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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 Nine
Deluge (continued)


Like a Thief in the Night

Upon the conclusion of his Harrisburg speech, Lincoln listened attentively as Senator Palmer again took the floor and delivered a lengthy oration about George Washington, after which the president-elect made the journey, with his retinue, back to the Jones House. Although the hotel was considered the best that the city had to offer, there was another reason that this hotel had the distinction of playing host to the next President of the United States. During the election, the proprietor, Wells Coverly, had lent the use of his hotel for Republican rallies and Wide Awake meetings. Now that the election had been won, Coverly was due payback. He got it, along with a liberal dose of high drama.

Officially, Mr. Lincoln received a few guests in his room and retired at eight o’clock, having endured a very long day. That same fatigue forced Mrs. Lincoln to decline to receive guests, to the great disappointment of Harrisburg’s leading ladies. Unofficially, however, secret schemes that would greatly affect the future president’s first few months in office, and would color the way the nation viewed their new leader, were being discussed inside of the hotel. Harrisburg, it seems, was becoming a city of plots, schemes, and cabals lately.

Outside of the Jones House, and on all of the town’s streets, crowds of citizens and soldiers drank, sang, roamed, and fought throughout the night. The office-seekers who thronged the town had quickly filled up all available hotel space, and many visitors, unable to find accommodations, simply roamed the crowded streets until daybreak. Parties of pickpockets were hard at their work. The Charleston Mercury reporter wrote, “At almost every step one would stumble over either a drunken or very sick soldier, and on Saturday morning many of them looked like they had been steeped in a whiskey bath.” Both of the major local newspapers, the Telegraph and the Patriot and Union, actually reported less public drunkenness than usual on this momentous day, which begs the question of whether the visiting reporter was exaggerating the number of drunks, or the city had a much larger problem with public drunkenness than the papers suggested.

Inside of the Jones House, Lincoln was in an urgent private conference that included, among others, Norman Judd, Governor Curtin, and Colonel Sumner. The subject was a serious one: rumors that secession sympathizers had planned to either destroy the president-elect’s train on its journey from Harrisburg to Baltimore, or assassinate Lincoln upon his arrival in that city. Fantastic plans of explosives placed beneath railroad tracks, unruly mobs, and fanatical assassins filled the room.

Lincoln had only learned of the rumors the night before in Philadelphia, when he was introduced to railroad detective Allen Pinkerton in Norman Judd’s room at the Continental Hotel. Pinkerton bore dire warnings and plans to thwart the plots by sending the president-elect on a night train immediately to Washington, bypassing Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Baltimore. Lincoln was skeptical and reiterated his promises to visit Independence Hall and address the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Hours later, after a frustrated Pinkerton had departed, another visitor, Frederick Seward, son of Lincoln’s designated Secretary of State William Seward, arrived and was received in Lincoln’s suite at the Continental. Frederick bore separate news of the Baltimore plots that confirmed Pinkerton’s stories.

Now, in Harrisburg, Lincoln asked Curtin’s advice: “What would the nation think of its President stealing into the capital like a thief in the night?” Curtin considered the question and replied that it was not for Lincoln to decide. Clearly, the governor had heeded Lincoln’s earlier words about being an instrument of the people. He must be protected, in order to carry out that role. Upon being told that Norman Judd had already made extensive plans to spirit Lincoln away to Washington that very night, the old soldier Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner, veteran of the Black Hawk wars, Mexican Wars, and most recently from Bleeding Kansas, protested vehemently. “It is a damned piece of cowardice,” he said. “I’ll get a squad of cavalry, sir, and cut our way to Washington, sir.” Sumner was dissuaded from his rather more sensational plan, and Judd gave the word to put his own plan into effect.

Samuel Morse Felton, of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, was instructed to provide for the two special trains that would be needed in the plan. Felton was one of the few people who knew of the plots before the president-elect, having been the person who invited the young Allen Pinkerton to make investigations in Baltimore. Men were secretly dispatched to cut telegraph wires from Harrisburg, effectively shutting the town off from the outside world. Carriages to carry Lincoln and a single bodyguard from the Jones House to a waiting train were arranged with William Calder, who operated stagecoach lines and an extensive livery stable on Market Square. As all this was being carried out, Lincoln’s secretaries turned away visitors on the excuse that the president-elect was extremely tired from the day’s exertions.

