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Stop thief!

About the year 1826, a Marylander, by the name of Solomon Low, arrested a fugitive slave in Philadelphia, and took him to the office of an alderman to obtain the necessary authority for carrying him back into bondage. Finding the magistrate gone to dinner, they placed the colored man in the entry, while Mr. Low and his companions guarded the door. Some of the colored people soon informed Isaac T. Hopper of these circumstances, and he hastened to the office. Observing the state of things there, he concluded it would be no difficult matter to give the colored man a chance to escape. He stepped up to the men at the door, and demanded in a peremptory manner by what authority they were holding that man in duress. Mr. Low replied, ‘He is my slave.’

‘This is strange conduct,’ rejoined Friend Hopper. ‘Who can tell whether he is thy slave or not? What proof is there that you are not a band of kidnappers? Dost thou suppose the laws of Pennsylvania tolerate such proceedings?’

These charges arrested the attention of Mr. Low and his companions, who turned round to answer the speaker. The slave, seeing their backs toward him for an instant, seized that opportunity to rush out; and he had run two or three rods before they missed him. They immediately raised the cry of ‘Stop [186] Thief! Stop Thief!’ An Irishman, who joined in the pursuit, arrested the fugitive and brought him back to his master.

Friend Hopper remonstrated with him; saying, ‘The man is not a thief. They claim him for a slave, and he was running for liberty. How wouldst thou like to be made a slave?’

The kind-hearted Hibernian replied, ‘Then they lied; for they said he was a thief. If he is a slave, I'm sorry I stopped him. However, I will put him in as good a condition as I found him.’ So saying, he went near the man who had the fugitive in custody, and seized him by the collar with a sudden jerk, that threw him on the pavement. The slave instantly started, and ran at his utmost speed, again followed by the cry of ‘Stop Thief!’ Having run some distance, and being nearly out of breath, he darted into the shop of a watch-maker, named Samuel Mason, who immediately closed and fastened his door, so that the crowd could not follow him. The fugitive passed out of the back door, and was never afterward recaptured.

The disappointed master brought an action against Samuel Mason for rescuing his slave. Charles J. Ingersoll and his brother Joseph, two accomplished lawyers of Philadelphia, conducted the trial for him, with zeal and ingenuity worthy of a better cause. Isaac T. Hopper was summoned as a witness, and in [187] the course of examination he was asked what course members of the Society of Friends adopted when a fugitive slave came to them. He replied, ‘I am not willing to answer for any one but myself.’

‘Well,’ said Mr. Ingersoll, ‘what would you do in such a case? Would you deliver him to his master?’

‘Indeed I would not!’ answered the Friend. ‘My conscience would not permit me to do it. It would be a great crime; because it would be disobedience to my own dearest convictions of right. I should never expect to enjoy an hour of peace afterward. I would do for a fugitive slave whatever I should like to have done for myself, under similar circumstances. If he asked my protection, I would extend it to him to the utmost of my power. If he was hungry, I would feed him. If he was naked, I would clothe him. If he needed advice, I would give such as I thought would be most beneficial to him.’

The cause was tried before Judge Bushrod Washington, nephew of General Washington. Though a slaveholder himself, he manifested no partiality during the trial, which continued several days, with able arguments on both sides. The counsel for the claimant maintained that Samuel Mason prevented the master from regaining his slave, by shutting his door, and refusing to open it. The counsel for the defendant [188] replied that there was much valuable and brittle property in the watchmaker's shop, which would have been liable to robbery and destruction, if a promiscuous mob had been allowed to rush in. Judge Washington summed up the evidence very clearly to the jury, who after retiring for deliberation a considerable time, returned into court, declaring that they could not agree upon a verdict, and probably never should agree. They were ordered out again, and kept together till the court adjourned, when they were dismissed.

At the succeeding term, the case was tried again, with renewed energy and zeal. But the jury, after being kept together ten days, were discharged without being able to agree upon a verdict. Some, who were originally in favor of the defendant, became weary of their long confinement, and consented to go over to the slaveholder's side; but one of them, named Benjamin Thaw, declared that he would eat his Christmas dinner in the jury-room, before he would consent to such a flagrant act of injustice.

His patience held out till the court adjourned. Consequently a third trial became necessary; and the third jury brought in a verdict in favor of the watchmaker.

The expenses of these suits were estimated at seventeen hundred dollars. Solomon Low was in limited circumstances; and this expenditure in prosecuting [189] an innocent man was said to have caused his failure soon after.

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