Tag Archives: slavery

Fugitive Slaves in Indiana: A Study in Newspapers

Despite its status as a free state in the federal union, Indiana maintained a complicated relationship with the institution of slavery. The Northwest Territory, incorporated in 1787, banned slavery under Article VI of the Articles of Compact. Nevertheless, enslaved people were allowed in the region well after lawmakers organized the Indiana Territory in 1800. As historians John D. Barnhart and Dorothy L. Riker noted, there were an estimated 15 people enslaved in and around Vincennes in 1800. This number only represented a fraction of the 135 slaves enumerated in the 1800 census. When Indiana joined the Union as a free state in 1816, pockets of slave-holding citizens remained well into the 1830s.

Underground Railroad Routes through Indiana and Michigan in 1848, from Wilbur Siebert’s book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. Internet Archive.

Fugitive slave laws, a core policy that before the Civil War, perpetuated the “dreaded institution.” The U.S. Congress passed its first fugitive slave law in 1793, which allowed for slave-owning persons to retrieve their human property in any state and territory in the union, even on free soil. Indiana, both as a territory and a state, passed legislation that ensured compliance with federal law. The controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 exacerbated the problem, with many arrests, enslavements, and re-enslavements of African Americans in Indiana. Scholars estimate that 1,000-5,000 freedom seekers escaped bondage annually from 1830-1860, or roughly 135,000 before the Civil War.

Indiana’s revised Constitution from 1851. IARA.

Making matters more complicated, Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851 that included Article XIII, which prohibited new settlement of African Americans into the state. Article XIII also encouraged colonization of African Americans already living in the state. The Indiana General Assembly even passed legislation creating a fund for the implementation of colonization in 1852. It stayed on the books until 1865. This, along with a litany of “black codes,” limited the civil rights of free African Americans and harsher penalties for African Americans seeking freedom. As historian Emma Lou Thornbrough observed, Indiana’s policies exhibited an “intense racial prejudice” and a fear of free, African American labor. One window into understanding complex history of fugitive slaves is by analyzing newspapers. Ads for runaways, fugitive slave narratives, and court case proceedings permeate Indiana’s historic newspapers. This blog will unearth some of the stories in Indiana newspapers that document the long and uneasy history of African American freedom seekers in the Hoosier state.

Indiana Gazette, September 18, 1804. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Runaway advertisements predominantly chronicled fugitive slavery in Indiana newspapers during the antebellum period. These ads would provide the slave’s name, age, a physical description, their last known whereabouts, and a reward from their owner. One of the earliest ads comes from the September 18, 1804 issue of the Indiana Gazette, while Indiana was still a territory. It described two slaves, Sam and Rebeccah, who had run away from their owner in New Bourbon, Louisiana. Sam was in his late twenties and apparently had burns on his feet. Rebeccah was a decade younger than Sam and “was born black, but has since turned white, except a few black spots.” This might have been a case of vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. In any event, their owner offered a fifty dollar reward for “any person who will apprehend and bring back said negroes, or lodge them in any jail so that the owner may get them.”

Western Sun, December 9, 1807. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On December 9, 1807, the Western Sun ran a similar ad with a small, etched illustration of a runaway slave. Slaveholder John Taylor offered thirty dollars for the capture and return of three slaves (two men and one woman) who had taken two horses and some extra clothes. “Whoever secures the above negroes,” Taylor said, “shall have the above reward, and all reasonable charges if taken within the state; or ninety dollars, if out of the state . . . .”

Western Sun & General Advertiser, June 27, 1818. Hoosier State Chronicles.

These ads escalated after Indiana’s statehood in 1816, leading to expansions of the role of local officials. As Emma Lou Thornbrough noted, African Americans “were sometimes arrested and jailed on the suspicion that they were fugitives enough though no one had advertised them.” For example, the Western Sun & General Advertiser published a runaway ad on June 27, 1818 asking for the return of Archibald Murphey, a fugitive from Tennessee who had been captured in Posey County. Sheriff James Robb, and not Murphey’s supposed owner, took it upon himself to run an ad for the runaway’s return. “The owner is requested to come forward [,] pay charges, and take him away,” the ad demanded.

