central pennsylvania african american history for everyone
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A 1919 street map of the old Eighth Ward, home to many Harrisburg Blacks until it was razed for an extension of Capitol Park.State historical marker for Underground Railroad activity in Harrisburg's Tanner Alley neighborhood, located at Walnut Street near Fourth.


African American History
in South Central
the 19th century


Fugitive Slave Incidents in Central Pennsylvania

George F. Nagle


As a border state between the free North and slaveholding South, Pennsylvania was a key part of many escape routes for northern-bound runaway slaves in the years before the Civil War.   The Underground Railroad traced some of its most important “lines” from the Mason-Dixon line through many quiet south-central Pennsylvania farming communities, northward to the relative safety of the New York state border.

Although in a free state, runaway slaves could not relax once inside of Pennsylvania’s borders.  Federal and state laws guaranteed the right of southern slaveholders to pursue and recover their “property” on northern soil. Only the national border dividing Canada and the United States provided a real barrier to slave-catchers and safety for fleeing slaves. Despite the dangers, however, many slaves felt secure enough in Pennsylvania to settle down and begin a new life, taking jobs in towns and cities that already had sizable free Black populations. As a result, in the two decades prior to the Civil War, the African American population in south central Pennsylvania swelled with a mixture of freeborn Blacks and resettled fugitive slaves.

In towns such as Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Columbia, and Carlisle, the transformation of a growing African American population into a tightly knit Black community happened fairly quickly once Blacks broke free of dependence on local whites for housing and employment. Black churches, businesses and property holders all emerged in the 1830’s, creating conditions for several vibrant and healthy African American communities across central Pennsylvania. In addition to providing employment, housing, social interaction and religious solace, these communities provided some insulation from white hostility, and more importantly, protection from the southern slave hunters who frequently ventured into them.

That protection most often consisted of hiding fugitive slaves until safe passage could be arranged for their journey further northward, or finding work and shelter for those who decided to take their chances and become a part of the community.  The latter strategy was based upon the concept of establishing long-term residence in a free state, thus nullifying any claim of ownership that a southern slaveholder might have should he discover the fugitive’s whereabouts years later.  This concept was not based upon legal precedent, but rather drew strength from African notions of a village as a means of mutual protection.[i]

Despite the support offered by the surrounding African American community, fugitive slaves were occasionally located by persistent slaveholders and remanded to slavery after trial before a federal judge. Although local African Americans usually observed the proceedings and frequently assembled in large, agitated groups outside of the courthouse, violence between slaveholders and free Blacks was rare. The surrounding white community exhibited little interest in the plight of those former local residents bound for the return to slavery, and only became involved when the outrage of local Blacks threatened to disrupt order in the community. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, however, changed the ways in which each group reacted to incursions by southern slave catchers.  The authoritarian measures of the law threatened the security of the African American community and intimidated and angered many local whites. It also widened the ideological divide between the northern and southern states and set the scene for numerous incidents along the way toward a sectional clash.

Local Slavery Traditions

Black slaves existed and were held in Pennsylvania from its earliest years as a British colony.  The first Quaker settlers bought the entire slave cargo of the merchant ship Isabella, consisting of 150 Africans, in 1684. Prior to that, a few African slaves existed in the region populated by the Dutch, Swedes and Finns.[ii]  In central Pennsylvania, slaves were held chiefly by the wealthier and established residents of each county, and were used for agricultural, industrial and domestic work. Runaway slaves were not uncommon during the colonial period, and local residents generally accepted the enslavement of Negroes as a fact of daily life.

Advertisements for the runaway slaves of local slaveholders existed side by side with those for the runaway slaves of Maryland and Virginia slaveholders in local and locally read newspapers.  Central Pennsylvania residents who took the time to either return slaves or alert the slaveholders to the fugitive’s location frequently collected rewards for their efforts.  County sheriffs jailed suspected runaways and published advertisements seeking a restitution of costs from the owners.[iii]

While slaveholding in Central Pennsylvania remained firmly entrenched through the Revolutionary War, support for the practice was waning in Philadelphia. The new state legislature, which was influenced and dominated by a younger generation of revolutionary-minded Quakers, in March 1780, passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.  This act did not free any currently held slaves, but stipulated that all children of slaves born after the passage of the act would be free upon reaching their 28th birthday.  In this manner, Pennsylvania was to gradually abolish slavery while protecting the property rights of its current slaveholders.  This inconsistent effort regarding abolition was characteristic of the attitude that most white central Pennsylvanians held toward slavery during the next seventy years.