At about six o’clock, while seated at the dinner table, Lincoln was given a sign that all was in readiness and he excused himself to go to his room. He appeared shortly in a traveling suit, a soft felt hat in his pocket, and a shawl folded over his arm. A carriage was pulled around to the Second Street door to the hotel, and most of the party left the dining room. Ward Hill Lamon entered the waiting carriage first, followed by Mr. Lincoln. To preserve secrecy, these were the only two persons who were supposed to leave the hotel, but a hitch in the plan developed when Colonel Sumner tried to board the carriage with Lamon and the president-elect. Norman Judd hurriedly placed his hand on Sumner’s shoulder and the soldier turned to see who wanted to speak with him. At that instant the door shut and the carriage moved off into the night, traveling south on Second Street. Sumner was furious at being fooled, and Judd told him, “When we get to Washington, Mr. Lincoln shall determine what apology is due you.”

Those loitering around the Second Street door who were sure that they saw Lincoln in the carriage were told that he was going to the Governor’s Residence to rest. By at least one account, a decoy carriage carrying a person dressed like the president-elect was also dispatched in another direction. It did not take more than a few minutes for the carriage to reach its destination. A single passenger car attached to a locomotive was waiting at a lonely grade crossing just south of the city, and after Lincoln and a heavily armed Ward Hill Lamon were on board, it pulled out, without lights, headed toward Philadelphia where Allen Pinkerton was already waiting to conduct the future president on the next leg of the journey.96

Back at the Jones House, Lincoln’s secretaries were now saying that the president-elect was feeling ill and had gone to bed, and Mrs. Lincoln, complaining of fatigue and inadequate facilities for a proper reception, cancelled all appointments. The reporter for the New York Herald, Simon P. Hanscom, who was accompanying the presidential party, reported, “The Jones House, where the party stopped, was fairly mobbed. The arrangements there were unprecedentedly bad…Mr. Lincoln retired at eight [o’clock] and Mrs. Lincoln, on account of the crowd, disorder, confusion, want of accommodation and her own fatigue, declined to hold any reception.”

The crowd of office seekers, well-wishers, and the generally curious, now shut out, became surly. “A drunken, fighting, noisy crowd infested the city all the evening, cheering, calling for ‘Old Abe’ and giving him all sorts of unmelodious serenades,” noted the reporter.97 It took quite some time for the disappointed crowds to disperse, but gradually the streets quieted and Norman Judd began to relax as it appeared that this part of the plan had worked.

Harrisburg would not remain quiet for long, however, as rumors began to circulate that all was not as it seemed. Not more than five hours after the darkened train carrying Lincoln and his bodyguard pulled away from Harrisburg, the New York Herald reporter, along with New York Times reporter Joseph Howard, were at the Jones House asking dangerous questions. The two reporters were invited into the hotel by one of the top members of the presidential party and, in a small room in the hotel, they were told the full truth: that Lincoln had left in secret, and was even then on his way to Washington aboard a darkened special train.

The two veteran reporters would have immediately raced to the telegraph office to send this startling news to the nation, had they not instead found themselves facing a very stern “officer” with a very deadly looking gun, who had no intention of letting them out of the room with their stories. Meanwhile, someone outside of the hotel got wind of the plot from a friend of Colonel Sumner. It was reported that the colonel, unable to contain his exasperation, had complained to this friend that Lincoln had already left the town. The friend told someone else, and soon the rumor was spreading through the city.

Within a few hours “the murder was out,” as Hanscom later wrote. Both reporters where finally released from their confinement at 1:30 in the morning, when the flight was publicly admitted by the presidential handlers. They still could not send this sensational news to their editors and to the world, though. Telegraph communications would not be restored in Harrisburg until six a.m., about the same time that Lincoln was arriving in the nation’s capital.98

Fallout from the late-night flight, as it was characterized in the press, was as bad as Lincoln feared it would be. To make matters worse, a story that he had journeyed in disguise, in a “Scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak,” was picked up by nearly every newspaper. The story was false, fabricated by a copywriter named Joseph Howard, Jr. Howard had submitted the imaginary description of Lincoln’s arrival to the New York Times, who ran it verbatim. The story was embellished by the New York Herald, which added, “The ‘Scotch cap’ we dare say, was furnished by Gen. Cameron, from his relics of the Highland clan of his ancestors, and the military cloak was probably furnished by Col. Sumner.”99



