Legal Context

Emily Abbott


This part of the project explores the legal framework and context of the rescues and subsequent trials in Chatham and Oberlin. In so doing, it reveals how slavery was constructed and resisted through the law. It also provides an account of the legal proceedings and situates them within the broader pattern of legal activism and restriction in pre-Civil War nineteenth-century America. The purpose of the timeline is to highlight important legal cases and pieces of legislation to illustrate that the events in Oberlin and Chatham were not isolated.

Due to the contemporary coverage and subsequent memory of the two rescues, there is significantly more information on the Oberlin trial. This imbalance is also due to the Oberlin trial being embedded within the American legal framework of the Fugitive Slave Laws and other key decisions and pieces of legislation. As a result, more attention will be payed to the American legal proceedings, precedents and laws.


Account of the Oberlin Legal Proceedings

Following the rescue of John Price, prosecutors wanted to make a conspicuous example of the justice that would be served to those who would break the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 by indicting thirty-seven rescuers in the Northern District Court of Ohio in December 1858.[1] The rescuers were imprisoned in the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland.[2] Emma Monroe Fitch, an Oberlin graduate of 1869, provided an account that detailed visits to the rescuers during their eighty-five-day imprisonment, including bringing books, candy, and nuts as well as a Sunday School group.[3] The Republican Central Committees of the Western Reserve instituted a ‘Fund for Liberty’ to support the rescuers.[4] However, the defense counsel of Riddle, Griswold, Spalding, and Backus volunteered for free.[5]

In total, only two rescuers, Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston, were tried and sentenced in April and May 1859.[6] Coverage of the trial by the Daily Cleveland Herald reveals that the prosecution argued that Price did not want to be rescued and that the case was about proving ownership.[7] The Oberlin Evangelist depicted the case in terms of the larger context of states’ rights, asserting that “it will definitely be ascertained whether Ohio is a free state or not.”[8]

The penalties consisted of twenty to sixty days of imprisonment and one hundred to six hundred dollar fines.[9] In his ruling, Judge Wilson articulated his support for the rule of law even if it was morally questionable, declaring that “the Fugitive Slave law may, and unquestionably does, contain provisions repugnant to the moral sense of many good and conscientious people; nevertheless, it is the law of the United States, and as such should be recognized and executed by our courts and juries.”[10] The convicted rescuers appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court for habeas corpus violations, but were rejected by a three to two decision.[11]

The political divisions between Cleveland and Oberlin were apparent during the trials. The Prosecutors in Cleveland were Democrats and chose a jury that supported their views.[12] However, Lorain County responded by indicting the Kentucky slave catcher for kidnapping in their Republican-dominated court, a charge Jennings took to be a mocking joke.[13] According to an affidavit, he did not think he was seriously going to be tried.[14] In any case, the charges were filed six days before the trials of the rescuers were set to resume.[15] Lorain County officials cleverly used state laws in an attempt to resist the federal law. As a result of this tactic, a compromise was reached to abandon all prosecutions.[16] The rescuers and supporters were successful at working within the legal system to resist slavery through the Fugitive Slave Laws.


Account of the Chatham Legal Proceedings

Following Demarest’s rescue, the Great Western Railway wanted charges to be brought against the Chatham Vigilance Committee, resulting in seven arrests.[17] According to the contemporary Mayor of London, the charges included disturbing the peace and trespassing.[18] Slave Catcher Merwin also filed abduction charges against the rescuers.[19] Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s Provincial Freeman requested public funding to pay for the defense counsel after contributing her own money and almost bankrupting her paper.[20] The events were covered in the 4 October issue of the New York Tribune.[21] In October 1858, Justice Burns ruled that Constable Goodyear and six others would be fined for rioting and six other constables were fined for “absenting themselves from duty.”[22] The fines totaled $243 and the Chatham Planet asked readers for financial support like Cary had done.[23]


Legal Framework in the United States

There are three main types of legislation that are central to the discussion of American legal activism and restriction: Black Codes, Personal Liberty Laws, and the Fugitive Slave Laws. The legislative acts demonstrate how laws were promulgated to reinforce and to challenge slavery.

