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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)


Doctor Jones Comes to Independence Hall

The streets around the Old State House were again overflowing with the supporters of both sides, as well as those who had heard of the previous day’s proceedings and were simply curious, making for an even larger and expectant throng. Adding to the excitement was the presence of a large number of local young men with distinctly pro-South sympathies, who ranged in gangs among the outside spectators, loudly voicing their support for the Virginia claimants and menacing the African American spectators. To prevent clashes between the two camps, several hundred city policemen had been assigned to the vicinity.157

Proceedings for the second day of Daniel Dangerfield’s freedom hearing began with the usual legal maneuvering, and the sun had long set before witnesses for the defense were called.158 There followed some unusual bickering among the opposing attorneys regarding the seating arrangement for the defense witnesses, who were also having difficulty gaining access to the courtroom.

When seating arrangements were finally settled, and word had been given to the policemen to allow entrance to the witnesses, the reason for the delays became clear. Into the courtroom walked five African American men from Harrisburg. This delegation of working men, like the spectators of their race who waited patiently outside in the dim light of street lamps, had initially been denied access to the hearing because of their skin color, despite having been urgently summoned by the Vigilance Society to provide testimony in favor of the accused. Even after they were located and invited into the courtroom, the Virginians who had earlier testified for the claimant had to be ordered to yield their seats to the black men. Finally, proudly, the Harrisburg men took their seats at the front of the courtroom. The first witness to be brought up was a man who, though considered elderly at sixty-six years of age, was stalwart and stately in his bearing. His name was William M. Jones.159

On the night of 5 April 1859, Dr. William M. Jones of Harrisburg took the witness stand in an overcrowded hearing room in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, to try to maintain the freedom of a man who had been his neighbor for more than six years. It was a duty to which he had become accustomed, having testified in previous courtrooms for previous friends and neighbors whose freedom was in jeopardy in Harrisburg. Now, having been again called to service by Joseph Bustill, he found himself in the American cradle of liberty for the purpose of attesting to the free status of a man accused of being a slave.

The irony of the moment must have been evident to him, if he had had time for reflecting on the situation, but he did not. He was called to the stand almost as soon as he entered the room, and at that moment, this “venerable-looking colored man” became the center of everyone’s attention. A Bible was held out in front of him, but he refused to take an oath.160 He was instead affirmed to testify and the questioning began.

At the prompting of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society attorneys, Dr. Jones told the court of his long history in Harrisburg, from his arrival there in 1823, at age thirty, to his early work in a local drugstore, where he learned to mix medicines. That specialized knowledge allowed him to practice “doctoring,” which was his current profession, and which gave him a special status in Harrisburg’s African American community. That vocation, along with his religious leadership and his boarding house, brought him into regular contact with a wide range of city residents, an in particular allowed him to get to know most of Harrisburg’s African American residents.

That was how he became acquainted with Daniel Dangerfield—he indicated the prisoner, now sitting near the front of the court, dressed in an “old hat and red flannel shirt and ragged coat”—“in the early part of 1853.”161 It was in that year, Jones explained, that he built his house on West Alley, across from Tanner’s Alley, and Dangerfield had helped him dig out the cellar. Excavating is hard, sweaty labor, particularly for a man who has weathered the tribulations of six decades. It can be expected that he was very grateful for Dangerfield’s help and companionship during the construction, and that he got to know the man well “from that time to the present.”

The defense attorneys pointedly asked Jones how he could be sure that it was the year 1853 in which he dug the cellar for his house. After all, time tends to blur memories and dates. Jones was sure of the date. He brought out a small, weathered receipt book containing all the dates and expenses incurred in the construction, and indicated the specific entries for the excavation, fixing the time “beyond a doubt.”162

The defense attorneys stepped down, done with their questioning, and Benjamin Brewster stepped up for the cross-examination. Although William Jones understood and expected that his statements would now be challenged, he probably did not expect the “severe ordeal” to which the claimant’s veteran attorney would now subject him. It was now very deep into the evening and everyone in the room was showing signs of fatigue; everyone except Benjamin Brewster.

Brewster’s intent was to attack Dr. Jones’ memory and to portray him as a confused old man, so he questioned him intently and in great depth about his life and experiences, asking him for details and exact dates. To Brewster’s surprise, and probable exasperation, Dr. Jones showed tremendous recall, answering every question to the lawyer’s satisfaction. Finally, after two-and-a-half hours of examining his quarry, Brewster gave in and allowed the good doctor to step down from the witness stand.163 William M. Jones had not only defeated the slave catcher’s attorney, he had probably just saved Daniel Dangerfield’s life.

