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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)

 

Bullet Emancipation

A persistent April rain pelted the river town of Columbia on the next-to-the-last day of the month, feeding and abetting the vast expanses of sucking mud that made moving through the streets so miserable that spring. The fourth month of 1852 had come in cold and rainy, and it was finishing with a seasonably wet flourish.

Although the town’s residents were becoming impatient with the soggy weather, they also knew the heavy springtime rains were a boon to one of the borough’s chief businesses: lumber. The seasonable showers fed the freshets that enabled more logs to come downriver to their lumberyards and sawmills, which led to booms in the local economy and employment.71 The numerous lumberyards along the riverfront were humming with activity as knots of workers, many of them local African American men, drove teams, manned saws, and stacked boards. In the yard of local contractor and builder Gottlieb Sener, the freshly sawn lumber was stacked twelve feet high, awaiting use in one of the many buildings planned for the growing county.

It was close to four o’clock when a group of white men, strangers in town, picked their way gingerly through the Front Street mud and turned into Sener’s lumberyard, where they began searching between the great stacks of lumber, intent on finding something, or someone. The lumber stacks they passed were arranged in long piles, some up to thirty yards long, with enough space between to allow a gang of men to work comfortably. The far terminus of each stack was backed up against a fence, so that the workspace between each stack formed a blind alley.

The white men spotted a gang of African American men hard at work building a stack in one area of the yard, and they walked briskly up to them without gaining their attention, which was their intention. The workers were split, with some at ground level in the alley, hoisting boards up to others who were stacking the boards on top of the piles. One of the white men—he was noticeable because he had only one hand—made a bee line for one of the workers on the ground who had his back turned and had not noticed their approach. The worker was lifting a stack of boards when the white man grabbed him and announced that he was arresting him. The worker dropped the boards and for an instant just looked, somewhat bewildered, at the one-armed man who had accosted him. Then, as recognition took hold, he twisted free in a fear-induced burst of adrenaline and sprinted for the fence at the far end of the alley. It was his only possible escape, as the other lawmen were blocking the open end of the alley, and the boards, piled twelve feet high on both sides, kept him completely hemmed in.

The man reached the fence and was almost over it, but the lawman, who was surprisingly fast, caught him at the fence and with his only hand, pulled him back. The two men, a one-time fugitive slave and a deputy marshal, collapsed in a heap at the end of the alley, each struggling to gain the advantage over the other. One of the other lawmen came to the aid of the one-armed man, while the workers on top of the lumber piles ran to the end to watch the unfolding drama. The other African American workers who were in or near the alley stopped to watch the outcome of the fight, but the height of the piles hid the fight from the attention of anyone else close by.

In the end, there was not much of a fight. Both of the lawmen were strong and capable six-footers who quickly overpowered the smaller five-foot-six black man, and by each taking an arm, in that manner began dragging him out of the alley. The worker did all he could to resist his arrest, which, given his attackers’ size, did not amount to much more than dragging his feet and refusing to get up. An eyewitness said the fugitive slave was “in a stooped position all the while” they were dragging him out into the open.

The one-armed man had the captive by the left arm and shoulder, and the other lawman had the captive by the right arm and shoulder, and despite his struggles, they had little trouble getting him to the front end of the lumber alley and into the muddy open yard. The presence of additional lawmen in the group made potential rescuers think twice, and the entire affair seemed to be over as quickly as it had begun.

Then a shot rang out.72

 

Flourish

The captured man was William Smith, a thirty-four-year-old, married laborer who was working that day in Sener’s lumberyard as part of a hired labor crew provided by another African American man, John Williams, Sr. Smith had been in Columbia for about a year- and-a-half, and like most resettled fugitive slaves, worked at odd jobs to support himself and his wife. He had escaped in 1850 from his owner, George William Hall, in Harford County, Maryland, journeyed north and finally found refuge in Columbia, and eventually, work with Mr. Williams.73

The two men who were dragging him from the lumber alley had just come from Harrisburg, where one of them, Archibald G. Ridgely, a police officer from Baltimore, had obtained a warrant for Smith’s arrest from Commissioner Richard McAllister. The man who had tackled Smith and prevented his escape at the fence, and who was helping Officer Ridgely drag the man out of the alley, was Solomon Snyder, the infamous Harrisburg constable and right-hand-man to Richard McAllister.

