Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Secret Agent, or The Voice from the Shadows…



                                    Your thoughts I have at my command!
                                    Yet, you do not know where I stand…
                                    I can track you through the air.
                                    I can follow you anywhere!
                                    Soldier, spy, pilot and cop…
                                    my work for good does not stop.
                                    Crooks I pursue, to bring justice to them…
                                    then I vanish and I do it again!
                                    I have eagle eyes and I see into your heart!
                                    But I am not noticed for my arcane art…
                                    Ciphers and crimes to me involve
                                    being a twilight witness in all I solve.
                                    I am a friend to those in need,
                                    knowing fruit of the bitterest breed!
                                    Trouble is afoot, when my ring glows…
                                    and evil is vanquished…The Shadow knows!
 
                                    ---Michael Mauro DeBonis, 03-03-21.




 
***The Shadow is a registered trademark of Conde Nast Publications Inc., copyright 2021, all rights reserved.
                                    
 
About the Poet:  Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, New York.  A graduate of Suffolk County Community College (A. A. Liberal Studies) and SUNY at Stony Brook (B. A. English Literature) Michael’s work first appeared in the Brookhaven Times newspapers.  Michael latest work may be found in The New York History Review (poetry and prose) and The New York History Blog (prose only)Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York.
 

                                    

 

                                     

Saturday, November 27, 2021

From The Shadow into Light: The Visionary Life and Times of Walter Brown Gibson

by Michael Mauro DeBonis
Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved by the author.




Walter B. Gibson, circa 1965. 
Photo courtesy of William V. Rauscher

Walter Brown Gibson was an American literary dynamo, and he was a man of unquestionable artistic creativity, vision, and immense versatility. And so it was Gibson who forged the modern world's first great superhero, called The Shadow.

Master stage magician, top-notch true crime reporter, and word-puzzle expert and mystery writer, par excellence, only give a vague description of who the perennially brilliant Gibson was. Gibson's origins, achievements, and life deserve special attention to properly note his incredibly complex story. Gibson was, after all, a very cagy and competent illusionist. And so we must be careful, as students of history, to sharply look with eagle eyes beneath the veneer of a man (whose persistent modesty) always obscured the giant of who he actually was. Let us remove for your eyes the crafty clouds shielding the genius of Walter Brown Gibson. Let all who inhabit our twenty-first century know Gibson, as man and artist…let our show begin!

The curtains first opened for Walter Brown Gibson on the stage of life on September 12, 1897, at 2 PM (Shimeld, 11). Gibson's mother, May Whidden Gibson, gave birth to her son Walter at the family's somewhat lavish two-story Tudor style house, located at 707 West Philellena Street, in Germantown, Pennsylvania (Shimeld, 11-12). May Whidden Gibson's paternal family lineage and history could "…be traced as far back as the flight of the Pilgrims to America on the Mayflower…" (Shimeld, 8). Gibson's father, Alfred C. Gibson, had served as a young soldier and clerk in the Union Army during the American Civil War (Shimeld, 9-10). Walter Brown Gibson's grandfather, Joseph Gibson, also served honorably in the Union Army's 71st Pennsylvania Infantry Division during The War Between the States (Shimeld, 10). It is a point of the ongoing historical debate about Walter B. Gibson's father's genealogical origins. They (the Gibsons) appear to have been migrants from Great Britain to North America, sometime before the Nineteenth Century, and they were ardent followers of the Episcopal Christian Church. When Gibson's ancestors exactly left the British Isles for America is still unknown, but it is presently a matter of much historical probing, as mentioned earlier in this paragraph.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Lorenzo L. D. Tanner


 by Richard White

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved by the author.



An African loving fanatic in Marathon, Cortland County, has sent a letter to the President, asking that he issue a “Compensation Proclamation,” giving to the negroes freed by the Emancipation Proclamation land in the South, all of which this lunatic says by right belongs to the freedmen. Tanner probably would like to be President, and this is a bid for the negro vote.

