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 Book-Keeper Arrives

The midstate quieted down somewhat and the African American community in Harrisburg relaxed after Solomon Snyder was finally convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in prison. Many in the local black community had flocked to his initial hearing before Justice Henry Beader in February. The Keystone reported, “During the examination of Snyder, the magistrate’s office and vicinity of the prison were filled with spectators, and the joy of the colored population knew no bounds on beholding their inveterate enemy in the hands of the officers of the law.”

When he and his accomplice, David Jackson, were sentenced that April,107 there must have been an audible sigh of relief from the neighborhoods of Tanner’s Alley and Judy’s Town. The town had endured nearly five long years of racial strife associated with the Fugitive Slave Law, so residents probably hailed the resignation of Richard McAllister and the imprisonment of Solomon Snyder as hopeful signs of change.

There might even have been some disappointment that the Fugitive Slave Law was not turning out to be the solution to the slavery issue, but at least the borough was not experiencing the kind of slavery-related violence that was tearing apart the Kansas Territory. Congress, in May 1854, had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing for the residents of the respective territories to decide, by popular sovereignty, whether to allow slavery in their territories. Nebraska was not considered at risk of choosing slavery, but Kansas, which experienced an influx of activists for both sides of the issue, became a battleground.

Violence flared frequently as pro-slavery settlers poured across the Missouri border into Kansas to swell the popular vote in favor of allowing slavery, while anti-slavery eastern men, including many Pennsylvanians, made the journey west to add their numbers opposing slavery. It was not long before hostilities broke into open warfare between the two groups, and “Bleeding Kansas” became a surrogate battleground between the slave South and the free North.

Newspapers in Harrisburg, York, Carlisle, Lancaster, and Gettysburg reported regularly on the atrocities, killings, and revenge killings that began to mount in the territories. Although the strife seemed geographically remote, its reach would extend into central Pennsylvania, and it would indeed bring change, but not the type of hoped-for change that local residents anticipated with the passing of the Slave Commissioner and his henchmen. Something even more insidious was on its way.

But not all was gloom and doom. There were other major changes afoot, and some brought badly needed corrective action. By the end of 1855, Harrisburg’s Underground Railroad operation was ripe for change—it begged for change. The Judy’s Town operators were still in disarray and the old strategies were badly in need of an update. With McAllister’s Walnut Street office vacant, the constant, daily harassment by slave hunters who menaced Harrisburg blacks with the legal backing of local law enforcement officials was now only a bad memory, yet activists continued to operate with extreme timidity, as if a meaner and more vicious Slave Commissioner was just around the corner.

At the same time, the number of fugitives coming into the state, particularly from the border counties of Maryland, was increasing. Also increasing were the activities of slave catchers along the border. The need to reestablish Harrisburg as a hub for the converging routes from Lancaster, Carlisle, York, and Gettysburg was great, but doing so would require massive changes in the way freedom seekers were taken in, processed, and forwarded. The task required someone who was both innovative and daring.

That person arrived in town, probably during the waning weeks of the year, stepping off of a passenger coach onto the platform of the Pennsylvania Railroad station, squeezed between the east side of the tracks and the canal. He would have retrieved his bags and probably paused to survey the surrounding industrial corridor, bustling with commerce, before cautiously crossing the railroad tracks and Meadow Lane to walk the few blocks northwest to Tanner’s Alley, where he intended to set up shop.

The man who arrived on the train from Philadelphia in the winter of 1855-1856 was the grandson of a liberated slave-turned-businessman, and the son of a hard-working tradesman and abolitionist. He came from a family of educators—his grandfather and cousin both taught poor African American children in Philadelphia—and this was the profession he intended to pursue in Harrisburg. Appropriately, he had been named for a great champion of African American education, who also happened to be a great family friend. He was well educated, highly literate and fit for the job. A few years earlier, he had run an ad in Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, North Star, in which he advertised his services as:

Book-Keeper, Accountant, and Confidential Letter Writer, would most respectfully inform his friends and the public in general, that he has for their accommodation, opened his office for the keeping of Books, casting accounts, writing letters upon business, &c. the drawing of Bonds, articles of agreement, Constitutions, bye-laws, reports, communications, &c. &c., at No. 169, South Sixth Street, below Pine, where by his strict attention to business he hopes to secure their patronage, and merit their confidence and esteem. Terms Cash. Office hours from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. Also Agent for the NORTH STAR, single copies of which can be obtained; and the sale of Lots in Lebanon Cemetery.108

This apparent workaholic and jack-of-all-trades was also socially well connected. At thirty-three years of age he could already boast of a ten-year association with the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, and in 1850, the year he opened his office on South Sixth Street, he had been entrusted with the entire circulation of the North Star newspaper in Philadelphia. He was named for West Indian immigrant, moral reformer, abolitionist, and successful entrepreneur Joseph Cassey, who, in 1839 had joined with James Forten and Stephen Smith to create a scholarship for African American students at New York’s Oneida Institute. During that same year, at age seventeen, he began actively helping his brother, Charles Hicks Bustill, hide fugitive slaves around the city of Philadelphia. His entire family, in fact, was committed to the anti-slavery cause, and in the winter of 1855-1856, Joseph Cassey Bustill brought his family’s passion for activism and his own vision for a vital and reactivated Underground Railroad operation to Harrisburg.