Nevertheless, slavery did fade in central Pennsylvania.  Census figures for Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry and York counties show a diminishing population of slaves-for-life from 1790 through 1840, with the most dramatic decreases occurring between 1810 and 1820, and 1830 and 1840.[iv]  As local slaves died or were emancipated by slaveholders, Negro slavery became increasingly associated with the south, and reports of fugitive slaves always seemed to involve Blacks from the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia.

Early Fugitive Slave Incidents

The first widely reported incident of involvement by Harrisburg’s free Black community in the plight of a fugitive slave came in April 1825 when a Maryland slaveholder in search of one of his runaway slaves entered town, located the fugitive and had the man jailed until a trial could be held.  Word of the capture spread through the town’s small Black population and, according to early historian Luthor Reily Kelker, “a large number of local colored people…armed with clubs, and exhibit[ing] a menacing appearance” waited outside of the courthouse until the slaveholder and captured fugitive left the building at the conclusion of the trial.[v]

Another reporter described the crowd as “tumultuous,” and “desperate,” writing, “they came streaming in hot haste,” but were not successful in rescuing the fugitive.  Kelker noted that one of the would-be rescuers was shot in the arm when he landed a punch on the slaveholder, and another scuffle occurred at the public house where the slaveholder took the slave in preparation for the journey back south.  Local authorities moved in and arrested sixteen local Blacks, twelve of whom were convicted and sentenced to hard labor.[vi]

Although southern slaveholders would pursue their slaves into south-central Pennsylvania communities through the next several decades, it would be twenty-five years before Harrisburg Blacks again organized en masse to attempt another rescue.  This twenty-year lack of spectacular attempted rescues did not indicate a lack of activity regarding fugitive slaves, however.  Some incidental evidence exists that indicates a readiness on the part of the town’s Black community to respond to emergencies.  State historian Frederic A. Godcharles recorded that in 1842 a “great mob of Negroes” attacked some slave catchers with clubs and stones.  Five years later, he relates, in November 1847, ten fugitive slaves hiding in Dr. William Rutherford’s barn in present-day Paxtang were cornered by four Marylanders who had tracked them to the hiding place.  A tense standoff occurred until nightfall when some of the slaves were able, with the aid of several local Black Underground Railroad “conductors,” to make their escape.  Meanwhile, another group of Harrisburg Blacks arrived to aid the fugitives, having been alerted to the standoff by one of the UGRR agents, but by the time of their arrival the slave catchers were gone.[vii]

Efforts both covert and legal were undertaken to either hinder or aid escaping slaves in the north.  The mid-1830’s is believed by historians to be the birth of the organized Underground Railroad system in Lancaster County.  Pennsylvania lawmakers also worked to get around the federal 1793 Fugitive Slave Act with laws passed in 1826 and 1847, both attempting to regulate the process of reclaiming fugitive slaves.  The 1826 statutes, called the Personal Liberty laws, required documentation of ownership by slaveholders in order to make a valid claim on their wayward slaves.  But these requirements were mild in relation to the 1847 act, which prohibited the kidnapping of Blacks, the use of unnecessary force in their apprehension, and the use of Pennsylvania jails as holding places before the mandated habeas corpus hearing.  Furthermore, it forbade the participation by any officer of the state in assisting with the capture of fugitive slaves or the enforcement of the 1793 federal act, or even to take cognizance of any case that arose as a result of that act.[viii]

These sweeping laws were a direct result of the 1842 Supreme Court decision in Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, in which Pennsylvania’s Personal Liberty Laws, and all state fugitive slave laws, were declared unconstitutional because of a constitutional clause declaring that no fugitive slaves could find haven anywhere in the Union.  Writing the opinion for the majority, Justice Joseph Story specifically cited the clause on interstate extradition that upheld the constitutionality of the 1793 federal law.  Enabling legislation passed by the states, according to Justice Story, was unnecessary because the extradition clause was self-executable and the 1793 federal law merely acted as supplemental interpretation.  Pennsylvania’s 1826 law, by requiring documentation of ownership, not only violated the constitution’s extradition clause, but, by placing undue additional burden of proof on the slave owners, also violated the 1793 federal law and thus became doubly unconstitutional.[ix]

Finally, Justice Story bowed to states’ rights pressures and ruled that although state officials could and should uphold the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, they were not compelled to do so.  This became the basis for the non-compliance features of the 1847 state law, which was carefully written so as not to contravene the high court’s decision.  This was the first northern state fugitive slave law passed in response to Prigg vs. Pennsylvania and it reflected the growing anger and frustration by northern legislatures attempting to protect their Black citizens.[x]

