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V. The fugitive slave epoch

I canna think the preacher himself wad be heading the mob, thoa the time has been they have been as forward in a bruilzie as their neighbors. Scott's The heart of Mid-Lothian.

Nothing did more to strengthen my antislavery zeal, about 1848, than the frequent intercourse with Whittier and his household, made possible by their nearness to Newburyport. It was but a short walk or drive of a few miles from my residence to his home; or, better still, it implied a sail or row up the beautiful river, passing beneath the suspension bridge at Deer Island, to where the woods called “The laurels” spread themselves on one side, and the twin villages of Salisbury and Amesbury on the other. There was something delightful in the position of the poet among the village people: he was their pride and their joy, yet he lived as simply as any one, was careful and abstemious, reticent rather than exuberant in manner, and met them wholly on matter-of-fact ground. He could sit on a barrel and discuss the affairs of the day with the people who came to [133] the “store,” but he did not read them his verses. I was once expressing regrets for his ill health, in talking with one of the leading citizens of Amesbury, and found that my companion could not agree with me; he thought that Whittier's ill health had helped him in the end, for it had “kept him from engaging in business,” and had led him to writing poetry, which had given him reputation outside of the town. That poetry was anything but a second choice, perhaps a necessary evil, did not seem to have occurred to my informant. Had he himself lost his health and been unable to sell groceries, who knows but he too might have taken up with the Muses? It suggested the Edinburgh citizen who thought that Sir Walter Scott might have been “sic a respectable mon” had he stuck to his original trade of law advocate.

To me, who sought Whittier for his poetry as well as his politics, nothing could have been more delightful than his plain abode with its exquisite Quaker neatness. His placid mother, rejoicing in her two gifted children, presided with few words at the hospitable board whose tablecloth and napkins rivaled her soul in whiteness; and with her was the brilliant “Lizzie,” so absolutely the reverse, or complement, of her brother that they seemed between them to make one soul. She was as plain in feature as [134] he was handsome, except that she had a pair of great luminous dark eyes, always flashing with fun or soft with emotion, and often changing with lightning rapidity from one expression to another; her nose was large and aquiline, while his was almost Grecian, and she had odd motions of the head, so that her glances seemed shot at you, like sudden javelins, from each side of a prominent outwork Her complexion was sallow, not rich brunette like his; and whereas he spoke seldom and with some difficulty, her gay raillery was unceasing, and was enjoyed by him as much as by anybody, so that he really appeared to have transferred to her the expression of his own opinions. The lively utterances thus came with double force upon the auditor, and he could not fail to go out strengthened and stimulated. Sometimes the Whittiers had guests; and “Lizzie” delighted to tell how their mother was once met at the door by two plump maidens who announced that they had come from Ohio mainly to see her son. She explained that he was in Boston. No matter; they would come in and await his return. But he might be away a week No matter; they would willingly wait that time for such a pleasure. So in they came. They proved to be Alice and Phoebe Cary, whose earlier poems, which had already preceded them, were filled with dirges and despair; [135] but they were the merriest of housemates, and as the poet luckily returned next day, they stayed as long as they pleased, and were welcome.

The invigorating influence of the Whittier household supplied the tonic needed in those trying days. The Fugitive Slave Law had just passed, and a year or two after Garrison had proudly showed a row of escaped negroes sitting on the platform of an anti-slavery convention, and had defied the whole South to reclaim them, these very men were fleeing to Canada for their lives. When the storm first broke, on February 15, 185 I, in the arrest of Shadrach, Boston had a considerable colored population, which handled his rescue with such unexpected skill and daring that it almost seemed as if Garrison were right; yet it took but a few days for their whole force to be scattered to the winds. The exact story of the Shadrach rescue has never been written. The account which appears most probable is that on the day of the arraignment of the alleged fugitive, the fact was noted in a newspaper by a colored man of great energy and character, employed by a firm in Boston and utterly unconnected with the Abolitionists. He asked leave of absence, and strolled into the Court-House. Many colored men were at the door and [136] had been excluded; but he, being known and trusted, was admitted, and the others, making a rush, followed in behind him with a hubbub of joking and laughter. There were but a few constables on duty, and it suddenly struck this leader, as he and his followers passed near the man under arrest, that they might as well keep on and pass out at the opposite door, taking among them the man under arrest, who was not handcuffed. After a moment's beckoning the prisoner saw his opportunity, fell in with the jubilant procession, and amid continued uproar was got outside the Court-House, when the crowd scattered in all directions.

