Primary Resource

The Thomas Hughes Affair; an excerpt from Isaac T. Hopper by L. Maria Child (1854)

In this excerpt from her biography Isaac T. Hopper, published in 1854, L. Maria Child describes an incident in which the Quaker abolitionist, then living in New York, was caught up in a controversy surrounding a fugitive slave named Thomas Hughes.

Transcription from Original

His [Isaac Hopper's] steadfastness in maintaining moral principles, "however unpopular those principles might be," was severely tried in the autumn of 1838. At a late hour in the night, two colored men came to his house,

— page 341 —

and one introduced the other as a stranger in the city, who had need of a lodging. Friend Hopper of course conjectured that he might be a fugitive slave; and this conjecture was confirmed the next morning. The stranger was a mulatto, about twenty-two years old, and called himself Thomas Hughes. According to his own account, he was the son of a wealthy planter in Virginia, who sold his mother with himself and his twin sister when they were eleven months old. His mother and sister were subsequently sold, but he could never ascertain where they were sent. When he was about thirteen, he was purchased by the son of his first master. Being hardly dealt with by this relative, he one day remonstrated with him for treating his own brother with so much severity. This was, of course, deemed a great piece of insolence in a bondman, and he was punished by being sold to a speculator, carried off hand-cuffed, with his feet tied under the horse's belly, and finally shipped for Louisiana with a coffle of five hundred slaves. He was bought by a gambler, who took him to Louisville, Kentucky. When he had lived there three years, his master, having lost large sums of money, told him he should be obliged to sell him. Thomas had meanwhile ascertained that his father had removed to Kentucky, and was still a very wealthy man. He obtained permission to go and see him, with the hope that he

— page 342 —

would purchase him and set him free. Accordingly, he called upon him, and told him that he was Thomas, the son of his slave Rachel, who had always assured him that he was his father. The rich planter did not deny poor Rachel's assertion, but in answer to her son's inquiries, he plainly manifested that he neither knew nor cared who had bought her, or to what part of the country she had been sent. Thomas represented his own miserable condition, in being sold from one to another, and subject to the will of whoever happened to be his owner. He intreated his father to purchase him, with a view to manumission; but himself and his proposition were both treated with supreme contempt. Thus rejected by his father, and unable to discover any traces of his mother, he returned disheartened to Louisville, and was soon after sent to New-Orleans to be sold. Mr. John P. Darg, a speculator in slaves, bought him; and he soon after married a girl named Mary, who belonged to his new master. Mr. Darg went to New-York, to visit some relatives, and took Thomas with him. It was only a few days after their arrival in the city, that the slave left him, and went to Isaac T. Hopper to ask a lodging. "When he acknowledged that he was a fugitive, intending to take refuge in Canada, it was deemed imprudent for him to remain under the roof of a person so widely known as an abolitionist; but a very benevolent and

— page 343 —

intelligent Quaker lady, near eighty years old, named Margaret Shoemaker, gladly gave him shelter.

When Friend Hopper went to his place of business, after parting with the colored stranger, he saw an advertisement in a newspaper called the Sun, offering one thousand dollars reward for the apprehension and return of a mulatto man, who had stolen seven or eight thousand dollars from a house in Varick-street. A proportionate reward was offered for the recovery of any part of the money. Though no names were mentioned, he had reason to conjecture that Thomas Hughes might be the mulatto in question. He accordingly sought him out, read the advertisement to him, and inquired whether he had stolen anything from his master. He denied having committed any theft, and said the pretence that he had done so was a mere trick, often resorted to by slaveholders, when they wanted to catch a runaway slave. That this remark was true, Friend Hopper knew very well by his own experience; he therefore concluded it was likely that Thomas was not guilty. He expressed this conviction in conversation on the subject with Barney Corse, a benevolent member of the Society of Friends, who was kindly disposed toward the colored people. In compliance with Friend Hopper's request, that gentleman waited upon the editor of the Sun, accompanied by a lawyer, and was assured that a large amount of money real-

— page 344 —

ly had been stolen from Mr. Darg, and that if he could recover it, he was willing to give a pledge for the manumission of the slave, beside paying the promised reward to whoever would enable him to get possession of the money. Barney Corse called upon Mr. Darg, who promptly confirmed the statement made by the editor in his name. The Friend [i.e., Quaker] then promised that he, and others who were interested for the slave, would do their utmost to obtain tidings of the money, and see it safely restored, on those conditions; but he expressly stipulated that he could not do it otherwise, because he had conscientious scruples, which would prevent him, in all cases, from helping to return a fugitive slave to his master.