First Test in Carlisle

The 1847 Pennsylvania law was barely on the books when Dickinson College professor John McClintock, while attending a hastily arranged habeas corpus hearing in the Carlisle courthouse for three Blacks held by a pair of Hagerstown, Maryland slaveholders, witnessed, in his words, “a melee in the courtroom, the nature of which I did not understand.”  Arriving in the courtroom toward the end of the hearing, McClintock had been unaware of the rising tension between local Blacks and the sheriff and deputies who quite openly sided with the Marylanders.  Hours earlier George Norman, a Carlisle resident and free husband of the detained slave Hester, had attempted to rescue his wife as she was being jailed prior to being remanded back to slavery.  In the hours between that first small rescue attempt and the beginning of the hearing, the size of the crowd of local Blacks waiting outside of the courthouse grew to such an extent, and their mood seemed so defiant, that five local whites were deputized to aid the sheriff and his assistant in maintaining order and guarding the three prisoners.[xi]

Not long after McClintock entered the courtroom and seated himself with the counsel for the slaves, some Blacks in the back of the courtroom rushed the prisoners’ box, again with the intention of rescuing Hester.  Robert McCartney, assistant to Sheriff Jacob Hoffer, pulled a pistol and threatened to shoot anyone who did not back away.  The judge cleared the courtroom and all of the observers were pushed down the stairs and into the street.  McClintock witnessed a local Black man, an acquaintance, being menaced by one of the deputies near the door and a little later saw an elderly Black woman being accosted by two toughs.  In both cases the professor came to their rescue by intimidating the attackers with legal threats.

McClintock went to his room for a copy of the recent 1847 law that prohibited compliance by state officers in the capture and detaining of fugitive slaves, as well as the detention of fugitive slaves in state jails.  As he returned to the courthouse he saw the slaves being led from the courthouse into a waiting carriage.  A melee erupted and rocks, sticks and bricks were thrown.  The slaves made a break down an alley and the slave catchers chased after them, with most of the crowd following.  In the stampede and fighting, the slaveholder who claimed Hester, James Kennedy, was trampled.  Another man, a bystander, was injured in the fighting.  Kennedy’s injuries were said to be not dangerous, but on June 23rd, exactly three weeks after the riot, he unexpectedly died of his injuries.  McClintock and thirty-four Black citizens of Carlisle were indicted for riot, rescuing slaves lawfully in possession of their owners, and assault and battery.[xii]

The incident has come to be known as the McClintock Slave Riot, but the college professor barely had a hand in the event.  Carlisle’s Black community had quickly organized through word of mouth and assembled in force to attempt a rescue of the wife of one of their members.  The trial began August 25th and a verdict of guilty was returned against thirteen of the Black defendants several days later, with acquittals for all the rest.  Eleven of those found guilty were sentenced to three years in solitary confinement at Eastern Penitentiary, but the Supreme Court reversed the sentence a year later as being unduly harsh and unfair.[xiii]

Harrisburg Incidents

As in Carlisle, the Harrisburg constabulary routinely ignored the non-compliance provisions of the 1847 act.  In September 1849, two slave catchers chased and caught one of a family of five fugitives who had made it to Harrisburg, and attempted to drag the man to the Camelback Bridge, they apparently having reinforcements on the Cumberland County side.  The fugitive was rescued by two local Black men who sent him and his family to hide in the Tanner Alley neighborhood until evening, when they could be safely conducted further north.  Fearing a raid by the slave catchers on the neighborhood, a watch of twenty-five or thirty citizens was set up at Short Street to safeguard the fugitives for the night.  

County sheriff Jacob Shell, in company with several deputies, ordered the Blacks to disperse.  When they refused, a scuffle ensued.  The outnumbered sheriff called upon a local militia company for assistance, which assembled at Third and Market Streets by 11 p.m. and marched upon the neighborhood.  Finding the watch disbanded, the militiamen arrested what few Blacks they could find in the vicinity, beating several who resisted and firing upon at least one who fled.  Despite the militia’s success in scattering the watch group, the slave catchers were unable to find the fugitives the next day.  Harrisburg’s Black community expressed outrage at Sheriff Shell’s actions, believing him to have overstepped his authority in accommodating the slave catchers.[xiv]

