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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 Seven

The Good Doctors Rutherford and Jones

In the middle of a row of eight stylish, brick townhouses on the southeast corner of Front and Market Streets stood the heart of Harrisburg’s white Underground Railroad operation. Dr. William Wilson Rutherford lived at number eleven South Front Street, and it was he who maintained the vital connections to his family’s farms in the Paxtang Valley, east of town. An ardent abolitionist, Dr. Rutherford also served as president of Harrisburg’s Anti-Slavery Society, and hosted William Lloyd Garrison in his home when the fiery anti-slavery editor visited town in 1847. He had been the spiritual leader of Harrisburg’s white anti-slavery faction for several years by that time, having inherited the informal mantle of leadership from Alexander Graydon in 1843, when Graydon packed up his family and departed Harrisburg from the canal passenger wharves east of Meadow Lane to make a new start in Indianapolis.

In addition to leading the anti-slavery charge among Harrisburg whites, Rutherford also took the bold action of hiding fugitive slaves in his Front Street home on occasion, until they could either be secreted elsewhere, generally with an African American family nearby, or taken by guides to one of the Rutherford farms to the east.

Dr. Rutherford had a thriving medical practice in Harrisburg and was well known by most citizens. Equally well known in town was his unpopular public stance in opposition to slavery, so it is surprising that he would tempt fate and his political enemies by illegally sheltering and giving aid to escaped slaves. Yet he did. This activity required stealth and planning, particularly as his neighbors were located just a few yards away and he shared an interior courtyard with the townhouse immediately to his north.

Fortunately, this neighboring townhouse, number nine South Front Street, was the home of another Harrisburg abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist, Frederick. Kelker. The windows of Kelker’s home overlooked the courtyard in the rear of Dr. Rutherford’s home, and Dr. Rutherford’s windows overlooked the courtyard behind Mr. Kelker’s home. The two townhouses also shared a common covered passageway that led from Front Street directly to the rear courtyards of both properties. All the comings and goings of fugitive slaves and guides through either property were kept safely from the eyes of less sympathetic neighbors by the surrounding walls of the two houses.

Kelker, like several other Harrisburg abolitionists, was a hardware merchant, although he was easily the most successful of the lot in his trade, having established a substantial and highly visible store on Market Square. Several of his sons succeeded him in the family business, and one, Rudolph F. Kelker, moved into his father’s Front Street townhouse after Frederick’s death in 1857.

Rudolph’s interests and public involvement went far beyond running a successful family hardware business. He was an elder in the Salem German Reformed Church, on Chestnut Street, and a Sunday School Superintendent who advocated temperance and considered dancing a morally suspect activity. He was a Manager of the new Mount Kalmia Cemetery, a Trustee of the State Lunatic Asylum (as it was originally called) and a Director of the Harrisburg Bank. Rudolph Frederick Kelker was a socially well-connected, highly respected businessman and, like his neighbor, the respected physician, and his father, the successful merchant turned gentleman, he also hid fugitive slaves in his house.

Like William W. Rutherford, he did not keep them in his highly visible Front Street townhouse for very long. Instead, he moved them to a less public location as soon as it was safe to do so. The Kelker family owned numerous properties around Harrisburg, including a barn about three blocks to the north at the corner of River and Barbara Alleys, which appears to be one of the location to which fugitives were taken. This also happened to be the same corner at which another doctor, named William Jones, and his wife Mary, heads of a very active Underground Railroad family, lived.114

While Dr. William Wilson Rutherford led Harrisburg’s white anti-slavery residents, coordinating political and social activities in that quarter, his counterpart in the African American community, William M. “Pap” Jones, was doing the same. The men shared several characteristics: both were highly renowned in their respective communities, both were doctors, and both were so committed to the anti-slavery cause that they risked fines and prison for illegally aiding and hiding fugitive slaves.

William M. Jones was born in Maryland about 1791 and came to Harrisburg about 1823, establishing himself with his wife Mary in River Alley near Barberry (later Barbara) Street, on the northern edge of town. Other African Americans also lived in this neighborhood, including former slave Fleming Mitchell, but the neighborhood did not acquire the unique identity that other Harrisburg African American neighborhoods, such as Judy’s Town, did. Jones followed several pursuits, working for years as helper to a town druggist, but became notorious for his knowledge of herbal remedies and folk medicine, and by the 1840s was known even by white residents as “Doctor” Jones.

