Solomon Northup: Not The Only New Yorker Kidnapped

By on

NotUncommonThe film “12 Years a Slave” is raising global awareness of Solomon Northup’s story of being kidnapped and sold into slavery before the Civil War. Northup’s victimization was not unique, however, and there were numerous cases–in New York State alone–of free blacks being kidnapped for the purpose of being sold as slaves.

Some of these crimes were committed prior to Northup’s kidnapping in 1841, and others after his rescue and the publication of his narrative in 1853. Apparently public awareness of the existence  of kidnapping did not diminish its occurrence.

Enough blacks had been kidnapped early in the 19th Century that, in New York City, on November 20, 1835, a meeting of the “Friends of Human Rights” was held, with the purpose of discovering the prevalence of “the cruel practice of kidnapping men, women and children” in the city, and determining ways to “aid such unfortunate persons as may be in danger of being reduced to slavery.” This meeting resulted in the formation of the bi-racial “New York Committee of Vigilance,” which monitored cases where blacks were accused (often wrongfully) of being fugitives and provided them as much legal assistance as it could. David Ruggles, the black publisher of an anti-slavery newspaper, was a vital and active member of this committee, and his activities led to his being jailed more than once.

Slave_kidnap_post_1851_bostonIn its first annual report in 1837, the committee stated it had assisted over 300 blacks who were accused of being runaway slaves, and therefore in danger of being taken away by slavecatchers. (Various city officials, as noted by Ruggles, were sometimes complicit in misidentifying free citizens as escaped slaves.) Another ploy used by kidnappers, wrote Ruggles, was to “lure by a thousand false pretenses their victims from all the endearments of their homes to a life of toil and misery,” using a technique employed on Solomon Northup in Saratoga Springs.

A number of black New York citizens were abducted in the 1850s, post-Twelve Years a Slave. Two developments ensured kidnappers had a comfortable environment to work in: passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 (which the New York Evening Post called the “law for the encouragement of kidnapping”) made it even harder for blacks to assert their free status; and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling, in the Dred Scott case, that no blacks–whether slaves or freemen–were entitled to standing in the federal courts.

Cases of New York kidnappings following these actions by the Federal government are not hard to uncover.

In November 1857, a young store clerk named Napoleon Bonaparte Van Tuyl convinced two men from Geneva, New York to go with him to Columbus, Ohio, where they would have good jobs at a hotel. One of the men, Daniel Prue, fathomed that something was awry after the railroad train passed by Columbus. He exited the train near Dayton and managed to foil efforts by Van Tuyl and other train passengers to recapture him. The second man, John Hight, was taken to Kentucky and sold, eventually coming into the hands of Judge Lorenzo Graves. Governor John A. King appointed agents to go find the two victims and bring them home. Prue, who had worked his way back to Columbus, was located quickly, and Hight was also found and released from a Louisville slave pen by (to his credit) Judge Graves. Van Tuyl was arrested when he returned to New York State, tried, and after several missteps (including a hung jury and his twice skipping bail) sent to Auburn State Prison for two years. (On the same day he was sentenced, a horse thief received a sentence of four years.)

A number of incidents took place in New York City during this time. In January 1858, the mayor of Richmond, Virginia, notified New York Mayor Daniel F. Tiemann of a man named George Anderson, who claimed to be a kidnapped free citizen of the city, and asked for verification of his story.  The New York authorities provided confirmation, and brought both Anderson and his abductor, Mason Thomas, back to New York. According to Anderson, Thomas had hired him in New York for a job in Pennsylvania, but had instead taken him to Richmond and sold him. Thomas was convicted of having “inveigled” Anderson and was sentenced to ten years in state prison.

1852_ThomasSims_Kidnapping_Melodeon_Boston4046905900In March 1858, a man and woman convinced the parents of 14-year-old Sarah Taylor (also known as  Sarah Harrison) to allow them to take her to Newark, N. J. where she would work as a servant. They left New York by train, but did not stop at Newark. They instead went to Washington, D. C. Upon reaching that place, the couple began trying to sell Sarah to a slave trader (even though slave trading had been banned there in 1850). According to the New York Herald, Sarah figured out that her companions intended to sell her, and “made so much trouble about it” that the couple “thought it best to decamp to Maryland.” Sarah returned home, and two New York officers proceeded to Baltimore. One went undercover as a postal clerk and identified the culprits, who were taken back to New York. They were incarcerated, indicted and tried. The man was sentenced to five years in prison, but was pardoned the following winter by Governor Edwin D. Morgan, and returned to his native Canada. It is not entirely clear what punishment was given to the woman involved.

In August 1858, teenager Isaac Moore was grabbed while walking along Houston Street, and carried aboard a schooner docked in the East River. Moore was gagged and held in the ship’s hold for several days. When he was finally allowed up on deck, he jumped off the ship, and ran home. When police went to investigate, they found that the ship had sailed, probably heading towards its home port in Virginia. Given its likely destination, it was believed the young man was to be sold as a slave there.

Another case involved an upstate citizen named George Armstrong, of Watertown. In July 1860, he was arrested north of Washington D.C., along with a white man. A witness suspected they were “tampering with slaves,” via the Underground Railroad. Newspapers in the District of Columbia also implied that Armstrong was conspiring to sell himself and share in the proceeds, in the same way–it implied–that Northup had done (allegations that Northup had colluded in his kidnapping were made over the years, but were never substantiated, and were vehemently denied by Northup in his book).

Armstrong was represented by counsel, and Watertown resident John A. Haddock went to Washington and testified that Armstrong was a free man whom he had known for 15 years. Armstrong was released and he returned to Watertown with Haddock. Back at home, he said that he had been enticed from Watertown in order to go see Washington and the South. During the trip, the man insisted he pretend to be his slave while traveling. In Washington, he had attempted to sell him.

Under the American slavery system, it was not only the slaves who suffered. Free blacks, in free state like New York, lived in the shadow of slavery, their liberty under constant threat from greedy criminals. Surely there were crimes that were never fully investigated (it may have been felt that a teenager had run away from home, or that a spouse had left a troubled marriage), and many victims lived in slavery until death or emancipation, whichever came first.


2 thoughts on “Solomon Northup: Not The Only New Yorker Kidnapped

  1. Marjory Allen Perez

    Thanks for this article. I had known about the Geneva and Watertown kidnapping cases, but was glad to get more details about George Armstrong’s experiences. Armstrong went on to serve in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (11th USCHA) and Danie Prue of Geneva served in the 8th USCT. Also, I’ve enjoyed reading your book “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author os Twelve Years a Slave” – incredible story!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *