Author Archives: David Fiske

David Fiske

About David Fiske

David Fiske's book, Solomon Northup's Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens before the Civil War, was published by Praeger in 2016. He is a co-author of the books Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (Praeger Publishing, 2013) and Madame Sherri: The Special Edition (Emu Books, 2014). Fiske also maintains the webpage solomonnorthup.com.

The Albany African American Home Social Club


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johnson_portraitIn a book titled Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1902, author Willard B. Gatewood includes a few sentences about Albany, NY’s Home Social Club. According to Gatewood, it “represented the pinnacle of the city’s black social structure.”

Portraying the club as an aristocratic, elitist organization seems unfair, based on my research. Yes, the club’s membership included some black professionals over the years, but among its long-term adherents were waiters, barbers, and railroad porters. Continue reading

A First Lady’s Failed Adirondack Cure


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cottageIn the summer of 1892, the wife of President Benjamin Harrison, Caroline Scott Harrison, became extremely ill. She primarily suffered from tuberculosis, but experienced complications from pleurisy and the accumulation of fluid in her chest. Medical treatment of T. B. at the time mainly amounted to having the patient rest. For this reason, it was felt that a stay in the Adirondacks offered the best chance for restoring the First Lady’s health.

Early in July, the journey from Washington, D.C. to Loon Lake was undertaken, via a special train. The Troy Daily Times dutifully reported on the train’s progress. It arrived in Troy in the wee hours of the morning on July 7, then proceeded to White Creek, Rutland, Vermont, Rouse’s Point, and Malone, reaching the latter place at 10:30 am. There, a crowd that included some local officials met the two-car train, but the President asked that they refrain from cheering, so as not to disturb his sick wife. Continue reading

North Country Teacher Taught Southern Freedmen


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coitphoto2Back-to-school time perhaps brings back, for adults, the memory of a favorite teacher. But of those who are so warmly remembered, how many can elicit this wish by a former student of a 19th century teacher?

“If I could be permitted, how gladly would I again fill up the wood-box in your room and kindle the fire on your hearth…”

Those words came from the prestigious African American preacher, Rev. Daniel Webster Shaw (who, interestingly, was the son of a former slave, Harriet Shaw, with whom Solomon Northup was acquainted in Louisiana). “If I have done anything, or come to anything worth while, it is all mainly due to your timely helpfulness and godly admonition,” Shaw wrote. “I think of the school days on the Tache [Teche, a bayou in Louisiana], and all the kind ways in which you helped me to start out in life.” Continue reading

The Law That Saved Solomon Northup, And Others


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12 years a slaveThe amazing, and fortuitous, rescue of Solomon Northup was made possible by a New York statute that was signed into law, and became effective, on May 14, 1840.

Following the 1808 ban on importation of slaves into the U.S., enacted by Congress, the kidnapping of free blacks for sale as slaves became a larger problem. The ban reduced the “supply” of slaves, and with “demand” unchanged, prices rose, along with the potential profit for kidnappers. In 1817, in a description of a kidnapping case, the City Hall Recorder noted that, after 1808: “the practice of kidnapping was commenced, and has been carried to an alarming height.” Continue reading

Madame Sherri: Early 20th Century NYC Show Business


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Madame SherryResearch projects sometimes take unexpected, but fascinating, twists and turns. I had reason a few years ago to look into the case of a woman called Madame Sherri. She is mostly known for an unusual castle-like house built for her in a rural area of New Hampshire–its ruins are now popular with hikers and lovers of the odd and mysterious.

My investigation dragged me far from New Hampshire–to the world of cabaret reviews in New York City, the vaudeville circuit, and “soldier shows” (popular during World War I, with Irving Berlin’s “Yip Yip Yaphank” being the most well-known). And, for good measure,  toss in a scandal involving sex and blackmail. Continue reading

45 Years a Slave:
Westchester Case Confirmed Story of Enslaved Man


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Westchester Slave Case 1857 (New York Times)On the 12th day of August in 1857, a young girl was brought before Judge William H. Robertson in his chambers at Katonah in Westchester County, New York. Over 30 years after slavery had been legally banned in the state, the matter before the judge was whether she should be set at liberty.

Local constable Zeno Hoyt had found the 5-year-old girl, named Ellen, at the home of David A. Griffin in Ossining, where she was in the charge of two ladies. One of them, Louisa Kerr, was present at the hearing, which came about because Ellen’s grandfather, with the assistance of attorney John Jay, had instituted proceedings to have her placed in his custody. Continue reading

Slave to Fiddler: Utica’s Joseph Pell


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pelldeathI wrote an article about early black musicians in New York State back in December, but I decided to omit Joe Pell from that piece for two reasons. He seemed never to have been a full-time musician (as were the other performers in the article), and, in December, nearly all the information I had on Pell came from his obituary, and obituaries are not always the best place to locate objective, unbiased information about a person.

I have since been able to confirm much of what was written upon his passing, and I present here an annotated obituary of this talented and beloved black performer. My annotations appear within square brackets. Continue reading

Saratoga County:
A Future Black Congressman Faces Discrimination


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langstonportraitJohn W. Fowler’s law school, called the State and National Law School, was ahead of its time in the field of legal education in the 19th Century. He founded the school in Cherry Valley, New York, in 1847, and moved it to Ballston Spa a few years later, where it was housed in the former Sans Souci Hotel.

Contrary to the normal practice, at that time, of lawyers being trained by “reading law,” Fowler’s school offered courses in extemporaneous speaking and debating, and utilized mock trials to allow students to hone their courtroom skills. The school received much positive attention from the legal community, including South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Continue reading

Solomon Northup: Not The Only New Yorker Kidnapped


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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. Continue reading