This was the opening “Editorial Sentiment” in Binghamton’s racially virulent Democratic Leader on March 29, 1872, regarding a petition authored by a long-time abolitionist from central New York to President Grant provide confiscated acreage in the South to the former slaves freed in 1863 by President Lincoln. “Compensation” and similar proposals such as land redistribution and agrarian reform were not new ideas. In fact, in 1862, President Lincoln signed two Compensated Emancipation Acts ended slavery in Washington, DC, and allowed former slaves to petition for reimbursement for their value. In 1865, the well-known slogan, “40 acres and a mule,” was popularized but never gained traction in Congress, and certainly not with President Johnson, whose viewpoint favored property restoration instead of compensation. In his classic The Struggle for Equality (1964), James McPherson explained Johnson’s amnesty proclamation in 1865. Subsequent pardons restored property rights to most rebels who would take an oath of allegiance. Still, he also points out that “abolitionists continued to work ”(410) for racial justice as Reconstruction developed as they had in the pre-War period.

Such a person was a little-known public-spirited resident who lived in the Marathon-Freetown-Galatia region of Cortland County, Lorenzo D. Tanner. L. D., as he was called, moved to this rural region of central New York from Oneida County in 1835 and practiced a variation of citizen advocacy. In a look back at his life, The Cortland Democrat, on March 16, 1934, stated that he “was an impressive figure [who] wrote letters to the newspapers on all public questions. In the slavery days, he was an uncompromising Abolitionist, and his opponents nicknamed him ‘Nigger’ Tanner.” For example, Cazenovia’s The Liberty Press on July 18, 1843, discussed L. D.’s participation at the village’s anti-slavery meeting and stated that “our excellent friend…L. D. Tanner of Freetown, moved the resolutions” condemning the inhumanity of enslavement.

Even before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Tanner’s activism spurred him to travel to a nearby village to rally against slavery, not because he was “lunatic,” but because of his prime belief in racial equality and freedom for African Americans. At the rally on September 2, 1850, at Freetown’s Baptist Church, Tanner attended and was asked to co-write the assemblage’s resolutions.

According to Cortland’s The Whig on September 26, the rally’s first purpose was to validate “the inalienable right to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a paramount principle of America.

The second was to support the imprisoned William L. Chaplin, an agent of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society, who was jailed for helping two slaves trying to escape bondage in Maryland. As the rally neared its closing, seven resolutions were formulated and presented, and three were specifically about Chaplin’s incarceration. One insisted “that in that as much as the friends of slavery claim the right to extend it into the territories now free, we in our turn demand that the U. S. Constitution shall be amended by striking out those clauses which are claimed as its compromises.” Tanner’s style as a proponent of impartial freedom was quiet and “uncompromising,” and it presented itself through the tumultuous pre-war and war years.

His approach to Reconstruction issues remained dramatically solid and unaltered in his work for civil rights. In 1870, for example, L. D. challenged a prominent neighbor and future two-term Assemblyman, D. C. Squires, to debate the freedmen’s immediate future at the Union school house in Lapeer to the west of Marathon. On June 3, The Cortland Democrat captured the complexity of their first debate months earlier and its aftermath. While the paper did not estimate the length of the first face-off or the audience’s size, it did note that there was no formal decision regarding who won the debate and later published L. D.’s challenge to Squires to debate on the pages of this newspaper which Squires did not answer.

Two years later, an issue concerning the future of the Freedmen prompted Tanner to write to President Grant but, despite it being a petition to the President of the United States, there was limited reportage on this letter which was published in The Marathon Independent, which reprinted on March 26 an article originally appearing in the Cortland Democrat. In it, Tanner asked Grant “to issue a compensation proclamation in behalf of the freedmen. He asked that the President shall give the negroes their ‘forty acres and a mule’—at least he wants them to have the land they used to till for their masters.” While a letter from one constituent might impact a President, in this case, Grant’s mind was already made up. In his book, Grant (2017), historian Ron Chernow succinctly states the President’s stance on compensation. “Grant opposed land redistribution, which had excited so much hope among freedmen….On the other hand, he urged the continuance to safeguard black rights (565).” Yet even if Tanner were aware of the President’s view, he would not have been deterred in writing his letter.