It is to be observed that the promise of manumission was given as the highest bribe that could be offered to induce the slave to refund the money he had taken; for though in argument slaveholders generally maintain that their slaves have no desire for freedom, they are never known to act upon that supposition. In this case, the offer served a double purpose; for it stimulated the benevolent zeal of Friend Hopper and Barney Corse, and induced the fugitive to confess what he had done. He still denied that he had any intention of stealing, but declared that he took the money merely to obtain power over his master, hoping that the promise to restore it

— page 345 —

would secure his manumission. It is impossible to tell whether he spoke truth or not; for poor Thomas had been educated in a bad school of morals. Sold by his father, abused by his brother, and for years compelled to do the bidding of gamblers and slave speculators, how could he be expected to have very clear perceptions of right and wrong? The circumstances of the case, however, seem to render it rather probable that he really was impelled by the motive which he assigned for his conduct. Mr. Darg declared that he had previously considered him an honest and faithful servant; that he was in the habit of trusting him with the key of his trunk, and frequently sent him to it for money. The bank-bills he had purloined were placed in the hands of two colored men in New-York, because, as he said, he could not return them himself, but must necessarily employ somebody to do it for him, in the intended process of negotiating for his freedom.

Friend Hopper, his son-in-law James S. Gibbons, and Barney Corse, were very earnest to recover the money, for the best of reasons. In the first place, they greatly desired to secure the manumission of the slave. In the second place, the honesty of their characters led them to wish that the master should recover what was his own. In both instances, they wished to restore stolen property to the rightful owner; to Thomas Hughes the free use of his own

— page 346 —

faculties and limbs, which had been stolen from him, and to Mr. Darg the money that had been purloined from him. It is not likely that the Southerner would have ever regained any portion of the amount stolen, had it not been for their exertions. But, by careful and judicious management, they soon recovered nearly six thousand dollars, which was immediately placed in one of the principal banks of the city, with a full statement of the circumstances of the case to the cashier. Over one thousand more was heard of as having been deposited with a colored man in Albany. Friend Hopper proposed that Barney Corse should go in pursuit of it, accompanied by the colored man who sent it there. He agreed to do so; but he deemed it prudent to have a previous interview with Mr. Darg, to obtain his written promise to manumit Thomas, to pay the necessary expenses of the journey, and to exonerate from criminal prosecution any person or persons connected with the robbery, provided that assurance proved necessary in order to get possession of the money. All this being satisfactorily accomplished, he went to Albany and brought back the sum said to have been deposited there. Ten or fourteen hundred dollars were still wanting to complete the amount, which Mr. Darg said he had lost; but they had hopes of obtaining that also, by confronting various individuals, who had become involved with this complicated

— page 347 —

affair. Meanwhile, Barney Corse and James S. Gibbons called upon Mr. Darg to inform him of the amount recovered and safely deposited in the bank, and to pay him the sum brought from Albany. Instead of giving the deed of manumission, which had been his own voluntary offer at the outset, and which he knew had been the impelling motive to exertion, Mr. Darg had two police-officers in an adjoining room to arrest Barney Corse for having stolen money in his possession. He was of course astonished at such an ungrateful return for his services, but at once expressed his readiness to go before any magistrate that might be named.

It would not be easy to give an adequate idea of the storm of persecution that followed. Popular prejudice against abolitionists was then raging with uncommon fury; and police-officers and editors availed themselves of it to the utmost to excite hostility against individuals, who had been actuated by a kind motive, and who had proceeded with perfect openness throughout the whole affair. The newspapers of the city were pro-slavery, almost without exception. The idea of sending abolitionists to the State Prison was a glorious prospect, over which they exulted mightily. They represented that Thomas had been enticed from his master by these pretended philanthropists, who had advised him to steal the money, as a cunning mode of obtaining manu-

— page 348 —

mission. As for the accused, all they asked was a speedy and thorough investigation of their conduct. The case was however postponed from week to week, and offers were made meanwhile to compromise the matter, if Barney Corse would pay the balance of the lost money. He had wealthy connexions, and perhaps the prosecutors hoped to extort money from them, to avoid the disgrace of a trial. But Barney Corse was far from wishing to avoid a trial.

