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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 (continued)


Ousting the Bloodhounds: Harrisburg Loses its Slave Commissioner

The redemption of James Phillips was a victory, but it did little to make Harrisburg African Americans feel safer. A month after Phillips had been taken south, an advertisement appeared in the newspapers around Frederick, Maryland, a town only about twenty-four miles south of the border—about seventy miles south of Harrisburg, seeking to buy “one hundred Negroes for the New Orleans Market.” The buyer, Wilson W. Kolb, noted that he was “always in the market,” and could be reached through a post office box in Frederick. The ad kept high the fear of kidnapping in the border counties, a harsh reminder that no African American, regardless of birth status, could yet sleep soundly.

In at least one instance, someone decided to bring a taste of that same fear to one of the men who was helping to sustain it. In the hot summer days after James Phillips was returned to Harrisburg, someone decided to take revenge against the man most held responsible for his arrest. Early in August, “an attempt was recently made to fire the residence of Richard McAllister,” reported the Gettysburg Star and Banner. The newspaper suspected an unknown anti-slavery activist was the culprit, and severely condemned the attempt, even though it felt that McAllister was “unquestionably a tyrannical and inhumane man.”88

If McAllister was feeling the heat of an unpopular public image, he did not yet show it. Two weeks later, his men pursued their largest mass arrest yet, as fourteen fugitive slaves, recent runaways from a Mrs. Pendleton, of Washington County, Maryland, were reported to have been captured near Harrisburg and jailed until their owner could come to town and claim them. A later report said that the fourteen slaves had not actually been captured, but were still at large in Harrisburg. Either way, it made for a busy summer.89

Kidnapping remained the hot topic in Harrisburg through the remainder of the year. In November, the Harrisburg Standard reported on the kidnapping of an African American child named John Henry Wilson Clark, from his Danville home. The kidnappers, identified as William Kelly and his wife, were arrested when they took the boy to Baltimore and offered him for sale. They were thwarted, in part, by the prompt actions of Danville African American abolitionist William Thompson, who wrote letters to the local newspapers describing the stolen child and attesting to his free status.90

A few months after the Pendleton runaways were reported, another large group of fugitive slaves, said to number twenty-six persons, men, women and children, escaped from the Funkstown, Maryland plantation of Edward Cheney and disappeared in the heartland of central Pennsylvania. Cheney’s son, acting as agent for his father, pursued the slaves as far as Lancaster, where he felt that they were taking refuge, and then went to Harrisburg to obtain a warrant from Commissioner McAllister. A party of men from Harrisburg was dispatched with the young Cheney, headed by an unidentified brother of Richard McAllister, to Lancaster, to attempt to hunt down the large group of runaway slaves.

They arrived in the middle of the annual Agricultural Fair, only to find the city thick with visitors and buzzing with activity. Their attempts to locate any of the freedom seekers were stifled by the general chaos of the fair, and the Marylander became quite agitated at the perceived indifference of the local residents. Stopping at a local hotel, the slave catcher gave vent to his frustrations through “loud and bullying language, and…ruffian like display of dirks and revolvers.” The hotelkeeper called the police, who were unable to calm the man. He was finally arrested for disturbing the peace, and spent a night in the city jail.91 Although no slaves were arrested, the incident cast yet another shadow on the behavior of the Harrisburg Slave Commissioner’s men.

That shadow became impossibly long and damaging in the next round of municipal elections. Public dissatisfaction with the methods employed by the Slave Commissioner, and with the results of his zealous adherence to the new Fugitive Slave Law, was growing. Rumors began to circulate that several of the constables who regularly assisted McAllister might be turned out of office in the next election.


Theophilus Fenn's Crusade

Theophilus Fenn, editor of the Harrisburg Telegraph, had become increasingly critical of McAllister’s operation, questioning not only the legality of some of the procedures, but McAllister’s honesty as well. By the time that the elections came around, Fenn was openly attacking the Fugitive Slave Law as unconstitutional, and referring to slave catchers as “bloodhounds.” He reserved special criticism for McAllister, charging that the commissioner and his men had gone well beyond simply following the law; they had, Fenn believed, taken an active role in ferreting out fugitive slaves in the region and had been notifying their masters to come claim them.92