In the mid-1800s, Lorenzo Tanner's efforts in support of freedom and justice has endured for more than empirical reasons. He was not a firebrand or a  charismatic, but he stands tall in New York State history. The offensive nickname-- both then and now--"Nigger Tanner"-- provides a powerful picture of the resilient racism that Tanner challenged.


About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War HistoryThe Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Friday, May 21, 2021

New York’s 1810 Election

By Harvey Strum of The Sage Colleges
Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved by the author



New York’s 1810 elections showed the importance of foreign policy issues in local and state politics. The foreign policies of President James Madison dominated the interaction between the Federalist controlled Assembly and Republican Governor Daniel Tompkins. Federalists and Republicans debated foreign policy during the summer of 1809 and in the November Common Council elections in New York City. Madison’s foreign policy became the main issue used by Federalists and Republicans in the spring 1810 state and congressional elections. Republicans called the Federalists Tories, lackeys of the British, and claimed they sought to drag the county into war with France. Their opponents viewed continued Republican rule as a disaster that would lead to more embargoes and war with Great Britain. The 1810 elections in revealed the connections between foreign policy and local and state politics. Foreign policy played a crucial role in local and state politics from 1807-1815.

David Erskine, British Minister to the United States, negotiated an understanding with the United States in 1809 offering to withdraw the 1807 Orders in Council and settle the Chesapeake/ Leonard Affair of 1807 creating a dramatic improvement in Anglo-American relations. President James Madison proclaimed an end to the embargo on trade with Great Britain. News of the Anglo-American accommodation pleased New York Federalists who hoped, as Robert Troup noted, that it would lead to a new treaty "whereby all future misunderstandings will be prevented, and a solid foundation laid for a lasting peace." Federalists welcomed the Erskine agreement because the "unhappy differences" between the two nations had "proved highly injurious to… trade." For landholders in western and northern New York, the Erskine agreement would spur settlement and Troup expected his agency would probably "take a more prosperous course.”[i]

The agreement might also encourage the Republicans to take more decisive action against the French. Congressman Herman Knickerbacker expected the President to support non-intercourse against France. Federalists believed the Republicans were "throwing off the Gallic Yoke of French Influence." In fact, Republican John Nicholas recommended the President and Congress authorize the arming of merchantmen and if necessary, engage in an undeclared naval war with France. If the French refused to stop their violations of American neutral rights, Federalists favored declaring "war against them, and it must be war interminable and exterminating." In the wake of the Erskine accord Republicans and Federalists wanted the President to adopt bolder policies toward the French.[ii]

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Letters of Chaplain Thomas K. Beecher - 141st New York Volunteer Infantry

By George R. Farr
Copyright © 2021 All rights reserved by the author.

 

Rev. Thomas Beecher of Park Church and Congressman Alexander Diven came together with other prominent citizens of Chemung, Steuben, and Schuyler counties to raise an infantry regiment in the summer of 1862. Diven, along with Congressman Robert Van Valkenburg had been asked by President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward to go home and raise such a regiment. As a result of this effort, the 107th NY Volunteer Infantry was raised and sent off to Washington in August with Diven as it's Lieutenant Colonel and Congressman Robert Van Valkenburg as its colonel.


The raising of the 107th had resulted in having an excess of 400 men that could not be included in that regiment. As a result, recruiting efforts continued, and a second regiment was raised, the 141st, and sent off towards Washington in late September with Beecher as its Chaplain.


The 107th participated in the battle of Antietam on September 17 and by the time the 141st arrived it was camped at Maryland Heights near Harper’s Ferry. The 141st, on the other hand, went into camp near Laurel, Maryland almost directly north of Washington and some distance from the camp of the 107th. Diven and Beecher would not see each other again until October when Beecher visited the camp of the 107th NY on Maryland Heights.


During the time Beecher was chaplain of the 141st he wrote letters to Charles Fairman for publication in the Elmira Advertiser. He wrote often and the letters were long and full of goings-on at the camp and Beecher’s personal feelings about many facets of camp life. The following are excerpts from those letters.


Visitors to his tent:

My tent flap is my front door, and a very dirty door it is getting to be. At least fifty times a day when the door is closed and tied on the inside, a pair of sunburned hands part the opening and an honest face looks in.


