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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)


Intense Excitement Ensued

Bustill and his operatives continued to send fugitive slaves to safety from Harrisburg, although individual dates and details for the last years of the decade are elusive. What stands out, because of the intense excitement that these incidents created, are the captures. There were two very significant incidents involving the arrest of African Americans in this area in 1859, one in Harrisburg, and one in Cumberland County. Each played out quite differently, and each ratcheted up the tension between the residents of the border counties, both in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The New York Times inserted a brief, two-sentence notice into its front page on Monday, 4 April 1859, that gave scant details, according to its headline, of a “Fugitive Slave Case at Harrisburg.” With a dateline of “Harrisburgh, Penn., Saturday, April 2,” it read, “United States Marshal Jenkins arrested a negro in Market-place, this morning, supposed to be a fugitive slave. Intense excitement ensued, but the officers succeeded in getting him off to Philadelphia.” Within a few days, the arrest of Daniel Webster, as he was first known, would garner entire columns of newsprint in the Times, and involve some of Pennsylvania’s most influential abolitionists in his hearing.

Both abolitionists and advocates for Southern slave holders, each side having been outraced, outmaneuvered, or outsmarted by the other side in recent past actions, was unwavering in their desire to win this case. When the fugitive was brought to the office of the Philadelphia Slave Commissioner for his hearing on the same day of his arrest, the Vigilance Committee was ready with a makeshift legal team, having gotten word from Harrisburg that the slave catching party and the captured fugitive were on their way. They were not going to be caught flat-footed, as had happened in the Jacob Dupen trial. This time would be different.

The Philadelphia Bulletin had a reporter on hand at Commissioner John Cooke Longstreth’s office, and he reported on the arrival of the prisoner in a style that presaged modern action news reporting:

The alleged fugitive, upon his arrival in the city, was taken to the office of the U.S. Commissioner, at Fifth and Chestnut streets, where we saw him this afternoon with his wrists encased in handcuffs. He told us that his name is Daniel Webster, that he is about twenty-five years of age, and that he has been living at Harrisburg for nine years past, where he was employed at fence-making. Upon being questioned concerning his domestic relations, he said, with tears in his eyes, that he had a wife living at Harrisburg; that he had two children, the last of whom was buried yesterday a week. He said that he had many friends at Harrisburg, and that if he could have been tried there, instead of being brought so far from home, he could have able to prove his right to liberty; but at so great a distance from home and among strangers he had no chance.

He states that he was arrested while attending market at half past six o'clock this morning, on pretence that he had committed some crime. The officers who made the arrest say that there was a disposition to rescue the fugitive, and for that reason handcuffs were put upon him at Harrisburg. The gyves were removed in the cars, and again put upon him after their arrival in Philadelphia.
It is understood that the alleged fugitive is claimed by a party in Virginia, who say that he escaped from bondage six years ago. Daniel, upon the other hand, declared that if he was at Harrisburg he could prove that he had lived there nine years. He is a good-looking stalwart man, with an inoffensive countenance. This is the first case under the fugitive slave law in Philadelphia for several years.

The actual details, even given the nineteenth century newsman’s penchant for histrionic prose, were no less exciting. Daniel Dangerfield, the prisoner’s real name, was up before dawn on Saturday, 2 April, so that he could travel the several miles from the John B. Rutherford farm, on which he lived and worked, to the market houses on Harrisburg’s square. As he approached the market houses, which actually were large open air sheds, he did not notice the two strangers who stood nearby—after all, the markets were full of out-of-town people on a Saturday—but these two men definitely noticed him.

They had been in Harrisburg for a full day already, waiting and watching just for him. The two strangers were joined by two more men, and together the group approached Daniel Dangerfield as he walked around the market shed. There is no evidence that anyone suspected anything about the four men at that point, as no one raised a warning cry, although two of the men, John Jenkins and James Stewart, had been in Harrisburg only a few years earlier on a similar mission, when they captured Jacob Dupen as he ploughed a field. They had gotten in and out of town quite rapidly that day, though, and Harrisburg residents, especially Underground Railroad agents, had been given little opportunity to study their faces.