Abraham Lincoln’s inglorious and hasty flight from Harrisburg, in disguise and under cover of darkness, caught everyone except its conspirators off guard. His supporters were shocked and disappointed when word of his silent departure hit the streets of Harrisburg in the predawn hours of Saturday, 23 February. Simon Hanscom reported that, at two a.m. in Harrisburg, “On the streets and in barrooms the few people stirring were discussing the plan, some thinking it prudent, but the majority declaring that it was cowardly.”100

George Bergner, the strong pro-Republican editor of the Telegraph, found it prudent to play down the change in plans in his Saturday issue, reporting the departure of the President in very dry, matter of fact terms, in a one-paragraph story in the local news column, below a story about the theft of a horse and buggy from its owner in the “upper part of the city.” Elsewhere in the paper he made a feeble attempt to editorialize about the departure, inferring that privileged information known only to a select few justified the change in plans; he wrote, “Many may suppose that he ought not to have taken the advice of friends; but if they were acquainted with such facts as have been presented to us, they would think otherwise, and we are glad of his safe arrival at Washington.”101

The publisher of the Democratic Patriot and Union, the Vermont-born Oromel Barrett, was decidedly less forgiving. He dismissed the Baltimore plot as “the power of an accusing conscience,” and characterized the departure as “ridiculous,” and akin to the actions of “a fugitive hotly pursued by the ministers of justice.”102

The views of Harrisburg’s African American citizens toward Abraham Lincoln’s flight from the city are not recorded, but probably fell somewhere between the two views above. Having supported his election in spirit, if not in actual votes—being disenfranchised by the State Constitution of 1838—they were probably disappointed that he chose to leave before they could help see him off in a more appropriate style at the train station. Yet, having braved the almost daily horrors of slavery, and the persistent oppression of racism, one must wonder if they now feared a lack of fortitude in their newly elected leader.

Regardless of the change of parties in Washington, Harrisburg’s African American community still had to cope with the unchanging reality of moving fugitive slaves through the city. Though overshadowed by very contentious state and national elections, as well as by the secessionist movement in the South, the Fugitive Slave Law remained in effect, and freedom-seeking slaves continued to find their way into Harrisburg.

Three weeks before Abraham Lincoln arrived in town, one local newspaper took note of three such refugees from Maryland who passed through Harrisburg, reporting, “It is said that the fugitives remained here two or three hours, and were hospitably entertained, and furnished with material aid, by some of their sympathizing colored brethren.” The same article also mentioned, “A number of runaway negroes from the border counties of Maryland, passed through York county, on their way to freedom.” This group was less fortunate than the fugitives who made it to Harrisburg, as they were pursued into Adams County, captured in a small town, and then returned south. Although anti-slavery sentiment had grown significantly in central Pennsylvania, it was by no means the prevalent political view. It was also pointed out in the article that the residents of the Adams County town made “no opposition” to the capture or return to slavery of the fugitives.103

In fact, anti-abolitionist sentiment remained strong among many Pennsylvania residents, who, although they may have opposed slavery in principle, still favored allowing the law to deal with fugitive slaves. This tension continued to play out in Harrisburg in the halls of the Capitol, as representatives and senators sponsored and debated bills on slavery. The New York Times reported, “The Republicans of the [Pennsylvania] House favorable to the repeal of the obnoxious provisions in the penal code relative to the rendition of fugitive slaves, held a caucus today…Mr. Armstrong, a Republican, made an able and eloquent speech in the House favoring the Crittenden amendments. It produced a very powerful effect, and was the finest effort made this session in either House.”

The Democrats hit back the following week, as reported in the Times, which said, “In the [Pennsylvania] Senate, to-day, Mr. Smith, of Philadelphia, offered a bill authorizing suits to be brought against cities and counties where fugitive slaves may be rescued by mobs with violence—the cities and counties to recover a penalty inflicted by themselves from the individuals aiding in the rescue; the individuals shall be punishable with a fine of $1,000, solitary imprisonment for three years, or either penalty.”104 The bill appears never to have emerged from committee.