Western Sun & General Advertiser, October 26, 1822. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Owners understood the precarious nature of retrieving their slaves, so some resorted to long ad campaigns in multiple newspapers. A slave named Brister fled Barren County, Kentucky in 1822, likely carrying free papers and traveling north to Ohio. His owner offered a $100 reward for his return for at least three months in the Western Sun & General Advertiser. He had also advertised in the Cincinnati Inquisitor, Vincennes Inquirer, Brookville Enquirer, Vandalia Intelligencer, and Edwardsville Spectator.

Leavenworth Arena, July 9, 1840. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Other ads provided physical descriptions that indicated the toll of slavery on a human being. Two runaways, named Ben and Reuben, suffered from multiple ailments. Ben had his ears clipped “for robbing a boat on the Ohio river” while Reuben lived with a missing finger and a strained hip. Lewis, a fugitive from Limestone County, Alabama, had a “cut across one of his hands” that caused “one finger to be a little stiff.” They could also be rather graphic. The Leavenworth Arena posted an ad in its July 9, 1840 issue requesting the return of a slave named Smallwood, who scarred his ankles from a mishap with a riding horse; reportedly a “trace chain” wrapped around his legs, “tearing off the flesh.” The pain these men, among many others, endured from the years of their bondage was sadly treated as mere details in these advertisements.

Western Sun & General Advertiser. November 21, 1818. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While ads represented a substantial portion of newspaper coverage, articles and court proceedings also provided detail about the calamitous lives of fugitive slaves. First, court cases provide essential insight into the legal procedures regarding fugitive slaves before the Civil War. The Western Sun & General Advertiser published the court proceedings of one such case in its November 21, 1818 issue. John L. Chastian, a Kentucky slaveholder, claimed a woman named Susan as his slave and issued a warrant for her return. Corydon judge Benjamin Parke ruled in favor of Chastian on the grounds that Susan had not sufficiently demonstrated her claim to freedom and the motion for a continuance on this question was overruled. Even if Susan had been a free person, the legal system provided substantial benefits to the slaveholders, and since she could not demonstrate her freedom, she was therefore obligated to the claimant.

Richmond Palladium, September 30, 1843. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As for abolitionists, they faced court challenges as well. In 1843, Quaker Jonathan Swain stood before a grand jury in Union Circuit Court, “to testify in regard to harboring fugitive slaves, and assisting in their flight to Canada.” When asked to testify, Swain refused on grounds of conscience. The judge in the case granted him two days to reconsider his choice. When Swain returned, “he duly presented himself before the Judge, Bible under his arm, and declared his readiness to abide the decision and sentence of the Court.” The judge cited Swain in contempt and jailed him, “there to remain until he would affirm, or should be otherwise discharged.” This episode was one of many that demonstrated the intense religious and moral convictions of Quakers and their resistance to slavery.

Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal, October 7, 1847. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By contrast, many of those who sought slaves faced little challenge. The Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal reported that Thomas Hardy and John Smith, on trial in the Circuit Court of Gibson County for kidnapping, were acquitted of all charges. The judge’s ruling hinged only on a fugitive slave notice. This notice provided “sufficient authority for any person to arrest such fugitive and take him to his master.” As with the case involving Susan, the alleged slaves procured in this case received less legal protection than the two vigilantes that captured them. These trends continued well into the 1850s through the end of the Civil War.

