Although the international slave trade was outlawed in 1808, the demand for free labor continued to escalate as the country expanded and the cotton crop overtook tobacco as the country's most in demand export.
When the domestic slave trade proved insufficient, or too expensive, many planters resorted to purchasing their labor on the black market. These individuals were often free young men and women who were kidnapped from their homes in the north and forced into a life of servitude.
Join me this week as I dive into the history of this black market and explore the story of four young boys who beat the odds and found their way back home.
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An Act Respecting Escapees from Justice, and Persons Escaping from the Service of their Masters; 2/12/1793; Public Law, 2nd Congress, 2nd Session: Re Escapees from Justice and Masters, February 12, 1793; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789 - 2011; General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. (LINK)
BELL, RICHARD. “Counterfeit Kin: Kidnappers of Color, the Reverse Underground Railroad, and the Origins of Practical Abolition.” Journal of the Early Republic 38, no. 2 (2018): 199–230. https://www.jstor.org/stable/90021799.
Bell, Richard. Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home. United Kingdom: Simon & Schuster, 2019.
"Kidnapping in Pennsylvania." PBS. (LINK)
Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, August 13, 1825. (Opening quote)
Torrey, Jesse. A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States: With Reflections on the Practicability of Restoring the Moral Rights of the Slave, Without Impairing the Legal Privileges of the Possessor; and a Project of a Colonial Asylum for Free Persons of Colour: Including Memoirs of Facts on the Interior Traffic in Slaves, and on Kidnapping. Illustrated with Engravings. United States: author., 1817.
“Cornelius Sinclair, a colored boy, about 11 years old, left his friends yesterday, and as he had no cause, and never before absented himself, it is feared he has been seduced away, by some evil minded person; he is a very dark mulatto, pretty stout built, thin long fingers, his eyes weak, left eye smaller than the right. Any person hearing of him, will confer a favor on his afflicted parents, by giving information to Wiggin & Whitney, No. 19 South Front Street, and all persons are forbid harboring him under penalty of the law.” Joseph Sinclair, August 13, 1825.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey Peeps, welcome back.
Imagine, if you will; you return home from a long day of work, expecting to return to your family to hear about their day. Instead, you come home to discover your child is missing. You have had many a long conversation with your child about the dangers of following strangers. You have warned them over and over to be leery of helpful people promising money in exchange for a quick errand. You frantically run through the neighborhood, checking in with friends as to whether or not they’ve seen your child. It seems as though they’ve simply vanished. You can try to go to the police, but they are disinterested in assisting you and provide no tangible aid in trying to ascertain your child’s whereabouts.
In essence, you are alone and unequipped to locate your family. And once they’re gone, there is a one in a million chance you’ll ever see them again. They are simply - gone.
This terrifying and gut wrenching experience was a daily occurrence for free black communities throughout the United States in the run up to the Civil War. With the passage of the act to prohibit the importation of slaves in 1808, the southern economy, reliant on unpaid labor, needed a way to maintain their supply of bodies to work their fields and maintain their homes. While they were aided by the rule passing the status of slave from mother to children, it proved to fall short of the required demand.
While some northern states unloaded their excess human property due to the falling tobacco crop, many southern states remained thirsty for human capital. And when the legal channels proved in short supply, or too costly, they went to the black market.
Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of free black individuals were stolen from their homes and communities and forced into a life of servitude; often without ever receiving their day in court to prove their freedom. Hiding from the law, these kidnappers would transport their human cargo in secret down to the deep south, often on similar routes black americans used to escape bondage.
So this week, I am diving into the story of this human black market. How did it work? Who were its victims? And did anyone ever make it home?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
If you’ve ever seen the hollywood film 12 Years a Slave, then you are likely aware of a man by the name of Solomon Northup. A free black man living in New York who was drugged, kidnapped and forced into slavery for over a decade. However Mr. Northup’s story is just one of many. And unlike Mr. Northup, many who were sold into slavery in the deep south never made it back to share their stories. So how did this happen?
I have shared in previous episodes that third president Thomas Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves in 1807. The law, which went into effect on January 1st, 1808, basically made the international slave trade illegal. But, as I shared in my episode regarding the end of the international slave trade, this law did nothing to blunt the practice of slavery. If you want more context about the law and its impacts, I highly recommend checking out my episode titled Banning the Trade, Not the Practice which is episode 69.
After 1808, the domestic slave trade flourished, with slave traders forcing thousands of northern based human labor down south to work the ever expanding cotton fields. But cotton was a demanding crop and the available domestic slave trade proved inadequte for their needs. Seeing an opportunity to cash in on the demand for human labor, some individuals resorted to less than legal measures to fill the need. And by less than legal, I mean kidnapping.