It was an exploit which, as has been well said, would hardly have furnished a press item had it been the case of a pickpocket, yet was treated at Washington as if it had shaken the nation. Daniel Webster called it “a case of treason;” President Fillmore issued a special proclamation; and Henry Clay gave notice of a bill to lend added strength to the Fugitive Slave Law, so as to settle the question “whether the government of white men is to be yielded to a government of blacks.” More curious even than this was the development of antislavery ethics that followed. The late Richard H. Dana, the counsel for various persons arrested as accomplices in the rescue of Shadrach, [137] used to tell with delight this tale of a juryman impaneled on that trial. To Dana's great surprise, the jury had disagreed concerning one client who had been charged with aiding in the affair and whose conviction he had fully expected; and this surprise was all the greater because new and especial oaths had been administered to the jurymen, pledging them to have no conscientious scruples against convicting, so that it seemed as if every one with a particle of anti-slavery sympathy must have been ruled out. Years after, Dana encountered by accident the very juryman — a Concord blacksmith-whose obstinacy had saved his client; and learned that this man's unalterable reason for refusing to condemn was that he himself had taken a hand in the affair, inasmuch as he had driven Shadrach, after his rescue, from Concord to Sudbury.1

I fear I must admit that while it would have been a great pleasure to me to have lent a hand in the Shadrach affair, the feeling did not come wholly from moral conviction, but from an [138] impulse perhaps hereditary in the blood. Probably I got from my two soldier and sailor grandfathers an intrinsic love of adventure which haunted me in childhood, and which threescore and fourteen years have by no means worn out. So far as I can now analyze it, this early emotion was not created by the wish for praise alone, but was mainly a boyish desire for a stirring experience. No man so much excited my envy during my whole college life as did a reckless Southern law student, named Winfield Scott Belton, who, when the old Vassall House in Cambridge was all in flames, and the firemen could not reach the upper story with their ladders, suddenly appeared from within at an attic window, amid the smoke, and pointed out to them the way to follow. Like most boys, I had a passion for fires; but after this the trophies of Belton would not suffer me to sleep, and I often ran miles towards a light in the horizon. But the great opportunity never occurs twice, and the nearest I ever came to it was in being one of several undergraduates to bring the elder Professor Henry Ware out of his burning house. It was not much of a feat,we afterwards risked ourselves a great deal more to bring some trays of pickle-jars from the cellar,--but in the case of the venerable doctor the object was certainly worth all it cost [139] us; for he was the progenitor of that admirable race upon which, as Dr. Holmes said to Professor Stowe, the fall of Adam had not left the slightest visible impression.

This combination of motives was quite enough to make me wish that if there should be another fugitive slave case I might at least be there to see, and, joining the Vigilance Committee in Boston, I waited for such an occasion. It was not necessary to wait long, for the Shadrach case was soon to be followed by another. One day in April, 1851, a messenger came to my house in Newburyport and said briefly, “Another fugitive slave is arrested in Boston, and they wish you to come.” I went back with him that afternoon, and found the Vigilance Committee in session in the “Liberator” office. It is impossible to conceive of a set of men, personally admirable, yet less fitted on the whole than this committee to undertake any positive action in the direction of forcible resistance to authorities. In the first place, half of them were non-resistants, as was their great leader, Garrison, who stood composedly by his desk preparing his next week's editorial, and almost exasperating the more hotheaded among us by the placid way in which he looked beyond the rescue of an individual to the purifying of a nation. On the other hand, [140] the “political Abolitionists,” or Free-Soilers, while personally full of indignation, were extremely anxious not to be placed for one moment outside the pale of good citizenship. The only persons to be relied upon for action were a few whose temperament prevailed over the restrictions of non-resistance on the one side, and of politics on the other; but of course their discussion was constantly damped by the attitude of the rest. All this would not, however, apply to the negroes, it might well seem; they had just proved their mettle, and would doubtless do it again. On my saying this in the meeting, Lewis Hayden, the leading negro in Boston, nodded cordially and said, “Of course they will.” Soon after, drawing me aside, he startled me by adding, “I said that for bluff, you know. We do not wish any one to know how really weak we are. Practically there are no colored men in Boston; the Shadrach prosecutions have scattered them all. What is to be done must be done without them.” Here was a blow indeed!

