The Underground Railroad
By WAYNE E. HOMAN
On May 12, 1786, George Washington, in a letter to a friend, told of the escape to Philadelphia of a slave, the property of his neighbor Mr. Darby. He expressed doubts about the Negro’s return because he had fallen into the hands of “a society of Quakers, formed for the purpose, who have attempted to liberate [him] .” The future first President was no more hopeful a few months later when one of his own slaves escaped. On November 20, he wrote that the slave was in southeast Pennsylvania, “where it is not easy to apprehend them because there are a great number [of people there] who would rather facilitate the escape than apprehend the runaway.”
Washington, of course, was writing about the Underground Railroad the movement that spirited escaped slaves from neighbor to neighbor ever northward until they reached freedom across the border to Canada. Washington knew how effective this movement was. During his Valley Forge days he had got to know and understand the Quaker, the Welshnian, and the Pennsylvania Dutch at first hand; he witnessed evidence of their stubborn persistence and idealism. He had visited the Knauer Mansion, just across the Berks border along French Creek, where, incidentally, he was reported to have hidden in a cave to escape pursuing British troops. And he had called upon his old friend, Colonel Jacob Morgan, further west along the Conestoga.
Washington’s experience with runaway slaves was not unique, his estimate of the possibility of their return could not have been more accurate. For the next 75 years the Underground Railroad was to operate as a loose-knit but ever-widening circle of devoted men and women who daily risked life, limb, and civic respect for what they considered personal moral integrity.
Then, in 1850, with passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, the situation got worse and worse and worse. Before the Underground came to an end with the Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862, probably as many as 75,000 slaves had been shifted over the border to Canada and thousands of people were involved either in the financial or direct operation of the ring; United States Marines had been sent near the Berks border to restore order; a native of the county was among those jailed for treason; and, almost a hundred years ago, December 2, 1859, John Brown was found guilty on the same charge and hanged.
Seeking documentation about the movement in this area, trying to confirm stories that even today are handed down from father to son is more interesting than fruitful. As Seibert points out in his definitive work, there just are no original documents, with one notable exception, “nor is this surprising in view of the unlawful nature of the services, and one may even seek in vain for adequate secondary accounts.”
The lone exception, of course, is the 780-page book Underground Railroad Records, published in 1870 by William Still, at first a Negro clerk in the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, but later virtually central director of the movement in southeast Pennsylvania. The book is a little hard to come by. None exists in the Reading Library; ask for it in the New York Public Library and you will be handed a copy autographed by the author to his “friend and advisor, Horace Greely.”
But even this volume leaves much to be desired. It is neither indexed nor well organized. It contains page after page of unrelated lists of people who arrived in Philadelphia or who left Philadelphia; letters from escapees safely in Canada; copies of runaway slave “wanted” posters, and mysterious letters from station operators about “prime articles” being moved, “boxes and small hams” dispatched, and so forth. Missing are the names of many financial backers, those who helped by influence or position to recruit informers in the office of the U. S. Marshal and local police forces. Only rarely are such names as Sharpness, Earle, Coates, Darlington, Pugh, Bushing, or Lukens mentioned. Also there existed localized groups that never operated under Still, whose records were kept only after 1850.
Only slightly less authoritative, though certainly not less interesting, is Underground Railroad in Chester and Adjoining Counties by Dr. It C. Smedly of West Chester. Dr. Smedley started to write a single newspaper article about the movement in West Chester. Instead he devoted years to interviewing oldsters who were part of the Underground and others where stories had been handed down to the next generation. Only death stopped him, and in his dying hours he arranged for two friends to compile and edit his book, which was published in 1883.
Montgomery’s several histories pass over the Underground with a swish and a nod, except for some passages that are clear only to these who know for what they are searching.
