Peck Family monument, Mount Hope Cemetery [Photo: David Kramer, 7/12/20]. Except where indicated, images provided by Michael J. Nighan
The Rochester Rescuer: Prof. Henry Peck and the “Oberlin Saints” Challenge the Fugitive Slave Act
Strolling along the quiet and shady lanes of Mount Hope Cemetery, past the graves of Rochester’s “movers and shakers”, a visitor is likely to walk by a monument carved, “The Burial Place of the Family of Everard Peck” without giving it a second glance, and certainly without realizing that the stone’s inscription is not correct, because the entire Peck family is not there. Indeed one son, Henry Everard Peck, fervent abolitionist and moral leader in one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience against the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, lies three hundred miles to the west of Mount Hope, in a far less elaborate cemetery in Oberlin, Ohio.
Not that his father, Everard Peck, is undeserving of remembrance. A bookbinder by trade, he migrated from Connecticut to the tiny village of Rochester in 1816 where, after buying a printing press, he began publishing his own books as well as a newspaper. Like an archetypal shrewd Yankee businessman, Peck prospered, branching out into real estate, banking and insurance, while still finding time to marry three times and father eight children. Eventually caught up in the “Second Great Awakening”, the revivalist religious movement led by the charismatic Presbyterian preacher, Charles Grandison Finney, that swept through Western New York in the first decades of the 19th. Century, Everard was inspired to become involved in many of the progressive causes of the day. (1)
Becoming a financial backer of Rochester’s black activists Frederick Douglass, Shields “Emperor” Green, and Austin Steward, and also providing significant financial support for Wilberforce, the refuge settlement of free blacks and escaped slaves just over the Canadian border, in the last years of his life Everard incited the animosity of his Rochester neighbors by aiding Frederick Douglass in his drive to desegregate the public schools.
Along with other leading citizens of Rochester, Everard Peck participated in many civic improvement projects; helping to found both the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, forerunner of the Rochester Institute of Technology and, in his home on South Fitzhugh Street (now the site of the Civic Center Garage), hosting meetings which ultimately led to the creation of the University of Rochester.
And it was in that house, on July 20 or 27, 1821, (the exact date seems to be a matter of debate) that Henry Everard Peck was born.
Henry was a frail and studious boy. Far from following his father’s footsteps into the world of business, Henry attended the Oneida Institute, transferring to Bowdoin College in 1837. Experiencing a profound religious conversion he began studying for the ministry, continuing his academic and religious education by enrolling at Lane Theological Seminary, and later at Oberlin College in Ohio. Following his ordination, the Rev. Henry E. Peck began his ministry, appropriately enough, at the Congregational Church on South Fitzhugh Street, a few steps from his family home.
Perhaps by inclination, perhaps by family or regional influence, or perhaps by the exposure to liberal and radical ideas and professors at his various schools, by the late 1840s Henry had evolved into a fervent and vocal abolitionist and, trading the pulpit for the classroom, joined the faculty at Oberlin, eventually becoming a Professor of Sacred Rhetoric, and an Adjunct Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy. Respected by his students and fellow Oberliners, but also regarded as a bit of an eccentric, even by that community’s standards. It may be that he inherited this eccentricity from his maternal aunt, Almira Porter Barnes. (2) Widowed by the death of her wealthy husband in 1823, in an age when widows, and women in general, were supposed to spend their days at home, Almira was a peripatetic traveler into her 60s, an apostle and financial supporter of liberal and radical moral causes of the day, anti-slavery and abolitionism among them. A frequent visitor to the Peck family home in Rochester, like her brother-in-law Everard, Almira become a follower of Charles Grandison Finney, eventually donating tens of thousands of dollars (in today’s currency) to Oberlin College and doubtless was a strong influences on her nephew Henry’s decision to attend that institution. (3)
“The Slave Hunter is Among Us!”
– 1850s warning notice to black residents
While the Constitution and the fugitive slave legislation of the 18th. Century had always protected the right of owners to recover a run-away “person held to service or labor” (the Constitution never used the term “slaves”), it was the enactment of the more draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, mandating that all public officials, indeed all Americans, must aid in the recovery of escaped slaves which ensured that anti-slavery/abolitionist forces and the southern “slaveocracy” were headed toward an “irrepressible conflict”. Encouraged by the Act, southern slave catchers increasingly traveled north in pursuit of fugitive slaves, in some cases even abducting free blacks who they claimed were runaways and, with the connivance of corrupt judges, carrying them south to sell into bondage.
