Posts Tagged With: John Wilkes Booth

Booth’s Richard III on Stage

Two years ago, Eric Colleary, Curator of Theater and Performing Arts at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, collaborated with Beth Burns of the Austin based theater company, Hidden Room Theatre, to conduct a staged reading of Richard III based on a promptbook in the collection of the Ransom Center that was once owned and annotated by John Wilkes Booth. The staged reading (which can be viewed by clicking this link) was a great success. Since that time Eric, Beth, and the Hidden Room Theatre company have continued their collaboration and have managed to turn Booth’s promptbook into a full production that will soon take the stage.

For those of you who live in the Austin, Texas area, this is a wonderful opportunity to essentially go back in time and experience live theater as it was in the 1860s.  Over the past few months, the entire creative team behind the production has conducted in-depth research on theater history and dramatic techniques in order to make this show as accurate to the period as possible. A few days ago, Eric and Beth took part in a fascinating discussion / question and answer session regarding how their collaboration came about and the impressive work being done to bring it to fruition.

As you can see, despite its title, the upcoming production of Booth’s Richard III is far more than just a re-enactment of John Wilkes Booth’s edits to Shakespeare’s (really Cibber’s) work. Instead, it is a rare look into the type of acting and production that was commonplace in the 1800s but is almost completely lost today. John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook is a time capsule of theater history and it is a rare event to see such a piece of history brought back to life. The Hidden Room Theatre in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center will be performing Richard III at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater for only eight performances starting on Friday, June 15 and running through Saturday, June 30. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please click this link or the image below:

For those of you who, like me, are no where near Austin, Beth Burns mentioned in the question and answer session that she is hoping one of the shows will be recorded and later made available online. While I am grateful for that, I know a recorded show will not be able to replace the total immersive effect of witnessing it firsthand. Beth also mentioned her hope that this show may live on in the future as an educational tool for college and university theater companies that wish to re-enact theater history. So there is chance Booth’s Richard III could be do a bit of touring if interest is high. Though I know it is a bit of a pipe dream, I, for one, would love to see this show produced by the Ford’s Theatre Society on their historic stage.

In closing, I would ask that any of you who are able to get to Austin during the show’s run and see Booth’s Richard III to please report back to those of us who were not so fortunate. The comment section will definitely be open. I’d love to hear your thoughts on experiencing 1860s theater just as people like Mr. Lincoln would have.

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“Freedom’s Battle at Christiana”

On September 11, 1851, the small town of Christiana, Pennsylvania became the epicenter of an event that sent shock waves across the nation. Bloody conflict occurred, foretelling a national reckoning over the practice of slavery. Though this story contains a small connection to the Lincoln assassination story, the event widely known as the Christiana Riot is not a niche piece of history. It is part of our national identity. The following is an in-depth look at the event that resulted in the largest treason trial in American history.

The Rule of Law

In 1850 a series of five bills passed the United States Congress and were signed into law by then President Millard Fillmore. The bills, known collectively as the Compromise of 1850, were enacted in order to reduce the sectional conflict that was occurring in the states involving the issue of slavery and its expansion into new territories. The Compromise bills resulted in the acceptance of California as a free state; the formation of the territories of Utah and New Mexico under the rule of popular sovereignty which granted the citizens of the territories the power to decide if they would or would not have slavery; prohibition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C. (but did not abolish slavery in the nation’s capital); a revision of the borders of Texas in exchange for debt relief by the federal government; and finally, a strengthening of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law.

An example of a slaveholder’s advertisement for the return of runaways. The “Minty” named in this example is better known as famed Underground Railroad agent, Harriet Tubman.

Slavery was part of the United States since the country’s founding. In 1783, Massachusetts became the first state to immediately abolish slavery within its borders. Pennsylvania had started a gradual abolition of slavery starting in 1780. Other states in the north followed thereafter. As the number of free states increased, the federal government was faced with the issue of what was to be done regarding enslaved individuals who escaped their bondage and made their way to free states. In 1793, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act which provided the first set of legal protections to slave owners seeking to retrieve runaways who had sought refuge in free states. This initial act was, as you might expect, extremely unfair to those accused of being runaway slaves. The burden of proof was on the accused to prove that he or she was not a runaway slave and this was nearly impossible as any black person seized was not allowed to testify on their own behalf or allowed a trial by jury. This resulted in countless free blacks being kidnapped from their homes in free states and being sent down south to become slaves. As time went on many free states began instituting jury trials for accused runaways and even granted them legal representation. Since it was up to the judge in the locale where the runaway was found to pass judgement, the effect of the initial Fugitive Slave Act weakened as abolitionist attitudes became more and more widespread in the north. This is what led to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law which strengthened the provisions of the act back in favor of slave owners much to the detriment to both runaway slaves and free blacks.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law changed the responsibility for the recovery of runaway slaves to Federal, rather than local, authorities.  Federal commissioners were appointed and it was their responsibility to issue warrants and rulings on the cases. Federal marshals were tasked with carrying out the warrants and making arrests, once again circumventing any local authorities. But the new Fugitive Slave Law was more than just a redistribution of responsibilities. The new law provided for the payment of the Federal commissioners based on their judgements. If a commissioner found in favor of the slave owner and authorized the return of a runaway (or kidnapping of an unrelated free black man or woman) he would receive a fee of $10. If he ruled in favor of the black defendant, allowing him or her to go free, the commissioner would only receive a fee of $5 from the government. As you might expect, the financial difference made most commissioners find in favor of slave owners even when their evidence of identity was flawed or contradicted. The Fugitive Slave Law also increased the fine charged against those who knowingly and willingly obstructed or hindered the recovery of a runaway. Those found aiding runaways and obstructing their retrieval could face a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in prison. The most hotly contested part of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was how it made public assistance in the capture of runaway slaves mandatory. In the original 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, if one was asked by a person of authority for assistance in capturing a runaway, the person could decline. So long as they did not actively disrupt the efforts to capture the runaway there were no legal repercussions. The 1850 law, however, made it mandatory to assist Federal marshals recapture a runaway slave if asked. If any man over the age of 15 was commanded by a federal marshal to help him capture a runaway in the vicinity he had to comply or face arrest himself. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law essentially made every citizen of the United States a slave catcher and made all blacks, those born free and those who had escaped to freedom, subject to slavery on the command of any federal marshal or greedy commissioner.

It was for this reason that those free black and runaways who had the means escaped from the United States entirely in the 1850s. Many found refuge in Canada where communities of former slaves sprang up in Ontario. For those blacks who remained, especially those in rural areas or in close proximity to the borders of slave states, many formed self-protection societies. These groups would keep an eye out for gangs of slave catchers and federal marshals. They would pass word around about prospective “kidnappers” as they were called and come to the defense of those being forcibly abducted. One such protection society existed in the rural town of Christiana, Pennsylvania and it was informally headed by a runaway named William Parker.

The Call of Freedom

William Parker was born in about 1822, but like most enslaved people was never truly certain of his birthday or age. As he later recalled, “Slave holders are particular to keep the pedigree and age of favorite horses and dogs, but are quite indifferent about the age of their servants until they want to purchase. Then they are careful to select young persons, though not one in twenty can tell year, month, or day. Speaking of births, – it is the time of “corn-planting,” “corn husking,” “Christmas,” “New Year,” “Easter,” “the Fourth of July,” or some similar indefinite date. My own time of birth was no more exact; so that to this day I am uncertain how old I am.”

The location of William Parker’s birth was a sizable farm named Roedown Plantation. The farm still stands today in Anne Arundel County, Maryland near Davidsonville, Maryland. However, there are no extant buildings from Parker’s time there. The plantation belonged to a family by the name of Brogden, and by 1830, William Parker was considered the property of David McCulloch Brogden or, as he was known to the enslaved people on his farm, “Master Mack”. Growing up, Parker considered Master Mack to be a lenient owner who wouldn’t, “allow his hands to be beaten, or abused, as many slaveholders would, but every year [he] sold one or more of them, – sometimes as many as six at a time.”  When Parker was ten years old he witnessed his first slave sale when he and all the other slaves were called to the big house for inspection. Parker and another young boy ran after seeing the proceedings and hid in a nearby wood until the sale was over. When they returned, they found they had luckily not been missed, but Parker’s Aunt Rachel and her two children had been among those who had been sold away. It was then that William Parker states he first started contemplating escape to states north or to Canada. However, it would take him a few years more to do so.

As the years went on, Master Mack continued to sell off his slaves a few at a time. Parker began to resent the methods in which the enslavers kept their human chattel in check and the hypocrisy of their condition. “There were many poor white lads of about own age, belonging to families scattered around, who were as poor in personal effects as we were; and yet, though our companions, when we chose to tolerate them, they did not have to be controlled by a master, to go and come at his command, to be sold for his debts, or whenever he wanted pocket money…I felt I was the equal of these poor whites, and naturally I concluded that we were greatly wronged, and that all this talk about obedience, duty, humility, and honesty was, in the phrase of my companions, ‘all gammon.’”

Things finally came to a head for William Parker on a day in June in about 1839 when he refused Master Mack’s order to go to the fields to work. While Parker had managed to reject the white propaganda that had tried to convince him of the importance of obedience, he still felt that running away required a reason more than just a belief in personal liberty. After getting into a bit of trouble with Master Mack after following the orders of a nearby neighbor, Parker decided that he would force a final reason to warrant his escape. After refusing to go out to work, Master Mack, “picked up a stick used for an ox-gad, and said, if I did not go to work, he would whip me as sure as there was a God in heaven. Then he struck at me.” That strike was the final straw that William Parker needed to break free from the mental chains that had oppressed him. William Parker fought back and at 17 was a strong and muscular young man. “We grappled, and handled each other roughly for a time when he called for assistance. He was badly hurt. I let go my hold, bade him good-bye, and ran for the woods. As I went by the field, I beckoned to my brother, who left work, and joined me at a rapid pace.” William Parker was now a runaway.

William Parker’s escape route from Maryland to Pennsylvania

William Parker was one of the lucky ones. He managed to escape out of his neighborhood and make his way up to Baltimore. After hiding among the city’s black population for a week, Parker and his brother made their way up to York, Pennsylvania. Though now in a free state, this area of southern PA was filled with slave catchers and the pair was given advice to leave the area as soon as they could. The two men crossed over the Susquehanna River into Columbia, PA which was considered safe. It was here, in Lancaster County, that William Parker would make his home.

The Lion

Between his escape in 1839 and 1851, William Parker would be forced to live a fairly nomadic life in Lancaster County. While free from slavery, life was not easy for blacks in free states. The jobs open to blacks paid very little and consisted of only menial labor. The influx of Irish immigrants also created huge competition for even these low paying jobs.  Parker was fortunate early on to find a job with a nearby doctor who was an abolitionist. Parker lived with the doctor for over a year and often listened as the doctor read abolitionist newspapers aloud to him. At one point, Parker had the opportunity to attend a speech by the noted anti-slavery speakers, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass as he appeared in 1843, about the time William Parker heard him speak

In a strange twist of fate, Parker had met Frederick Douglass when both men were slaves in Maryland years before. The speeches made a lasting impact on Parker, specifically the one from Frederick Douglass: “I listened with the intense satisfaction that only a refugee could feel, when hearing, embodied in earnest, well-chosen, and strong speech, his own crude ideas of freedom, and his own hearty censure of the man-stealer. I believed, I knew, every word he said was true. It was the whole truth, – nothing kept back, – no trifling with human rights, no trading in the blood of the slave extenuated, nothing against the slaveholder said in malice. I have never listened to words from the lips of mortal man which were more acceptable to me.”

Though William Parker could not read, write or speak as eloquently as men like Frederick Douglass, he shared in their vision of the end of the abomination that was slavery. From his new home in Pennsylvania, Parker began making efforts to help out in his own unique way. While Lancaster County was considered a safer haven than other parts of Pennsylvania, it was still relatively close to the border with Maryland and, as such, was subject to gangs of kidnappers.

“Kidnapping was so common, while I lived with the doctor, that we were kept in constant fear. We would hear of slaveholders or kidnappers every two or three weeks; sometimes a party of white men would break into a house and take a man away, no one knew where; and again, a whole family would be carried off. There was no power to protect them, nor prevent it. So completely roused were my feelings, that I vowed to let no slaveholder take back a fugitive, if I could get my eye on him.”

Parker, along with a group of five to seven other black men made the decision to band together to protect their community against kidnappers.

“[We] had formed an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers, and had resolved to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives…Whether the kidnappers were clothed in legal authority or not, I did not care to inquire, as I never had faith nor respect for the Fugitive Slave Law.”

It was in this way that Parker became a de-facto black leader in Lancaster County. Though still a young man of about 17 when the mutual protection organization started, over the next twelve years he became a respected member of society in the region.  While there were many whites in the region who were considered abolitionists, most were “non-resistant” or non-violent Quakers. The protection society was run solely by blacks for their own protection. Over the course of 12 years, William Parker put himself in danger many times freeing those who had been kidnapped by slave catchers. In one of the more daring stories, William Parker was shot in the ankle after helping to free a kidnapped man. For this and other acts of bravery in service to his fellow-man, one of the local Quaker underground railroad stationmaster described Parker as, “as bold as a lion, the kindest of men, and the warmest and most steadfast of friends.”  Despite the danger to his own life that these recovery efforts caused, Parker was determined to protect his fellow-man.

Even after Parker married and started a family, his daring efforts did not abate. In about 1845, William Parker married another escaped slave from Maryland named Eliza Ann Howard. Little is known about Eliza’s life prior to her escape to Lancaster County. William Parker only stated that her, “experience of slavery had been much more bitter than my own.” William and Eliza had three children during their time in Pennsylvania. At the time the new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, William Parker and his family were living in a two-story stone home just outside of Christiana which they rented from a Quaker named Levi Pownall.

The home of William and Eliza Parker in Christiana circa 1890

The Parkers were joined in their home by Eliza Parker’s sister Hannah, and her husband Alexander Pinckney. In 1851, the extended Parker family also invited a fellow runaway from Maryland, Abraham Johnson, to live with them. William Parker and the other men of the house made a living working as farmers and laborers on the nearby farms of rural Christiana while maintaining their protection organization in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law.