The aid that local African American citizens gave to the three fugitives in January was provided by the original network of anti-slavery activists in Harrisburg that had been revitalized by Joseph Bustill in 1856. The Philadelphia activist and organizer was living in a home he had purchased in the city’s Sixth Ward by now, with his wife Sarah Humphries, their one-year-old toddler David, and an eight-year-old boy named David Leach. Bustill was employed in the city’s school system, working as one of two African American teachers in the city’s “colored” schools, with the other African American teacher being John Wolf.105

In addition to teaching local schoolchildren, Bustill was also involved with other institutions in this city. In 1857, he became involved in the project to relocate the old African American burial ground at Chestnut Street and Meadow Lane. He and six other members of the local African American community were made trustees for the old burial ground by the State of Pennsylvania, so that they could arrange for the sale of the ground and the removal of all remains to a new place of burial.106 That responsibility kept Bustill and his fellow trustees busy for a number of years, as the removal of remains from that burial ground was still not finished in late 1860. In September of that year, workers who were digging up remains for reburial uncovered the body of a white man still dressed in work clothes, wrapped in a blanket, inside a rough pine box under two feet of soil. The local newspaper headlined the story as “Another Mystery,” because “no burials have been made there for ten years or more by the colored people.”107

It is significant that most of Bustill’s fellow cemetery trustees were known Underground Railroad operatives. The same community leaders charged by the state to care for the mortal remains of Harrisburg’s dead were also secretly caring for the well-being of incoming fugitives. Bustill trusted these same persons with the dangerous day-to-day business of foiling slave catchers and providing public demonstrations when such men came to town.

Activists were on hand at the train station in November 1860 when a man and a woman were brought in chains from Middletown. The crowd followed the two captives and their arresting officers to the prison on Walnut Street, but dispersed when the prisoners were discovered to be suspected thieves rather than fugitive slaves. Such diligence, if occasionally misdirected, was still highly valuable to the cause of freedom.

Their public demonstrations were successful that same month, when several Southerners tracked two runaway slaves to Harrisburg, only to encounter a great many angry African American protesters. After appealing to local whites for protection, and getting an inadequate response, the slave catchers returned home “without making an attempt to put in force the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law,” to avoid “bloodshed and riot.”108

The last incident illustrates how much Harrisburg’s Underground Railroad and anti-slavery organizations had recovered from the damage done during the Richard McAllister years. Organized posses of local lawmen no longer prowled through town expressly to ferret out fugitive slaves, and Southern slave catchers could no longer count on the unquestioned cooperation of local citizens, as required by law, nor could they even depend upon the local sheriff or mayor to back them up.

The practice of running fugitive slaves through Harrisburg had come full circle by 1861, from the heyday of such activities in the 1840s. Buoyed by the organizational talents of Joseph Bustill, the persistence of Doctor William Jones, the spiritual support of Charles C. Gardiner, Edward Bennett, Thomas Early, and many other church leaders, the fortitude of Joseph Popel, the dependability of John F. Williams, and the untiring labor of hundreds of women and men who lived from the southern edges of Judy’s Town to the northern edges of Verbeketown and beyond, Harrisburg’s anti-slavery network was once again flourishing. And although the local African American community was still struggling under the burdens of racism and economic hardship, its people could at least feel a sense of accomplishment at having come together for this common cause.

From the disparate groups of Southern refugees and native Pennsylvanians, a union of disaffected people had emerged to stand up against a common enemy. It was a fragile union, but it was growing stronger each day with the awareness that national events were careening toward an “irrepressible conflict” that must inevitably define the future for all of them.


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96. Michael J. Kline, The Baltimore Plot (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2008), 232-236.
According to local stories, a Harrisburg African American man, Jacob T. Cumpton, was the person entrusted to drive the carriage bearing Abraham Lincoln and Ward Lamon from the Jones House to a waiting train south of Harrisburg under cover of darkness. Other accounts give the driver of the carriage as William Calder (see “Obituary of Major Theodore D. Greenawalt,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, Annual Volume 1897, 6:33-34.) I have not been able to substantiate the story that Cumpton was the driver. Michael J. Kline’s careful and exhaustive account of the assassination plot identifies George C. Franciscus, Division Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, as the carriage driver (page 232), which is consistent with the overall structure of the plan to sneak Lincoln from Harrisburg to Washington. Regarding African American involvement in Lincoln’s stay in Harrisburg, it is worth noting that the owner of the Jones House, Wells Coverly, employed a large number of African Americans in his establishment. The census of 1860 shows nineteen African Americans—thirteen females and six males—as “servants” in the hotel, a labor force that undoubtedly provided clean linens, cooked and served meals, and carried baggage for the presidential party during their stay.