“Say helloa! Is this _____” Beecher cuts the man off in mid-sentence. “Shut that door”,   says the Chaplain abruptly.

“Did you knock?”

“Didn’t know the rules sir. Sorry.”

“All right call your name and wait for an answer, and never enter a tent until you have leave. Now come in.”

Let any man go through this dialogue forty times a day and toward the end it begins to get funny.


And he went on to write.

I should be mortified if you suppress my letters as unworthy to print. So then dear Fairman, if you ever get a stupid letter from me, too stupid too print, just insert an item; “We have received a long letter from Chaplain Beecher, which after reading, we conclude not to print.


Sunday in Camp:

Shall I tell you of our Sunday? At first dawn you may easily hear that ‘tis Sunday for the camp is far quieter than usual, even though a soldier’s duty does not cease on any day. Indeed, a duty that begins with a solemn enlistment oath may well be counted a religion and have its place even upon the Lord’s day.


At quarter of ten our adjutant forms parade while the Chaplain fixes a box pulpit out in a neighboring meadow. Then the battalion marches out and forms in front of the Chaplain—close compact and attentive. A short prayer of invocation—a hymn—a passage or two from the articles of war –a short lesson from scripture, with very few words of explanation or reminder—a prayer—and the song doxology complete a catholic regimental service.


Our Sunday is over—the Drum Major has executed what he calls a “Flammer doodle” to call the Companies into line for roll-call. I hear a half-dozen Orderlies calling names and men answering. This finishes the daily duty. In a little time, the lights will be out and the camp dark, all but the officer’s tents.


‘Tis past ten. The walls of our tents are black with flies, driven in by the cold. We may have our first frost by morning. We three tent-mates will have to snug up close together and keep warm as little pigs do, for we have no extra blankets. The whole camp is dark, save the light of the guard’s fire. Let me hasten to fold this sheet, put out my candle, shut my eyes and see the procession of my dear friends at home, and pray for them as they pass. God bless and keep you—keep you strong and single-minded.


Swearing:

Will you ask the clergy of Elmira to send me a recipe, a good moral tonic to cure swearing? There’s not a man in the regiment, but is willing to quit. I’ve read the commandment of God by Moses and the general order by Colonel Hathaway. One of our guards said to the colonel the other night after trying to stop swearing two days faithfully, “Just wait a bit colonel, give me some time to get some other words handy like and I’ll get done swearing at all, I will by God I will.”     

Now you have to understand that the humor in this story is that “I will by God I will” was considered swearing.


The Experiments:

Being of an investigating nature, I’ve been looking experimentally into the subject of beds. Laying aside all traditions and prejudices, I began with first principles and have this night finished my round of experiments. Shall I report? Our soil here is a stiff light-yellow clay with a few gravel stones mixed in. There was a grass stubble on its surface.


My first experiment was to lay a sheet of rubber down, then a blanket double, then the Chaplain and over him shawl and blanket. Sleep was good, but crickets peopled the grass and made bad noises and crept with prickly feet up and down the flesh. Grass not good, clean it out.


Exp. 2. Drive three stakes in a line, set up a narrow board on edge, throw straw between the board and tent wall. Rubber sheet, blanket, chaplain, $c., as before. Result,--pleasant sensation at first reminding one of beds at home, but by and by the chaplain feels like meat boiling in too little water; raw and cold above the straw, moist and steaming in the straw. Throw out straw, clean up tent.


Exp. 3. Bare, hard dry ground, blankets, chaplain, as in the last experiment. Slept well, except dreams of bridge building and strength of materials. One’s body touches at three points—head, thighs and heels. The trunk presents a fixed arch, the limbs a drawbridge. The strain is too great, the abutments crush and settle. Sleep is good, but not much rest. 


Exp. 4. Take axe and spade and make up a bed by artificially moulding the ground to the form of the Chaplain. Consider a well used hog wallow recently deserted, and how nicely it fits and welcomes the occupant’s return, and you have the archetype of the chaplain’s fourth bed. Result satisfactory, perfectly so, except that an old man campaigner says that the ground is unhealthy.