Most comprehensive since it attempts to cover the whole range of the movement east of the Mississippi, is the book Underground Railroad by William Seibert (1889), then Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University. Seibert concedes that the movement had its origin in southeast Pennsylvania and devotes considerable attention to the tri-country area within a 25-mile radius of the intersection of the Berks-Chester-Lancaster borders near Morgantown. He also traces the lines of escape from their origin in southern states to the various Canadian crossing spots.
From all these volumes, and many more, it is apparent that in its early days the Underground Railroad was no more than a circle of friends and acquaintances bound together by Quaker or other religious faiths who would give temporary shelter to any escaped slave who happened to pass by, then send him on to other church members farther north. But even as early as the beginning of the 18th-century Seibert believes that it was known among the southern slaves that virtual freedom was assured once they reached southeast Pennsylvania.
The first appearances of systematic organization were visible after 1839, with the founding of the AntiSlavery Society of Philadelphia, Robert Purvis president. Purvis, wealthy in his own right, also was allied with the Coates family, all vocal and ardent Abolitionists, a redundancy if there ever was one, for Abolitionists made a fetish of being vocal and uncompromising, however unpopular their cause was with the majority of people who in early days hoped “gradualism” would be the solution.
Purvis and some of the Coates family “acquired” several “genuine” certificates of freedom, papers given Negro slaves when bondage ceased for any reason. These were used to move escapees more, freely to Canada, from whence the “certificates” returned to be used again and again. Eventually the Purvis and Coates groups grew bolder. They made contact with sympathizers in the south and virtually recruited runaways, shipping them out of New Berne, North Carolina by sea to Philadelphia, hiding them In a secret room built into the Purvis Mansion, then escorting them north.
When the cargo was too large to be cared for in Philadelphia, some quickly were moved to rural areas. Elijah F. Pennypacker, a Mennonite turned Quaker, took care of many on his farm near Phoenixville. Groups were split up there to move in different directions so as not to put too great a burden on one way station and to make pursuit more difficult
Some went north by way of Norristown and Quakertown to the Poconos. Some went west, first to the Kimber family at Kimberton then, beginning about 1835, across the Hopewell hills to the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Scarlett and her son Joseph, Quakers and owners of Scarlett’s (state highway signs now drop the final ‘t’) Mill in Robeson township, three miles south of Birdsboro. When Mrs. Scarlett died and was buried in the now-deserted Quaker cemetery about a mile north of Plow Church on the road to Gibraltar, this house was sold to the linderman family, whose daughter, now Mrs. Clara L. Wolf, a retired teacher, still resides a block away on Route 82. David Machemer is the present owner of the Searlett house.
To avoid pursuers, some fugitives hid out in the woods in huts of charcoal burners working for Joanna Furnace. But mostly they lived quite openly and unmolested. Ultimately, when freedom seemed assured, they formed several colonies, one still exists as an enclave within Hopewell Park, along the Geigertown road. They founded Mt. Prisby A. M. E. Church, and the oldest Negro cemetery in Berks still may be seen there. They joined the Underground and earned their living as charcoal burners. When the War of the Rebellion came many joined the Union forces. Some died in action, others, who first came to this vicinity as slaves, returned from their army service as free men.
A few Negro Civil War veterans are buried in obscure plots and cemeteries in Reading and southern Berks. C. C. Lewis, a former slave who served with Company C., 20th Connecticut Volunteers, is buried in the rear of the Washington Street Presbyterian Church, occupying the lone grave of what once was a larger cemetery. Two former slaves, Isaac Cole 22nd Reg’t. P. V. arid James Jackson, 45th Reg’t. P. V., are interred in flag-marked graves amid tangled thickets at Mt. Erishy, near Hopewell. In a house nearby live the descendents of Isaac Cole, a family that pridefully says it has served in every war since. One son is now in Germany, another just back from Korea. The building they use as a garage is the old church building, which was an Underground station stop.