The Runaways

A year before the newly strengthen Fugitive Slave Law was passed, four enslaved men named Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond  had made their way into Lancaster County. The men were runaways from a property called Retreat Farm in Baltimore County, Maryland. In November of 1849, they had stolen some grain from the barn of their enslaver, and had sold it in attempt to raise some money. Unfortunately, their middle man in the transaction, a free black with no land of his own to raise grain was questioned by the buyer as to where the grain had come from and he had admitted that he had acquired it from four slaves belonging to a Mr. Edward Gorsuch. When the four men learned that the scheme had been found out and that they would shortly be identified as the perpetrators in the theft, they made their escape. The theft of grain and subsequent escape of four of his slaves greatly disturbed fifty-four year old, Edward Gorsuch who considered himself a benevolent master.  Compared to other plantations in the region, Retreat Farm was a small piece of land and Gorsuch worked side by side with his slaves in the fields. As Anthony Rice, PhD wrote in his thesis, A Legacy Transformed: The Christiana Riot in Historical Memory:

“Gorsuch labored alongside his human chattel developing a paternalistic relationship common to the antebellum era where he considered his slaves inferior members of his household rather than simple African savages…These were all self-serving emotions no doubt, a master’s method for rationalizing the necessity of enslaving others and assuaging the guilt that process entailed, but to Gorsuch these feelings were very real in constructing a self-image of the kindly master watching over his loyal slaves. Weaned on a southern culture that regarded the practice of enslaving others as symbolic of a gentleman’s wealth and status, Gorsuch considered the escape of his slaves a disgraceful insult. It was a personal betrayal, an impudent act that embarrassed him in the eyes of the community and stained his personal honor.”

To Gorsuch, it was inconceivable that his slaves would leave their homes and his benevolent care to become desperate runaways with no one looking out for them. Gorsuch’s paternalist view of slavery, which saw blacks as needing white man’s protection and guidance, made retrieving his “boys” paramount to not only to restore his self-identity, but, in his mind, for the sake of his slaves own well-being. According to Gorsuch descendants in 1911, Edward Gorsuch “had such confidence in his benevolence as their master that he always believed if he could meet or communicate with his runaways he could get them back.” The idea of freedom for its own sake was clearly a concept that the slave owner could not accept. While Edward Gorsuch received a few leads that made him believe his boys had made their way to Pennsylvania his requests to the Pennsylvania Governor for assistance in recovering his slaves fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until nearly two years later (and the subsequent passage of the newly strengthened fugitive slave law) that Edward Gorsuch finally received some help in his search.

The assistance came via an unsolicited letter from a Lancaster County resident named William Padgett. Padgett wrote to Gorsuch stating he knew the location of the four men he was looking for and that if Gorsuch and a party would come up to Lancaster County, employ a federal marshal, and pay him for this knowledge, Padgett would lead the party to the runaways. As stated before, the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law created a lucrative business opportunity for slave catchers and informers in free states. According to a resident of Christiana at the time, William Padgett was a white farmhand and a mender of clocks. He would go around the county meeting runaway slaves. Through casual and seemingly friendly conversation, Padgett would learn where the runaways came from and the names of their former masters. He would then write to their masters, guide the slave catching parties and then get a reward. In this way, William Padgett betrayed many runaways to whom he portrayed himself as their “faithful friend”.

Original portion of the Gorsuch Tavern in Sparks Glencoe, Maryland

After receiving the letter from Padgett, Edward Gorsuch made preparations to take a party into Pennsylvania to capture the men. Local lore states that Gorsuch and his posse met to prepare for their trip in the old Gorsuch Tavern which still stands today in Baltimore County. The tavern had been built by one of Gorsuch’s ancestors and was situated on a farm adjacent to his own and belonging to his cousin. A highway marker in front of the old building mentions the tavern’s connection the subsequent events in Christiana.

The posse of slave catchers Edward Gorsuch assembled consisted of six: himself, his son Dickinson, his nephew Dr. Thomas Pearce, his cousin Joshua M. Gorsuch, and two neighbors, Nathan Nelson and Nicholas Hutchings.

A Watchful Eye

On September 8, 1851, Edward Gorsuch took an express train from Baltimore up to Philadelphia where he obtained four fugitive slave warrants the next day. Gorsuch was assigned a deputy marshal named Henry Kline to assist him in carrying out the warrants. Gorsuch also chose to employ two other officers to assist in the capture and paid them in advance. Unbeknownst to Gorsuch or Kline, the activities occurring in Philadelphia on September 8 and 9 were being observed by a secret vigilance committee of black abolitionists. The group, led by abolitionist William Still, had a series of men stationed around the fugitive slave offices whose aim was to intercept information about possible slave catchers and their activities. One of the agents learned that Gorsuch had been talking to Marshal Kline and then began shadowing Kline to learn of his destination. The agent’s name was Samuel Williams and when Gorsuch, Kline and the two other officers boarded a train departing Philadelphia late on September 9th, Williams followed them and even sat in the same train car as the posse. Samuel Williams had made no effort to hide himself and attempted to use his presence as a way of scaring the men off of their task. At one point in the journey, Kline got off the train early and Williams made the decision to continue following the marshal. Kline’s early departure from the train was to secure a wagon and a horse for the posse.

Dickinson Gorsuch was the second son of Edward Gorsuch and joined his father’s slave catching group in Christiana

The remaining men of Gorsuch’s group, including his son and neighbors were coming up from Baltimore on a different train. The plan was for them all to meet near Christiana in the early morning hours of September 10, meet up with Padgett the informer, and capture the men quickly and under the cover of darkness. In the meantime, all of the men, including Marshal Kline would make as though they were after a couple of horse thieves. Dickinson Gorsuch and the other men arrived outside of Christiana at around two o’clock in the morning of September 10. The large group now waited for Kline and the wagon to arrive. In a bit of bad luck for the slave catchers, however, the wagon Kline hired for the group broke down on his way to his destination and so he had to walk back to get another one. This delay caused Kline to miss his rendezvous with Gorsuch and the rest of the group just outside of Christiana. Not wanting to attract attention, the group retreated somewhat from Christiana. When Kline in his second wagon found there was no longer a group waiting for him at Christiana, he began roaming the backroads of Lancaster County looking for his group.

All the while Kline was being shadowed by Samuel Williams who had hired a horse of his own. In the early morning hours of September 10, Kline stopped in a tavern and asked if the bartender had seen any Marylanders stating that they were on the trail of horse thieves. The bartender replied in the negative and when Kline turned around he saw and recognized Samuel Williams behind him. Kline was likely unsurprised as he and the other two officers had also seen Williams on the departing train from Philadelphia. “Hello, Sam,” Kline remarked, “what are you doing here?” Samuel replied with, “Your horse thieves were here and gone. You might as well go home.” When Kline pretended not to understand Williams’ meaning the black abolitionist said to the marshal, “Oh, I know what you are about.”

Somewhere along the line of Samuel Williams stalking of Marshal Kline, Williams had become aware of Kline’s ultimate destination, Christiana. After their confrontation at the tavern, Williams left Kline behind and headed to Christiana where he began to spread the word that kidnappers were in the area. This news quickly made it to the ears of William Parker who said it “spread through the vicinity like a fire in the prairies.” All day on September 10, the region kept its eyes out for slave catchers.

Marshal Kline eventually found the Gorsuch posse at around 9:00 am on the 10th. It was now past dawn and too late for the men to make their attempt today. The presence of Samuel Williams had complicated things considerably. The two officers who had joined the group no longer felt they had the element of surprise on their side. They made arrangements to take a train back to Philadelphia. Gorsuch tried to persuade them to stay with the posse and even gave them more money to do so. The two officers took Gorsuch’s money and stated that they would return on the night train, bringing reinforcements with them if they could find some. The remaining group of seven men spent the day of September 10th in Gallagherville about 15 miles east of Christiana. At 11:00 pm the rested group boarded the outbound Philadelphia train to cover the final few miles to Gap which was situated just north of Christiana. The party was disappointed to find that not only were there no reinforcements on the train, but even the two officers had failed to return from Philadelphia as promised. At Gap the posse retrieved their rented wagon and met up with their disguised guide, who was almost undoubtedly their informer William Padgett. Gorsuch’s slave catching group set out under the cover of darkness in the early morning hours of September 11, 1851.

“Kidnappers!”

The posse traversed the backroads of Christiana when they came upon a house where the guide informed them one of the fugitives was living. Gorsuch sought to split the group in half, with some staying here to capture the one runaway and the rest moving on to get the others. Marshal Kline disagreed and believed they required all of the men to retake the fugitives. In the end, Gorsuch decided to leave this house unmolested for now. The runaway living in this home had a wife who was still enslaved by Gorsuch. After retrieving the other men, Gorsuch believed he could convince this runaway to return with him without much difficultly. The party continued on to the next home, which according to the guide was where two of the runaways were staying. At one point during the trip, the group stopped along the side of the road for a break. According to the Marshal Kline, “One of the party had a carpet bag, and we took out some cheese and crackers which we [ate], and we fixed our ammunitions and started.” The group’s progress was slower than expected and a soft light was beginning to glow as dawn approached rapidly. “It was a heavy, foggy morning” which aided in concealing the group even as the light began to grow. Finally, the posse arrived at a short lane leading to a home where two of the runaways were staying. The guide pointed to the home, a two-story house made of stone, and then left so that he would not be seen with the slave catchers.

As the remaining seven men, six Marylanders and Marshal Kline prepared to march up and enter the house, a black man came whistling down the lane. This man was Nelson Ford, one of Gorsuch’s runaways who was leaving the home early for work. In a moment, Ford locked eyes with the master he had fled from two years ago. The shared recognition was instantaneous. In a blur, Ford spun around and ran back up the lane. He threw open the house’s door and woke up the rest of the household with the yell of, “Kidnappers! Kidnappers!”  Gorsuch’s posse quickly moved to surround the house and prevent any escape and when that was done, Edward Gorsuch and Henry Kline barged through the open door after Ford. They found that the whole household had fled up the stairs and there were sounds of firearms and makeshift weapons being gathered above their heads. Despite this, Gorsuch believed that his success was at hand and that very shortly two of his runaways would be returned to him. He had the rule of law with him and was likewise confident in his own ability to bring his boys back into the fold. Unbeknownst to Gorsuch however, was that he and his posse had just entered the lion’s den for the man who owned this house; the man who was sheltering two of Gorsuch’s runaways was the lion himself, William Parker.

How long Nelson Ford and Joshua Hammond had been staying with Parker and his extended family is not known for certainty. One account said they had fled to Parker’s only the day before out of concern regarding the rumors of slave catchers. Other accounts make it appear that one of both of them had been living with the family for some time. Regardless when the Parker household ran upstairs they numbered the same as the slave catching group. There was William Parker, his wife Eliza, Hannah Pinckney and her husband Alexander, Abraham Johnson, Nelson Ford and Joshua Hammond.

When Gorsuch and Marshal Kline entered the home, the slave owner yelled for his boys to come down and give themselves up. He promised that if they surrendered themselves quickly and came away peacefully he would forgive them and treat them as kindly as before. He was there under the authority of the law and they had no choice. William Parker, appeared at the head of the stairs. “Who are you?” Parker demanded of the two men. Kline stepped forward and stated, “I am the United States Marshal.”

Entry for Henry Kline in the 1855 Philadelphia directory

“I told him I did not care for him nor the United States, “ Parker recalled, “I then told him to take another step, and I would break his neck.” With that, Kline retreated a step, attempting to cool the situation down a bit. He spent time reading aloud the legal warrants he carried with him for the capture of Ford and Hammond.

There were mixed emotions upstairs in the Parker home. Alexander Pinckney, himself a runaway slave, briefly felt the situation hopeless. “Where is the use in fighting? They will take us.” Marshal Kline overheard this statement and yelled up to the group, “Yes, give up, for we can and will take you anyhow.” Parker, the lion who fought for his people, urged Pinckney and the rest not to relent and reminded them of the greater cause they were fighting for. He urged them, “not to be afraid, nor give up to any slaveholder.” Parker announced downstairs that they were all willing to fight to the death in order to maintain their freedom.

Edward Gorsuch had grown tired of the continued parley. He believed Parker’s threat to be merely bluster and was determined he could reason with his boys if he could get them away from this blowhard. “Come, Mr. Kline, let’s go upstairs and take them. We can take them. Come, follow me. I’ll go up and get my property. What’s in the way? The law is in my favor, and the people are in my favor.”

Parker called down to Gorsuch stating, “See here old man, you can come up, but you can’t go down again. Once up here, you are mine.” With that a metal fishing spear was suddenly hurled down the stairs at the men. The projectile missed them but scared them enough to cause the two men to retreat outside the home for a bit.

Nothing was going according to Edward Gorsuch’s plan. How could this black man stand in the way of law and order? Who was he to defy not only Gorsuch but the laws of the United States? Angry, Gorsuch yelled up at the house demanding the return of his property. Parker answered him with, “Go in the room down there and see if there is any property there belonging to you. There are beds and a bureau, chairs and other things. Then go out to the barn; there you will find a cow and some hogs. See if any of them are yours.” Gorsuch replied, “They are not mine; I want my men. They are here, and I am bound to have them.”

Raising the Alarm

As William Parker verbally spared with Gorsuch and Kline, an unexpected sound arose from another of the house’s windows. Eliza Parker, sharing in her husband’s defiance, blew into a tin horn which emitted a loud trumpeting over the early morning countryside. The sound of a horn at an unusual hour was a local custom of alarm and brought neighbors promptly to the site of the alarm to see what the problem was.

“What do you mean by blowing that horn,” Marshal Kline angrily demanded and with that he ordered the other men in the posse to shoot at the trumpeter. Eliza Parker was suddenly engulfed in a barrage of bullets. She dropped down to the floor but did not give up her blowing. With the horn on the window sill and bullets ricocheting off of the stone walls, Eliza continued to blow the trumpet over and over again. It was these shots, fired by the gang of Marylanders at his wife, that Parker claimed were the first bullets that flew that morning. Parker and the other men upstairs in the house proceeded to fire down at the posse. The gunfire ended in a stalemate, with neither side inflicting a hit. Once again Gorsuch and Kline attempted to negotiate the household’s surrender with Kline highlighting the dangers in store for them if they should continue to resist.

