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The George Latimer Case:
A Benchmark in the Struggle for Freedom

Asa J. Davis*

[NOTES]

George Latimer thumbnailLewis H. Latimer's father, George W. Latimer, was the first fugitive slave whose emancipation guided and influenced the American abolitionists of the 1850s. His flight to Boston, arrest, imprisonment, trial, and emancipation, as well as the numerous public meetings held all over Massachusetts on his behalf,1 made his a cause celebre, fifteen years before the famous Dred Scott Decision. His supporters called it a "war on slavery."

Supporters of the Latimer cause included Dr. Henry Bowditch, William Francis Channing, and Frederick Cabot. These men, described as "gentlemen of property and standing," founded a newspaper called the Latimer Journal and North Star, which first appeared in Boston on November 11, 1842. Its purpose was "to meet the urgency of the first enslavement in Boston" and to rescue a fugitive slave from the custody in which he was detained. The editors of the Journal were determined to "discourage all intemperate and violent measures, even for the rescue of our citizens from enslavement."

Critics claimed that the Latimer Journal "greatly excited and alarmed the credulous, vexed the irritable, inflamed the passionate, and exasperated those whose sympathies ran beyond their judgments." Six issues appeared subsequently from November 11, 1842 to May 16, 1843, with a circulation of 20,000. The journal responded to a chain of events that had begun on October 4, 1842, when George Latimer, along with his wife Rebecca, ran away from slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, and fled to the North. Four days later, Latimer was recognized by William R. Carpenter, a former employee of Latimer's owner, James B. Gray. Carpenter immediately communicated the information to Gray. On October 15th, the following ad appeared in the local newspaper:

Runaway ad thumbnail
RANAWAY on Monday night last my Negro Man George, commonly called George Latimer. He is about 5 feet 3 or 4 inches high, about 22 years of age, his complexion a bright yellow, is of a compact, well made frame, and is rather silent and slow spoken.—I suspect that he went North Tuesday, and will give Fifty Dollars reward and pay all necessary expenses, if taken out of the State. Twenty Five Dollars reward will be given for his apprehension within the State. . . .

James B. Gray2

Another ad confirms the fact that his wife, also a slave, ran away with him.

RANAWAY from the subscriber last evening, negro Woman REBECCA, in company (as is supposed) with her husband, George Latimer, belonging to Mr. James B. Gray, of this place. She is about 20 years of age, dark mulatto or copper colored, good countenance, bland voice and self-possessed and easy in her manners when addressed.—She was married in February last [1842] and at this time obviously enciente [pregnant]. She will in all probability endeaver to reach some one of the free States. All persons are hereby cautioned against harboring said slave, and masters of vessels from carrying her from this port. The above reward [$50] will be paid upon delivery to

Mary D. Sayer3

On October 18, James B. Gray arrived in Boston and caused Latimer, without legal process, to be arrested by police officers on a charge of larceny, and placed in the Leverett Street jail, where he began procedures to return Latimer to Virginia. On Sunday, October 30, a tumultuous meeting took place in Faneuil Hall "to provide additional safeguards for the protection of those claimed as fugitives from other states, or as slaves." The excitement of the public meeting spread far and wide and the tone of indignation was deep and loud. This agitation, or "stimulants of popular passion," not only excited the public mind in favor of Latimer, but also increased the determination of the abolitionists to demand new legislative measures to protect the fugitive slave.

Latimer Journal thumbnailFree blacks were not simply bystanders to the affair. We see evidence of their "sense of freedom" and empathy for Latimer when a day after his arrest, nearly 300 black males assembled around the court house "to prevent the slave from being moved out of the city until word was pledged that Mr. Gray would take no steps not authorized by law."4 After a number of disquisitions from various courts, interventions by a number of people (i.e., Samuel Sewall, W. L. Garrison, and J. W. Hutchinson), and after several weeks of incarceration, Latimer was cleared of the larceny charge and finally freed. A week before he was manumitted, the following interview was recorded between Latimer and one of the editors of the Latimer Journal:

I asked Latimer if he had ever expressed to Gray, or anyone else, a willingness to go back to Norfolk. He said "no, never, I would rather die than go back. Gray had just been there, trying to get me to say I will go back willingly. I turned my back on him and would not speak to him. He said if I would go back peacefully there would be no more trouble—he would like me out of jail and serve me well. I then turned toward him and said "Mr. Gray when you get me back to Norfolk you may kill me."5