Those who went on westward from these Berks way stations moved to “the pond fields” atop Chestnut Hill, southwest of Plowville, to what was known as Fingal. Here they came under protection of the Cole family, whites, whose name some adopted. Others were escorted over the Welsh Mountain to Waynesburg (Honey Brook), west through Gap and Christiana, and on to the Susquehanna, where they turned north. The usual distance between way stations was 10 miles, and the guides were tough, humorless men usually armed and not unwilling to meet up with slave-hunters.
Not all trips were successful. Some people along the way watched for strange Negro faces and sold the information for a high dollar. One group known as the Gap Gang, raided way stations for miles around, seized whatever Negroes they could find, and turned them over to authorities, anticipating rewards from owners. Many people supported such seizures, feeling southerners were being deprived of their just and legal property by the Underground.
Occasionally Underground operators were prosecuted. One, Thomas Garrett, a Quaker of upper Chester County, was tried on four counts before Judge Tanney. The fine of $8,000 wiped out his property. When the judge admonished him to desist his activities, he told the open court: “Judge, thou hast left me with but a single dollar. But I wish to say to thee, and to this whole court room, that if anyone knows of a fugitive who needs shelter, send him to Thomas Garrett who still has a dollar.” He promised to go home and build another story on his mortgaged house to take care of fugitives; it is recorded that within a week, the extra story was under construction. Later, when the Underground became a more systematic organization, Garrett moved to Wilmington Delaware, where as an Underground agent, he aided fugitives from that city. He is quoted as having said at the end of the war that peace came too quickly, for he had set his goal at transporting 3,000 escapees and reached only 2,700 before he was put out of business.
A man in a neighboring county, when told that slave-bunters and apprehension authorities regarded him to be chairman of the Underground, is reported to have said at the bar of a public house: “I accept the nomination. I will do my utmost to carry out the duties of my office. I will not be bought out, intimidated, or frightened by bully or bullet. What must he done to end the slave trade, I will do. Whatever must be done to help the slave trade, I will fail to do.”
Mostly such people had the full contempt of the majority, who were sure “gradualism” was the solution to slavery. Abolitionists were individually reviled and persecuted, even by most churches. Their meetings frequently were broken tip by ruffians, their city “conventions” dispersed by mobs. A woman who attempted to open a school for colored children was imprisoned, it took full and firm faith to be an Abolitionist in those days, and it required determination and courage to be a member of the Underground. There were plenty of people around, however, with such faith, determination, and courage.
An example involves the famous Dorsey case, which became judicially important and is of interest locally because it is believed to be the origin of the Dorsey family in Reading. This case implicated four brothers, Basil, Thomas, Charles, and William, who, in 1832, fled peonage at Frederick, Maryland. Arriving in Philadelphia, they sought aid from Mr. Purvis, head of the anti-slavery group. Three went to his farm in Bucks County. Thomas chose to stay in Philadelphia and later became a popular caterer in the War Years. The following year, the families of Basil and Charles joined them. George Dorsey, who in the late 1800’s was employed by the Stetson family on South Fifth Street, is believed to have been brought here as a child by his father, Charles. George’s son was later to become the first Negro Reading mail carrier, and his grandson a Reading policeman.
Purvis tells the story in Dr. Smedley’s book as follows:
One day while Basil was plowing the field some distance from the house, he was seized by slave catchers, beaten and carried to Bristol, about three miles distant. Here he was thrown into a cell used for criminals. I had just returned from the city and was eating my supper when a neighbor’s son came in great excitement to tell me that Basil had been carried off. I hastened to the scene and from farmers learned the details of the outrage. Burning with indignation, I hurried to Bristol where I found the captors and captive.
An excited crowd of people had gathered and I spoke to them and succeeded in enlisting their sympathies for the poor victims. After conferring with the slave holders it was agreed we should meet at Bristol at seven o’clock in the morning to go before judge Fox, at Doylestown. I then returned home to secure the safety of Basil’s brothers. They had heard of Basil’s capture and had been pursued to my house by a party of the same men, led by a local constable. These were now in a field close to my residence, evidently deliberating how to proceed. I placed a double-barreled shotgun, heavily charged, in Charles’ hands, and he walked out in front of the house and defied them. The slave catchers, thinking doubtlessly that discretion was the better part of valor, instantly departed. Under cover of darkness I was able to convey Charles, his family, and William to the home of my brother Joseph and that night he drove 40 miles inland [Ed. Note: To Reading?] and left them at the home of a friend.