What was to be done? The next day showed that absolutely nothing could be accomplished in the court-room. There were one or two hundred armed policemen in and around the Court-House. Only authorized persons could get within ten feet of the building. Chains [141] were placed across the doors, and beneath these even the judges, entering, had to stoop. The United States court-room was up two high and narrow flights of stairs. Six men were at the door of the court-room. The prisoner, a slender boy of seventeen, sat with two strong men on each side and five more in the seat behind him, while none but his counsel could approach him in front. (All this I take from notes made at the time.) The curious thing was that although there was a state law of 1843 prohibiting every Massachusetts official from taking any part in the restoration of a fugitive slave, yet nearly all these employees were Boston policemen, acting, so the city marshal told me, under orders from the mayor and aldermen. Under these circumstances there was clearly nothing to be done at the trial itself. And yet all sorts of fantastic and desperate projects crossed the minds of those few among us who really, so to speak, meant business. I remember consulting Ellis Gray Loring, the most eminent lawyer among the Abolitionists, as to the possibility of at least gaining time by making away with the official record from the Southern court, a document which lay invitingly at one time among lawyers' papers on the table. Again, I wrote a letter to my schoolmate Charles Devens, the United States marshal, imploring him to [142] resign rather than be the instrument of sending a man into bondage,--a thing actually done by one of the leading Boston policemen. It is needless to say to those who knew him that he answered courteously and that he reserved his decision. No other chance opening, it seemed necessary to turn all attention to an actual rescue of the prisoner from his place of confinement. Like Shadrach, Thomas Sims was not merely tried in the United States Court-House, but imprisoned there, because the state jail was not opened to him; he not having been arrested under any state law, and the United States having no jail in Boston. In the previous case, an effort had been made to obtain permission to confine the fugitive slave at the Navy Yard, but Commodore Downes had refused. Sims, therefore, like Shadrach, was kept at the Court-House. Was it possible to get him out?

There was on Tuesday evening a crowded meeting at Tremont Temple, at which Horace Mann presided. I hoped strongly that some result might come from this meeting, and made a vehement speech there myself, which, as Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe honored me by saying, was bringing the community to the verge of revolution, when a lawyer named Charles Mayo Ellis protested against its tone, and threw cold [143] water upon all action. It was evident that if anything was done, it must be done by a very few. I looked round, during the meeting, for a band of twenty-five men from Marlborough, who had seemed to me to show more fighting quality than the rest, but they had probably gone home. Under this conviction half a dozen of us formed the following plan. The room where Sims was confined, being safe by reason of its height from the ground, had no gratings at the windows. The colored clergyman of Boston, Mr. Grimes, who alone had the opportunity to visit Sims, agreed to arrange with him that at a specified hour that evening he should go to a certain window, as if for air,--for he had the freedom of the room,--and should spring out on mattresses which we were to bring from a lawyer's office across the way; we also providing a carriage in which to place him. All was arranged,--the message sent, the mattresses ready, the carriage engaged as if for an ordinary purpose; and behold! in the dusk of that evening, two of us, strolling through Court Square, saw men busily at work fitting iron bars across this safe third-story window. Whether we had been betrayed, or whether it was simply a bit of extraordinary precaution, we never knew. Colonel Montgomery, an experienced guerrilla in Kansas, used to say, “It [144] is always best to take for granted that your opponent is at least as smart as you yourself are.” This, evidently, we had not done.

I knew that there was now no chance of the rescue of Sims. The only other plan that had been suggested was that we should charter a vessel, place it in charge of Austin Bearse, a Cape Cod sea-captain and one of our best men, and take possession of the brig Acorn, on which Sims was expected to be placed. This project was discussed at a small meeting in Theodore Parker's study, and was laid aside as impracticable, not because it was piracy, but because there was no absolute certainty that the fugitive would be sent South in that precise way. As no other plan suggested itself, and as I had no wish to look on, with my hands tied, at the surrender, I went back to my home in deep chagrin. The following extract from a journal written soon after is worth preserving as an illustration of that curious period:--

It left me with the strongest impressions of the great want of preparation, on our part, for this revolutionary work. Brought up as we have all been, it takes the whole experience of one such case to educate the mind to the attitude of revolution. It is so strange to find one's self outside of established institutions; to be obliged to lower one's voice and conceal [145] one's purposes; to see law and order, police and military, on the wrong side, and find good citizenship a sin and bad citizenship a duty, that it takes time to prepare one to act coolly and wisely, as well as courageously, in such an emergency. Especially this is true among reformers, who are not accustomed to act according to fixed rules and observances, but to strive to do what seems to themselves best, without reference to others. The Vigilance Committee meetings were a disorderly convention, each man having his own plan or theory, perhaps stopping even for anecdote or disquisition, when the occasion required the utmost promptness of decision and the most unflinching unity in action. . . . Our most reliable men were non-resistants, and some who were otherwise were the intensest visionaries. Wendell Phillips was calm and strong throughout; I never saw a finer gleam in his eyes than when drawing up that stirring handbill at the antislavery office.