It seems probable that Joseph C. Bustill’s appearance in Harrisburg at this time was much more than happenstance. As noted, he arrived in town after the local Slave Commissioner was ousted and his last lieutenant was safely removed to prison. The local network was sagging with age, and, perhaps, weariness. Old Father Jones was nearly sixty-five years old and Edward Bennett was over fifty years old. Church patriarchs George Galbraith and David Stevens, although still very vital, were over fifty years and nearly forty years old respectively. All these local persons had been actively hiding and caring for slaves for between twenty-five and forty years, and the numbers of runaways finding their way to Harrisburg lately was increasing with the passing of the McAllister operation.

The local white abolitionists were similarly aging and one of the chief white supporters, Alexander Graydon, had been gone for more than a decade. At the end of 1855 and beginning of 1856, there did not appear to be anyone actually directing local anti-slavery operations, nor was there even a single identifiable figure in town to whom local activists could turn for guidance. York had William Goodridge, Columbia had William Whipper, Lancaster and Gettysburg each had a functioning network, but Harrisburg appeared to be languishing.

In Philadelphia, as head of the newly revitalized Vigilance Committee, William Still looked with great concern at the Harrisburg situation. The capital was a major hub for several Underground Railroad routes: fugitives from Gettysburg, York, Lancaster, Carlisle, and Columbia all converged here. Harrisburg was too important to leave alone with the hope that someone would step up to the challenge. Clearly, there was a need for bold, strong leadership. Joseph Bustill did not arbitrarily leave a successful business in Philadelphia and move to Harrisburg at the end of 1855 looking for work as a schoolteacher. He was sent to take charge of things. Joseph Bustill was sent to make changes.


The Harrisburg Fugitive Aid Society

One of his first tasks was to reorganize the local resistance. Harrisburg, like most towns in southern Pennsylvania, was still a very dangerous place for freedom seekers. The departure of McAllister had helped to calm the nerves of local activists, but there were still literally hundreds of unfriendly eyes watching the streets and bridges every day, alert for the telltale dress and behavior of a runaway fugitive from the south.

It was a combination of behavior and clothing that apparently had tipped off Colonel Joseph P. Hummel, back in 1850, that six of the eight African American men he watched crossing the Harrisburg Bridge into town were escaped slaves. Unless an alert stationmaster along the road to Harrisburg had made provisions for the fugitives to change clothing, chances are great that they were still wearing their distinctive slave clothing, which was usually distinguished by its drab, homemade appearance.

A runaway advertisement from this period lists typical “Negro clothing” in its appeal for the return of Baltimore slaves Basil White and Joshua Anderson. White escaped wearing “a blue monkey coat, coarse gray pants, a slouch hat and coarse boots.” Anderson was clothed in “a full suit of homemade gray clothes, with heavy coarse boots.”109 The terms “course,” “gray” and “homemade” are clues to the poor quality of clothing issued to slaves in the South during this period.

If Bustill hoped to gain an edge over those local persons who would report a suspected slave in town, he would have to make sure that sufficient clothing was kept on hand to give to incoming slaves. Medical care, food, and shelter were the other immediate concerns, and while all these necessities had been provided in the past by dedicated Harrisburg anti-slavery activists, the need to make sure all this aid was available when it was needed was a monumental task. Pledges for food donations had to be collected, cooks had to be lined up, hosts with a spare room had to be found, nurses, doctors, seamstresses, and guides had to be enlisted, and all had to be ready to work or supply goods at a moment’s notice. Just because someone had provided a room or a meal in the past was no guarantee that they would do so again.110 It took an organized, diplomatic, charismatic, and persuasive individual to make all this happen, and to do so consistently, time and again. This was Joseph Bustill’s role as he undertook the job of reorganizing Harrisburg’s Underground Railroad movement in 1856.

Back in Philadelphia, William Still kept careful records, and recorded all his correspondence with his far-flung lieutenants in the field. He must have felt great satisfaction when he read, in a March 1856 letter from Joseph Bustill at Harrisburg, that his agent in this principle Underground Railroad “depot” had lately “formed a Society here, called the Fugitive Aid Society.” Harrisburg had been without a local anti-slavery organization for quite some time. The pioneering “Harrisburg Anti-Slavery Society,” organized in 1836, did not last long, being quickly overshadowed by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which was organized in town the following year. Besides, the official role of the PAS was to lobby for political action opposing slavery, and not to provide support for fugitive slaves, although unofficially, some of the lecturers employed by the PAS may have played a role in organizing Underground Railroad networks in the areas they visited.