The next morning at 6 o’clock I was on my way to Bristol when I met a woman who informed me that at 5 o’clock a wagon passed her house and she heard Basil cry out : ‘Go tell Mr. Purvis they are taking me off.’ The object of this movement was to deceive me in regard to time and enable them to appear before Judge Fox and by ex parte testimony have the case closed and the victim delivered to them. I hurried home, harnessed a fast trotting horse and pursued them, I left instructions that Basil’s wife and children should follow in another carriage.
I continued to the home of William H. Johnson, the noted Abolitionist, who went out and spread the alarm among anti-slavery people. I arrived at Doylestown fully an hour before Basil and his captors, who was surprised to see me. I at once secured the services of the ablest lawyer in town, Mr. Ross, son of a judge, who won postponement upon claim that Basil’s papers were in the hands of friends in Columbia, Pa.
Mr. Purvis then tells of the activities in the next two weeks. David Paul Brown, noted attorney, offered his services to Basil without cost. The Underground recruited three squads of men to occupy roads leading from town. In the event Basil was turned over to the captors, these squads “would take adequate means to liberate him.” An effort was made to buy Basil from the captors. Each time the money was raised, the price went up. When the price reached $1,000, Basil said: “No more offers, If the decision goes against me, I’ll take my life in the court room.”
Mr. Brown, the lawyer, was making preparations on his own. His first move when the court opened was to demand that claimants show proof that Maryland was a slave state. The claimant’s young lawyer was stunned, but given 10 minutes, presented a compilation of the laws of Maryland. Brown took the position that this was no authority since the book was old and the law might have been repealed. When this argument could not be met, the judge dismissed the case.
Mr. Purvis arid Basil left the courthouse as speedily as the crowded audience would permit. The slave hunters were even faster. As the freed man amid his protector got in their carriage, they appeared with a new warrant. Mr. Purvis lashed his horse and sped out of town. They had not gone far when they met one of the Underground squads set to wait there. Basil leaped out and went over the fields with them. Mr. Purvis continued his dash home, the slave hunters following him, only to find Basil well on his way to New York.
What could be done about people who defied convention and conformity to continue the labors to which they felt dedicated, i.e., making slave owning inconvenient and expensive? One action, perhaps the most remarkable measure enacted by Congress during the whole anti-slavery struggle, was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, passed at the clamorous demand of southern Congressmen. Under the act, a certificate authorizing the arrest and removal 0f a fugitive slave could be granted to any claimant by a U. S. commissioner or any federal or state judge. These officials were authorized to determine the case in a summary manner. Testimony of the alleged fugitive was not to be taken, ownership was established by a single affidavit of the person. claiming to own the slave. When decision was made, the act required all police, and any citizens called upon by police, to assist In transportation of the slave to the owner’s destination.
The hoot and howl of protest that arose in the north was not confined to Abolitionists. Newspapers in Reading and elsewhere cited the preamble to the Constitution, the Golden Rule, and the Bible (Deut. xxiii; 15, 16.). A Pennsylvania congressman said:
“When you ask us to catch your slaves, we say it is your privilege to catch your own slaves, if you can. When you ask us to do your dirty work, you overstep the bounds of the Constitution, and there we will meet you, and there we will stand and there we will remain.”
But the act carried within it the seeds of its own destruction, becoming an immediate cause of revulsion against slavery itself. Responsible people both north and south were turned into seething, boiling anger at the monstrous excesses of the slave holders, their deputies, and the brutal thugs who swarmed north in a hunt for long-lost human chattels. Now the bestial, revolting cruelties of the slave trade were brought to the front door of many peaceful, religious communities.