Both Ridgely and Snyder towered over Smith, who they subdued after a brief struggle at the fence, and the lawmen seemed to have the fugitive slave well under control. At least two other persons were with the lawmen’s group: Harrisburg Constable Henry Lyne, and one other unidentified person, possibly a representative of the slaveholder who claimed Smith as his escaped property. None of the other African American workers were showing any signs of aiding Smith, or of offering resistance to the slave catchers. The closest person, a man named Levi Little, was a mere four or five steps from Smith as they brought him out, and was in the best position to offer resistance to the lawmen, but he kept back and watched as Ridgely and Snyder attempted to pull a defeated Smith to his feet. Little then turned to walk away, convinced that the drama was finished.

Levi LIttle had taken barely a dozen steps when the unthinkable happened. Officer Archibald Ridgely pulled a revolver from his pocket and apparently without provocation shot his prisoner point blank in the neck. Levi Little wheeled around at the sound of the shot in time to see William Smith fall forward on his face, then turn on his back, gasping for air as blood gushed from a gaping neck wound. Little watched in horror as his co-worker writhed in agony at the feet of his captors. There was nothing he could do to help. Smith was dead within minutes.74

There were a number of eyewitnesses to the shooting. Some saw the pistol in Office Ridgely’s hand before the shot, and others did not. All remarked on hearing the “report” of the pistol—the deadly sound that suddenly focused the attention of everyone within earshot on the trio of men. Immediately, the rest of the slave-catching party gathered next to Ridgely and Snyder, and several witnesses heard Solomon Snyder tell the Baltimore policeman that he would have to surrender himself to local authorities. Snyder, a veteran policeman himself, understood the amount of force that could be applied to subdue a prisoner, even if he did occasionally cross the line into brutality himself, and he knew that Ridgely had just committed a grave mistake. What is not clear is why Ridgely shot Smith.

Archibald G. Ridgely was, like Solomon Snyder, a veteran lawman, being a partner in the “independent police” business with John Zell, in Baltimore, since at least 1839 and an active constable since at least 1833.75 He later testified that the shot was accidental, offering various reasons for the shooting. At one point, he said he was reaching for a mace he had in his pocket, with which he intended to subdue Smith, but he grabbed the pistol by mistake and it accidentally discharged. At another point, he said that he had drawn the pistol to help keep a crowd of potential rescuers at bay, and that during the struggle the captive got Ridgely’s finger in his mouth and was biting it, causing him to panic and pull the trigger. None of the witnesses at the inquest, which included a white woman who saw the shooting from her window, reported a struggle, and Marshal Snyder’s immediate reaction—that Ridgely would have to surrender—was reported by several witnesses and was even matched by the behavior of both men after Smith dropped, fatally wounded, into the mud.

After a few minutes of debate about what to do, Ridgely and Snyder walked out of Sener’s lumberyard, back the way they had come, to Front Street, through the mud, and up the hill into town to Parson’s Tavern. It appeared to everyone at the scene of the murder that Snyder was accompanying Ridgely into town, to await his arrest. The body of William Smith lay where he had fallen, his lifeless eyes staring into the sky and his blood forming large crimson puddles in the mud. Someone went and got his wife Mary, who arrived too late to comfort her husband. Deputy Marshal Lyne and the other unidentified man left the lumberyard as word spread through the borough that “a fugitive slave had been shot by a police officer.” A crowd gathered around the grieving Mary Smith and her dead husband, but no angry mob formed to chase after Officer Ridgely.