While today every high school student has read about the Underground Railroad and “conductors” such as Harriet Tubman; who collectively and surreptitiously helped an estimated 100,000 slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War, it was the “Rescues”, blatant and provocative public acts of civil disobedience where hard core abolitionists attacked jails to liberate recaptured runaway slaves who were being held prior to being returned to their owners, which grabbed the headlines and most enraged the South. (4)
Around the time Henry Peck began teaching at Oberlin, the nation’s attention was being riveted by the 1851 “Jerry Rescue” in Syracuse (in which a recaptured fugitive slave William “Jerry” Henry was broken out of the city jail and spirited across lake Ontario to Canada by a mob of several hundred abolitionists who providentially were holding a convention in town); and by the dramatic, although failed, Anthony Burns Rescue in Boston in 1854 where attempts to free recaptured run-away slave Burns were thwarted by the use of federal troops ordered into the city by President Franklin Pierce. (5) In Rochester, even though it’s estimated that an average of 150 fugitive slaves passed through the city each year, in the mid-1850s when Henry Dixon, a runaway slave from Georgia, was captured and returned to his master, the local anti-slavery community was unable to come up with $700 to “redeem” him. On an even sadder note, in 1822 a Virginia slave named Ellen escaped to Rochester to join her husband, a local barber. She was hunted down and dragged before a local judge who ruled that she was to be returned to her master. When a small force of local blacks broke into the jail to free Jane, they themselves were repulsed by a larger mob and Jane, rather than accept being returned to slavery, committed suicide.
In an interesting reversal of roles, as a result of these Rescues and the growing anti-slavery and abolitionist movement in the north, southern states’ rights advocates increasingly looked to the federal government for protection and enforcement of the laws, while northerners, who traditionally favored a more proactive federal government, now turned to their state governors and legislatures to block enforcement of the federal Fugitive Slave Act by passing “personal liberty laws” to oppose the seizure of escaped slaves. (6)
By making the morality of slavery, not its legality, the dominant feature of the debate, these Rescues, along with the major jolt to public consciousness occasioned by the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, were major contributors to the growth in anti-slavery sentiment in the North.
A Community based on Prayer and Ober-litionism
Though a young college in a young community by the standards of the schools and cities in the East, not yet two decades old when Henry Peck joined the faculty, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute had already gained a national reputation for its liberal, even radical, views on religion, slavery and the rights of women and black Americans. Founded in 1833 under the influence of the Utopian movement and the Christian revivals that had swept through the northern states, Oberlin was, in the words of author Morris J. Brent, a haven for, “educating a missionary army of Christian soldiers to save the world and inaugurate God’s government on earth, and the radical notion that slavery was America’s most horrendous sin that should be instantly repented of and immediately brought to an end.” Henry Peck was a perfect fit.
The spirit that led to the creation of Oberlin the college also permeated through Oberlin the village, situated a dozen miles from Lake Erie. Unlike most communities in America, Oberlin had no saloons, no gambling halls, and certainly no brothels. Liquor, and even coffee, was prohibited. And shades of the 21st, century, smoking in public was banned. Shops closed early on Thursday evenings so that everyone could attend the community prayer meetings.
What Oberlin did have by the time Henry Peck arrived was an almost fully integrated racial society. There were black men and women enrolled in the college, black shop keepers, black high school students in integrated classes, black professional men, and blacks enrolled as voters. Oberlin had even created a welfare system for escaped slaves, providing payments of $1.25 a week to those unable to find work in the community. Payments were dispensed by town clerk John Mercer Langston, a free black man and one of the first blacks in America to be elected to public office. Neither blacks nor whites celebrated July 4th, calling the Declaration of Independence a “cruel mockery”, and instead observing the day by conducting anti-slavery meetings. By 1860 Oberlin could count almost 500 free and manumitted blacks and escaped slaves out of a total population of almost 3,000, excluding the temporary student population.
To make matters worse in the eyes of traditionalists, Oberlin College even accepted women! Indeed, the first women in America to receive a baccalaureate degree were Oberlin graduates. Even Frederick Douglass’ daughter, Rosetta, had attended Oberlin in the mid-1850s. By 1858 Oberlin College’s student enrollment listed 736 “Gentlemen” and 513 “Ladies” taking classes. Even more shocking to conservative social sensibilities, the women had formed, not one, but two abolitionist societies, with a total membership of 134.
Little wonder that many outsiders, particularly southern slaveholders, accused Oberlin’s faculty and students of being self-righteous radicals. Testifying before an “investigation” of Oberlin’s charter launched by Democrats in the Ohio state legislature, one witness expressed his view that, “The managers, professors, and other teachers have emphatically used their influence to inculcate the doctrines of abolitionism in the minds of those under their charge… From the president down to the tutor, they preach it in the desks, inculcate it in their prayers, talk it in their recitation rooms, support it in common confab, and attend public deliberations for its promulgation.” In a complaint from citizens of southern Ohio whose business interests lay south in the slave state of Kentucky, Oberliners were characterized as, “treasonable abolitionist factionalists (who) have established many routes throughout this state along which they convey runaway, or decoyed away, slaves to Canada.” The town’s reputation as a hot bed of “Ober-litionism” had reached Washington where President James Buchanan was desperate to placate his southern supporters in order to, as he saw it, preserve the union. Crippling the Underground Railroad and dissuading Rescues became a major goal of his administration.
