All posts by Melissa Burlock

The Evansville Daily Journal


The Evansville Daily Journal of Vanderburgh County was established in 1834 by William Town but did not appear as a daily until 1848, a year after Evansville was recognized by official charter as a city of Indiana. Town relocated to Evansville from the east and worked as both a grammar school teacher and printer. In March 1834, he disseminated the first issue of the Evansville Journal and General Advertiser, which was a pro-Whig (later Republican) paper. He remained the newspaper’s owner until his death in 1839.

William H. and John J. Chandler became the joint owners and editors of the paper in 1839. Under their management the paper was published as the Evansville Journal and Vanderburgh Advertiser. The title was eventually shortened to Evansville Journal. A year later John left the paper and his brother William became the sole owner, publishing the paper under the firm name of WM. H. Chandler & Company. William Chandler debuted the Tri-weekly Journal in 1846 and the Evansville Daily Journal in 1848.

The Evansville Daily Journal endorsed Whig Party candidate Zachary Taylor in the 1848 presidential election. Taylor was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” for his victories in the Black Hawk War and Second Seminole War. He died in office on July 9, 1850.

In 1848, Addison H. Sanders purchased the Journal from William Chandler. Sanders oversaw the increased circulation of the Journal throughout southwestern Indiana between 1849 and 1856. He focused on improving the city department portion of the newspaper. The expansion of the paper paralleled the economic growth of Evansville during the 1850s, when the population of the city grew to 4,700. White newcomers were attracted to jobs with railroad firms, saw mills, and factories. Free blacks living in Evansville (about a hundred) also held both skilled and blue-collar jobs despite being barred from coming into Indiana in 1851 by Article XIII of the state constitution.

In October 1856, the Journal passed to Francis Y. Carlile. By April 30, 1858, Carlile had partnered with Indiana printers Frank M. Thayer and John Henderson McNeely. They formed the Evansville Journal Company (later Evansville Journal-News Company) and started to publish the paper under the name of that firm. Among the improvements the new proprietors made to the newspaper office was the installation of a steam engine and power press. Before more improvements could be made the newspaper office was destroyed in a fire. Its proprietors immediately arranged for the Journal to be printed from another newspaper office until it could be relocated. The company ultimately purchased a building located on Fifth Street between Main and Sycamore.

Carlile left the Journal in November 1859, selling his interests to James H. McNeely. By 1860, Evansville was the third largest city in Indiana behind Indianapolis and New Albany with a population of 11,484. Under the maintenance of the McNeely brothers and Thayer the Journal advocated for the election of Abraham Lincoln for president and unflaggingly supported the Union side during the Civil War.

Excerpt from a letter written by a soldier in the 17th Indiana Regiment, Napoleon B. Risinger, published in the Journal on September 17, 1861.
Excerpt from a letter written by Napoleon B. Risinger, a soldier in the 17th Indiana Regiment, which was published in the Journal on September 17, 1861.

John W. Foster purchased the interest of James McNeely and replaced him as partner in June 1866. Edward Tabor, a former bookkeeper for the paper, subsequently joined Frank M. Thayer, John McNeely, and John W. Foster as a partner in the Evansville Journal Company. In 1869, the Journal reported a circulation of 2,000 for its 8-page daily issues and 5,000 for its weekly issues.

Claude G. DeBruler purchased Foster’s interest and replaced him as partner in November 1872. Thayer left the Journal in 1883. James McNeely purchased DeBruler’s interest in 1885 although he had been listed in the newspaper as a proprietor since 1883. Following the departures of Thayer and DeBruler as well as Tabor’s death, the McNeelys became the joint owners of the Journal in March 1885. By 1889, James McNeely was editor-in-chief while his brother John fulfilled the role of river editor. Jessie McDonald (later Mrs. William Torrance) eventually oversaw the society department of the newspaper.

The Journal published a “Colored News” column in or near the want ads section between the early 1890s and 1909. The column had a black editor and covered goings-on in the black community such as church events as well as illnesses and funerals. Outside of the short, segregated column the newspaper’s derogatory tone towards blacks reflected the intense racial bigotry that affected the city’s black population, which at 7,405 approximated that of Cleveland, Ohio.

During the McNeely brothers’ maintenance of the Evansville Journal-News Company the circulation of the Journal grew to 9,844 for daily and Sunday issues, which were 8 and 16 pages respectively, by 1900. That was more than the Evansville Courier the Journal’s pro-Democratic competitor, which had a circulation of 8,555 for dailies 10-20 pages and Sunday issues 24-36 pages, in the same year. By 1920, the Journal had a circulation of 15,765 for week-days and 12,232 for Sunday issues. The Courier surpassed the Journal that year with a circulation of 23,893 for week-days and 20,978 for Sunday issues.