During the months which followed, I attended anti-slavery conventions; wrote editorially for the newly established “Commonwealth,” the Boston organ of the Free Soil party; and had also a daily “column” of my own in the “Newburyport Union,” a liberal Democratic paper. No other fugitive slave [146] case occurred in New England for three years. The mere cost in money of Sims's surrender had been vast; the political results had been the opposite of what was intended, for the election of Charles Sumner to the United States Senate practically followed from it. The whole anti-slavery feeling at the North was obviously growing stronger, yet there seemed a period of inaction all round, or of reliance on ordinary political methods in the contest. In 1852 I removed to Worcester, into a strong anti-slavery community of which my Free Church was an important factor. Fugitives came sometimes to the city, and I have driven them at midnight to the farm of the veteran Abolitionists, Stephen and Abby Kelley Foster, in the suburbs of the city. Perhaps the most curious case with which we had to deal was that of a pretty young woman, apparently white, with two perfectly white children, all being consigned to me by the Rev. Samuel May, then secretary of the Boston Anti-Slavery Society, and placed by him, for promptness of transportation to Worcester, under the escort of a Worcester merchant, thoroughly pro-slavery in sympathy, and not having the slightest conception that he was violating the laws in finding a seat for his charge and holding the baby on his knee. We had them in our care all winter. [147] It was one of those cases of romantic incident which slavery yielded. She was the daughter of her former master, and was the mistress of her present owner, her half-brother; she could scarcely read and write, but was perfectly ladylike, modest, and grateful. She finally married a tradesman near Boston, who knew her story, and she disappeared in the mass of white population, where we were content to leave her untraced.

All this minor anti-slavery work ended when, on Thursday evening, May 25, 1854, I had a letter by private messenger from the same Samuel May just mentioned, saying that a slave had been arrested, and the case was to be heard on Saturday morning; that a meeting was to be held on Friday evening at Faneuil Hall, and it was important that Worcester should be well represented. Mr. A. B. Alcott also came thither on the same errand. I sent messages to several persons, and especially to a man of remarkable energy, named Martin Stowell, who had taken part in a slave rescue at Syracuse, New York, urging them to follow at once. Going to Boston on the morning train, I found myself presently in a meeting of the Vigilance Committee, not essentially different from those which had proved so disappointing three years before. There was not [148] only no plan of action, but no set purpose of united action. This can be imagined when I say that at one moment when there seemed a slight prospect of practical agreement, some one came in to announce that Suttle and his men, the slave-catchers, were soon to pass by, and proposed that we should go out and gaze at them, “pointing the finger of scorn,” --as if Southern slave-catchers were to be combated by such weapons. This, however, had an effect in so far that the general committee adjourned, letting those alone remain who were willing to act personally in forcible resistance. This reduced our sixty down to thirty, of whom I was chosen chairman. Dr. Howe was then called on to speak, and gave some general advice, very good and spirited. Two things were resolved on,--to secure the names of those willing to act, and to have definite leadership. One leader would have been best, but we had not quite reached that point, so an executive committee of six was chosen at last,--Phillips, Parker, Howe, Kemp (an energetic Irishman), Captain Bearse, and myself; Stowell was added to these at my request. Even then it was inconceivably difficult to get the names of as many as twenty who would organize and obey orders. The meeting adjourned till afternoon, when matters were yet worse,--mere talk and [149] discussion; but it seemed to me, at least, that something must be done; better a failure than to acquiesce tamely as before, and see Massachusetts henceforward made a hunting-ground for fugitive slaves.

All hopes now rested on Stowell, who was to arrive from Worcester at six P. M. I met him at the train, and walked up with him. He heard the condition of affairs, and at once suggested a new plan as the only thing feasible. The man must be taken from the Court-House. It could not be done in cold blood, but the effort must have behind it the momentum of a public meeting, such as was to be held at Faneuil Hall that night. An attack at the end of the meeting would be hopeless, for the United States marshal would undoubtedly be looking for just that attempt, and would be reinforced accordingly; this being, as we afterwards found, precisely what that official was planning. Could there not be an attack at the very height of the meeting, brought about in this way? Let all be in readiness; let a picked body be distributed near the Court House and Square; then send some loud-voiced speaker, who should appear in the gallery of Faneuil Hall and announce that there was a mob of negroes already attacking the Court-House; let a speaker, previously warned,--Phillips, [150] if possible,--accept the opportunity promptly, and send the whole meeting pell-mell to Court Square, ready to fall in behind the leaders and bring out the slave. The project struck me as an inspiration. I accepted it heartily, and think now, as I thought then, that it was one of the very best plots that ever — failed. “Good plot, good friends, and full of expectation.” Why it came within an inch of success and still failed will next be explained.