However, he did not command the respect from white Harrisburg residents that his white counterpart, Dr. Rutherford enjoyed, despite being older by fourteen years. Rutherford’s medical degree was awarded to him from Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia, while Jones’ title was bestowed upon him by himself and his neighbors for his success at treating their arthritis and soothing their colicky babies. Although he collected fees for his treatments, Jones lacked the fancy diploma that would allow him to put professional letters after his name, and as a result, he took on a variety of other jobs to support his large family, one of which was the collection of rags from rag pickers for resale to paper makers. Jones turned this lowly social station to his benefit, however, using the cover of unobtrusive rag merchant on his rounds, while he carried out Underground Railroad missions.

Frederick Kelker sent freedom seekers, whom he had briefly taken into his Front Street mansion, to Jones at Barbara Street. Kelker owned a barn near to Jones’ frame house, so the regular traffic between Front Street and a nearby barn would have been a normal occurrence, unlikely to arouse suspicion from neighbors or watching slave catchers along the riverfront. When fugitives arrived at the barn, Jones took charge of them, secreting them in his own house where they were fed and cared for.

Although white Underground Railroad activists seldom used their own homes to hide fugitives—the Front Street mansions of Dr. Rutherford and Frederick Kelker being notable exceptions—free African Americans commonly welcomed freedom seekers into their homes, despite the dangers. The homes of African American residents, however, were not safe from a surprise search, if slave catchers suspected that their prey was hidden within. Slave catchers would smash through the front door of an African American household with impunity, if they had sufficient numbers in their party to fight off a possible challenge from the inhabitants. If they felt they could not raid the house on their own, they solicited back up from the local sheriff and deputies, who often eagerly obliged them.

Because of this constant threat of a sudden surprise raid, Doctor Jones had a special hiding place prepared for such emergencies. Builders of the modest wooden row houses in River Alley had mimicked a feature of the brick and stone townhouses on Harrisburg’s fashionable main thoroughfares by including a narrow covered passageway from the alley to the rear yard. Jones had modified the passage between his house and the adjoining house by placing a movable board over the alley entrance. To the unknowing observer in front of his house in the alley, the board appeared to be part of the house’s outer wall.115 Behind it, however, fugitive slaves crouched unseen in the narrow passageway until the danger had passed.

Sometime before 1850, Dr. Jones relocated his family and practice about three blocks east to an African American neighborhood known as Tanner’s Alley, which had gradually become the new center of the Harrisburg African American community after Wesley Church moved there in 1839. In addition to his other business pursuits, Jones took in boarders at his home, and then began operating a boarding house on the property he purchased at South Street and West Alley in the predominantly African American neighborhood. His boarding house, which he constructed about 1853, stood directly across South Street from the church, on the small alley corner.

Jones apparently also moved his Underground Railroad activities, in which he was aided by other members of his family, particularly his wife Mary, to the South Street location. Jones’ involvement in fugitive slave events can be seen by his testimony before Judge John J. Pearson in the notorious August 1850 fugitive slave trial at the Dauphin County Courthouse, in which Jones testified that the three men accused of being fugitive slaves had actually been residents of Harrisburg for a long time, and therefore could not have been the men sought by the Virginians. The defense lawyers for the accused fugitives, Mordecai McKinney and Charles C. Rawn, had been hired by Dr. Jones and another local African American man and Tanner’s Alley neighbor, Edward Thompson. Two other men who roomed at Jones’ residence at the time also testified for the defense. Judge Pearson respectfully heard Dr. Jones’ and the other men’s testimony, but ruled it out in light of conflicting testimony from the slave owners.

William M. Jones was also in the middle of the unsuccessful activities to free the Daniel Franklin family from being dragged from their home in Columbia back to slavery in Baltimore. Brought before Federal Slave Commissioner Richard McAllister, in Harrisburg, in the early morning hours of 14 April 1851, the Franklin family was hastily represented by anti-slavery attorneys McKinney and Rawn, who were probably aroused to the hearing by Dr. Jones. Jones was also the leader of the protests staged by Harrisburg African Americans against the outrage, but his efforts were foiled by McAllister, who concluded the early morning hearing and sent the family south in under thirty minutes, long before an effective resistance could be mounted.116

In this new location, William and Mary Jones had considerable help in their Underground Railroad work. The Tanners’ Alley neighborhood was home to a number of African American anti-slavery activists, including members of the Thompson, Bennett, and Williams families.

