a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Six (continued)
No Haven on Free Soil

No Colored Person in Pennsylvania is Safe From the Talons of the Kidnappers

It is not as if southern states were completely oblivious to the rights of free blacks, whether they resided in their own state or were residents of neighboring states. The kidnapping of a free person was a crime, and it was prosecuted to some extent regardless of the color of the victim.64 The problem that confronted those kidnapped was of gaining access to justice in order to prove their free status. Freeborn persons who were seized as runaway slaves were, if the slave catcher was working within the law, given a hearing, thus increasing their chances for redemption. A hearing or trial before a magistrate at least offered the chance to make a case, or to have friends or relations attempt to do so. But not all slave catchers followed the rules, as some took their prey directly back across the border. The proximity of the southern border increased that danger for African Americans living in places such as Chester, York, Lancaster, Columbia, Carlisle, and Harrisburg.

But in the years following passage of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, an even more evil and dangerous demon took shape in the form of organized gangs of kidnappers who began operations from Frederick County, east to Kent County in Maryland, as well as in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, to take advantage of the increasing numbers of free African Americans living in the region. These highly unprincipled persons preyed mostly upon free blacks, reasoning that enslaved blacks, particularly in Maryland, had at least the protection of an owner who would enlist local authorities to recover their property, whereas poor, rural, free blacks had few resources and fewer people looking out for them.

Their favorite targets were children, young women, and young men. In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, it was very common for free black families to send children of ten or more years to live with neighboring white families as paid servants, or to labor for local tradesmen as unpaid apprentices. This arrangement provided extra income to help support the family, or it supplied the apprenticed child with valuable training in a trade and sometimes an education, while at the same time lessening the financial burden of raising one more teenaged child.

Kidnappers saw an opportunity in the lack of oversight from parents, and they often targeted these black servants of white families, abducting them out of sight of their employers, who often wrongly assumed the missing child had run away or was hiding to avoid work. By the time that anyone realized what had happened, enough time had gone by that the kidnappers could already have sold the hapless children to those slave merchants who asked few questions.

At other times, a more complicated scheme was put in play. An article in the Liberator described how it worked: “No colored person in Pennsylvania is safe from the talons of the kidnappers…They seize the colored free man, destroy his certificate of freedom, put him in jail, detain him the days limited by law, when he is sold for his jail fees, and by collusion the kidnappers purchase him at the price of the official robbery, to sell him again to the ‘gentleman engaged in the slave trade.’” The newspaper kept tabs on such incidents and reported regularly on them. The proliferation of cases caused the editors to remark, in 1837, “To kidnap the free colored citizens of the free States, under the pretense of their being fugitive slaves, is a matter of almost daily occurrence. Cases of this kind happen more frequently in Pennsylvania than in any other State, in consequence of its proximity to the slaveholding territory.”

As noted, incidents of people simply disappearing became quite common. A short notice in the Village Record, a West Chester newspaper, remarked, “Moses Smith and his wife, colored persons, who have resided several years in Chester County, and part of the time sold oysters in this borough, have, we understand, been claimed as slaves, and taken off to Georgia.” The newspaper article noted that Moses Smith was actually free, but offered no hint that anyone was working on the Smith’s behalf to restore them to freedom.

Following a rash of child kidnappings in 1825, Philadelphia organized, in 1827, a society specifically to combat “kidnappings and man-stealing.” Operating under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the Protecting Society had considerable resources at its disposal, and advertised its services to “persons desirous of assistance in the recovery of their friends who have been kidnapped.”

In one instance, a community effort to recover numerous missing children met with limited, and ultimately sorrowful, success. Following up on an active investigation, Philadelphia High Constable Samuel P. Garrigues spent three months searching for kidnapped city children in Louisiana and Mississippi. He found only two teenage boys, fifteen-year-old James Dailey and seventeen-year-old Ephraim Lawrence, and returned them to Philadelphia.

Ephraim Lawrence’s removal from the south was contingent upon the posting of a bond by Garrigues in a Mississippi courtroom guaranteeing the boy would be brought back at a set date to prove his free status. Fortunately the young man, as it was noted in the report, was “well known here by many white persons - and there will be no difficulty in producing evidence hereafter, as to his identity,” an obvious advantage in securing his freedom.