In the Ohio context, Black Codes such as the 1804 Act to Regulate Black and Mulatto Persons required the production of a “certificate from some Court within the United States” to prove free status before being allowed to live in Ohio or be hired.[24] Acts in 1807, 1811, 1816 1824, and 1831 further restricted settlement such as through fining black people who did not “enter into bond with two or more sureties” within twenty days of entering Ohio.[25] The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was also “reprinted in at least five volumes of Ohio Laws between 1804 and 1831.”[26] This version of the law allowed any judge at any level to hear fugitive slave cases.[27]

However, the picture is not all bleak. In 1819, Ohio passed An Act to Punish Kidnapping as a response to the Fugitive Slave Law.[28] In addition, the legislature passed An Act to Prevent the Forcible Abduction of the Citizens of Ohio in 1835.[29] Other states followed suit and enacted similar Personal Liberty Laws such as Pennsylvania in 1847.[30] While much attention is paid to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, it is important to remember that the 1793 version engendered much legal support as well as legal resistance.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, as part of the Compromise of 1850, changed the legal landscape. The law was federal and superseded state law in its jurisdiction, while the 1793 version could be adjudicated at all levels. The law also mandated that officials help in the recovery of fugitive slaves, implicating northern states. In assessing its significance, Campbell asserts that “there is not a single instance on record in which federal jurisdiction in fugitive slave cases was finally lost because of action taken by abolitionist lawyers under the personal liberty laws,” revealing that the Fugitive Slave Law reigned supreme against legal resistance.[31] Northern states did try to restrict cooperation through banning the involvement of state officers, jails, and public defenders in the prosecution of alleged fugitives.[32] However, many authorities enforced the legislation out of respect for the rule of federal law even though they personally opposed it, such as the Cleveland judge in the Oberlin-Wellington case.[33] Between 1850 and 1860, 191 slaves were successfully claimed by their owners in federal courts, an enforcement rate of 82.3%.[34] In that same decade, around 1000 fugitive slaves were returned to slavery by slave catchers.[35] In addition, in the Ohio context, there was a 45% increase in the black population.[36] Overall, there are important scholarly debates over the effectiveness of the law.

There was also a broader network of lawyers willing to defend black citizens accused of being fugitive slaves. In cities such as Cincinnati and Philadelphia, key lawyers like Salmon Chase offered free legal services.[37] This legal activism followed a long tradition of slaves and abolitionists using the courts for purposes such as suing for freedom.

Legal Framework in Canada West

While the Fugitive Slave Laws did not apply in Canada West, there was still the threat of slave catchers crossing the border to kidnap alleged fugitives or luring them back into the United States. The threat increased during the 1840s as Canada West acted as a “militant community” to prevent kidnappings.[38] In addition to the Demarest case, John Farrell highlights two other cases that demonstrate the danger that slave catchers posed in Canada. In 1843, Henry Gouins wrote a letter in the Chatham Journal warning others after being lured into Ohio to receive a service.[39] In addition, in 1857, Joseph Alexander was pursued by slave catchers in Chatham and refused to be lured.[40] These cases reveal the insecurity felt and the resulting necessity of the Chatham Vigilance Committee even in the so-called ‘Promised Land’ for fugitive slaves.

Another important implication for the Canadian context is the issue of extradition. The case of John Anderson, which is discussed in more detail in the timeline, created an international debate around extradition under the Webster-Ashburton Treaty between the United States and Great Britain. Canada West was therefore greatly influenced by the American legal context discussed above.


It is interesting to note the use of the states’ rights argument on both sides of the slavery debate. While this kind of argument was used in discussions over the expansion of slavery by southern states, northern states used the argument to enact laws that challenged the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Laws.

This background essay has discussed legal activism and resistance as a form of abolition. However, it is important to highlight that while working within the legal framework provided opportunities for resistance, some key abolitionist figures felt that the entire system was corrupted by slavery. John Brown’s creation of a new constitution for a Republic in West Virginia and William Lloyd Garrison’s public burning of the constitution raise important questions about the ethics of working within a legal framework that worked to uphold the institution of slavery.

[1] Roland M. Bauman, The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal (Lorain: The Bodnar Printing Company, 2003), 18-19.

[2] Ibid., 19

[3] Emma Monroe Fitch, “Account of Fitch.” In Frances Hosford Papers. Oberlin College Archives.

[4] Bauman, 19.

