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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

Behold, the Natural Result
of Fanatical and Lawless Legislation

These new laws might have severely hampered slave catching in the Harrisburg area had they been religiously implemented in the various counties, boroughs and towns of the region, but in practice, the local constabulary continued to cooperate with slave catchers, and routinely ignored the non-compliance features of the new Personal Liberty Laws.

One of the first tests of the new law came in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in the late spring of 1847, just a few months after passage of the newest and most stringent law. Two young men from Hagerstown, Maryland, James Hugh Kennedy and George Howard (who used his middle name) Hollingsworth, rode into the borough on 2 June 1847, in possession of three slaves who had escaped not long before from their family farms.

James Kennedy was related by marriage to Howard Hollingsworth, having married his sister Lydia a few years earlier. Both the Kennedy and Hollingsworth families were well known in Washington County, Maryland. The Hollingsworth family patriarch, Colonel Jacob Hollingsworth, was a wealthy businessman with partial shares in one or more Louisiana sugar plantations. James Kennedy’s father and uncle, both Irish immigrants, owned a longstanding and successful retail business in Hagerstown, and had extensive business connections as well as family in Pennsylvania. It is likely the men, therefore, were familiar with the town of Carlisle, as they went directly to Justice of the Peace Smith, claiming Lloyd Brown and his ten-year-old daughter, Ann, and a woman named Hester as escaped slaves.

Hester had recently married a Carlisle man named George Norman, and all the fugitives had taken refuge in a house near Shippensburg, which is where Hollingsworth and Kennedy found them. The two men, both youthful and vigorous, used force to break into the house, and no doubt brandished considerable threats of violence in order to take the three fugitive slaves into custody for the journey to Carlisle. When they appeared before the justice of the peace that same morning, they were arrested for forcible entry at the house in Shippensburg, but the local magistrate also, upon seeing their documentation, issued a certificate remanding the slaves to the two men. At their request, Justice Smith agreed to lock the captured slaves in the jail until the men could post bail and return to Maryland, something they expected to be able to do that same day. As Sheriff’s Assistant Robert McCartney was placing the three slaves in the county jail, George Norman ran up and grabbed his wife in an attempt to free her. McCartney knocked Norman away, eliciting a very angry response from a crowd of African American bystanders that had been attracted by the commotion and news of the capture.93

The hearing for the fugitive slaves was set for four o’clock p.m. before Judge Samuel Hepburn in the county courthouse. The size of the crowd of agitated blacks who had gathered to witness the proceedings had grown considerably through the day, and by late afternoon had reached menacing proportions. Extra deputies were enlisted to bring the three fugitive slaves from the jail to the courtroom. In court, Judge Hepburn ruled that the justice of the peace had erred in turning the slaves over to the sheriff for detainment, but he did not revoke the certificate for removal that Kennedy and Hollingsworth held. When the crowd of local African American onlookers understood that the imprisonment of the fugitives was illegal, they rushed the prisoner’s box, but at the urging of the Maryland slave catchers, the local deputies headed off the crowd, and Robert McCartney drew a loaded pistol to keep everyone back.

Sitting with the legal counsel for the fugitives, almost by happenstance, was a local professor of modern languages from Dickinson College, John McClintock. The professor had only heard of the arrests and habeas corpus hearing minutes before, and had hurried over to the courthouse to witness it. What he saw horrified him, as he knew that the detainment in the county jail, the use of sheriff’s deputies, and the certificate from the local justice were all illegal under the new law of 1847, but he seemed to be the only one present to be aware of these things. Seeing that the situation was deteriorating, and hoping that clarification of the new law would help to reduce the tensions, he left the courtroom to retrieve a copy just as the crowd was rushing the deputies at the prisoner’s box. As he exited the courtroom, he witnessed several blacks in the crowd being menaced by deputies as they forced the crowd down the steps, out of the building and into the street.

When McClintock returned to the courthouse, the crowd was milling around outside of the entrances, and a larger crowd of whites had now also assembled. Everyone present, it seemed, was in a surly mood, expecting violence. Suddenly the doors opened and the fugitives were brought out and led toward a waiting carriage, but instead of being loaded into the carriage, a chaotic scene ensued. McClintock, who witnessed the affair, recorded in his journal what happened:

I anticipated no outbreak & indeed was sure that the people would be taken off in the carriage. But as they were going in, either they attempted to escape, or others attempted to rescue them; blows were struck, as far as I could judge, by the white men first & a general riot ensued. I kept out of it, but after it was over, approached a crowd near the market house, where I heard that a man was hurt. Found it was Mr. Kennedy, the owner.94

By some accounts, it was James H. Kennedy who came down the steps with the slaves, and who, “with a billet of wood, beat off the negroes, who, in a high state of excitement, crowded in upon him.” Lloyd Brown was loaded into the carriage, but when it was Hester Norman’s turn, her husband grabbed her, and this time was successful in tearing her away from the slave catchers. Another person in the crowd grabbed Lloyd’s daughter, Ann, and the two female slaves were hustled off through the crowd, down Liberty Alley. James Kennedy set out in pursuit, with bricks and rocks being hurled at the crowd in the alley by the surrounding whites, causing general panic and confusion.