The younger boy, James Dailey, was not as lucky. He had spent four years in southern slavery, had suffered terrific beatings and abuse, and was in such a “miserable state of health” when he arrived back in the city, being unable even to walk, that his survival was in doubt. James Dailey had been born free in Philadelphia about 1813, but his family was afflicted with extreme poverty and he, like many children in similar circumstances, was placed in the city poor house. At age eleven, he and several other young boys were hired out by the overseers of that institution to a local man, Patrick Pickard, who claimed to be a tailor looking for apprentices. Instead, Pickard took young Dailey and several other boys to Louisiana where, posing as a Virginia slaveholder, he sold them all.

Pickard was not the only person in the area preying upon Philadelphia’s black children. By the end of the summer of 1825, more than twenty children were reported missing. City authorities began an active investigation focusing upon the Deep South after slave dealers in Mississippi tipped them off to the suspicious northerners who had suddenly arrived with groups of young boys for sale. The trail of the investigation led through Sussex County, Delaware, into Maryland, and south through Alabama. Constable Garrigues then traveled north to Boston, where one of the kidnappers had been arrested for similar crimes in that city, to apprehend the man for trial in Philadelphia. After interrogating this kidnapper in relation to the Philadelphia kidnappings, the constable obtained information as to the possible whereabouts of some of the Pennsylvania children, and headed back south, altogether spending more than three months and traveling over two thousand miles in his search.

It was on this last excursion that Garrigues finally found Ephraim Lawrence in Mississippi, and then found James Dailey in Louisiana. Dailey was already in horrible health, and, upon explaining the deception to the young man’s owner, secured his immediate release. By the time they returned to Philadelphia, young Dailey could no longer walk, and was immediately admitted to the dispensary at the almshouse. He died eight days after his return. The certificate of death declared that the boy died of “debility, resulting from improper food, neglect during illness, and severe treatment. His person bore the scars of repeated whippings and blows and was emaciated.”65

Although the case gained much publicity due to Dailey’s horrible death, the efforts of the local police paid off, as testimony from some additional recovered children helped convict some of the kidnappers. Such organized opposition to the gangs of “unprincipled men” was unique. No African American communities outside of Philadelphia had the resources or the political pull to offer resistance. To kidnappers, the field was wide open, and beginning in the 1830s, they took full advantage of almost every opportunity.

As noted earlier, children were particularly vulnerable to being snatched away from their families, but the kidnappers were not always white criminals looking to sell the children south. Young African American boys, especially, were sometimes kidnapped and forced to work as chimney sweeps far from home. In New York City, a black man was jailed as a vagrant in the fall of 1828, and when police questioned him, he portrayed himself as a “sweep master.” But authorities were skeptical and the man was “suspected of being a kidnapper,” particularly after they spoke with the young boys who were with him, one of whom was from Lancaster. All said they had been working for the man as chimney sweeps.

The practice of kidnapping young boys and forcing them to work as sweeps had been going on for decades by the time this child from Lancaster was discovered in New York. Many years earlier, in 1800, an unnamed twelve-year-old “Negro Boy” was jailed in Lancaster after he made his escape from a Philadelphia sweep master. Authorities in that borough, having little knowledge then of the plight of children in such situations, assumed the child was little more than a runaway apprentice or servant, and followed the tradition of offering the boy for sale if unclaimed by his master “to defray Expences.”66

Yet these activities, as despicable as they were, paled in comparison to the abductions carried out by the bands of white kidnappers in the region. These bands, motivated by greed, garnered the most attention, and elicited the greatest fears from free African Americans. Most of the young boys taken from Philadelphia in the 1820s were abducted by a man named Joe Johnson and his gang, working near the city wharves. Testimony from three boys who were recovered, Samuel Scomp, Peter Hook, and Cornelius St. Clair, all of Philadelphia, described the method of operations and identified Joe Johnson and members of his family. The boys gave depositions at different times, and the details provided by each corroborated the stories of the others.

All described being lured near to, or actually onto, a sloop anchored in the Delaware River owned by Joe Johnson, the Little John. Usually it was the promise of an odd job for extra money—helping to “bring up peaches, melons, &c. from a boat,” for a quarter dollar—at other times the boys were lured onto the ship by the promise that they would be given a dram of whiskey. In all cases, they were led below deck where they were tied up and securely chained. The gang leader, Johnson assured the boys’ silence by brandishing a large knife and telling them to “be still, make no noise, or I’ll cut your throats.”