Nearly one year later Harrisburg’s constabulary would again summon the militia to quell riotous Blacks in what would be the town’s largest uprising by its African American community against invading slave catchers.  On August 17, 1850, Harrisburg constable Solomon Snyder arrested three Blacks on charges of horse theft brought by two Virginia men.  By the time the three accused men were brought before Dauphin County Judge John J. Pearson on August 23 for a hearing, Harrisburg’s Black community had arranged a considerable legal defense, hiring local attorneys Mordecai McKinney and Charles Coatesworth Rawn.  The Virginians had in turn hired three Harrisburg lawyers to represent their interests.  The hearing took the entire day, during which a restless crowd gathered outside of the courthouse.[xv]

Judge Pearson waited until the next day, August 24th, to rule on the case.  The crowd of mostly local African Americans returned early in the morning, anticipating an unfavorable ruling.  Their agitated mood unnerved the sheriff, who called up a company of fifty militiamen to maintain order.  The militia was nearly assembled by the time Judge Pearson ruled that that, although the horse-stealing charge was groundless and clearly a ruse to force the state to hold the fugitives, the Virginia slaveholders could take custody of their slaves if they could preserve the peace in doing so.  Hoping to avoid the crowd outside, the slaveholders began to handcuff the slaves as soon as they left the jail.  Their efforts were met with cries and resistance from the slaves, and the Virginians began to beat the slaves in an effort to subdue them, which was the worst thing they could have done in the tense situation.

One man in the street, Joseph Pople, broke from the crowd and charged up the stone steps of the courthouse, brandishing a large stick.  Pople struggled with the slave catchers after succeeded in prying open the heavy iron door to the jail entrance, allowing one of the fugitives to make an escape.  The Virginians beat Pople and forced him back into the street, then turned to the remaining two slaves, whom they beat terribly before handcuffing them.  Although no one in the noisy crowd attempted to storm the jail entryway again, their menacing presence kept the Virginians from chasing down the escaped slave.  Blacks on the balcony of the nearby Exchange Building threw bricks and stones at the southerners and in the confusion a group of perhaps twenty Blacks sped off with the escaped fugitive east on Walnut Street toward Capitol Hill.  Meanwhile, the militia rolled out a cannon from the arsenal and set it up at the intersection of Third and Walnut Streets.[xvi]

With the potential for a much bloodier confrontation looming, the crowd, intimidated by the fieldpiece and unwilling to see a repeat of the previous year’s tangle with local militiamen, slowly melted away.  Judge Pearson ordered the immediate arrest of the slave catchers and the two remaining slaves and issued warrants for the arrest of nine local Blacks on charges of creating a riot.  By the time that the habeas corpus hearing for the slaves arrived, the provisions of the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had gone into effect, allowing the owner of the two remaining slaves to retrieve them without incident.  They were taken out of town with the help of a federally appointed posse of Harrisburg men.  The trial of the Virginians in November ended in not guilty verdicts, and the nine Harrisburg Blacks escaped trial due to the efforts of several leading white citizens of the town who petitioned Judge Pearson for a dismissal of the case.[xvii]

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

In sharp contrast to the August hearing, the two fugitive slaves were taken south in September with no commotion.  This was a direct result of the new provisions set forth in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 and signed into law by President Fillmore on September 18, the act was the southern response to the Pennsylvania Fugitive Slave Act of 1847 and similar obstructionist laws passed by other northern states.

The new law provided sweeping changes in the method of dealing with fugitive slave cases, providing for a specially appointed federal commissioner to hear cases instead of state courts.  The process would involve a hearing before the commissioner, instead of a trial, with only the sworn testimony of the slaveholder or agent required to secure possession of the slaves.  The slaves were not permitted to testify at all, and did not have the right to legal counsel or to call witnesses to testify on their own behalf.  An attorney could speak for the defendants, but because no notice of the hearing was required, most accused fugitives had no time to secure help.  Indeed some hearings in Harrisburg were held in the pre-dawn darkness and in one instance local attorneys McKinney and Rawn rushed almost directly from bed to the commissioner’s office, only to be refused time to prepare a defense.[xviii]

In addition to the hearing changes, the new law mandated that all citizens must help enforce the law, and the harboring of fugitives or the obstruction of the law was punishable by a fine or imprisonment.  It supported the appointment of federal posses to escort slaveholders and their slaves back to the south.  Perhaps most controversial was the fee system, which seemed to amount to a federally sanctioned bounty on captured slaves.  Federal commissioners who returned alleged slaves to slaveholders received fees of ten dollars per slave returned, but only a five-dollar total fee if he released the captives.