[5] James H. Fairchild, The Underground Railroad, Tract 27, Volume IV, (Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1895), 114.

[6] Bauman, 19.

[7] “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case,” The Daily Cleveland Herald, (6 April, 1859).

[8] “The Trial of the Thirty-Seven,” Oberlin Evangelist, Reprinted in The Daily Cleveland Herald, (17 March 1859).

[9] Bauman, 19.

[10] Wilbur G. Burroughs, “Oberlin’s Part in the Slavery Conflict,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 10, no. 2&3 (1911): 303.

[11] Ibid., 309.

[12] Bauman, 20.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] “The Kidnappers in Court,” The Daily Cleveland Herald, Letter to the Editor, (18 May, 1859).

[15] Burroughs, 313.

[16] Bauman, 21.

[17] Peter C. Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume II (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 29.

[18] Elijah Leonard, The Honorable Elijah Leonard: A Memoir, (London: Advertiser Printing Co., 1894), 48.

[19] John Farrell, “The History of the Negro Community in Chatham, Ontario 1787-1865.” (Thesis, University of Ottawa, 1955), 85.

[20] Ripley, 392.

[21] Ibid., 393.

[22] Farrell 88-89.

[23] Ibid., 89.

[24] William C. Cochran, “The Western Reserve and the Fugitive Slave Law,” Collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Publication 101, (Cleveland, 1920), 55.

[25] Ibid., 56.

[26] Ibid., 72.

[27] Paul Finkelman and Donald R Kennon, Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 69.

[28] Cochran, 73.

[29] Ibid., 74.

[30] David G. Smith, On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 115.

[31] Stanley W Campbell, Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 168.

[32] Ibid., 171.

[33] Ibid., vii-viii.

[34] Ibid., 167.

[35] Finkelman, 77.

[36] Cochran, 119.

[37] Fairchild, 107.

[38] Ripley, 28.

[39] Farrell, 80-81.

[40] Ibid., 81-82.




Bauman, Roland M. The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal. Lorain: The Bodnar Printing Company, 2003.

Baker, Robert H. Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012.

Brandt, Nat. “Chapter VII: Fuel for the Antislavery Flame.” In Other Fugitive Slave Cases. Nat Brandt Papers. Oberlin College Archives.

Burroughs, Wilbur G. “Oberlin’s Part in the Slavery Conflict.” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly 10, no. 2&3 (1911): 129-334.

Sperry, Earl E. The Jerry Rescue. Syracuse: Onondaga Historical Association, 1924.

Campbell, Stanley W. Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Cochran, William C. “The Western Reserve and the Fugitive Slave Law.” Collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Publication 101. Cleveland, 1920.

Fairchild, James H. The Underground Railroad, Tract 27, Volume IV. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1895.

Farrell, John. “The History of the Negro Community in Chatham, Ontario 1787-1865.” Thesis, University of Ottawa, 1955.

Finkelman, Paul, and Donald R Kennon. Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012.

Fitch, Emma Monroe. “Account of Fitch.” In Frances Hosford Papers. Oberlin College Archives.

“From Canada: Important Extradition Case Can a Fugitive Slave Who Kills a Man While Escaping to Canada be Surrendered Under the Extradition Treaty.” The New York Times. (26 November 1860).

Henry, Natasha. Emancipation Day. Toronto: Dundurn Books, 2010.

Landon, Fred. “The Anderson Fugitive Case.” The Journal of Negro History 7, no. 3 (1922): 233-242.

Leonard, Elijah. The Honorable Elijah Leonard: A Memoir. London: Advertiser Printing Co., 1894.

“Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case.” The Daily Cleveland Herald. (6 April, 1859).

Ripley, Peter C, ed. The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume II. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Smith, David G. On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

“The Trial of the Thirty-Seven.” Oberlin Evangelist. Reprinted in The Daily Cleveland Herald. (17 March 1859).

“The Kidnappers in Court.” The Daily Cleveland Herald. Letter to the Editor. (18 May, 1859).

“The Oberlin Slave Case.” The Liberator. (26 March, 1841).

United States Supreme Court. Ableman v. Booth. Cornell Legal Information Institute, 1859.

Finkelman, Paul. “Sorting Out Prigg v. Pennsylvania.” Rutgers Law Journal 24, no. 3 (1993): 605-666.

Von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.