Somehow, Kennedy, who had managed to get hold of one of the female slaves and was attempting to hold her while others in the crowd beat at him, tripped and fell, and was trampled by the fleeing mob. When a local physician got to him, Kennedy was bleeding from a wound on the back of his head and was severely bruised and battered, but once he was carried to a nearby hotel and examined, it was not thought that the injuries were life threatening.95

The whole affair lasted only minutes, but it did not take long for blame to be assigned directly on Professor McClintock, whom many in the town accused of inciting the blacks in the crowd that surrounded the courthouse that afternoon to riot. Writs were issued against thirty-five persons for riot, and the college professor was the only white among them. Ironically, although John McClintock had anti-slavery views, he was not an abolitionist, and his involvement in the entire affair was incidental, almost non-existent. Yet the general sentiment among whites in Carlisle was decidedly anti-abolitionist, and as the only white face associated with the defense of the fugitive slaves in the courtroom, except for their defense counsel, and as the one person who pointed out the legal errors being perpetrated during the hearing, Professor McClintock bore the brunt of the town’s blame for the violence. It was thought best that he not stay in his house on West Louther Street that night. A trial date was set for 25 August 1847. The indignation expressed by Democratic newspapers at the treatment of Southern slaveholders attempting to reclaim their property turned to rage when James Hugh Kennedy unexpectedly died from his injuries a few weeks after the riot.96

The trial for the infamous “McClintock Riot” involved several days of impassioned testimony, with many respected persons taking the stand on behalf of John McClintock’s character. In the end, Professor McClintock and all but thirteen of the accused rioters were acquitted. Judge Hepburn sentenced eleven of the thirteen convicted persons to three years in solitary confinement at Eastern Penitentiary, but saw his excessively harsh sentence overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court a year later when it ordered the eleven released for time served. Pennsylvania’s 1847 Personal Liberty Law, although it was not properly applied by Judge Hepburn, Justice Smith or by the various deputies involved in the incident in Carlisle, was roundly blamed by Southern editors and politicians as proof that the people of the Keystone State were abolitionists at heart, bent upon subverting the system of slavery as it existed in the south.

Barely a month after the incident, Charles James Faulkner, a lawyer and politician from Martinsburg, Virginia wrote to U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun, whom he addressed as “the most prominent defender of the institutions of the south,” incensed over his perception of the attempted slave reclamation and resulting riot in Carlisle the month before. The entire incident, Faulkner wrote, “now intensely absorbs the attention of the slave holders of the State of Maryland & that portion of the State of Virginia in which I reside.” The 1847 law, he explained, “has rendered out slave property throughout Maryland & a large portion of Virginia, utterly insecure, & will if it continues in force a few years longer destroy any further interest that we may feel in that domestic institution.” His outrage, however, was reserved for the legislators, who he blamed directly for the death of James Kennedy:

Although the law of Congress, in conformity with the Constitution, empowered the owner to seize and arrest his slave and to take him before a Circuit or District Judge of the U.S. within the State, “or before any magistrate or a county, city or town corporate, wherein such seizure or arrest shall be made, and that it shall be the duty of such judge or magistrate to give a certificate to such claimant his agent or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive”—Pennsylvania by her act said, further, impliedly:

No—None of these things shall be done. We nullify this law (although the right to pass it is undeniable)—he shall not seize or arrest (for that would be violence)—he may take the slave to Philadelphia or to Pittsburg [sic], but to no other place, and then only if the slave be willing (otherwise there will be violence)—no magistrate or judge or other officer of this State shall interfere, (unless invited by the slave.) Further, We repeal all laws heretofore passed in aid of the constitutional rights of the master; we will not hear him, we deny him the shelter even of our prisons. He shall only go with his slave and then without violence, to Pittsburg or to Philadelphia, hundreds of miles through hordes of runaway negroes and hostile fanatics, and then if he gets his slave away, it will not be because we have not afforded countenance and occasion for every mode of violence and resistance, nor because we have not sought to disarm and to outlaw the man who claims his property, with his proof of ownership in one hand and the constitution of his country in the other.

Faulkner then summed up the feeling of slaveholders in Maryland and Virginia to the new Pennsylvania law with a statement that embodied the growing resentment and sheer anger that was building, “Behold as the natural result of fanatical and lawless legislation, the slaughter of James Hugh Kennedy.”97


Despite regular Southern protests that Pennsylvania’s citizens were encouraging slaves to flee into the Keystone State and then providing safe harbor for those that did, much the opposite was true. Southern slaves who fled north across the Mason-Dixon Line were not welcomed with open arms by the general populace of any town, borough or hamlet near the border. Those Pennsylvania residents who did provide shelter, food, advice and directions almost always did so secretly and carefully, and frequently without the knowledge of their neighbors. Fugitive slaves seldom knew of their existence, and even those that had been told that some northern folks would give them shelter and protection did not know how to go about locating such help.