At this juncture of affairs, Friend Hopper took a step, which raised a great clamor among his enemies, and puzzled some of his friends at the time, because they did not understand his motives. He sued Mr. Darg for the promised reward of one thousand dollars. He had several reasons for this proceeding. In the first place, the newspapers continually pointed him out as a man over whose head a criminal prosecution was pending; while he had at the same time had good reason to believe that his accusers would never venture to meet him before a court of justice; and a proper regard for his own character made him resolved to obtain a legal investigation of his conduct by some process. In the second place Mr. Darg had subjected Barney Corse to a great deal of trouble and expense; and Friend Hopper thought it no more than fair that expenses caused by his own treachery should be paid from his own pock-

— page 349 —

et. David Ruggles, a worthy colored man, no way implicated in the transaction, had been arrested, and was likely to be involved in expense. In the fourth place, the police officers, who advised the arrest of Barney Corse, made themselves very conspicuous in the persecution. He believed they had been actuated by a desire to obtain the reward for themselves; and as they had no just claim to it, he determined to defeat them in this attempt. He therefore sued for the reward himself, though he never intended to use a dollar of it. This was manifested at the time, by a declaration in the newspapers, that if he recovered the reward, he would give all over the expenses to some benevolent society. It was frequently intimated to him that there should be no further proceedings against him, if he would withdraw this suit; but he constantly replied that a trial was what he wanted. Finding all overtures rejected, a complaint was laid before the Grand Jury; and such was the state of popular prejudice, that twelve out of nineteen of that body concurred in finding a bill against men of excellent moral character, without any real evidence to sustain the charge. Barney Corse had never taken measures to prevent the arrest of Thomas Hughes. He simply declined to render any assistance. He believed that he was under no legal obligation to do otherwise; and he knew for a certainty that he was

— page 350 —

under no moral obligation; because conscience would not allow him to aid in returning a runaway slave to his master. Nevertheless, he and Isaac T. Hopper, and James S. Gibbons, were indicted for "feloniously receiving, harboring, aiding and maintaining said Thomas, in order that he might escape from arrest, and avoid conviction and punishment." Friend Hopper was advised that he might avail himself of some technical defects in the indictment; but he declined doing it; always insisting that a public investigation was what he wanted.

The trial was carried on in the same spirit that characterized the previous proceedings. A colored man, known to have had dishonest possession of a portion of the lost money, was admitted to testify, on two successive trials, against Barney Corse, who had always sustained a fair character. The District Attorney talked to the jury of "the necessity of appeasing the South." As if convicting an honest and kind-hearted Quaker of being accomplice in a felony could do anything toward settling the questions that divided North and South on the subject of slavery! One of the jury declared that he never would acquit an abolitionist. Mr. Darg testified of himself during the trial, that he never intended to manumit Thomas, and had made the promise merely as a means of obtaining his money. The newspapers spoke as if the guilt of the accused was not to be

— page 351 —

doubted, and informed the jury that the public expected them to convict these men.

In fact, the storm lowered so darkly, that some friends of the persecuted individuals began to feel uneasy. But Friend Hopper's mind was perfectly undisturbed. Highly respectable lawyers offered to conduct the cause for him; but he gratefully declined, saying he preferred to manage it for himself. He informed the court that he presumed they understood the law, and he was quite sure that he understood the facts; therefore, he saw no need of a lawyer between them. The Court of Sessions was held every month, and he appeared before it at almost every term, to demand a trial. At last, in January 1840, when the hearing had been delayed fifteen months, he gave notice that unless he was tried during that term, he should appear on the last day of it, and request that a nolle prosequi [i.e., decision not to prosecute] should be ordered. The trial not coming on, he appeared accordingly, and made a very animated speech, in which he dwelt with deserved severity on the evils of the police system, and on the efforts of a corrupt press to pervert the public mind. He said he did not make these remarks to excite sympathy. He was not there to ask for mercy, but to demand justice. "And I would have you all to understand distinctly," continued the brave old man, "that I have no wish to evade the charge against me for being an

— page 352 —

abolitionist. I am an abolitionist. In that, I am charged truly. I have been an abolitionist from my early years, and I always expect to remain so. For this, I am prosecuted and persecuted. I most sincerely believe that slavery is the greatest sin the Lord Almighty ever suffered to exist upon this earth. As sure as God is good and just, he will put an end to it; and all opposition will be in vain. As regards myself, I can only say, that having lived three-score and nearly ten years, with a character that placed me above suspicion in such matters as have been urged against me, I cannot now forego the principles which have always influenced my conduct in relation to slavery. Neither force on the one hand, nor persuasion on the other, will ever alter my course of action."

One of the New-York papers, commenting on this speech, at the time, states that "the old gentleman was listened to very attentively. He was composed, dignified, and clear in his manner, and evidently had much effect on the court and a large number of spectators. He certainly needed no counsel to aid him."

The court ordered a nolle prosequi to be entered, and the defendants were all discharged. The suit for the reward proceeded no further. David Ruggles had been early discharged, and the whole case had been completely before the public in pamphlet form;

— page 353 —

therefore the principal objects for urging it no longer existed.