Gorsuch called out to Parker, “Give up and let me have my property. Hear what the Marshal says; the Marshal is your friend. He advises you give up without more fuss, for my property I will have.” Parker once again denied having any property belonging to Gorsuch. “You have my men,” Gorsuch replied, once again forced to admit that he was seeking human beings. Standing in view of the window Parker asked Gorsuch, “Am I your man?” to which Gorsuch replied no. Parker then brought his brother-in-law Alexander Pinckney to the window and inquired, “Is that your man?” Gorsuch once again replied in the negative. Lastly, Parker brought Abraham Johnson to the window and repeated the question. Gorsuch again answered no. Rather than bringing Hammond and Ford forward, as they would undoubtedly be recognized, Parker was forced to bring Pinckney and Johnson in front of the window again having them pretend to be two more men not yet seen. Parker then told Gorsuch that those were the only men in the house, which Gorsuch knew to be a lie since he had seen Nelson Ford run into the home. At that point one of the other men in Gorsuch’s party, perhaps his cousin Joshua Gorsuch, attempted to use theology to end the situation to his group’s satisfaction. The man stated that while abolitionists claim men could not be property, the Bible was the conclusive authority and said otherwise. Edward Gorsuch, a religious leader back home who had instilled the importance of scripture into his own slaves took up this gambit.

The title page of an 1851 book defending the practice of slavery using biblical passages

“Does the Bible not say, ‘Servants, obey your masters?’” Gorsuch called out. Parker agreed that it did but counter that the book also stated to “Give unto your servants that which is just and equal.” At this point a mutual scripture inquiry began between Gorsuch and William Parker. Parker had been well-educated in the Bible during his time as a slave and knew all the arguments of obedience that Gorsuch would employ. During his time in Lancaster County, Parker had increased his knowledge of the Bible and was known as “preacher” to many in the area. The two men parried with each other, Gorsuch quoting Scripture in defense of slavery, and Parker quoting scripture in defense of liberty.

“Where,” Parker asked Gorsuch, “do you see it in Scripture that man should traffic in his brother’s blood?” To this accusation Gorsuch replied, “Do you call a nigger my brother?” When Parker replied yes, Edward Gorsuch became enraged. He screamed out, “My property I will have, or I’ll breakfast in hell!” and he stormed back into the house. Gorsuch was halfway up the stairs when he looked up and saw the Parker household all trailing their weapons on him. Gorsuch’s 25 year old son, Dickinson, rushed inside to stop his father. Dickinson, and the guns pointed in his direction, cooled Edward Gorsuch for the time being, but he was still determined to retrieve his property.

Upstairs in the house, Alexander Pinckney was losing his nerve once again.  The resolve in Gorsuch’s eyes a few moments before had shaken Pinckney up. “We had better give up,” Pinckney said to Parker. “I am not afraid…but where is the sense in fighting against so many men, and only five of us?” Pinckney apparently did not count the two women, Eliza and his own wife Hannah, amid the group of fighters. Parker tried once again to calm his brother-in-law but Pinckney was more adamant this time. “No, I will go down stairs”. To that Parker stated that if Pinckney made an attempt to go down the stairs he would blow his brains out himself. “Don’t believe that any living man can take you,” he said. “Don’t give up to any slaveholder.” Rallying support, Parker turned to his friend Abraham Johnson asked him what he wanted to do. Johnson replied “I will fight till I die.” At that moment, Eliza Parker also joined the call. The woman who Pinckney had completely disregarded a moment earlier seized up her weapon, a large corn knife, and “declared she would cut off the head of the first one who should attempt to give up.” With this display Alexander Pinckney, whether through fear, shame, or renewed passion, went back to his place at one of the second floor windows. From his vantage point, he witnessed a sight that removed any lingering doubts in his mind: the cavalry was coming.

Surrounded

A corn knife said to have been present at the Christiana Resistance

Eliza Parker’s blowing of the tin horn had echoed through the countryside. The local blacks, already on high alert from Samuel Williams’ warning of kidnappers in the region, answered the call quicker than usual. While the horn could also signal fire in the area, pretty much all of the black citizens came to the Parker house with some form of weapon. Like Eliza Parker, many carried long corn knives. Others had clubs and axes. Only a few had guns. The number of men who reported to the Parker home varies considerably from different sources. Witnesses at the subsequent trial would identify a group between 50 and 150, but most historians feel that this number is exaggerated given the number of people living in the vicinity of the Parker place. The true number of blacks who came upon the Parker home in response to Eliza Parker’s alarm may be as low as 15 to 25, but to the seven people huddled upstairs surrounded by slave catchers, those 15 to 25 men were an army.

It was now the posse of Marylanders’ turn to feel uneasy. Nothing had worked out the way they had planned. What was supposed to have been a quick extraction under the cover of darkness had turned into a prolonged and now crowded affair by the dawn’s early light. For quite some time the three distinct groups, Parker’s group inside, Gorsuch’s posse outside, and the gathering blacks surrounding them did nothing. Gorsuch refused to leave without his property despite the seemingly increasing danger.

Into this situation rode up two local white citizens, a Quaker storekeeper named Elijah Lewis and a miller named Castner Hanway. They had been alerted by local blacks that kidnappers were around William Parker’s place and that it was hoped they might help defuse the situation. As they arrived, they were greeted by Marshal Kline who was no doubt happy to see additional white faces. Lewis and Hanway informed Kline that they had been told that a kidnapping was underway here and they had come to see for themselves if it were true. Kline presented Lewis and Hanway a copy of his warrants for the two men inside the Parker home. Though abolitionists themselves, both Lewis and Hanway could see that the recovery of the Gorsuch runaways was perfectly legal and not a case of kidnapping in the literal sense. Kline then sought to employ Lewis and Hanway to assist in the capture of the men. Lewis and Hanway refused. Kline explained that the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law required them to assist him. Again, however, the two white men refused. They would not interfere with the legal capture of runaway slaves, but they would not be a party to it either, no matter what the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law said. Wanting to avoid any violence, the two men stated to Kline that they would assist him by attempting to persuade the assembled men to leave the area.

Castner Hanway, Elijah Lewis and Joseph Scarlett

As this was going on, an additional reinforcement arrived on Parker’s side. This man was Noah Buley, another of Gorsuch’s runaways who, rather than taking this moment to flee, came to the defense of Parker and his fellow runaways. Buley rode up on a horse, fastened it to the lane, loaded his gun, and watched. Lewis and Hanway’s attempt to disperse the gathered group of men was, unsurprisingly, unsuccessful. Hanway told the Marshal that, “the colored people had a right to defend themselves and [he] had better clear out, otherwise there would be blood spilt.” With that Elijah Lewis and Castner Hanway began riding out down the lane heading away from the home. Marshal Kline followed them on foot begging for them to try harder to disperse the group surrounding his posse.

The arrival of reinforcements and the retreat of Lewis and Hanway bolstered the group inside the house. As a sign of their strength and determination not to be taken, Parker and the men of the house, including Gorsuch’s runaways, exited the house and stood together. Edward Gorsuch was seething over what was occurring and over his slaves’ overt display of defiance. They were no longer hiding but were standing like equals in his presence and refusing to obey him. Some of the others in the posse, including Gorsuch’s son Dickinson attempted to convince his father to allow them to depart. But Gorsuch would not yield. Seeing his runaways in broad daylight openly defy him was the last straw.  “My property is here, and I will have it or perish in the attempt.”

Bloodshed

The exact details of what occurred next are difficult to know for certainty due to the conflicting accounts of those who were present. The most reliable accounting of events places an incensed Edward Gorsuch walking right up to the line of men outside of Parker’s home. Edward Gorsuch approached Joshua Hammond, one of the runaways he sought to retrieve. Hammond stated, “Old man, you had better go home to Maryland.” “You had better give up, and come with me,” shouted Gorsuch. At that, Hammond clubbed his former master with a revolver, knocking him down. When Gorsuch tried to get up, Hammond pistol-whipped him again. With Edward Gorsuch at the ground at his feet, Joshua Hammond took his revolver and fired once at his former master. Dickinson Gorsuch ran towards the men hoping to come to his father’s aid, when he was clubbed in the right arm causing him to drop his gun. Now disarmed, Dickinson turned to run when Alexander Pinckney unloaded two shotgun blasts on him. Dickinson was hit in the right side and crawled to a fence corner where he collapsed.

The remainder of the posse, who as you’ll recall were without horses of their own, could do nothing but run. Marshal Kline, Nathan Nelson, and Nicholas Hutchings were already a distance down the lane when the violence erupted at the house. They were able to make their escape following the departing Elijah Lewis. As attention was drawn on the beating of Edward Gorsuch, Dr. Pearce, his nephew, elbowed his way through the crowd, jumped the fence and ran down the lane toward Joshua Gorsuch who was standing near Castner Hanway’s horse. Dr. Pearce’s flight was followed by bullets which whizzed by him with one passing through his hat and grazing his skull. Out of the posse of men, it was only Joshua Gorsuch who got a shot off though it was fired wildly and at no one in particular. In making their escape, Dr. Pearce and Joshua Gorsuch found themselves running beside Castner Hanway. Dr. Pearce would later tell people that Hanway used his horse to shield himself and Joshua Gorsuch from the mob.  This protection did not last long however as Hanway did not want to endanger his own life for these slave catchers. He put the spurs to his horse and galloped down the lane. Finding themselves being overtaken, Pearce and Joshua Gorsuch split up. Pearce successfully made it into a field but Joshua was overtaken. A group of men beat him severely over the head with a gun but did not kill him. Joshua wandered away from the beating in a daze but was fortunate enough to run into Marshal Kline who took charge of the man and found him medical attention.

Dickinson Gorsuch’s thank you letter to Levi Pownall

Back at the Parker home, Edward Gorsuch, the 56 year-old Maryland slave holder, lay dead. Despite later newspaper accounts that stated that Gorsuch was beaten beyond recognition, the coroner’s inquest stated he only had a fracture of the left humerus (upper arm) and died from a single gunshot wound. Dickinson Gorsuch was bleeding from the over 70 shot he had received in the side from Alexander Pinckney’s shotgun when he was found by a local Quaker by the name of Joseph Scarlett. Acting as a sort of Paul Revere, Scarlett had been riding through the neighborhood raising the alarm of kidnappers at Parker’s and had only arrived on the scene after the shooting had stopped. Scarlett gathered up the critically wounded Dickinson and took him to the nearby farm of Levi Pownall. Dickinson would spend the next few days at the Pownall farm being tended to. He would later write in deep appreciation to the Pownalls for their assistance in his time of need.

Escape

The victory over the Fugitive Slave Law came at a high price. In the immediate hours after the resistance at Christiana, Gorsuch’s runaways fled the region, the assembled reinforcements returned to their homes, and William Parker, Alexander Pinckney and Abraham Johnson hid on the nearby farm of Levi Pownall, the same man who was at that time caring for the wounded Dickinson Gorsuch. At nightfall Parker and the other two inquired with Levi Pownall about Dickinson’s condition. Pownall told them that the young man was near death and that authorities would assuredly be arriving en masse soon.  According to author Anthony Rice:

“It was at this moment when the black men grasped the gravity of the situation they now faced. Their actions went beyond anything the mutual protection association had done in the past. This was not a case of beating up a few slave catchers and disappearing mysteriously into the night. Parker and his compatriots had blood on their hands; they were fugitive slaves who killed a respected slaveholder and gravely wounded his son before dozens of witnesses. Black had conquered white in a country that knew only the opposite and would demand its just recompense. Although they could claim self-defense, their resistance was so charged with political implications that receiving an impartial trial seemed remote. The black men soon came to the realization that one of two things awaited them in Pennsylvania – a prison cell or the gallows. They reluctantly decided to leave their friends and families behind in order to flee north and hopefully cross into Canada.”

The journey was undertaken with Parker, Pinckney and Johnson travelling together without their wives or children. The assumption that the women present in the home during the fight would not face trial proved to be a correct one for while Eliza Parker and Hannah Pinckney would find themselves arrested in the immediate aftermath, they would eventually be released without charge. The three men slowly made their way north. On September 20, nine days after the bloody dawn of the resistance, Parker and his group found themselves 500 miles from Christiana in Rochester, New York. They were on the final leg of their journey as a crossing of Lake Ontario to the north would find them in Canada. In Rochester, Parker, Pinckney and Johnson found shelter and assistance from a familiar Underground Railroad agent, noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

As stated previously, Parker had been acquainted with Douglass years before when they were both enslaved in Maryland. After escaping to Pennsylvania, Parker was incredibly moved after hearing Douglass speak in the area. Now, for the third time, their paths would cross and this time it was Douglass who was moved by Parker. As Douglass would later write in one of his autobiographies, “I could not look upon them as murderers. To me, they were heroic defenders of the just right of man against manstealers and murderers…What they had done at Christiana, and the cool determination which showed very plainly especially in Parker, left no doubt on my mind that their courage was genuine and that their deeds would equal their words.” Both Parker and Douglass knew the danger that the famous abolitionist was putting himself in for harboring the fugitives and so they only stayed over the course of a day while Douglass made arrangements for them to book passage on a ship bound for Canada. Despite the danger, however, word spread through Rochester’s abolitionist circle that William Parker, the hero of the Christiana Riot was stopping at Douglass’ home. In a short time, Douglass found his home inundated with visitors who wished to meet Parker. “The hours they spent at my house were therefore hours of anxiety as well as activity,” Douglass recalled. At 8 o’clock in the evening, Douglass rode with Parker, Pinckney and Johnson to the Genessee River where a steamer was scheduled to depart in 15 minutes. Douglass stayed on the steamer with the men until the last possible minute before providing them with ten dollars and shaking their hands. In gratitude for his help and for the work he would continue to do on behalf of the enslaved, Parker gave Douglass a parting gift, the revolver carried by Edward Gorsuch that Parker had picked up after the slave-owner’s death. With that, Douglass stepped off of the ship and watched as it departed down the river. In the next edition of Frederick Douglass’ weekly abolitionist newspaper, a front page story titled, “Freedom’s Battle at Christiana” contained specific details of the event that Douglass could only have gotten from Parker himself, but the article made no mention of the fugitives’ recent stopover in Rochester. Both Parker and Douglass would stay quiet about this part of the escape for years and even when Parker wrote about the event in 1866, he would still protect the identity of the “friend of mine” who aided them in Rochester.

