In the very first chapter of the book we encounter
the character of the negro-trader, Mr. Haley. His name stands at the head
of this chapter as the representative of all the different characters introduced
in the work which exhibit the trader, the kidnapper, the negro-catcher, the
negro-whipper, and all the other inevitable auxiliaries and indispensable
appendages of what is often called the "divinely-instituted relation"
of slavery. The author's first personal observation of this class of beings
was somewhat as follows:
Several years ago, while one morning employed in the duties of the nursery,
a coloured woman was announced. She was ushered into the nursery, and the
author thought, on first survey, that a more surly, unpromising face she had
never seen. The woman was thoroughly black, thickset, firmly built, and with
strongly-marked African features. Those who have been accustomed to read the
expressions of the African face know what a peculiar effect is produced by
a lowering, desponding expression upon its dark features. It is like the shadow
of a thunder-cloud. Unlike her race generally, the woman did not smile when
smiled upon, nor utter any pleasant remark in reply to such as were addressed
to her. The youngest pet of the nursery, a boy about three years old, walked
up, and laid his little hand on her knee, and seemed astonished not to meet
the quick smile which the negro almost always has in reserve for the little
child. The writer thought her very cross and disagreeable, and, after a few
moments' silence, asked, with perhaps a little impatience, "Do you want
anything of me to-day?"
"Here are some papers," said the woman, pushing them towards
her; "perhaps you would read them."
The first paper opened was a letter from a negro-trader in Kentucky, stating
concisely that he had waited about as long as he could for her child; that
he wanted to start for the South, and must get it off his hands; that, if
she would send him two hundred dollars before the end of the week, she should
have it; if not, that he would set it up at auction, at the court-house
door on Saturday. He added, also, that he might have got more than that for
the child, but that he was willing to let her have it cheap.
"What sort of man is this?" said the author to the woman, when
she had done reading the letter.
"Dunno, ma'am; great Christian I know--member of the Methodist
The expression of sullen irony with which this was said was a thing to
"And how old is this child?" said the author to her.
The woman looked at the little boy who had been standing at her knee with
an expressive glance, and said, "She will be three years old this summer."
On further inquiry into the history of the woman, it appeared that she
had been set free by the will of her owners; that the child was legally entitled
to freedom, but had been seized on by the heirs of the estate. She was poor
and friendless, without money to maintain a suit, and the heirs, of course,
threw the child into the hands of the trader. The necessary sum, it may be
added, was all raised in the small neighbourhood which then surrounded the
Lane Theological Seminary, and the child was redeemed.
If the public would like a specimen of the correspondence which passes
between these worthies, who are the principal reliance of the community for
supporting and extending the institution of slavery, the following may be
interesting as a matter of literary curiosity. It was forwarded by Mr. M.
J. Thomas, of Philadelphia, to the National Era, and
stated by him to be "a copy taken verbatim from the original, found
among the papers of the person to whom it was addressed, at the time of his
arrest and conviction, for passing a variety of counterfeit banknotes:"--
Poolsville, Montgomery Co., Md.,
March 24, 1831.
--I arrived home in safety with Louisa,
John having been rescued from me, out of a two-storey window, at twelve o'clock
at night. I offered a reward of fifty dollars, and have him here safe in jail.
The persons who took him, brought him to Fredericktown jail. I wish you to
write to no person in this State but myself. Kephart and myself are determined
to go the whole hog for any negro you can find, and you must give me the earliest
information, as soon as you do find any. Enclosed you will receive a handbill,
and I can make a good bargain if you can find them. I will, in all cases,
as soon as a negro runs off, send you a handbill immediately, so that you
may be on the look-out. Please tell the constable to go on with the sale of
John's property; and, when the money is made, I will send on
an order to you for it. Please attend to this for me; likewise write to me,
and inform me of any negro you think has run away--no matter where you
think he has come from, nor how far--and I will try to find out his master.
Let me know where you think he is from, with all particular marks, and if
I don't find his master, Joe's dead!
