Persons of Color
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)
violence that then occurred in the small, arcadian
farmyard of William Parker, ringed by an orchard of trees heavy
with apples and a field of stately corn, shocked and outraged Americans
even more than Nat Turner’s bloody rebellion in Southampton,
which took place almost exactly twenty years before. Even Whig
and pro-abolitionist newspapers, in the first few days after the
fight, reported the events in the most sensationalized light. The Star
and Banner of Gettysburg reprinted without comment the story
published in the 16 September edition of the Lancaster Union,
headlined “The Tragedy in Sadsbury Twp,” in which the
Christiana violence was described as “the most horrid murders
ever perpetrated in this county or state.”
facts were still scarce in the newspapers at this point—only
one person actually died in the fight—but the sentiment was well
suited to the national mood. “Horrid” accurately described
the short, sharp melee that started with gunshots a few minutes after
Hanway and Lewis left the scene. The Maryland slave hunters tried to
defend themselves against the assembled army of Sadsbury Township African
American farmers, but they were badly outnumbered and outgunned. When
the crowd closed in, Marshal Kline ran to the cornfield and kept running
until he got to the surrounding woods, leaving Edward Gorsuch, his
son, and the others to their fate.
old slaveholder was the first to fall, as at least three of the defenders
and rescuers focused their attention on him. He was clubbed to the
ground, shot, and clubbed again, trying, with each blow received, to
get up and face his attackers. Someone brought a corn cutter knife
down on his head, dealing the owner of Retreat Farm a fatal wound,
and he fell for the final time.
son, Dickinson, in trying to fight his way to his father, received
two shotgun blasts, but still managed to stagger to the end of the
yard beyond the melee, where he passed out. The rest of the Maryland
men were shot and severely beaten, but miraculously were not killed.
Their lives might have been saved by the return of Elijah Lewis, who
kept the enraged rescuers from killing off Dickinson Gorsuch and may
have saved the others as well, giving them time to run for their lives.
could not calm the rage of the women, however, who attacked the body
of Edward Gorsuch with their corn cutters, severely mutilating his
lifeless corpse. The fight stopped as quickly as it began. The bodies
of Edward and Dickinson Gorsuch lay in the farm yard, one lifeless,
one nearly so. The rest of the Marylanders, and the Philadelphia Marshal,
were nowhere to be seen. At least two of William Parker’s African
American militiamen were wounded, but not seriously. William and Eliza
Parker and their neighbors looked around the bloody farmyard, now being
gently illuminated by the rising sun, and realized they had won; they
had stood up against the hated Fugitive Slave Law, against tyranny,
and they were victorious. It was now dawn on 11 September 1851.53
rest of the country would not feel elated, as did
William Parker and his mutual protection associates, at this vanquishing
of a slave hunting party, and in fact the elation did not last
long around Parker’s farmhouse. By the time that the sun
was well up, the reality of what they had done began to settle
on the defenders of the fugitive slaves. During the negotiations,
Marshal Kline had threatened to bring a hundred men from Lancaster
to capture the slaves. The defenders knew that now, those hundred
men and more would be coming. What they did not know was that their
actions would be viewed by much of the nation not as self-defense,
but as insurrection and treason.
only one man was dead, far less than the death toll during the orgy
of violence in Southampton, Virginia, in which more than fifty whites
were murdered, this resistance was viewed with even greater alarm.
The Southampton rebels had been quickly tracked down and brought to
justice by local militiamen, but they had been viewed as rebellious
slaves who were lashing out against their masters. Slave rebellions,
although sensational and blood curdling in their details, were always
seen as local, unfortunate, isolated events.
Christiana “tragedy,” and later, “riot,” was
immediately seen as a loss of control over local free African American
populations. If the free blacks in Lancaster could band together, arm
themselves, and oppose lawmen with legal warrants, the thinking went,
what would keep them from marauding through the countryside? Several
prominent Philadelphia citizens, much alarmed at the thought of armed,
angry blacks in a neighboring county, wrote an open letter to Pennsylvania
Governor William Freame Johnston pleading for protection from “this
insurrectionary movement…not more than three hours journey.” They
were unaware that “any military force had been sent to the seat
of the insurrection.”54 In
fact, a company of forty-five United States Marines had been dispatched
to Christiana, along with several hundred other lawmen. It was entirely
too hot for Parker and his associates; they were taken under the protection
of the local Underground Railroad and swiftly moved beyond the reach
of state authorities.
days, dozens of arrests were made and the African American residents
of southern Lancaster County were subjected to considerable abuse and
mistreatment at the hands of overzealous lawmen in search of insurrectionists.