Frederick Douglass and the other abolitionist newspapers would continue writing about the events in Christiana, working as a counterpoint to the propaganda being generated by Southern newspapers. When news of the event flashed across the nation it was subsequently dubbed the Christiana Riot by the pro-slavery South. The number of “rioters” numbered in the hundreds instilling fears of massive slave uprisings. Sensational stories regarding the condition of Edward Gorsuch’s body and the savage treatment it received abounded. Gorsuch, it was said by some newspapers, was scalped, riddled with bullets, and was even said to have had his genitalia cut off. The demand for justice over Gorsuch’s death was widespread and it was only in the abolitionist newspapers that the event was given its proper context.

Retribution

Christiana was beset by gangs of men of differing levels of authority in the aftermath of the resistance. Local police, federal marshals, and even forty-five marines were dispatched to the small Pennsylvania town to arrest those responsible. Added to these deputized groups were also the roving gangs of Marylanders and slave catchers who took advantage of the confusion. The posses ran rampant over the area, kicking in doors, tearing up houses under the guise of looking for the fugitives, and attacking residents both black and white. Warrants were made out for the three white men who had been present during and after the battle. Elijah Lewis, Castner Hanway, and Joseph Scarlett were carted off to Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia where they would remain until tried. This condition was also suffered upon by countless blacks in the area who were rounded up in the ensuing days.

Ezekiel Thompson, one of the men actually present at the Christiana Resistance who suffered arrest and imprisonment.

Francis Lennox, a white Christiana schoolmaster, recalled the days’ scenes, “There were a number of United States Marines; I asked one what they were doing here; he said, ‘We are going to arrest every nigger and damned abolitionist…’ I walked away. Sure enough they scoured the country for miles around arresting every colored man, boy and girl that they could find.” The resistance at Christiana was the pretext for a widespread incarceration of the black population in Lancaster County. Even those blacks who had white neighbors vouching to the fact that they were nowhere near the Parker home were taken away. Countless slave catching groups used the opportunity to kidnap suspected runaways and take them south for a profit. After a few days the arrests stopped as local abolitionists decried the mass and unwarranted arrest of the citizenry. Marshal Kline was then required to identify those among the imprisoned who were actually present at the riot. He was aided in this nearly impossible task by a local black man named George Washington Harvey Scott, who Kline had identified among those present at the riot and had arrested. Scott provided corroborating testimony and helped Kline identify among the other arrested blacks who had been present. In the end, 38 individuals were indicted in the murder of Edward Gorsuch, including the absent William Parker and his men.

A monument erected in 1911 in Christiana lists the 38 men indicted in Edward Gorsuch’s death. Click to enlarge

The trial of the Christiana resistors had deep implications to those in the South. The case was far more than the murder of a single slaveholder, but spoke of open and bloody defiance against the Fugitive Slave Law. Residents of the South had severe doubts over the ability of a Pennsylvania jury, tainted with their abolitionist views, to mete out justice and prevent disunion. Governor Louis Lowe of Maryland wrote an open letter to President Millard Fillmore pressuring the federal government to take action in this case on behalf of law and order, “I do not know of a single incident that has occurred since the passage of the Compromise measures, which tends more to weaken the bonds of union, and arouse dark thoughts in the minds of men, than this late tragedy. Nor will its influence and effects be limited within the narrow borders of our States. They will penetrate the soul of the South. They will silence the confident promise of the Union men and give force to the appeals of the Secessionists.” Gov. Lowe made himself clear, “There is but a single corrective,…the most complete vindication of the laws and the fullest retribution upon the criminals.”

In the end, the Fillmore administration realized the precarious nature of their position and the need to appease the South to prevent Civil War. Thus the United States government elevated a murder trial of a Maryland slaveholder into the largest treason trial in American history. The bloody defiance of a few blacks in Christiana was deemed not just the breaking of the Fugitive Slave Law but fomenting of insurrection against the entire United States government.

The Trial of Castner Hanway

The task of proving treason was the job of John W. Ashmead, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Ashmead decided the best course of action was to try the defendants individually rather than as a group. Ashmead would start with his strongest case first portraying the subsequent defendants as following this ringleader. In the end, the government sought to portray the white miller, Castner Hanway as the defacto leader of the treasonous group of blacks. While the bloody actions of the resistors were without question, the prejudiced thinking at the time held that the idea of rebellion could not have started in the underdeveloped minds of these negroes. Surely it was the abolitionists and the white residents of Christiana like Castner Hanway who poisoned the minds of these otherwise obedient blacks. Even the court that sought punishment for the ultimate crime against the government could not acknowledge the independent and equal thought of the perpetrators because of their race.

While it was the government’s strongest case, there was an understanding in the Fillmore administration that a verdict of treason was highly unlikely given the evidence. Hanway was a fairly recent arrival in Christiana and, though anti-slavery in feeling, he was not known to be an ardent abolitionist. Among the biggest pieces of evidence against him was the testimony of Marshal Kline. Kline claimed that upon Hanway’s arrival on the scene, the occupants of the Parker home let out a cheer of joy. Kline believed that the blacks were reinvigorated by the presence of Hanway, their leader. In truth, the shout of joy was in response not to Hanway’s appearance, but the growing crowd of armed blacks come to the Parkers’ defense. In addition, Kline says that it was just after Hanway and Lewis went up to the assembled blacks that the violence erupted resulting in Gorsuch’s death. Kline believed that Hanway gave the blacks the signal to attack the posse. Supporting Kline in these assertions was Harvey Scott, the same black man who had helped to identify the others present at Parker’s. The defense poked holes in this testimony, noting how Hanway had actually helped shield Dr. Pearce and Joshua Gorsuch as they were fleeing from the mob, hardly the actions of an abolitionist leader bent on insurrection against slaveholders.

In addition, when the defense cross-examined Harvey Scott, the young man admitted on the stand that everything he had stated before was perjury. Scott admitted he had been arrested in the chaos that followed the resistance but had not even been at the house. Kline identified him as one of the men present even though he was not. Kline threatened Scott, telling him if he did not assist him he would suffer the same fates as the others and so Scott committed perjury to protect himself. This revelation on the stand caused an audible laughter from the assembled crowd. Here was one of the government’s key witnesses admitting that he was coerced into testifying falsehoods. Despite this setback, Ashmead and the rest of the prosecution continued with their case of treason. They attempted to show that the entire existence of Parker’s mutual protection organization (which they unsurprisingly attributed to Hanway and the other white residents for encouraging) was evidence of open treason and a group determined to levy war against the laws of the U.S. When the time came for the closing arguments, the prosecution was sure to mention the dire predictions for the future should the verdict fail to uphold the law, “Bigots, fanatics, and demagogues have endeavored to stimulate the populace to illegal and monstrous acts.” The prosecution warned that if agitators such as Castner Hanway were not stopped they, “would bring upon this country of ours civil war, disunion, and all that is horrible.”

On December 16, 1851, the jury for the Christiana treason case retired from the trial room in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. After only fifteen minutes of deliberation the jury reconvened in the courtroom and brought a verdict of “not guilty” in Castner Hanway’s case of treason. Likely prepared for this outcome, U.S. Attorney Ashmead declared that the government would not try Hanway for the lesser charges against him. Hanway was a free man once again. All other treason charges against the remaining defendants were dropped.

One of the sides of the Christiana Memorial relays the verdict in Castner Hanway’s treason trial

Justice

While Hanway and the remaining white defendants were set free, the bulk of the black defendants were still facing state charges of riot and murder. When a group of nine men were transferred back to Lancaster County on December 31, 1851, the local district attorney found the evidence presented was insufficient to warrant their detention and trial. The nine men were released that same day. In January of 1852, the lawyers for the remaining defendants charged with rioting and murder being held in Philadelphia filed suit against Marshal Henry Kline for making false statements under oath. This indictment gave the lawyers some bargaining power. On January 16, a settlement was made where neither the charges against Kline nor against the remaining defendants would be prosecuted by the state. The remaining Christiana prisoners were released and returned home.

Peter Woods, another participant in the Christiana Resistance, was imprisoned but eventually let go. This photograph of Woods is taken about 60 years after the event.

One last case relating to the Christiana Resistance was brought up in January of 1852. This time it was a federal case against Samuel Williams, the black abolitionist who followed Gorsuch’s party to Christiana and warned the region about the kidnappers. According to his defense lawyer the case against Williams was taken up merely to “avoid the implication of imbecility” after the government’s loss in the treason cases. Williams was charged with a federal misdemeanor for obstructing the fugitive slave law. This was the same punishment that Kline had threatened Elijah Lewis and Castner Hanway with when they failed to assist him at Parker’s. Kline was called as the chief witness against Williams and, though the case was fairly straight forward from a legal perspective, Kline’s tarnished reputation worked against him. The fatigued nature of the Christiana trials and the fact that one of Williams’ defense lawyers was the son of the presiding judge in the case, resulted in Williams being found not guilty. The Christiana Resistance ended with no one being held accountable for the death of Edward Gorsuch or the defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law.

Despite the verdicts of not guilty in the Christiana cases, the warnings of Civil War did not come to fruition at that time. The gambit that the Fillmore administration enacted had worked out. The Federal government had come to the aid of the Southern states and had charged treason against those who defied the Fugitive Slave Law. Though the Southern states were furious at the outcome and continued to speak out against the traitorous northerners who defied the law, the process had appeased them to some degree.

William Still, an abolitionist leader in Philadelphia

For abolitionists the Christiana Resistance and subsequent trials provided a surprising windfall of new sympathizers to their cause. William Still, the black abolitionist leader in Philadelphia, wrote that the Christiana case was, “doubtless the most important trial that ever took place in this country relative to the Underground Rail Road passengers, and in its results more good was brought out of evil than can easily estimated…The tide of public sentiment changed – Hanway, and the other ‘traitors’ began to be looked upon as having been greatly injured, and justly entitled to public sympathy and honor…”

Frederick Douglass likewise wrote that the affair at Christiana, “inflicted fatal wounds on the fugitive slave bill. It became thereafter almost a dead letter, for slaveholders found that not only did it fail to put them in possession of their slaves, but that the attempt to enforce it brought odium upon themselves and weakened the slave system.” Or as William Still more succinctly put it, after Christiana, “…slave holders were taught the wholesome lesson that the Fugitive slave Law was no guarantee against ‘red hot shot’.

Canada

The aftermath of the trials did nothing to alleviate the dangers faced by William Parker and his men. They knew that if they returned to the United States they would face punishment. So, the three men began building lives for themselves in Canada. Eliza Parker and Hannah Pinckney joined their husbands two months after the resistance. They had been arrested and released twice, and Eliza had put her children under the care of her mother and other neighbors. Upon learning that her former master had been made aware of her location, Eliza fled north without her children to avoid capture. In time William and Eliza Parker’s three children would join them in Canada. The Parkers, Pinckneys, and Abraham Johnson took up residence in a black community in what is now North Buxton, Ontario.

Known then as the Elgin settlement, the region had been settled in 1849 by a Presbyterian minister named William King. Rev. King was an Irishman by birth but had immigrated to America and had married into a Louisiana slaveholding family. After the death of his wife, Rev. King inherited a number of her slaves. After doing some missionary work in Canada, Rev. King came up with the idea of starting a community of black pioneers and former slaves in Canada. Starting with his own former slaves, the colony grew quickly over the next few years. Within three years of its founding, over 130 families had settled in Buxton, including the Christiana fugitives. While Rev. King maintained a place of honor among the residents, all of the day-to-day operations of the community were enacted by the black citizenry. When Frederick Douglass visited the colony in 1854, he held it to be one of the greatest proofs that the black man, “can live and live well, without a master, and can be industrious without the presence of the blood-letting lash to urge him on to toil.” Out of nothing but 9,000 acres of forest, in just over four years the residents of Buxton had built themselves a school, church, store, hotel, blacksmith shop, pearl ash factory and dozens of family homes. They cleared and planted rich fields of corn, grass and grain and boasted over seven hundred residents. On his own 50 acre plot of land, William Parker built a home for his growing family.

Even in Canada, William Parker’s fame followed him. A 1856 editorial in The Provincial Freeman described him as “A Noble Fellow” and that “a hundred such villains as Kline of Pennsylvania, would be made to tremble and quake before the masterly eye of such a man as Mr. Parker.” When visiting Canada to give speeches on abolition, Frederick Douglass stated that Parker and “his noble band…who defended themselves from the kidnapper with prayers and pistols, are entitled to the honor of making the first successful resistance to the Fugitive Slave Bill.”

John Brown, Jr. circa 1857

Parker’s fame eventually brought him to the attention of a 38 year-old white abolitionist who was looking for black recruits to take part in plot against slaveholders. The man wrote a letter on August 27, 1859 to another member of the plot detailing having met a man of great interest in Buxton. Writing in code due to the sensitive nature of their plot, the recruiter never gives Parker’s name but the description provided perfectly matches the hero of Christiana:

“At (‘B-n’) I found the man, the leading spirit in that ‘affair,’ which you, Henrie refered to. On Thursday night last, I went with him on foot 12 miles; much of the way through new paths, and sought out in ‘the bush’ some of the choicest. Had a meeting after 1 o’clock at night at his home. He has a wife and 5 children; all small, and they are living very poorly indeed, ‘roughing it in the bush,’ but his wife is a heroine, and he will be on hand as soon as his family can be provided for. He owes about $30; says that a hundred additional would enable him to leave them comfortable for a good while.