There they were kept until the gang had collected several children, at which time they sailed downriver, put ashore after several days, possibly in Maryland, and were roped together around the neck and taken to Joe Johnson’s tavern. After a day or two being held captive there, they were marched overland to Sussex County, Delaware, to the remote farmhouse of Joe Johnson’s in-laws, Jesse and Patty Cannon. The captives were then chained in the garret of the house, some for weeks at a time. It was at that location that Peter Hooks testified he saw Ephraim Lawrence chained in the garret.

From the Cannon house, they were taken by wagon to a boat, and sailed further south, accompanied by Joe Johnson’s brother, Ebenezer, and his brother-in-law, Jesse Cannon, Jr. Ebenezer Johnson owned property and a cabin in Ashville, Alabama, and it was there that Samuel Scomp’s group rested before continuing the journey toward slavery. They were beaten regularly and savagely if they complained or slowed down, and on the way from Ashville to Rocky Springs, one of the children, whose feet were frostbitten, kept falling down. Ebenezer Johnson flogged the boy so severely that they had to place him in the wagon. The beating, lack of medical attention and mistreatment were so severe that the child died before they reached their destination.67

The staging area for these horrific scenes was a remote location, described by Philadelphia’s Mayor Joseph Watson as “on the dividing line between the states of Delaware and Maryland, low down on the peninsula, between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays.” A contemporary historian notes that the specific area, North West Fork Hundred, was “one of the most desolate and isolated points on an isolated peninsula.” Historian Gabrielle M. Lanier says the area, near Delaware’s Great Cypress Swamp, was “well know for its relative lawlessness.”68


The Patty Cannon Gang

It was an ideal location for the activities of the kidnapping gang headed by Patty Cannon. She was the wife of Jesse Cannon Sr., and though the testimony of Hooks and Scomp did not mention her by name, concentrating instead on her son Jesse and son-in-law, Joe Johnson, it was Patty Cannon who appears to have been the leader of the operation. Her gang targeted any free blacks they could lay their hands on, imprisoning them until they could sell them to southern slave merchants. The gang operated most effectively in the port cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore, but nabbed captives—they preferred young boys and girls—from as far inland as Harrisburg. An eyewitness reported a child named John Jacobs, from Harrisburg, was imprisoned at Joe Johnson’s tavern in 1827. His fate is unknown.

Arrest documents show that the gang was active in kidnapping free blacks as early as 1821, but the state line-straddling location of their farmhouse, combined with the remoteness and lawlessness of the region, allowed them to stay one step ahead of active prosecution, and they continued with their kidnapping activities for another five or six years. It was during this time, following the death of her husband, that Patty Cannon assumed a leadership role in the gang, apparently leading to an expansion of their operations that included the summer of 1825 kidnapping spree in Philadelphia, which triggered the investigation that would become their undoing.

In the years following her arrest in 1829, after several bodies were dug up on her Delaware property, Patty’s reputation grew rapidly. She was described as “more like a man than a woman,” and “a strapping wench—a woman of great strength and ferocity.” Stories of murder and brutality circulated, most of which were exaggerated, but the truth was horrible enough.

Testimony proved that she and her accomplices kept captured blacks chained in her farmhouse garret, sometimes for many months, until they could be taken south for sale as slaves. She was implicated in the murder of a southern slave merchant, whose bones were dug up on her property, and one person testified before the judge who issued the arrest warrant for her, that she bludgeoned a black infant to death, and otherwise killed at least one other black child—the bodies of whom were also found buried on her farm. She was imprisoned in Delaware to await trial for her alleged crimes in 1829, but died in jail of natural causes a short while later, before her trial.

The terror of Patty Cannon did not die in her jail cell, however. Stories of her depredations spread across the countryside within months of her arrest, and her reputation grew with each retelling of the stories. A largely fictional work, The Narratives and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon, appeared in 1841, and contributed greatly to the folklore.69 So fierce was her reputation, that African American mothers in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania threatened misbehaving children for many decades by invoking the dreaded name of Patty Cannon.


The Gap Gang

Like Patty Cannon’s gang, the Gap Gang of southern Lancaster County also preyed upon free blacks, waylaying them on deserted roads and disposing of them as captured fugitive slaves. This group of criminals made no pretense of operating within the law, and caused much trouble to white and black residents of the region for many years. Characterized as “desperadoes,” the band also engaged in horse stealing, counterfeiting and general robbery, but their main occupation, in later years, was in running down the fugitive slaves who attempted to make their way north over the rough area of mining ridges that ran east to west in southern Lancaster County, and through the area known as The Gap.