In 1923, the McNeely brothers sold the Journal to the Evansville Courier Company. The Courier office published its Sunday edition together with the Evansville Journal as the Sunday Courier and Journal between June 24, 1923 and 1936. The Evansville Courier Company suspended the Evansville Journal in November 1936. The newspaper’s masthead displayed slightly different titles over the course of its run including the Evansville Daily Journal, Daily Evansville Journal, Evansville Journal, Daily Journal, and the Evansville Journal-News. A former city editor at the Journal during the 1880’s characterized the paper as “a power in the republican party of the state” that supported the elections of several Republican candidates for state and federal offices including Benjamin Harrison (Senator from Indiana 1881-1887; President 1889-1893) and Charles Warren Fairbanks (Senator from Indiana 1897-1905; Vice President 1905-1909).


Bigham, Darrel E. We Ask Only A Fair Trial: A History of The Black Community of Evansville, Indiana. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987. Published in association with the University of Southern Indiana.

Bigham, Darrel E. An Evansville Album: Perspectives on a River City, 1812-1988. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Esarey, Logan. History of Indiana from its exploration to 1922. Rochester, Indiana: Tombaugh Publising House, 1981.

History of Vanderburgh County, Indiana, From the Earliest Times to the Present, With Biographical Sketches, Reminiscences, Etc. Madison, Wisconsin: Brant & Fuller, 1889.

Iglehart, John E., ed. An Account of Vanderburgh County from its organization. Dayton, Ohio: Dayton Historical Publishing Company, 1923.

Patry, Robert P. City of the Four Freedoms: A History of Evansville, Indiana. Evansville: Friends of Willard Library, 1996.

Thornbrough, Emma Lou. “African-Americans.” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 5-14. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. 

Census Record:

U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1860.” Internet Release date June 15, 1998. .

Clipping File:

Evansville—Vanderburgh County. Newspaper histories. Library Development Office, Indiana State Library, 315 W Ohio St, Indianapolis, IN 46204.


Geo. P. Rowell and Company’s American Newspaper Directory. New York: Geo. P. Rowell & Co., Publishers & Newspaper Advertising Agents, 1869.

Geo. P. Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory. New York: The Printer’s INR Publishing Company, 1909.

N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual and Directory: A Catalogue of American Newspapers. Philadelphia: N.W. Ayer and Son, 1920.

The “Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World:” Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (1878-1932)

Major Taylor, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

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

“Taylor was a marvel on a bicycle. Riding against the fastest bicyclists of America, Europe and Australia, he won national and world championships against racial prejudice, unscrupulous tactics of riders and unfair decisions of officials.” Chicago Defender, July 2, 1932

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the sport of bicycle racing had the same feverish popularity as the Indianapolis 500 race and the cyclists the same international celebrity status as contemporary major league sports starts. The fastest of all of those star cyclists in America and Europe was Marshall Walter Taylor, a Hoosier and African American.

Marshall was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1878, one of eight children. He and his family lived in a rural area on the fringes of the city. His grandfather had been enslaved in Kentucky, and his father, Gilbert Taylor, was a Union soldier in the Civil War, after which he was employed by the Southards as a coachman. The Southards were a wealthy family and they gifted a young Marshall with his first bicycle. Soon he was bicycling along his long paper delivery route and practicing stunts when he was not working as a paperboy. Sometime between when Marshall was 10 to 13 years old, the Hay and Willits Bicycle Shop started to pay him to perform bicycle stunts in front of their store while dressed in a military uniform as a promotional draw.

According to an article published in the Washington, D.C. paper The Evening Star dated February 1, 1902, Marshall got his nickname “Major” from those performances, which eventually became his full-time job. The title would follow him into his prominent career as the famed cyclist Marshall W. “Major” Taylor. (Issues of the Courier are accessible via the Chronicling America website.)

Marshall also started to work as a repairman and instructor in a bicycle shop where Louis D. “Birdie” Munger was one of the managers. Munger had raced as a cyclist before he retired and started manufacturing bicycles in Indianapolis. He befriended Marshall, recognizing in the young teenager the potential to become a champion cyclist.

Despite being barred from being a member of bicycle riding clubs in the city and coming up against white cyclists who did not want to compete against an African American in a road race, Marshall did participate in a race that stretched 75 miles from Indianapolis to Muncie to Matthews. A blurb published in The Jasper Weekly Courier dated July 12, 1895, reported that “Marshall Taylor, a colored lad” was the winner of “one of the hardest road races ever run” from Indianapolis to Matthews. The writer wrote that Marshall was 18 years old at the time but he was actually only 17 in 1895. (Issues of the Courier are accessible in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper database.)

In the fall of that year Marshall accepted an invitation from Louis Munger to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, where the former shop manager planned to establish another bicycle shop.