Marshals Jenkins and Stewart were backed up on this Saturday morning by a third deputy marshal named Taggart, and an agent acting on behalf of Dangerfield’s alleged owner, Elizabeth Simpson, of Athensville, Virginia. According to the warrant they carried, Dangerfield had escaped some six years earlier from Aldie Mill, in Loudon County, at which place he had been hired out by his owner, Elizabeth Simpson.

The four men moved through the already crowded Market Square and cornered Dangerfield in one of the market sheds. Sensing almost immediately what was happening, Dangerfield let out a cry for help, attempting to draw as much attention to his situation as possible. The men grabbed him and forced handcuffs on his wrists, fighting with him as he struggled to escape. Even handcuffed, Dangerfield refused to surrender. He lunged to grab a large knife from a nearby butcher stall. The deputies wrestled him to the ground but became immediately alarmed at the number of people who flocked to the scene, many of whom appeared ready to intervene on Dangerfield’s behalf.

Marshal Jenkins later told a member of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee “We were afraid of a rescue,…[Dangerfield] cried ‘Help! Help!’ and brought about a hundred niggers around us.” Both Marshals Jenkins and Taggert pulled out Colt revolvers and waved them menacingly at the closest potential rescuers in the crowd. In an attempt to put off the feared rescue attempt, and perhaps to draw sympathetic support from whites in the market shed, the marshals announced that they were merely arresting a thief, although there is no reason to believe the crowd bought that explanation. The scene was all too familiar to most of the witnesses.

The slave catchers then strong-armed their way through the crowd and made their way as rapidly as possible to the new Pennsylvania Railroad station on the south side of Market Street at the canal. There, they were able to get a breather from the most bellicose members of the crowd, but even as they rested and waited for the train, word of the capture was spreading through town. Someone alerted Daniel Dangerfield’s wife, and she hurried to the railroad depot, but it was too late. By the time she arrived, the lawmen and their prisoner had already boarded one of the cars. She had barely spotted her husband, sitting in one of the coaches with the Philadelphia men, still handcuffed, before the train engine whistled its intent to leave the station. She broke down in tears on the platform and watched helplessly, along with a large angry and distressed crowd, as the train pulled out.148

Telegrams went out immediately from Harrisburg. The Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia received one, with just enough details to stir them to action, even though they did not yet know enough of the facts to mount an effective defense. J. Miller McKim, the Carlisle native and tireless abolitionist who was working in Philadelphia with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, received a telegram asking him to be at the Slave Commissioner’s office as soon as he could. He too, had few details, but being used to such last minute requests, made arrangements to be there.149


A Gambit

It was quite fortunate that he did. The hearing to return Harrisburg resident Daniel Dangerfield to slavery began in great haste, with the abolitionists, although not caught completely by surprise, still scrambling for a defense team. They had planned on having George H. Earle, Sr., William S. Pierce, and Edward H. Hopper lead the charge, three of the leading legal lights for the embattled Pennsylvania Abolition Society,150 but unfortunately, Pierce was discovered to be out of town and Earle was scheduled to appear in the courthouse on a habeas corpus case, which left only Edward Hopper to face Benjamin Harris Brewster, a genuine blue-blood Mayflower descendant, named for his Revolutionary War hero grandfather, and a very formidable opponent.

Attorney Brewster, sensing that the abolitionist legal team was lacking cohesion from its initial request for an adjournment, immediately went on the attack, insisting on his client’s right “to a ‘prompt’ and ‘summary’ disposition of the case,” to which Commissioner Longstreth seemed inclined to agree. It seemed as if Daniel Dangerfield’s cause was to be lost almost as quickly as it had begun, when J. Miller McKim’s presence in the hearing room was acknowledged by PAS lawyer Hopper. In a gambit designed to buy time, Hopper requested that “Mr. McKim, a friend of the prisoner, to whom the case had in some measure been entrusted, desired to say a few words, if there should be no objection.”