After viewing him in all points which I am capable of, I have to say that I think him worth in our market as much as two or three hundred average men, and even at this rate I should rate him too low. For physical capacity, for practical judgement, for courage, and moral tone, for energy and force and will, for experience that would not only enable him to meet difficulty, but give confidence to overcome it, I should have to go a long way to find his equal, and in my judgement would be a cheap acquisition at almost any price.

I shall individually make a strenuous effort to raise the means to send him on.”

The author of his letter was John Brown, Jr. and he was recruiting for his father’s upcoming plot to start an armed slave revolt by raiding the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The ill-fated raid occurred two months later but, despite Brown’s glowing endorsement of Parker and how hard he would work to make him a part of his father’s plan, there is no further evidence that Parker took part in this event. Perhaps Brown could not come up with the money needed to bring Parker into the fold. Regardless, it is eerily coincidentally that William Parker was involved, in some manner, in two of the most notable slave rebellions in the pre-Civil War years.

Life and Death

The issue of slavery finally came to a head in the United States and Civil War broke out in 1861. Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, granted African-Americans the ability to enlist and fight on the side of freedom. Of the three men who took up residence in Buxton, it was Alexander Pinckney who answered the call to fight on the side of liberty. The man who was once fearful at the sight of a slave catching posse in his yard travelled south and enlisted in March of 1863. He joined the most famous of the colored regiments, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, where he was promoted from private to sergeant. Alexander Pinckney was one of the soldiers who took part in the famous Battle of Fort Wagner, which is well-known today due to it being the subject of the 1989 film Glory. Pinckney survived the unsuccessful charge on Fort Wagner and when the Fort was finally abandoned by the Confederates in September of 1863, Pinckney was assigned as one of the permanent boatmen who ferried men between the fort and the mainland. Pinckney was discharged from the service in August of 1865 and subsequently moved with his wife Hannah to Michigan where their trail runs cold.

The ultimate whereabouts and fates of Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond, the four men who set all of these events in motion when they stole grain from Edward Gorsuch in 1849 is unknown. They are said to have escaped up to Canada following the incident at Parker’s farm.

Dickinson Gorsuch survived his near fatal wounding and returned home to Maryland. For the rest of his life, his side would be pitted from the shotgun blasts he received from Alexander Pinckney. He lived and worked on the family farm until his own death in 1882.

Abraham Johnson, the man who vowed to “fight till I die” when Gorsuch’s party surrounded his home lived out the remainder of his life in the Buxton settlement, living on a plot of land right next to the Parkers. He married, had a family and his descendants continued to live on his original farm until just a few years ago.

After an inquest was held, the body of slain slaveholder Edward Gorsuch was transported back to Maryland. On September 14, three days after his death, Edward Gorsuch was laid to rest in a small private cemetery on his Baltimore County property. Dickinson was not present at his father’s funeral as he was still recovering at the Pownall’s farm in Christiana. The funeral was conducted by Gorsuch’s eldest son, Rev. John Gorsuch. The cemetery the elder Gorsuch was placed in was bounded on all sides by a low stone wall with no door or gate. A 1911 book commemorating the Christiana incident contained this single image of the small cemetery:

Through a  great deal of sleuthing it was discovered that the cemetery still stands today. Surrounded by trash and overgrown with vines, weeds, and other thorny plants, the cemetery is located next to a private home only a quarter of a mile away from the tavern from which the slave catcher planned his ill-fated journey.

The cemetery today, as in 1911, contains only three small headstones that are almost impossible to find among the brush.

It is said that the center stone, belonging to Edward Gorsuch is marked by his initials E.G. but the current state of the cemetery made it impossible to see these markings.

Edward Gorsuch’s assumed gravestone

The Parkers

William and Eliza Parker spent many happy years together in Buxton. By 1871, they had 10 children together, seven of which had been born in Canada. During their time in the Elgin settlement William began taking classes at the local school and he possibly learned how to read and write at that time. As early as 1858, there was interest in publishing William Parker’s life story. After the Civil War had ended, Parker was assisted by other educated black men to pen the story of his life. Titled, The Freedman’s Story, Parker’s biography was published in two parts in the February and March 1866 issues of the Atlantic magazine. Though some later historians questioned the authorship of this piece, certain details contained in the narrative could have only come from Parker himself. Others may have assisted Parker in improving the manuscript, but the story is definitely Parker’s.

In the summer of 1872, over twenty years after the event that caused him to flee, William Parker returned to Christiana for the first time. He visited his old home which still stood and was entertained by many of his old friends who still resided in the area. Among those he visited with were Peter Woods and Samuel Hopkins, two men who had been present at the resistance two decades before. Parker was the guest of honor at the commencement of Lincoln University, a black secondary school and college situated some 15 miles south of Christiana. The school had been founded in 1854 partly due to the attention the Christiana Resistance had brought upon the plight of blacks in Pennsylvania. It appears that Parker remained in Christiana throughout the summer as he was also present at a meeting of the black citizens on August 30, 1872 regarding the upcoming Presidential election.

It appears that sometime during Parker’s visit to Christiana in 1872, he became reacquainted with a woman he had known twenty years before named Martha Simms. Martha’s husband Henry Simms had been one of the men present at the resistance and was later imprisoned as one of the 38 indicted for treason. He, like the others, was released and returned home. Henry Simms died not long before Parker’s return to Christiana.

Apparently William Parker became infatuated with the widow Simms during his visit and the two ran off together. Peter Woods was under the impression that Parker was a widower himself and took Martha Simms back with him to Canada. However, Eliza Parker was very much alive and caring for the couple’s ten children whose ages ranged from 26 down to 1. William Parker and Martha Simms did not go up to Canada, but instead settled in Kenton, Ohio, some 480 miles from Christiana and 200 miles from Buxton. According to descendants of Abraham Johnson, when William Parker made his 1872 trip down to the United States, he was never heard from again by Eliza or their children. For the rest of their days, they assumed William had been the victim of foul play due to his notoriety.

Living in Kenton, William Parker was a member of the Masonic order and was known to his neighbors to have been an agent of the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. It does not appear that anyone connected him with the famous William Parker of Christiana fame. William Parker and Martha Simms lived as husband and wife for almost 20 years.

1880 census record showing William Parker and Martha Simms living as husband and wife

William Parker’s death came on April 14, 1891, when he was about 70 years old. He was buried in Kenton’s Grove Cemetery. Though William Parker has no stone of his own in his Grove Cemetery plot, there is a unique marker which bears his surname. In 1880, two of Martha Simms’ daughters from her marriage with Henry Simms died within six months of each other. They were buried in a plot in Grove Cemetery and shared a grave stone. William Parker was buried next to these women upon his death in 1891. When Martha Simms Parker died in 1919 she too was buried in the plot. On the stone which contains the names of Martha Simms daughters, there is the faint inscription of the name “PARKER”.

The memorial to Martha Simms’ daughters in Grove Cemetery, Kenton, Ohio which contains the Parker surname. Photo courtesy of Peyton J. Ennis

The Parker name in Grove Cemetery, Kenton. Photo courtesy of Peyton J. Ennis

Eliza Parker was perhaps the true hero of the Christiana Resistance. As a young woman, Eliza had the strength to escape from her especially bitter enslavement to start a new life in Pennsylvania. She gave birth to, and cared for, three children while her husband put himself in danger running his mutual protection organization. When the battle for freedom arrived at her door, it was Eliza who saved them all by raising the alarm even in the face of bullets directed at her. When her husband had to make his escape, she stayed behind and faced imprisonment in his place. It was only the certainty of a return to slavery that caused her to make her own escape, temporarily leaving her children behind. She braved a pioneer life in Ontario, helping to build a home out of the unfamiliar forest and land. And when her husband disappeared in 1872 never to be heard from again, she persevered and raised her ten children alone. Eliza Parker died on May 28, 1899 but as late as 1969, she was still fondly remembered by her aged grandchildren. In 2013, one of her descendants erected a plaque next to her faded grave in Buxton. The plaque notes that Eliza was “a heroine in the tumultuous time preceding the Civil War”.

Eliza Ann Parker’s Grave in North Buxton, Ontario. Photo courtesy of Douglas Gammon and ckacemeteries.ca

Remembering

While the memory of the Christiana Resistance has faded somewhat from public consciousness, it has never been totally forgotten. The town of Christiana itself has been on the forefront of preserving this story. In 1911, the first memorial to the Christiana incident was erected.

The Christiana Memorial outside of the Zercher’s Hotel.

The tall obelisk stands in front of the Zercher’s Hotel where the inquest over Edward Gorsuch’s body was held. The memorial, erected during the tumultuous time of Jim Crow laws and lynchings, deals almost solely with the white participants in the event and is titled with “In commemoration of the Christiana Riot, September 11, 1851 and the Treason Trials Sept. 25 – Dec 17, 1851”. One on side, the monument states, “Killed Edward Gorsuch He died for Law” and goes on to list Dickinson and Joshua Gorsuch as being wounded. Another side mentions Castner Hanway’s treason trial and that “He suffered for Freedom”. The final side merely lists the names of the 38 men who were indicted. In more recent years, more work has been down to truly address the legacy of the Christiana Resistance. In 2009, the Christiana Historical Society installed a second marker next to the obelisk which gives special attention to William Parker as more than just a name on a list.

The plaque, affixed to a large stone, states, “Dedicated to the Memory of William Parker ‘Bold as a Lion’ A leader in the Fight for the Freedom of his People. September 11, 1851.” This plaque serves as an important counterpoint to the dated 1911 obelisk.

Sadly, the home of William Parker in the Christiana countryside no longer stands. The home was continually occupied until about the 1880s. As time went on the owners of the home get tired of the visitors who wanted to visit the site of the infamous riot and left the house to fall apart.

Resistors Samuel Hopkins and Peter Woods outside of the ruins of the Parker home before it was torn down.

In the 1890s the house was in a dilapidated condition and it was finally demolished by the farm’s owner around 1898. A historic highway marker stands on the outskirts of Christiana, about a third of a mile north of the house site.

In 2008, archaeology was undertaken which found the foundation of the home but the site remains on private property. Today, the Parker home site sits in the middle of fields belonging to an Amish family.

The home of William Parker sat on the field between the creek and the tree line on the left hand side of his photograph.

Radicalizing an Assassin

In closing, it is worth noting that the Christiana Resistance is connected to the assassin of President Lincoln. In the fall of 1849, eleven year-old John Wilkes Booth began attending the Milton Academy located in Baltimore County, Maryland.

The boarding school (which still stands today as an upscale restaurant) was located only two miles down the road from the Gorsuch farm and was where many of the Gorsuch clan were educated. One of Booth’s classmates at the Milton Academy was Thomas Gorsuch, the youngest son of Edward. Though three years Booth’s senior, the two boys developed a friendship and it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine that Booth may have visited his friend’s nearby farm.

Booth was still attending the Milton Academy in September of 1851 when Thomas’ father was killed in Christiana. How the death of his friend’s father, and the subsequent acquittal of all those involved impacted the young man is unknown but it is likely such events during his formative years helped to turn John Wilkes Booth against the cause of abolition.

Nine years later, in December of 1860, John Wilkes Booth had just come off his first series of engagements as a star actor which had put in the Southern states of Alabama and Georgia. The election of Abraham Lincoln a month earlier instigated the beginning of the secession crisis. While staying with his mother and sister in Philadelphia, the twenty-two year old actor witnessed several oratories given by northerners opposed to secession. Hearing the eloquent speakers motivated Booth to write his own speech to counter the attacks on the South and help others see the injustices the southern states had endured. In the speech, Booth mentions the events in Christiana as one of those injustices.

“The fugitive slave law. Gentlemen, when I was a school boy, my bossom friend was a boy 3 years my senior named Gorruge [Thomas Gorsuch], he was as noble a youth as any living. He had two brothers grown to be men. And an old father who loved and was beloved by them. He was all that a man of honour should be. Two of his negroes committed a robbery, they were informed upon. They nearly beat the informer to death. they ran away from Maryland, came to this state [Pennsylvania]. The father, the two sons, and the boy, my playmate, came to this state under the protection of the fugitive slave law (not only to recover their property, but to arrest the thieves who belonged to them)[…]”

Unfortunately this paragraph marks the end of a page and the rest of the manuscript after this page has been lost to history. So while we cannot be certain of what additional details Booth was going to include about the Christiana Affair, it is clear that this event helped shape Booth’s view of who was and who wasn’t on the right side of the law. Though in the speech Booth rallied against disunion he nonetheless expressed his belief that a reckoning had finally come between the north and the south.

“Riot”

The Christiana Resistance was an important precursor to that reckoning of Civil War. The compromise bills of 1850 had hoped to bridge the gap between the northern and southern states, but the bloody conflict in Christiana only widened the fissure between abolitionists and enslavers. The country may have always been destined to cleanse the evil of slavery away by war, but the events of September 11, 1851 made that course abundantly clear. Christiana paved the paths to both the end of slavery through Civil War and the first American presidential assassination.

The newspapers called the event the Christiana Riot as a form of propaganda against those black men and women who struck out against an unjust law. Most historians today correct this bias by referring to it as the Christiana Resistance. But even if the name Christiana Riot is left, it still can be applicable. When those in power through oppression refuse to listen, sometimes riot is the only language that can reach their ears. The men and women in Christiana, Pennsylvania followed in the footsteps of our country’s forefathers when they were forced to commit treason to gain their liberty. Though imperfect beings, William Parker and his neighbors were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of freedom. While corn knives and pistol balls can bring chaos and bloodshed, they can also lead to a new birth of freedom.

References:
Resistance at Christiana: The Fugitive Slave Rebellion, Christiana, Pennsylvania, September 11, 1851 by Jonathan Katz (1974)
Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North by Thomas P. Slaughter (1991)
The Freedman’s Story by William Parker (1866)
The Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials of 1851: an Historical Sketch by William U. Hensel (1911)
Commemoration of the Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials of 1851 Souvenir Program (1911)
A Legacy Transformed: The Christiana Riot in Historical Memory by Anthony Rice (2012)
“Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper
Christiana Resistance Collection – Moores Memorial Library
The video is a clip of Lancaster County historian LaVerne “Bud” Rettew demonstrating the sound Eliza Parker’s tin horn made on the morning of September 11, 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania. It is from the following interview Mr. Rettew did in 2011.