Evansville Daily Journal, January 18, 1859. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Second, numerous articles and narratives concerning fugitive slaves and free persons claimed as fugitives were published during the antebellum period. The passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, of which Indiana kept its obligation to enforce, exacerbated coverage. Some articles were merely short notices, explaining that a certain number of alleged fugitive slaves were passing through a town or getting to a particular destination. The Evansville Daily Journal ran a brief description in 1859 about two men “who had the appearance of escaped slaves, came upon the Evansville road, last night, and passed on to Indianapolis.” It was also reported that they “had a white adviser with them on the cars,” supposedly a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. In another piece, the Journal wrote uncharitably about a “stampede of slaves” that:

. . . left their master’s roofs, escaped to the Licking river where they lashed together several canoes, and in disguise they rowed down the Licking river to the Ohio and crossed, where they disembarked and made a circuitous route to the northern part of Cincinnati.

After their travel to Cincinnati, the twenty-three fugitives began their route to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Evansville Daily Journal, June 19, 1854. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Articles covering the arrest of fugitive slaves also filled the headlines. As an example, the New Albany Daily Ledger ran a piece in 1853 about two fugitive slaves captured in the basement of local Theological Seminary. Jerry Warner, a local, arrested them both and received $250 in compensation for their capture. The Evansville Daily Journal reported of the arrest of three fugitive slaves in Vincennes who were on their way to freedom in Canada. Two men, one from Evansville and another from Henderson, Kentucky, pursued and captured the fugitives nearly eight miles outside of the city. The fugitives defended themselves against capture, with one of them brandishing a pistol who “snapped it twice at the officer, but it missed fire.” The officers then transferred the fugitives to Evansville, who were supposedly returned to Henderson.

Evansville Daily Journal, June 2, 1854. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Conductors of the Underground Railroad also faced arrest for the aid of fugitive slaves. Another article from the Evansville Journal chronicled the arrest of a man known simply as “Brown” who aided four female slaves to an Underground Railroad stop at Petersburgh, Indiana. A US Marshal and a local Sheriff “charge[d] on the ‘worthy conductor,’ and he surrendered.” The officers returned Brown to the Henderson jail for processing. It was later discovered that he received $200 from a free African American for his last job. The Journal described Brown as a “notorious abolitionist, and if guilty of the thieving philanthropy with which he is charged, deserved punishment.” Indiana’s free state status did not lessen the prejudice against African Americans and abolitionists; it only obscured it.

Evansville Daily Journal. April 13, 1858. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the more elaborate, yet challenging methods fugitive slaves used to seek freedom involved shipping boxes. The Evansville Daily Journal reported of a fugitive slave captured aboard the steamer Portsmouth, a shipping vessel traveling from Nashville to Cincinnati. He was in the box, “doubled up like a jack-knife,” for five days before authorities discovered him and took the appropriate actions. The ship docked at Covington, Kentucky and they “placed the negro in jail to await the requisition of his owner.” It was learned later that the fugitive slave had an agreement with a widow to move to Ohio on condition that he work for her for a year. “He had fulfilled his part of the contract,” the Journal wrote, “and she was performing her stipulations, and would have enabled him to escape had it not been for the unlucky accident.” This story was also covered in the Terre Haute Daily Union and similar stories ran in later issues of the Journal, the Nashville Daily Patriot, and the Richmond Palladium.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, August 16, 1855. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Sadly, the ultimate risk for a fugitive slave was death, and Indiana newspapers chronicled these events as well. The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal published an article on August 16, 1855 detailing the death of a fugitive slave by drowning. It appeared to the authorities that the fugitive, resting near Sugar Creek in Crawfordsville, was discovered by a group of men and questioned about his status. Under pressure, the fugitive leaped into the water and tried to flee, which spurred one man to shoot off his gun in an attempt to stop him. As the Journal wrote, “this alarmed the negro, and he plunged beneath the waters, and continued to rise and then dive, until exhausted, and he sank to rise no more until life was extinct.” His body was discovered a few days later. While some deemed his death a mere drowning, others thought it more “suspicious.” The Journal continued:

Putting the most favorable construction on the circumstances, there was a reckless trifling with human life which nothing can justify. He was doubtless a fugitive, but they knew it not, and had no right to arrest him or threaten his life. They knew of no crime of which he had been guilty, and only suspected him of an earnest longing after that freedom for which the human heart ever pants; and because he acted upon this feeling, so natural and so strong, they threaten to tie and imprison, and when struggling with overwhelming waters, he is threatened with being shot if he does not return ; and then when strength and life were fast failing, stretched not forth a helping hand to save him from immediate death.