Brewster, seeing no legal threat from this lecturer-activist, “cheerfully assented” to the request. He could hold his final coup for the end of the anti-slavery activist’s speech. Commissioner Longstreth also had no objections to hearing what McKim had to say “provided Mr. McKim should say what he had to communicate under oath.” Brewster might have pricked up his ears at the requirement of an oath. Something other than a display of abolitionist rhetoric was potentially afoot. Such an intuition would have been correct. McKim, after being sworn, told the Commissioner “that he believed, from a conversation he had had with the prisoner, and the contents of a telegram he had received from Harrisburg, that testimony would be forthcoming in the course of twenty-four hours that would be important to the interests of the prisoner, and might prove his title to liberty.”151

The gambit worked. Veteran lawyer Brewster had not expected the rabble-rousing Cumberland County abolitionist to present, under oath, the promise of game-changing testimony. Commissioner Longstreth, upon receiving this information, promptly granted a continuance for Monday, 4 April, at ten o’clock in the morning. The abolitionists breathed easier, having now gained time to plan a proper defense. In addition to rounding up witnesses, the PAS also rounded up support from the local African American population in the form of a public show of support for Daniel Dangerfield at his hearing on Monday.


A Dense and Excited Crowd

Philadelphia, like Harrisburg and Carlisle, had a history of mob activism. An earlier and notable incident involved a scene similar to the 1850 Harrisburg riot and the 1847 McClintock riot, in that a fugitive slave was rescued with diversionary tactics provided by a belligerent crowd of African Americans. The incident, as remembered by two witnesses, happened at the Court House in Independence Square:

In one case, when a negro had been delivered into the hands of an officer to be returned to the South, and had been brought to a waiting carriage, he had no sooner stepped into it on one side than he sprang out on the other into the arms of a rescuing throng, and was borne away to Fort Washington, where Edward M. Davis and others of the Anti-Slavery Society guarded him all night with guns in their hands.152

Guns were certainly in view on Monday, the day of Daniel Dangerfield’s hearing, but not in the hands of the African American residents that crowded the sidewalks around the Fifth Street office of Slave Commissioner John Cooke Longstreth. Instead, it was Marshal John Jenkins and his men who boldly brandished revolvers as they conducted their prisoner securely past the crowd that lined the mile-long route from Moyamensing Prison to the commissioner’s office. Upon reaching the office at which the hearing was scheduled, Jenkins and his men found the small space already filled beyond capacity with spectators, many of whom had been waiting there for hours. The Vigilance Committee had down its job well over the weekend in filling the streets around the hearing room with “a dense and excited crowd.”

The marshals, with their prisoner, forced their way through the outside throngs of people and into the small room, closed the doors to the people who filled the doorway and hallways, and waited for Commissioner Longstreth to begin, but the situation was clearly chaotic and dangerous. The Commissioner himself arrived a short time prior to ten o’clock, only to find his small hearing room already becoming crowded with hopeful spectators. He expressed his astonishment and displeasure to those present, remarking, “This case was not one for a town meeting.”

Finding it practically impossible to clear the room, Longstreth ordered Daniel Dangerfield’s hearing to be moved to the United States Grand Jury Room in the eastern wing of the Old State House, which required another strong-arm maneuver by the deputy marshals to move their prisoner through the crowd the short distance to the new location. The crowd followed the lawmen through Independence Square to the courtroom in the ancient and historic building, only to find that the new room was only slightly larger, and was certainly not large enough to admit all who wanted to observe the proceedings.

