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When the Slave-Catcher Came to Town

By Daniel J. Sharfstein | HUMANITIES, September/October 2011 | Volume 32, Number 5

From Daniel J Sharfstein's The Invisible Line, which chronicles the sometimes brutal history of three families as they journey, over the course of generations, across American color lines.

Oberlin, Ohio, September 1858

A big man stands out in a small town. Anderson Jennings was over six feet tall, full bearded, a prime specimen of what was known as a "buffalo bull."

When he appeared in the village of Oberlin, people instantly seemed to know who he was and where he was from. Amid the muted tones of Ohio, his Kentucky accent sounded like a fiddle out of tune. Oberlin was a college town and religious settlement, a quiet community of learning and prayer. But Jennings carried two five-shooters, rarely left his room at the tavern by the railroad depot, and kept to the shadows when he did. As he well knew, no town in the United States hated slavery with as much passion as Oberlin. Yet there he was, in his words, “nigger-catching.”

Jennings owned a farm and livery stable in Mason County, Kentucky, on the Ohio River’s south bank. His slaves were more valuable than his land, and almost every year his human quarry increased. When a young man named Henry disappeared one late summer night in 1858, it was as if $1,500 had fallen out of Jennings’s coat. Jennings could guess where Henry was heading. Even though a neighbor described Jennings as someone who did not “follow the business of capturing niggers,” he could draw on the decades of experience that Mason County slaveowners had in tracking down runaways. Jennings headed to the river landing at Maysville. In his pockets he carried his guns, a roll of ten- and twenty-dollar bills, and a set of handcuffs. He was ready to recapture a man he thought of as “my boy.”

Incursion into Enemy Land

Jennings sensed that if Henry was heading north, sooner or later he would pass through Oberlin. A generation earlier, descendants of New England Puritans had built the college and town in the northern Ohio forest, dedicating themselves to bringing “our perishing world . . . under the entire influence of the blessed gospel of peace.” To give themselves time, health, and money to serve the Lord, they renounced “all bad habits, and especially the smoking and chewing of tobacco, unless it is necessary as a medicine,” pledged not to drink tea and coffee “as far as practicable,” and rejected “all the world’s expensive and unwholesome fashions of dress, particularly tight dressing and ornamental attire.” They built themselves a simple world: saltbox houses, unadorned brick school buildings, and a village green guarded by a towering elm, like a hand reaching to heaven. They prayed in its shade.

Always the center of the community, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute trained missionaries and teachers “in body, intellect and heart, for the service of the Lord.” From its beginning in 1832, the school educated both sexes. Within three years, it devoted itself to the abolition of slavery, taking the then-radical step of admitting students “irrespective of color.” In the decades that followed, blacks and whites studied and worshipped together and spent their vacations lecturing for antislavery societies and teaching in colored schools. Scandalous rumors circulated around the country that white and black Oberliners shared dormitory rooms and were even marrying each other. Hundreds of runaway slaves passed through on their way to Canada, and dozens more put down roots there. It was no secret. Six miles north of town, a sign pointed the way there not with an arrow but with “a full-length picture of a colored man, running with all his might to reach the place.”

Jennings did not have to run to Oberlin. He steamed seventy miles up the Ohio River to Cincinnati and then took the newly built railroad two hundred miles northeast. It let him off in Wellington, ten miles south of his destination. Sitting in the men’s car, watching the muddy expanses of harvested cornfields go by, he had reason to be nervous about his incursion into enemy land. Still, Jennings had the law solidly on his side. In 1850, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slaveowners and their authorized agents to “pursue and reclaim” escapees on free soil. A pursuer could swear out an arrest warrant that a United States marshal was obliged to enforce. The act also permitted slaveowners to kidnap people and force them into federal court. After a short hearing, a commissioner would determine the status of the person in custody. Commissioners were paid ten dollars upon ruling that a person was a slave, but only five dollars if they determined that he or she was free. Anyone interfering with the recapture of a fugitive faced prison and thousands of dollars in fines. Six years later the Supreme Court went one step further than Congress. In the Dred Scott decision, the Court ruled that, slave or free, members of the “unhappy black race,” “separated from the white by indelible marks,” were not citizens of the United States. According to Chief Justice Roger Taney, although the words of the Declaration of Independence “would seem to embrace the whole human family, . . . the enslaved African race were not intended to be included.” Jennings knew he had every right to collect what was his.

