9 Weeks a Fugitive Slave: The 1853 Fugitive Slave Case of Mr. John Freeman

In Print and On the Map: Articles in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database and Corresponding State Historical Markers

Historical Marker 2–John Freeman, 1099 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, Indiana 46204

“By far the most exciting case under the fugitive slave law of 1850, in the state of Indiana, was that of John Freeman, which was begun on Tuesday, June 21,1853, in the court of Squire Sullivan, commissioner of the United States for Indiana, in the city of Indianapolis.”

–Charles H. Money, Historian

The Fugitive Slave Case of John Freeman, a free black man, was widely covered and heatedly criticized in Indiana newspapers at the time. For those who opposed slavery, the execution of cases similar to that of John Freeman demonstrated the failure of the fugitive slave law to protect free blacks as well as the evil of an institution that treated enslaved and runaway blacks like chattel.

The Fugitive Slave Law, which abolitionists labeled the “blood hound fugitive slave bill,” was a component of the Compromise of 1850 that was adopted as a concession to the slave states of the South who feared losing the persons their prosperity depended upon to northern states where the authority of state officials to assist reclaiming supposed runaway slaves was questioned and unreliable.

It legitimized a custom that was carried out since before the Revolutionary War, which was the practice of returning slaves and fugitives to the colony/state from which they ran away. According to the fugitive slave clause, “No person held to service or labor in one state under the laws thereof escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

The 1850 law also amended the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law through giving U.S. Commissioners the authority to determine fugitive slave cases and ultimately issue a certificate to have fugitive slaves removed out of the state they had fled to and returned to their owners. Commissioners were paid $10 for each person they returned to his/her owner ($5 if the removal of the fugitive slave was contested), and owners or claimants were only required to have an affidavit as proof that they had owned the person as a slave. Alleged fugitive slaves were not afforded a jury trial and those who tried to stop the removal could face criminal charges and jail time.

From June to August 1853, John Freeman was the center of the most notorious fugitive slave case in Indianapolis.

Originally from Georgia, Freeman moved to Indianapolis in 1844 and deposited about $600 in a local bank. He painstakingly worked as a painter and soon acquired approximately four acres of land in Lot 4 between Meridian and Pennsylvania Streets (today that location is the southeast corner of Capitol and Michigan Streets) and a restaurant on Washington Street. By 1853 the property that he owned was worth about $6,000. Freeman was also an active member of a colored Baptist church and at the time of his trial was married with three young children.

The life that he had made for himself through hard work and community service was interrupted when he was arrested by a Deputy Marshal on June 20, 1853. The federal officer had an affidavit sworn by a man named Pleasant Ellington, a slaveholder and self-professed Methodist minister from St. Louis, Missouri, who claimed to be Freeman’s old Master. According to Ellington, John Freeman was actually a fugitive slave named Sam who had run away from him seventeen years ago when he lived in Kentucky.

When Freeman’s friends learned of his arrest they persuaded Squire Sullivan, U.S. Commissioner for Indianapolis, Indiana, to allow him to have legal aid. The lawyers who formed Freeman’s defense were John L. Ketcham, Lucian Barbour, and John Coburn, all leading Indianapolis attorneys. Ellington retained the services of attorneys L. D. Walpole and J. A. Liston.

Ketcham, Barbour, and Coburn petitioned for the time to build their case and Commissioner Sullivan granted them a postponement period of nine weeks to do so. They also requested that their client be let out on bail during those nine weeks. The bail bond included a $1,600 note signed by prominent community leaders, such as Judge Blackford, and made payable to the State Bank of Indiana in sixty days, as well as a $4,000 bond also signed by leading citizens.

Freeman’s defense additionally offered to match any amount Ellington named to ensure Freeman’s appearance at the hearing after the nine-week postponement period. Commissioner Sullivan did not grant the request for Freeman’s bail though, agreeing instead with Ellington’s attorneys that the U.S. Commissioner did not have the authority to release Freeman on bail.

Consequently, Freeman was forced to pay $3 per day to a guard who was selected by John L. Robinson, U.S. Marshal and three-time representative of the third congressional district of Indiana, to make sure that Freeman did not attempt to break out of jail.

The case progressed for 68 days under the attentive scrutiny of the public and extensive newspaper coverage.