Negroes were hunted down with club, chain, whip, and gun. Paid slave hunters, often reinforced by sadistic local hoodlums, cared little whether their victims were runaway or freed slaves. John Doy’s Narrative (Holman Press, N. Y., 1869) documents cases where “free papers” were taken from Negroes and burned publicly, while the captives were whipped and sent south without trial.
Scared, trembling men, women, and children were dragged from their homes, bound and marched before U. S. commissioners, who got a ready fee. “Identification” papers were presented that had been brought along in bulk, with pertinent descriptions filled in after the seizure. Colonies of Negroes were raided in the night and “confessions” beaten out of any unlucky enough not to get away. Those who resisted were beaten or shot. Whites who protested were threatened and slugged. In Chester County, Joseph C. Miller was lynched by slave hunters.
Devout, gentle people who had sincerely believed a peaceful settlement of the slavery question was near were horrified when they saw half disrobed men and women dragged into the public highways and lashed with cat-‘o-nine tails until they lost consciousness, their backs bleeding, shredded flesh. All in all, it was a most revolting business, legalized and sanctioned under the protection of federal law.
But with each incident the ranks of the Abolitionists grew. The fervor and indignation of the new-comers multiplied the uncompromising determination to do anything, yes, anything, to wipe out the slave trade. The Underground Railroad supplied a ready outlet for such feelings. In Philadelphia, Still and his cohorts were taking all the help they could get. Even in slave states some people were so shocked they began to aid the business of “midnight emancipation.” Some were members of slave-owning families.
Seibert’s maps show the western escape route. Those passing through this section crossed the Susquehanna above Havre de Grace, went north through Cochransville, Caln, Vincent, Lionville, and on to Phoenixville. There was a central feeder station at Annapolis, through Baltimore, Avondale, West Chester, to Phoenixville. An eastern route came through Camden, Blackbird, and New Castle, Delaware, thence to Philadelphia.
At Phoenixville, by the year 1852. Pennypacker was doing a wholesale business. In Philadelphia Still had to detour some escapees through New Jersey and move others via P. and R. trains. Now the fugitives really were traveling on a railroad, albeit not underground. Some went direct to Harrisburg. Others were taken off the train, on Still’s orders, in Reading, and harbored in the Washington Street Presbyterian Church, where they were fed and given clothes to replace their obviously-southern garb. Walter Hubert of 215 Mulberry Street, who has spent all his 90 years in Reading, recalls that when he was a boy, older folks of tile church said “Bully” Lyons, town constable, took fugitives to the old jail at Fifth and Washington, locked them up, and fed them at city expense until the Underground was ready to move them again. Still’s book (page 43) contains two letters signed “C. S. Nelson” dated “Reading, Pa., May 27, 1857” that say two “boxes” had arrived from Harrisburg and were being shipped to him.
Business through Kimberton and into Berks was so brisk that additional way stations had to be set up. One was at the White Bear home of Thomas Lewis, a Quaker. This house, built in 1810, still stands and can be reached by the private lane that runs east off U. S. 82 just opposite the cross road where State Route 244 turns west toward Joanna Furnace, half a mile south of White Bear. Incidentally, Charles Boyer, who has spent his 80 years in his house built in 1801 at White Bear, remembers his parents and grandparents called Quaker Valley the road that now is State Route 341, which goes west from White Bear to Plow church, just south of the old W. & N. tracks. He recalls their claiming that any fugitive slave could find sanctuary at any house along that road. The slave hunters ranged that valley too, and when they pressed too hard, runaways were taken “into the woods” to charcoal burners’ huts.
Once when Joseph Scarlett was in Pennington (Atglen) he saw a Negro chained to the bar in a public house. He learned that the man had been arrested as a runaway and was to be taken to Lancaster for trial. When a “no bill” was found, the Negro had been seized again and “identified” by other slave hunters as a man wanted in their community. It was night, then, amid these hunters chained their captive to the bar until morning But while they slept someone sawed through the bar rail and the Negro left, handcuffs and all. For several years thereafter, a damaged pair of handcuffs hung on the wall of Scarlett’s home; Scarlett is quoted as having said he “found” them.
