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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 Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear: The Violent Decade

The Law is an Abomination

The following weeks brought a cool down as the dog days of August waned into September’s more temperate autumnal spells. The cool down in the weather mirrored a gradual lowering of the town’s level of hostility, allowing memories of the violence of late August to fade into September’s back-to-business mood. But business this year included a game-changing shift in how local lawmakers dealt with fugitive slaves, with the signing by President Millard Fillmore of the Fugitive Slave Law. Suddenly everything was taken out of the hands of President Judge John J. Pearson, and all other local judges for that matter.

Instead of a trial, accused fugitive slaves were hauled before a specially appointed United States Commissioner for a hearing to determine their fate. This hearing dispensed with most of the legal trappings of a trial, and streamlined the process of deciding whether to certify slaves for return south, or of setting them free. Slave owners were no longer required to produce written documentation to prove ownership of an accused slave. All that was required under the new law was a sworn affidavit from the owner that the person they sought was actually their runaway slave. If the owner could not be present at the hearing, the affidavit could come from a third party acting as their agent.

Accused fugitive slaves completely lost their voice in the hearings: testimony from them was specifically denied, they had no right to be represented by an attorney, nor could they summon witnesses to testify on their behalf. If anyone at all was allowed to say anything in defense of the accused slaves, it had to be a white man who was offering voluntary testimony. All African Americans other than the accused were shut out of the hearing completely. The hearing itself could be conducted at any hour of the day or night, with no requirement that advance notice of any kind had to be provided to the public.

In short, all that was required for a white Southern man to enslave an African American resident of the North was his sworn word that the person was a runaway slave. If the Federal Slave Commissioner believed him, he remanded the accused person south with the slave catcher, and collected ten dollars for his efforts. The Commissioner could then appoint as many marshals as he needed to conduct the slave catcher and the returning slave safely home.

If the Commissioner decided to free the alleged slave, he could do so, but collected only five dollars for his decision. This disparity in fees collected for different outcomes appeared to abolitionists to be an incentive for Federal Commissioners to favor the claims of slave owners and their agents. The Commissioners themselves defended the higher payment for remanding slaves to their owners as being necessary to cover the extra paperwork that they had to prepare and file when slaves were returned, but this explanation was far from satisfactory to those who thought it was a thinly disguised moneymaking scheme.

If the hearing procedures were not odious enough to Northern anti-slavery advocates, the mandatory enforcement requirements certainly were. All citizens were now required by the Fugitive Slave Act to assist federal officers in enforcing and upholding the new law. Anyone who obstructed enforcement, or who harbored or aided a suspected fugitive slave in any way, could be imprisoned or fined, or both. Slaveholders were further empowered to sue such persons for up to $1,000 per slave. Obstruction of the law, and aid to fugitives was very liberally defined in the statutes, making simple acts such as offering a wagon ride or providing a meal to strange African Americans very dangerous.

The effect of the law on the security of free African Americans living in the North was perceived by most Northerners to be highly detrimental. Many questioned whether the new law was even constitutional, and held out hope that it would be repealed by Congress. One Pennsylvania politician who had fought against adoption of the entire Omnibus Bill, and the Fugitive Slave Law in particular, was U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who had been recently elected to Congress as a representative from Lancaster. Although he immediately introduced legislation to repeal the hated law, and would continue to work for its repeal as long as it was on the books, he foresaw only trouble for African Americans in the free states, and advised them to “put themselves beyond its reach.” Many did so, uprooting themselves from communities in which they had dwelt without fear for decades, and abandoned the United States for Canada.

In Columbia, a Lancaster County town which had sheltered large numbers of African American residents since the beginning of the century, and which was a valuable hub of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity, hundreds of residents packed their possessions and headed for the northern U.S. border. Local African American businessman William Whipper remained, and performed a valuable service to those who were leaving by acting as their agent during the sale of their homes and property.13 Many other towns and cites across Pennsylvania saw the loss of large number of African American residents.

Harrisburg may have been an exception to this Canadian migration over the long run, as its percentage of African American residents remained fairly constant through the Fugitive Slave Law years, and most of the town’s prominent African American families remained.

Immediately after the appointment of a U.S. Slave Commissioner to Harrisburg in 1850, though, there was a noticeable drop in the number of strange African American faces on the streets of town. Newspaper editor Theophilus Fenn editorialized that “it is supposed that more than a hundred have left for Canada and other parts. They had better go—that is, those who are not well known here.” Despite this desertion of recent arrivals, most established families stayed.