The charge that Oberliners aided fugitive slaves was of course correct. It’s been estimated that in the quarter century leading up to the civil War, as many as 3,000 escaped slaves may had passed through the Oberlin area, including a pair of recaptured slaves who had been broken out of the town jail and spirited away to Canada in the 1840s.
It was no surprise to anyone who knew him that as soon as Henry Peck was hired as an Oberlin faculty member he immersed himself in the activities of the Underground Railroad. He became a “conductor”, leading fugitive slaves the 30 miles from Medina, Ohio to his home in Oberlin, where they were sent on to Cleveland or Detroit and across the Canadian border to freedom. Described by his fellow academics as, “a bold fearless and accomplished champion of freedom”, albeit a, “quiet, unobtrusive and retiring” one, and later as, “one of the brightest and most estimable men that Oberlin has produced”, by 1855 he had so impressed local political leaders of the newly-formed Ohio Republican Party that they asked him to be their candidate for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives, an offer he declined.
As the fall of 1858 approached, Oberliners, both black and white, were on a heightened state of alert for “man-stealers”, armed thugs who prowled the area searching for fugitive slaves (and sometimes free blacks who they could claim were fugitives) to be returned south under the legal shield of the Fugitive Slave Act, in order to collect the hefty rewards posted by slave owners for recovered “property”.
Paradoxically, fugitive slaves in Oberlin were more at risk than those in other parts of the country. Given the town’s reputation as a known haven for escaped slaves and a community with a sizable black population, Oberlin attracted man-stealers like a magnet. Already that summer three attempts had been made to seize runaway slaves in the neighborhood. And three times those attempts had been thwarted. The proud boast of Oberlin was that no fugitive slave had ever been successfully taken from the town.
John Price was one such fugitive slave. Known as “Little John”, the 18 year old Price had escaped from John Bacon, his Kentucky master, in early 1856, crossing the frozen Ohio River on the ice floes and making it north through Ohio to Oberlin where he found a congenial community and work as a day laborer.
Then, in August 1858, a stranger appeared in Oberlin who, with rough manners, his Kentucky hills accent, and the extensive weaponry he carried, clearly fit the description of the archetypal man-stealer. His name was Anderson Jennings. And although he’d come to Oberlin searching for a slave who had escaped from his late uncle, by the workings of fate, he also knew John Price and knew he had escaped from John Bacon.
Contacting Bacon for authority to act on his behalf to recover his escaped slave, and receiving a promise of a $500 for Price’s return, Jennings applied for the required federal warrant to seize the fugitive and began plotting how to lure him into an ambush where he could be carried back to Kentucky.
By Sept. 13, Jennings had all the necessary papers, had been sent an assistant, Richard Mitchell, by Bacon, and had hired a local teenager– William Shakespeare Boynton by name – who for $10 agreed to entice Price out of town with the promise of a job, at which point John would be seized and hustled away to Wellington, a few miles south of Oberlin and on the rail line that would take Jennings and his captive back to Kentucky.
The plan went like clockwork. On a back country road John was seized by Mitchell, deputy federal marshal Jacob Lowe – whose presence made Price’s abduction legal – and Sam Davis, a Kentucky deputy sheriff along as extra muscle. Jennings, suspecting he was being watched, had stayed behind in Oberlin acting as a decoy. With Price squeezed into a carriage between the three men, word was sent to Jennings that they were on their way toward Wellington. It looked like a successful and profitable trip for the man-stealers. And so it would have been, except for….
Driving down the road to Wellington, the man-stealers passed two young men driving in the opposite direction toward Oberlin. Recognizing Ansel Lyman, an Oberlin student known as a militant abolitionist, Price yelled out that he needed help. Weighing the odds of taking on the three obviously-armed men, Lyman made no move to intervene and Price’s wagon continued on its way, soon reaching Wellington where he was taken to a second floor room in a local hotel to wait for Jennings’ arrival.
But Ansel Lyman, driving rapidly, had arrived in Oberlin and began buttonholing every one on the main street, spreading the news that John Price had been kidnapped. Word spread rapidly and a large crowd, men and women, whites, free blacks and even fugitive slaves – heedless of the danger their participation would put them in – began to gather in the town square. A cry of, “They can’t have him!” was heard and almost instantly so it seemed to witnesses, a wave of hundreds of people in carriages, people on horseback, even people on foot, many grabbing rifles and pistols in the process, began to sweep down the road toward Wellington.