One slave, named Washington, worked for the Scarletts for several years. Then, overcome with a desire to see his wife and children, he slipped back into Virginia. he saw his family, but was caught and sold “down to Georgia.” Six years later he returned to the Scarlett home once more with his whole family.
Fugitives seeking shelter was given a strong helping hand when Levi Bull Smith, owner and operator of Joanna Furnace, joined the ranks of the Abolitionists. Neither Still’s nor Smedley’s book mentions Mr. Smith, but then few “stock-holders,” as the financial sources were known, ever were identified, Montgomery does give a lead to stories prevalent in the Morgantown-Joanna area for generations. In his 1886 edition (page 1154) these significant words appear in Smith’s biography: “He was an outspoken and fearless Abolitionist, a warm friend of the colored people and sympathizer in their troubles.” in his 1909 edition (page 416) Montgomery says ‘In those troublesome times, Mr. Smith’s most ardent sympathies amid most ardent efforts were devoted to the triumph of his country’s cause and his vigilant attention to the thwarting of the opposition schemes of the enemies in the rear.
Levi B, Smith was no little opponent. He was the third generation to live at the Furnace mansion, along U. S. 122, now owned by Bethlehem Steel but unoccupied. He wielded wide influence and commanded handsome sums of money. He was highly popular: when he ran for Congress from Berks, he carried the district around his home with almost 90 percent of the vote. He was graduated by Princeton in 1824 and admitted to the Berks bar in 1827. He had a way of getting things done: he raised and personally equipped three companies when the war came.
Henry Segner, who built and lived in the house on Morgantown road (U. 5. 122), now the Kennel farm one mile south of Plow church, probably was brought into the clandestine network as a conductor (guide) by Levi Smith. An active raccoon hunter and part-time supervisor of charcoal burners, Segner’s knowledge of the forested hills extending from Honey Brook and Hopewell, around Plowville, to Hummel’s Store and west to Adamstown was second to none. It was reputed that, if necessary, he could send a fleeing party of slaves, guided by a charcoal burner, in one direction, then lure a group of slave hunters to follow him all night until they were so thoroughly lost in the mountains they could not find their way out for days. Segner’s descendants still live in the vicinity. He and his wife are buried at the abandoned Bethel Evangelical Church, a short distance from their old home.
Undoubtedly the planning and financing of Levi B. Smith and others like him stepped up the Underground’s operation in the whole tri-county border area around Morgantown after 1850. Through this area went hundreds of runaway Negroes in the decade preceding the war. Pennypacker, near Phoenixville, possibly handled more than anyone else. Those coming through Reading and the Joanna hills were only a portion of the many he directed to safety. Some went north through Norristown and Buckingham to Stroudsburg. These crossed the border at Port Ontario. Those who went west, along the slopes of the Welsh Mountains, headed for Harrisburg, then went north along the Susquehanna and crossed over at Buffalo or Niagara Falls, according to Seibert’s charts.
During this period, Joseph Scarlett moved across the Welsh Mountain near to Christiana and became associated with the Underground there under “Abolitionist Jim” Williams of Sadsbury. It was here that he became involved in the Christiana tragedy, was arrested by U. S. Marines, and spent more than three months in prison on charges of treason.
The Christiana tragedy is one of the best documented parts of the movement. There are the legal references: 9 Legal Intelligencer, 22; 4 American Law Journal, n. s. 458; 9 Western Law Journal, 103; U. S. vs Hanway, Treason, 247; 26 Federal Cases, 105. Magazines and news articles of the period tell the story : Atlantic Monthly, the Lowell Journal; The New York Tribune (Sept. 12, 1851) : The Philadelphia Ledger (Sept. 11, 12, and 13, 1851) National Anti-Slavery Standard; and a half dozen books amid histories, some almost contemporary to that time and specializing in the slavery question.