Exp. 5. A Manilla hammock such as the natives sling up between two trees, and swing in the wind therein, held the chaplain for four nights. Slung between two tent poles the slack was excessive and the narrowness oppressive. One seems to shorten at both ends, and to be perpetually “dressing on the center.” When first tucked in, the reminding is of a mummy or a patient in pack at Watercure. Fault—one cannot turn over, nor get out of bed without help. Send back the hammock to the courteous Colonel.


Exp. 6. A sacking bottom, well stretched, blankets, chaplain, &c. as in Exp.’s one, two and three. Result—very cold. Wind sucks under and blows up through. Mem.—Plan a good one if one can have five blankets and a shawl. Otherwise very bad in cold weather. Last night water froze a quarter inch at my tent door.


Exp.7. The floor, the modelled ground a la hog hollow. To this I return from all my experimenting. The ground—the bare ground. Bring me the axe and the spade, let me make my bed. Lie down chaplain, make your mark. Friend Bailey scrape away where he touches, copy the curves,--ease off that lump—pick away that stone,--there that fits. The wallow is perfect. In five minutes more it will hold.


Visiting the 107th NY at Maryland Heights near Harper’s Ferry:

There have been twenty-two or twenty-three deaths in the 107th and sick ones in far larger numbers. In my judgment the sickness has been due to over-marching and over-eating combined. Few men know the ravenous appetite that is bred by an outdoor life. And fewer still are ever wise enough to “stop hungry.” But experience is a very faithful teacher, and if God please, the Chaplain will discourse good counsel tomorrow morning, touching the same subject. (Beecher was not aware of the fact that the ground on which the camp was situated was in fact almost solid rock and adequate latrines could not be established. This fact was responsible for the spread of disease in the camp and the resulting in the deaths of many soldiers.)


This afternoon in company with Dr. Beadle, the chaplain experimented with Col. Diven’s black horse a riding. I insist that equestrianism is a most unnatural and semi-barbarous accomplishment. —It is a shame to “put upon” a dumb beast such duty, and a greater shame to put men to such uses. —Call the “human frame divine” a log, the horse a wedge and mother earth a beetle or maul, and you have the essentials of horseback performances. —Had man been intended for such performances, he would have been created with an angle iron to withstand the strain. But war creates necessities, and necessities are their own law. Round these mountain roads men must ride who never road before. —And so, behold the chaplain wandering forth in search of the 64th regiment.


We found it and many times the chaplain had to stop his horse and chat with unexpected friends. He found that to stop one’s horse is easier than to stop one’s self. The rider is apt to gone on after the horse is halted dead. If he goes on too recklessly, he is sure to go off. I overheard the chaplain asking Dr. Beadle how he looked and whether anybody was laughing.


I am now sitting on a stone wall amid the ruins of Harper’s Ferry. An hour or so I was by the graveside of Marcus Dawson of Co. D. There upon a point commanding a view of the Shenandoah valley for miles lies the graves of fourteen men of the 107th fallen by fever now at rest. I know nothing of Dawson save as a Christian I have assisted in burying him. But I saw in the hospital the body of a young man, three days dead, whom I myself enlisted. I have his name in one of my old books, as I looked upon his blanket shroud, I earnestly tested myself, was I right in telling him to enlist. I called to mind my speeches and my pleadings and my statements of July. Thank God I have not one word to repent of.


Reverend Beecher was also something of a poet as the following lines of free verse illustrate. While visiting the camp of the 107th NY that overlooked the village of Harper’s Ferry from Maryland Heights he made the following observations.

 

Scenes of waste everywhere, everybody on the move and nobody knowing anything or able to tell you anything.   Through the elegant cast iron sash of the arched windows is seen the long drawn vacancies of the old armory buildings burned with fire.  Deserted, doorless and sashless houses.  Horses eating hay in parlors. Enterprising photographers set up their cameras in ownerless houses.  Aetna insurance plates stand over doors long since burned.  Sutlers peddle soft bread, tobacco and sausages from deserted dwelling houses where children played, hospitals fill with sick breaths rooms where beaux have visited and sweethearts charmed.   Cavalry horses gnaw in the young orchards.  And over all floats and clings the grime and dust where 10,000 feet each day do the pulverizing and constant winds the distribution.   