Henry Peck, although just a few days before having conducted five escaped slaves through Oberlin, opted not to join the pursuit of John Price. (7) Despite taking no part in the events of the next few hours, his solid abolitionist credentials and his widely-recognition moral and religious standing in the community would nevertheless make him the de facto leader of the Oberlin Rescuers when matters entered their next phase.
The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue
As Jennings drove toward Wellington, he may have been surprised when one galloping horsemen, then another, then many more raced past him in clouds of dust. Finally reaching Wellington and finding a crowd gathering in front of the hotel, he must have realized that his carefully-made plans were now in tatters. Oberliners were soon swarming into town and were receiving support from residents of Wellington and neighboring towns as word of the kidnapping rippled outwards. (8) Cheers rose as each new group arrived and angry threats began to be heard.
Over the next few hours the milling mob, growing to an estimated two thousand white and black men and women, did little but blockade the hotel and demand that John Price be released. A number of local southern sympathizers gathered in the lobby and halls of the hotel, acting as a guard for Jennings and his men and his captive, who had by now moved to an attic room. With no one in charge, neither the crowd nor the kidnappers seemed to have any idea how to break the stalemate. Jennings was unwilling to give up his prize, telling the crowd from his hotel window, “I want no controversy with the people of Ohio. This boy is mine by the laws of Kentucky and the United States”. Despite a response shouted from the crowd of, “You dry up! There are no slaves in Ohio and never will be north of the Ohio River”, the crowd seemed disinclined to use violence to come to Price’s aid.
Then, suddenly, two separate and uncoordinated rescue attempts broke the impasse. Men from both Oberlin and Wellington rushed the front and back doors of the hotel and battled their way through the lobby and up the stairs to the attic. As they were forcing their way through the door, as if on cue the small window in the room shattered, broken by a ladder that another contingent of Oberlin and Wellington men had heaved up along the front of the building. Taking advantage of the confusion, Richard Windsor, an Oberlin student, grabbed Price, told him to follow him into the hall, and aided by several other men, literally carried Priced through the crowded hotel before anyone knew what was happening, and jumped into a waiting carriage. Waving a gun in the air and shouting, “All is well. We have him!”, Windsor grabbed the reins and sped off toward Oberlin with a cheering crowd behind him. Hidden in the home of an Oberlin College professor with no obvious connection to the abolitionists in town, within a few days John Price was headed off on the Underground Railroad. Arriving safely in Canada, he disappeared from the record.
Meanwhile, back in Wellington, Jennings and his fellow Kentuckians were given safe conduct to the train station and told in no uncertain terms to stay out of Ohio. This was advice they would ignore.
Arrest and Trial
The return of the Oberlin Rescuers took on the aspect of a triumphal march, with songs, cheers, and bombastic chest-beating over the freeing of John Price. Greeted as conquering heroes by the Oberliners who had stayed behind, impromptu speeches blossomed on every street corner. One speaker, enthusiastic to ensure that those most involved in the Rescue received their proper recognition, began to list them by name. He was quickly hushed by wiser heads who knew that even in as liberal a community as Oberlin there were those who opposed abolition and who believed that the Fugitive Slave Act must be obeyed and enforced. And they knew that some of those people, including the town’s Democratic postmaster and Buchanan appointee, Edward Munson, were wandering through the crowd taking notes and writing down names,
Within weeks, the U. S. Court for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland, ordered by the Buchanan administration to strictly enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and make an example of the mostly-Republican Oberlin abolitionists, impaneled a grand jury to investigate the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. District Judge Hiram Willson, and the chief prosecutor, federal district attorney George Belden, both Democratic appointees, leaving nothing to chance, made sure that every member of the grand jury was also a Democrat.
In charging the jury, Willson made clear where he stood, condemning, “a sentiment prevalent in the (Oberlin) community which arrogates to human conduct a standard of right above, and independent of, human laws.” Declaring the Oberlin dogma to be, “a sentiment semi-religious in its development, and almost invariably characterized by intolerance and bigotry”.
On December 6 the grand jury handed down indictments against 37 Rescuers for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. While 15 of those indicted were from Wellington and surrounding communities, it was clear from the start that the court’s target was the 22 Oberlin Rescuers, half of which were black (including three fugitive slaves), most suspected of being opponents of the Buchanan administration, and all assumed to have some level of involvement in the Underground Railroad. Although Henry Peck had not been present at the freeing of John Price, he was indicted for aiding and abetting the Rescue by urging others to take action. Indeed, so determined had the district attorney been to obtain Peck’s indictment that the grand jury deliberations had been recessed so that federal marshals could scour the country side to find someone to testify against him.
