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Chapter 14: mobs

In his Recollections, the Rev. Samuel T. May, who was one of the most faithful and zealous of the Anti-Slavery pioneers, and belonged to that band of devoted workers who were known as Abolition lecturers, tells of his experience in delivering an Anti-Slavery address in the sober New England city of Haverhill.

“It was a Sabbath evening,” he says. “I had spoken about fifteen minutes when the most hideous outcries-yells and screeches — from a crowd of men and boys, who had surrounded the house, startled us, and then came heavy missiles against the doors and the blinds of the windows. I persisted in speaking for a few minutes, hoping the doors and blinds were strong enough to withstand the attack. But presently a heavy stone broke through one of the blinds, scattered a pane of glass, and fell upon the head of a lady sitting near the center of the hall. She uttered a shriek and fell bleeding on the floor.”

There was a panic, of course, and the Abolition lecturer would have been roughly handled by the mob if a young lady, a sister of the poet Whittier, had not taken him by the arm, and walked with him [109] through the astonished crowd. They did not feel like attacking a woman.

There was nothing unusual, except the part performed by the young lady, in the affair described in the foregoing narrative. Mobs were of constant occurrence in the period of which we are speaking. It was not in the slave States that they were most frequent. Northern communities that were regarded as absolutely peaceable and perfectly moral thought nothing of an anti-Abolitionist riot now and then. They occurred “away up North” and “away down East.” Even sleepy old Nantucket, in its sedentary repose by the sea, woke up long enough to mob a couple of Abolition lecturers, a man and a woman.

The community in which the writer resided when a boy, was fully up to the pacific standard of most Northern neighborhoods. Yet it was the scene of many turmoils growing out of Anti-Slavery meetings. The district schoolhouse, which was the only public building in the village that was open for such gatherings, called for frequent repairs on account of damages done by mobs. Broken windows and doors were often in evidence, and stains from mud-balls, decayed vegetables, and antiquated eggs, which nobody took the trouble to remove, were nearly always visible.

On one occasion, at an evening meeting, the lecturer was a young professor, who was “down” from Oberlin College, against which, as “an Abolition hole,” there was a very strong prejudice. He had not got more than well started, when rocks, bricks, and other missiles began to crash through the windows. The mob was resolved to punish that young [110] man, and had come prepared to give him a coating of unsavory mixture. He was a preacher as well as a teacher, and his “store clothes” were likely to betray him; but some thoughtful person had brought an old drab overcoat and a rough workman's cap, and arrayed in these garments he walked through the crowd without his identity being suspected.

But another party was not so fortunate. He was a respected citizen of the village, an elder in the Presbyterian church, and a strong pro-slavery man. He dressed in black and his appearance was not unlike that of the lecturer. By some hard luck he happened to be passing that way when the crowd was looking for the Abolitionist, and was discovered. “There he goes,” was the cry that was raised, and a fire of eggs and other things was opened upon him. He reached his home in an awful plight, and it was charged that his conversation was not unmixed with profanity.

On another occasion the writer was present when the friends of the lecturer undertook to convey him to a place of safety. They formed a circle about him and moved away while the mob followed, hurling eggs and clods and sticks and whatever else came handy. We kept quietly on our way until we reached a place in the road that had been freshly graveled, and where the surface was covered with stones just suited to our use. Here we halted, and, with rocks in hand, formed a line of battle. It took only one volley to put the enemy to rout, and we had no further trouble.

At last, after several men had been prevented from speaking in our village, the services of a female [111] lecturer were secured. The question then was, whether the mob would be so ungallant as to disturb a woman. The matter was settled by the rowdies on that occasion being more than usually demonstrative. The lecturer showed great courage and presence of mind. She closed the meeting in due form, and then walked calmly through the noisy throng that gave her no personal molestation or insult. Deliberately she proceeded to a place of safety-and then went into hysterics.

Finding that it was impossible to hold undisturbed public meetings, the Abolitionists adopted a plan of operations that was altogether successful. They met in their several homes, taking them in order, and there the subject they were interested in was uninterruptedly discussed. Intelligent opponents of their views were invited to attend, and frequently did so. So warm were the discussions that arose that the meetings sometimes lasted for entire days, and conversions were not unusual.

It was in one of these neighborhood gatherings that the writer first became an active Anti-Slavery worker. He had memorized one of Daniel O'Connell's philippics against American slavery, and, being given the opportunity, declaimed it with much earnestness. After that he was invited to all the meetings, and had on hand a stock of selections for delivery, his favorite being Whittier's Slave Mother's Lament over the Loss of Her Daughters:

Gone, gone-sold and gone
To the rice swamp dank and lone,
Where the slave whip ceaseless swings,
Where the noisome insect stings; [112]
Where the fever demon strews
Poison with the falling dews;
Where the sickly sunbeams glare
Through the hot and misty air.
Gone, gone-sold and gone
To the rice swamp dank and lone,
From Virginia's hills and waters-
Woe is me my stolen daughters!

It was marvelous how little damage all the mobs effected. Lovejoy of Illinois was killed — a great loss-and occasionally an Abolitionist lecturer got a bloody nose or a sore shin. Professor Hudson, of Oberlin College, used to say that the injury he most feared was to his clothes. He carried with him what he called “a storm suit,” which he wore at evening meetings. It showed many marks of battle.

Among those who suffered real physical injury was Fred. Douglass, the runaway slave. While in bondage he was often severely punished, but he encountered rougher treatment in the North than in the South. He was attacked by a mob while lecturing in the State of Indiana; was struck to the earth and rendered senseless by blows on the head and body, and for a time his life was supposed to be in danger. Although in the main he recovered, his right hand was always crippled in consequence of some of its bones having been broken.

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