Appointed by U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on September 30, 1850, Harrisburg’s United States Commissioner was local lawyer Richard McAllister, who approached his new appointment with unabashed pro-southern sympathies.  One of his first actions after releasing the two fugitives from the August riot to their Virginia owners was to issue a warrant to several slave catchers for six fugitives known to be living in Wilkes-Barre.  The capture of the slaves, reported in the anti-slavery National Era, bemoaned the fact that little could be done on the part of the slaves due to “the charter of abominations, The Fugitive Slave Law.”[xix]  In October, in two separate incidents, Black women in Harrisburg were seized by white slave hunters.  In both instances the women were not taken south, but only because they could quickly prove their free status.  In November Commissioner McAllister issued a warrant for four alleged fugitives known to be in town.  Constable Solomon Snyder and John Sanders arrested the men, and, without even bothering with a hearing, took the captives immediately to the professed owner in Baltimore to collect a $1,000 reward.  This blatant circumvention of the hearing process brought strong protests from Harrisburg’s Black community.  Two Black citizens brought charges of kidnapping against Snyder and Sanders, but the pair escaped punishment in the April 1851 trial.

McAllister heard numerous cases during the next year, beginning in January with a Virginian who claimed a local young man, David, as his property.  David was returned with the slaveholder without protest.  In April, however, Constable Snyder and another local man, Michael Shaeffer, arrested an entire family.  Daniel Franklin, his wife Abby, daughter Caroline and an infant were brought before Commissioner McAllister as the property of two separate slaveholders in Maryland.  The Franklins had escaped together two years prior, settled in the large Black community at Columbia, Lancaster County, where the infant child was born.

As the family was led through the darkened, pre-dawn streets of Harrisburg, to the Commissioner’s office, word of the capture spread quickly through Harrisburg’s Black community.  In was in this instance that attorneys McKinney and Rawn were awakened with the news, and who rushed to McAllister’s office only to be denied time to learn the situation and prepare a defense.  A reporter from the Philadelphia Ledger wrote, “The thoroughfares of this usually demure borough were again thronged, early this morning, with an excited and threatening populace—the colored community.  From the clenched teeth of one and all was hissing forth the news that a man and wife, and a baby, had arrived in their midst in custody as fugitive slaves, and were about to be remanded by the Commissioner.”  Another reporter portrayed a sense of desperation on the part of Harrisburg Blacks at the dramatic events unfolding before their eyes, naming community leader William Jones and others who “rushed around the corners a little,” unable to help the fugitives.  The Franklin’s infant child, being born free in Pennsylvania, was taken by family friends, but the rest of the family was returned south with a young man representing the two slaveholders.

A man named Bob Sterling was brought before Commissioner McAllister in August 1851 as the property of a female slaveholder, who, upon observing the crowd of Blacks who gathered around the office during the hearing, requested that the commissioner assist her in getting her slave back home.  Harrisburg Blacks were quickly learning the value of making public demonstrations, at least in numbers, as a show of protest against the law, and of support for the fugitives.  In this case, the slaveholder’s fears did not prove groundless.  Because she was not taking Sterling home until the next day, she lodged him in a local hotel, Pennsylvania jails still being denied to slaveholders as holding areas, and during the night a fire was set in the hotel, probably as a crude attempt to make a rescue.  It failed, however, and the woman returned south with her slave.[xx]

Any fugitive slave cases in Harrisburg in September 1851 paled against the events in Lancaster County that month.  Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch, backed by U.S. Marshalls, surrounded the Christiana home of William Parker, a Black community leader and an escaped slave himself.  Parker had previously vowed not to surrender any fugitives to the law, openly defying one of the key components of the 1850 act.  Parker’s wife Eliza Ann sounded an alarm and local Blacks, who had been planning a defense, flocked to the scene.  Gorsuch was killed by a gunshot blast and three members of his party were wounded.  Parker and the fugitive slaves were forced to flee to Canada.  The situation was so serious that President Fillmore dispatched a company of U.S. Marines to reinforce a contingent of Philadelphia police that had been hastily dispatched to restore order.[xxi]

Fallout from the Christiana Revolt did not affect Harrisburg immediately, but it appears Commissioner McAllister saw an opportunity to use the white community’s fear of Black uprisings to his advantage.  In October 1851 four Blacks were arrested on the charge of complicity in murder for having participated in the Christiana uprising.  At McAllister’s request, Judge Pearson postponed their hearing for one day.  The following day, Pearson , finding no evidence against the men, dismissed all charges and lambasted the magistrate for false imprisonment.  McAllister and District Attorney James Fox both admitted wrongdoing in the matter, yet immediately handcuffed the men and took them across the street to McAllister’s office where a party of southern slaveholders awaited.  A brief hearing behind closed doors followed, after which the slaves left with the slaveholders for the south.