On November 18, 1842, Latimer was finally manumitted for $400 and forbidden from being returned to Virginia by Judge Shaw, following an evening of intense negotiations. Consider the following statement:

The early part of this week, two petitions were gotten up and signed by many abolitionists, requesting Sheriff Eveleth6 to order Cooledge7 to discharge Latimer from the jail, and containing several threats to cause C's removal from office for his abuse of power. This alarmed Cooledge, and on Wednesday evening, he notified Gray that he could not act as his agent any longer, and frankly states his reasons, viz: the prejudice these abolitionists were creating against him. Of this step the latter party must have been aware, for on that evening, Sewall8 called at the jail and directed Latimer how to act, should Gray attempt to take him into his own custody—to scream and raise an outcry, and then the negroes would rescue him. Fifteen or twenty negroes, too, watched the jail thro' the night of Wednesday, to prevent Gray from removing his property. On Thursday morning, the counsel for the negroes in the riot case in the Municipal Court obtained a writ of habeas corpus to have L brought to the Court as a witness for the defence. On that day [November 17], an agreement was negotiated between a negro and Cooledge, for the purchase of the slave, and $800 was fixed as the price.

This was refused by the negro, who offered $650 for him, and upon Dr. Bowditch9 agreeing to pay that sum for George. Gray accepted it, and the parties were to meet at the jail office at 7 o'clock, to adjust the business. The hour came and brought the parties, but Dr. Bowditch stated that he had seen an order of the Sheriff directing Cooledge to discharge Latimer at 12 o'clock on Friday, and as Gray could not find a place strong enough to keep him from the negroes till the day of the hearing—and as he would of necessity be rescued, he should not pay any thing for him; and thus backed out of his contract, and boasted on that evening to a friend of ours, that he had failed to fulfill his agreement. A negro minister, however, offered Austin10 $400 for Latimer, which was accepted; and at 10 o'clock on Thursday evening, the money was paid, and the slave was made a free man.11

The case did not end here however. After lauding Latimer for running away from slavery, the Latimer Journal summoned:

Men of Massachusetts! Come up by the thousands to the city on Monday next. The victim is ready for the altar. His garlands are chains! His bracelets handcuffs! His crown is a crown of thorns! Come ye up by myriads to see your brother.

Petition thumbnailA petition signed by more than 65,000 citizens of the state of Massachusetts was presented to the legislature of Massachusetts demanding three things: (1) that a law should be passed, forbidding all persons who hold office under the government of Massachusetts from aiding in or abetting the arrest or detention of any person who may be claimed as a fugitive from slavery; (2) that a law should be passed forbidding the use of the jails or other public property of the state, for the detention of any such person before described; (3) that such amendments to the Constitution of the United States be proposed by the legislature of Massachusetts to the other states of the Union, as may have the effect of forever separating the people of Massachusetts from all connection with slavery.12 Subsequently, an act was passed for "the protection of personal liberty," stipulating that "all judges, justices of the peace, and officers of the commonwealth, are forbidden, under heavy penalties, to aid, or act in any manner in the arrest, detention, or delivery of any person claimed as a fugitive slave."13

Petition signatures thumbnailThe episode is a benchmark in the black struggle for freedom and a pivotal event in American history for another reason than its success in Massachusetts. A second petition proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, signed by nearly an equal number to the one mentioned, was sent to each of the senators and members of the Massachusetts House and also was forwarded to Washington. It stipulated that "direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states . . . according to their numbers of free persons . . ." and that "the number of representatives shall not exeed one for every 30,000." After repeated attempts by John Quincy Adams to present it to the House, the petition was finally given over to the Speaker of the House, who referred it to the Judiciary Committee; there it remained until the close of the session when Barnard, the chairman, was unable to assemble a quorum of the committee to consider it.

Despite these significant episodes, there are few accounts of George W. Latimer's life as a whole. The reasons for this are severalfold. First, although the events surrounding George Latimer's life are fascinating, they are also complex and, because of a paucity of sources, difficult to piece together. Moreover, the few sources available do not project back to the years before he fled Virginia in 1842. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857) attracted comparatively more attention from scholars because of their direct impact on the events that led up to the Civil War. However, less than two months after Latimer was arrested, he provided some significant information about himself.