The first thing to be done — after providing a box of axes for attack on the Court-House doors, a thing which I personally superintended -was to lay the whole matter before the committee already appointed and get its concurrence. This committee was to meet in the ante-room of Faneuil Hall before the general meeting. As a matter of fact it never came together, for everybody was pushing straight into the hall. The moments passed rapidly. We caught first one member of the committee, then another, and expounded the plot. Some approved, others disapproved; our stout sea-captain, Bearse, distrusting anything to be attempted on land, utterly declining all part in it. Howe and Parker gave a hasty approval, and-only half comprehending, as it afterwards proved --were warned to be ready to give indorsement from the platform; Phillips it was impossible [151] to find, but we sent urgent messages, which never reached him; Kemp stood by us: and we had thus a clear majority of the committee, which although it had been collectively opposed to the earlier plan of an attack at the end of the meeting, was yet now committed to a movement half way through, by way of surprise. We at once found our gallery orator in the late John L. Swift, a young man full of zeal, with a stentorian voice, afterwards exercised stoutly for many years in Republican and temperance meetings. He having pledged himself to make the proposed announcement, it was only necessary to provide a nucleus of picked men to head the attack. Stowell, Kemp, and I were each to furnish five of these, and Lewis Hayden, the colored leader, agreed to supply ten negroes. So far all seemed ready, and the men were found as well as the general confusion permitted; but the very success and overwhelming numbers of the Faneuil Hall meeting soon became a formidable obstacle instead of a help.

It was the largest gathering I ever saw in that hall. The platform was covered with men; the galleries, the floor, even the outer stairways, were absolutely filled with a solid audience. Some came to sympathize, more to look on,--we could not estimate the proportion; [152] but when the speaking was once begun, we could no more communicate with the platform than if the Atlantic Ocean rolled between. There was then no private entrance to it, such as now exists, and in this seemingly slight architectural difference lay the failure of the whole enterprise, as will be presently seen.

Those of us who had been told off to be ready in Court Square went there singly, not to attract attention. No sign of motion or life was there, though the lights gleamed from many windows, for it happened — a bit of unlooked — for good fortune — that the Supreme Court was holding an evening session, and ordinary visitors could pass freely. Planting myself near a door which stood ajar, on the east side of the building, I waited for the trap to be sprung, and for the mob of people to appear from Faneuil Hall. The moments seemed endless. Would our friends never arrive? Presently a rush of running figures, like the sweep of a wave, came round the comer of Court Square, and I watched it with such breathless anxiety as I have experienced only twice or thrice in life. The crowd ran on pellmell, and I scanned it for a familiar face. A single glance brought the conviction of failure and disappointment. We had the froth and scum of the meeting, the fringe of idlers [153] on its edge. The men on the platform, the real nucleus of that great gathering, were far in the rear, perhaps were still clogged in the hall. Still, I stood, with assumed carelessness, by the entrance, when an official ran up from the basement, looked me in the face, ran in, and locked the door. There was no object in preventing him, since there was as yet no visible reinforcement of friends. Mingling with the crowd, I ran against Stowell, who had been looking for the axes, stored at a friend's office in Court Square. He whispered, “Some of our men are bringing a beam up to the west door, the one that gives entrance to the upper stairway.” Instantly he and I ran round and grasped the beam; I finding myself at the head, with a stout negro opposite me. The real attack had begun.

What followed was too hurried and confusing to be described with perfect accuracy of detail, although the main facts stand out vividly enough. Taking the joist up the steps, we hammered away at the southwest door of the Court-House. It could not have been many minutes before it began to give way, was then secured again, then swung ajar, and rested heavily, one hinge having parted. There was room for but one to pass in. I glanced instinctively at my black ally. He did not even [154] look at me, but sprang in first, I following. In later years the experience was of inestimable value to me, for it removed once for all every doubt of the intrinsic courage of the blacks. We found ourselves inside, face to face with six or eight policemen, who laid about them with their clubs, driving us to the wall and hammering away at our heads. Often as I had heard of clubbing, I had never before known just how it felt, and to my surprise it was not half so bad as I expected. I was unarmed, but had taken boxing lessons at several different times, and perhaps felt, like Dr. Holmes's young man named John, that I had “a new way of counterina I wanted to try;” but hands were powerless against clubs, although my burly comrade wielded his lustily. All we could expect was to be a sort of clumsy Arnold Winkelrieds and “make way for liberty.” All other thought was merged in this, the expectation of reinforcements. I did not know that I had received a severe cut on the chin, whose scar I yet carry, though still ignorant how it came. Nor did I know till next morning, what had a more important bearing on the seeming backwardness of my supposed comrades, that, just as the door sprang open, a shot had been fired, and one of the marshal's deputies, a man named Batchelder, had fallen dead. [155]