The next day, arrest warrants in hand, federal marshal Mathew Johnson traveled to Oberlin. Stopping first at Henry Peck’s residence, in recognition of his moral leadership role in Oberlin, in a grand display of chutzpah Johnson handed Peck his arrest warrant then asked the professor to escort him around town as he served his warrants on the other indictees. Ever the polite host, Peck agreed. Those served were asked to take the following day’s train to Cleveland where Johnson would meet them at the city depot and escort them to court for arraignment. Although seven of the Oberlin Rescuers, including the three fugitive slaves, weren’t located (for obvious reasons the fugitive slaves had left the area for good) the remaining 15 men boarded the morning train, accompanied to the station by a large crowd of well-wishers.
Joined in court by their fellow Rescuers from Wellington, all the defendants entered pleas of “not guilty” to violating the Fugitive Slave Act, a conviction of which carried a penalty of six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. Initially ordering that the defendants be released on bail, Judge Willson relented when told that few of the accused were affluent enough to post bail. The prisoners were released on their own recognizances, and the trial date was set for March.
Now that the identities of the Rescuers was public knowledge, in their honor Oberlin hosted a “Felons’ Feast” in January. During a lengthy round of toasts (all drunk with water of course) Henry Peck raised his glass and pledged, “We cannot obey the Fugitive Slave Act, not because we do not love and honor our country, but because we cannot do that which will reflect deeper dishonor and disgrace upon her.”
In February, the Rescuers launched a legal counter attack which caught the federal government flat-footed. A state grand jury, convened in Lorain County where Oberlin was situated, handed down indictments against Jennings, Mitchell, Lowe and Davis, charging them with kidnapping John Price. The indictments were based on a recent state law which made it a crime to arrest, imprison, kidnap or decoy out of the state any free black or alleged fugitive slave.
When the Rescuers’ March trial date arrived, the district attorney was still waiting for directions from Washington and was still attempting to serve subpoenas on Oberlin and Wellington residents who were making themselves difficult to locate. The trial date was push out to April 5, 1859. Although Jennings and his fellow man-stealers had also been subpoenaed to appear at the trial, with state warrants out for their arrest, there was a race between federal and state authorities to see who could get their hands on them first.
When the trials finally got underway, the first defendant was Simon Bushnell, an Oberlin clerk and printer. Henry Peck sat with him at the defense table to provide moral support. The prosecution’s case was straightforward. Bushnell had violated the Fugitive Slave Act by helping John Price to escape. But to make the case stick, DA Belden had to prove that, 1) John Price was a fugitive slave, 2) he was the property of John Bacon, 3) Bushnell knew Price was a fugitive slave when he interfered, and 4) Jennings and his cohorts had the proper federal paperwork authorizing Price’s recovery. The trial should have taken only a day or so. But it dragged on for ten days. Witness failed to appear. The defense challenged the identification of John Price and argued that Jennings’s paperwork was invalid. And they raised the volatile issue of states’ rights, asking whether Ohio law did not override federal law in this instance. But knowing that the rigged jury would find Bushnell guilty regardless of the legalities of the case, the defense primarily focused on using the trial to address the press and the public far more than the jury, seeking to set out a moral justification of the Rescue.
While most of the 19 prosecution witnesses, including Jennings and Lowe who had managed to avoid capture by state authorities, were allowed to testify without interruption, the testimony of a few elicited hisses and one, the Democratic postmaster of Rochester, Ohio, who had been present in the Wellington hotel, was literally laughed out of court when he tried to claim Price had told him that, “he had started to go back to Kentucky, got as far as Columbus, and the folks from Oberlin overtook him and brought him back”.
As the defense presented its case, Henry Peck testified that the description of the “John Price” contained in Jennings’s paperwork bore little resemblance to the John Price he knew well. The defense’s final witness, Orindatus Wall, posed a problem for the court. Wall was an emancipated slave and while Ohio law allowed blacks to testify in court, the Supreme Court ruling in the infamous Dredd Scott case had made it clear that blacks enjoyed, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. Nevertheless, Judge Willson elected to let him testify.
In their summations, the defense pointed to the moral evil of slavery and that Ohio law should override federal statues, and the prosecution ridiculed the abolitionist beliefs and religious interpretations of the ”Saints of Oberlin”. At around noon the jury was sent out to deliberate.
To the surprise of few, when the jury returned at 2:00, they announced that they had found Bushnell guilty. Judge Willson immediately called for the next defendant, and then threw a bomb into the proceedings by announcing his intention to use the same jury for all remaining cases given that the circumstances of each cases were almost identical (he subsequently rescinded that proposal). Arguing that this would be illegal and unprecedented and would make the trials an even greater sham than they already were, the defense sarcastically stated that the remaining defendants might as well be put on trial as a group. DA Belden quickly agreed and Judge Willson summoned all remaining defendants to the bar and cancelled their recognizances, remanding them to the Cuyahoga County Jail to await trial unless they put up a bail bond of $1,000 each.