Late in November of 1842, George W. Latimer dictated a short autobiographical sketch to one of the editors of the Latimer Journal.14 To the author's knowledge, this information has not previously been referred to by historians. Fifty-one years later, when he was seventy-five, George Latimer dictated another autobiographical sketch to J. W. Hutchinson, one of the direct descendants of the first governor of Massachusetts.15 Both autobiographical fragments have a character and importance that justify joint publication.16 I have preserved the orthography and internal punctuation as originally taken from the author's dictation in 1842 and 1893, but felt free to make emendations that give meaning to the texts.

George Latimer's First Autobiographical Sketch

"I am 23 years old last 4th of July. I was born in Norfolk, Va. My father was Mitchell Latimer—a white man—who was a stone mason in the Navy Yard at Norfolk. My mother was a slave, named Margaret Olmsted, who was owned by my father's brother, Edward A. Latimer, of same trade as his brother, and to him my father was apprentice. Mr. Edward Mallery married the widow of Edward A. Latimer,17 but I was quite small at the time [italics mine], and was boarded out. I was treated with tenderness when under Edward Mallery's care. I was a domestic [house] servant until 16 years of age, and afterwards, with his consent, went out and worked for them—drove a dray, etc., was a laboring man, and paid a quarter of a dollar a day to my master, and found myself in food—was clothed by my master. Continued working in this way for about one year, then I was hired out to a colored man, named Mich Johnson,18 by the year, and he treated me as he liked, and was a very hard master. He used to hit me frequently across the head with a stick of wood.19 I continued with him for 14 months. Had good bedding, etc. but only two meals a day, that is, a breakfast at 12, and dinner at night, sometimes at nine o'clock. One beside myself had the same fare. He used to keep me rubbing horses until nine o'clock.20

George Latimer thumbnail"During these fourteen months, I was arrested by the Sheriff, for a debt of my master, Mallery, was put in jail, and staid there two weeks—had herring and bread for breakfast, and sage tea, and beef alternately, with molasses for dinner every other day. I was flogged once severely, by the jailor, for making noise in my cell. The noise was only the word Ehue!, an Indian cry, and I only said it three times. Mallery finally bought me out of jail, and returned me back to Mich Johnson, but in a fortnight I was again taken to jail for my master's debts. Staid there four weeks short of two days. Got on very well, except for food. At end of that time, the debt was paid, and I was released as if I was owned by John Dunson,21 though he did not have a bill of sale.22 I worked for him for two years and nine months. He was a watchman at Virginia Bank, and a coal measurer. After that I was hired out to Peter Slichen,23 for nine months as a storekeeper. Tended in his store, where he kept groceries and liquor—Peter Slichen was a very fine man—and treated me well—but his mother, Mrs. Brown, was very disagreeable. She struck me once over the head with a shovel, because she claimed that I was slow in getting some water. She frequently would make her husband beat me with a stick.24 Otherwise, I fared very well. Next year, I was hired out to a colored man, named Edward White. I drove a dray for him. Got along very well with him for twelve months—I got none but one whipping, with a barrel hoop, for letting the horse trip.

"The next year, following, I was hired out to the firm of Howeyear and Brown,25 to tend store groceries, meal, etc. One of them was of a religious character, and I was treated very well. Served there twelve months and that was the last of belonging to Dunson, and my first master, Edward Mallery, got me again. He put me into William Mallery's hand, his brother, as if William M. owned me. James B. Gray about the same time bargained with Edward and William. William Mallery gave bill of sale to Gray, in his name.26 This was in December 1839.27 J. B. Gray was a store keeper. I manned his store as a clerk, and did everything but reading and writing. He treated me very badly—as I was knocked and kicked about by him—beaten with a stick and cowhides. About two months before I left he thumped me with his fists about my head several times, for not going to the store early enough. About a month ago as I was returning from my wife, early in morning, half an hour before sunrise—I met him in the market—where he struck me with a stick across my jaw, which bruised the skin, so I had to cover my jaw. He did this because he said it was late. He followed me to store, and ordered me upstairs—beat me with stick across arm and back, fifteen or twenty times. He ordered me to store in Roanoke Square, after beating me with stick, in order to beat me with a cowhide. I would not go. I did not go to Roanoke Square until evening, and he sent for me round to help hoist up meal. Did not say anything about the scrape in morning. He was a very passionate man, and would strike a white man as soon as a colored. He has made all his money by selling liquor to colored people. He has bought stolen goods from colored people. I know this. Mr. Gray knows I know it. I first ran away about two years ago—overtaken before arriving in Baltimore. Gray put me up for auction, but he then bought me in for $750. Treated me same as ever, or with rather more severity as he had a dislike for me. On 4th last month [October] I started to run away again with my wife. I had been saving for some time. I arrived in Boston 7th last month [October]—and on the same day I met William Carpenter, who had lived with Gray as tender in his store. I think he sent word to Gray. He [Carpenter] kept a rum shop in Norfolk. I was married nine months ago [i.e., January]. I have thought frequently of running away even when I was a little boy. I have frequently rolled up my sleeve, and asked—'Can this flesh belong to any man as horses do?' Very few others would stay if they could get away. Some few, however, say they did not wish to leave their masters. I expected if I was carried back, I would beaten and whipped 39 lashes, and perhaps to be washed in pickle afterwards."