This incident was widely reported upon in local newspapers and picked up by both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery newspapers.  An anonymous source reported that McAllister, knowing from circulars that the four men were runaway slaves, had them imprisoned on the false Christiana charges and delayed the proceedings until he could notify the owners in Baltimore to quickly come to Harrisburg to claim the men.  The source also reported that McAllister accompanied the large posse, appointed to intimidate the usual gathering of local Blacks, with the slaves and slaveholders back to Baltimore where he collected an $800 reward.[xxii]

If 1851 was a year of fear and uncertainty for Harrisburg Blacks, 1852 was worse.  Christiana’s bloodshed was still fresh in everyone’s mind; the acquittal of the lone defendant who came to trial and the dismissal of charges against the others produced a fierce determination to resist in Blacks throughout the state, and a bitter resentment in southern minds.  The furor had not yet subsided when two sisters, Rachel and Elizabeth Parker, were kidnapped from their Chester County homes and taken to Maryland.  Elizabeth was almost immediately sold into slavery and later turned up in New Orleans, while Rachel and her kidnapper were followed by a party of friends, one of whom was Joseph Miller, with whose family she had been living for six years.  Miller located Rachel in a slave pen in Baltimore, then brought her assailant, Thomas McCreary, before a magistrate on kidnapping charges.  Miller was on his way home with friends when he became separated from them and was waylaid and murdered.  Rachel spent more than a year in Maryland prisons while the competing state courts tried to find a solution that would satisfy everyone.  In the end, Maryland courts agreed to declare Rachel and Elizabeth free women in exchange for a dismissal of all charges by Pennsylvania courts against McCreary and those under investigation for Miller’s murder.[xxiii]

Long before that legal compromise, which ended up pleasing no one, another outrageous murder occurred in Columbia.  In May 1852, Harrisburg’s Solomon Snyder and Henry Lyne, accompanying Baltimore police officer A.D. Ridgely with a warrant for a fugitive slave believed to be living in Columbia, found their man working at a lumberyard in that town.  Snyder and Ridgely took hold of the man, William Smith, who apparently struggled somewhat before Ridgely drew a pistol and shot him in the neck.  The bullet severed his jugular vein and Smith died within two minutes.  Ridgely agreed to give himself up, but instead fled to Maryland, and the two Harrisburg lawmen returned to Pennsylvania.  Inflamed Pennsylvania newspapers called for Ridgely’s arrest and murder trial, while Maryland newspapers printed the Baltimore policeman’s version of events that involved shooting Smith accidentally, then changing it later to self-defense.  The incident received national attention and Maryland’s Governor Lowe, still under pressure in the Miller murder case, appointed two commissioners to make an investigation and confer with Pennsylvania’s Governor Bigler.[xxiv]

In the end, Ridgely was not prosecuted.  Pennsylvania’s Attorney General declined to pursue charges, based upon another incident involving a young free Black child from Harrisburg.  Young John Johnson, missing for several months, was located in Baltimore as the property of a Mr. Petherbridge, who bought the child’s time to age twenty-one from the local jailor. How the young boy got to Baltimore has never been determined, but his new owner demanded $100 for his return to Pennsylvania. Johnson’s mother, unable to raise the money, appealed for help locally.  Commissioner McAllister, seeing an opportunity to repair his much maligned reputation, agreed to intercede on the boy’s behalf and wrote a letter to the two Maryland commissioners investigating the Columbia murder.  He appealed to them to return the child to his mother, which they were successful in doing.  Characterized in the Frederick Douglass Paper as “a peace offering to Pennsylvania,” the incident ended happily for the Johnson family, and also had the effect of ending the legal aspects of the Columbia murder case.[xxv]  It did nothing to end the fear and resentment felt by Black communities in Pennsylvania, who viewed the agreements that ended the John Johnson and the Rachel Parker cases, as political ransom.