The scene here was even more confusing, and tempers flared. A glass window was broken out as people pushed and shoved to secure a place. Men and women of all colors filled the hallways to the room, the stairs to the second floor on which it was located, and all the open areas around the building. The claimant’s attorney, Benjamin Brewster, was unable to get into the building, so deputy marshals and city police began the slow job of clearing the halls—an action that sent up howls of protest from the crowd, particularly as all African American observers seemed to be singled out for removal.153

Inside, the hearing finally was able to begin. Ironically, the freedom of Daniel Dangerfield, an African American resident of Harrisburg, was about to be decided in a wing of a historic building closely associated with the establishment of freedom for Americans: Independence Hall.

The feeling that the stakes were higher for this case than for any that preceded it pervaded the Old State House, and that feeling was reinforced by the presence in the courtroom of abolitionist leader Lucretia Mott, who defiantly took her seat next to Daniel Dangerfield. She stubbornly ignored all requests to move. She had gained access to the courtroom, along with J. Miller McKim and her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, by physically holding on to Daniel Dangerfield as he was led into the room.

The fierce Quaker anti-slavery and women’s rights advocate, at sixty-six years of age, was the most spellbinding presence in the courtroom, even though quite a few important Pennsylvania abolitionists, including Robert Purvis, Martha Coffin Wright, James Miller McKim, and Mary Grew, the magnetic corresponding secretary of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, attended the hearing. It had become a regular practice for members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society to sit in on fugitive slave hearings in the city, as silent observers, and to provide visible support for the accused fugitive. This was the first time, however, that the local abolitionist societies had thrown all their champions into the fray at once.

On the other side of the courtroom, Benjamin H. Brewster was backed not only by his deputy marshals, but also by the stern figure of the United States District Attorney, James C. Vandyke. The pro-South forces also had their supporters in large numbers outside of the building, vying with the anti-slavery spectators for attention.154 To all appearances, the stage seemed set for a showdown.

The entire first day was spent in legal maneuvering, with frequent disturbances at the door from stubborn spectators. Yet another change was made to a larger room in the same building, with no net gain in elbowroom as additional spectators flowed in to take up all available seats and standing spaces.

Testimony finally began in the afternoon, with some witnesses for the claimant swearing to the identity of Daniel Dangerfield as the runaway slave formerly belonging to French Simpson. One of the men testifying, John W. Patton, was a Virginia constable who dabbled in slave catching, having previously been in Pennsylvania at this work. He described for the Commissioner the convoluted process of obtaining a warrant for Dangerfield’s arrest. Patton said that he got two dollars per day from the son-in-law of Elizabeth Simpson, Sanford Rogers, to track Dangerfield, and finally found him in Harrisburg on 23 February.

He summoned Rogers to Harrisburg and together they sought out the local slave commissioner to obtain a warrant for Dangerfield’s arrest, but, being unaware that the vacancy has gone unfilled since the resignation of Richard McAllister in 1853, they were unsuccessful. The pair then went to Carlisle and requested a warrant from former commissioner Thomas M. Biddle, but as he was no longer active in that capacity, they were advised by him to go to Philadelphia and present their petition to newly appointed Commissioner Longstreth, which they then did. In Philadelphia, they encountered problems with their paperwork, and had to send the papers back to Loudon County for corrections, and only then did Longstreth issue the warrant calling for Dangerfield’s arrest. Other witnesses included James H. Gulick and Sanford Rogers, both of whom, being present at the arrest in Harrisburg, described the capture of Daniel in the market shed on Market Square.

