Oberlin Ohio’s community challenge to the Fugitive Slave Law: The abolitionist city’s rescue of the freeman John Price.

One Community’s Epic Standoff Against the Fugitive Slave Law

One Community’s Epic Standoff Against the Fugitive Slave Law

Our defining institution, in nine lives.
Sept. 22 2015 5:19 PM

Strength in “Ober-litionionism”

The epic, community-led rescue of former slave John Price demonstrated the city of Oberlin’s undying commitment to freedom on the eve of the Civil War.

A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, ca. 1862.
A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, ca. 1862.

Painting by Eastman Johnson. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

This article supplements Episode 8 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Academy.

Excerpted from Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial by Steven Lubet. Published by Belkap Press of Harvard University Press.

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John Price was born in northern Kentucky in the mid-1830s, the property of the well-to-do Bacon family of Mason County. In 1846 he was inherited by young John Parks Glenn Bacon, who operated a small farm about six miles from the Ohio River.1 John Bacon allowed Price a good deal of autonomy, entrusting him with management of the farm and sometimes leaving him unsupervised for several days at a time. As was typical among slave owners, Bacon believed he had always been generous to his slaves and had given them no cause for discontent.2

At some point, however, Price grew unhappy with his life in bondage—proximity to Ohio having no doubt exposed him to the possibility of freedom—and he plotted an escape. An opportunity arose in mid-January 1856, when Bacon took his family on a short trip to visit his wife’s father. Almost as soon as Bacon departed, John stole a horse from his master’s barn and reached the Ohio River within a few hours. Although the river appeared frozen solid, it was impossible to be certain in the darkness. He released his horse and ventured onto the ice. Fortunately, the ice held and he was able to reach the other side.

By late February or early March, John Price had settled in Oberlin, about 40 miles southwest of Cleveland. The arrival of a runaway would not have caused a stir anywhere in the Western Reserve, and it was even less unusual in Oberlin. The college had been founded on the principles of both coeducation and racial integration, and the village shared most of the school’s attributes. Black and white citizens lived next door to one another, patronized one another’s businesses, worshipped in the same churches, and attended the same schools.

At the time Oberlin was probably the most fully integrated community in the United States, and it was therefore often the destination of choice for free blacks. Frederick Douglass sent his daughter Rosetta to study at Oberlin, as did the benefactors of Anthony Burns. The citizens of Oberlin also welcomed escaped slaves, often extending public assistance to destitute fugitives, who were cryptically referred to as “poor strangers” or “transient paupers” in the records of the town’s expenditures. John Price was one such beneficiary of Oberlin’s support, receiving $1.25 per week for his “board & keep” during times when he was unemployed. The payments to Price were authorized by the town clerk, John Mercer Langston, who was himself a free black man. An attorney and a graduate of Oberlin College, Langston was one of the first black public officials anywhere in the United States.

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Throughout the 1850s Oberlin earned a reputation as “one of the most notorious refuges of fugitive slaves in the North.” Proslavery Democrats scornfully referred to the town’s residents as “Ober-litionists,” but students, faculty, and townsfolk accepted the would-be epithet with pride. The Oberlin Evangelist boasted that the town was “second only to Canada as an asylum for the hunted fugitives,” and while that was probably an exaggeration, it spoke volumes about the community’s commitment to racial equality and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. The theologians of Oberlin were not millenarians, but they knew they were living in remarkable times. Even if the battle against slavery was not yet an apocalyptic struggle, it was certainly a biblical confrontation between good and evil.

* * *

Kentucky slave hunter Anderson Jennings first arrived in Oberlin in late August 1858. He sought the assistance of Deputy Marshal Dayton, who provided Jennings with descriptions of several known fugitives, and the Kentuckian believed he could identify one of them as John Price, the property of his neighbor John Bacon. Jennings then sent a letter to Bacon, informing him that he had “discovered a nigger near Oberlin answering to the description of his runaway, John,” and requesting written authority to capture Price.3

Bacon entrusted the power of attorney to another neighbor, Mason County slave catcher Richard Mitchell, with instructions to deliver the documentation to Jennings in Ohio. Bacon gave Mitchell $50 for expenses and promised him an additional $500 for the return of his property. The two slave hunters rendezvoused in Oberlin, meeting at a hotel owned by Chauncey Wack, one of the few proslavery Democrats in town.

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Jennings still needed to enlist reinforcements. His first recruit was federal Deputy Marshal Jacob Lowe, an experienced slave catcher with whom he had worked several times before. Lowe then suggested that they ask Samuel Davis, a part-time jailer and deputy sheriff, to join the posse. Davis needed very little convincing, especially after Jennings offered the two officers $50 apiece for their efforts, and the four men gathered at Chauncey Wack’s hotel to plan the apprehension of John Price.