Radical Shoemakers

All day long Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall worked with skin. The Oberlin shoemaker cut it with sharp blades, punched holes in it with awls, pinned it to lasts, and stitched it to soles. He shaped, molded, and manipulated it until it became something else. Every day skin surrendered easily to his hands. It was tanned and dyed, polished black and every shade of brown. In a town where just about everyone was preoccupied with the fine line between slavery and freedom, Wall’s expertise in matters of color and skin conferred upon him a certain authority. Asked once whether he “knew the colors by which people of color were classified,” the short, stocky man answered simply: “There were black, blacker, blackest.”

The day Jennings appeared, the Kentuckian was the talk of Oberlin. The consensus opinion was that he was a slave-catcher. But whom was he after? When would he strike? And what was the best way to resist? His presence was almost certainly topic number one in Wall’s shop on East College Street in the center of town. It was cooler than the blacksmith shop, quieter than the sawmill, and less rank than the livery stable—in other words, a congenial place to discuss politics. And, amid the workbenches littered with leather scraps, politics for Wall and his partner, David Watson, meant abolitionism. Watson, an Oberlin graduate, was an active member of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, and Wall had spent his life walking the line between liberty and bondage.

Freed by their [white] father and sent north, Wall and his brothers and sisters had been raised in comfort by their Quaker guardians in Harveysburg, Ohio, and treated as members of the town’s finest family. But they lived with the knowledge that their mothers remained in bondage. As they came of age, Wall’s older brother Napoleon used his inheritance to establish himself as a farmer on thirteen hundred acres nearby. A younger sister, Caroline, moved north to enroll at Oberlin.

Orindatus—known as O.S.B. or Datus—decided to learn a trade. With his pick of professions, he settled on shoemaking, a curious choice. By the 1840s shoemaking was not just a lowly line of work; it was a dying craft, rapidly becoming a mechanized industry centered in mill towns like Lynn and Haverhill, Massachusetts. As slaves, the Wall children likely wore cheap shoes mass-produced in New England factories. Yet the trade held a certain allure for Orindatus. It was neither loud nor exhausting nor dangerous and left plenty of time for thinking, reading, and talking. With surprising regularity through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shoemakers turned to radical ideas. The last surviving member of the Boston Tea Party was a shoemaker. A disproportionate number of the mob kicking down the Bastille’s doors had stitched their own boots. “Philosophic cobblers” formed the vanguard of English rioters in the 1830s and German revolutionaries in 1848. They wrote political poetry and proudly circulated books with titles such as Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers. For Orindatus, perhaps the most illustrious of them all was George Fox, revered in Harveysburg, who started life as a shoemaker’s apprentice and went on to found Quakerism

After the Fugitive Slave Act passed, Wall helped start a local abolitionist society. Across the North, slavery’s opponents were resolving to do whatever they could to keep runaways free. To their minds, the law of the land had been so corrupted that there was no reason to obey it. The Fugitive Slave Act was little more than “a hideous deformity in the garb of law,” the abolitionist orator John Mercer Langston told a convention of black Ohioans in 1851. His brother Charles, a schoolteacher in Columbus who would be the namesake of his grandson Langston Hughes, called on “every slave, from Maryland to Texas, to arise and assert their liberties, and cut their masters’ throats.

Most Noted Abolitionist Town in America

O.S.B. Wall would come to know both Langston brothers well. Up in Oberlin, his sister Caroline started receiving the attentions of a smitten John Mercer Langston, who had graduated from the college in 1849 and was studying to be Ohio’s first black lawyer. The couple had much in common, from their political ideals to their life stories. Like Caroline, Langston had moved to Ohio as a young child with no mother, freed by his planter father with a small inheritance. During winter vacation in 1851 Langston visited Caroline in Harveysburg and struck up a friendship with her older brother.

A little more than a year later O.S.B. Wall moved to Oberlin. Perhaps he decided to pack his bags after hearing Langston describe Oberlin as “the most noted Abolition town in America,” but he may have had other reasons entirely. In October 1854, Caroline and John were married. The very next day, Orindatus wed one of Caroline’s classmates, seventeen-year-old Amanda Thomas.