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison”
– Henry David Thoreau (9)
Gathering in a side room to discuss with their lawyers what to do next, and selecting Henry Peck to act as their spokesman, the Rescuers concluded that it was time to take a stand against the insults and increasing unfairness of the proceedings. Peck informed Judge Willson that they would stay in jail, “until the Court should amend the wrong or the law should relieve them”, and that the Rescuers would, “give no bail, enter no recognizances, and make no promise to return to the Court”. Gathering up their luggage, and escorted by Marshal Johnson, the Rescuers marched out of the court house, two by two, and down the street to the county jail. Little did they suspect that they’d spend the next three months there.
As they entered the jail gate, County Sheriff David Wightman made clear where his sympathies lay. “Gentlemen, I open my doors to you, not as criminals, but as guests. I cannot regard you as criminals for doing only what I should do myself under similar circumstances.” He then proceeded to give the Rescuers the run of his jail, including turning his private rooms over to them. Not unexpectedly for Oberlin men, they then organized a prayer meeting with Henry Peck as minister.
Within days the jail was seeing a steady stream of visitors, well wishers, reporters, politicians, and the simply curious. Ladies brought flowers, books, food and other small bits of comfort, leading one local newspaper to remark that the county jail, “looked more like a fashionable place of resort than a prison.” Their first Sunday as prisoners, Henry Peck conducted one of the most unusual religious services in American history. Standing in the gate to the prison yard, Peck led his fellow Rescuers, and an outside crowd of 600 to 700 in prayers and hymn singing. In his sermon he declared, “We must obey God always, and human law, social and civil, WHEN WE CAN!”.
Outside the jail, pro-Buchanan and southern newspapers declared Bushnell’s conviction a major legal victory, one that would have, “a very salutary effect upon the furious abolitionists”. “It is not so much a violation of the fugitive slave law which is to be punished by the United States as the anti-slavery sentiment” declared the Ohio State Journal. “It is Oberlin which must be put down. It is freedom of thought that must be crushed out.”
After cutting deals with the Wellington defendants to get their cases out of the way, Belden focused his attention on the despised “Oberlin Saints”. The trial of Charles Langston, the black town clerk, began on April 18. With another carefully-selected jury in place, the prosecution’s opened its case, a virtual carbon-copy of the first trial. Nevertheless, this time the trial was dragged out for three weeks.
In an attempt to outmaneuver Judge Willson, the Rescuers petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court to affirm that state law overruled the federal Fugitive Slave Act, and to end their imprisonment by issuing writs of habeas corpus to nullify the judge’s demand for a bail bond. Within days rumors began circulating that Buchanan was sending a naval gunboat to Cleveland in case hostilities broke out, and that Ohio Governor Salmon Chase had decided to use state militia to free the Rescuers. What WAS known was that the Buchanan administration had ordered Marshal Johnson to “resist at all hazards” any attempt to rescue the Rescuers by force. Asked what would happen if the state court turned down their petition, Henry Peck confessed to a friend that, “we are to have a long & hard job to occupy us. Well, WE ARE READY. It will come hard for us to get upon our knees before either Buchanan or Belden. Indeed, I do not believe we can do it.”
Back in the courtroom, winding up the case against Langston, a prosecution lawyer continued to take shots at Oberlin, expressing his belief that, “The students who attend Oberlin College are taught sedition and treason in connection with science and literature, and they graduate from that institution to go forth and preach opposition and treason.” This time it took the jury less than 30 minutes to return with a verdict of guilty.
On May 10, Bushnell was returned to court for sentencing. After berating the prisoner…”you express no regret for the act done, but are exultant in the wrong”, Judge Willson sentenced him to 60 days in jail and a fine of $600. Not the maximum possible sentence but one that seems to have stunned the Rescuers with its severity. Possibly this is what the judge intended. To throw the fear of, if not God, then the Buchanan administration into the defendants.
Expecting that the next trial would now commence, the defense team was shocked to be informed by Belden that trials would have to be put in abeyance because the county sheriff had just arrested Jennings, Mitchell, Lowe and Davis under the kidnapping warrants issued by the state, and he had been instructed by the US Attorney General to make their defense his priority. Realizing the impact a lengthy delay would have on the imprisoned Rescuers who had already spent over a month in jail, their defense team appealed to the judge who backed Belden, postponing the trials for two months. In response, the defense team asked Willson to rescind his bail bond requirement because the Rescuers, “most assuredly have never coveted imprisonment…nor have they any morbid relish for self-inflicted martyrdom. But they do value their self-respect; they do prize the dignity of manhood”. Once more, Willson refused to waive the bail bonds.