In early March, Fenn endorsed two borough constables by assuring his readers, “Neither of these men have had anything to do with the despicable negro-catching business. That business has been in the hands of the slave commissioner and his police.” Fenn’s characterization of Constable James Lewis was correct. The rookie policeman had not been sucked into McAllister’s operation, but High Constable Henry Lyne had been involved, although to a lesser extent than the other two constables who were up for reelection: Henry Loyer and Solomon Snyder.93

Regardless of degree of involvement, no candidate who bore the taint of slave catching was reelected in the March 1853 election. Solomon Snyder and Henry Loyer were not only defeated for the office of constable, they were firmly trounced, receiving respectively the lowest and second lowest number of votes cast for that office. Their fellow constable, James Lewis, who had remained clear of the slave catching activities, received the second highest number of votes and was reelected.

Henry Lyne was similarly defeated in his bid to remain Harrisburg’s high constable, losing decisively to a former high constable, Michael Newman. High Constable Newman had been cited, years earlier, by the Telegraph editors for his outstanding conduct during the violent 1850 riots, in which the three fugitive slaves and Harrisburg resident Joseph Pople were brutally beaten by slave catchers.

Newman, who lived in the racially diverse North Ward of the borough and counted many of the outraged African Americans in the crowd as his neighbors, “displayed great courage, coolness, and presence of mind, in his endeavors to quell the rioters; yet strange to say, he had no occasion to use violence with anyone,” the newspaper marveled. Other constables made liberal use of their clubs to keep the crowd back, but Newman was able to keep control of his area by being “persuasive, humane and resolute.” Although his actions in keeping the crowd back helped to protect the Virginians who were violently subduing the released fugitive slaves, there is no evidence that he was aware of what was happening inside that small prison antechamber. His effective and humane crowd control, driven by the mutual respect he enjoyed with his neighbors of color, may in fact have kept the chaos from taking a turn into deadly violence, as occurred at Christiana a year later.

Harrisburg voters turned away from Newman in the next election, but in the intervening years, as their enthusiasm for the Fugitive Slave Law waned, and their appetite for harsh anti-runaway measures was dulled by unrelenting violence, they emphatically returned to the aging former high constable they remembered as “humane and resolute.”94


A Sign of Change

The change was hailed in local newspapers as “a sign.” The Gettysburg Star and Banner gloated, “Solomon Snyder, Henry Loyer, and Henry Lyne, notoriously known for their efforts to execute the fugitive slave law, were defeated, although members and candidates of the dominant party.”95

The defeat of the Democratic constables, however, was also a significant defeat for Commissioner Richard McAllister. His post was safe—he had been appointed by a federal judge—but within the space of one election, nearly his entire enforcement arm was neutralized. His use of the borough constables and his control of the high constable office had given an air of authority to his operation, helping to mask the numerous improprieties.

Although his henchmen’s loss of the constable posts was disastrous, it appears that McAllister, even before the election, was making plans to move on from the post of slave commissioner. On 11 March, he wrote a letter to the venerable Lancaster politician Reah Frazier, requesting one of his “bold, eloquent letters to the president,” on his behalf to help clinch his appointment by the newly elected Franklin Pierce to the Governorship of Minnesota Territory. He addressed his letter to Frazier from the United States Hotel, in Washington, D.C., where he had gone to lobby for a job with the new administration. Noting confidently that the territorial governorship had by then “settled down between [McAllister] and a resident of the territory,” he sought one final endorsement as insurance. McAllister closed the letter rather jauntily, noting “I feel sure of success,” but as it happened, he was typically overconfident. President Franklin Pierce awarded the appointment to one of his chief campaign supporters, and McAllister’s rival for the post, Willis Arnold Gorman, a few days later.96

The Slave Commissioner experienced yet another severe setback in his slave catching activities when, in May, three of his men were charged with kidnapping in Lancaster County. Most of them had successfully weathered such charges in the past, but this time the situation appeared direr. One person, in April, had already been convicted in the incident, fined $1,000, and sentenced to nine years at hard labor in the Lancaster County Prison. The caper occurred earlier in the year and depended upon the cooperation of a thirty-two-year-old African American laborer from Marietta, named John Anderson, to lure their prey, a young Maytown boy, away from town where he could be easily captured.