Spelling:

There’s a need of schoolmasters in the 27th District still. Shall I give you specimens of what I daily read in the shape of literary murder of captain’s names? Captain Tuttle figures as Tuthill, Tutil, Totel, Tuttell.  Your friend Captain Baldwin, and by the way camp agrees with him better than your office. He is plumping rapidly enough to suit a Fejee gourmand. Where was I, oh yes! Captain Baldwin is written down on letter backs as Balden, Bawlding and Bolden. Captain Logie is transmuted into Loga, Logy and Logah. And Captain Claugharty is the worst. A man with such a name ought to live bachelor and afflict none of the next generation with such a name to misspell.  


Chaplain’s Duties:

The readers of your paper have had rest long enough. It is time that Chaplain’s drill should begin again. By the by speaking of Chaplain reminds me of Fred Burritt, your correspondent, and his private letter about chaplains. Abating something for the easy style of the letter, I wish to say amen to the general sentiment, as to the uselessness of chaplains in military service. Of work properly belonging to a chaplain there is not enough in six regiments to employ one man. I should not work two hours, if I confined myself to my proper official duties.


Much more I might add, but I do not purpose an essay upon army religion. I intended at first merely to say that in my judgment the army would gain by dismissing all chaplains and trusting to the voluntary acts of officers and men. I would this day prefer to have my commission revoked and my stay with the regiment, and my support made to depend upon my military parish.


And yet even while enjoying the most advantageous social position in my regiment of any chaplain of whom I have yet heard of, I am clearly persuaded that as a chaplain I am nearly or quite useless. Were it not that there has been a world of other work, I should long since have relieved the regiment of my presence—and the treasury of my support.


This letter went on and on in the same vein, and it was obvious that Beecher had become uncomfortable with his position as chaplain of the 141st.


He had a falling out with Colonel Hathaway most likely over his brother’s James’ recent appointment as Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment His appointment was viewed as having been unduly influenced by the chaplain and had resulted in the current and popular Lieutenant Colonel William E. Bonham leaving the regiment. 


It was during this period that Beecher wrote to Hathaway’s superiors and accused him of trying to overthrow the government. This type of activity ultimately resulted in his resigning from the regiment on January 10, 1863. His brother James remained for a short while, but was rescued from his predicament by his sister who helped him obtain an honorable discharge from the army shortly hereafter.  




This article was taken from the letters published in the Elmira Advertiser


About the author: George R. Farr grew up in Horseheads, NY, and presently lives in the town of Elmira (West Elmira). He is a graduate (1957) of Upsala College and also studied at Rutgers U., Seton Hall U., Elmira College, and Corning Community College. He has lectured extensively on the American Civil War and local history.






Friday, January 1, 2021

Jews of Troy, 1850-1950

by Harvey Strum, Sage Colleges
Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved by the author


Creating a Community

“Mechanic Benjamin Fivel, a member of Company B, 105th Infantry, who was severely wounded during the Hindenburg line drive, has received his honorable discharge and returned to his home in Troy.”(1) From World War I, this story is one of the forgotten accounts of Jewish immigrants living in small towns and midsize upstate New York cities, especially in the Hudson Valley. Looking at the experiences of ethnic and religious minorities who settled in upstate New York can provide us with a fuller understanding of the immigrant experience and the problems and opportunities available to ethnic and religious minorities populating in upstate communities. How did these immigrants identify with America, and how did they adapt and change to their new environment? How did immigrants, especially the Jews of Troy, express their desire to maintain or reject the values and experiences of Jews in Europe? To what degree did they create institutions that preserved their ethnic and religious identity as distinct from the Anglo-American Protestant majority, and to what degree did they shed their customs, spiritual practices, and identity to fit in as “real Americans?” Did Jewish immigrants and their American-born descendants feel obligated to help Jews abroad? To what degree did Troy's Jews identify with Zionism as either the Jewish people's nationalist movement or as a refuge from persecution for the Jews of Russia, Romania, Poland, and Germany?