Write to me about the crooked-fingered negro, and let me know which hand and
which finger, colour, &c.; likewise any mark the fellow has who says he got
away from the negro-buyer, with his height and colour, or any other you think
has run off.
Give my respects to your partner, and be sure you write to no person but myself.
If any person writes to you, you can inform me of it, and I will try to buy from
them. I think we can make money, if we do business together; for I have plenty of
money, if you can find plenty of negroes. Let we know if Daniel is still where
he was, and if you have heard anything of Francis since I left you. Accept
for myself my regard and esteem.
REUBEN B. CARLLEY.
John C. Saunders.
This letter strikingly illustrates the character of these fellow-patriots
with whom the great men of our land have been acting in conjunction, in carrying
out the beneficent provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law.
With regard to the Kephart named in this letter,
the community of Boston may have a special interest to know further particulars,
as he was one of the dignitaries sent from the South to assist the good citizens
of that place in the religious and patriotic enterprise of 1851, at the time
that Shadrach was unfortunately rescued. It, therefore, may be well to introduce
somewhat particularly JOHN KEPHART, as sketched
by RICHARD H. DANA, Jun., one of the lawyers employed
in the defence of the perpetrators of the rescue:--
I shall never forget John Caphart. I have been eleven years at the bar,
and in that time have seen many developments of vice and hardness, but I never
met with anything so cold-blooded as the testimony of that man. John Caphart
is a tall, sallow man, of about fifty, with jet-black hair, a restless, dark
eye, and an anxious, care-worn look, which, had there been enough of moral
element in the expression, might be called melancholy. His frame was strong,
and in youth he had evidently been powerful, but he was not robust. Yet there
was a calm, cruel look, a power of will and a quickness of muscular action,
which still render him a terror in his vocation.
In the manner of giving in his testimony, there was no bluster or outward show
of insolence. His contempt for the humane feelings of the audience and community
about him was too true to require any assumption of that kind. He neither paraded
nor attempted to conceal the worst features of his calling. He treated it as a
matter of business, which he knew the community shuddered at, but the moral nature
of which he was utterly indifferent to, beyond a certain secret pleasure in thus
indirectly inflicting a little torture on his hearers.
I am not, however, altogether clear, to do John Caphart justice, that he is entirely
conscience-proof. There was something in his anxious look which leaves one
not without hope.
At the first trial we did not know of his pursuits, and he passed merely as a
policeman of Norfolk, Virginia. But, at the second trial, some one in the room
gave me a hint of the occupations many of these policemen take to, which led
to my cross-examination.
From the Examination of John Caphart, in the
"Rescue Trials," at Boston, in June and November, 1851, and October, 1852.
Question. Is it a part of your duty, as a policeman, to take up coloured
persons who are out after hours in the streets?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Q. What is done with them?
A. We put them in the lock-up, and in the morning they are brought into
court and ordered to be punished--those that are to be punished.
Q. What punishment do they get?
A. Not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.
Q. Who gives them these lashes?
A. Any of the officers. I do sometimes.
Q. Are you paid extra for this? How much?
A. Fifty cents a head. It used to be sixty-two cents. Now it is fifty.
Fifty cents for each one we arrest, and fifty more for each one we flog.
Q. Are these persons you flog men and boys only, or are they women and
A. Men, women, boys, and girls, just as it happens.
[The government interfered, and tried to prevent any further examination;
and said, among other things, that he only performed his duty as police-officer
under the law. After a discussion, Judge Curtis allowed it to proceed.]
Q. Is your flogging confined to these cases? Do you not flog slaves at
the request of their masters?
A. Sometimes I do. Certainly, when I am called upon.
Q. In these cases of private flogging, are the negroes sent to you? Have
you a place for flogging?
A. No. I go round, as I am sent for.
Q. Is this part of your duty as an officer?
A. No, sir.
Q. In these cases of private flogging, do you inquire into the circumstances,
to see what the fault has been, or if there is any?