97. New York Herald, 24 February 1861.

98. Ibid.; Kline, Baltimore Plot, 243-244. Allen Pinkerton later reported that the pistol used by one of his agents to hold the reporters under house arrest was unloaded.

99. New York Herald, 24 February 1861; Kline, Baltimore Plot, 232-239. Michael J. Kline describes the “soft” hat worn by Lincoln as a commonly worn variety known as a Kossuth hat, “one with a low crown and a brim,” and the traveling coat as a “bobtail overcoat” from his personal wardrobe. (p. 232)

100. New York Herald, 24 February 1861.

101. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 23 February 1861.

102. Patriot and Union, 25 February 1861.
The Patriot and Union was owned and published by Oromel Barrett and Thomas C. MacDowell. Oromel Barrett was a fifty-eight-year-old lawyer, publisher, and staunch Democratic supporter, originally from Vermont. He spent time in Erie, where his writing gained the attention of the Democratic power elite in Harrisburg, who invited him to the capital to work in publishing, which he did in the mid-1830s, co-founding the Keystone with William F. Packer. Barrett was briefly considered by President Franklin Pierce for the post of Governor of the Nebraska Territory in 1854, but he was not appointed to the post.

Barrett’s political foes characterized him as a pro-South Democrat with distinct anti-African American sympathies. An article from the New York Tribune, and reprinted in the Utica Morning Herald, said of him, “We believe he has always consistently read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence after the improved Democratic version which affirms that ‘All white men are entitled to certain inalienable rights: among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of niggers.’” Much of the anti-black rhetoric that found its way into his columns from 1858-1860, however, may have come from another editor, Richard J. Haldeman. (Utica Morning Herald, 17 June 1854; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Harrisburg Borough, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; Report of the State Librarian of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg: Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1901), 232, 235.

103. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1861.

104. New York Times, 23, 30 January 1861.

105. Bureau of the Census, 1860 Census, Sixth Ward, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, 116. Wolf was teaching at the South Ward Colored School, located at the corner of Cherry Alley and Raspberry Alley, in Judy’s Town. Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson, Jr. notes that African American teachers were not allowed to teach white students in Harrisburg until 1919. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 2 November 1860; Calobe Jackson Jr., email to George F. Nagle, 1 January 2004.

106. “An Act Relative to the Sale of a Certain Burial Ground for Colored Persons,” Laws of the General Assembly of the State of Pennsylvania, Passed at the Session of 1857 (Harrisburg, 1857), 41-45. The other trustees named by the State were Edward Bennett, John F. Williams, Martin Perry, John E. Price, Thomas Early, and Aaron M. Bennett. The site they purchased was to provide free burial for African American residents of Harrisburg, and was to be named the Harris Free Cemetery. Harrisburg historian Calobe Jackson, Jr. believes the Harris Free Cemetery was located on land that is now traversed by Arsenal Boulevard, about where North Seventeenth Street and Calder or Verbeke streets were before construction of the bypass in 1931. Bodies were most likely reinterred again, in modern day Lincoln Cemetery, in Penbrook, sometime after 1877. Calobe Jackson, Jr., email to George F. Nagle, 15 August 2002.

107. The burial location used by the Wesley Union Church after about 1850 and prior to the use of the Harris Free Cemetery and Lincoln Cemetery was north of the city limits on Ridge Road (modern day Sixth Street) at about Herr Street. According to Calobe Jackson, Jr., the burial plot encompassed an area from Herr to Boas Street, just west of Sixth Street, putting it about halfway between the African American neighborhoods of Tanner’s Alley and Verbeketown. Jackson to Nagle, 15 August 2002.

108. Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 19 November 1860; Patriot and Union, 26 November 1860.


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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