Smith’s co-workers were in shock at his murder, and the general perception that the Baltimore policeman had gone to turn himself in may have blunted their feelings of anger. That anger soon appeared, however, after an investigation was mounted early that evening. Deputy Coroner Joseph W. Fisher held an inquest at seven o’clock, and determined that “William Smith came to his death from the contents of a pistol fired by [Archibald] Ridgely, whilst the said Smith was in the custody of said Ridgely, and Deputy Marshal Snyder, of Harrisburg.”

Fisher didn’t even have Ridgely’s first name at that point, which was a mere three hours after the murder, but everyone knew where to find him and Snyder: at Parson’s Tavern. But when they went there, neither man was anywhere to be found. Archibald Ridgely had left town on foot hours earlier; he had been seen walking over the Columbia Bridge shortly after the shooting. Solomon Snyder, too, was gone, having taken the seven o’clock train to Harrisburg just as the inquest was getting underway.76 The shock turned to outrage.

The shooting, coming as it did in the wake of other recent violent incidents involving fugitive slaves, received plenty of sensationalized press coverage. One of the first newspapers to comment upon the events, a day or two after the incident, was the Columbia Spy, which opined, “By some means—we hardly know how—the perpetrator of the murder (we cannot call it by any other name, although he was engaged in a legal proceeding.) was allowed to escape.” Two days later, the National Era picked up the story and added its own summary of the state of affairs between Pennsylvania and Maryland:

Of course a crime has been committed, the laws of Pennsylvania have been outraged, and a demand will be made on the Governor of Maryland for the delivery of Ridgely. Should he refuse to comply with the requisition, it would excite no surprise. Pennsylvania has been so degraded of late, by unworthy concessions, under the influence of Buchanan, that she has almost forfeited her right to be treated as a sovereign State. She is rather a colony of Maryland, and can hardly complain at the establishment of the black code of Slavery upon her soil.77

Such harsh words stood in stark contrast to the attitude of the editor of the Baltimore Clipper, who wrote, “Mr. Ridgely, warned by the awful fate that had attended other messengers from Maryland on a similar errand, had gone prepared to defend himself and secure the property he was sent to recover.” Taking the Baltimore policeman at his word, that he had only drawn his gun to warn away a hostile crowd, and that the firing was accidental, the Maryland newspaper editor reasoned, “That it was no design on the part of Mr. Ridgely to commit this act must be evident to every unprejudiced mind, from the fact that he was to receive $400 for the delivery of the slave to his master in this State.”78

While each side pronounced its own view of the events at Columbia, either condemning the shooting as an outrage against the borders of Pennsylvania, or laying the blame at the doorstep of abolitionists who were trampling the Constitutional rights of Southerners, this affair, like that at Christiana, and like the kidnapping of Rachel Parker, stood as a stark reminder to African Americans that they were still playing the part of cannon fodder in the political and philosophical war.

William Smith had not run away from Harford County, Maryland as a noble protest against the institution of slavery; he had acted out of a purely personal desire to take control of his own life. His motive for fleeing to Pennsylvania had nothing to do with the complexities of sectional politics. And everyone who had ever experienced slavery firsthand, who had ever run or hidden when slave catchers were spotted in town, regardless of whether they were free born or not, knew that the reason William Smith was shot down in cold blood had nothing to do with the fact that his owner had placed an arbitrary value of four hundred dollars on his life. The racism of American slavery knew no logic; Smith was not a stray horse.

 

"The Pound of Flesh is Yours...Take it"

William Whipper understood. Writing from Columbia to Frederick Douglass a few days after the shooting, Whipper mocked the Clipper’s attempt to reduce William Smith’s murder to dollars and cents. They were wrong, he asserted, to believe Archibald Ridgely had shot William Smith by mistake. The shooting, he wrote, was “a decision given by Officer Ridgely, of Baltimore, in favor of the alleged slave, and against the interest of the master. In favor of the slave because it was better to deprive him of his life, than his liberty.” Whipper then cut scathingly but precisely to the heart of the conflict as it affected all African Americans, telling slaveholders, “the pound of flesh is yours; by the claims of your constitutional laws, take it; but the living spirit that animates it, is mine, by all laws—natural and divine. You cannot possess it or control it—it shall return to the God who gave it.”