They now had plenty of muscle, but they still lacked a local agent who could help them locate the fugitive without attracting too much attention. Wack suggested that Jennings might get the necessary help from General Lewis Boynton, a prosperous farmer who lived about two miles out of town and an accomplice was found in Boynton’s 13-year-old son, Shakespeare.

On the morning of Monday, Sept. 13, the slave hunters made their move. Driving his father’s horse and buggy, Shakespeare Boynton approached John Price at his home in Oberlin. As instructed by Jennings, Shakespeare offered Price temporary work digging potatoes on the Boynton farm. Price declined, however, because he had promised to help care for an injured friend. Thinking quickly, Shakespeare suggested that Price might still enjoy a short ride in the country. “Well, John,” he said, “you’ve been cooped up there so long, the fresh air must feel good to you; and you may as well have a good ride while you’re about it. I’ll bring you back again.”4 Trusting the youngster, Price accepted the wagon ride, little expecting that he was being led into an ambush.

John Price and Shakespeare Boynton had traveled about a mile out of town when a buggy carrying Lowe, Mitchell, and Davis overtook them. The three slave catchers surrounded Price, seizing him and forcing him out of the farm wagon. Price resisted momentarily, but Mitchell threatened him with a pistol and the fugitive realized he had no choice but to surrender. “I’ll go with you,” he said, seemingly resigned to his capture. Having completed his part of the job, Shakespeare Boynton headed back toward Oberlin so he could carry the news of the successful mission to Anderson Jennings, who was waiting at Wack’s Hotel.

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With John Price seated securely between them, the slave catchers turned their buggy toward the nearby town of Wellington, where they planned to catch a late-afternoon train to Columbus. Neither white man bothered to mention the necessity of a hearing under the Fugitive Slave Act. Of course, there was little reason at that point to talk of legalities. John Price had no rights that the white men were bound to respect, and the hearing was going to be a mere formality on the way back to Kentucky.

Mitchell, Lowe, and Davis were probably congratulating themselves as they proceeded toward Wellington. Shortly after they reached the halfway point, they encountered another carriage headed in the opposite direction. Reckoning this to be his last chance at freedom, Price called out for help as the two wagons passed each other. It was a tense moment, but the two men in the Oberlin-bound wagon seemed to have ignored Price’s cries.

It turned out, however, that one of those men was Ansel Lyman, an Oberlin student and militant abolitionist who had served with John Brown in Kansas. Lyman had not ignored Price at all; rather, he had realized that he would need reinforcements to challenge three armed slave hunters. Immediately upon arriving in Oberlin, Lyman raised the alarm—a black man had been kidnapped!—drawing dozens into the street. As word spread and the crowd grew larger. Many Oberlin residents—both black and white, male and female—set off for Wellington on horseback and in wagons. Among them was Simeon Bushnell, a bookstore clerk, who shouted, “They have carried off one of our men in broad daylight.” “They can’t have him,” called others in response.

Hundreds of Oberliners set off to rescue John Price, even if they had to walk. The crowd was composed of students and faculty from the college, ministers, merchants, artisans, lawyers, laborers, and farmers. There were freedmen and runaway slaves, heedless of the potential risk to their own liberty. Many of the men brought firearms, including Charles Langston, John Mercer Langston’s brother, who tucked a pistol into his waistband. The rescuers included radical black men such as John Copeland and Lewis Sheridan Leary, who would later join John Brown at Harpers Ferry, but it also included many of Oberlin’s pacifists and missionaries.5

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Lowe, Mitchell, and Davis arrived with their captive in Wellington some time between noon and 1 p.m., completely unaware that they were being pursued. Anderson Jennings met them shortly afterward, having departed Oberlin before Ansel Lyman had raised the alarm. With more than four hours to spare before the departure of the train to Columbus, the white men and their black prisoner repaired for a meal to Wadsworth’s Hotel, located just a few blocks from the railroad station. Jennings and Price recognized each other, having been neighbors in Mason County, and the two men shook hands. Jennings would later testify that Price expressed happiness about the prospect of returning to Kentucky, but the bewildered fugitive obviously had little choice about his destination.

The town square was unusually crowded that day because a fire earlier in the morning had drawn a large number of onlookers. Thus, the slave catchers did not immediately notice the growing crowd when, at about 2 p.m., the Oberlin rescuers began to reach Wellington. The first rescuers did not know where to find the slave hunters, so they simply gathered in the square, cheering as their numbers grew. Eventually Jennings and company realized what was going on. The shouts from the square had become loud and angry, and there was no mistaking the presence of black men with rifles. With the route to the railroad station completely blocked, and the posse’s whereabouts sure to be exposed at any moment, Jennings turned to innkeeper Oliver Wadsworth for assistance.

Wadsworth’s Hotel was hardly a fortress, but the owner was a slavery sympathizer who ordered his employees to guard the entrances and stairways. They moved John Price to an attic room, accessible only by a ladder, while Jennings and Lowe tried to figure a way out of their predicament. Although Wadsworth’s guards might be able to keep the mob out of the hotel, there was no way to reach the railroad station without additional assistance.