Amanda walked many of the lines that her husband did—between slavery and freedom, black and white. Born in Virginia in 1837 and “quite light” in appearance, she grew up in Cincinnati well within memory of the time city officials, aided by murderous mobs, expelled more than a thousand black residents. Throughout her childhood, whites in southern Ohio were up in arms over the influx of blacks from slave states. Amanda’s experience at Oberlin only reinforced that struggle was part of everyday life. The college’s disciplinary board targeted black students disproportionately. The students had tense run-ins with white locals and classmates. Oberlin’s women of color learned not to back down. When a white student in 1851 shouted “vile epithets” at Caroline Wall when there was not enough room on the sidewalk for the two of them, Wall responded by reading a pointed account of the incident in front of the entire class. Caroline’s friend Amanda would be O.S.B. Wall’s partner in the fight for freedom and equality.

First Black Elected Official

During the 1850s, Wall established himself in the shoe business. He was one of many professionals and tradesmen in a thriving black community, which in a generation had grown to about one fifth of the town’s two thousand residents. Oberlin did not just give Wall the opportunity to do business on equal terms with whites—it offered blacks the unheard-of possibility of real political power. In 1857, the town voted John Mercer Langston to be its clerk—a post in which he had recently served for neighboring Brownhelm Township—and appointed him manager of the public schools. He was the first black elected official in the United States.

Having acquired property in town, Wall gave one house to his sister and Langston in exchange for their rambling farm, which was half an hour’s ride northwest of Oberlin. With the farm in his name, Wall was no longer just a tradesman. He had become a planter, with cornfields, pastures for sheep and cattle, and graceful orchards leading in neat rows to ancient woods of chestnut and hickory. Like his father, Wall had other people cultivate his land. Though born a slave, he was now the master of a white tenant and laborers. By 1858, O.S.B. and Amanda Wall had two boys and a girl, all light enough to burn in the sun. They named their second son Stephen, for his grandfather, the plantation owner, who had given so much to and taken away so much from O.S.B. Wall.

Even as the Wall family prospered in Oberlin, however, their lives were never completely secure. Reports trickled in of court-sanctioned kidnappings in southern and central Ohio. The town reeled with word from Cincinnati of Margaret Garner, who cut her daughter’s throat rather than surrender her to slave-catchers. In 1854, Anthony Burns brought his own chilling story to Oberlin, where he was enrolling as a student. That spring he had run away from his master in Virginia, only to be captured in Boston and marched by a military guard past a crowd of tens of thousands to a boat that took him back south. He survived to tell his tale because horrified Bostonians raised $1,300 to redeem him. It was only a matter of time before the slave-catchers reached Oberlin.

They first started arriving in August 1858. In the summer heat Oberliners were besieged from within and without. Upon John Mercer Langston’s election as town clerk the year before, the man he defeated switched parties from Republican to Democrat and was appointed deputy U.S. marshal by the proslavery federal administration. Carrying an open grudge against Oberlin’s black residents, the new marshal, Anson Dayton, said that he was willing to capture fugitive slaves. He started responding to advertisements and reward notices, sending south descriptions of local blacks and offering to arrest them for money.

In mid-August Dayton tried to seize an entire family, only to be driven away when the father, waving a shotgun, called for help. The next week Dayton and three men dragged a mother and her children from their home in the middle of the night. She wailed so loudly that her neighbors woke up and mobbed the kidnappers; for decades townsfolk would remember her cries. Days later Dayton tried again, timing his move to coincide with the college’s commencement exercises. With fire-bells ringing, students rushed out of a graduation speech and thwarted the assault. Soon afterward a local stonecutter named James Smith received a warning that Dayton had offered to kidnap him for someone in North Carolina. Smith met Dayton in the street and thrashed him with a hickory stick. Oberlin’s abolitionists decided to spirit Smith out of the area before Dayton could strike back. Flush with victory but wary of a continuing threat, local abolitionists composed nervous lyrics: “Who, bearing his revolvers twain, / Fled from a boy but with a cane, / And bawled for help with might and main? / Our Marshal.” A week later, in early September, Anderson Jennings came to town.

Conducting "Southern Business"

Before reaching Oberlin, Jennings had been told that Wack’s Tavern was a hospitable place for a Southern gentleman to conduct Southern business. Although Chauncey Wack had come from Vermont, his politics were deep Dixie. Each Election Day he would haunt Oberlin’s polling places, challenging black voters. He could be counted on to connect Jennings with people willing to help him.