Fugitives slaves and servants, white and black, had for many decades taken advantage of the rough terrain in this area to hide from pursuing masters, but the Gap Gang turned the tables and reaped big profits by acting as proactive “slave catchers,” rounding up any African American travelers they could catch on the roads and taking them south in search of rewards, whether justified or not. Their activities soon turned to abducting free African Americans from the farms and towns throughout the valley, and taking them south in search of a buyer.

Led by Amos Clemson, at whose tavern the gang regularly met, and William Baer, the Gap Gang became widely feared in southern Lancaster County. Their activities as an organized band probably began in the early 1840s, when a rash of kidnappings of free blacks plagued the area, and witnesses reported that the culprits fled toward Gap Hill. The kidnappings intensified through the late 1840s and early 1850s, causing considerable concern, anger, and impatience in the local African American community.70

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64. Examples of legal action taken against those who kidnapped free blacks in Southern states include the case reported in the Liberator, 19 November 1831, in which a woman was arrested in Alexandria, Virginia, for kidnapping a twelve- year-old black girl and attempting to see her to an unsuspecting party as a slave. On 18 May 1849 the North Star reported that three young persons, hired to cut corn for a local farmer, were kidnapped near Denton, Maryland and eventually turned up in Norfolk in a slave pen. Authorities arrested several persons, including the farmer who had hired them and a Kent County slave dealer. In a story from the New York Times that was picked up by the Frederick Douglass Paper in its 24 September 1852 issue, a free black man from Kingston, Jamaica, was kidnapped in Norfolk and taken on board a schooner bound for Baltimore, where he was to be sold as a slave. In that case, two men, the kidnapper and the captain of the schooner, were indicted.

65. Liberator, 20 July 1833, 14 January 1837; West Chester Village Record, 11 November 1835; Freedom’s Journal, 25 April 1828; Enoch Lewis, ed., The African Observer, Fifth Month (May), 1827, 37-40; Minutes of the adjourned session of the twentieth biennial American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race, held at Baltimore, Nov. 1828, “African-American Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1820-1920,” American Memory, Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/rbc/lcrbmrp/t15/t1501.sgm_old. (accessed 26 November 2008).
Samuel P. Garrigues and Philadelphia Mayor Joseph Watson worked so tirelessly to rescue kidnapped black citizens, and to prosecute kidnappers, that they were formally recognized and their accomplishments lauded by the members of the 1828 American Anti-Slavery Society Convention, held at Baltimore, with the following resolution: “Whereas Joseph Watson, Esq. late Mayor of the city of Philadelphia, and Samuel P. Garrigues, one of the chief Police Officers of that city, by their unwearied efforts have restored to their friends and homes, a number of Free People of Color, kidnapped from the State of Pennsylvania, and have brought to condign punishment several of the criminals engaged in that nefarious business: Therefore Resolved, That this Convention has viewed with the most lively emotions of pleasure the conduct of those gentlemen, and does hereby tender them its hearty thanks for their praiseworthy and successful exertions.”

66. Freedoms Journal, 3 October 1828; Lancaster Journal, 14 June 1800.

67. The African Observer, Fifth Month (May), 1827, 37-44; Freedom’s Journal, 22 June 1827.

68. The African Observer, Fifth Month (May), 1827, 45; Gabrielle M. Lanier, The Delaware Valley in the Early Republic: Architecture, Landscape, and Regional Identity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 71-72.

69. The African Observer, Fifth Month (May), 1827, 48; Albin Kowalewski, “Cannon, Patty,” American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-91919.html (accessed 27 November 2008).
A young woman captured by the Cannon gang, Lydia Smith, testified that she was imprisoned at Joe Johnsons’ tavern in Maryland, along with a young boy from Harrisburg, John Jacobs. They were separated, and the fate of John Jacobs is still unknown.

70. Charles I. Landis, The First Long Turnpike in the United States (Lancaster: New Era Printing, 1917), 23; Hensel, Christiana Riot, 15; New York Times, “Suicide of Amos Clemson,” 4 October 1857; New York Times, “Tried for High Treason,” 15 August 1888; L. D. “Bud” Rettew, Treason at Christiana, 2nd ed. (Morgantown, PA: Masthof Press, 2006), 20-22.
In an eerie parallel with the fate of the leader of the Patty Cannon Gang, the leader of the Gap Gang, Amos Clemson, also died in prison. Like Patty Cannon, Clemson successfully avoided charges of kidnapping for years. It was not until 1857 that he was charged and convicted on a lesser crime of stealing a harness, and was committed to Eastern Penitentiary, where he hung himself in September of that year.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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