There had been other fugitive slave rescues in different parts of the country, but this was the first drop of blood actually shed. In all the long procession of events which led the nation through the Kansas struggle, past the John Brown foray, and up to the Emancipation Proclamation, the killing of Batchelder was the first act of violence. It was, like the firing on Fort Sumter, a proof that war had really begun. The mob outside was daunted by the event, the marshal's posse inside was frightened, and what should have been the signal of success brought, on the contrary, a cessation of hostilities. The theory at the time was that the man had been stabbed by a knife, thrust through the broken panel. The coroner's inquest found it to be so, and the press, almost as active as now, yet no more accurate, soon got so far as to describe the weapon,--a Malay kris, said to have been actually picked up in the street. For years I supposed all this to be true, and conjectured that either my negro comrade did the deed, or else Lewis Hayden, who was just behind him.1 Naturally, we never exchanged a

1 Lewis Hayden apparently fired a shot in my defense, after entrance had been made, but this was doubtless after the death of Batchelder; and the bullet or slug was said to have passed between the arm and body of Marshal Freeman. When Theodore Parker heard this statement, he wrung his hands and said, “Why did he not hit him?” [156] word on the subject, as it was a serious matter; and it was not till within a few years (1888) that it was claimed by a well-known journalist, the late Thomas Drew, that it was Martin Stowell who shot, not stabbed, Batchelder; that Drew had originally given Stowell the pistol; and that when the latter was arrested and imprisoned, on the night of the outbreak, he sent for Drew and managed to hand him the weapon, which Drew gave to some one else, who concealed it till long after the death of Stowell in the Civil War. This vital part of the facts, at the one point which made of the outbreak a capital offense, remained thus absolutely unknown, even to most of the participants, for thirty-four years. As Drew had seen the revolver loaded in Worcester, and had found, after its restoration, that one barrel had been discharged, and as he was also in the attacking party and heard the firing, there can be no reasonable doubt that the revolver was fired. On the other hand, I am assured by George H. Munroe, Esq., of the “Boston Herald,” who was a member of the coroner's jury, that the surgical examination was a very thorough one, and that the wound was undoubtedly made by a knife or bayonet, it being some two inches long, largest in the middle and tapering towards each end. A similar statement was made at the [157] time, to one of my informants, by Dr. Charles T. Jackson, the reported discoverer of etherization, who was one of the surgical examiners. It is therefore pretty certain that Stowell's bullet did not hit the mark after all, and that the man who killed Batchelder is still unknown.

All this, however, was without my knowledge; I only knew that we were gradually forced back beyond the threshold, the door standing now wide open, and our supporters having fallen back to leave the steps free. Mr. Charles E. Stevens, in his “Anthony Burns, a history,” published in 1856, says that I said on emerging, “You cowards, will you desert us now?” And though his narrative, like most contemporary narratives, is full of inaccuracies, this statement may be true; it was certainly what I felt, not knowing that a man had already been killed, and that Stowell and others had just been taken off by the police. I held my place outside, still hoping against hope that some concerted reinforcement might appear. Meanwhile the deputy marshals retreated to the stairway, over which we could see their pistols pointing, the whole hall between us and them being brightly lighted. The moments passed on. One energetic young lawyer, named Seth Webb, whom I had known in college, ran up the steps, but I dissuaded him from entering [158] alone, and he waited. Then followed one of the most picturesque incidents of the whole affair. In the silent pause that ensued there came quietly forth from the crowd the well-known form of Mr. Amos Bronson Alcott, the Transcendental philosopher. Ascending the lighted steps alone, he said tranquilly, turning to me and pointing forward, “Why are we not within?” “Because,” was the rather impatient answer, “these people will not stand by us.” He said not a word, but calmly walked up the steps,--he and his familiar cane. He paused again at the top, the centre of all eyes, within and without; a revolver sounded from within, but hit nobody; and finding himself wholly unsupported, he turned and retreated, but without hastening a step. It seemed to me that, under the circumstances, neither Plato nor Pythagoras could have done the thing better; and the whole scene brought vividly back the similar appearance of the Gray Champion in Hawthorne's tale.