If the facts as stated be true, (of which we have no doubt,) there is high criminality, of which the laws of our country should take cognizance; and when the news of the negroe’s [sic] death shall have reached his owner, he will doubtless prosecute those men; it may be for murder in the second degree, or at least for the value of the slave.

The Journal eloquently elucidated why the application of fugitive slave laws, especially by vigilante citizens, harmed the civil rights and lives of both free people and those still in servitude (of which there were a mere few).

Terre Haute Journal, September 2, 1853. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Free African Americans additionally faced threats to their lives and livelihood from the enforcement of fugitive slave laws. A well-known instance in Indiana regarded the arrest and release of John Freeman. Arrested and jailed on June 21, 1853, Freeman faced a charge from Pleasant Ellington of Missouri that he was one of his slaves. Freeman hired a legal team and after a lengthy trial that testified to his status as a free-born African American, he was released on August 27, 1853. It turned out that Ellington misidentified Freeman as a slave named Sam, who fled from servitude in Greenup County, Kentucky and likely escaped to Canada. Due to the diminution of his character, Freeman sued Ellington in civil court for 10,000; it was later ruled in favor of Freeman and he received $2,000 and additional unnamed damages. What Freeman experienced is but a snapshot into how fugitive slave laws harmed the rights of free people as well as slaves.

Indiana State Guard, June 8, 1861. Hoosier State Chronicles.

After the Civil War began, fugitive slaves continued to elicit concern, and coverage, in Indiana newspapers. In the spring of 1861, the Sentinel reprinted a piece from the Jeffersonville Democrat about the rise of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio River region: “the number of fugitive slaves caught on the Indiana side of the river, and returned to Kentucky within the past three months, is greater than that of any like period during the past ten years.” Kentucky’s government still offered a reward of $150 for each returned slave. That summer, the Indiana State Guard published President Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the issue. Lincoln, in a manner characteristic of his own political calculus, declared that Union soldiers were not “obliged to leave their legitimate military business to pursue and return fugitive slaves” but also cautioned that “the army is under no obligation to protect them, and will not encourage nor interfere with them in their flight.” The new President offered a nuanced position that possibly placated the Border States while satisfying the abolitionist wing of his own party. Realistically, it was a long way away from the Emancipation Proclamation.

Greencastle Banner, December 23, 1865. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The end of the Civil War brought the end of slavery as a federally-protected policy, and thus eliminated the need for fugitive slave laws. Their end brought a larger fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Yet, the history of fugitive slaves often fell into tales of folklore and hyperbole. Looking at a primary source like newspapers helps to dispel many of the myths and provides nuance to the controversial subject of human enslavement in the United States. These stories represent a small fraction of the larger narrative about American slavery. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress’ page about fugitive slave ads in historical newspapers: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/fugitiveAds.html. You can also search Hoosier State Chronicles for more fugitive slave ads and articles.

Other Resources

Indiana Historical Bureau: Slavery in Indiana Territory

Indiana Historical Bureau: Indiana and Fugitive Slave Laws

Indiana Historical Bureau: The Underground Railroad

A Railroad “Chartered in Heaven”

Resurrection of Henry Box Brown

The “religion vs. science” debate has been a hot media sensation since 9/11.  Syria’s refugee crisis is causing further argument over why some believers haven’t helped people obviously in need, though many have.  But venomous debates over religion and refugees aren’t new to American history.