A. That's none of my business. I do as I am requested. The master is responsible.
Q. In these cases, too, I suppose you flog women and girls, as well as
A. Women and men.
Q. Mr. Caphart, how long have you been engaged in this business?
A. Ever since 1836.
Q. How many negroes do you suppose you have flogged, in all, women and
A. [Looking calmly round the room.] I don't know how many niggers you
have got here in Massachusetts, but I should think I had flogged
as many as you've got in the State.
[The same man testified that he was often employed to pursue fugitive slaves.
His reply to the question was, "I never refuse a good job in that line."]
Q. Don't they sometimes turn out bad jobs?
A. Never, if I can help it.
Q. Are they not sometimes discharged after you get them?
A. Not often. I don't know that they ever are, except those Portuguese
the counsel read about.
[I had found, in a Virginia report, a case of some two hundred Portuguese
negroes, whom this John Caphart had seized from a vessel, and endeavoured
to get condemned as slaves, but whom the Court discharged.]
Hon. John P. Hale, associated with Mr. Dana as counsel for the defence
in the Rescue Trials, said of him in his closing argument:--
Why, gentlemen, he sells agony! Torture is his stock-in-trade! He is
a walking scourge! He hawks, peddles, retails, groans and tears about the
streets of Norfolk!
See also the following correspondence between the two traders, one in North
Carolina, the other in New Orleans: with a word of comment by Bishop Wilberforce,
Halifax, N. C., Nov. 16, 1839.
DEAR SIR,--I have shipped in the brig Addison--prices
The two girls that cost 650 dollars, and 625 dollars, were bought before
I shipped my first. I have a great many negroes offered to me, but I will
not pay the prices they ask, for I know they will come down. I have no opposition
in market. I will wait until I hear from you before I buy, and then I can
judge what I must pay. Goodwin will send you the bill of lading for my negroes,
as he shipped them with his own. Write often, as the times are critical, and
it depends on the prices you get to govern me in buying. Yours, &c.
Mr. Theophilus Freeman, New Orleans. G. W. BARNES.
The above was a small but choice invoice of wives and mothers. Nine days
before, namely, 7th November, Mr. Barnes advised Mr. Freeman of having shipped
a lot, of forty-three men and women. Mr. Freeman, informing one of his correspondents
of the state of the market, writes (Sunday, 21st Sept.,
1839), "I bought a boy yesterday, sixteen years old, and likely, weighing one hundred and ten pounds, at
700 dollars. I sold a likely girl, twelve years old, at 500 dollars. I bought
a man yesterday, twenty years old, six feet high at 820 dollars; one to-day,
twenty-four years old, at 850 dollars, black and sleek as a mole."
The writer has drawn in this work only one class of the negro-traders.
There are all varieties of them, up to the great wholesale purchasers, who
keep their large trading-houses; who are gentlemanly in manners and courteous
in address; who, in many respects, often perform actions of real generosity;
who consider slavery a very great evil, and hope the country will at some
time be delivered from it, but who think that so long as clergyman and layman,
saint and sinner, are all agreed in the propriety and necessity of slave-holding,
it is better that the necessary trade in the article be conducted by men of
humanity and decency, than by swearing, brutal men, of the Tom Loker school.
These men are exceedingly sensitive with regard to what they consider the
injustice of the world, in excluding them from good society, simply because
they undertake to supply a demand in the community, which the bar, the press,
and the pulpit, all pronounce to be a proper one. In this respect, society
certainly imitates the unreasonableness of the ancient Egyptians, who employed
a certain class of men to prepare dead bodies for embalming, but flew at them
with sticks and stones the moment the operation was over, on account of the
sacrilegious liberty which they had taken. If there is an ill-used class of
men in the world, it is certainly the slave-traders; for, if there is no harm
in the institution of slavery--if it is a divinely-appointed and honourable
one, like civil government and the family state, and like other species of
property relation--then there is no earthly reason why a man may not
as innocently be a slave trader as any other kind of trader.