Thousands of words and several articles could he written on this incident. There has been, as is seen above, considerable specialized research into its legal arid motivating phases. All this began September 9,1851, when Still, in Philadelphia, learned from informants in the U. S. Marshal’s Office there that Edward Gorsuch and his son, Dickerson, of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, had obtained warrants for the apprehension of William Parker and other “escaped” slaves, who had, for several years, resided in a Negro colony near Christiana. Still at once sent Samuel Williams, a Negro courier, to Pennington (Atglen) by railroad to find Parker and give warning.
Parker had been operating a way station of the Underground in the colony. Under his strong protection and that of sympathetic whites, many runaways and a number of free Negroes had settled on farms in the community. After passage of the 1850 law, quite a few of these, some freemen, disappeared, and the general suspicion, apparently well-found in view of later happenings, was that the “Gap Land Gang” had either kidnapped them, smuggled them south and re-sold them, or had turned them over to touring slave hunters for substantial rewards. Parker and some of the Quakers in the vicinity had repeatedly foiled this gang’s efforts and had prepared a series of signals which would mobilize whites and Negroes in time of trouble. Once, Parker and his group invaded the court house at Lancaster and fled amid a hail of shots and stones with a Negro who already had been turned over to a claimant. In another rescue attempt, Parker had been shot in the leg.
On September 10, Parker returned from the field to find that Williams’ news had caused much excitement. For several clays, strange men had been seen in the vicinity, and these were now believed to be spies for the slave hunters. Parker and his two brothers-in-law, Alexander Pickney and Abraham Johnson, went to the home of their Quaker landlord, Levi Pownall, for advice. Mrs. Pownall suggested they not resist with force, but prepare to flee at once to Canada. Parker replied that if the laws protected them as it did the white, he too would believe in non-resistance. “But the laws,” he added, “are not made for our protection and so we are not bound to obey them.” He suggested to Mrs. Pownall that if a fight occurred, the whites stay away.
Before daylight the next morning, Parker was awakened by cries of “kidnapers!” He found several strangers on his lawn, one of whom identified himself as William H. Klein, Deputy U. S. Marshal. People began to gather on both sides, some Negroes entering Parker’s home from the rear. When Klein called that he was coming in the front door, Pickney suggested to Parker that they give up. Parker brushed the advice aside.
Klein and Edward Gorsuch then entered the house and advanced to the stairs, where Klein halted Gorsuch and said he first had to read the warrant. He read it, but Parker advised them not to come up the stairs. “I’m coming,” said Klein And Parker replied “Don’t do it.” Klein evidently changed his mind, as did Gorsuch. Both retreated to the lawn. Klein threatened to burn the house and Parker called for them to do it, that he would rather die than go back.
By this time daylight was breaking and Parker’s wife went to a window and blew a horn. It was the signal to the Underground for help. In a few minutes, Negroes and whites began to arrive armed with shotguns, clubs, and corn cutters. Klein ordered Parker not to blow the horn again. ‘When Mrs. Parker attempted to do so, Klein fired at her, the first shot. She dropped below the window and continued to blow. At this, Klein, Gorsuch, and his son Dickerson, all began to fire at the window. Now, out of the adjoining woods, came 20 or more white men, who joined in pouring lead into the Parker home. This was the Gap Gang, which had been held in reserve. They were enrolled by Klein as deputies and hoped to “take all the other negros” by kidnapping.
The shooting attracted many more to the scene, among them Gastner Hanway, Elijah Lewis, and Joseph Scarlett, all whites. To them and other whites Klein read his warrant and demanded their assistance Apparently all three trade various suggestions about what he could do with the warrants, none practical. Each refused to become deputies. Instead they went to the front door and called to Parker. When Parker came to the door, Gorsuch apparently thought he was about to escape and ordered the men on his side to draw weapons.