Black History Month reminds us that religious voices have played a profound role in American struggles for justice — with many of the most religious Americans being treated as criminals for their pains on behalf of others.  Some historians have even remarked that the Civil Rights movement was “primarily a religious and spiritual movement.”  The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, and many others drew powerfully on their interpretation of faith.  In fact, you could even argue that the African and African American encounter with Christianity — and vice-versa — eventually unlocked religion for many Europeans and Americans who were only nominally Christian to begin with.

Whatever the truth there may be, radical Christianity rang out loud and clear during one of America’s (and Canada’s) first refugee crises — the exodus of fugitive slaves seeking asylum under “the North Star.”  That exodus took thousands of refugees across the rural Midwest.

Abolitionist history is certainly full of iconic Christian imagery. When a slave from Virginia, Henry Brown, experienced a “heavenly vision” and decided to mail himself out of bondage in 1843, he had himself concealed inside a 3-foot by 2-foot dry goods box or “pine coffin.”  Lined with wool and containing only a few biscuits and some water, the box and its occupant were carried north, delivered after a week on the road to the office of Passmore Williamson, a Quaker merchant active with the radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.  Like a well-known Byzantine icon of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” — which shows Jesus rising from the dead and an equally tiny box — Henry “Box” Brown climbed out in front of a group of Philadelphia abolitionists and asked “How do you do, gentlemen?”  A fabulous engraving of the event was given the name “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown.”


Passmore Williamson, 1855

(Passmore Williamson, a Pennsylvania Quaker, at Moyamensing Prison in 1855, where he was jailed for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons escape from slavery. Williamson was also an early advocate of voting rights for women.)


Several major “routes” of the Underground Railroad passed through Indiana, leading to farmhouses and barns in the Wabash Valley, the fields around Quaker-dominated Richmond and Fountain City, and the swamps and prairies north of Indianapolis.  Yet Hoosiers — like other Americans — were deeply torn over whether to obey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law that made it illegal for any citizen to assist a runaway slave and exacted harsh penalties for helping refugees.  The federal law was absolutely designed to protect humans defined as “property” and even as “livestock.”

Many Christians, of course, were slaveholders themselves, though their views often depended on whether they lived in the North or South. Northern and Southern Baptists, for example, had sharp differences of opinion on slavery.  Though Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote against human bondage in 1778, Southern Methodists often owned slaves.   Ministers who didn’t take their congregation’s — or government’s — line on slavery were sometimes kicked out of the pulpit or physically attacked.  At least a dozen chapels built by anti-slavery Baptists and Methodists in Jamaica were burned down by white settlers.

The religious situation was never simple.  The Jesuits, whose famous South American missions were admired by Enlightenment philosophers as an experiment in earthly utopia, had long owned slaves. Just two years before Pope Gregory XVI spoke out against the slave trade in 1839, Jesuit priests in Maryland were putting slaves to work on plantations to support Georgetown University, a Catholic school built by slave labor and where students brought their slaves to class.  (In 1838, the Jesuits sold thirty of them to the ex-governor of Louisiana, whose son was a student of theirs.)  One Maryland priest used the Bible to defend slave ownership.  Yet the Jesuits were no more guilty than the religious freethinker Thomas Jefferson, who along with forty other signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while announcing “All men are created equal.”  Jefferson used a blade to create a famous Bible of his own, cutting out the miracles and superstition to focus on Jesus’ ethics and morals.  Jefferson, however, went to his grave a slave-owner, having thought about it for fifty years.


Jefferson Bible

(The cutting-room floor of Jefferson’s Bible.  Though he included Luke 12:48 — “To whomever much is given, of him much shall be required” — the master of Monticello must have been uncomfortable with the next passage, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you suppose that I am come to send peace on earth? Nay, but a sword.” Jefferson sliced it out.  As the English critic of slavery, Dr. Samuel Johnson, put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negros?” Contemporary science was no help to Africans.  Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, the most famous American scientist of his time, commissioned the best-known daguerreotypes of African slaves to provide evidence for the old theory of “polygeny,” or “separate creation” of the human races.  Originally a heretical religious theory, the scientific version was given credence by the atheists Voltaire and David Hume.  Voltaire believed that whites and blacks were different species.)