That, however, was not yet evident. The defense attorneys, and the abolitionist witnesses that crowded the close, hot room, were far from certain that they would pull out a victory. Martha Coffin Wright, who held vigil in the spectator pews with Mary Grew and Lucretia Mott, became ill and had to be taken out about midnight by her nieces, Sarah and Rebecca Yarnall. Although she wanted to stay with her sister, Wright felt “there was no hope for the slave & I was too ill to sit up.”164

More testimony from Harrisburg men followed Dr. Jones’ extraordinary performance. The defense attorneys called Baptist minister James A. Smith, who said he knew Dangerfield from meeting him in Baltimore in 1848, giving further credence to the main defense argument that it was a case of mistaken identity. Following Smith were James T. Francis and George W. Hall, who said they met Dangerfield at a Christmas Eve party in Doctor Jones’ newly constructed boarding house in Harrisburg, in 1853.

Leading defense attorney George Earle reminded the room that Elizabeth Simpson had claimed her fugitive slave left Virginia in November 1854. He also requested that Dangerfield be measured by the court, to compare his height with that written on the warrant. The accused slave was measured, then kicked off his boots and was measured again in his stockings. He was found to be nearly an inch taller than the stated height.

All testimony finished a little after one o’clock in the morning. At two o’clock, in the flickering lamplight of the hearing room, Benjamin Brewster began his summation. At two-thirty, George Earle took his turn and spoke for an hour. William Pierce followed at about three forty-five a.m., and he addressed each item brought as evidence by the counsel for the claimant.

A rosy hue colored the eastern sky as Benjamin Brewster walked to the front of the room to make his concluding speech. The hearing had just entered its thirteenth hour and everyone was beyond tired. A reporter wrote, “The marshal dozed, the commissioner’s eyes grew heavy, the witnesses slept, the prisoner could keep awake no longer, the officers rested their heads on the ends of their maces, and the doorkeepers slept at their posts. But Lucretia Mott, Mary Grew, and the twenty or thirty other women who were in the room sat erect, their interest unflagging, and their watchfulness enduring to the end.”165

Brewster, in his conclusion, attacked the testimony of Doctor Jones, accusing him of fabricating dates and exaggerating his relationship with the prisoner, and he appealed for adherence to the “demands of the law.” Before he was finished speaking, the sunrise became visible in the eastern windows of the room, giving a fresh vigor to everyone in the room.

At six o’clock on Wednesday morning, after a marathon session lasting fourteen hours, Commissioner Longstreth adjourned the proceedings, and his decision, until four o’clock that afternoon. Despite the soaring concluding speeches and the surprise testimony of Doctor Jones and the other Harrisburg men, the friends of abolition left the room tired and in despair. “No one believed,” remembered Martha Coffin Wright, “there was the remotest chance for the slave.”166

On Wednesday afternoon, the concourse around Independence Hall was again filled with expectant crowds of people, some in support of Daniel Dangerfield, others in support of the Virginian claimant, and many of the just plain curious, who had been drawn by the sensational news coverage of the trial over the past four days. The mood among the supporters of the slave was somber. Most saw little hope that this hearing would turn out much differently than the many that had preceded it.

At three o’clock, Martha Coffin Wright accompanied her sister, Lucretia Mott, and several other family members, to the hall, but found it already thronged with people clamoring for seats inside. Some policemen guarding the door saw Lucretia Mott and offered to let her, but only her, inside. Harsh words were exchanged, and finally the policemen relented and the entire family was allowed to enter the small room in which some of them had spent the entire previous night.

At four o’clock precisely, Commissioner Longstreth entered the room and began reading his decision. It sounded bad for Dangerfield. The Commissioner began by citing the law, the charges against the prisoner, and his duty as an appointed official to uphold all laws, no matter how odious. But then Longstreth abruptly changed course, and with this, even the tone of his voice changed. “He said it was ‘not only a question of property that was at issue, but that it involved the liberty or bondage of a human being.’”

Everyone in the room leaned forward, the better to hear his words, and more than a few whispers of “Thank God” became audible under his speech. At that point Commissioner Longstreth address the claimant’s agents, telling them “Your man, you say, left you in November 1854, and was five feet seven or eight inches high; this man, it has been proved on credible testimony, was in Harrisburg in the year 1853, and is, by my own measurement, five feet ten inches high. You have not made good your proof of identity, and I am bound to discharge the prisoner.” Turning to the court officers he announced “I order the prisoner to be discharged.”167

The scene in the room was unlike anything yet experienced by the spectators in a fugitive slave hearing. The men in the spectators’ seats hurrahed; the women cheered; the court officers called for order. Charles Walton, a fellow Quaker and friend of the Mott family, ran past the beset court staff to the window, threw it open, and shouted the news to the crowds outside, who responded with loud cheers and calls to send out the newly freed man. The African American residents who had kept vigil over the course of the long hearing were exultant.

