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 Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear: The Violent Decade

Plentifully Besprinkled With Blood

Observing 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.

The 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.

Shell 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 Street.

The 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.



When 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 recapture.

From 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 crowd.

He 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 their fate.



The 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! Murder!”

The 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.

The 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 a club.


Joseph Pople Can Take No More

Everyone 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.

When 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.

He 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.

Joseph 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.

People 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.

All 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.

Amid 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.

The 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.

Slowly, 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.

Once 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

Previous | Next



12. Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 83; Pennsylvania Telegraph, 28 August 1850.
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. Port Tobacco Times and Charles County Advertiser article on 1850 fugitive slave riot in Harrisburg.
Source: Port Tobacco (Maryland) Times and Charles County Advertiser, 04 September 1850, p.2.


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.

About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | 20th Century History