Physically, it was a neighborhood ideally suited to the hiding and protection of freedom seekers. That was made abundantly clear on a Saturday morning in September 1849 when a family of five fugitive slaves was brought to homes in nearby Short Street for their safety. Earlier that morning, slave catchers had ambushed one of the men in the family as he walked along Front Street near Market. Local African American citizens heard his cries as he struggled with his captors, who were attempting to drag him to the Camel Back Bridge. The slave catchers, according to eyewitnesses, had a wagon and reinforcements waiting on the Cumberland County side of the river to help in taking the family back south, but they lost their prize when two local African American men saw what was happening and came to his assistance.

The sight of three African American men struggling with two white southerners in broad daylight at the corner of the town’s two busiest streets immediately generated intense excitement, particularly among the African American residents and in the nearby Judy’s Town, neighborhood. Seeing the gathering crowd, the slave catchers gave up the fight and fled back across the bridge to their waiting accomplices at the Bridgeport end.


Minute Men Stand Watch

As local residents celebrated the release of the hunted man on the eastern end of the bridge, the southerners licked their wounds on the western end, and both sides plotted their next move, both fully aware that the caper was far from resolved. Moving in full force, the slave catchers crossed the bridge and went to the local authorities for help. As this was occurring, the African American residents of Tanner’s Alley mobilized for action, moving the entire endangered family to the private homes of residents on Short Street, and posting guards in key points to act as a neighborhood watch, to alert the residents when the slave catchers returned. The expectation was that the slave catchers, being unwilling to repeat their daring daylight raid, would strike in the evening. An observer noted, “Some twenty-five or thirty persons assembled in the neighborhood where the fugitives were secreted, for the purpose of affording them protection.”

This watch soon encountered more than they had been expecting, however, as the slave catchers declined to appear in person, and instead enlisted a sympathetic Harrisburg constable to confront them. Tensions were high as the constable approached the neighborhood, in no small part due to his known pro-southern notions—a point of view that was quite common in Harrisburg during this time. The majority of the town’s white residents, if not actively pro-southern in their sympathies, were at least anti-abolitionist, viewing the anti-slavery movement as an infringement on the rights of southerners and generally as interference in other people’s business.

The waiting African American residents of the hastily assembled Short Street watch were therefore justifiably antsy and defiant as the white constable entered their neighborhood. When ordered by him to disperse, the local residents outright refused, defending their assembly as entirely legal and “peaceable.” Feeling frustrated and perhaps threatened by the hostile crowd, the constable retired to the courthouse and informed Dauphin County Sheriff Jacob Shell that a “mob” of unruly African Americans had assembled at Short Street.

Like the chief constable who came to him for help, Jacob Shell was no friend to the abolitionists. The fifty-year-old shopkeeper was a highly respected member of the German Reformed Salem Church with little tolerance for anything he considered nonsense. A few years earlier he had signed a public petition to print a recently delivered sermon entitled “The Evils of Dancing.” When the citizens of Dauphin County elected him sheriff in 1848, he took to heart his responsibility to keep the peace. According to his views, the assemblage in Short Street was not only abolitionist nonsense, it was a serious breach of the local peace, and he intended to put a stop to it.

Shell gathered together a posse of local white men, armed with clubs, and they proceeded to the neighborhood to settle the situation. The mood on both sides was by now quite ugly. The leaders of the watch barely had time to state their intentions to Shell before the street corner erupted into violence as Shell set his posse on the members of the watch almost as soon as they arrived on the scene. Wading into the crowd with their clubs, the lawmen began beating the local residents, but their attempts at a quick dispersal with a show of force did not go as planned, as the members of the watch violently retaliated, quickly overpowering Sheriff Shell and his men. The sheriff retreated to his office and summoned a local militia company, which was assembled under the pretense of protecting the community from a riotous mob of African Americans bent on attacking local white citizens.117

It was now nearly eleven o’clock on Saturday evening, an hour during which most Harrisburg residents would normally have been asleep, but instead the town was buzzing with excitement. As one newspaper reported, those still asleep in the midst of the excitement “were aroused from their slumber by the sound of the fife and drum, of Captain W’s Company on their way to the scene of the riot, to shoot down, as they said, the damned niggers.”

