The World of Slavery, Kidnapping, and the Slave Trade

JMW Turner’s “The Slave Ship,” 1840 (Wikimedia)

One of the enduring ironies of the institution of slavery is that it was wrapped up in the law. While slavery was, for so long, imagined as something centered on the plantation, a variety of new scholarly works have shown just how pivotal the legal arena was to maintaining slavery. It is in this vein that Richard Bell and Jeff Forret offer two compelling narratives of two different sides of the slave trade. Both works, however, are much more than simple courtroom dramas. They both explore the wider world of slavery in America. But it is often the legal conflicts over slavery which acts as an anchor for both scholars, whose stories weave in and around the law.

Richard Bell’s Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home recounts the harrowing story of how a notorious band of kidnappers, based in Delaware, abducted five boys from the streets of Philadelphia. The immediate and extended family of Joseph Johnson formed the core of the kidnapping ring. However, they enlisted the help of others in a sophisticated network of people who participated in the “Reverse Underground Railroad.” One such non-familial member of the group was John Purnell, alias John Smith, a free mixed-race man who acted as a point of contact for the Johnson family, and was the one who originally tricked the five Philadelphia boys into boarding a small ship.

The story of these boys—Enos Tilghman, Alex Manlove, Joe Johnson, Cornelius Sinclair, and Sam Scomp—also intersects with that of two Black women, Mary Fisher and Mary Neal, as they were all marched South, for over four months, in a coffle. With the exception of Scomp and Neal, all of these captives had been legally free. It is the boys, however, who take the spotlight in this story, both as Bell tells it and as contemporaries debated it. As Bell shows, it was the eventual return of four of the boys (Johnson was murdered by one of his captors) that acted as a spark for debates, legislation, and stories surrounding the kidnapping of free Black people. Northerners used the eventual trial of several kidnappers to attack the institution of slavery. Southern enslavers, who had actually been at the forefront of getting the boys back home, tried to distance themselves from those who participated in the illicit and illegal trade of free people.

If Bell’s work looks at the lawless trafficking of Black people, then Jeff Forret takes us to the complicated world that defined the legal trade of these people. In Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts, Forret focuses on William H. Williams, examining what was easily the most lengthy and hardest fought legal battle of Williams’ career as a slave trader. Based in Washington D.C., and operating the infamous Yellow House, Williams was one of the nation’s most accomplished slave traders. While Williams, unlike so many other slave traders, was generally successful in keeping himself out of courtrooms, this changed when he took charge of a number of enslaved convicts from Virginia, and traveled to Louisiana under the guise of selling them in Texas, still an independent republic at this time. As Forret shows, Virginia law mandated Williams sell the enslaved people outside of the country, yet it appears, for unknown reasons, that he may have wanted to sell them in Louisiana instead.

Williams’ troubles began when Louisianan authorities caught wind of his supposed intent to sell the enslaved convicts in the state. As Forret illustrates, the amount of alarm over a small group of enslaved convicts was tremendous, as enslavers and non-enslavers alike feared what would happen if they were allowed to infect the otherwise harmonious slave society in Louisiana. News of Williams’ convicts followed him wherever he went, with newspapers announcing his arrival at each stop on his journey, while government officials frequently exchanged correspondence as they attempted to decipher Williams’ intention. Shortly after arriving in Louisiana, Williams was charged with violating the state’s law, and ended up going through multiple courtroom battles, before spending a year in jail, all the while appealing his conviction. After serving his time, Williams resumed his trade, spending most of his time in New Orleans, instead of D.C., constantly attempting to reclaim the enslaved convicts who had been taken from him, yet, paradoxically, who remained in Louisiana.

Both Bell and Forret’s works are meticulously researched, examining the wider world of slavery which surrounds their subjects. Bell, for example, examines why the Reverse Underground Railroad began to flourish after the international slave trade ended in 1808. Forret often brings the economic history of slavery to his readers, explaining how Williams was able to navigate the ever-fluctuating markets of the latter Antebellum period. And both scholars rely on similar sources to fill in the details of their narratives.

For example, both Bell and Forret rely, at certain points, on Soloman Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. Northup provides a common vector for each of these narratives. His kidnapping and illegal enslavement allows Bell to illustrate the horrors of the Reverse Underground Railroad, and the difficulty survivors had in finding any legal restitution. Northup, after finally escaping slavery in Louisiana, was unable to even have his kidnappers convicted. For Forret, Northup’s story allows him to give his readers more information on Williams’s Washington D.C. slave pen, the Yellow House. If Northup provides an example of what the illicit trade in free Black people looked like for Bell, he is directly related to Forret’s study of Williams. It was Williams’ slave pen which Northup was kept in for a time, and it featured heavily in Northup’s narrative. Northup’s time in the Yellow House presents the possibility that Williams was involved in the illegal enslavement of free Black people, something Forret can’t find direct evidence of, but nonetheless leaves open to possibility.

Both of these works, however, are not without their faults. While Bell makes sure to put the kidnapping of these boys in context with the wider world, it would have been nice to see more of this at times. Especially towards the end, Bell’s use of the trial to illustrate Northern uproar could have been expanded for readers less familiar with this topic. Additionally, it strikes this reader as odd that so much of the focus, both on Bell’s part and for contemporaries, as he presents it, was on the boys. It is the boys, after all, who are the namesake of the book. A gendered discussion of why there was such a focus on these boys, instead of the women, would have been a nice addition, considering how previous work has shown the shift, by abolitionists of this period, away from relying on Black women as a symbol of the injustices of slavery. And if Bell’s work shows just how crucial one case could be to providing fodder for abolitionists, the fact that such a case focused more on the wrongful enslavement of boys, rather than women, is certainly an area worth exploring.

If Bell’s account is, at times, too focused on certain people, Forret’s work could use some trimming. While his contextualization of the larger world around William H. Williams illustrates how interconnected slavery was to many other aspects of the United States, such as the economy, public health, and law, Forret could have easily trimmed off some of the material from the concluding chapters. One loses track of William’s himself, and is forced to focus on a variety of other family members and professional colleagues in place of the book title’s namesake. Along these same lines, while the archival material was almost certainly scant on the actual lives of William’s gang, it would have been nice to see more discussion of what Louisianan slavery looked like, both at the New Orleans markets and in the plantations, as we gradually lose track of the enslaved convicts.

In the end, both Bell and Forret’s works are well researched and masterfully written narratives of slavery, kidnapping, and the slave trade. While I would be hesitant to place Bell’s Stolen in the same light as Toni Morrison, as the praise from Jane Kamensky on the front cover says, one will walk away from both of these works having read gripping stories. And even though both of these scholars cover so many topics, I cannot help but return to how much the law permeates both works. Neither work should be filed into the ever-expanding historiography of legal history, but they are products of this turn in the scholarship. Both Bell and Forret have used narrative to show just how central the law was to slavery, and those who sought to profit from it. Whether it be in following it, bending it, forging it, avoiding it, or relying on it, the law, as amorphous of a subject as it was, was never far removed from the daily lives of the so many people.

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Derek Litvak

Derek Litvak is a Ph.D candidate in history at the University of Maryland - College Park. His dissertation, The Specter of Black Citizens: Slavery, Race, and Citizenship in the Early United States examines how citizenship was crafted and used to strengthen the institution of slavery and exclude Black Americans from the body politic. Follow him on Twitter @TheTattooedGrad.