The fact that William Parker and the other men who had been hiding
in his house escaped capture was not lost on fearful white residents
of Pennsylvania. Angry editorials laid the blame for the death of Edward
Gorsuch at the doorstep of abolitionists, calling it “fruits
of the ‘higher law’ teachings of the fanatics who look
beyond constitutions.” They accused the anti-slavery activists
of advocating “forcible resistance to the law,” and of
encouraging free African Americans in the “commission of various
high crimes, even including murder.”
many of the white residents of Harrisburg, this suggested that all
free African Americans were potential insurrectionists, ready to wage
war against the government of the United States in retaliation for
the hated Fugitive Slave Law. This fear was so powerful that it caused
a considerable paranoia in Harrisburg, leading to the arrest of innocent
persons thought to be dangerous fugitive slaves.
the night of Thursday, 2 October, a black resident named John Dunmore
was dragged from his home, arrested, taken before Richard McAllister
and accused of being a runaway slave. During the arrest, Dunmore protested
his innocence loudly to arresting officer Michael Schaeffer, who pulled
his gun on the frightened man and told him he would shoot him dead
if he did not confess. The scuffle brought out a crowd of people to
investigate the midnight din, and they followed the deputy, the slave
catcher, and their captive to Walnut Street.
hearing was conducted behind closed doors and windows in McAllister's
office, and Dunmore had no one to defend him. However, the person who
was seeking his return, a Mr. Hutchinson, testified that Dunmore was
not his slave after all, and Dunmore was released.55 He
was lucky. With emotions running so high, it would not have taken much
evidence for a jumpy McAllister to send any person accused of being
a fugitive slave south.
Tense Night in Matamoras
other men passing through Harrisburg were not so lucky. In the late
afternoon of 25 September, a week before John Dunmore was nearly kidnapped,
and as the treason trials for the Christiana defendants were underway
in Philadelphia, a party of African American men passed quickly through
Harrisburg, heading north. They followed the river path out of town
and then turned north along the mountain road that climbed toward Halifax.
the road just south of Matamoras, they encountered Jackson Township
resident and justice of the peace Daniel Muench, who was on horseback
headed south. It was getting on toward evening on that late September
day and a chill was settling on the countryside along with the darkness.
The travelers asked Muench where they might stay the night, and he
directed them to the inn at Matamoras. After they passed over the next
rise in the road, Muench, as he later related the story, became quite
excited, thinking that he had just encountered some of the Christiana “murderers.” With
heart racing, he doubled back and rode his horse along a back road
that led into Matamoras, arriving just ahead of the African American
travelers, who were on foot.
in the small mountain village, Justice Muench sought out Michael Lentz,
the innkeeper there. Muench was quite alarmed by the thought of potentially
armed blacks traveling the back roads north of Harrisburg, and he thought
it better not to confront them when they arrived, having heard the
fearsome stories of the fight at Parker’s farm. He quickly hatched
a plan, telling Lentz “to provide lodging to them” as if
nothing was amiss. Muench then issued warrants for their arrest, on
charges of murder, even though he would not have known their names.
problem arose when Muench realized there was no lawman available to
make the arrests, there being “no constable nearer than Halifax,” which
was two miles away. Muench deputized Michael Lentz, a “stalwart
man of the village,” and authorized him to raise a posse of men
to surround the hotel and keep watch through the night.
at sixty-four years of age, was a well-respected man with military
experience who had commanded a company from Dauphin County during the
War of 1812. He quickly rounded up a new batch of men to command, just
like the old days. As the deputized local men of the village stood
watch around the inn through the night, believing that some of William
Parker’s minutemen were sleeping inside, they must have felt
some of the same anxiety, and perhaps fear, that Edward Gorsuch’s
party felt as they crept up on the sleeping Christiana farmhouse several
weeks earlier. Justice Muench later told an interviewer, “The
excitement in the village during the night can readily be imagined.