An association that provided active support for fugitive slaves, then, was a vital step toward making Harrisburg a more effective and dependable Underground Railroad hub. Bustill now had a social framework in place for dealing with the many needs of freedom seekers who were already heading his way.

It is important to note, though, that the Philadelphia native had important local help in getting the society organized. In his letter, Bustill specifically wrote, “We have formed a Society.” Although he did not name his chief partners in Harrisburg, one must certainly have been the veteran anti-slavery campaigner John F. Williams. Williams, along with his wife Hannah, had been the family that opened their North Ward home to Martin R. Delany in November 1849 when the activist and newspaper editor, who was touring Pennsylvania as an anti-slavery orator, was turned away from local hotels due to his color. Two years before that, Williams was one of the three local African American men that were appointed by the black community to invite Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison to Harrisburg. Williams was also acquainted with William Still, and visited him in Philadelphia in May 1856. He carried with him an important letter from Bustill in Harrisburg, detailing recent operations. In the letter to Still, Bustill refers to Williams as “our friend.”111

It is probable that Joseph Bustill, as a newly arrived bachelor schoolteacher in Harrisburg, spent a lot of time in the Williams Family household, which was located in the neighborhood of Tanners Alley. Living with John and his wife Hannah was Hannah’s younger sister, Sarah Humphreys. Sarah must have been impressed with this new frequent visitor to the household. Bustill was well educated, was entirely devoted to the abolitionist cause, and he exuded the heady air of mystery and conspiracy about him as he and her brother-in-law worked out plans to better smuggle fugitive slaves through the streets of Harrisburg.

For his part, Bustill was equally smitten with the pretty little sister of his host’s wife, and some time after his arrival in Harrisburg, the two began a courtship that would end in marriage.112 The romance that blossomed between Joseph Bustill and Sarah Humphreys, however, developed later. Initially, the Philadelphia businessman-turned-schoolteacher had his hands full in organizing Harrisburg’s resistance into a bold, new operation. He must have worked quickly, to be able to report on his successes in a few short months to William Still in Philadelphia. That was fortunate. Bustill’s new Harrisburg “depot” would be put to a huge test in the first few days of spring.


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107. Ibid.; Eggert, “Impact,” 566.

108. North Star, 25 January 1850; Anna Bustill Smith, “The Bustill Family,” Journal of Negro History 10, no. 4 (October 1925): 639-640, 643; Winch, Philadelphia’s Black Elite, 71.

109. Baltimore Sun, 6 January 1853. The term “monkey coat” probably refers to a “monkey jacket,” which was a very short, tight-fitting jacket typically worn by sailors.

110. William Still complained of the problems he incurred while trying to secure lodging in Philadelphia for pursued slaves at the last minute. Even supposedly dedicated advocates of anti-slavery resistance occasionally quailed at the possibility of being caught sheltering fugitive slaves. He related one memorable incident in which he experienced trouble finding shelter for six fugitives just received from Joseph Bustill in Harrisburg: “Being mindful of the great danger of the hour, there was felt to be more occasion just then for anxiety and watchfulness, than for cheering and hurrahing over the brave passengers. To provide for them in the usual manner, in view of the threatening aspect of affairs, could not be thought of. In this critical hour it devolved upon a member of the Committee, for the safety of all parties, to find new and separate places of accommodation, especially for the six known to be pursued. To be stored in other than private families would not answer. Three or four such were visited at once; after learning of the danger much sympathy was expressed, but one after another made excuses and refused. This was painful, for the parties had plenty of house room, were identified with the oppressed race, and on public meeting occasions made loud professions of devotion to the cause of the fugitive, &c. The memory of the hour and circumstances is still fresh.” Still, Underground Rail Road, 219.

111. Ibid.

112. For the relationship between Sarah Humphreys and Hannah Williams, see the Freedman’s Bank Records, New York, NY Branch, account information for Caroline Mathews, no. 3993. Matthews is one of five daughters of Jacob and Phoebe Humphrey. In bank records dated January 25, 1872, Caroline listed her sisters as “Sarah wife [of] Jos. C. Bustill, living in Phila, & Evaline wife of Robt Barnitz in Harrisburg & Anna wife John F. Williams in Shasta, Wis. & Hannah wife of William Harris, Little York, Pa.” Although the names of Hannah and Anna seem to have been switched (possibly a recording error), the other details match census data. The 1850 census for the North Ward of Harrisburg shows Sarah Humphrey, age 24 (misspelled Humphy) and Eveline Humphrey, age 28 living in the household of John F. and Hannah Williams (Hannah was age 30). In addition, Caroline Mathews, in 1872, listed a son, David Leech, by her first husband. In 1860, David Leach, age seven, is enumerated in Harrisburg in the household of Joseph and Sarah Bustill, in Harrisburg’s Sixth Ward (Tanner’s Alley neighborhood). Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874, Washington, D.C., National Archives and Records Administration, Micropublication M816, Account 3993.


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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