treason. Instead, on December 11, 1851, after fifteen minutes of deliberation, the jury found all of the defendants not guilty. To southern slave interests, this verdict was a slap in the face, and Edward Gorsuch became a martyred hero. Now, twenty days later, Miller and his friends were in southern territory, charging a slave-catcher with kidnapping and assault. They were aware of the threat, made in the wake of the Christiana Trial by a member of Gorsuch's party, “of hanging the first Abolitionist that they should catch in Maryland.”
The tensions that were building between north and south had vast political implications. The Christiana violence in particular had an immediate impact on the political career of Pennsylvania governor William F. Johnston. Strongly committed to Free Soil politics, Johnston, leading the state Whig party, had opposed the compromise measures of 1850 at the state Whig Convention in June of that year. State Democrats supported the compromise, calling for popular sovereignty regarding the extension of slavery in the territories. Pennsylvania's Whigs seemed confident that Johnston, who accepted the nomination for second term, could hold off the Democratic candidate William Bigler using the same anti-tariff issue that had worked so well in 1848. Johnston's anti-tariff stance had helped him to carry the economically depressed coal and mining regions, while his well-known anti-slavery views played well in the northern tier counties and in Allegheny and Lancaster Counties. State Whigs were relying on a repeat of the 1848 election when violence visited the town of Christiana.
Caught unprepared by the widespread outrage at the lawlessness, and the public's fear of further incidents by emboldened free Blacks, Johnston lost considerable public confidence by not taking immediate decisive action. He was actively campaigning when the revolt took place, and took several days to issue a proclamation offering a $1,000 reward for the capture of those involved in the death of Gorsuch. Democrats seized upon the issue and brought up Johnston's refusal to sign a measure passed by the state legislature at the close of the 1851 session to repeal the portion of Pennsylvania's laws, passed in 1847, denying the use of state jails to hold captured fugitive slaves. In the end, Bigler captured the governorship by more than 8,000 votes, doing well in traditionally Whig counties.
The verdicts in the Christiana trials would not affect the outcome of the gubernatorial election, which was held in October, two months before the trail came to a conclusion. But those verdicts inflamed sentiment in both the north and south. Northern abolitionists were blamed for setting the stage for violence, for defying the compromise of the Fugitive Slave Law, and for denying justice to southern slaveholders. Most citizens in Pennsylvania had accepted the Fugitive Slave Law as a necessary measure to ensure peace between free and slave interests, and to safeguard the union. Average citizens such as Joseph Miller and his companions in Baltimore, who were not known to be actively abolitionist, probably supported the law. Their mission this December evening had nothing to do with anti-slavery sentiments. They were in Baltimore seeking to find a free woman who had been taken south in defiance of the law.
Unable to secure her immediate freedom, however, they boarded a train for the return home. Their route to the train station had been somewhat roundabout, at the suggestion of Francis Cochran, who feared for their safety in the city. Nevertheless, they boarded the train without incident and awaited its departure for Pennsylvania. Miller, against the advice of his friends, stepped out onto the platform to smoke a cigar. He did not return, and his friends searched the platform and the train, but did not find him. They returned to their seats, quite worried, as the train started, and searched again when it stopped in Havre de Grace, but Miller was not to be found. Two of them even returned to Baltimore to search for their lost companion, but had no luck. It was New Years Day when the Chester County men finally returned home, but anger and dismay replaced holiday celebrations among local residents. A group of about twenty men volunteered to return to Baltimore the next day, vowing to find Miller, but the next morning, before they could leave, the news that some men on their way to work discovered Joseph Miller's body hanging from a tree at Stemmer's Run, about nine miles from Baltimore.
Friends of the family returned to Baltimore on January 9th to claim the body, which had been examined by the county coroner, declared a suicide, and had been buried near the city. Finding it too dangerous to do so in the daylight, they were taken to Miller's grave after dark, disinterred him and were almost at the Pennsylvania state line when they received word that Governor Lowe of Maryland had issued an order that Miller's body was to be returned for a second post-mortem examination. The Chester men accompanying the body witnessed the examination, which they described as having a circus-like atmosphere, and which resulted in a confirmation of the decision that Miller had committed suicide. Finally allowed to return home with the remains, the friends of Joseph Miller allowed two county physicians to examine his body. The physicians found evidence of torture, and his wrists showed evidence of having been bound. This news caused a sensation beyond the county, as the rest of the state began to learn of the events that were proving to be more than another abduction, and which prompted a call for yet another post-mortem examination. For the first time, a thorough autopsy was performed on Miller's body, and traces of arsenic were discovered in his stomach. For most northerners now, it seemed apparent that Joseph Miller had been murdered.