Fifty years later, on November 24, 1894, in Lynn, Massachusetts, George Latimer, described as "an oldish man, looking perhaps sixty" but who was really seventy-three years old and "paralysed on one side and carrying a cane," called at the residence of J. W. Hutchinson "to congratulate him on the near completion of the family history" the latter was writing. According to Hutchinson, Latimer "gladly dictated" the following sketch of his life to Hutchinson, whom he had known for more than fifty years.

George Latimer's Second Autobiographical Sketch

"I have known John W. Hutchinson since 1842.28 That was the year I came North. I started in September from my home in Norfolk, Virginia. With my wife, also a slave, I secreted myself under the fore-peak of the vessel, we lying on stone ballast in the darkness for nine weary hours. As we lay concealed in the darkness we could peek through the cracks of the partition into the bar-room of the vessel, where men who would have gladly captured us were drinking. When we went aboard the vessel at Frenchtown a man stood in the gangway who was a wholesaler of liquors. He knew me, for my master kept a saloon and was his customer. But I pulled my Quaker hat29 over my eyes and passed him unrecognized. I had purchased a first-class passage and at once went into the cabin and stayed there. Garrison thumbnailFortunately he did not enter. From Baltimore to Philadelphia I travelled as a gentleman, with my wife as a servant. After that, it being a presumably free country, we travelled as man and wife. I was twenty-one when married. Eleven days after leaving my home I was arrested as a fugitive slave in Boston.30 William Lloyd Garrison was living then, and took great interest in my case.31 I well remember the exciting scenes which finally culminated in the decision of Chief Justice Shaw that my master had a right to reclaim me.32 I recall with gratitude the generous act of Rev. Dr. Caldwell, of the Tremont Temple Baptist Society, who raised the money with which I was redeemed.33 My wife belonged to another master, Mr. DeLacy, and he sent a requisition to take her if I was taken. During my incarceration in Leverett Street jail she was secreted at the house of a friendly Abolitionist on High Street.34 Her whereabouts were never disclosed, and her master made no further trouble after I was released. A short time after this my first child was born, on Newhall Street, in Lynn.35

"Immediately after my release I began to attend anti-slavery conventions and appeal for signatures to the famous "Latimer" petitions, to be presented to the Legislature and to Congress.36 These asked the respective bodies to erase from the statute books every enactment making a distinction on account of complexion, and the enactment of law to protect citizens from insult by alleged arrest. That to the Legislature bore more than" 60,000 names37 and was borne into the Senate on inauguration day on the shoulders of four men. It was presented by Charles Francis Adams. That to Congress was presented by his father, John Quincy Adams, and bore 43,000 names.38 It was at this time I began to see a good deal of the Hutchinson family. I not only knew John but Jesse, Judson, Asa, and Abby. George Latimer thumbnailFor forty years I did not see Abby. Two years ago she called me, a few months before her death. I did not know her, she had changed so much from the fresh young girl I knew in 1842. The family all did noble work for the cause of the slave. I am now in my seventy-fourth year. For forty-five years I pursued the trade of a paperhanger in Lynn. My days in Virginia seem like a dream to me. I am glad to add these few words in recognition of the services to liberty of the Hutchinson Family, and to speak again my sense of gratitude to those who with them aroused the North in an agitation that made freedom possible for me and mine.

GEORGE W. LATIMER"

[NOTES]

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