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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 Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)


The End of Solomon Snyder

Richard McAllister’s spot as Slave Commissioner was never refilled, forcing slave catchers operating in the Harrisburg area to take their business to Philadelphia, where Commissioner Ingraham continued to hear cases. For two years, the capital of Pennsylvania relaxed slightly, as violent incidents related to the despised slave catching business nearly stopped. Harrisburg’s African American community continued to aid and forward freedom seekers along the route out of bondage, and although the town did not become a safe haven, it had become decidedly safer with the removal of Loyer, Lyne, Snyder, and Sanders from the streets.

The effect of their reign of terror on African American residents would continue to be felt for some time, however. In the summer of 1854, the black community still had not rebounded from the Fugitive Slave Law-induced flight north, according to the published results of a private census commissioned by a borough newspaper. The Patriot and Union announced that, in comparison to figures from the census of 1850, Harrisburg’s white population had increased by 4,203 persons, while the African American population had decreased by one hundred and five.98

Little wonder. Even as McAllister’s talons were loosening their grip on central Pennsylvania, the specter of slave catching still loomed ominously over the region. An advertisement in the Lancaster Intelligencer, dated 29 March 1853, served as a reminder that slavery was alive and well just a few miles away. The ad offered “Two Hundred Dollars Reward” for the return to slavery of “Henry Jackson, a light mulatto, about five and a half feet high, between thirty and thirty five years of age, of thin visage.” Jackson escaped from his owner, John F. Boone, of Washington D.C., who had him at work making cabinets for John D. Brown in that city. Jackson was married, with a free wife in Washington, but even as a skilled cabinetmaker working in the nation’s capital, he could not live free. It was probably just a matter of time before hard-featured slave catchers rode into town in search of a talented cabinetmaker.

There were signs, however, that the local attitude toward abolition might be softening. White residents had turned the slave-catching constables out of office and forced the resignation of the despised slave commissioner, but that turn of events did not necessarily indicate an anti-slavery stance so much as an anti-corruption stance. Richard McAllister was widely portrayed as a self-serving politician who had turned his federal commission into a profitable slave catching operation. The vote against his constables was a vote against the abuse of power. But once he was gone, attitudes did begin to change.

In February and March of 1854, the stage production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” played in Harrisburg, and for a period of two weeks straight, the theater was packed with local residents. In Lancaster, bookseller W. H. Spangler advertised through this period that he had already sold one thousand copies of Stowe’s novel, and was prepared to “supply all demands for the book.”99

In Harrisburg, anti-slavery advocates renewed efforts to push for repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law. They convinced Pennsylvania Senator James Cooper, a Whig from Gettysburg, to present to the U.S. Senate a petition “of the citizens of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, praying the repeal of the fugitive slave law.” Coopers’ petition, though, was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, where it languished.100 Still, the petition announced to the world a change in attitude among Harrisburg’s citizenry. Certainly it was not a position shared by all, but it represented a new respectability for abolitionists in the river town.

Toward the end of summer, activists again began to invite nationally known abolitionist speakers into town. They welcomed William James Watkins, an Associate Editor of The Frederick Douglass Paper, cousin of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and eloquent African American speaker, to Harrisburg on 31 August. About that time, additional abolitionist newspapers began to appear in town. Thomas W. Brown became the Harrisburg agent for the new Provincial Freeman, which was published for resettled fugitive slaves in Chatham, Canada West (Ontario) and edited by former West Chester resident Mary Ann Shadd.101

Brown carried the newspapers because he wanted to bring to Harrisburg stories of those who had successfully escaped the bonds of slavery and had placed themselves beyond the reach of the hated Fugitive Slave Law. But Thomas W. Brown also had a personal reason to abhor the Fugitive Slave Law: his home and family had been directly menaced by the cannons that were rolled into place at Third and Walnut streets and aimed into his neighborhood to help quell the riot of 1850.