Ever since the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, Jews grappled with the same questions---how to maintain Jewish identity in an overwhelmingly Christian society and cling to separate ethnic, religious, cultural, and social values to navigate between their Jewish identity and Americanization. The repeated problems of relatives and co-religionists in Europe raised other questions---was the solution for the European hostility to Jews mass migration to America or the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine? In looking at these questions, historians have focused on Jewish immigrants' experiences in New York City or in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. Local Jewish historians partially filled the gap and researched the experiences of Jews in midsize cities in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York. (2)

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Elmira’s Fugitive Slave Case of “Sam," 1858

by Richard White 
Copyright © 2020 all rights reserved by the author





And yet vile as it was, the fugitive slave law was…a gift 
to the anti-slavery activists…because wherever it was 
enforced, it allowed them to show off human beings 
being dragged back to the hell whence they came. 


This was Professor Andrew Delbanco’s contention on one of the impacts in the North of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War (2018). His depiction of a rendition of captured runaway slaves “being dragged” is especially poignant. Yet in 1858, there was an unusual, and surprising, case in Elmira that was dramatically different from the city’s Underground Railroad experience of aiding emancipated men and women in the antebellum era. It dealt with the decisions made by a former slave identified only by his first name in the press as he sought, in a sense, to regain his soul.

“Sam” fled enslavement in Cecil County, Maryland, in August 1858, and traveled on the Underground Railroad to Canada. There are no references that recall his journey’s stopovers, nor his residence in Canada where he lived until December when he experienced intense personal turmoil which was described in news dispatches. For example, on December 20, The Elmira Advertiser described “Sam’s” unexpected predicament—“he was sick and could not work…and he wanted to go see his wife and children.“

The Pioneer and Democrat from Olympia in the Washington Territory editorialized on February 11, 1859, that his troubles prevented him from enjoying “the sweets of freedom.” Finally, “Sam” understood how to resolve his predicament—he would contact his former enslaver to make a request. He had traveled secretly to the North, but now he asked in a letter to his former “Owner” if he could return to the place he left in Maryland which was accepted.

Research does not indicate where “Sam” met two men including his former “Master,” Mr. Mills, to escort him, but the arrival of the three men by train in Elmira caused an uproar by the city’s black residents. The Rochester American on the 22nd clearly captured the opening drama, declaring that “there was fearful excitement at Elmira… occasioned by the discovery that two Southerners had arrived on the Canandaigua train with a fugitive in their keeping, who was hurried to the Brainard House and locked up in a room. A large and excited crowd many of whom were armed with knives and pistols at once filled and surrounded the house, but they were told that the fugitive was going to be taken back at his own request." The city’s black population was organizing its first Vigilance Committee which like the others in the State tried to rescue fugitive slaves from slave catchers. Vigilance representatives were allowed to meet with “Sam” to dissuade him but his decision was firm. This event quieted the crowd, and many left the scene so that there was a relatively calm atmosphere. The day’s closing drama began to emerge when residents heard that the two Southerners would depart with “Sam” by train in the evening. Soon a larger assemblage of whites and blacks waited at the depot for “Sam” in order to prevent ”Sam’s” departure. The situation’s volatility intensified, and The American suggested that “a fearful riot” was about to erupt. In fact, a letter from an unnamed writer to the New York Herald—and reprinted in the New Orleans Daily Crescent on January 4, 1859 provides first-hand details about an emerging crisis, noting that “at one time the excitement ran so high that it was deemed necessary to call upon the military, who held themselves in readiness in case their services were wanted.” What happened next prompted the Daily Crescent to gladly declare “hurrah for our Northern brethren.”

In Elmira, word spread that “Sam” would depart for Baltimore at 6:40 by way of the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, train but this belief was a diversion. “Sam” had been spirited out-of-town by the time a riotous crowd of whites and blacks assembled at the depot. An arrangement for the train to stop a few miles below town had been made to pick up “Sam” and the two Southerners. In the pursuit of freedom, “Sam” became lost. He changed the paradigm in order to regain his soul. The Gazette concluded that “the poor old negro is [now] on the ‘old plantation,’ in the midst of his family and friends. We think he will not soon try his luck in Canada again.” One year after the Dred Scott decision, and one year before John Brown’s raid, the issue of race-based bondage spurred an uproar in Elmira.



About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.