Persons of Color
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)
the Bloodhounds: Harrisburg Loses its Slave Commissioner
redemption of James Phillips was a victory, but
it did little to make Harrisburg African Americans feel safer.
A month after Phillips had been taken south, an advertisement appeared
in the newspapers around Frederick, Maryland, a town only about
twenty-four miles south of the border—about seventy miles
south of Harrisburg, seeking to buy “one hundred Negroes
for the New Orleans Market.” The buyer, Wilson W. Kolb, noted
that he was “always in the market,” and could be reached
through a post office box in Frederick. The ad kept high the fear
of kidnapping in the border counties, a harsh reminder that no
African American, regardless of birth status, could yet sleep soundly.
at least one instance, someone decided to bring a taste of that same
fear to one of the men who was helping to sustain it. In the hot summer
days after James Phillips was returned to Harrisburg, someone decided
to take revenge against the man most held responsible for his arrest.
Early in August, “an attempt was recently made to fire the residence
of Richard McAllister,” reported the Gettysburg Star and
Banner. The newspaper suspected an unknown anti-slavery activist
was the culprit, and severely condemned the attempt, even though it
felt that McAllister was “unquestionably a tyrannical and inhumane
McAllister was feeling the heat of an unpopular public image, he did
not yet show it. Two weeks later, his men pursued their largest mass
arrest yet, as fourteen fugitive slaves, recent runaways from a Mrs.
Pendleton, of Washington County, Maryland, were reported to have been
captured near Harrisburg and jailed until their owner could come to
town and claim them. A later report said that the fourteen slaves had
not actually been captured, but were still at large in Harrisburg.
Either way, it made for a busy summer.89
remained the hot topic in Harrisburg through the remainder of the year.
In November, the Harrisburg Standard reported on the kidnapping
of an African American child named John Henry Wilson Clark, from his
Danville home. The kidnappers, identified as William Kelly and his
wife, were arrested when they took the boy to Baltimore and offered
him for sale. They were thwarted, in part, by the prompt actions of
Danville African American abolitionist William Thompson, who wrote
letters to the local newspapers describing the stolen child and attesting
to his free status.90
few months after the Pendleton runaways were reported, another large
group of fugitive slaves, said to number twenty-six persons, men, women
and children, escaped from the Funkstown, Maryland plantation of Edward
Cheney and disappeared in the heartland of central Pennsylvania. Cheney’s
son, acting as agent for his father, pursued the slaves as far as Lancaster,
where he felt that they were taking refuge, and then went to Harrisburg
to obtain a warrant from Commissioner McAllister. A party of men from
Harrisburg was dispatched with the young Cheney, headed by an unidentified
brother of Richard McAllister, to Lancaster, to attempt to hunt down
the large group of runaway slaves.
arrived in the middle of the annual Agricultural Fair, only to find
the city thick with visitors and buzzing with activity. Their attempts
to locate any of the freedom seekers were stifled by the general chaos
of the fair, and the Marylander became quite agitated at the perceived
indifference of the local residents. Stopping at a local hotel, the
slave catcher gave vent to his frustrations through “loud and
bullying language, and…ruffian like display of dirks and revolvers.” The
hotelkeeper called the police, who were unable to calm the man. He
was finally arrested for disturbing the peace, and spent a night in
the city jail.91 Although
no slaves were arrested, the incident cast yet another shadow on the
behavior of the Harrisburg Slave Commissioner’s men.
shadow became impossibly long and damaging in the next round of municipal
elections. Public dissatisfaction with the methods employed by the
Slave Commissioner, and with the results of his zealous adherence to
the new Fugitive Slave Law, was growing. Rumors began to circulate
that several of the constables who regularly assisted McAllister might
be turned out of office in the next election.