There was, however, an effort on the part of many of Harrisburg’s southern-born African American citizens to hide the fact that they had been born in a slave state. When reporting their state of birth to census takers in early August 1850, the month during which the Fugitive Slave Bill was being debated in Congress, a number of them told census takers that they had been born in Pennsylvania. By 1870, after all danger of being claimed as a runaway slave had passed, many of these same residents reported being born in Virginia, Maryland, or other southern states.14


A Chilling Effect on the Underground Railroad

The effect of the new law on the Underground Railroad operations in Pennsylvania, at least at first, was also severe. African American residents provided yeoman’s service in this undertaking, not only in Harrisburg but also in almost every Pennsylvania town and city in which it operated. They provided valuable intelligence, intercepted newly arriving freedom seekers as they entered town, sheltered them in their homes, sewed new clothes for them, cooked for them, tended to their injuries and illnesses, guided them between stops, and found work for them when they stopped running. It was primarily African American crowds that supported captured runaways with their presence in the streets outside of courthouses. African American guards stood watch outside of safe houses, and African American activists diverted lawmen during rescue attempts. White lawyers were generally working for African American clients when they represented freedom seekers in courts.

So when large numbers of African Americans permanently left their homes in fear for their freedom, or decided to maintain a low profile by lying about their place of birth, it caused a significant disruption to established routines and routes. S. R. McAllister, whose father James McAllister actively aided many fugitive slaves in Gettysburg, condemned the new law because it “made stars and stripes a libel—and every man a Negro catcher.” He went on to note, “It got to be very risky as there was money in it and imprisonment back of it.”

These factors, combined with a zealous enforcement of the new law by the U. S. Commissioner in Harrisburg, led to a significant rise in the number of slaves captured in Harrisburg and the surrounding area during the next three years. Local anti-slavery activists, who had many of their plans thwarted and saw many freedom seekers successfully hunted down and hauled into a hearing before the new Commissioner, could count precious few victories after August 1850.

Much of this frustration was due to the actions of the Harrisburg Commissioner himself. Three Federal Commissioners were appointed to hear cases in Pennsylvania, with each one being responsible for his defined district. The central third of the state fell under the jurisdiction of Harrisburg lawyer Richard Cox McAllister, a grandson of Colonel Archibald McAllister, who greatly expanded the Fort Hunter estate north of Harrisburg. McAllister was appointed to the position by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney on September 30, 1850. Once appointed, he took to his work with an enthusiastic zeal and undisguised pro-southern bias.

As mentioned earlier, many persons in Harrisburg harbored deeply held sentiments toward the southern states, but Richard McAllister had stronger ties than most. He was born at Fort Hunter in 1819, and was educated locally, studying law at Dickinson College in Carlisle. After graduation from Dickinson, he traveled to Georgia and entered the law office of his cousin, prominent Georgia jurist and politician Matthew Hall McAllister. While in Georgia, Richard McAllister courted and married a young woman from New York, Cecelia Hoffman.

The young couple eventually returned to Harrisburg where McAllister resumed the study of law under Hamilton Alricks, and he was admitted to the Bar of Dauphin County in November 1841 under the sponsorship of Esquire Alricks. He was appointed to the post of Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania, under family friend Governor Francis R. Shunk, but lost the post after Shunk resigned in 1848. When the federal post for slave commissioner became available in the late summer of 1850, McAllister, back to being a Harrisburg lawyer, lobbied for and won appointment to the controversial post.15

He established the office of the United States Commissioner in a two-story frame building on the north side of Walnut Street, next to the Exchange Building, and immediately began to hear cases. His first, on the same day that he was appointed, was the case of George Brooks and Samuel Wilson, the two accused fugitive slaves held on assault charges in the riot of last August. As if on cue, Virginian William Taylor arrived in his office with Brooks and Wilson in tow, who he brought from their prison cell across Walnut Street after formally dropping the assault charges against them.

Also in the Commissioner’s office was Harrisburg attorney Charles C. Rawn, appearing in the employ of William Jones in defense of the two prisoners. Rawn found, however, that defending accused fugitive slaves under the new law was entirely different and extremely challenging—to the point of being an exercise in futility—as he was banned from using his traditional defense strategies during the hearing.