This ended the whole affair. Two companies of artillery had been ordered out, and two more of marines, these coming respectively from Fort Warren and the Charlestown Navy Yard. (Here again I follow Stevens.) Years after, the successor of the United States marshal, the Hon. Roland G. Usher, said to me [159] that his predecessor had told him that the surprise was complete, and that thirty resolute men could have carried off Burns. Had the private entrance to the platform in Faneuil Hall existed then, as now, those thirty would certainly have been at hand. The alarm planned to be given from the gallery was heard in the meeting, but was disbelieved; it was thought to be a scheme to interrupt the proceedings. Phillips had not received notice of it. Parker and Howe had not fully comprehended the project; but when the latter could finally get out of the hall he ran at full speed up to the Court-House, with Dr. William Francis Channing at his side, and they--two of our most determined men-found the field lost. Had they and such as they been present, it might have been very different.

The attempt being a failure and troops approaching, I went down the steps. There is always a farce ready to succeed every tragedy, and mine occurred when a man in the crowd sidled quietly up to me and placidly remarked, “Mister, I guess you've left your rumberill.” It flashed through my mind that before taking hold of the beam I had set down my umbrella for it was a showery day-over the railing of the Court-House steps. Recapturing this important bit of evidence, I made my way [160] to Dr. W. F. Channing's house, had my cut attended to, and went to bed; awaking in a somewhat battered condition the next morning, and being sent off to Worcester by my advisers. Then followed my arrest after a few days,--a matter conducted so courteously that the way of the transgressor became easy.

Naturally enough, my neighbors and friends regarded my arrest and possible conviction as a glory or a disgrace according to their opinions on the slavery question. Fortunately it did not disturb my courageous mother, who wrote,

I assure you it does not trouble me, though I dare say that some of my friends are commiserating me for having a son “riotously and routously engaged,” --these being the curious legal terms of the indictment. For myself, it was easy to take the view of my old favorite Lamennais, who regarded any life as rather incomplete which did not, as in his own case, include some experience of imprisonment in a good cause. (“Il manque toujours quelque chose à la belle vie, qui ne finit pas sur le champ de bataille, sur laechafaud ou en prison.”)

In my immediate household the matter was taken coolly enough to suggest a calm inquiry, one day, by the lady of the house, whether all my letters to her from the prison would probably be read by the jailer; to which a young [161] niece, then staying with us, replied with the levity of her years, “Not if he writes them in his usual handwriting.”

It was left to my honor to report myself at the station in due time to meet the officers of the law; and my family, responding to this courtesy, were even more anxious than usual that I should not miss the train. In Boston, my friend Richard Henry Dana went with me to the marshal's office; and I was seated in a chair to be “looked over” for identification by the various officers who were to testify at the trial. They sat or stood around me in various attitudes, with a curious and solemn depth of gaze which seemed somewhat conventional and even melodramatic. It gave the exciting sensation of being a bold Turpin just from Hounslow Heath; but it was on a Saturday, and there was something exquisitely amusing in the extreme anxiety of Marshal Tukey--a dark, handsome, picturesque man, said to pride himself on a certain Napoleonic look — that I should reach home in time for my Sunday's preaching. Later the long trial unrolled itself, in which, happily, my presence was not necessary after pleading to the indictment. Theodore Parker was the only one among the defendants who attended steadily every day, and he prepared that elaborate defense which was [162] printed afterwards. The indictment was ultimately quashed as imperfect, and we all got out of the affair, as it were, by the side-door.