Jennings arranged to meet Anson Dayton and told him about his slave Henry. The marshal shook his head. No one in Oberlin answered to that description, but he had ideas about where they could look and a network of local informants to help them. Even though Jennings’s slave was not in the area, Dayton took the time to describe all of the town’s paupers from the time he was a clerk, just in case Jennings recognized anyone. At the mention of one John Price—age about twenty, dark black, five feet eight inches tall, heavyset—Jennings and Dayton found themselves in business.

Jennings thought Price sounded like his neighbor John Bacon’s slave. On a January day two years earlier, Bacon had left his two slaves alone while visiting with his in-laws. The Ohio River was frozen over, and the slaves had simply walked across the ice, like Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There had been no trace of either one since. Until now.

On Dayton’s instruction, Jennings wrote Bacon that night, asking for power of attorney to arrest the fugitive. Wack mailed it the next morning. In the meantime there was still the matter of Jennings’s slave Henry. On a tip from one of the marshal’s informants, Jennings and Dayton caught a train to Painesville, on the other side of Cleveland, where a person answering to Henry’s description had newly turned up. But almost immediately after they started asking townspeople about Henry, fifty armed abolitionists confronted them. “They gave us twenty minutes to leave,” the Kentuckian complained, “and then wouldn’t allow us that!” It was what abolitionist strongholds such as Painesville had been preparing for since the Fugitive Slave Act’s passage eight years earlier. For Jennings and Dayton, the thrill of hot pursuit was doused by sickening fear. When word of the incident got back to Oberlin, the town’s abolitionists found themselves with another verse to sing: “Who fled from Painesville on the car, / Because he had no taste for war, / Or more especially for tar? / Our Marshal.”

The Kentuckian packed up and left Oberlin as soon as he could. It was Saturday, September 4, 1858. Home again, empty-handed, Jennings may have thought that his career hunting slaves was over before it had even begun. But a visit from John Bacon sent him right back north. Bacon told Jennings that Richard Mitchell, a local slave-catcher who had made multiple incursions into Ohio, had just left for Oberlin with the legal papers authorizing Jennings to capture John Price. Mitchell and Jennings had probably passed each other in steamboats on the Ohio River.

Jennings and Bacon conferred and reached an agreement. If Jennings returned to Oberlin and captured Price, Bacon promised him five hundred dollars or “one half of what the nigger would sell for.” It was a generous offer to a man who insisted that he had only notified Bacon about Price “out of pure neighborly regard.” “Never made no bargain with him about pay no-ways,” Jennings would later insist.

Bacon was a wealthy man—worth at least twice as much as Jennings—but he had never invested his money in slaves. The two he owned were part of an inheritance from his father, and after they ran off, he never bought any others. Perhaps that had to do with the humiliating circumstances under which he lost his slaves—the naïveté, arrogance, or sheer stupidity of leaving them alone. Even worse, the escapes could never be just his own sorry business—because of his neglect, the whole community had reason for alarm. When one slave ran away, others were bound to get ideas and follow. It was as if Bacon had introduced a contagion into his neighbors’ homes. Just a few years earlier a distinguished New Orleans physician announced his discovery of drapetomania, “the disease causing Negroes to run away.” According to Dr. Samuel Cartwright, such cases required one of two treatments: humane living conditions for slaves, or the unrelenting use of the whip.

But a third cure existed for Southerners like Bacon. Nothing would stop the spread of the running-away disease like capturing the fugitives. That was surely worth five hundred dollars, more than twenty times
the average reward for a slave. Bacon wanted John Price back in Kentucky. “He is still my property,” he said. “Never parted with my interest in him. He is still mine, bone and flesh.”

Imminent Crisis

In the days after Jennings left Oberlin, the town slowly returned to its familiar rhythms. Fall classes were starting at the college, and tradesmen like O.S.B. Wall were catching up on their work. Still, reminders of the evils of slavery were everywhere. Newspapers were reporting that a naval brig, the Dolphin, had captured an illegal slave ship bound for Cuba, a mere three hours from port. On East College Street in Oberlin, stories about the Dolphin would have been of immediate interest. Generations of shoemakers’ apprentices spent their days reading the newspaper aloud while the shoemakers cut, sewed, and lasted. O.S.B. Wall’s apprentice, Charles Jones, had himself been born in Africa and most likely been brought illegally to the United States, some forty years after the 1808 ban of the Atlantic slave trade.