“Kidnapping” and “ransom,” inflammatory words used freely in the Parker and Johnson cases, were particularly apt in the James Phillips case, which began just as those other cases had ended.  Phillips, a well-known Harrisburg teamster, had lived in the town for many years and was married with two small children.  Two Virginians, a Mr. Hudson and a Mr. Vowles, came to town in June 1852 and had Phillips arrested as a fugitive slave from their client.  They claimed that Phillips had escaped in 1833, and that they remembered him, despite the passage of nineteen years.  McAllister frustrated every attempt made by attorneys McKinney and Rawn to defend Phillips, and, in defiance of the still valid 1847 state law forbidding the use of Pennsylvania jails to hold fugitive slaves, sent Phillips to the Harrisburg jail until the southerners could take him back to Virginia the next morning.

Again the Black citizens of Harrisburg turned out in large numbers, vocal in their protest of the injustice they saw, and menacing the office of Commissioner McAllister.  No violence erupted, however.  The difference this time was that, although most of the crowd was Black, the feelings of injustice began to penetrate into many in Harrisburg’s white community as well.  Not long after he had been taken south, a letter arrived in the Harrisburg post office from Richmond, addressed to Mary Phillips.  The letter, dated June 20, 1852, was from her husband James, who wrote, “I am now in a trader’s hands, by the name of Mr. Branton, and he is going to start South with a lot of negroes in August.  I do not like this country at all, and had almost rather die than to go South.  Tell all of the people that if they can do anything for me, now is the time to do it.  I can be bought for $900.”[xxvi]  White residents of Harrisburg began a fundraising drive to buy back Phillips, and attorney Rawn traveled to Richmond where he was able to purchase the Harrisburg man’s freedom for $800.

Political Fallout

Commissioner Richard McAllister and his constables were roundly hated in Black communities throughout central Pennsylvania and were regularly lambasted in widely distributed anti-slavery newspapers.  That unpopularity did not necessarily extend to the white community, though, in the first year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but it definitely increased in 1852 with the number of fugitive slave incidents, escalating levels of violence, public demonstrations and charges of improper and illegal behavior in carrying out the duties of their office.  White dissatisfaction with the way in which borough officials were complying with the federal law manifested itself at the polls the following year.  In an unusually high turnout, the three borough constables who had assisted McAllister in catching fugitive slaves were turned out of office in March 1853.  McAllister himself, although an appointed official, began to feel the heat and looked to newly elected Democratic president, Franklin Pierce, for a new higher appointment.  He was disappointed in his quest in Washington, though, and not long after returning to Harrisburg, resigned his position as slave commissioner.  The post was not filled and slave catchers were forced to turn to Commissioner Ingraham in Philadelphia as the closest sympathetic federal authority. [xxvii]

Without federally sanctioned protection, former constables Snyder and Loyer soon found themselves in trouble as they pursued their slave-catching activities.  A Lancaster grand jury indicted them in 1853 on charges of kidnapping a free Black citizen, and although they were found not guilty, the fact that they had to stand trial was a move forward in the eyes of the Black community.  Snyder apparently did not learn his lesson from that experience, being charged in 1855 with attempting to kidnap a Harrisburg man, George Clark.  This time, Snyder was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.[xxviii]


Fugitive slave incidents in central Pennsylvania fell off sharply after the resignation of Richard McAllister and the imprisonment of Solomon Snyder.  Fugitive slaves continued to escape in increasing numbers into the Underground Railroad system that operated through this area, and Southern slaveholders continued to pursue them, but found considerably less aid from local lawmen despite the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  Events were transpiring nationally that would soon make the 1850 law virtually unenforceable, and place north and south in irreconcilable positions.

For Harrisburg’s Blacks, and Black communities throughout the mid-state, the lessons of the previous two decades were clear.  Safety could be found only in strong, organized communities that were willing to resist unjust laws by any means.  Tactics such as hiding fugitives and public demonstrations, combined with a good communications network and influential white allies were key to survival in the turbulent years before the war. 

[i] A contemporary example of this mutual protection concept is the Jamaican free village system that emerged in the 1830’s in response to emancipation.  For a discussion of mutual protection as it related to African Americans in the south, see W.E.B. DuBoise The Souls of Black Folk  (Microsoft Encarta Africana Third Edition).

[ii] Joe William Trotter, Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, Editors, African Americans in Pennsylvania:  Shifting Historical Perspectives (Harrisburg, PA, 1997) 41.