Fenn, editor of the Harrisburg Telegraph,
had become increasingly critical of McAllister’s operation,
questioning not only the legality of some of the procedures, but
McAllister’s honesty as well. By the time that the elections
came around, Fenn was openly attacking the Fugitive Slave Law as
unconstitutional, and referring to slave catchers as “bloodhounds.” He
reserved special criticism for McAllister, charging that the commissioner
and his men had gone well beyond simply following the law; they
had, Fenn believed, taken an active role in ferreting out fugitive
slaves in the region and had been notifying their masters to come
early March, Fenn endorsed two borough constables by assuring his readers, “Neither
of these men have had anything to do with the despicable negro-catching
business. That business has been in the hands of the slave commissioner
and his police.” Fenn’s characterization of Constable James
Lewis was correct. The rookie policeman had not been sucked into McAllister’s
operation, but High Constable Henry Lyne had been involved, although
to a lesser extent than the other two constables who were up for reelection:
Henry Loyer and Solomon Snyder.93
of degree of involvement, no candidate who bore the taint of slave
catching was reelected in the March 1853 election. Solomon Snyder and
Henry Loyer were not only defeated for the office of constable, they
were firmly trounced, receiving respectively the lowest and second
lowest number of votes cast for that office. Their fellow constable,
James Lewis, who had remained clear of the slave catching activities,
received the second highest number of votes and was reelected.
Lyne was similarly defeated in his bid to remain Harrisburg’s
high constable, losing decisively to a former high constable, Michael
Newman. High Constable Newman had been cited, years earlier, by the Telegraph editors
for his outstanding conduct during the violent 1850 riots, in which
the three fugitive slaves and Harrisburg resident Joseph Pople were
brutally beaten by slave catchers.
who lived in the racially diverse North Ward of the borough and counted
many of the outraged African Americans in the crowd as his neighbors, “displayed
great courage, coolness, and presence of mind, in his endeavors to
quell the rioters; yet strange to say, he had no occasion to use violence
with anyone,” the newspaper marveled. Other constables made liberal
use of their clubs to keep the crowd back, but Newman was able to keep
control of his area by being “persuasive, humane and resolute.” Although
his actions in keeping the crowd back helped to protect the Virginians
who were violently subduing the released fugitive slaves, there is
no evidence that he was aware of what was happening inside that small
prison antechamber. His effective and humane crowd control, driven
by the mutual respect he enjoyed with his neighbors of color, may in
fact have kept the chaos from taking a turn into deadly violence, as
occurred at Christiana a year later.
voters turned away from Newman in the next election, but in the intervening
years, as their enthusiasm for the Fugitive Slave Law waned, and their
appetite for harsh anti-runaway measures was dulled by unrelenting
violence, they emphatically returned to the aging former high constable
they remembered as “humane and resolute.”94
Sign of Change
change was hailed in local newspapers as “a
sign.” The Gettysburg Star and Banner gloated, “Solomon
Snyder, Henry Loyer, and Henry Lyne, notoriously known for their
efforts to execute the fugitive slave law, were defeated, although
members and candidates of the dominant party.”95
defeat of the Democratic constables, however, was also a significant
defeat for Commissioner Richard McAllister. His post was safe—he
had been appointed by a federal judge—but within the space of
one election, nearly his entire enforcement arm was neutralized. His
use of the borough constables and his control of the high constable
office had given an air of authority to his operation, helping to mask
the numerous improprieties.
his henchmen’s loss of the constable posts was disastrous, it
appears that McAllister, even before the election, was making plans
to move on from the post of slave commissioner. On 11 March, he wrote
a letter to the venerable Lancaster politician Reah Frazier, requesting
one of his “bold, eloquent letters to the president,” on
his behalf to help clinch his appointment by the newly elected Franklin
Pierce to the Governorship of Minnesota Territory. He addressed his
letter to Frazier from the United States Hotel, in Washington, D.C.,
where he had gone to lobby for a job with the new administration. Noting
confidently that the territorial governorship had by then “settled
down between [McAllister] and a resident of the territory,” he
sought one final endorsement as insurance. McAllister closed the letter
rather jauntily, noting “I feel sure of success,” but as
it happened, he was typically overconfident. President Franklin Pierce
awarded the appointment to one of his chief campaign supporters, and
McAllister’s rival for the post, Willis Arnold Gorman, a few
Slave Commissioner experienced yet another severe setback in his slave
catching activities when, in May, three of his men were charged with
kidnapping in Lancaster County. Most of them had successfully weathered
such charges in the past, but this time the situation appeared direr.