When Jennings appeared in Oberlin once again, this time accompanied by a second Southerner, abolitionists like O.S.B. Wall knew that they were facing an imminent crisis. In his dustcoat and top hat, Wall did not have to go far to find people to talk to about the slave-catchers. A block down East College Street at the corner with Main was the town’s respectable hotel, the Palmer House, and just next to it was a whitewashed wood-frame building where his brother-in-law kept his law office. Just a short way back past the shoe shop, Langston and Wall’s sister Caroline lived in the house O.S.B. Wall had traded them, a two-story saltbox with a low veranda across the front, one of Oberlin’s finest.

Although Langston was often away on business in early September 1858, Caroline was not alone with their three children, Arthur, Ralph, and baby Chinque, named for the hero of the Amistad slave revolt. Langston’s brother Charles was visiting from Columbus, where for years the black community had been feeling constant pressure from slave-catchers. Down in Columbus, rumors circulated that Southern sympathizers were writing up descriptions of the blacks they passed on the streets and swearing fugitive slave warrants out on them, even if they had always been free. Charles Langston was a forty-year-old schoolteacher, slightly built with a meticulous part in his hair that emphasized his fragile features, but was capable of breathing fire over the threats to liberty. “I have long since adopted as my God, the freedom of the colored people of the United States, and my religion, to do any thing that will effect that object,” he declared, “however much it may differ from the precepts taught in the Bible.”

Oberlin’s blacks braced themselves for the worst. Wall had been raised by Quakers, but the idea that he, his wife, and their children could be kidnapped and taken south—and that the government and courts had every incentive to abet such a crime—was enough to drive him to contemplate violence. Oberlin’s blacks started keeping shotguns, rifles, revolvers, and knives at home and at work, in their pockets, over their doors, and by their beds. A local blacksmith kept his firearms within reach, as well as his hammer and a sharpened poker kept searing hot in the forge. “If any one of those men darkens my door, he is a dead man,” he said, a sentiment that was widely shared. “Kill a man? No. But kill a man-stealer. Yes! Quicker’n a dog.”

The sun dawned slowly on the northern edge of Oberlin. Amid the shadows, a young man stood outside a lonely shack stuck between the town and the country, a temporary home for a local charity case. Hungry, coughing, John Price wrapped himself in a blanket but still shivered in the autumn chill. He walked with a limp. A distant sound reached through daybreak’s stillness—a horse pulling a cart. As it drew closer, Price recognized the boy at the reins. It was Shakespeare Boynton. In better days Price had worked on the Boynton family farm about three miles outside Oberlin.

The thirteen-year-old asked Price if he wanted to work that morning digging potatoes. At the very least, Shakespeare said, John would get a “good ride” out of it. The man heaved himself into the cart, and together they rode along the dirt roads northeast of Oberlin. Shakespeare drove slowly. Price took a jackknife from his pocket and started picking his teeth.

A mile or so out of town, a small black carriage appeared in the distance, kicking up a high column of dust. By the time Price noticed it minutes later, it was only a few rods away. A man jumped into the cart while it was moving and put his arm around Price. A second man screamed at him to give over his jackknife. He held on to it for an instant but dropped it in the dust when he saw the man reaching for a revolver.

“Bring him along!” cried a third man, holding the reins of the carriage.

“I’ll go with you” was all Price could say. In an instant he was in the back of the carriage. One of the men who grabbed him sat to the side, hand in coat pocket. The carriage hurtled forward, while Shakespeare turned his cart around and headed back into Oberlin.

If John had hoped the boy would sound the alarm, he was disappointed. Shakespeare headed straight to Wack’s Tavern, where Jennings was waiting. On word that his men had John in their hands, Jennings took out his roll of bills and peeled off a twenty. “Good money,” the boy later said.

Postscript: When word spread in Oberlin, a band of citizens that included O.S.B. Wall and Charles Langston set off to
rescue John Price, who was successfully spirited back to town and on to Canada. For their actions, Langston and Simeon Bushnell, a white printer’s clerk, were charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act and tried in federal court. John Anthony Copeland Jr. and Lewis Sheridan Leary, two African-American Oberlin Rescuers, went on to participate in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

From The Invisible Line by Daniel J. Sharfstein. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Daniel J. Sharfstein, 2011.

Daniel J. Sharfstein, associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School, is the author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.

Sharfstein received $40,000 in NEH support to work on his book, which was published earlier this year by the Penguin Press. (For more information on this and other NEH-funded projects relating to race and law, please click here.)