Not all American Christians appreciated the politicizing of the pulpit.  Under the pen name “Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.,” humorist Mortimer Thomson satirized their reaction to “politico religious hash” — i.e., hyper-political sermons.  “Doesticks,” who grew up in the Midwest, wrote for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune and even did a famous undercover report on a huge slave sale in Savannah, Georgia, where he posed as a potential buyer to get the full scoop.  Thomson received death threats for his exposé of slave auctioneering.  As a satirist, he was much admired by Mark Twain.


Weekly Indiana State Sentinel, October 2, 1856

(Weekly Indiana State Sentinel, Indianapolis, October 2, 1856.)


Indiana was no stranger to this religious battle.  In 1855, the year Passmore Williamson went to prison in Pennsylvania, the Reverend Thomas B. McCormick got into hot water with congregations and the law in Princeton and Mechanicsville, Indiana, two small towns between Evansville and Vincennes.  Gibson’s flock were Cumberland Presbyterians, a branch mostly centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Princeton lay on a main line of the Underground Railroad running up the Wabash Valley.  Unlike most “agents” and “stationmasters” on the Railroad, Rev. McCormick made no secret of his hatred for the Fugitive Slave Act.  He actively aided runaways from Kentucky and preached on the topic of slavery and its sinfulness.  A native Kentuckian himself, McCormick had been a minister in southern Indiana for fourteen years when he ran afoul of the law.


Let the North Awake


At a session of the Indiana Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who met at Washington in Daviess County in 1855, church elders passed a resolution (17-3) stating “That it is not expedient to discuss the subject of American Slavery from the pulpit.”  McCormick had just preached an anti-slavery sermon.  He ignored the elders.


Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855(Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855.)


McCormick then put forward a resolution of his own, which was rejected by the presbyters:


Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855 (2)Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855 (3)

(Indiana American, Brookville, November 16, 1855.)


When the Cumberland Presbyterians tried to silence Thomas McCormick from preaching, the reverend left and joined the Congregationalists — a denominational cousin of the Presbyterians but who were more united in their condemnation of slavery. McCormick’s activity piloting fugitives north toward Michigan and Canada, however, soon got him indicted by a Kentucky grand jury.

Under the 1850 federal law, Kentucky Governor Lazarus Powell was authorized to request the governor of neighboring Indiana — a technically “free” state, though many Hoosiers were pro-slavery — to extradite any Hoosier caught helping refugees evade slave catchers, who often traipsed onto Indiana soil.  Governor Joseph Wright (namesake of Wright Quadrangle at Indiana University) complied with the noxious law.  Like those he helped, Rev. McCormick himself had to flee to either Ohio or Canada, as “a large sum of money was offered for his body.”  McCormick ran for the governorship of Ohio in 1857 on “the Abolition ticket” and wasn’t able to return to Indiana until 1862, when Governor Oliver P. Morton assured him he would be safe here.  He died in Gibson County in 1892.

Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist and Methodist minister who ferried slaves over the Ohio, was less fortunate than McCormick.  For over a decade, Fairbank helped at least forty runaways slip into the interior of Indiana, many of them making it to the farm of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City, just north of Richmond.  Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.

In 1851, with the complicity of Governor Wright and the Clark County sheriff in Jeffersonville, Fairbank was arrested on the way to church by Kentucky marshals, who extradited him across the river to Louisville.  (Some versions say he was “kidnapped.”)  Fairbank eventually spent thirteen years at the old Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, where guards mercilessly beat him and lashed him with whips, by some accounts a thousand times, by others 30,000 times.  With his body broken, he moved to western New York, where he died in poverty in 1898, an almost forgotten hero of American freedom.


Calvin Fairbank

(Calvin Fairbank.)