The next day Willson sentenced Charles Langston. In response to the traditional question, did he have anything to say in his own defense, Langston launched into an impassioned and spellbinding moral justification of his action and condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Act. As the son of a white father who had served in the Revolutionary War, he argued that he had acted to free John Price because, “I had been taught by my Revolutionary father…that the fundamental doctrine of the government was that ALL men have a right to life and liberty.” Even the crusty judge was moved to say that, “We appreciate fully your condition, and while it excites the cordial sympathies of our better nature, still the law must be vindicated.” Langston was then sentenced to just 20 days in jail and a fine of $100.
Recommitment and Release
The Oberlin Rescuers, still languishing in the county jail, were by now getting antsy. One of their members inventoried the charges against all the prisoners they were incarcerated with and came up with a list: “Horse thief – 1; counterfeiting -1; murder – 1; drunkenness – 1; assault and battery; 1; grand larceny – 7; petit larceny – 8; burglary – 3; and believing in a higher law – 20”. A number of individuals consider by the authorities to be lunatics were also housed in the jail and their cries were getting on everyone’s nerves. While their numbers had been reduced by the departure of the Wellington contingent, they still found their quarters cramped. Despite the best effort of Sheriff Wightman to make them comfortable, the meals were monotonous, broken only by the occasional take out ordered from local restaurants. And there were problems with bad drainage and rats. But the Rescuers tried to be stoic.
Henry Peck continued to officiate at the daily prayer meetings and preached the sermon on Sundays. One suspects he was secretly amused when a fellow Oberliner offered the prayer, “Oh Lord, take the slave holders and grind them into powder, and spread their dust over Lake Erie.” To help pass the time, Oberlin faculty members conducted classes, one Rescuer set up as a cobbler, and another organized a harness maker’s shop. Henry Peck walked the jail roof in meditation and wrote sermons for ministers in area churches.
Nevertheless, they were encouraged by the good press coverage they were receiving. The story of their Rescue and their subsequent jailing was reported everywhere. Using the new technology of photography, group shots were taken and widely disseminated. Visitors continued to come by the hundreds. Including John Brown, who came in disguise and tried to recruit some of the Rescuers to participate in what became his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. And rallies in their support were popping up all over Ohio. One held outside the county jail in April had seen an estimated three thousand participants, white and black, carrying banners and accompanied by a brass band, marching to the jail and surrounding it. Sheriff Wightman had feared that a jail break would be attempted, but Henry Peck and others had assured him that the Rescuers would not accept liberation by mob rule. The reassured sheriff then permitted the prisoners to shake hands with well-wishers through the fence. When it seemed that the crowd might turn violent, Peck had stood on the fence and asked them to remain calm and follow the Rescuers example. “Let us charge you to fear no bonds, and to be terrified by no penalties when the law forbids you to give succor to the fugitive”. The message to the Buchanan administration was clear. Federal law or not, the Fugitive Slave Act would be ignored in Ohio.
As the weeks passed, and with the Rescuers facing many more weeks of imprisonment, they began to question whether their self-imposed incarceration was losing its significance. Asking outside activists for their opinion, Peck received a direct and forceful response. Peck and the others should continue their imprisonment, “as a conspicuous protest to the inequities of the fugitive slave law”. The Rescuers accepted this decision.
In mid-June two of the Rescuers who were printers by trade came up with then idea of publishing a newspaper from behind the prison walls. Henry Peck, in his father’s shoes at last, was chosen as editor and, with the connivance of the sympathetic sheriff, paper, ink, type and rudimentary printing press equipment was obtained or manufactured. July 4 was chosen as the most appropriate date to publish their inaugural (and as it turned out, only) issue of the aptly-named, The Rescuer, the first newspaper printed behind bars in an American prison, selling it to the public at three cents a copy.
As a counterpoint to the Rescuers, the Kidnappers, as Jennings, Mitchell, Lowe and Davis were now called with more than a touch of irony, having spent eight in jail were now out on bail awaiting a July trial. As the trial date approached The Kidnappers, like the Rescuers, found themselves caught in a jurisdictional battle between the State of Ohio and the United States. It was as clear to the Kidnappers as it had been to the Rescuers that they were going to be found guilty and given harsh sentences when finally brought to court. Additionally, the Buchanan administration knew they were losing the PR battle and that allowing the Kidnappers to be tried and convicted would result in significant political blowback from the slave states. Back channel discussions led to a deal under which the federal prosecutors would announce that the two convictions had been a “sufficient vindication of the law” and that charges would be dropped against the remaining Rescuers, while state officials would agree to do the same with the charges pending against the Kidnappers.
And so on July 6, 1859, the 83rd. day of their incarceration, the Rescuers were again free men. Langston had already served his sentence. But Belden, taking one last swipe at the Oberlin Saints, refused to cut short Bushnell’s sentence, leaving him to spend five more days in jail. As they walked out the gates of the jail, Henry Peck held one last prayer meeting and Sheriff Wightman was thanked and presented with gifts. While the Rescuers, escorted by a crowd of hundreds, left to board the train to Oberlin, cannon along the lake shore were fired in salute, bands played “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia” and, as the train pulled out of the depot, “Home Sweet Home”.
