Free Persons of Color
The Violent Decade
US Colored Troops
Backlash, Violence and Fear: The Violent Decade
Besprinkled With Blood
the proceedings inside the courtroom was an ambitious
young man who had deep roots in Harrisburg’s legal system.
Cornelius M. Shell, although still two months shy of his twenty-fifth
birthday, had been practicing law in Dauphin County since the beginning
of the year. His father was Sheriff Jacob Shell, the lawman who
had put an end to the Short Street Watch with efficient brutality
a year earlier. With contacts in both the courtroom and the prison,
Shell was entirely comfortable carrying the discharge certificate
from the hands of the county’s President Judge and placing
it in the hands of the county’s chief jailor, prison warden
John T. Wilson.
trip from the courthouse to the prison keeper’s office was remarkably
short. The prison was conveniently built with its back against the
rear of the courthouse so that prisoners could be conveyed safely and
quickly from their trial room to their jail cell. Shell was undoubtedly
aware of the dangerous mood of the crowd outside, which he could easily
glimpse from the court house windows, so he probably walked briskly
along the wide brick-paved prison corridor that ran the length of that
building, past the rows of cells on each side, each one seven and one-half
feet wide and fifteen feet deep. Inside one of those cells were the
three men whose names were on the document in his hands.
found prison warden John Wilson waiting with a deputy warden, and handed
the discharge certificate to him. Together the three men removed the
three fugitive slaves from their cell and took them down the corridor
to the prison entrance at the front of the building, on Walnut Street.
As they did this, slaveholder William Taylor and eight or nine other
men, including George Isler and J. A. Strayer, crowded into the small
vestibule outside of the front door, not more than twelve feet square,
that separated the heavy prison door and the iron prison gates on Walnut
crowd outside the prison quickly caught sight of the Southerners waiting
in the small room, but could not get to them through the heavy iron
gates. A large group of Harrisburg constables began circulating between
the surging, noisy crowd and the gates of the prison, attempting to
keep order as the emotional event began to play itself out. African
Americans and sympathetic whites watched in anguish as the door to
the prison began to open. One of the slave catchers shouted above the
din “they’re coming.” The nine slave catchers surrounded
the prison door, the crowd caught their breath, and no rescue attempt
appeared to be in sight.
Judge John J. Pearson allowed that the court had
no right to prevent the slaveholder, William Taylor, from recapturing
his slaves, he expected that the Virginian and his helpers, who
outnumbered the slaves three-to-one, would do so with a minimum
of fuss. They had left his courtroom as the release certificate
was being prepared and headed straight for the prison entrance
to wait for the inmates. Pearson also knew that the borough’s
entire complement of constables was stationed at the prison entrance,
along with several volunteer deputies, to keep order among the
large crowd that had gathered to watch the release and expected
past experience, Pearson knew that Harrisburg’s free African
American residents would make it unpleasant for the slave catchers,
and he may even have expected a few arrests to occur as emotions overpowered
respect for the law. However, he did not expect the sudden explosion
of violence that was ignited when the three men were pushed through
the prison door into the vestibule. Prison warden Wilson had sensed
what would happen, though. He knew the large angry crowd was there,
barely contained outside of the iron gates; he had seen them from the
windows of his office, filling Walnut Street and Court Alley for a
block. He also knew that the nine slave catchers were on the other
side of the door, edgy and quite disgruntled that they were being forced
to take back their property in this manner, and he knew what would
happen when the actions of the slave catchers were observed by the
later told the court how he “Put [the prisoners] out, shut the
door and came away. Did not wish to see anything.” The youthful
Cornelius Shell was with him when the men were released, and he saw
how the three fugitive slaves, one by one, were grabbed by unseen arms
and quickly yanked out into the vestibule through the door. When the
deed was done, Wilson secured the door and they left the slaves to
first slave to be pushed out into the small vestibule
found himself face to face with at least nine angry and impatient
men, several of whom immediately began shouting at him to “give
up.” Behind them in the street were hundreds of people crying
out with nervous excitement. The frightened and confused man pulled
back from his assailants but they came at him with fists, clubs,
and canes. He fell to the stone floor of the vestibule as blows
began falling on him, crying out for help from the crowd, screaming “Murder!
next two men were pulled bodily into the vestibule by the slave catchers,
who began beating them right away and continued pummeling them even
as they lay helpless on the floor. The crowd reacted with horror and
anger as the men were beaten, and it surged menacingly toward the iron
gates. The constables did not pay any attention to the mayhem at the
prison entrance, but instead faced the crowd, pushing those back that
got too close. Then the first rocks and sticks flew at the lawmen,
launched from somewhere in the rear of the crowd.
spectators, provoked by the brutal actions of the slave catchers, were
now rioters. The men on the balcony of the Exchange Building began
throwing rocks at the constables around the gates, taking effective
aim from their vantage point. People began pulling up bricks from the
street and heaving them toward the prison walls. The constables held
their own, generally keeping the crowd in check, but in the thick of
the melee one man dashed out of the crowd, pulled open the heavy prison
gate and ducked into the vestibule to attack the slave catchers with
Pople Can Take No More
saw him and the scene electrified them. It was thirty-one-year-old
Joseph Pople, a family man with a wife and three young children in
a house in nearby Tanner’s Alley. Pople had arrived some years
prior with his young wife from Maryland to join other members of his
family in Harrisburg and to raise a family. He had long been active
in local anti-slavery activities, attending meetings and listening
to antislavery lectures.