Special Thanks To:
Peyton J Ennis of Delaware, Ohio who confirmed, visited and photographed the final resting place of William Parker in Kenton, Ohio.
Bryan Prince of North Buxton, Ontario who was the first one to discover William Parker’s death in Kenton. Bryan was kind enough to share his expertise on the Christiana Resistance and provide Eliza Parker’s will.
Shannon Prince of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, North Buxton, Ontario
Trish Nigh and Douglas Gammon of ckcemeteries.ca for their permission to use their photographs of Eliza Parker’s grave in North Buxton, Ontario.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Grave Thursday: The Spangler Family

On select Thursdays we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


The Spangler Family

Burial Location: Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, Pennsylvania

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

In 1865, Ford’s Theatre carpenter and scene-shifter Edman Spangler was put on trial for his alleged participation in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Edman Spangler had known the actor John Wilkes Booth for several years and was one of the carpenters who assisted in the construction of the Booth family home, Tudor Hall, in Harford County, Maryland. Spangler’s friendship with Booth, his pro-Confederate sympathies during the war, and the fact that Booth often asked favors of Spangler (including the request for Spangler to hold his horse on the night of April 14th) caused Edman to be tried alongside the others who were involved in Booth’s plot against the government. In the end, the government could not prove that Spangler had any foreknowledge of the assassination plot but he was still found guilty of, “having feloniously and traitorously aided and abetted J. Wilkes Booth in making his escape.” For this, Edman Spangler received a sentence of 6 years in prison at Fort Jefferson.

Prior to his friendship with John Wilkes Booth, however, Edman Spangler had been born and raised in York, Pennsylvania. Edman’s family had been in York since his great grandfather, Baltzer Spangler* immigrated to the area from present day Germany in 1732. Baltzer was one of four Spangler brothers who established homes in the York area around this time. In 1760, Baltzer built a two-story brick mansion on what was then the outskirts of York.

The Baltzer Spangler House circa 1904

After Baltzer’s death in 1770, this home was inherited by one of his sons, George Spangler, who was Edman Spangler’s great great uncle. The home stayed in the family until the 1840s when it was sold. By 1850, the home had been transformed into a school run by a British veteran of the War of 1812 named Charles Henry Bland. The school was known as Sherwood’s School and also colloquially as Bland’s Academy. Clarence Cobb, a former student who attended the academy in the former Spangler home later recalled that, “Bland’s boys learned but little and were taught less. There was no system, no regular course of study, nor recitation. Bland’s school failed utterly, at the last. The old gentleman secured employment thereafter, as a steward, at Fairfax Seminary, Va., back of Alexandria. I am informed that he lived to a great age. He believed in corporal punishment and plenty of it. Perhaps his extensive exercise as a whipping-master was the cause of his health, vigor and activity. He never whipped me as I think I may say I was a good boy, but, I thought, he used to whale the bad boys for fun.”

When giving his reminiscences of Bland’s Academy in 1916, Cobb also recalled one of his former classmates at the time.

“John Wilkes Booth, whom we always called Jack, attended school there for only a few weeks in 1853.”

Cobb is the only source we have that John Wilkes Booth spent time at Bland’s Academy. We do know from period sources that Cobb was a classmate of Booth’s when the two boys both attended the Milton Boarding School in Cockeysville, Maryland together from 1849 – 1852. Cobb gives a vivid description of Booth as a student while at the Milton Academy but doesn’t say anything specific about his time at Bland’s. If John Wilkes Booth did attend school in York it would have been in the fall of 1853 and also would have represented the end of his formal educational career. In his authoritative volume, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, researcher Art Loux stated that Booth “may have” attended Bland’s Academy, perfectly demonstrating the lack of supporting evidence. So, while it has not been proven with certainty, it is still somewhat eerie that a young John Wilkes Booth may have been educated, albeit briefly, in a home built by the ancestor of a future conspirator.

Sadly, the Baltzer Spangler house, home to the short-lived Bland’s Academy, no longer stands today. Instead, the 400 block of Prospect St. in York is the site of rowhouses.

Drive by of the former site of Bland’s Academy, about 420 Prospect Street, York, PA

Another son of Baltzer Spangler who inherited some of the property around the Spangler home was Edman Spangler’s grandfather, John Spangler. John and his wife, Margaret Beard, were the parents of eight children before John’s death in 1796. In the 1890s, when a Spangler genealogist was working on a book about his ancestors, he found an extraordinary relic among John Spangler’s belongings:

“In the old and handsome family Bible of John Spengler, was found by the writer a letter in German, alleged to have been written by God Himself and delivered by an angel at Madgeburg, Germany in 1783. It exempted the possessors from lightning, fire and water. A century ago it made a profound impression.”

The letter discovered in John Spangler’s bible was a fairly common document in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities at the time. Called a himmelsbrief or “heaven’s letter”, these papers were a mixture of Christian scripture and magic, claiming to ward off misfortune as long as the owners abided by the moral covenants instructed by the letter. In essence, these letters were an early form of chain letters with a healthy dose of Christian teachings to make them popular. The Madgeburg letter found in John Spangler’s bible was one of the most common versions of himmelsbrief. You can read more about these interesting chain letters here.

The second of John and Margaret Spangler’s children was William Spangler. William was born on September 21, 1785. He likely spent quite a bit of time in the old Baltzer Spangler home owned by his nearby neighbors and cousins. Around 1814, William married a woman named Anna Maria and they began their family together. They would have at least 5 children between the years of 1815 – 1825. The youngest of their children was Edman Spangler, born on August 10, 1825. Less than six months later, on February 12, 1826, Anna Maria Spangler died, leaving William a widower with several young children. To help support his young family, William Spangler became the sheriff of York County in 1827. He served a three year term which ended in 1830. William married again that same year. His new wife was named Sarah “Sally” Spangler. Sarah was a widow herself having been previously married to William’s first cousin once removed. She fulfilled the much needed role of mother to the Spangler children, including Edman. William and Sarah had one child of their own, Maria Jane, who was born in 1834.

As perhaps a harbinger of the misfortune to befall the Spangler family and the nation a few years later, Edman’s older brother Theodore Spangler died on April 15, 1852 at the age of 36. Thirteen years later would see the death of President Lincoln on the same date.

The news of Lincoln’s assassination spread quickly and, in a short while, the Spangler family in York began reading of their son and sibling’s name in connection with the great crime. William Spangler, now an old man of 79 years, wrote a letter to his son asking him to explain the circumstances he found himself in. Below is William Spangler’s letter to Edman with his numerous misspellings and complete lack of punctuation unaltered:

“York April

Dear Son This is to let you no that we are all in good Heath except my selfe I am Getting worse in my leg and Arm I can Scarcily do aney Work but I thank my God That my Bodey heath is Good I have no particulars to wright Onley this that our Family is in grate distres That your name is mentiond In So maney papers About you In this murder of the Chief President now if you Will gratfy us to hear of you The truth of the matter and The reason of your name in Almost everey paper in the Countrey You can certainly Let me no the truth about The Matter I expected A Letter from you as you might have reconsiled our Family much by Sending us the truth of all you no About it there is so much About it in the Nues that We cannot no the truth And as the[re] is So much Suspicen I dont want to wrigh More than I want to no wat you no about it if you Wright and think that your Letter is or may bee Suspicious Take it to the post office and Let it bee red by some of the Members of the post office My hand is so lame that I can scarceley hold the pen Dear Son Do answer this Imediatley From your Affecinate father God bee with you Wm Spangler”

What response, if any, Edman composed to his father is not known. In the end, William and the rest of the Spanglers in York read about the conspiracy trial and Edman’s subsequent six year prison sentence to Fort Jefferson.

Despite his advanced age, William Spangler lived long enough to see his son’s release from prison in March of 1869. Spangler, Dr. Mudd, and Samuel Arnold each received a pardon from outgoing President Andrew Johnson. The forth conspirator sentenced to prison at Fort Jefferson, Michael O’Laughlen, had died of a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1867. Spangler returned home but it’s not clear if he went to York. Shortly after his release he was right back at work as a theater carpenter for John T. Ford. A staunch believer in his employee’s innocence, Ford had bankrolled Spangler’s defense at the conspiracy trial and the efforts to get him released from prison. Likely out of appreciation, Spangler went to work at Ford’s Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore.

On July 7, 1873, Edman Spangler’s step-mother, Sarah Spangler, died in York at the age of 80. It is unknown if Edman attended her funeral. In September of 1873, the Holliday Street Theatre suffered a devastating fire which destroyed the building. When that happened, Spangler retired from the theater scene and bid goodbye to John T. Ford. Rather than making his way north to York, Spangler headed south to the farm of Dr. Mudd in Charles County, Maryland. Though strangers to each other prior to Lincoln’s death, the two had become friends during their shared imprisonment. Dr. Mudd welcomed Spangler into his home with open arms and even gave Spangler his own piece of land to live on and work. On February 7, 1875, at the age of 49, Edman Spangler died at the Mudd farm . On February 9th, he was buried by the Mudd family at the original St. Peter’s Cemetery.

William Spangler actually outlived his infamous son, but only by a few months. The elder Spangler died on October 28, 1875 at the age of 90. In 1882, Maria Spangler, the daughter of William and Sarah and half-sister of Edman Spangler, died and was buried with her parents.

Today, there are four Spangler gravestones standing in Section S, Lot 236 of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pennsylvania, all of whom are related to conspirator Edman Spangler.

Graves of John and Margaret Spangler, Edman Spangler’s grandfather and grandmother.

Grave of Maria Jane Spangler, half-sister of Edman Spangler

Grave of William and Sarah Spangler, Edman’s father and stepmother

There may be other Spangler relatives buried in the same plot as those pictured above such as Edman Spangler’s biological mother and his brother who died on April 15, 1852. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, a fire destroyed a large chunk of the records at Prospect Hill Cemetery. If additional Spanglers are buried in this plot unmarked, they are known only to God now.

In the end, it’s a bit unfortunate that Edman Spangler is buried so far away from the rest of his kin. York was such a big part of his family’s story and Prospect Hill Cemetery is filled with many more of his cousins, uncles, and aunts. Yet Edman Spangler lies in a small rural cemetery far away from any member of his family. Sent to prison for his alleged involvement in Lincoln’s death, it appears that, in at least one way, Edman Spangler never really came home.

References:
The annals of the families of Caspar, Henry, Baltzer and George Spengler, who settled in York County, respectively, in 1729, 1732, 1732, and 1751 : with biographical and historical sketches, and memorabilia of contemporaneous local events by Edward W. Spangler (1896)
June Lloyd’s research on her Universal York blog
York County Heritage Trust
“J. Wilkes Booth at School: Recollections of a Retired Army Officer Who Knew Him Then” by James W. Shettel, The New York Dramatic Mirror, February 26, 1916 Part 1, Part 2
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux
Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD
Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA
Thanks to Colleen Puterbaugh at the James O. Hall Research Center for confirming Edman Spangler’s death date for me after I found conflicting newspaper obituaries claiming he died a week later.
*As was common at the time, many of Edman Spangler’s ancestors anglicized their names when they immigrated. Baltzer Spangler, for instance, was born, Johann Balthasar Spengler. The last name of “Spengler” would slowly change over a couple generations to “Spangler”. For ease of reading, I have used the anglicized names and modern surname of Spangler.

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

An Assassination Cane

An Interesting Artifact

The collection of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tennessee contains many fascinating artifacts relating to the 16th President. Among their collections is a cupboard made by Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln; a china set owned by the Lincolns in their Springfield home; a lock of Willie Lincoln’s hair taken from his head after his death; and a massive archive of art, books, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera relating to Lincoln. One of the most famous artifacts in the museum, however, is an ebony cane topped with a sterling silver knob handle which bears the inscription “A. Lincoln”.

Compared to modern canes which are mainly used as functional tools to assist in walking and balance, this 35.5 inch long cane owned by Lincoln was solely a fashion piece. Short canes, or walking sticks, were very common accessories for men during the Victorian era. Many men carried canes as evidence of class and elaborate canes were common affectations designed only to impress or convey prestige. For example, Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was often photographed with walking sticks. Since Booth would often give out these photographs to friends and admirers, the cane helped to subtlety reinforce his self-image as a member of high society.

While Lincoln was not known to crave prestige, canes were also often presented as gifts. Visiting dignitaries often received decorative canes as tokens of esteem. There are many accounts of Lincoln being presented with canes during his career as a lawyer and politician.

The question remains then, why is the Lincoln cane at the ALLM one of the highlights of the museum’s collection? What sets it apart from any number of canes that are said to have been owned or presented to Lincoln? Well, this cane is said to have been with Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Provenance

The Lincoln cane arrived in the collection of the ALLM on September 10, 1929. It was given to the museum by a former resident of Troy, New York named Joseph Mayhew. In his donation of the cane, Mr. Mayhew included two notarized letters conveying the history of the cane. One letter was written by Mr. Mayhew and the other was by his sister, Emma Cuenin nee Mayhew. The following is from Emma’s affidavit:

“In 1875 my father, Stephen Mayhew, was the proprietor of a grocery and meat market at the corner of Fifth and Ferry Streets, Troy, N.Y. After school I would often wait on the customers who came into the store. This was when I was about 11 years old.

I remember a man and his wife named Phelps trading at the store. Phelps was an actor. He would purchase groceries and meats and then charge them. When his bill amounted to about $40.00 and he was unable to pay he offered father Abraham Lincoln’s cane in lieu of the bill. Father accepted the cane as payment in full.

Phelps related how he became possessor of Abraham Lincoln’s cane, saying that he, Phelps, was an actor having a minor part in the play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. on the night President Lincoln was assassinated. In the excitement that followed Lincoln’s being shot Phelps entered the President’s box and seeing the cane in the corner where Lincoln left it he picked it up and kept it as a memento.