I have passed over the details of the trial as I omitted those relating to the legal defense of Bums, the efforts to purchase him, and his final delivery to his claimant, because I am describing the affair only as a private soldier tells of what he personally saw and knew. I must, however, mention, in closing, a rather amusing afterpiece to the whole matter,--something which occurred on October 30, 1854. A Boston policeman, named Butman, who had been active at the time of Burns's capture, came up to Worcester for the purpose, real or reputed, of looking for evidence against those concerned in the riot. The city being intensely antislavery and having a considerable colored population, there was a strong disposition to lynch the man, or at least to frighten him thoroughly, though the movement was checked by a manly speech to the crowd by George Frisbie Hoar, now United States Senator, but then a young lawyer; the ultimate result being that Butman was escorted to the railway station on Mr. Hoar's arm, with a cordon of Abolitionists about him, as a shelter from the negroes who constantly rushed at him from the rear. I was one of this escort, and directly behind Butman [163] walked Joseph Howland, a non-resistant of striking appearance, who satisfied his sensitive conscience by this guarded appeal, made at intervals in a sonorous voice: “Don't hurt him, mean as he is! Don't kill him, mean though he be!” At Howland's side was Thomas Drew, a vivacious little journalist, already mentioned, who compounded with his conscience very differently. Nudging back reprovingly the negroes and others who pressed upon the group, he would occasionally, when the coast was clear, run up and administer a vigorous kick to the unhappy victim, and then fall back to repress the assailants once more. As for these last, they did not seem to be altogether in earnest, but half in joke; although the scene gave the foundation for a really powerful chapter, called “The roar of St. Domingo,” in the now forgotten novel “Harrington,” by W. D. O'Connor.

Nevertheless, Butman was once knocked down by a stone; and when we reached the station just as the express train moved away, thus leaving him behind, there began to come up an ugly shout from the mob, which seemed to feel for a moment that the Lord had delivered the offender into its hands. As a horse with a wagon attached was standing near by, it was hastily decided to put Butman into the wagon and drive him off,--a proposal which he [164] eagerly accepted. I got in with him and took the reins; but the mob around us grasped the wheels till the spokes began to break. Then the owner arrived, and seized the horse by the head to stop us. By the prompt action of the late William W. Rice,--since member of Congress,--a hack was at once substituted for the wagon; it drove up close, so that Butman and I sprang into it and were whirled away before the mob fairly knew what had happened. A few stones were hurled through the windows, and I never saw a more abject face than that of the slave-catcher as he crouched between the seats and gasped out, “They'll get fast teams and be after us.” This, however, did not occur, and we drove safely beyond the mob and out of the city towards Grafton, where Butman was to take a later train. Having him thus at my mercy, and being doubtless filled with prophetic zeal, I took an inhuman advantage of Butman, and gave him a discourse on the baseness of his whole career which would perhaps have made my reputation as a pulpit orator had my congregation consisted of more than one, or had any modern reporter been hidden under the cushions. Being overtaken a mile or two out of town by Lovell Baker, the city marshal, with a “fast team” such as Butman had dreaded, the man was [165] transferred to him, and was driven by him, not merely to Grafton, but at Butman's urgent request to Boston and through the most unfrequented streets to his home. I meanwhile returned peacefully to Worcester, pausing only at the now deserted station to hunt up my wife's india-rubber overshoes, which I was carrying to be mended when the dmeute broke out, and which I had sacrificed as heroically as I had nearly relinquished my umbrella at the Boston Court-House.

The Burns affair was the last actual fugitive slave case that occurred in Massachusetts, although for some years we kept up organizations and formed plans, and were better and better prepared for action as the call for it disappeared. I was for some years a stockholder in the yacht Flirt, which was kept in commission under the faithful Captain Bearse, and was nominally let for hire, though really intended either to take slaves from incoming vessels, or, in case of need, to kidnap the claimant of a slave and keep him cruising on the coast of Maine until his claim should be surrendered. It all now looks very far off, and there has been time for the whole affair to be regarded in several different aspects. After the Civil War had accustomed men to the habitual use of arms and to military organization, the [166] “Burns riot” naturally appeared in retrospect a boyish and inadequate affair enough; we could all see how, given only a community of veteran soldiers, the thing might have been more neatly managed. And again, now that thirty years of peace have almost extinguished the habits and associations of war, still another phase of feeling has come uppermost, and it seems almost incredible that any condition of things should have turned honest American men into conscientious law-breakers. Yet such transitions have occurred in all periods of history, and the author of the “Greville journals” records the amazement with which he heard that “Tom Grenville, so mild, so refined, adorned with such an amiable, venerable, and decorous old age,” should be the same man who had helped, sixty years before, to carry the Admiralty building by storm in the riots occasioned by the trial of Admiral Keppel, and had been the second man to enter at the breach. Probably, if the whole truth were told, the sincere law-breakers of the world are the children of temperament as well as of moral conviction, and at any period of life, if the whirligig of time brought back the old conditions, would act very much as they acted before.

1 See Adams's Life of Dana, i. 27. The story there is related from Mr. Adams's recollection, which differs in several respects from my own, as to the way in which Dana used to tell it. Possibly, as with other good raconteurs, the details may have varied a little as time went on. I write with two Ms. narratives before me, both from well-known Concord men.

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