word of the trial reached him, he joined his neighbors in the streets
to show his support for the captives. Like his neighbors, he recoiled
in horror when he saw the merciless beatings being inflicted on the
three helpless men, and when no rescue attempt materialized, this family
man, fully cognizant of the risk he was taking and the danger to which
he was exposing his family should he be injured or killed, charged
single-handedly into the fray.
was a large man, muscular from years of hard laboring work, and as
he laid savagely into the slave catchers with his club, his unexpected
appearance gave heart to the slaves, who fought back with renewed fury.
But the foes were too many, the slaves were already wearied out by
the beatings, and the Southerners, quickly recovering from the surprise
attack, focused their anger on Pople, gradually beating him down. The
local newspaper later reported, “Had Pople been assisted by three
of like pluck they would all have escaped, notwithstanding the superior
number of their opponents.” But it was only him inside the small
space, and after a while, he could do no more.
Pople barely escaped with his life from the stone prison vestibule,
and when he did, he was severely beaten and bleeding profusely from
his wounds. But his efforts were not in vain, because as he got out,
so did one of the slaves. After the slave catchers turned their fury
on Pople, John Strange took advantage of their sudden lack of attention
to him. Mustering up his strength, he bolted from the room, dashed
past the constables at the gates, and disappeared into the crowd.
in the crowd surrounded him, cheering him on his way and more than
twenty local men ran beside him, ushering him east on the wooden sidewalk
along Walnut Street and then pushing him along the boardwalk toward
Capitol Hill. The same boardwalk that had been built to keep the shoes
of legislators out of the mud now guided the feet of a fugitive slave
securely over free soil. The lone escapee was finally lost to view
as he and his guides melted into the heavy vegetation that surrounded
the town reservoir just beyond the Capitol.
was not quiet around the prison following this singular success, however.
The crowd, no longer distracted by Pople’s heroics and highly
incensed at the beatings, turned into a riotous mob that threatened
to overrun the thin line of constables standing between them and the
Southerners inside the prison gates. One of Joseph Pople’s neighbors,
a young woman named Ann Poole, added some of her household crockery
to the hail of projectiles that was besieging the prison defenders.
She succeeded only in hitting a bystander who was attempting to get
out of the way of the rioters, causing a “severe wound over the
eye” with an old bowl.
all this mayhem, local military commander Major Jacob Seiler was spotted
by the local lawmen near the edge of the mob on his horse. He was attempting
to help the constables keep order, but when it became apparent that
the situation was rapidly deteriorating, he was ordered to muster the
militia. Seiler quickly made his way to the city arsenal, less than
two blocks away on the Capitol grounds, where he was joined by about
fifty hastily deputized men. The impromptu militia was issued muskets
and bayonets, and Major Seiler marched them in double ranks down Walnut
Street to the prison entrance.
crowd, faced with an oncoming wall of steel bayonets brandished by
nervous draftees, quickly and wisely lost their will to resist, and
melted into the nearby alleyways. By the time that Seiler had about-faced
his troops and marched them back to the corner of Third and Walnut
Streets, few bystanders could be seen, and the prison was secured with
the Southerners and their two remaining slaves still inside. As a final
measure to ensure quiet, a cannon was rolled down from the arsenal
and placed at Third and Walnut Streets, its muzzle directly menacing
several African American homes on the north side of Walnut, including
that of the family of Thomas W. Brown.
an uneasy order was restored, but the peace of the town, like the three
fugitive slaves and their would-be rescuer Joseph Pople, had again
been assaulted and left bleeding by slavery-related events. There was
gory evidence of the desperate fight in the prison anteroom. Rudolph
Kelker remembered, “The floor and walls of the jail vestibule
were plentifully besprinkled with blood.” He said that the overall
carnage was “horrible.” The two slaves who had not escaped,
George Brooks and Samuel Wilson, were handcuffed and returned to the
depths of the prison, despite being covered almost totally in blood.
Joseph Pople was in nearly as bad shape as the slaves, although he
remained free for a time.
the streets were cleared, the militiamen were deputized by Sheriff
Shell to round up those who were known to have participated in the
riot, and within hours several of the town’s most well known
African American citizens were under arrest for riot. Bound over by
the court were Doctor William Jones, barber Henry Bradley, James Williams,
Joseph Pople, and six other free African American residents of Harrisburg.
In the afternoon, nine of the Southerners were also arrested and charged
with inciting a riot. Judge Pearson set trial dates for the November
court of quarter sessions to sort it all out.12
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12. Caba, Episodes
of Gettysburg, 83; Pennsylvania Telegraph, 28 August
A brief account of the incident was reported in the Port Tobacco Times and Charles County Advertiser, Maryland. Click the image below for the complete article including the full text of Judge Pearson's bench warrant for the slave catchers on a writ of habeas corpus.
Source: Port Tobacco (Maryland) Times and Charles County Advertiser, 04 September 1850, p.2.