Anderson found his target in Maytown and somehow convinced the boy, a free African American resident named John McKinney, to accompany him to Marietta, a few miles away. Just outside of town, a carriage with two white men drove up alongside Anderson’s wagon and forced it to stop. The two men grabbed McKinney, quickly tied him up and drove away. There had been witnesses who saw Anderson and McKinney leave Maytown together, and when he arrived in Marietta without the boy, his explanation of the boy’s disappearance satisfied no one. Anderson became the prime suspect and was put in the Marietta jail. He did not identify McKinney’s assailants—either he was sticking to a kidnapping story in which he was an innocent bystander, or perhaps he did not know the Harrisburg constables who had paid him to seduce McKinney away from town into the open countryside.

Anderson was tried and found guilty at the Lancaster County January 1853 sessions, but an appeal for a new trial, which was overruled, delayed his sentencing until April. By that time, Anderson’s accomplices were identified as John Sanders, Solomon Snyder, Henry Loyer—three of Richard McAllister’s most important men—and a fourth man named Strine, who until this point was not associated with any of McAllister’s operations.

All four men were indicted in the April sessions, and arrest warrants issued. Snyder and Loyer were arrested in Harrisburg and committed to prison, neither man being able to make bail. Strine and John Sanders fled to Baltimore, and ultimately were the subject of a requisition from Pennsylvania Governor Bigler for their return. By the end of May, a local newspaper reported that “the band of Slave-hunters at Harrisburg has been broken up,” as it recounted the kidnapping charges against McAllister’s key men.97

The Federal Commissioner, shorn of his enforcement arm, decided it was time to move on to other pursuits, and resigned his commission. Harrisburg anti-slavery activists in Harrisburg were ecstatic. Freedom was reborn in Harrisburg in the spring of 1853.


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88. Star and Banner, 25 June, 13 August, 1852.

89. Hagerstown Mail, reported in Frederick Douglass Paper, 27 August 1852.

90. Star and Banner, 12 November 1852.
William Thompson and his wife Hannah are some of a few African American residents of Danville who openly advocated for abolition in this Susquehanna River town. Thompson, a barber, wrote to local newspapers and politicians to keep the issue on the mind of local residents, and they hosted visiting anti-slavery speakers in their home. A traveling agent identified only as “W” praised the Thompsons in the pages of the 8 December 1854 edition of the Frederick Douglass Paper:

Mr. Wm. Thompson, a very intelligent and upright gentleman of color, resides in Danville. The fact that he subscribes for 4 or 5 Anti-Slavery papers, and pays for them regularly, is a sufficient recommendation. He has to do all the Anti-Slavery preaching. His place of business is a real Anti-Slavery library, and picture gallery. We commend him to the consideration of some of our colored men in business, who are afraid to let a ‘ customer ‘ see an Anti-Slavery paper on the table; those who generally thrust it, if they dare take any, in the drawer and lock it, till the shop is closed. Mr. Thompson spoke with much earnestness at both of our meetings. We hope success may attend him in all his relations. For his kindness, and that of his accomplished wife who ministered to us both in sickness and in healthy, are we specially grateful.

91. Pennsylvania Freeman, 27 October 1852, reported in Frederick Douglass Paper, 3 December 1852. I have been unable to identify the brother of Richard McAllister who was reported to be involved in this incident.

92. Harrisburg Telegraph, 16 October 1850; Eggert, “Impact,” 556.

93. Harrisburg Telegraph, reported in the Frederick Douglass Paper, 11 March 1853; Eggert, “Impact,” 563.

94. Harrisburg Telegraph, 28 August 1850; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, North Ward of Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, p. 66; Eggert, “Impact,” 564.

95. Star and Banner, 8 April 1853.

96. Letter, Richard McAllister, Washington DC, to Reah Frazier, Lancaster, PA, 11 March 1853, private collection of Gregg F. Freyseth; Gregg F. Freyseth, email to George F. Nagle, 24 October 2009. Richard McAllister bided his time in Harrisburg for a while, then moved west and worked with John White Geary, beginning in July 1856, as Governor of Kansas Territory. In March 1857, when Geary was relieved of the governorship by President Buchanan, McAllister went to Iowa. He was appointed Postmaster of Keokuk, Iowa in 1860. Patriot and Union, 30 October 1860.

97. Lancaster Intelligencer, 26 April 1853; Star and Banner, 29 April, 20, 27 May 1853; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Marietta, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


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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