[iii] For examples of local runaway slave advertisements, see The Farmer's Instructor, and Harrisburgh Courant, October 21, 1801; The Oracle of Dauphin, and Harrisburgh Advertiser, July 1, 1815; Harrisburg Argus, July 26, 1828 and November 22, 1828; Pennsylvania Reporter and Democratic Herald, December 28, 1828.  For examples of Maryland runaway slave advertisements from the same era, see The Farmer's Instructor, and Harrisburgh Courant, May 28, 1800; The Oracle of Dauphin, and Harrisburgh Advertiser, November 11, 1815; Harrisburg Argus, March 8, 1828, July 26, 1828 and March 13, 1830.  For examples of a local jailor ad, see The Oracle of Dauphin, and Harrisburgh Advertiser, May 9, 1796.

[iv] Census figures show only slaves-for-life as “slaves,” and count the children of slaves, or “term slaves” as free Blacks.  The total slaves enumerated for all of the counties named, by census year, are:  1790: 1283; 1800:  690; 1810:  470; 1820:  80; 1830:  162; 1840:  29.  There were no slaves-for-life enumerated in the 1850 census throughout the entire state.  (Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, Ann Arbor.  Study 003:  Historical Demographic, Economic, and Social Data:  U.S. 1790-1970 [published on the internet at]).

[v] Luthor Reily Kelker, History of Dauphin County Pennsylvania (New York, 1907) 576.

[vi] Reports differ on the number of local Blacks arrested, ranging from 19 to 16. (Michael Barton, Life by the Moving Road: An Illustrated History of Greater Harrisburg [Woodland Hills, California, 1983] 42; Kelker, 576).

[vii] Frederic A. Godcharles, Chronicles of Central Pennsylvania (New York, 1944) 146.  Another source, Samuel S. Rutherford, in a 1928 paper published by the Historical Society of Dauphin County, dates this incident as October 1845, and puts the number of Black rescuers from Harrisburg at forty.

[viii] Martha C. Slotten, “The McClintock Slave Riot of 1847” in Cumberland County History, 17/1 (Summer 2000) 17.

[ix] Roger C. Schonfeld, “Prigg vs. Pennsylvania: Thoroughly Flawed.”  (Published on the internet at, 1996).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Slotten, 15.

[xii] Ibid., 25, 29.

[xiii] Ibid., 31-32.

[xiv] “Kidnapping in Harrisburg,” The North Star (Rochester N.Y.), October 12, 1849.

[xv] Gerald G. Eggert, “The Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law on Harrisburg:  A Case Study,” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 109 (October 1985), 540-541.

[xvi] Ibid, 542-543.  For details about the Exchange Building and the militia fieldpiece, see J. Howard Wert “The Harrisburg Slave Law Riot,” reprinted in G. Craig Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg and the Underground Railroad (Gettysburg, 1998), 83.

[xvii] Eggert, 545.

[xviii] Ibid., 547.

[xix] “Fugitive Slave Law,” The National Era, October 31, 1850.

[xx] Eggert, 546-547.

[xxi] “Christiana Revolt of 1851,” Microsoft Encarta Africana Third Edition.

[xxii] Eggert, 548-550.  The Frederick Douglass Paper quoted the New York Evangelist, a newspaper with southern sympathies, as seeing “no violation of the law” in the incident.  It later quoted the Massachusetts Spy, an abolitionist newspaper, with a stinging rebuke to the Evangelist with “So does the iron will of one of Millard Fillmore’s contemptible Commissioners over-ride the decisions of a local Judge.  So does this Whig administration establish a secret inquisition, and in the face of a judicial decision, trample upon the right of trial by jury.” (Frederick Douglass Paper, October 9, 1851; October 16, 1851).

[xxiii] “Letter from Baltimore,” The National Era, January 15, 1852; “Kidnapping and Murder,” Frederick Douglass Paper, January 29, 1852; The National Era, April 22, 1852; Frederick Douglass Paper, March 4, 1853, April 22, 1853.

[xxiv] “Murder of a Supposed Fugitive,” The National Era, May 6, 1852; “The Fatal Slave Case at Columbia,” Frederick Douglass Paper, May 13, 1852; “The Columbia Murder,” The National Era, May 20, 1852;  May 27, 1852;

[xxv] Frederick Douglass Paper, June 17, 1852; Eggert, 551-552.

[xxvi] James Phillips to Mary Phillips, June 20, 1852, in John W. Blassingame, Slave Testimony (Baton Rouge, LA, 1977) 95-96.  Frederick Douglass Paper, June 24, 1852.  Eggert, 552-553.

[xxvii] Eggert, 565-569.  The National Era, October 5, 1854.

[xxviii] “Excitement at Harrisburg—Arrest of Slave Catchers,” Frederick Douglass Paper, March 2, 1855.  Eggert, 566.

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