Harrisburg continued to experience slave hunts after the departure of McAllister, but these incidents lacked the severity, the brutality, and the terror that had characterized the operations of the former slave commissioner. On 12 June 1854, three men from Maryland, accompanied by a Philadelphia marshal, arrived in Harrisburg in search of a fugitive who was working in a brickyard in town. With Commissioner McAllister gone, the slaveholders had been forced to go first to Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham in Philadelphia, to swear out a warrant. The delay gave Harrisburg activists the time they needed to act. The hunted man was spirited out of town by local Underground Railroad activists before he could be located by the slave catchers.102

Another case a few months later did not end as well, though. Agents for Franklin Bright, a farmer on Kent Island in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, traveled to Harrisburg in September in search of alleged fugitive slave Henry Massy. The Southerners, assisted by a Philadelphia deputy marshal named William Birly, found their man in town and returned with him to Philadelphia for a hearing before Commissioner Ingraham. Bright’s interests were represented at the hearing by U. S. District Attorney James C. Vandyke, while Pennsylvania Abolition Society attorney David Paul Brown, aided by attorney W. A. Jackson, argued on behalf of Massy.

An agent for Franklin Bright swore to the claimant’s ownership of Henry Massy, but attorney Brown questioned the documentation provided and found some irregularities. Ingraham asked for additional affidavits and postponed the hearing until he could be satisfied that Massy was actually the slave of Franklin Bright. Ultimately, Massy was returned to slavery, but because his owner could not have the hearing held in Harrisburg, he had to spend extra days in the process, and the outcome was not a sure thing.103

Most of the fugitive slaves who were arriving in Harrisburg at this time still passed through the hands of Edward Bennett, whose Judy’s Town home remained a central point of organization for local Underground Railroad operations. Bennett continued to coordinate his activities with African American agents in Tanner’s Alley, and with local white activists, particularly Dr. William W. Rutherford, who forwarded freedom seekers to his family members in the Paxtang Valley.

In January 1855, however, Bennett’s operation suffered a major setback when a large and destructive fire swept through Judy’s Town, destroying several frame houses.104 Judy’s Town had years ago lost its place as the center of African American community life in Harrisburg; that honor having shifted four blocks north to Tanner’s Alley when Wesley Union Church relocated to better quarters. The old log church on the southeast corner of Third and Mulberry, once the headquarters of African American social life and Underground Railroad planning, was still standing, but according to a newspaper article was “fast going into decay and ‘darkly nodding to its fall.’ The flooring,” the article reported, “has long since mingled with the dust, and its worm-eaten rafters suspends overhead a sieve-like roof.” It was, as the article complained, “a nuisance,” but the people of Judy’s Town, and the church itself, had no money for repairs or even for demolition.105 The fire that wiped out a number of houses could not have come at a worse time.

The community scrambled to find shelter and aid during the coldest months of the year for those displaced by the fire, and the burden of Underground Railroad planning was either shifted to someone else, or it ceased to occur. In the months that followed, several fugitives were documented as passing through Harrisburg with no particular person or persons identified that provided aid. In June 1855, a fugitive from Baltimore, Henry Cromwell, arrived in Harrisburg and was sent directly to Philadelphia, but not by way of a series of Underground Railroad stations. Instead, Cromwell was placed on a freight train bound for that city. It is not known who assisted him in Harrisburg.

For those residents of Judy’s Town displaced by the January 1855 fire, the specter of exposure and starvation loomed ominously close, just as it always did for the fugitive slaves who straggled into town regularly during the late fall and winter months.

Even as the people of Judy’s Town were still clearing away the charred remains of their neighbors’ ruined houses, though, another chilling ghost of horrors past raised its head. Somewhere north of the Harrisburg borough line, on a Friday night, a group of African American day laborers were squirreled away against the bitter February cold, happily passing the evening in an unlicensed dance house, surrounded by music, a blazing fire, and female companionship. Someone suggested that some brandy would complement the cozy surroundings, but the owner of the establishment had none to offer. They convinced a young man of about eighteen years, named George Clark, to go into Harrisburg on an errand to find some, and two men volunteered to take him to a place they knew.

Clark and his two guides, James Thompson, and a newcomer named David Jackson, walked out into the biting night air and continued to the south side of Harrisburg. They stopped in front of the old weather-boarded Pennsylvania Railroad train station on the south side of Market Street and indicated that the brandy could be found on the second floor of the station. The young man followed the two men up the stairs and was steered by them into a room on the second floor. Jackson and Thompson stayed outside in the hallway as Clark walked alone into the room. If Clark had any suspicions at all about his companions, he apparently did not act upon them, and only realized his terrible mistake when the door shut behind him and he saw a latch being secured by a familiar one-armed man.

