Teaching Cleveland

Lesson 6

Handout 3 - The Runaway Slave Incident of 1843

John Malvin's account of a runaway slave incident in Cleveland
(From his autobiography)

About the year 1843, a couple of slaves ran away from Tennessee, and were recommended here to one Henry Jackson, a barber, who was reputed to be an abolitionist, and they stayed here under his protection from four to six weeks. During that time he learned where they were from, and the names of their owners. A reward having been offered for their apprehension, Jackson communicated that fact to H. V. Wilson, who afterwards became Judge of the U.S. District Court in Cleveland. Jackson could not write, but he engaged Mr. Wilson to open a correspondence with the owners of the two men...

After the fugitives had been in Cleveland about six weeks they left and went to Buffalo, and shortly after the agent of the owners arrived in Cleveland. Learning from Jackson that the boys were in Buffalo there was a consultation held between Mr. Wilson, Jackson, and the agent, and it was concluded to get the men back to Cleveland, or in Ohio, for the reason that colored men were allowed to testify in the State of New York, but could not testify in Ohio. The black laws had not yet been repealed. They planned that Jackson, the agent, and Mr. Wilson, should go to Buffalo, and that Jackson should be their spokesman. The names of the two boys were Alexander Williams and John Houston. Before they went to Buffalo, Williams applied to J.F. Hanks, who was a portrait painter, to become an apprentice, but Hanks did not employ him, and Jackson, as spokesman for the trio, on their arrival at Buffalo, represented to Williams that Mr. Hanks had agreed to employ him as apprentice, and had sent him down to see him (Williams) to have him come back to Cleveland and enter into the apprenticeship, and he represented to John Houston, who was formerly a cook in the South, that there was a new brig just launched in Cleveland, and the Captain had employed him to engage a cook, and so he had come to Buffalo to have him ship on board of the new brig as cook. Before leaving Cleveland for Buffalo there had been a warrant issued and placed in the hands of Madison Miller, who was Sheriff, that was to be served on the boys as soon as they landed in Cleveland. By reason of the representations thus made to the boys they were induced to return to Cleveland. They no sooner landed than they were arrested and placed in jail. A crowd of colored people, myself among the number, gathered around the jail late, in order to see that they were not run off during the night without a chance of hearing. Charles Stetson, Esq., kindly volunteered his services gratis as attorney for the boys, and we employed to assist him Thomas Bolton, Esq., who was a Democrat. We paid Mr. Bolton $25 to take the case. The agent, Mr. Lindenberger, employed H.B. Payne, Esq., and Hon. Horace Toole, and so the boys, in a day or two, were brought before Judge Barber....

When the boys were brought out and it was ascertained how they were deceived and brought back from Buffalo, Edward Wade, Esq., interposed a motion to the court asking for a continuance of the cause for twelve days. It was the law that when a fugitive slave was arrested and put in jail or custody, that if he could furnish bail of $1,000, he would be released from prison until the expiration of the time of adjournment. So Alexander Bowman, John Brown, and myself furnished the required bail. Then I took the boy Alexander Williams from the jail and went with him to Buffalo by the advice of the lawyers, to ascertain the particulars in the case. I had a letter from Mr. Bolton, directed to George A. Barker, Esq., the Prosecuting Attorney at Buffalo. I arrived in Buffalo about six o'clock in the evening....

That night, [Mr. Barker] had a jury called, and Alexander Williams was called in before the jury and testified as to the manner in which they were decoyed. The jury decided that these men were kidnapped, and Mr. Barker that same night wrote a letter to the Governor of New York for a requisition on the Governor of Ohio for the men that kidnapped the boys, and Mr. Barker requested me to call at his office the next morning at 8 o'clock.....Mr. Barker handed me a letter to give to Mr. Bolton, and so I returned that morning with Alexander Williams by steamer, and when we arrived in Cleveland I delivered the prisoner to the authorities, and he was returned back to jail. A day or two after the requisition was forwarded to the Governor of Ohio for the arrest of Jackson, the agent of Lindenberger, and H. V. Wilson, to answer the charge as found by the jury for kidnapping... a warrant for the arrest of the persons named [was issued.] Jackson, having heard this, ran away, as also did Lindenberger, so that when the day of trial of the boys came they were not present. The trial, however, had not come off, and one day, as I happened to go to a meeting, on my return about half past nine in the evening there was a rap at my door, and when I opened it, I found to my surprise Alexander Williams. I hardly knew what to do with Williams...I dared not harbor him in my house, so I took him to the woods five or six rods off and had him climb a tree till I could find a place of safety. One Deacon Hamlin was building a one-story brick house on Prospect street, which was enclosed but not finished. I got some comforters and Buffalo robes, and placed them in the building, and then I went back to the woods after Williams....After considerable search I found the tree, had him come down, and took him to the building, and kept him there for several days. His complexion was a bright mulatto. I made a composition, and painted all the visible parts of the man, and made a very black man of him, so he walked about the streets of Cleveland boldly and no one recognized him as Alexander Williams. He afterwards left Cleveland for New York State, and, perhaps, went into Canada. On the day of trial the other boy, John Houston, was brought into Court, but Jackson and Lindenberger not being at the trial, there was no one to appear against the boy, and he was discharged.

North Into Freedom, The Autobiography of John Malvin, Free Negro, 1795-1880, Edited by Allan Peskin, Kent University Press, 1988.


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