Louis D. “Birdie” Munger
Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, courtesy of

Marshall talked about his friend’s decision to move in his 1928 autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: the Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success against Great Odds, which he dedicated to Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, his “True Friend and Advisor.” He wrote the following lines about Munger’s move to Massachusetts:

“… members of the [bicycle] firm [in Indianapolis] objected strenuously to Mr. Munger’s befriending me simply because of my color, and I was inadvertently the cause of Mr. Munger’s severing relations with the firm and his decision to establish a bicycle factory in Worcester, Massachusetts. Before our train pulled out of Indianapolis Mr. Munger informed a group of his friends that someday I would return to that city as champion bicycle rider of America.” Marshall Taylor, 1928

On living in Worcester Marshall said, “I was in Worcester only a very short time before I realized that there was no such race prejudice existing among the bicycle riders there as I had experienced in Indianapolis.”

Marshall returned to Indianapolis in September 1896 to test his speed on the Capital City Cycling Club’s track in the city. Munger, who was at the time the founder of the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company, had signed Marshall up to be one of the participating cyclists, and as the event was whites-only, he also smuggled Marshall into the Capital City Track, located at 30th Street (38th Street today) and the Monon Railroad (the Monon Rail-Trail today).

The roaring crowd of spectators marveled as Marshall set two new records racing around the track, first in the one-mile and then in the one-fifth-mile. But, cycling officials did not recognize his record-breaking times as official. The officials and other cyclists at the track were also angry at Munger for smuggling in a black cyclist who had rocketed pass the record times previously set by white cyclists. Marshall was banned from racing on the Capital City Track following the event.

He persevered on to win his first official professional race three months later. Between 1896 and 1904 he reached the climax of his career as a cyclist, setting world records at various distances between one-quarter mile and two-miles. He participated in races in Chicago, Connecticut, and New York.

Marshall not only had to overcome competitors but also extreme racism during his races. Racing events in the South barred Marshall from participation, and when organizers did allow the foremost cyclist to participate he was met with violence such as having ice and nails thrown at him by spectators and white cyclists eager to jostle, box in, and shove him during a road race. Marshall was even pulled to the ground and choked by a competitor during a race event in Massachusetts.

In his autobiography, Marshall reflected on experiencing racially motivated violence during his career. He came to the following conclusion:

“Life is too short for a man to hold bitterness in his heart, and that is why I have no feeling against anybody … In fact, I have never hated any rider that I ever competed against. As the late Booker T. Washington, the great Negro educator, so beautifully expressed, ‘I shall allow no man to narrow my soul and drag me down, by making me hate him.’” Marshall Taylor, 1928

Marshall also competed in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe, where black athletes encountered comparably less racist-charged violence. In August 1899 he won the world championship in the one-mile race in Montreal, becoming the second African-American to win a world championship in a sport. (George Dixon, a Canadian bantamweight and featherweight boxer, was the first African American to win a world championship title after defeating his opponent in the 1887 world bantamweight boxing match that was held in England.)

Marshall won the national championship in September 1900, becoming the American sprint champion in front of a crowd that numbered more than 10,000 people. His victories were chronicled in cycling journals and newspapers in America, including the Indianapolis Recorder and the Chicago Defender,and especially in periodicals in Europe. Fans as well as newspaper and magazine writers dubbed the Major the “colored Sprint Champion of America” and the “Black Cyclone.”

Marshall Taylor in the French press, ca. 1900
Marshall Taylor in the French press, ca. 1900, accessed Jazz Riffing on a Lost Worchester.

In 1901, Marshall traveled to Europe to compete in racing events. He did so only after promoters in France rescheduled races that had originally been set on Sundays out of respect to Marshall, who had up until then refused to participate in races on Sundays because of his religious convictions. Marshall was a committed Baptist who was known to not drink and compete fairly.

Marshall Taylor in Paris, 1901, accessed

Between 1901 and 1904 Marshall defeated the best cyclists in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, winning most of the races that he participated in and proving his reputation as a world champion cyclist. He married Daisy V. Morris in March 1902 and also took briefs respites in Worcester during the last two years of competing. Marshall’s and Daisy’s daughter, Sydney Taylor, was born on May 11, 1904, in Sydney, Australia.

Marshall Taylor and his wife, Daisy, and daughter, Sydney, ca. 1906 or 1907
Marshall Taylor and his wife, Daisy, and daughter, Sydney, ca. 1906 or 1907, accessed

Marshall retired in 1910 at 32 years old. His post-racing career was beset with unsuccessful investments and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. By 1930 Marshall, who was at that time staying at a YMCA in Chicago, was estranged from his wife and had lost the earnings that he had made as one of the best-paid athletes during his prime. In poor health, he worked to sell copies of his autobiography, which he published in 1928.