In fact, he found that he was allowed to play little part in the proceedings at all. The only testimony and evidence, Rawn noted in his personal journal, was a sworn oath by Taylor and one other witness, at which the Commissioner promptly decided the case in Taylor’s favor. Rawn watched as the two slaves were taken out of the office by their master, accompanied by a federal posse made up of Harrisburg men, authorized by Richard McAllister. Later that day he vented his frustration at being unable to influence the decision, writing in his journal, “the law is an abomination and the hearing a farce.”16

McAllister’s decision to return the fugitives to Virginia effectively ended the episode that had caused Harrisburg’s largest anti-slavery riot, and it began a period of highly dramatic and emotional incidents that would change the very nature of Harrisburg’s Underground Railroad and anti-slavery operations.

The activists who had been arrested for riot, including Joseph Pople, William Jones, Franklin Robison, Gabriel Murray, Charles Denny, Thomas Early, Henry Bradley, and James Williams, were fortunate to have the support not only of the Harrisburg African American community, but also of many prominent white residents, a large number of whom signed a petition to free the persons held as rioters.

The list of signatories, not surprisingly, included persons who were well-known advocates of the anti-slavery cause, such as John Andrew Weir, Rudolph Frederick Kelker, John Parke Rutherford, and Samuel S. Rutherford, all of whom had been members of the old Harrisburg Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s.

The petition, however, also included among its fifty signatures those of many men who were not openly associated with anti-slavery causes. The names of Robert A. Lamberton and John C. Kunkel, two of the three lawyers who had represented the Virginian William Taylor in the original trial appeared on the petition, as did the signature of the Reverend William Radcliff DeWitt, the influential long-time pastor of Harrisburg’s Presbyterian Church; noted attorney Herman Alricks, who had sponsored the nomination of Richard McAllister to the Dauphin County Bar in 1841; Jacob M. Haldeman, a Harrisburg entrepreneur and businessman who was vested in much of the local infrastructure; and former Pennsylvania Governor David Rittenhouse Porter, whose 1838 campaign exploited Joseph Ritner’s supposed abolitionist leanings and his association with Thaddeus Stevens.

The weight of these signatures and those of many other prominent Harrisburg lawyers, businessmen, and military veterans convinced Judge John J. Pearson that the petition represented more than an abolitionist effort. He agreed to dismiss charges against the African American rioters upon a motion of nolle prosequi from the prosecutors in court records, and the men were all set free.

The support for the anti-slavery rioters, however, came with a warning. The town’s newspapers, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, backed the necessity of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law as a means of keeping peace between the North and South.17 The effort of the rioters to free the slaves was seen as a final outburst on the eve of the new law, and as a tactic that must not be repeated.


“Te Suth’ners ish Cummin to Purn Harrispurg”

However, satisfaction with Judge Pearson’s wisdom in settling the case was not shared by many Southern observers. His failure to allow William Taylor and his party to take charge of the three men immediately, followed by the charges of inciting riot that were lodged against Taylor, were all causes for indignation and even rage from many Southern politicians and newspaper editors. In their eyes, this was just another effort on the part of a local judge to frustrate their constitutional right to pursue fugitive slaves. The editor of the Hagerstown Herald of Freedom opined:

While there are many citizens in Pennsylvania who recognize and advocate the right of the Slave-owner to his property, the masses of them do not; even the Judge upon the Bench scruples not to disrobe himself of the ermine of Justice to rescue the fugitive slave from the hands of his master. In proof of this, we need only refer to the recent outrageous violation of every principle of justice by a Harrisburg Judge, in the case of Taylor’s negroes. The truth is, that the Slave States must have protection in this particular, or else a fierce border warfare will sooner or later take place.18

The Harrisburg decision inspired the editor of the Richmond Enquirer to even greater vehemence, as if the threat of a border war was not frightening enough. In a truly frightening and irresponsible editorial, the unnamed editor advocated an immediate and bloody policy of total war against Northern communities—an ironic stance given that the paper’s longtime editor, Thomas Ritchie, backed the Compromise of 1850, an effort that brought great calumny upon him from fellow Southerners, and went to great pains advocating for civil discourse in the nation’s public newspapers.