Under Freeman’s direction, Ketcham, Barbour, and Coburn located witnesses in Georgia who knew John Freeman, confirmed his status as a free man when he was a resident there from 1831 to 1844, and agreed to come to Indianapolis to testify on Freeman’s behalf. Moreover, Freeman’s counsel found Sam, or the fugitive slave who Ellington claimed Freeman was, living in Canada. By then Sam had changed his name to William McConnell. While it was too dangerous to have McConnell return to Indianapolis, witnesses who met him were prepared to testify at the trial that there was no physical resemblance between McConnell and Freeman.

Meanwhile Ellington found three witnesses to back his false claim that Freeman was the runaway slave Sam. They agreed with Ellington’s sworn statement after being allowed to examine Freeman’s naked body.

The carrying out of that examination by the Deputy Marshal was deterred once by Freeman’s legal counsel. Shortly afterwards, one of Ellington’s attorneys asked U.S. Marshal Robinson to conduct the examination, which took place regardless of protests by Freeman’s lawyers. During the “examination,” Robinson forced Freeman to strip naked in front of Ellington’s witnesses so that they could identify physical similarities between him and the man they professedly knew as Sam.

Robinson’s conduct was condemned in newspapers across the state. He was branded as “Ellington’s watch dog” among other names. Similar insults and criticisms directed at his role in Freeman’s examination dogged the “watch dog” for the duration of his career. An article in the Plymouth Banner newspaper published on March 30, 1854, even reported that there had been an attempt to burn an effigy of Robinson in Crawfordsville.

By the end of the nine-week postponement period, seven witnesses had arrived from Georgia to testify on behalf of John Freeman. They did not give their testimonies though on account of Ellington fleeing Indianapolis before the trial. In other words, Freeman’s trial was over before it even happened. Commissioner Sullivan dismissed Ellington’s claim and released Freeman from jail after nine weeks.

John Freeman Side 2
Historical marker courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

John Freeman Side 1

While a trial did not deprive Freeman of his freedom, preparation for one did cause him to lose his life savings. While his lawyers did not make any charges against him, Freeman was still financially responsible for paying to have witnesses transported from Georgia and Alabama to Indianapolis as well as for covering the jail guard’s fee of $204. In totality, Freeman owed $1,288 with interest.

In order to recoup his losses in proving his innocence in the face of a dishonest claim, Freeman brought civil suits against Pleasant Ellington for $10,000 and federal marshal John Robinson for $2,000. He specifically charged Robinson with assault, forcing the prisoner to strip naked, and extortion of the jail guard’s fee.

The court sided with Freeman over suing Ellington, but reduced the amount to $2,000. An article in the Indiana American newspaper published on May 19, 1854, prematurely reported that Freeman was able to “recover $2000 from Ellington.” The writer of the article also triumphantly concluded, “When he recovers about twice that amount from … Robinson, negro hunters and negro catchers will be careful how they fool with freemen in Indiana.”

In reality, Ellington, who had already fled Indianapolis, further escaped payment by selling his home in St. Louis, Missouri, and leaving without notice. The Indiana Supreme Court sided with Freeman against Robinson in December 1855, but dismissed the suit on a technicality. (Robinson lived in Rushville, Rush County, Indiana but the suit was filed in the Marion County Circuit Court.)

Ultimately, Freeman retained what he could, which comprised of his home and garden plot, with the help of donations from churches in both Indiana and Georgia. (An appeal to ministers and churches in both Indiana and Georgia was published in an issue of the Indiana American on January 20, 1854.) He also sold off most of his real estate. Still, Freeman fared better than other African-Americans who were at the center of fugitive slave cases. As Indiana historian Emma Lou Thornbrough pointed out, “No one will ever know how many anonymous Negroes were carried off into slavery without the benefit of counsel or a fair hearing simply because they were without friends or money.”

When the Civil War started, Freeman and his family left Indianapolis for Canada.

The Fugitive Slave Case of John Freeman and other such cases that laid bared the inherent injustice of the fugitive slave clause in the constitution received intense public interest. Fugitive slave cases also served to swell the general wave of disgust and horror at the slave catching system and thus escalated the rising conflict between free states and slave states over the institution of slavery.

Visit the State Historical Marker for John Freeman On The Map.


Follow the Fugitive Slave Case of John Freeman In Print


Indiana Historical Bureau. “John Freeman.” Accessed July 22, 2014.

Money, Charles.“The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 In Indiana.” Indiana Magazine of History [Online] (1 June 1921): 180-198. Also refer to the Conclusion.

Nicholas, Stacey. “Freeman, John, Fugitive Slave Case of (1853).” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 601-602. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. “Political Developments: The Fugitive Slave Law in Operation.” In Indiana History: A Book of Readings, edited by Ralph D. Gray, 145-148. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.