The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who lashed out at American hypocrisy, once proclaimed:  “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”  The Anti-Slavery Bugle, a newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio, quoted Douglass’ words on the fervently Baptist Newton Craig, cruel superintendent of the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Fairbank’s torturer.

According to an 1860 history of the prison, written by a friend of Captain Craig’s, the jailer’s ancestors had been imprisoned in colonial Virginia “for preaching the gospel” as dissenting Baptists, against the Anglican state church.  In spite of his fervent religion, Craig, as abolitionists said, nevertheless had “the most inveterate hatred” toward “negro-stealers.”  The jail-master earned a small fortune during his eleven years in charge, using convicts on nearby plantations, and is said to have “delivered long sermons to the inmates in his care.”  According to a story mentioned by Frederick Douglass, he broke an expensive cane on Calvin Fairbank’s head:


Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856

(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig.  Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)


Kentucky State Penitentiary

(Kentucky State Penitentiary.  The note reads: “This is some Bird Cage.  Looks like a church.”  Frederick Douglass once wrote of America:  “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other… [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”)


Not long after Fairbank’s arrival  behind bars, several other resisters joined him, including Delia Webster (a Vermont-born schoolteacher from Lexington and the only woman at the prison) and former slave Lewis Hayden.  A lesser-known inmate was the Irish immigrant Thomas Brown, who with his wife Mary McClanahan Brown had posed as a traveling merchant and “notions pedlar” downstream from Evansville, Indiana.  Operating on the Kentucky side of the river near Henderson, the Browns smuggled refugees under curtains in their wagon to the riverbank. Brown was arrested by marshals near the mouth of the Wabash and sentenced to a prison term in Frankfort, where he witnessed the murder of a free black man from Evansville by guards. Released in 1857, Brown wrote an exposé of the wardens, published in Indianapolis that year as Three Years in Kentucky Prisons.

By the end of the 1850s, anti-slavery voices had grown stronger than ever.  The religious undertones were clear:  from the fascinating dream-visions and out-of-body experiences of Harriet Tubman to the fiery Old Testament furor of John Brown.  While the actions of Christians like prison warden Newton Craig and many more made Frederick Douglass’ suspicion of the churches a fair criticism, the “voice in the wilderness” was now crying strong.


Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853 (2)

(Weekly Reveille, Vevay, Indiana, August 18, 1853.)


Hoosier State Chronicles provides access to many other fascinating news clips about the Underground Railroad, all of them available for free on our search engine.  Here’s a few of the best:

A reprint in the anti-Underground Railroad Daily State Sentinel (Indianapolis) about the impact of the refugee crisis on public opinion in Vermont, “A Change of Sentiment,” July 8, 1858.

An editorial from the Daily State Sentinel criticizing Indiana judges for protecting “the n—-r population,” October 12, 1857.

“Calvin Fairbank Dead,” Indianapolis News, October 14, 1898.

“A Kidnapper Caught,” [on Thomas Brown], Evansville Daily Journal, June 2, 1854.

“A Collision on the Underground Railroad,” Terre-Haute Journal, September 15, 1854.

An article against “The Abolition Editor of the [Indianapolis] Journal,” Daily State Sentinel, May 5, 1856.

An editorial against Illinois abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, brother of murdered abolitionist printer Elijah Lovejoy, Daily State Sentinel, August 9, 1856.

“Return Trips of the Underground Railroad,” about the miserable conditions refugees that found in Ontario, Daily State Sentinel, October 24, 1857.

A reprint from the Detroit Advertiser equating the Underground Railroad with theft, “Arrival of Twenty-Six Fugitive Slaves at Detroit,” Daily State Sentinel, November 8, 1859.

A statement from a Senate report arguing that the Underground Railroad would be cause for war with a foreign nation, Evansville Daily Journal, January 23, 1861.

A reprint from the New York Express, written during the Civil War, mocking abolitionists as part of a procession leading the American people toward “the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools,” Daily State Sentinel, October 17, 1862.


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