In William Whipper’s eyes, it was not a question of state boundaries or abolition or States Rights, none of which were recognized by either natural or divine laws. It had now become much larger than that:

All the former theories of freeing the slaves, has met with but little favor from the North; I wonder if “bullet emancipation” will be less objectionable. The whole drama was performed in a true spirit of loyalty to the Constitution; no one interfered, to prevent the arrest. The alleged slave, with an officer at each side, holding his arms, formed a trinity that would have warmed the hearts of many Rev. Divines, so that they would have exclaimed, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Whipper’s rage was evident in his published letter. If the residents of the North would not stand up against the hated Fugitive Slave Law, he reasoned, they had better get used to the violence, for death was preferable to a slave, than bondage. Baltimore police officer Ridgely had not committed a crime, Whipper wrote, but a heroic act that “should command the highest admiration.” Whipper’s bitterly sarcastic essay was in fact a call to arms, a watershed letter that officially broke with his longstanding belief in non-aggression and forbearance. This view that patience and passive resistance was no longer an effective tactic, a moral stance that was then held by only the more militant African American activists, would not find its place in larger free African American society until the waning months of the decade, after many more such outrages against free blacks and fugitive slaves alike.

Each community, each individual, had their own breaking point. This was William Whipper’s moment, and his conversion no doubt affected the views of a number of his close associates, with devastating repercussions a few years later. Significantly, he had waited to compose his letter until after publication of the testimony from the inquest. It was his usual manner to wait until he had all relevant facts before commenting. After reading the eyewitness reports, and the autopsy findings, and being keenly aware of his previous stances against retaliation, he was unapologetic for his new, angry cynicism, firmly stating in the letter’s conclusion that he had “nothing to alter, or take back.” 79

 

Flourish

The violence in Columbia shocked Harrisburg residents, who put pressure on local authorities to arrest Solomon Snyder a short time after he got off the train from Columbia. Within a few days, though Snyder was free again and back at work for his boss, Slave Commissioner Richard McAllister, conducting business as usual. One thing that had begun to change, though, was the public perception among Harrisburg’s white residents regarding the integrity of McAllister and his men as federal agents. The arrest and forced breakup of the Daniel Franklin family the previous April, the attempted kidnapping of John Dunmore in October, and the bold snatching of the four fugitive slaves freed by Judge Pearson that same month were the most memorably incidents that stuck in the moral craw of the town’s residents.

Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law was proving to be a much dirtier business than they had imagined in September 1851, when it was trumpeted as the solution to the difficulties with Pennsylvania’s southern neighbors. Perhaps, as William Whipper suggested, they had better just get used to the violence. But death was becoming a regular visitor to central Pennsylvania now, and the ghosts of Edward Gorsuch, Joseph Miller, and William Smith were not easily tolerated, or at least not by those with a conscience. Perhaps that was what caused the general unease among local whites with the methods and motives of Richard McAllister and his deputies. If he and his crew at least would have shown some distaste for their work, the entire business of catching and returning fugitive slaves could have been viewed as a necessary evil. Then Harrisburg's white citizens could have turned their heads away from the ugliness.

For Harrisburg’s African American residents, there was no looking away. They were forced to face the beast every day. For them, it was more than the unpleasantness of a murder graphically reported on the pages of the local newspaper; it was the reality of a friend, a co-worker, a family member, bleeding to death in the mud. The beast was not the annoyance of a street disturbance waking them from their beloved sleep; it was three or four armed men smashing their door in the middle of the night and tearing them from their bed at gunpoint in front of their terrified wife and children. It was not the unhappy thought of a child forcibly separated from its mother; the beast was a two-legged man with a federal warrant who coolly handed their children to strangers while clamping iron fetters around their wrists and dragging them far and forever away from their home. The beast was constantly walking the streets of Harrisburg, always watching, always searching.