Meanwhile, someone in the square discovered that the slave hunters were at Wadsworth’s, and soon everyone was surging toward the hotel. Estimates of the crowd’s size varied, but there were at least 300 people— perhaps as many as 500, including both Oberliners and Wellington locals—more than enough to shut off every exit from the building.

As the Kentuckians’ dilemma worsened, Jennings decided to appeal directly to the crowd. Stepping out onto a hotel balcony, Jennings declared he wanted “no controversy with the people of Ohio.” Nonetheless, he said, “this boy is mine by the laws of Kentucky and the United States.” Jennings had badly misjudged his listeners. His appeal to the laws of Kentucky only made the crowd angrier. “There are no slaves in Ohio,” someone shouted back. “The boy is willing to go to Kentucky,” Jennings replied. That made the crowd angrier still, and they called for the slave to be brought to the balcony.

Surprisingly, Jennings complied, bringing Price out to speak for himself. Earlier, in the hotel attic, surrounded by four armed men, Price had attempted to placate his captors by agreeing to return to his master. Out on the balcony, however, the frightened slave was more evasive, saying only that he “supposed” he would have to return because Jennings “had got the papers for him.”

Reacting to Price’s obvious equivocation, people in the crowd called for him to jump from the balcony, with one man shouting that “all hell” could not force the captive to Kentucky against his will. Before anything more could happen, however, John Copeland started waving his pistol at Jennings. Copeland had few qualms about killing in the name of freedom—as he later proved at Harpers Ferry—although it was unlikely that he intended to fire a shot at such close quarters. But the mere sight of an armed black man was enough to panic Jennings, who hastily dragged Price back into the hotel.

Lowe had happened to see Charles Langston from the hotel window. Lowe and Langston had known each other in Columbus—where Langston had once worked—and the deputy believed that he “was a reasonable man.” Lowe sent for Langston, in a last-ditch effort to resolve the impasse.

But Langston would be one of the last Oberliners to negotiate with the posse. Langston attempted to persuade the deputy to release his prisoner, pointing out that the crowd was “bent upon a rescue at all hazards.” The discussion between Lowe and Langston was cordial, though unproductive.

Not long after Langston emerged empty-handed from the hotel, members of the crowd decided that the time for talk had ended. Separate groups stormed the building from all sides, entering almost simultaneously through the front and back doors. Rescuers struggled past Wadsworth’s employees, making their way up an interior staircase until they reached the door of the attic redoubt. They called on Jennings and Lowe to release Price, but the deputy marshal refused. He was personally responsible for Price’s custody, and he would not surrender his prisoner no matter how hopeless the situation appeared.

Taking advantage of a hole in the wall, an Oberlin student named William Lincoln managed to force open the attic door, knocking Jennings to the ground in the process. Other rescuers, including John Copeland, pushed through the doorway, causing confusion among the slave catchers. Richard Winsor, an Oberlin theology student, grabbed Price by the arm and hurried him out into the hall. Winsor had waited more than four years for just that moment. In 1854 the young Englishman had been in the crowd that stood by as Anthony Burns was marched in chains to Boston Harbor for his rendition to Georgia. Winsor had silently vowed never to watch another black man delivered to slavery, and he joyfully took the opportunity to make good on his pledge.

The rescuers carried John Price out of the hotel, bearing them on their shoulders into the public square. The crowd let out a cheer of victory as Price was thrown into the back of Simeon Bushnell’s wagon, which the bookstore clerk then furiously drove back to the safety of Oberlin.

John Price would be hidden in Oberlin for a few days and then spirited across Lake Erie to Canada, where he was able to live the rest of his life in freedom. Although no word of him ever came back to Oberlin, John Mercer Langston would later remark confidently that “John Price walks abroad in his freedom, or reposes under his own vine and fig tree with no one to molest him or make him afraid.”6

Excerpted from Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial by Steven Lubet, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2010 by Steven Lubet. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1. The fullest account of John Price’s escape—as well as his later rescue and the subse- quent trials—is found in Nat Brandt, The Town That Started the Civil War (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990). Most of the facts of Price’s life are taken from Brandt’s book; other sources are also noted.

2. The slave owner, John Bacon of Kentucky, was no known relation to the slave catcher John Bacon of Georgia, who apprehended Thomas Sims in Boston.

3. Jacob R. Shipherd, comp., History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, rep. ed. (Boston: J. P. Jewett & Co., 1859; New York: Negro Universities Press,1969), 77. Cochran, Western Reserve, 125.


4.Ibid., 35.

5. Roland M. Baumann, The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 2003), 28.

6. John Mercer Langston, “The Oberlin Wellington Rescue,” Anglo-African Magazine 1(July 1859): 210; Cheek and Cheek, John Mercer Langston, 319.