They marched to the assembly point at Third and Market Streets, a high traffic, high visibility location, with a fashionable hotel on each of the four corners, where they were joined by the constable who had originally confronted the African American sentries. The troops formed into ranks facing their intended destination, and with the constable at the head of the column, a “horse pistol” in each hand, they moved boldly and confidently toward the African American neighborhood just east of the Capitol.

The neighborhood watch on Short Street, being fully aware of the mustering of the militia company, wisely disbanded before their arrival. There was no sense in standing against a foe who had exchanged the club and cudgel for the far more lethal bayonet, musket, and pistol.

When the column arrived on the scene, they found only a few curious onlookers instead of a threatening mob, which did nothing to placate their suddenly aroused martial spirit. Neither the company commander nor the constable stepped in when some of the militiamen seized several of the innocent onlookers, some of whom were standing in their own doorways, knocked them down and began beating them. In short order, the remainder of the company joined in the mayhem, threatening and chasing after every black resident they could find. In at least once instance, the soldiers fired their weapons at one man, whom they could not catch, fortunately missing their target. They rounded up those they could catch and marched them to the jail, a few blocks west on Walnut Street, to face charges on Monday morning.

When Monday morning came around, Chief Burgess David Harris, to his credit, dropped the charges lodged against the beaten Short Street residents, and the constable and county sheriff faced criticism from a number of outspoken citizens for overstepping their bounds. It seems that Harrisburg’s gentry valued their peace and quiet above even the persecution of despised abolitionists, as Sheriff Shell and his constable were generally perceived as having inappropriately used the militia to scatter African American residents so that the slave catchers could search the Short Street neighborhood without molestation. In fact, a search by the Southerners turned up no fugitive slave family, the hunted bondsmen having been hurried by their protectors to a quieter location even before the drums of the approaching militia began filling the alleys.118


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114. Frederick B. Roe, Atlas of the City of Harrisburg (Philadelphia: Frederick B. Roe, 1889); S. S. Rutherford, “The Under Ground Railroad,” 3.

115. Bureau of the Census, Population Schedules, 1820 Census, 1830 Census, 1850 Census, 1860 Census, 1880 Census, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.
William M. Jones does not appear on either the 1820 Harrisburg Census, or the 1821 Harrisburg registry of free Colored Persons, but he does appear in the 1830 Harrisburg Census as the head of a free African American household of eight persons. Although he and his wife Mary reported their state of birth as Pennsylvania in both the 1850 and 1860 censuses, he changed his reported birthplace, after the Civil War, to Maryland. See Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 84, for a description of Jones’ River Alley house and hiding place. For the year of William Jones’ arrival in Harrisburg, see his testimony in Philadelphia at the hearing of Daniel Dangerfield, in 1859, detailed in Pennsylvania Abolition Society, The Arrest, Trial, and Release of Daniel Webster, Fugitive Slave (Philadelphia, 1859), 20, Northern Illinois University Library, Digitization Projects, (accessed 16 June 2010).

116. Bureau of the Census, Population Schedules, 1850 Census, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; Eggert, “Impact,” 541, 547. The date of construction of William Jones’ boarding house is given as 1853 according to his testimony in the 1859 Dangerfield trial. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release of Daniel Webster, Fugitive Slave, 21.

117. North Star, 12 October 1849.

118. Ibid. The identity of the constable involved in this fracas has not been established. It is tempting to identify him as Solomon Snyder, who would serve as Federal Fugitive Slave Commissioner Richard McAllister’s right-hand man the following year. An account of the incident, however, places “two large horse pistols” in the hands of the constable as he took his place in the front of the militia company prior to the attack on the Short Street residents. Snyder was well known for having only one arm, having lost an arm due to the premature discharge of a cannon at a July Fourth celebration in Harrisburg in 1846. It is more likely that this “chief constable” was another of McAllister’s later henchmen: Henry Loyer.


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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