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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle

 

Table of Contents

Study Areas:

Slavery

Anti-Slavery

Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War

 

Chapter Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)

 

This Insurrectionary Movement

The 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.”

Hard 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.

The 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.

Gorsuch's 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.

Lewis 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

 

Flourish

The 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

Within 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.”

To 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.

On 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.

The 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.

 

A Tense Night in Matamoras

Four 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.

On 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.

Once 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.

A 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.

Lentz, 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

Michael 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 the Capital.”

The 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.

Pearson 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.

The 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.

His 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.

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Notes

53. Star and Banner, 19 September 1851; Rettew, Treason at Christiana, 38-39.

54. “To 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.

55. Harrisburg 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.

56. “An 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.

57. “Old Time School Teacher, 249; Eggert, “Impact,” 548-549; Lancaster Intelligencer, 7 October 1851; Gettysburg Star, 3 October 1851; Frederick Douglass Paper, 9 October 1851.


 

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.

Pick up your copies at the Mid-Town Scholar Bookstore, Civil War and More Books, the National Civil War Museum,
or at the 2010 Harrisburg History Center.

Both volumes also available on Amazon.

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