Marshall “Major” Taylor died on June 21, 1932. He was 53 years old. His body was moved from Cook County Hospital’s charity ward to be buried at Illinois’ Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens. His grave went unmarked until 1948 when a group of former cyclists solicited money from Frank Schwinn, owner of Schwinn Bicycle Company, for the funds necessary to exhume Marshall’s remains and have them reburied in another area of the cemetery with a gravestone.


Marker for Marshall Taylor's grave at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens, Illinois
Marker for Marshall Taylor’s grave at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens, Illinois, accessed CBS Minnesota.

Marshall’s and Daisy’s only child, Sydney, remembered her father as “‘a good man, a good father and a good husband … very gentlemanly.’”

While not faster than a speeding bullet, Marshall “Major” Taylor was, according to a writer for the African-American Registry, one of “the fastest humans on earth,” and certainly the fastest man alive on two wheels during the peak of his racing career between 1898 and 1910. The nicknames that followed him—the “Worcester Whirlwind,”the “colored Sprint Champion of America,” and especially the “Black Cyclone”—demonstrated the superhero status that Marshall reached through breaking world records and racial barriers in America and abroad.

The state marker recognizing his accomplishments was installed at the intersection of 38th Street and the Monon Trail in 2009 by the Indiana Historical Bureau as well as the Central Indiana Bicycling Association Foundation and Indiana State Fair Commission.

Taylor marker

Taylor marker side 2
Visit the Indiana Historical Bureau’s marker dedication page.

Taylor’s legacy of sportsmanship and courage was also honored with the erection of the Marshall Taylor Velodrome (MTV) in 1982 and a memorial at the Worcester Public Library on May 21, 2008.

The Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation accepted a recommendation from the Mayor’s Bicycle Task Force to name the $2.2 million dollar velodrome (a track with banked curves for bicycle racing), built with public funds, after champion cyclist Marshall Taylor. The construction of the velodrome was financed with public funds. It was the first building with that type of financial backing in Indianapolis to be named in honor of an African-American individual, and is one of only 29 or so velodromes in the country.

The plan for the building was developed through a partnership between Indy Parks and the Lilly Endowment, which included building a track stadium, natatorium, and the MTV in time for the 1982 National Sports Festival, which was hosted in Indianapolis that year. At that time Indy Parks Director F. Arthur Strong said the MTV “could possibly be the fastest velodrome in the country,” pointing out the track’s smooth surface and natural protection from wind due to being build into a hillside.

The dedication ceremony for the MTV was held on July 15, 1982. Marshall’s daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, was presented with a key to the city at the event.

Since its establishment the MTV has hosted numerous national competitions and an invitational for Olympic gold medalists as well as men’s and women’s national/world sprint champions from America, Mexico, and Zealand.

During the 1980’s the velodrome was also utilized as a public venue for bicycle riding classes and amateur cyclist races. Then-manager Chuck Quast credited the MTV with giving the opportunity to kids to come “out of the woodwork” and train to become world-class athletes.

In April 2011 Marian University, in partnership with Indy Parks, became the manager of the MTV. The facility became the Indy Cyclopex: Home of the Marshall Taylor Velodrome. The velodrome still functions as a venue for cycling races and community programs.

Learn more about Marshall W. “Major” Taylor:


Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 01 Feb. 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. <>

Jasper Weekly Courier. 12 July 1895. Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Program. Indiana State Library. <——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22Marshall+Taylor%22—–# >


Clipping File, “Bicycles, 1980-89,” Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Clipping File, “Biography, Taylor, J.—Taylor, O.,” Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Major Taylor Collection, Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Donated by daughter in 1988).


Balf, Todd. Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

Ritchie, Andrew. Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Taylor, Marshall Walter “Major.” The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: the Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success against Great Odds. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. Reprinted from a copy in the Fisk University Library Negro Collection; first published. Originally published in 1928.


African-American Registry. “George Dixon, an Early Champion Boxer.” Accessed August 14, 2014.

African-American Registry. “Marshall Taylor, Cyclist and Sports Trailblazer.” Accessed August 14, 2014.

Indiana Historical Bureau. “Marshall “Major” Taylor.” Accessed August 11, 2014. ;

Indy Cycloplex. “About.” Accessed August 14, 2014.

King, Gilbert. “The Unknown Story of ‘The Black Cyclone,’ The Cycling Champion Who Broke the Color Barrier.” Smithsonian magazine, September 12, 2012. Accessed August 14, 2014. .

Levin, Steve. “Obituary: Sydney Taylor Brown / Psychiatric social worker from Schenley Heights.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 18, 2005. Accessed August 14, 2014.

Major Taylor Association, Inc. “May 21, 2008: Major Taylor statue dedication.” Accessed August 14, 2014.

“Who Was Major Taylor?” Major Taylor Association Inc. Accessed August 14, 2014.

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.