The abolitionist newspapers first got wind of the story in mid January. The Washington, D.C. weekly National Era was the first to provide coverage, running a “Letter from Baltimore” dated January 5, 1852, describing in considerable detail the events up to that time. McCreary, who was being held on kidnapping charges, had a hearing on January 7th. The chief witness against him, testifying that Rachel Parker was a free person, was to have been Joseph Miller. In Miller's place appeared “a large number of witnesses,” according to the correspondent, who testified that Rachel was the daughter of a free woman, with whom they had been acquainted even before the birth of Rachel. For the defense, “four or five witnesses,” including the alleged owner of Rachel, a Mrs. Dickahut, “swore, to their positive and unequivocal belief, that the girl in question was the slave of the claimant.” The article noted the second intended examination of Miller's body was pending, and promised to furnish the details of that examination.
The following week the National Era continued its coverage, with its correspondent noting that the hearing did not conclude until January 15th with the release of McCreary due to insufficient evidence to warrant trying him for kidnapping. One of McCreary's accomplices, a man by the name of John Merritt, testified that Miller was the source of information that Rachel Parker was a slave, and that Miller had hoped to share in the reward money offered by her alleged owner. The story concluded with the results of the second coroner's inquest, which affirmed the original suicide ruling, saying “So ended that chapter of this most curious as well as lamentable and appalling case.”
By the end of January, the Frederick Douglass Paper had picked up the story under the headlines “Kidnapping and Murder.” It placed a correspondent in Baltimore “to ascertain the truth of the reports which had previously reached us.” Other than reciting the facts as previously covered by the National Era, the editors of the Frederick Douglass Paper added the observation that “the universal impression in West Nottingham seemed to be that Mr. Miller was foully murdered: and from all the facts we have thus far been able to glean, this is almost an inevitable conclusion.” The paper also reported that Pennsylvania Governor Johnston had issued a requisition for McCreary.
On February 19th the Frederick Douglass Paper published a full account of the events, trial and investigations related to the Rachel Parker kidnapping, sparing no verbiage. Using terms such as “outrage,” “fiendish,” “heinous,” and “tyrannical.” McCreary was described as “the notorious kidnapper,” “inhuman,” and his accomplices were “monsters.” It described the coroner who originally performed the inquest on Miller's body as “a tavern-keeper” and the coroner's jury as “tavern-keepers and drunkards.” Locals attending the inquest were “a mob,” which “exhibited their voracious savagery,” as they witnessed the proceedings. Testimony on McCreary's behalf was “perjured,” and one of the witnesses “a notorious knave.” It brought out details about the coffin in which Miller was originally buried near Baltimore, describing an ill-fitting lid that allowed dirt to fall in on the body, and noting that it was buried in mud, barely two feet deep. It also, for the first time, broke the news that Pennsylvania physicians had found arsenic in Miller's stomach and bowels. The article concluded that the kidnapping was in reality a plot by “blood-thirsty Marylanders” to lure Pennsylvania abolitionists south in defense of a known free person, “to wreak their vengeance upon them without mercy.”
Into this highly charged drama stepped Pennsylvania's newly inaugurated governor William Bigler. Despite his party affiliations, Bigler was not a supporter of slavery, although this did not keep him from making political gain by his predecessor's missteps in the Christiana events. Maryland's Governor Lowe was refusing to turn McCreary over to Pennsylvania authorities in the wake of Governor Johnston's request, and the abolitionist press began to pressure Bigler to press the issue. They had little real hope that he would do so. In his inaugural address the new governor noted “The dangerous conflict touching the subject of slavery, which for a time seemed to menace the stability of the National Government, has been most fortunately, and I trust, permanently adjusted through the medium of what are generally known as the Compromise Measures. The general acquiescence of the several States in this adjustment gives assurance of continued peace to the country and permanence to the Union.” Bigler continued by emphasizing that states “should certainly never attempt, by means of their legislatures, to embarrass the administration of the Constitution,” and went on to advocate the complete repeal of the “greater portion of the law of 1847, prohibiting the use of our State prisons for the detention of fugitives from labor, whilst awaiting trial,” an obvious slap at his predecessor's refusal to sign previous repeal measures. While Bigler might not have been a friend of the slaveholder, his dedication to the compromise measures assured that he was not a friend to the abolitionists, either.
In March, the Baltimore Sun reported “the Grand Jury had found a true bill in the case of the State vs McCreary, charged with false imprisonment in the arrest and detention of the girl Rachel Parker.” That same Grand Jury had also investigated the question of her status and had found that she was a free person. She was not, however, released from prison.