Parker turned to Klein and said, “I’ve seen pistols before today.” And to Gorsuch, “We don’t want to hurt you, but you ought to be ashamed, and you a class leader at home.” At this the son, Dickersornsaying he would not take the insult to his father from ‘that damned negro,” fired a shot that cut Parker’s head. Parker knocked the pistol from Dickerson’s hand and fled back into the house.
Now shots began to come from the house, the first fired by the Parker side. Shooting became general and Dickerson Gorsuch fell wounded, rose, and was shot again. The elder Gorsuch took a bullet in his neck and died instantly. At this point, the Gap Gang and Klein did that famous military maneuver known as “gitten outa here.” They fled over the fields and scattered into the woods. Some appeared at Quaker homes several miles away and asked for shelter. One shaved off his beard and hid under a bed until nightfall They never came back again.
The Gorsuches were deserted, lying on the ground. The infuriated Negroes rushed toward them, but Joseph Searlett stepped between their guns and the wounded Dickerson Gorsuch. So great was the Negroes’ respect for the Berks County native that no further attempt was made to kill Dickerson. Instead, Parker went, to the Pownall house, asked them to call a physician, and permit him to bring Dickeron Gorsuch there, where he was nursed back to health in the next three weeks. Five or six wounded Negroes were hidden in various other Quaker homes.
That night the Pownall house was filled with U. S. commissioners, deputy marshals, police, and lawyers, all conferring. While this was going on Parker walked in unrecognized and talked to Pownall and his wife, asking advice. This time he took it, and with his two brothers-in-law fled to Canada, leaving their families behind. The wives later were seized by slave holders and taken south. They never saw their husbands again.
When news of this gun fight reached the outside world there was great indignation in official circles. The following day, September 11, 24 U. S. marines from the Philadelphia Navy Yard and 80 police and constables from Philadelphia and Lancaster arrived in Christiana to maintain the peace. Hanway Lewis, Scarlett, and 38 Negroes were arrested and charged with treason and levying war against the United States government. They were taken to Philadelphia, and imprisoned in Moyamensing. The Ledger reports (September 13) that twelve were brought “from a place called the Welsh Mountains, 12 miles from Christiana.”
All but two came to trial in the December session of the U. S. Circuit Court before Judges Grier and Kane. The missing were two Negroes who had been identified as runaways… U. S. Marshal A. E. Roberts reported these two had “disappeared while in jail.” U. S. District Attorney J. XV. Ashrnead decided he could not hope to do much with Scarlett, who had saved the life of Dickerson Gorsuch, so he selected Hanway for the first case,
Theodore Cuyler, serving voluntarily for the defense, in his summation asked the jury: “Did you hear it? Three harmless non-resisting Quakers and eight and thirty wretched, miserable, and penniless Negroes, armed with corn cutters, clubs, and a few muskets, and led by a miller in a felt hat, without coat, and mounted on a sorrel mare, levied war on the United States. Bless be to God that our Union has survived this shock.”
The jury took 15 minutes to reach a verdict of not guilty, and Judge Grier remarked that even if all the evidence was true, it certainly did not constitute the crime charged in the indictment. He thought there might be a possibility of proving charges of riot in a state court, however. Again the pro-slavery group had overplayed its hand. The district attorney announced immediately that he did not intend to bring any more to trial.
But Scarlett and the others were not released immediately. They were, instead, transferred to the Lancaster County Prison, on charges of riot. The grand jury there ignored the bill, and Scarlett and the others were released after 97 days in cells.
The excesses of the Fugitive Slave Law thus were making it harder and harder for people to be neutral. The principle of “immediatism” replaced the plan for “gradualism.” And as Seibert points out (page 358), the steadily increasing number of escapees, and their almost uniform success, spiraled the south’s anger and fed the fires of secession, until “it is safe to say that the Underground Railroad was one of the greatest forces which brought on the Civil War and destroyed slavery.”
This article appeared in the Fall 1958 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County