Solomon Snyder stepped out of the shadows after locking the door and announced to the now terrified boy, “Clark, I am going to take you back to your master.” George Clark recognized the former constable instantly. He knew the face of the notorious slave catcher from his years spent working for the Rutherford family, just outside of town, and he sensed immediately the desperate situation into which he had just stepped.

Perhaps Clark had let his guard down after the constable had been indicted for kidnapping in a Lancaster court, or perhaps he felt immune to the kidnapping threat because he had been born to free African American parents in Carlisle, but if he had felt secure for either reason, it was a mistake. As had happened several times in the past, the wily ex-constable had evaded conviction by a jury of his peers and had returned to Harrisburg to continue his craft. Now he had the teenaged George Clark trapped in his rented room, ready to be bound and sold south.

Another person, Elizabeth Snyder, wife of Solomon, was in the room and apparently had joined her husband in the scheme. With the door blocked, probably by Elizabeth, George Clark struggled with Solomon Snyder, but the younger man was unable to get the advantage over the much older man. Snyder fought well despite his handicap; he had years of experience in subduing suspects, and he also carried with him an aura of malevolence that intimidated his foes. Clark was in imminent danger of being captured and immobilized by a one-armed man who was twenty-five years his senior.

In desperation, the young man leaped for the window, broke the glass, and tried to crawl out. He nearly made it, cutting himself severely in the arm in the process, but Snyder and his wife were quick. Each grabbed a leg as Clark wiggled out through the window, and they began to pull him back into the room. Clark, hanging high above the ground, began screaming and yelling, shouting the one word that would bring help: “Murder!” Sure enough, people began to run to the source of the commotion, where, in the street in front of the train station, they saw a young man dangling from the second story window, head down toward the street, blood streaming from his arm. At the window, still struggling to hold him, were the ex-constable and his wife.106 The game was finally over for Solomon Snyder.


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98. New York Times, 4 July 1854. Although the results of the Patriot and Union’s unofficial census should be considered suspect, they do, even if they represent only rough numbers, reflect a significant decrease in the local African American population during the first four years following passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. From 1840 to 1850, Harrisburg added 240 African American residents, for a total of 886 persons. The passage of four years should have shown at least a modest increase, but instead shows a population whose numbers are stagnant at best, and receding at worst. This bears out the published comments of Telegraph editor Theophilus Fenn, who noticed the outflow of African American residents almost immediately after passage of the law and wrote that the borough streets were “almost deserted of black fellows.” Harrisburg Telegraph, 2 October 1850.

99. Eggert, “Impact,” 568; Lancaster Intelligencer, 29 March 1853.

100. Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789-1873, August 1, 1854, 620, Library of Congress, “American Memory,”
Senator James Cooper’s presentation of this petition to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law is significant because he was one of two legal counsels for the prosecution in the Christiana Treason trials. During that famous trial, he faced his former mentor, Thaddeus Stevens, who led the defense team.

101. Frederick Douglass Paper, 31 August 1854; Provincial Freeman, 22 April 1854.

102. Provincial Freeman, 1 July 1854.

103. Frederick Douglass Paper, 29 September 1854; National Era, 5 October 1854.
U.S. District Attorney James C. Van Dyke, one year later, would prosecute Pennsylvania Abolition Society Secretary Passmore Williamson for the liberation of slaves Jane Johnson and her two children from their owner, John H. Wheeler, while he was passing through Philadelphia on this way to a diplomatic post in Nicaragua. In his trial before Judge John Kane, Williamson was imprisoned on charges of contempt of court because he would not produce Johnson and her children on a writ of habeas corpus.

104. Theodore B. Klein, “Some Hot Times: In the Old Town—The Fire Boys Between the Years 1837 and 1871,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, Annual Volume 1900, 12:63.
In the article, author Theodore B. Klein notes the “conflagration” that tore through Judy’s Town “raised a general consternation in the dominions of ‘King Bennett.’”

105. Morning Herald, 11 October 1856.

106. Keystone, 24 February 1855, reprinted in Frederick Douglass Paper, 2 March 1855; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Upper Swatara Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. George Clark was enumerated at age 13, living on the Samuel S. Rutherford farm, along modern day Derry Street, as one of six servants or farm hands, four of whom were African American. Clark, along with the nine-year-old Elizabeth, both attended school while living and working on the Rutherford farm.


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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