But Ritchie, by this time, was editing newspapers in the nation’s capital, and another editorial writer was at his old desk at the Enquirer. This unnamed editor—more than likely one of Ritchie’s sons, William F. or Thomas Jr.—wrote that “the people of the neighboring Southern States should make [Northerners] know and respect the law of the sword, the rifle, the tar barrel, and the grape vine… a foray into Pennsylvania or Ohio, with burnings to the ground of a few such towns as Harrisburg, and the hanging of a few such judges as this ermined thief named Pierson [sic]…would soon teach the amalgamating inhabitants of Pennsylvania, that this stealing of [slaves] is not the delightful amusement they now take it to be.”

The fiery editorial went on to compare violent border retributive raids with the Christian destruction of “lawless” Moorish cities, and “a hundred-fold return of the scalping-knife and tomahawk” by white settlers against the “Indians of the frontier.” In one very ominous sentence, the editorial warned, “That time is returning” and promised that Northern “plunderers” would be dealt with by “hangings and shootings.”

Few Northern editors took this panegyric to vigilante justice seriously, and even the abolitionist press refused to become overly worked up over it. William Lloyd Garrison, who was himself the object of regular death threats from pro-slavery writers, reproduced the editorial in its entirety in the pages of the Liberator with a dismissive aside about the Southern editor being “dreadfully excited.”

The Daily Ohio State Journal printed excerpts of the editorial in a piece that poked fun at Pennsylvania German farmers who took the threats too seriously, to the point of fleeing the border counties in fear of a general border war. The article “Mine Dream. A Sleepy Dutchman and the Fugitive Law,” purported to tell the story of Diedrich Blinckenstaffer, a simple Pennsylvania German farmer in one of the southern border counties who suffered nightmares when he heard that “te Suth’ners ish cummin to purn Harrispurg.”19

Although the article satirically downplayed the threat of violence as something only gullible farm boys would worry about, the rage that generated it was very real, and it would flare up into a series of shockingly violent incidents involving central Pennsylvania during the next eighteen months.


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13. Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (1969; repr., Cambridge: Da Capo, 1991), 199-200.

14. The Theophilus Fenn quote on African American residents leaving for Canada is from Eggert, “Impact,” 555.
Gerald G. Eggert analyzed computerized census returns for Harrisburg, for 1850, 1860, and 1870. In comparing the responses of Harrisburg’s African American residents in regard to their place of birth, he found that the shift between reported Free State birth and Slave State birth among tracked respondents was statistically significant enough to indicate an early intent to deceive. He wrote “By a margin of two-to-one in 1860 the shifts favored safety; in 1870 they shifted in the direction of candor by a margin of three-to-one.” Eggert, “Two Steps Forward,” 13.

15. Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 58-59; Mary Catharine McAllister, Descendants of Archibald McAllister, of West Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, Pa. 1730-1898 (Harrisburg: Scheffer’s Printing and Bookbinding House, 1898), 14-19, 79.
Edward D. Ingraham served as U.S. Commissioner for the eastern third of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, until his death in November 1854.

16. Eggert, “Impact,” 545; Entry for 30 September 1850, “The Rawn Journals.”

17. Eggert, “Impact,” 554-555; Kelker, History of Dauphin County, 2:644.

18. Gettysburg Star and Banner, 6 September 1850.

19. Liberator, 11 October 1850; Daily Ohio State Journal, 19 November 1850.
The State Journal credits the Tecumseh (Ohio) Herald for the article. The highly inflammatory Richmond Enquirer article was probably the work of Thomas Ritchie, Jr., who took over editorial responsibility of the newspaper from his father, Thomas Ritchie. Unlike his father, who took pains to print opposing viewpoints in an effort to raise the intellectual and nonpartisan reputation of the Enquirer, the younger Ritchie apparently had a taste for the use of slander against his political foes. In 1846, under his editorship, the Enquirer charged rival Whig newspaper editor John Hampden Pleasants with planning to start an abolitionist newspaper. Pleasants denied the statement, but Ritchie continued his attacks in the pages of the Enquirer, charging that Pleasants was attempting to “Out Herod [King] Herod,” and finally accusing him of cowardice and of hiding behind his family and children. Pleasants rather unwisely challenged the young Ritchie to a duel to defend his honor. The two men met at sunrise along the James River, and in a gruesome affair, Ritchie put five bullets into the rival editor, who came at him with a sword and a Bowie knife. Pleasants suffered for five days before dying of his wounds. Ritchie was acquitted of murder in a highly publicized trial.


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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