Persons of Color
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)
Jones Comes to Independence Hall
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.’”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
157. Ibid.; PAS, Arrest,
Trial, and Release, 15-16; Clothier and Mulholland, “Slavery
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, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php (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
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.
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, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php (accessed
6 December 2009); Charles J. Cohen, Rittenhouse Square Past and
Present ([Philadelphia?]:privately printed, 1922), 288.
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.