Father often carried the cane, making no secret that it at one time belonged to President Lincoln.”

Stephen Mayhew continued to own and display Lincoln’s cane to his friends and neighbors. According to the affidavits, the display of the cane caused jealously among a certain Troy resident who sought to claim the cane as his own.

“Some litigation was started concerning the cane, as a man named Kisselberg though he would like to gain possession of it. My father’s interests in the matter were defended by a lawyer named Palmer. After spending some money and time in the courts Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale in order that a clear title could be obtained. It was bought in for my father.

During the litigation a letter was written to Lincoln’s son concerning the cane, in which it was explained how father became possessor of it. Lincoln’s son replied, stating that as long as father had obtained it through an honest debt he was entitled to it.”

Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit contains a bit more detail regarding the legal battle concerning the cane, but fails to mention the detail regarding Robert Todd Lincoln’s involvement in the case:

“At a later date, when it became generally known that my father had the cane in his possession, it was seized by the local authorities. It was kept for a time by the Sheriff of Rensselear County and also in a jeweler’s safe. This jeweler’s name was Kisselberg and his place of business was on River Street in Troy, N.Y.

My father took legal action to recover the cane. He engaged a lawyer, named Palmer. Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale and bought it in for my father so that my father would have a clear title to it. The litigation cost my father between eighteen hundred ($1800.00) and two thousand ($2000.00) dollars.”

After recovering his property, Stephen Mayhew continued to own Lincoln’s cane. In 1914, Stephen gave the cane to Joseph. The elder Mayhew died in 1917.

With these two pieces of evidence in hand and a priceless, highly fought over, silent witness in their collection, the assassination cane has been a centerpiece of the ALLM’s collection for years.

Recently, I have been looking through my files relating to my own visit to the ALLM back in 2014. Though I was only able to spend a brief period of time researching in their archives, I was amazed at the breadth of their collection. I previously did a blog post about a letter owned by conspirator Samuel Arnold that is in the museum’s collection. In revisiting my files, I decided it would be worthwhile to publish a quick post about the Lincoln cane with the intention of bringing about some more awareness to this unique artifact. After a bit of research into this cane and the provenance behind it however, I have come to an unexpected conclusion.  I do not believe this cane was at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Research

Near the end of Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit he mentions that when his father finally presented the cane to him, it was also accompanied by, “a copy of ‘The Trojan Observer,’ a newspaper dated Monday, January 26, 1880, and published at Troy, N.Y. This newspaper contains an account with reference to the Lincoln cane.” It turns out that the seizure and legal battle concerning the cane was a newsworthy event. The local Troy papers talked about the recovery of the cane and how it would, undoubtedly, be returned to Robert Todd Lincoln. The story of Lincoln’s cane was reprinted across the country. The newspapers, likely getting their information from Stephen Mayhew, reported that the man who recovered the cane was named A. R. Phelps, the stage name of actor Alonzo Raymond Phelps. This name concurs with the Mayhew children’s statements years later. Also helpful to the Mayhews’ statements is the fact that Alonzo Phelps, for a brief period of time in the mid 1870s, did reside in Troy, NY as evidenced by his inclusion in a Troy city directory.

From this point onward, however, the evidence against the cane’s provenance begins to add up. By consulting Thomas Bogar’s impeccably researched book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, one finds that Alonzo Phelps did not perform in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre that night. He was not part of the Ford’s stock company and was not a member of Laura Keene’s visiting troupe. The idea that Phelps was acting at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s death is not supported by the evidence.

The question then becomes, if Phelps did not perform at Ford’s Theatre that night, was it possible for him to be there in the role of an audience member instead? Unfortunately, that does not appear to be likely.

The entry for A. R. Phelps in the 1870 edition of Brown’s History of the American Stage states that, “in 1854 [Phelps] sailed for California, in company with the Denin Sisters, where he opened in ‘Love’s Sacrifice,’ on April 10 of that year. He remained on that coast, playing through California, Oregon, Nevada, etc., until 1866, when he took the overland trip to New York.” Further research demonstrates Phelps’ long residence in California where he worked as both an actor and a theater manager. In 1856, for example, A. R. Phelps and fellow actor Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. leased the Union Theatre in San Francisco. Among the actors the business partners brought in that season was June’s younger brother, Edwin Booth, who was just beginning his starring theatrical career.

Phelps stayed in California during the course of the Civil War and the evidence indicates that Phelps was likely still in California when Lincoln’s assassination occurred. In addition to the entry in Brown’s History of the American Stage which states that Phelps did not return east until 1866, we also find A. R. Phelps’ name in the 1864 and 1865 city directories for San Francisco. Newspaper advertisements also indicate that he was performing at the Metropolitan Theatre in San Francisco as late as March of 1865. With the journey between San Francisco and New York lasting about a month in those days, it is extremely unlikely Phelps was on the correct coast when Lincoln was assassinated. The bulk of the evidence points to him still being in California when Lincoln was killed.

With it having been established that Phelps was not performing at, or likely even near, Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the provenance of the “assassination” cane is dealt a significant blow. What is interesting, however, is that this is not the first time the authenticity of the cane has been questioned. In fact, the true history of the cane may have very well been established back in 1880 when the initial reports went out about its recovery from Stephen Mayhew. An article, originally published by the Troy Evening Standard and reprinted by other newspapers across the country, gives a different history of where this cane came from:

“Many years ago, when President Lincoln was a poor lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he carried about with him a plain ebony cane, with a silver ferrule, marked ‘A. Lincoln.’ The cane may have cost $5.

When Lincoln found himself in Washington he still carried the old ebony, being loath to part with his old friend. One day a delegation of friends waited upon and presented him with an elegant modern cane with an elaborately engraved gold handle. He accepted the gift more to accommodate his friends than to please himself. The old cane was given to a trusty valet who often frequented a prominent restaurant in Washington, where nightly assembled many professional men, actors, lawyers and musicians. Among the number was A. R. Phelps, the first manager of the Grand Central Theatre. Hard pushed for money, the valet pawned the cane with the proprietor of the restaurant, and from the latter it passed into the hands of Phelps. In his vocation as a theatrical manager and actor Phelps struck Troy some three or four years ago, and assumed the management of the Grand Central Theatre for Thomas Miller, the proprietor. Finally adversity overtook him. Misfortune fell heavily upon him, and he with his wife and six children was left in the direst distress, and he pawned the cane to a down-town citizen for $25. He then left town and has not since been seen here…”

If accurate, this article paints a very different story as to the circumstances surrounding Alonzo Phelps’ attainment of Lincoln’s cane. Rather than having retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre, Phelps is said to have received the cane as a gift from a restaurant proprietor in Washington on an undetermined date. In addition, the article claims that the cane was one purchased by Lincoln himself while living in Springfield and given away by the living Lincoln when he received a different one in Washington. While the article does not provide any sources for the history behind Lincoln’s cane, it is clear that at least some research was undertaken in its reporting. The article gives the circumstances of Phelps’ residence in Troy in the mid-1870s stating that he was the theatrical manager of the Grand Central Theatre. This appears to be backed up by a January 20, 1877 article in the New York Clipper which announced that Phelps was to receive a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central Theatre.

However, there are some small discrepancies in the article as well, such as the amount Phelps owed to Mayhew ($25 vs $40) and the number of children Phelps had at the time (6 vs 5). In addition, the article goes on to recount the involvement of Robert Todd Lincoln in attempting to recover the cane:

“Robert T. Lincoln, son of the dead President, learning that the cane was in this city, corresponded with Chief Markham with a view of obtaining possession of it. Yesterday morning Markham received track of its whereabouts and served a search warrant upon the proprietor of a meat market at the corner of Federal and North Fourth streets. There the cane was recovered. In the police court yesterday afternoon, before Justice Donohue, the matter of the disposition of the cane was taken up, and postponed for two weeks. It is supposed Phelps gave the cane as security for the meat consumed by his family.”

According to this article, Robert Todd Lincoln was taking an active role in the recovery of his father’s cane. This is in contrast to the Mayhews’ statements which claim the seizure of the cane was brought upon by a jealous and covetous neighbor and that it was a letter by Robert Lincoln which allowed them to retrieve the artifact. After some further digging, however, it appears that neither set of these circumstances are true.

Between 1903 and 1926, Robert Todd Lincoln maintained a correspondence with a former journalist named Isaac Markens of New York. Markens was studying Abraham Lincoln and wrote many letters to Robert asking him questions about his father. Markens published a few pamphlets on Abraham Lincoln and was said to have been working on a full biography of the President that was never completed. In the 1960s, the 82 letters written by Robert Lincoln in answer to Isaac Markens’ questions were donated to the Chicago Historical Society. In 1968, the CHS published the bulk of the letters as a book titled, A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the Letters by his Oldest Son. While the book does not contain the original letters Markens sent to Robert, it seems clear that at one point Markens came across one of the 1880 newspaper stories regarding the assassination cane and decided to ask Robert about it. The following is part of a letter Robert Lincoln sent to Markens on January 25, 1918 in which he discusses the cane:

“The story about the cane is queer. I think I should have remembered any such events as are described in it if they had occurred, and I do not. I do not think there is a word of truth in the story. I do not own any cane ever possessed by my father, and I never took any interest in any such cane. He never used a cane himself at all. At various times in his life there were presented to him canes. I remember such things, but he never cared anything about them, and gave them no attention. I think it is true that after his death my mother gave away to servants some canes which had come to him in Washington, for which none of us had any regard whatever. Such canes may be in existence, but they possess no real interest in connection with my father.

Very sincerely yours,

Robert T. Lincoln”

In this letter, Robert Lincoln makes it clear that he never had any involvement regarding a cane belonging to his father. This is in contrast to both the newspaper articles and the affidavits from the Mayhews. Nevertheless, Robert Todd Lincoln is a more reliable source on these matters than the other two and his statement must carry the most weight.

Conclusions

We are left with an “assassination” cane whose provenance is full of holes and half-truths. Each piece of the story can be broken down into categories of likely and unlikely.

It seems likely that Alonzo Phelps gave Stephen Mayhew a cane in exchange for a debt the actor owed the grocer. This piece of the story is consistent across all sources and there is evidence that places Phelps in Troy during the applicable time period.

It seems highly unlikely that Alonzo Phelps retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Evidence proves that Phelps was not performing at Ford’s Theatre in direct contradiction to the claims of the Mayhew family. Given Phelps’ established residence in California up until March of 1865, it seems incredibly unlikely that he was even in Washington, D.C. that fateful night.

It is unlikely that this cane was even carried by Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. For this point we have two pieces of evidence. The first, and admittedly weaker, piece of evidence is Robert Lincoln’s assertion that his father did not regularly carry a cane. Since Robert was not a witness to his father’s assassination, this piece alone does not prove much. However, there was an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination who publicly disputed the idea that Lincoln carried a cane with him that night. After the story of Lincoln’s cane was published across the country in 1880, a brief retort was published in Washington, D.C.’s the Evening Star. The article stated, “The story telegraphed from Troy about the recovery of a cane stolen from Mr. Lincoln’s box in the theater on the night of his assassination, is pronounced by Mr. Charles Forbes, who was an usher at the White House at the time, to be false, as Mr. Lincoln had no cane with him.” Though the brief article failed to mention it, Charles Forbes was far more than just a White House usher. Forbes had accompanied the Lincoln party to Ford’s Theatre that night and he was the one sitting outside of the President’s box when John Wilkes Booth approached. Booth presented Forbes with a calling card of some sort and Forbes allowed Booth entry into the box. Forbes is a very reliable witness in this matter and his claim that Lincoln had no cane with him that night is further evidence against the cane’s reported history.

Charles Forbes, the man who sat outside of Lincoln’s box and allowed John Wilkes Booth to enter. He denied Lincoln carried a cane that night.

After looking at all of the evidence, I do not believe the “assassination” cane held by the ALLM was ever with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The most likely history of this cane, in my mind, was largely laid out by Robert Lincoln. We know that Abraham Lincoln was presented with many canes during his lifetime. The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection contains an entire file folder of clippings relating to Lincoln canes. In addition to ones gifted to him, Lincoln himself was known to present canes as gifts. In 1864, for example, 19 silver headed ebony canes were purchased by the government and presented to the 19 governors of the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico. Each of these canes were engraved with the name of the governor and also the name of the President “A. Lincoln”. In his letter, Robert Lincoln mentions how, after his father’s death, Mary Lincoln gave away canes that had been presented to her husband. I believe a situation similar to this likely occurred with the cane at the ALLM. Somehow, perhaps from a restaurant owner in D.C. as the newspaper account stated, Alonzo Phelps acquired a cane that had, at one time, been owned or presented to Abraham Lincoln. Phelps cherished the cane until he was forced to part with it in Troy in the 1870s to Stephen Mayhew. Over time, either through outright lies or faulty memories, the story of the cane morphed, giving it a far more dramatic backstory. Lincoln Memorial University was more than happy to acquire this unique piece for their growing Lincoln collection and the two notarized statements from the Mayhew children were provenance enough in the 1920s. However, with the help of modern tools and resources, we can more deeply investigate the provenance behind artifacts like the Lincoln cane. While such investigations may lead to disappointing conclusions, like the debunking of a cherished Lincoln artifact, the process is an important part of evaluating and reevaluating what we think we know about the past.