Though the friends of human freedom made reasonable allowance for a man brought up under such demoralizing influences as Thomas Hughes had been, they of course felt less confidence in him, than they would have done had he sought to obtain liberty by some more commendable process. Being aware of this, he returned to his master, not long after he acknowledged the theft. At one time, it was proposed to send him back to the South; but he swore that he would cut his throat rather than return into slavery. The best lawyers declared their opinion that he was legally entitled to freedom, in consequence of his master's written promise to manumit him if the money were restored; consequently some difficulties would have attended any attempt to coerce him. He was tried on an indictment for grand larceny, convicted, and sentenced to the State Prison for two years; the shortest term allowed for the offence charged against him. Through the whole course of the affair, he proved himself to be a very irresolute and unreliable character. At one time, he said that his master was a notorious gambler; then he denied that he ever said so; then he affirmed that his first statement was true, though he had been frightened into contradicting it. When his time was out at Sing Sing, he expressed to Friend

— page 354 —

Hopper and others his determination to remain at the North; but after an interview with Mr. Darg, he consented to return to the South with him. Although he was thus wavering in character, he could never be persuaded to say that any abolitionist advised him to take his master's money. He always declared that no white man knew anything about it, until after he had placed it out of his own hands; and that the friends who were willing to aid him in procuring his manumission had always expressed their regret that he had committed such a wrong action. He deserved praise for his consistency on this point; for he had the offer of being exempted from prosecution himself, and used as a witness, if he would say they advised him to steal the money.

When Thomas Hughes consented to return to the South with Mr. Darg, it was with the full understanding that he went as a free man, consenting to be his servant. This he expressed during his last interview with Friend Hopper, in Mr. Darg's presence. But the newspapers represented that he had voluntarily gone back into slavery; and such was their exultation over his supposed choice, that a person unacquainted with the history of our republic might have inferred that the heroes of the revolution fought and died mainly for the purpose of convincing their posterity of the superior advantages of slavery

— page 355 —

over freedom. However, it was not long before Thomas returned to New-York, and told the following story: "A short time before my release from prison, Mr. Darg brought my wife to see me, and told me we should both be free and enjoy each other's society as long as we lived, if I would go with him. He said I should suffer here at the North; for the abolitionists would do nothing for me. I went with him solely with the hope of living with Mary. I thought if he attempted to hold me as a slave, we would both run away, the first opportunity. He told me we should meet Mary in Washington; but when we arrived in Baltimore, he shut me up in jail, and told me Mary was sold, and carried off South. I cannot describe how I felt. I never expect to see her again. He asked me if I consented to come with him on Mary's account, or on his own account. I thought it would make it better for me to say on his account; and I said so. I hope the Lord will forgive me for telling a falsehood. When I had been in jail some time, he called to see me, and said that as I did not come with him on account of my wife, he would not sell me; that I should be free, and he would try to buy Mary for me."

Thomas said he was informed that certain people in New-York wrote to Mr. Darg, advising him not to sell him, because the abolitionists predicted that he would do so; and he thought that was the reason

— page 356 —

why he was not sold. If this supposition was correct, it is a great pity that his master was not induced by some better motive to avoid an evil action. Thomas uniformly spoke of Mrs. Darg with respect and gratitude. He said, "She was always very kind to me and Mary. I know she did not want to have me sold, or to have Mary sold; for I believe she loved her. I feel very sorry that I could not live with her and be free; but I had rather live in the State Prison all my life than to be a slave."

I never heard what became of Thomas. Friend Shoemaker used to tell me, years afterward, how she secreted him, and rejoiced in the deed. I heard the good lady, when more than ninety years old, just before her death, talk the matter over; and her kindly, intelligent countenance smiled all over, as she recounted how she had contrived to dodge the police, and avoid being a witness in the case. The Fugitive Slave Law would be of no avail to tyrants, if all the women at the North had as much moral courage, and were as benevolent and quick-witted as she was.

Those who were most active in persecuting Friend Hopper and Barney Corse convinced the public, by their subsequent disreputable career, that they were not men whose word could be relied upon.

Dr. R. W. Moore, of Philadelphia, in a letter to Friend Hopper concerning this troublesome case, says: "I am aware thou hast passed through many

— page 357 —

trials in the prosecution of this matter. Condemned by the world, censured by some of thy friends, and discouraged by the weak, thou hast had much to bear. But thou hast been able to foil thy enemies, and to pass through the flames without the smell of fire on thy garments. Thy christian firmness is an example to us all. It reminds one of those ancient Quakers, who, knowing themselves in the right, suffered wrongs rather than compromise their principles. For the sake of mankind, I am sorry there are not more such characters among us. They would do more to exalt our principles, than a host of the professors of the present day."