Very few of the residents closed an eye.”56
Lentz’ plan to capture the four fugitive slaves was very similar
to Edward Gorsuch’s plan, but in this instance, the hotel was
not a fortified stronghold, the occupants turned out to be unarmed,
and they had not been alerted to an impending capture attempt. Moreover,
they were not led by anyone as stouthearted as was William Parker.
They were taken at dawn on Friday morning by the Upper Dauphin posse
and marched to nearby Fisherville, where magistrate Muench officially
charged them with complicity in the Christiana murders. Muench noted, “In
a short time they were being carried over Peter’s mountain toward
four men, John Stoucher, John Bell, Edward Michael, and Fenton Mercer,
were taken to the Walnut Street prison that afternoon and held for
a court hearing before Judge John J. Pearson. Harrisburg’s African
American community immediately summoned attorneys Mordecai McKinney
and Charles Rawn, who petitioned for writs of habeas corpus that same
afternoon, but Judge Pearson acquiesced to a request by Commissioner
McAllister and District Attorney James Fox to push the hearing back
to Saturday morning due to the severity of the charges.
probably regretted this decision upon examining the facts of the case
the next morning, because the charges against the four men did not
appear to be resting on anything more than the paranoia of the hour.
He immediately dismissed the charges against Stoucher, Bell, Michael,
and Mercer, and angrily accused Justice Muench of a gross dereliction
of duty in committing the men with absolutely no evidence to link them
to the Christiana violence.
judge’s anger was understandable. This was the second time in
a little more than a year that black men had been brought before him
on obviously trumped up charges. A year earlier, his decision to release
the three alleged fugitive slaves accused of horse stealing had precipitated
Harrisburg’s worst fugitive slave riot. This time, though, he
was aware of no slave catchers in his courtroom, and he noted that
even Commissioner McAllister and D.A. Fox were in total agreement that
the charges were unwarranted—a perplexing stance considering
that on Friday they had been so adamant that the hearing must be delayed
for a day.
course of action seemed clear, and he declared that the four men were
free to go. But what occurred next made the entire situation and the
attitude of McAllister and Fox immediately transparent. Richard McAllister
stepped forward as the four men were being released, pointed directly
at them, and declared that they were now in his custody as fugitive
slaves. As he announced this, while still in front of the bench in
Judge Pearson's courtroom, his officers stepped up, placed handcuffs
on the bewildered men, and quickly shoved them through the door toward
the commissioner’s office. Judge Pearson was outraged by Richard
McAllister’s brazen tactics and reportedly threatened the retreating
federal commissioner with contempt of court,57 but
the charge was never levied and the fugitive slave commissioner, by
exploiting the rampant “Christiana Riot” paranoia, successfully
pulled off his most daring stunt to date.
and Banner, 19 September 1851; Rettew, Treason at Christiana,
the Governor of Pennsylvania,” Star and Banner, 19 September
1851. One of the signers was Augustus L. Roumfort, an 1817 graduate
of West Point, an army veteran, commander of militia, professor of
mathematics and who, at the time was Superintendent of the Eastern
Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He would serve as war mayor
of Harrisburg from 1863-1866. Another signer was John Wein Forney,
a Democratic newspaper editor destined for a spot in the Lincoln White
House as Secretary of the Senate. He owned the Philadelphia Press,
which was the newspaper that employed Thomas Morris Chester as a war
correspondent beginning in 1864.
American, as reported in the Frederick Douglass Paper,
9 October 1851. A slightly different version of this same story was
reported in the Liberator, 17 October 1851, citing a letter
from a Harrisburg correspondent. See also Eggert, “Impact,” 550.
Old Time School Teacher and Justice of the Peace,” in Egle, Notes
and Queries, 4th ser., vol. 2, 142:249; Bureau of the Census,
1850 Census, Jackson Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.
Time School Teacher, 249; Eggert, “Impact,” 548-549; Lancaster
Intelligencer, 7 October 1851; Gettysburg Star, 3 October
1851; Frederick Douglass Paper, 9 October 1851.