References:
Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM)
Provenance records for President Lincoln’s cane at the ALLM (80.0379)
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
San Francisco Theatre Research: Theatre Buildings Vol. XV Part 1 edited by Lawrence Estevan
History of the American Stage (1870) by T. Allston Brown
San Francisco City Directory, Oct 1864 and Dec 1865 accessed via Ancestry.com
“Lincoln’s Cane” Troy Evening Standard article reprinted in the San Francisco Bulletin, February 2, 1880
A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Letters by his Oldest Son edited by Paul M. Angle with assistance of Richard G. Case
Charles Forbes Statement in the January, 23, 1880 edition of the Evening Star
Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection: Canes Owned by Lincoln file, Cane – Assassination file
“At the Griswold Opera-House, Troy, N.Y. …The veteran actor and manager A. R. Phelps, and wife, who recently resigned from the Griswold Opera-house, are to be the recipients of a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central.” – The New York Clipper January 20, 1877

Categories: History, News | Tags: , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Lewis Powell at Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg is among the most well-known of all Civil War battles. While, today, many view it as an important turning point of the Civil War, Gettysburg’s original notoriety was derived from the sheer number of soldiers who fought and died there in July of 1863. Over one hundred thousand men from the Union and Confederate armies fought in the foothills of Pennsylvania during the three day battle. Four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln would speak at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg to honor the sacrifice of the Union soldiers who were lost during the fight. His speech, known as the Gettysburg Address, is among one of the greatest speeches ever written and it also helps to propel the Battle of Gettysburg in the minds of people today. Many wonderful texts have been written about the actions of the famous Union and Confederate officers who squared off in this pivotal battle. The movements of their units are depicted and recounted on monuments and signs throughout the Gettysburg National Military Park. In the sea of ranks, infantry, and units, it is difficult to adjust one’s view to consider the stories of individual soldiers. To each soldier who fought, Gettysburg was its own unique experience with very few being exactly alike. However, as Walt Whitman so noted, “the real war will never get in the books,” and so many of the stories of the common men and women of the Civil War are unrecorded. However, thanks to the research of author Betty Ownsbey, we do know at least some of the Gettysburg experiences of a 19 year-old private with the 2nd Florida Infantry named Lewis Thornton Powell.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Lewis Powell was a teenager living in Hamilton County, Florida. The Sunshine State seceded from the Union in January of 1861, and shortly thereafter Lewis made up his mind to enlist in the Confederate army. On May 30, 1861, Lewis Powell joined up with the Hamilton Blues which later became a company of the 2nd Florida Infantry. Powell was 17 years old at the time of his enlistment, below the age requirement of 18. To get around this, the tall and muscularly built Powell claimed to be 19 years old.

In a time before widespread identification methods, Powell was apparently taken at his word. It wouldn’t be the last time Powell would lie about his identity.

Powell’s early military career was plagued by visits to base hospitals for different illnesses. Despite this, when his one year term of serviced ended in 1862, Powell chose to re-enlist for the duration of the war and claimed the $50 bounty that was offered for re-enlistment. As part of the 2nd Florida Infantry, Powell saw battle during the Peninsula Campaign and at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the summer of 1863, the 2nd Florida Infantry became a part of the Army of Northern Virginia and were, therefore, present at the Battle of Gettysburg.

At Gettysburg, Powell’s unit was part of Perry’s Brigade, which consisted of the 2nd, 5th, and 8th Florida Infantry combined. While the brigade was named for Brigadier General Edward Perry, a future governor of Florida, Perry had contracted typhoid fever during the Battle of Chancellorsville and was not present in Gettysburg. Instead, Perry’s Brigade was led by Col. David Lang.

Col. David Lang was Lewis Powell’s brigade commander during the battle of Gettysburg.

On July 1st, the first day of battle at Gettysburg, the 700 plus men of Perry’s Brigade did not see battle. They, as part of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s Division, were too far to the rear to engage with the Union. By July 2nd, the Union forces had established a fishhook line around Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill just to the southeast of the city of Gettysburg. During that morning, Anderson’s Division had moved closer to the front and took refuge in a patch of woods running from Seminary Ridge southward. Perry’s Brigade was located just north of the Peach Orchard. At 6:00 pm, Perry’s Brigade advanced forward along with the rest of Anderson’s Division. They attacked Brig. General Andrew Humphreys’ Second Division, forcing the Union to abandon several artillery guns as they retreated. Despite the push and the large number of casualties the Confederate forces inflicted on Humphreys’ Division, they were not able to advance to Cemetery Ridge as planned. The Union Infantry on the slope of the ridge prevented further advancement. Union reinforcements pressed in on their right flank and made the ground Perry’s Brigade had gained untenable. Perry’s Brigade, and the rest of Anderson’s division, were pushed back into the woods that they started from.

After pushing the Confederates back, the Union advanced, “recovered the artillery that had been abandoned and captured many prisoners and held the position during the night.”

One of the prisoners that was captured by the Second Division was a wounded Lewis Powell who had suffered a gunshot wound to his right wrist. While we do not know the exact circumstances surrounding Powell’s wounding, it is safe to say that it occurred after 6:00 pm on July 2nd, as Perry’s Brigade was making either their advance or retreat. He may have fallen on the field and not been found until the next morning, as his records state he was captured on July 3rd. Regardless of the exact circumstances, Powell was now a wounded prisoner of war. After his capture, Powell was sent about 2.5 miles to the southeast to a field hospital that had been established by the Twelfth Corps on the farm of George Bushman.

The brick building which served as the main hospital at Bushman farm still stands today. Powell was one of about 1,200 wounded soldiers brought in for triage style treatment, with the majority of these being Union soldiers not Confederate prisoners of war like himself. Powell is recorded to have been a patient in the the 12th Army Corps Hospital on July 4th. On July 6th, Powell was transferred from the field hospital to the larger makeshift hospital that had been set up on the grounds of Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College). The Confederates had seized Pennsylvania College on the first day of battle and had converted one of the buildings, Pennsylvania Hall (also known as the Edifice), into their own field hospital. When the Confederates were forced to abandon the hospital, the Union took it over.

Penn Hall circa 1878

Penn Hall, 2017

Though Powell arrived at the Penn Hall hospital for his own recovery, before too long he found his position at the hospital expanded from patient to nurse. Even with his arm in a sling, Powell started to provide assistance to the doctors and stewards in their care for other wounded Confederates. During his service at Penn Hall, Powell was described as, “good at the work, and kind to the sick and wounded.” The fact that Powell had been previously laid up in other hospitals during his early military career no doubt helped him in his assumed position.

Lewis Powell is given the title of “nurse” on this register list of Confederates in Gettysburg hospitals.

The number of casualties from the Battle of Gettysburg brought in many more volunteers hoping to provide comfort to the wounded. One of these volunteers was a woman from Baltimore named Maggie Branson. Branson was a Confederate sympathizer and she traveled to Gettysburg specifically to tend to the wounded boys in gray. Branson was 30 years-old and unmarried. Over the course of July and August, Branson and Powell worked side by side in the hospital. At the end of August, the Penn Hall Hospital was shutting down. Powell met with the Provost Marshal who decided it would be a better use of the young Confederate’s abilities to continue his work as a nurse in a hospital rather than languish away in a prisoner of war camp. Powell was transferred away from Gettysburg and arrived at West’s Buildings Hospital in Baltimore on September 2, 1863. After only a few days in Baltimore, Powell was able to facilitate his escape. Though Lewis Powell’s exploits from this date onward would eventually bring him back into the military service of the Confederacy, when he did enlist again he did so under a new, assumed name (for that story click here). For the remainder of the war the muster rolls for the 2nd Florida Infantry would record Pvt. Powell as a prisoner of war.

In time, Lewis Thornton Powell would come into contact with John Wilkes Booth. The meeting between soldier and actor would start a series of choices that would change Powell’s life forever. It led the “kind” nurse of Gettysburg to savagely and ruthlessly stab a helpless man lying in his bed. It transformed Lewis Powell from one of the countless faces in the Civil War’s bloodiest battle, into one of the most infamous criminals in our nation’s history. In his final moments, as the Confederate stared at the rope which would strangle him to death in July of 1865, one wonders if Lewis Powell wished his end had come among the foothills of Pennsylvania in July of 1863 instead.

References:
Alias “Paine”: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy by Betty J. Ownsbey
Interactive Gettysburg Battle Map featured in A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg by Anne Kelly Knowles
The Battle of Gettysburg – Stone Sentinels: Perry’s BrigadeAnderson’s DivisionHumphrey’s 2nd Division, 3rd Corps

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Replica Booth Diaries for Sale Again!

Looking for that special gift for the Lincoln assassination aficionado in your life? How about a replica of the diary John Wilkes Booth used during his 12 day escape?

A few years ago, I assisted a prop maker named Pasquale Marsella to create near perfect replicas of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Using photographs of the diary that were taken during the 1970s, Mr. Marsella was able to reproduce the interior of the diary with amazing detail. The interior of these replicas contained Booth’s own handwriting and duplicated the number of missing and torn pages exactly. Mr. Marsella created only a limited number of diaries and quickly sold out of them. I was fortunate enough to purchase one of the diaries, as did the Surratt House Museum, which keeps the replica on display in their visitor center.

Replica Booth diary on display at the Surratt House Museum

In the years since Mr. Marsella’s first run of diaries, demand for the replicas has been high. In 2015, I was contacted by producers at the Smithsonian Channel who were hoping to get their own replica diary for use in a documentary. I had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left. Instead, I agreed to lend them my replica diary for use in their documentary, Lincoln’s Last Day:

Over the last few years I’ve had several other folks contact me hoping they could purchase diaries, and I sadly also had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left and wasn’t making them anymore. However, Mr. Marsella has recently decided to do another run of his diaries which are available for purchase!

In this second run of diaries, Mr. Marsella has made some improvements from his earlier design. The new replicas utilize a higher quality leather which is softer and gives the diary an older look and feel than previous models. Further, Mr. Marsella is including a more accurate piece of brass on the outer part of the diary. During the last few years, Mr. Marsella has improved his technique for aging paper, giving these new diaries a more authentic “old” look to them. Lastly, the interior pockets marked “Postage” and ” Tickets” are no longer just sewn on displays, but fully functioning pockets like on the real diary.

One of Pasquale Marsella’s new, second run of John Wilkes Booth diaries

This second run of replica John Wilkes Booth diaries consists of only 30 diaries, several of which have already been sold. The limited amount is due to the time consuming process of detailing and tooling the leather, which Mr. Marsella does himself.

Mr. Marsella is selling his limited number of John Wilkes Booth diary replicas for $375 each plus $30 shipping. Payment is accepted through PayPal. Due to the nature of his work, Mr. Marsella will need 25 days from receipt of payment to complete each diary. If you are interested in purchasing a replica diary, please email Mr. Marsella directly at pasqualemarsella@yahoo.it and he will give you instructions on how to pay through PayPal.

If you have any questions about the diaries feel free to leave a comment below or email Mr. Marsella directly. As an owner of one of Mr. Marsella’s replica diaries, I can say that his workmanship is impeccable. I have used this diary as a prop during my own reenactments as John Wilkes Booth, I’ve brought it along with me to speeches, and I always carry it when I give the John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tour. You should see the interest in people’s faces when I pass around my handmade, Italian crafted (Mr. Marsella lives in Italy) replica John Wilkes Booth diary. Everyone on the bus enjoys leafing through the pages and seeing John Wilkes Booth’s handwriting duplicated exactly. They have no idea that the piece is so exactly duplicated that even the missing and torn pages in the replica match the real McCoy in the Ford’s Theatre museum. My diary has passed through many hands in the 4 years that I have had it and it’s holding up great.

Yours truly showing off his own replica Booth diary while presenting at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois

I truly enjoy giving Mr. Marsella some free advertising and assisting him in selling his diaries because he provides such a unique and well-crafted piece that you can’t get anywhere else. Get yours today before they’re gone once more.

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“You know best, Captain” The Executed Conspirators in Lincoln’s Assassination

On June 27, 2017, I was fortunate enough to return to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in order to speak to their volunteers and members of the public. The topic of my talk revolved around the four conspirators who were executed for their involvement in John Wilkes Booth’s plot against Lincoln. The following is a video of that talk that the ALPLM was kind enough to put on YouTube:

In the process of researching and writing this speech I consulted many excellent books. Specifically, I’d like to point out the vital scholarship of Betty Ownsbey in her book on Lewis Powell and the research of Kate Clifford-Larson in her book about Mary Surratt. These texts are a wealth of information and proved invaluable in preparing for this speech. I would also like to thank Betty Ownsbey and Dr. Blaine Houmes for allowing me to use some of their images in this speech.

The day before the speech I gave a radio interview to WTAX, the local Springfield station, about the speech and my interest in the Lincoln assassination. It’s only about 5 minutes long and can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/news-radio-wtax/6-26-17-dave-taylor-lincoln-assassination-expert-podcast

I’d like to thank the folks at the ALPLM for allowing me to come back and speak to their volunteers. I must admit that I definitely feel a strong sense of pride at being able to tell people that I’ve spoken at the Lincoln library. Kate and I had an amazing time touring the museum and being taken into the vault to see their treasures.

I hope you all enjoy the speech.

Dave

EDIT: For ease of access I’m also going to embed the video of my prior speech for the ALPLM in which I discussed John Wilkes Booth’s history:

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The Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©

Tomorrow, June 21, 2017, Kate and I are taking to the road on what we’re calling the Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©. It will be quiet here on the blog for next couple of weeks as we drive out to see family, friends, and of course, Boothie sites from our Lincoln assassination maps! A week from now we’ll be in Springfield, Illinois where I will be presenting at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. As a follow up to my speech on John Wilkes Booth last summer, this year I will be speaking on the four conspirators who were executed for their involvement in Lincoln’s death . For those of you who live in the area and might be interested in attending this speech, the ALPLM has free tickets available to those who register. See this site to reserve your tickets: https://alplmfoundation.tix.com/Event.aspx?EventCode=978923 For those of you not in the area, the speech is scheduled to be recorded and I will let you all know when it is put online.

As excited as I am to be speaking at the Lincoln library once again, that speech will only be a small part of our multi-state road trip with many fascinating detours and stops. While we’re hoping to put up a full post about our adventures when we get back, I encourage you all to follow our exploits as we go via Twitter. You don’t have to be signed up for Twitter to see what Kate and I are tweeting. You can either visit my Twitter page, which is accessible by clicking here, or by watching the Twitter bar on this website. For desktop users, the Twitter bar should be somewhere on the right hand side and for mobile users, it should be near the bottom of the page. For those of you who do have Twitter, we are planning on using the hashtag #BoothieRoadTrip if you want to follow along.

Well, you’ll have to excuse me now because Kate and I have a scheduled departure time of 4:00 am tomorrow. It’s time for us to get some rest. We hope you’ll follow us as we experience the Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©!

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