Late in April, Elizabeth Parker, sister of Rachel, was found enslaved in New Orleans. Her disappearance had been a mystery up to this point. Newspapers reported that she had been taken to Baltimore and immediately sold south, before her sister was abducted. Her owner in New Orleans agreed to let her return to Baltimore “to have the question of her freedom tested in the courts of that city.” Meanwhile, friends of Rachel Parker were pressing for a writ of habeas corpus for Rachel to be brought back to Chester County, where the abduction occurred, and to require those still claiming her as property to come to Chester to prove their claim. Though proved free by the Grand Jury in the course of hearing the case against McCreary, Rachel was still held as an alleged slave by the criminal court system.
By May, McCreary found it necessary to petition his state legislature for aid in defending himself against the charge of kidnapping, pending in Pennsylvania courts. Just as the Parker case was settling into legal maneuvering, another incident occurred in Columbia, Lancaster County, that further convinced Central Pennsylvanians that southern slave catchers were using violence with impunity under the cover of the Fugitive Slave Act. In early May, Baltimore constable Ridgely, armed with warrants issued by Harrisburg Commissioner Richard McAllister for the arrest of two fugitive slaves from Hartford County who were believed to be hiding in Columbia, and with Harrisburg deputy Solomon Snyder accompanying him, soon ferreted out one of the men, William Smith, working at a lumber yard in that town. Smith attempted to run away when confronted, and Snyder grabbed him and attempted to subdue him. Ridgely then drew a pistol and shot Smith point blank in the neck, killing him, in front of numerous witnesses. This event was suddenly splashed across the pages of the abolitionist newspapers, just as the kidnapping of Rachel Parker and the murder of Joseph Smith had been. Suddenly the Parker case became hot again, and the incidents began to be cited in political speeches.
U.S. Representative Floyd of New York addressed the House on the subject of these recent events, criticizing Governor Bigler's inaugural dedication to the Constitution and its Compromises, asking “what is it worth?” Citing instance after instance of mounting violence resulting from the Fugitive Slave Law, Floyd sneered “And yet the Governor tells us that the people of Pennsylvania are sound upon the subject.”
The National Era charged that Bigler had “permitted the rights and liberties of a Pennsylvania woman to be violated, and herself thrust into prison, and he has not remonstrated against the foul deed…She was dragged from her native home and State, several months ago, by men who, in doing so, violated the Constitution of the United States, and violated, also, the sovereignty of Pennsylvania; yet neither the United States nor Pennsylvania has resented this outrage.”
January 4, 1853. The Baltimore press reports “The petition for freedom by Rachel Parker, who is alleged to have been kidnapped in Chester county, Pennsylvania, and claimed as a slave, was commenced in the county court today. Seventy witnesses from Pennsylvania are present. Judge Campbell the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Judge Bell, and William Norris, of Baltimore are employed by the Legislature of Pennsylvania to appear for the petitioner.” She had been in prison for over a year, and finally Governor Bigler was acting. It did not take seventy witnesses to testify, one by one, that Rachel Parker and her sister Elizabeth, who was included in the claim, was free. The claimant gave up under the onslaught and the court declared the two girls free. But the claimant had a condition, which was sanctioned by the court. They were only allowed to return to Chester County if Pennsylvania Attorney General Campbell agreed that no further charges would be pursued against McCreary and John Merritt. The girls returned home, finally, and in February appeared before a Pennsylvania Grand Jury to testify against Thomas McCreary. In due course the court issued an indictment of Thomas McCreary and John Merritt for kidnapping. Maryland Governor Lowe protested, citing the agreement by Pennsylvania Attorney General Campbell not to pursue charges against the men, but Governor Bigler noted that Campbell had overstepped his legal authority to agree to such a compromise. In the end, it didn't matter. Maryland refused to extradite either man.
Across the state, however, backing for the Fugitive Slave Law had diminished significantly. Bigler was roundly criticized for his ineffectiveness during the entire, drawn out affair, and Pennsylvanians were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with various aspects of the law. In Harrisburg, Federal Slave Commissioner Richard McAllister was forced to leave the appointed position when all of his deputies were turned out of office in 1852. Previously indifferent or neutral newspapers became increasingly hostile toward enforcement of the law. Fugitives began to arrive in Pennsylvania in increasing numbers, culminating in a veritable flood of freedom seekers who left Maryland's Eastern Shore in late 1857. It was not solely the Rachel Parker affair that set in motion these events, but the incident drew attention over a long period of time to the disquieting aspects of the sectional conflict, and in the end Governor Bigler's “assurance of continued peace” through compromise, was trumped by the sensational headlines of “Kidnapping and Murder.”
Reminiscences, Miscellaneous Works:
Coleman, John F. The Disruption of the Pennsylvania Democracy, 1848-1860. Harrisburg, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1975.
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