At four o’clock p.m., with the expectation that there was considerable testimony yet to come, and over the objections of Benjamin Brewster, who reiterated his demand for a “prompt and summary” conclusion, Commissioner Longstreth adjourned the hearing for twenty-four hours, until four o’clock p.m. the next day, Tuesday, 5 April. To the participants and spectators inside the small room, the first day of the hearing had been an ordeal. Packed tightly together in a small room, they endured heat that was “almost insupportable,” and which drove some of the less sturdy observers to make their way out of the room before the end of the day’s proceedings. The next day, Tuesday, was to be even more trying.155

In fact, the hearing that continued on Tuesday, 5 April, would be as historic as it was demanding on the constitutions of those who participated. It would also be equally momentous as a landmark event in the cause of anti-slavery resistance in Pennsylvania. On Tuesday afternoon, Lucretia Mott and her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, ate their dinner at brother-in-law Benjamin Yarnall’s house before going to the hearing room in Independence Hall. They arrived early, but to their surprise “found the room nearly full.”156


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147. National Era, 7 April 1859; New York Times, 4 April 1859, 1. Philadelphia lawyer and Democratic supporter John Cooke Longstreth was appointed to the office of United States Commissioner by President James Buchanan, to fill the longstanding Slave Commissioner vacancy created by the death of Edward D. Ingraham on 5 November 1854. James S. Easby-Smith, Georgetown University in the District of Columbia, 1789-1907, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Publishing, 1907), 2:154-155; William Brotherhead, “Edward D. Ingraham,” in Henry Simpson, ed., The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians, Now Deceased (Philadelphia: William Brotherhead, 1859), 596.

148. New York Times, 5 April 1859; National Era, 7 April 1859. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 4-5, 23; May, Fugitive Slave Law, 116.
Samuel May wrote of Daniel Dangerfield, “He was a peaceable, honest, and industrious laboring man, and had been in the service of Senator Rutherford four or five years.” John Brisban Rutherford had been elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate on the Republican ticket in 1857. William Henry Egle, Pennsylvania Genealogies: Scotch-Irish and German (Harrisburg: Lane S. Hart, 1886), 571.

149. Harrisburg Telegraph, 2 April 1858, reprinted in New York Times, 5 April 1859.
According to a publication of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, two telegrams were received from Harrisburg in the Philadelphia offices of the PAS on the morning of Daniel Dangerfield’s arrest, “one from a member of the Vigilance Committee there [in Harrisburg], and another from a member of the House of Representatives—both informing us that an alleged fugitive slave had been arrested that morning by Deputy Marshal Jenkins, and was then on his way to Philadelphia. The latter despatch concluded with the words—‘do what you can for him.’” The member of the Pennsylvania legislature that sent the telegram is unidentified. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 3.

150. Legal historian Gerard J. St. John notes that most antebellum Philadelphia lawyers were distinctly pro-South in their sympathies, and that those who worked in the cause of the abolition of slavery suffered professionally for it. He writes, “Robert D. Coxe, an active member of the Law Association, in a retrospective tribute praised lawyers Edward Hopper, George H. Earle, Sr., William S. Pierce and Charles Gibbons for their anti-slavery leadership, and noted that: ‘The championship of so desperate and so unpopular a cause demanded physical, no less than moral courage on the part of its advocates. The bar, as a body, conservatively gave it the cold shoulder, and Mr. Hopper and his associates were, in truth, the victims, frequently, of positively uncivil treatment at the hands of their brother lawyers.’” Gerard J. St. John, “This is Our Bar,” in “The Philadelphia Lawyer,” The Philadelphia Bar Association, (accessed 4 December 2009).

151. The emphasis in the quoted passage is mine. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 6-7; New York Times, 5 April 1859.

152. Isaac H. Clothier and St. Clair A. Mulholland, “Philadelphia in Slavery Days,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, 14 December 1902. I have been unable to determine the date of the incident referred to by the authors.

153. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 9; Eugene Coleman Savidge, Life of Benjamin Harris Brewster, with Discourses and Addresses (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1891), 86-88; Martha Coffin Wright to David Wright, 7 April 1859, Garrison Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, (accessed 5 December 2009). Fugitive slave hearings actually were routinely held in the available court rooms of Independence Hall, which was also the location of the trial of those accused of treason in the Christiana Resistance.

154. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 10-11.

155. Ibid., 12-15.

156. Martha Coffin Wright to David Wright, 7 April 1859.


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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