On 24 May 1852, it found James Phillips.

 

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Notes

71. Reports on local weather and the condition of the river are found in the Lancaster Intelligencer & Journal, 27 April, 11 May 1852.

72. National Era, 20 May 1852; Frederick Douglass Paper, 13 May 1852.

73. Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Columbia, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Frederick Douglass Paper, 3 June 1852.

74. A post-mortem examination of the victim was ordered for the next morning. It was entrusted to Dr. Henry John, a twenty-seven-year-old Marietta physician, who was attended by Dr. A[bram] Clarkson Smith, a twenty-year-old physician from Columbia. Dr. John reported his findings to a Jury of Inquest later that month:

The external wound was about two inches below the base of the right ear—wound rather irregular and inverted—made by a small leaden ball. The upper vertebra of the spinal column was broken—The ball was found about an inch-and-a-half from the left side of the neck, between the styloid and pterygoid processes. Death was produced by the injury of the spinal marrow. The wound was mortal. The ball had cut the internal carotid artery and jugular vein; deceased bled to death.

Dr. Smith, under oath, added his affirmation to Dr. John’s statement, adding, “The vertebral artery, as large as the internal carotid, was also severed by the ball. The wound was necessarily mortal.” Frederick Douglass Paper, 3 June 1852.

Dr. A. Clarkson Smith helped battle the cholera epidemic that swept through Columbia two years later, in 1854, devastating the town and killing many of its African American residents. As a young physician barely out of medical school (University of Pennsylvania, 1852), Smith was one of a few heroic local doctors who volunteered to work in the areas hit hardest by the yellow fever epidemic in 1856. He contracted the disease from his patients and died in Norfolk, Virginia that same year. Selden J. Coffin, Record of the Men of Lafayette: Brief Biographical Sketches of the Alumni of Lafayette College, from its Organization to the Present Time (Easton, PA: Skinner and Finch, 1879), 330.

75. Archibald G. Ridgely is listed in an 1833 Baltimore city directory as a constable, living on Paca Street near Mulberry. Matchett’s Baltimore Director for 1833 (Baltimore: Richard J. Matchett, 1833), 155. He is later listed as an “independent policeman.” The “independent police” term probably refers to a private investigation business. An article in the 4 September 1839 issue of the Huntingdon, Pennsylvania Journal refers to the firm of “Cook, Zell and Ridgely,” which by 1852 had changed to just Zell and Ridgely. An 1853 Baltimore city directory lists the firm of Zell and Ridgely Independent Police Officers, at 15 Mercer Street. John Zell died on December 12, 1856. Matchett’s Baltimore Director for 1853-1854 (Baltimore: R. J. Matchett, 1853), 258, 332; Baltimore Sun, 13 December 1856.

76. National Era, 6 May 1852; Lancaster Intelligencer & Journal, 4 May 1852; Star and Banner, 23 August 1850.
Officer Ridgely passed over the Columbia Bridge and walked to Shrewsbury, a distance of about twenty-four miles, where he stopped for the night. He probably arrived about midnight. The next day he walked to Parkton, Maryland, where he boarded a train for Baltimore. Shrewsbury was a friendly neighborhood for slave hunters, being the home of a group of slave catchers whose operation was similar to that of the Gap Gang, although on a smaller scale and less violent. The reputed leader of the Shrewsbury gang was identified in an issue of the York Republican as “Major McAbee,” who probably was William McAbee, the onetime commander of a local militia unit, the Jackson Grays and a former state legislator. Augustus Louck, History of the York Rifle Company from 1775 to 1908 (York: Gazette Press, 1908), 30; Gibson, History of York County, 317.

77. National Era, 6 May 1852.

78. Quotations from the Baltimore Clipper in the Frederick Douglass Paper, 13 May 1852.

79. “Letter from William Whipper,” Frederick Douglass Paper, 13 May 1852.
For a good example of William Whipper’s previous writings on forbearance against slaveholders, see “An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression,” in Colored American, 9, 30 September 1837.

 

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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