More often than not, fugitives approached populated areas with suspicion and fear, hid in barns, hayricks, and outbuildings without the knowledge of the owner, and moved on, generally in great haste, when discovered. Usually it was hunger or extreme weather that forced them to knock on a stranger’s door, with the hope of obtaining shelter or food from a sympathetic family. If they felt they were far enough north and out of immediate danger, they might accept an offer to do some chores or work and remain for a day, a week or more. But there was always the fear of betrayal and capture in the back of their minds.

Those freedom seekers that remained suspicious of everyone, black and white, were the ones that generally were successful in their escape. Those that refused to let down their guard, even in a free state, surrounded by free people, many miles from the border, were the ones that usually remained free themselves. Decade after decade of Pennsylvania history had shown the wisdom in such vigilance. Even after Father Abraham declared the mighty national struggle to be a war against slavery, with the Keystone State serving as a central bulwark against the horrors of bondage, self-emancipated people knew that there was no guaranteed haven here on the free soil of Pennsylvania.

There was no haven for the unfortunate slave who was hauled through the streets of Harrisburg in April 1863, past Union soldiers, to the train station and the journey back to slavery in the South, just as there was no haven for the many slaves whose names appeared on certificates of removal, issued in Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, and York Counties by duly sworn officers of this free state. There was no haven for those who attempted to remake their lives among the Native Americans who lived apart from the European Americans, just as there was no lasting haven for those who took to solitary existences in the mountains or who established maroon communities in the swamps. Safe haven was even frustratingly elusive for those freedom seekers who tried to blend into the burgeoning communities of free African Americans in Philadelphia, and later Lancaster, York, Carlisle, and Harrisburg, where disease, poverty, violence, betrayal, and kidnapping made simple survival, much less establishing a new life, a daily challenge.

Each route toward achieving the dream of freedom in central Pennsylvania had been, one by one, shut off through the decades, whether by the malice of men or the whims of fate. Even the newest legislation of 1847, though it elicited mighty howls of protest and claims of fanaticism from Southern editors, would not long allay the fears of losing their fragile freedoms for African Americans living in the south-central counties of the state. That tenuous existence had been a fact of life from the start, and though their hopes for some sort of permanence of freedoms, for assurances of acceptance, regularly rose and fell with the political whims of the times, they somehow learned to live, raise families, establish institutions, and even prosper in this climate of fear. All that resilience, however, would be severely challenged in the coming decade.


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93. John Thomas Scharf, History of Western Maryland: Being a History of Frederick, Montgomery, Carroll, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett Counties from the earliest Period to the Present Day Including Biographical Sketches of their Representative Men, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1882), 1033; John Osborne and James W. Gerencser, eds., “The McClintock Riots,” Dickinson Chronicles, (accessed 30 December 2008); Martha C. Slotten, “The McClintock Slave Riot of 1847,” Cumberland County History 17, no. 1 (Summer 2000): 14-15.
James Hugh Kennedy was also a second cousin to John White Geary, Governor of Pennsylvania (1867-1873) through his great aunt, Sarah White. Geary and Kennedy were both young men of similar ages; at the time of the Carlisle incident in which James Kennedy was killed, Geary was serving in a Pennsylvania regiment in the War with Mexico.

94. John McClintock diary, quoted in Slotten, “McClintock Slave Riot,” 17.

95. George R. Crooks, Life and Letters of the Reverend John McClintock (New York: Nelson and Philips, 1876; Dickinson College Digital Collections, 2003), 151-152, (accessed 30 December 2008).
In the melee, both Ann Brown and Hester Norman were freed, but Lloyd Brown was kept in the carriage and was returned to slavery in Maryland.

96. Slotten, “McClintock Slave Riot,” 25. For John McClintock’s developing anti-slavery views, see also pages 18-24.

97. Charles James Faulkner to John C. Calhoun, 15 July 1847, in John C. Calhoun, Clyde Norman Wilson, Shirley Bright Cook, and Alexander Moore, The Papers of John C. Calhoun, vol. 25, 1847-48 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 443-452. Faulkner (1806-1884) served several terms in the Virginia House of Delegates, during the first of which he introduced legislation very similar to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act. His legislation was defeated and he gradually became more radicalized regarding slavery. In 1848 he introduced a bill that was eventually sent to Congress as the basis for the Federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. (James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos, eds., Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1887, Virtual American Biographies, “Charles James Faulkner,” [accessed 15 June 2010]).


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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