When Dangerfield exited the building he was met with a crush of embraces and was then hurried to a nearby carriage. In a display of camaraderie with those who had worked to free him in the hearing room, the crowd unhitched the horses from the carriage and attached ropes so that they could pull him to his freedom with their own strength. This victory clearly belonged as much to them as it did to Dangerfield’s lawyers. Their constant presence outside the building, through the morning and night, in intimidating numbers, made a visible impression on the commissioner.

At the start of the second day of the hearing, when a huge rush to claim seats within the room nearly overwhelmed the guards, a witness wrote “The Commissioner had an anxious countenance, and looked pale.”168 African American diarist Charlotte L. Forten recorded “Good news!” in her entry for Wednesday, 6 April 1859, noting, “The Commissioner said that he released him because he was not satisfied of his identity. Others are inclined to believe that the pressure of public sentiment…was too overwhelming for the Com to resist.”169

Regardless of the influence on Commissioner John C. Longstreth, whether it was the intimidating crowd of free African Americans outside, the “angelic” presence of Lucretia Mott next to the accused slave, or the wizened testimony of William Jones, Daniel Dangerfield, or Daniel Webster, as he called himself in Harrisburg, was now a free man.

There was some concern for his safety, as a large number of rowdy pro-Southern men in the crowd were threatening to snatch Dangerfield from the streets and return him by force to the Simpson plantation in Virginia. For that reason, the Vigilance Committee decided that he would be safest in Canada, so after the indulgence of a local celebration at which the newly freed Dangerfield was the guest of honor, the proper arrangements were made to find a home for him in Canada. Within days, he was on his way north, never again to walk the streets of Harrisburg.


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157. Ibid.; PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 15-16; Clothier and Mulholland, “Slavery Days.”

158. Sunset occurred at 6:29 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, 1859, in Philadelphia. It was completely dark by 6:56 p.m. Sun and Moon Data for One Day, Tuesday, 5 April 1859, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, U.S. Navel Observatory, (accessed 6 December 2009).

159. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 18-21.

160. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 20.
William Jones’ refusal to take an oath, or to be sworn for testimony, was not unprecedented. Several hours earlier, James H. Gulick, a witness for the claimant, refused to be sworn in on the Bible, objecting that “he was a member of the Baptist Church and had conscientious scruples about taking an oath.” (p. 13) This appears to be the same basis for Jones’ refusal, as a Methodist minister, and was not unusual in Philadelphia, where Quaker objections to oaths were commonly accepted. In cases where witnesses had religious objections to making references to an oath or to swearing, the court allowed instead an affirmation that the witness would tell the truth. This affirmation was official and was as legally binding as an oath.

161. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 20-21. The testimony on his age conflicts slightly with the age given to census takers in 1850, in which he claimed to be fifty-nine years old. Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, North Ward, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 68B. The clothing worn by Dangerfield during the trial is recorded in a sermon delivered by the Reverend William H. Furness, of Philadelphia, and quoted by Anna Davis Hallowell in her biography of the Motts. Anna Davis Hallowell, ed., James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884), 390.

162. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 21. The house that Dangerfield helped to construct was probably the famous boarding house used to shelter fugitive slaves.

163. Ibid., 22. William Jones might be viewed, from his performance on the witness stand, as a prime example of the African American griot, or a keeper of family stories through oral tradition. Griots were entrusted to preserve names, places and dates, in order to pass the family history and genealogy down to the next generation in the absence of, or legal denial of, a literate culture.

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

165. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 23-26; Sun and Moon Data for One Day, Wednesday, 6 April 1859, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, U.S. Naval Observatory, (accessed 6 December 2009); Charles J. Cohen, Rittenhouse Square Past and Present ([Philadelphia?]:privately printed, 1922), 288.

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

167. PAS, Arrest, Trial, and Release, 26-29; Martha Coffin Wright to David Wright, 7 April 1859.

168. Hallowell, James and Lucretia Mott, 389.

169. Ray Allen Billington, ed., The Journal of Charlotte Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era (New York: Dryden Press, 1953), 127.


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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