While it may seem a crazy idea that is only inviting trouble, it isn’t as far fetched as it may appear on the surface. First, remember that most black citizens were not given the benefit of the doubt regarding their status; they were often assumed to be enslaved due to their skin color and had to prove they were free. Once stolen and sold south, their required burden of proof became increasingly difficult, as southern courts prohibited blacks from testifying. This meant that if a black person wanted to prove they were free and not someone’s property, they had to find a white person willing to testify on their behalf.
And kidnappers were mischievous. They often targeted children, who were easier to trick and, if needed, subdue. Kidnappers often promised the opportunity to earn some cash in exchange for unloading a package or ship. In other words, easy money for a community in desperate need of economic stability. Once taken, the captives were sometimes drugged before being smuggled in the cover of night. The captors would move their illicit human cargo through waterways and through forests, tying individuals to each other at the neck to ensure everyone stayed together. They moved silently, avoiding detection until they were safely within a slave state where they could offload their merchandise to those willing to pay. While there were supposed penalties on the books for these deceptive acts, many went unpunished.
Since black people were prohibited from testifying, it fell to their white neighbors to step forward and speak up. And many were either disinterested in or unsympathetic to the fate of their neighbors of color. A number of white citizens felt the punishments for kidnapping were too severe; others felt that black americans only brought it on themselves by remaining in the country and not choosing to uproot their lives and start a colony in Haiti or Africa. The result was a thriving black market dealing in human beings.
And as you might imagine, this wasn’t a small problem affecting only a minor portion of the population. It was well known within the black community that kidnappers walked among them, waiting for their opportunity to capture their human prizes. As written by Philadelphia physician Jesse Torrey, quote “to enumerate all the horrid and aggravating instances of men-stealing, which are known to have occurred would require a heavy volume. In many cases, whole families of free colored people have been attacked in the night, beaten nearly to death with clubs, gagged and bound, and dragged into distant and hopeless captivity and slavery,” end quote.
Unable to go to the police or secure any other governmental protection, many black communities created their own version of a neighborhood watch. They warned each other about suspicious white people in their area and told their children to avoid any white person purporting to be a potential benefactor. What many were not prepared for, however, was their fellow black neighbors assisting in the kidnapping efforts. Unfortunately, black men and women joined forces with white human traffickers, often going undetected.
This deceptive tactic was used to con five young boys who were kidnapped from their Philadelphia neighborhoods and transported down to Alabama and Mississippi in an attempt to make a quick sale. Cornelius Sinclair, Sam Scomp, Enos Tilghman, Alex Manlove and Joe Johnson all found themselves chained together in the bottom of a ship headed towards a future of forced servitude. And all were lured with the promise of money in exchange for unloading some goods by someone who looked safe; a man by the name of John Purnell. Described as a light-skinned black man, Purnell often approached young boys with an offer of money in exchange for a quick errand such as unloading a docked ship.
Such was the experience of Sam Scomp. Scomp, who had recently escaped his bounds and was attempting to make a life for himself in Philadelphia, came across Purnell who offered Sam twenty five cents for unloading some fruit. Eager to make any money he could, Sam accepted this offer and followed Purnell towards the Philadelphia Navy Yard. After boarding a sloop, or a small boat, Purnell, Sam and the other kidnappers rowed out to sea. After offering Sam a drink below decks, he was surrounded and bound with rope.
Similar experiences led to the successful capture of the other four boys, all under the age of 18, who found themselves bound for a life likely filled with back breaking labor in the hot southern sun. Separated from their families, friends and the neighborhoods they were familiar with, these young men were transported in the bottom of a boat down river towards the next quote unquote safe house along the trail.
And who snatched these kids? A man named Joseph Johnson. Towering at six feet, Johnson was introduced to the career of kidnapping through his in-laws. Johnson worked for his future wife’s father, Jesse Cannon, for a couple of years prior to their marriage, assisted Cannon’s black market schemes. Together, Jesse Cannon and Joseph Johnson plotted to steal free black people from the north to sell them to the south. For nearly a decade, Joseph and Jesse hatched plots and successfully kidnapped dozens of free and a few enslaved individuals to be sold to willing buyers in cotton country. Upon Cannon’s death in 1822, it fell to Johnson to continue the criminal syndicate and keep the cash flowing.