When their release had been announced, notices were posted all over Oberlin. An obligatory welcoming committee of civic dignitaries was assembled, and obligatory welcoming speeches hastily thrown together. The Rescuers’ train was met by a crowd of several thousand cheering locals, and one grim and sour-faced man, Edward Munson, Oberlin’s postmaster, long suspected of being a federal informant. Sheriff Wightman, having accompanied the Rescuers from Cleveland was given a seat of honor on the speakers’ platform. The church choir, 125 strong, filled the air with song. When Henry Peck rose to give his thanks, he was greeted, in the words of one participant, “with such a hearty greeting, with such enthusiastic and prolonged cheering as we never before witnessed and never expect to hear again”.
Following four hours of speeches, cheering, more songs, more prayers and more speeches, a public resolution was passed confirming the community’s, “abhorrence of the fugitive slave act and avow our determination that no fugitive slave shall ever be taken from Oberlin, with or without a warrant, if we have the power to prevent it”. The crowd then rose for one last song. But rather than any of the traditional American airs, the choir sang the perhaps far-more-appropriate, “Marseillaise”.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, a rabidly anti-abolitionist newspaper sorrowfully, and prophetically noted that, “the Government has been beaten at last…and Oberlin, with its rebellious Higher Law Creed, is triumphant…As Oberlin goes. So goes the United States in 1860”.
Following his experiences with the Rescuers, Peck returned to teaching at Oberlin and watched, with the rest of the country, as the United States careened into secession, Civil War, emancipation and finally, an end to slavery. Although physically unable to serve in the army, Peck was an active supporter of the war effort, working on recruitment drives, and traveling to camps around Ohio visiting Oberlin students who had enlisted.
Appointed Commissioner and Counsel General to Haiti by Abraham Lincoln just weeks before his assassination, Peck served only two years, dying of yellow fever on June 9, 1867. Twenty two years later former fugitive slave, Frederick Douglass, would be appointed to fill the same office. Wherever he was, Henry must have smiled and said a prayer of thanks.
(1) Everard Peck became a convert to Finney’s teachings. So perhaps it was no coincidence that Finney was Professor of Theology, and later President, at Oberlin College when Henry Peck opted to transfer, and later teach, there.(2) While the source of Henry Peck’s eccentricities may be debatable, there can be little doubt that his anti-slavery and abolitionist convictions came in large part from his mother’s family, the Porters. Moving to Rochester soon after the arrival of Everard and Chloe Porter Peck, his grandfather, Samuel Porter, eventually became the first president of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and, along with his son, Samuel D. Porter, worked with Frederick Douglass to move fugitive slaves through Rochester to Canada.
(3) Almira was also a frequent visitor to Oberlin College where, granted the privilege of attending classes without formally enrolling in the school, she held the unique distinction of being the only person who knitted during Charles Grandison Finney’s lectures.
(4) As an example, historian Robert H. Churchill has documented 32 rescue attempts in northern states between 1850 – 1854, of which 23 were successful.
(5) “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs & waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” — Amos Adams Lawrence, recalling the impact of the failed Anthony Burns rescue attempt
(6) In a speech given in Rochester, and quoted in the Union and Advertiser on Nov. 5, 1860, New York Governor Henry Raymond stated the facts plainly. “The South complain that we do not return their fugitive slaves. There is truth in the complaint; and I cannot in candor and fairness, say that we shall ever return them in any considerable numbers, or to any great extent…Unquestionably, the Constitution entitles the South to the surrender of Fugitive Slaves. But there is an invincible repugnance in the heart of every man worthy of the name, to lay hands on a free man and remand him to hopeless and perpetual bondage. Therefore the North does not, and probably never will surrender Fugitive Slaves.” These stirring words were effectually rendered moot the next day when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, leading to the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery by the end of 1865.
(7) Given the illegality of the Underground Railroad, very little information at the time was committed to paper by the “conductors”. However, a scrap has been preserved containing a note handed to Henry Peck by one of the escaped slaves, “Gents, here are five Slaves from the House of Bondage, which I need not say to you that you will see to them – they can tell their own story.”
(8) Another coincidence connecting Rochester to these events is that one of those nearby Ohio communities was also called Rochester. Named so the local histories say, by a land developer after his home town in Western New York.
(9) In 1848, Thoreau had given lectures on the topic of, “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government”. He later reworked the lecture which was published the next year as an essay entitled, “Resistance to Civil Government” (also called “Civil Disobedience”). It’s interesting to speculate what familiarity Peck and the other Rescuers had with Thoreau’s writings.