Hidden Clark County history: When a group of citizens protected an escaped slave from armed federal marshals

By the time “The Rescue Case of 1857” was published in the January 1907 edition of the Journal of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society, the author was the well-known Dr. Benjamin F. Prince, revered 66-year-old professor of history and political science at Wittenberg College and long-respected board member of the society.

But the authority with which Prince told the story about why Champaign, Clark and Greene counties were willing to clash with armed federal marshals in defense of escaped slave Addison White was anchored in who and where Prince had been 50 years earlier, in 1857, when the events unfolded.

Then, he had been Bennie Prince, a boy raised on a farm outside of the Champaign County who had a typically sporadic education and an ambition to attend Wittenberg. Just 16, he also was newly awakened to the world of politics just in time to see his home county making national news in a country heading for a hideous war.

The hot button ticket of the time? The illegal migration of slaves across the Mason-Dixon Line.

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“The long border line between the slave and free states, stretching from the Atlantic on the east to a great distance beyond the Mississippi, was crossed by many bondsmen (slaves) seeking liberty for themselves and their families,” he wrote.

“The compromise of 1850 was intended to check the number of fugitives escaping to liberty by making it possible of United States marshals to follow and apprehend them through assistance obtained by calling upon all citizens to aid in the capture of the runaway slaves. All those who refused to obey … or resisted the seizure and return of such fugitives were liable to arrest … and to suffer fine or imprisonment or both.”

The younger Prince likely had been aware of the sentiments of those in the radical Green Plain Friends Meeting in Selma, Ohio: “If it be really a constitutional obligation that all who live under the government shall be kidnappers and slave catchers for Southern tyrants, WE GO FOR REVOLUTION, the means to be keeping with God’s will.”

Just as it would be said during the Obama Administration that efforts to expand gun control spurred the purchase of weapons, Prince wrote that, “As a result of the Fugitive Slave Law, more slaves, it is said, were helped to freedom between 1850 and 1860 than had escaped in all the previous 60 years of our government’s history.”

In the Addison White case, Prince wrote, those who resisted the law applied the pejorative term “Negro catcher” to two area citizens: Springfield Postmaster William Boggs, who was suspected of telling federal marshals about White’s correspondence with his wife in Kentucky, and Edward Lindsey, who had come to work on the farm of Udney Hyde, where Addison White was staying, two weeks before the marshals arrived and had disappeared the day before.

A crowd of Mechanicsburg townspeople armed with pitchforks and guns summoned to Hyde’s farm prevented the marshals from arresting either White or Hyde, the latter of whom would was suspected of having helped more than 500 slaves make their way to freedom.

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As Prince put it, “The authorities were anxious to get their hands on such a noted violator of the laws of the United States.”

Although both White and Hyde went into hiding as soon as the marshals were forced to leave, the marshals did arrest four Mechanicsburg men, including one of Hyde’s sons, and charged them with “obstructing United States officers in their duties.”

That set the stage for judges in Urbana and Springfield to take the conflict to court. It began with a writ of Habeas Corpus demanding that the marshals return the four men to Urbana and eventually led to charges of attempted murder against the marshals for their severe beating of Clark County Sheriff John Layton during a confrontation in South Charleston.

Although the marshals left South Charleston with their prisoners, they were confronted again in the Clinton County hamlet of Lumberton by a group led by Sheriff McIntire of Greene County. Outnumbered, the marshals were taken back to South Charleston, where they were were found guilty of assault and battery and bound over to Clark County Common Pleas Court.

Soon the authority of local courts in the matter was challenged in federal court, where the marshals were cleared. Eventually a political solution was worked out with the help of Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase, who soon would be a candidate for the newly founded Republican Party’s nomination for president, serve in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and be appointed by Lincoln to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Predictably, the events produced other political winners and losers.

In a footnote, Prince reports that Constable E.G. Coffin, who was involved in chasing the marshals and later arrested for his activities as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was a clear winner.

He served four terms as Clark County sheriff and three terms as Springfield’s mayor and was warden of the Ohio State Penitentiary for eight years.

Another winner was Urbana attorney John A. Corwin, who Prince said was the recipient of these words of praise from the Cincinnati Commercial for his arguments in federal district court: “He proceeded to argue the great principles of State Sovereignty, showed the distinction between the rights, powers, duties and obligations of the State and Federal government … that the first allegiance of a citizen of a state is to his own sovereignty.”

Given the subsequent history of states rights arguments in the denial of African-American civil rights by Southern states, the compliment seems odd. But Corwin’s views had enough support that when the Ohio Supreme Court upheld federal supremacy in the matter in the 1878 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case by a 3-2 vote, the abolitionist community rallied.

After the ruling “more than 10,000 people participated in a Cleveland rally to oppose the federal and state courts’ decisions. Because of his support for the Fugitive Slave Law, Ohio Chief Justice Joseph Swan failed to win re-election to the court.”

In South Charleston, the site of Sheriff Layton’s beating, villagers came up with their own local solution: To resist federal authority by making their town “too hot to hold any spy or informer, resident or foreign, who may be prowling in our midst endeavoring to involve our citizens in legal difficulties.”

In his 1907 article, Prince said the villagers’ statement “expresses the feeling that was almost universal in the greater part of Ohio, and foreshadowed the dark days when the nation would be forced to settle by a terrible war the question that vexed the public mind and conscience.”

His primary historical source for that conclusion was a young Bennie Prince, who left the family farm outside Westville for Wittenberg and saw many of his fellow students go off to that war.

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