Given the illicit nature of the endeavor, secrecy and trust were paramount. As Cannon and Johnson expanded their business, they continued to bring in more participants, keeping it a primarily family affair. So when the five young men were taken from the safety of their neighborhoods in 1825, their transportation fell to Joseph’s brother Ebenezer Johnson, Jr and his bride Sally. Together, they tied and chained the five young boys, plus two young women, and proceeded to head south.
The march was long, humid and brutal. In his analysis of the story of the five young boys kidnapped from Philadelphia, historian Richard Bell writes quote, “the cuffs they wore at night rubbed their wrists raw while they slept, and everyone experienced the daily and cumulative effects of sunburn, frostbite, thirst and hunger,” end quote. And the night provided little rest. Trying to keep costs minimal to maximize profits, meals were kept simple and, trying to prevent their human cargo from trying to escape, often chained the group together. The journey took both a physical and mental toll, with the caravan often unaware of where they were going and whether or not they would ever enjoy freedom again.
As if it wasn’t bad enough to be stolen from your family, those transporting the humans for hire made sure to demand loyalty and obedience, often employing excessively violent tactics to subdue any rebellious spirit. This included whipping, clubbing and other physical torments.
Many of those who were kidnapped never made it home. However, four out of the five boys I mentioned earlier defeated the odds and managed to find their ways back home. What happened to the fifth? Well, peeps. Prepare yourselves. I am about to get brutal.
Throughout the journey, the young Joe Johnson continued to be a thorn in the side of Ebenezer. He had a habit of talking back and constantly fell behind the rest of the group, slowing their progress. After one especially grueling day, Ebenezer apparently had enough of what he perceived as Johnson’s purposeful delays and smart mouth. He brutally beat the young boy, using cart whips and smashed his head against a wagon tire. The beating was so severe that Johnson simply laid limp, unable to move. He was tossed into the back of a traveling wagon where he eventually succumbed to his injuries just hours later.
As for the other four? They experienced a miraculous change in luck. Traveling with the deceased young man in their wagon, Ebenezer Johnson and his wife Sally were eager to offload their cargo. Approaching the emerging town of Rocky Springs, Johnson came upon a plantation where he hoped he could make the sale. He entered into preliminary negotiations with the owner, John Hamilton, who expressed interest in purchasing the two youngest boys. An agreement was reached where Hamilton allowed Johnson and his caravan to camp on his property and would review the two boys in the morning.
Everyone awoke the next morning to discover that one of the boys, Sam, had managed to get free of his ties and escaped. Being in an unfamiliar landscape with no way of knowing how to get home and unable to rely on anyone to help him, Sam was eventually discovered by Hamilton who noticed how terrified the young man was. After some prodding by Hamilton, Sam took the brave and dangerous step of sharing the truth of who he was and what had transpired on the journey.
Miraculously, Hamilton believed Sam and immediately took steps to secure the young men and women traveling with the Johnsons. Hamilton conferred with a neighbor friend who happened to be a lawyer. After hearing the account, he advised Hamilton to issue a letter to where the boys said they came from, Philadelphia, to ascertain whether or not their story had any truth to it.
In another stroke of good fortune, the letter inquiring about the status of the young men made its way to Philadelphia Mayor Joseph Watson’s desk. After reviewing its contents, Watson went straight to work in trying to verify these young men. He used the resources of his office to launch a mini investigation, trying to locate friends and family of the kidnap victims so they could be properly identified. In an unusual move for the time, Watson placed newspaper ads soliciting information, making this one of - if not the - first widely reported kidnapping in American history. A man committed to Quaker beliefs, it may seem that Watson’s actions were not all that surprising. However, given the logistical nightmare of not only trying to properly identify the missing boys, but also securing an allowable witness, it is pretty amazing the lengths to which Watson went in order to secure these boys’ freedom.
Finally, after several months of political gamesmanship, smart public relations and yes, luck, the boys were returned to their families.
So what happened to the men responsible for their harrowing experience? Unfortunately, the Johnson family never paid for their crimes, successfully evading the law, all but disappearing from the historical record. The black con man who lured the children, John Parnell, was convicted of his crimes, however died only six years after his conviction. One other man, Thomas Collins, who served a deckhand on the sloop that transported the victims, was convicted, but eventually received a pardon and was released after minimal jail time.
The story of these young men and women, and that of Mr. Northrup (?) are often the exception, rather than the rule, of the Reverse Underground Railroad. While hundreds of black men and women took their freedom by secretly moving through this illicit and secret trail, the unfortunate reality is there were just as many, if not more, being forced back into the slave system traveling the same route.
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Thanks peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.