One person, in April, had already been convicted in the incident, fined
$1,000, and sentenced to nine years at hard labor in the Lancaster
County Prison. The caper occurred earlier in the year and depended
upon the cooperation of a thirty-two-year-old African American laborer
from Marietta, named John Anderson, to lure their prey, a young Maytown
boy, away from town where he could be easily captured.
found his target in Maytown and somehow convinced the boy, a free African
American resident named John McKinney, to accompany him to Marietta,
a few miles away. Just outside of town, a carriage with two white men
drove up alongside Anderson’s wagon and forced it to stop. The
two men grabbed McKinney, quickly tied him up and drove away. There
had been witnesses who saw Anderson and McKinney leave Maytown together,
and when he arrived in Marietta without the boy, his explanation of
the boy’s disappearance satisfied no one. Anderson became the
prime suspect and was put in the Marietta jail. He did not identify
McKinney’s assailants—either he was sticking to a kidnapping
story in which he was an innocent bystander, or perhaps he did not
know the Harrisburg constables who had paid him to seduce McKinney
away from town into the open countryside.
was tried and found guilty at the Lancaster County January 1853 sessions,
but an appeal for a new trial, which was overruled, delayed his sentencing
until April. By that time, Anderson’s accomplices were identified
as John Sanders, Solomon Snyder, Henry Loyer—three of Richard
McAllister’s most important men—and a fourth man named
Strine, who until this point was not associated with any of McAllister’s
four men were indicted in the April sessions, and arrest warrants issued.
Snyder and Loyer were arrested in Harrisburg and committed to prison,
neither man being able to make bail. Strine and John Sanders fled to
Baltimore, and ultimately were the subject of a requisition from Pennsylvania
Governor Bigler for their return. By the end of May, a local newspaper
reported that “the band of Slave-hunters at Harrisburg has been
broken up,” as it recounted the kidnapping charges against McAllister’s
Federal Commissioner, shorn of his enforcement arm, decided it was
time to move on to other pursuits, and resigned his commission. Harrisburg
anti-slavery activists in Harrisburg were ecstatic. Freedom was reborn
in Harrisburg in the spring of 1853.
and Banner, 25 June, 13 August, 1852.
Mail, reported in Frederick Douglass Paper, 27 August
and Banner, 12 November 1852.
William Thompson and his wife Hannah are some of a few African American
residents of Danville who openly advocated for abolition in this Susquehanna
River town. Thompson, a barber, wrote to local newspapers and politicians
to keep the issue on the mind of local residents, and they hosted visiting
anti-slavery speakers in their home. A traveling agent identified only
as “W” praised the Thompsons in the pages of the 8 December
1854 edition of the Frederick Douglass Paper:
Thompson, a very intelligent and upright gentleman of color, resides
in Danville. The fact that he subscribes for 4 or 5 Anti-Slavery
papers, and pays for them regularly, is a sufficient recommendation.
He has to do all the Anti-Slavery preaching. His place of business
is a real Anti-Slavery library, and picture gallery. We commend
him to the consideration of some of our colored men in business,
who are afraid to let a ‘ customer ‘ see an Anti-Slavery
paper on the table; those who generally thrust it, if they dare
take any, in the drawer and lock it, till the shop is closed. Mr.
Thompson spoke with much earnestness at both of our meetings. We
hope success may attend him in all his relations. For his kindness,
and that of his accomplished wife who ministered to us both in
sickness and in healthy, are we specially grateful.
Freeman, 27 October 1852, reported in Frederick Douglass
Paper, 3 December 1852. I have been unable to identify the brother
of Richard McAllister who was reported to be involved in this incident.
Telegraph, 16 October 1850; Eggert, “Impact,” 556.
Telegraph, reported in the Frederick Douglass Paper,
11 March 1853; Eggert, “Impact,” 563.
Telegraph, 28 August 1850; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census,
North Ward of Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, p. 66; Eggert, “Impact,” 564.
and Banner, 8 April 1853.
Richard McAllister, Washington DC, to Reah Frazier, Lancaster, PA,
11 March 1853, private collection of Gregg F. Freyseth; Gregg F. Freyseth,
email to George F. Nagle, 24 October 2009. Richard McAllister bided
his time in Harrisburg for a while, then moved west and worked with
John White Geary, beginning in July 1856, as Governor of Kansas Territory.
In March 1857, when Geary was relieved of the governorship by President
Buchanan, McAllister went to Iowa. He was appointed Postmaster of Keokuk,
Iowa in 1860. Patriot and Union, 30 October 1860.
Intelligencer, 26 April 1853; Star and Banner, 29 April,
20, 27 May 1853; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Marietta, Lancaster