The Story of Shadrach Minkins

An advertisement for the auction that sold Shadrach to his penultimate owner.

An advertisement for the auction that sold Shadrach to his penultimate owner.

The Boston Vigilance Committee put the Crafts on a boat to England after expending great effort in hiding them from their would-be captors. The slave catchers went back to Georgia empty-handed, but the sensational ways that the Boston abolitionists flouted James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Law won them a great deal of national attention.

Millard Fillmore had promised the Crafts’ owner help in recovering them if he wanted a second try, but their departure for England put them beyond his reach. The same did not hold for Boston’s other fugitives.

John DeBree, a navy man, bought Shadrach Minkins in Virginia in 1849. He worked in DeBree’s house, but absconded on May 5, 1850. Like the Crafts, he made his way to Boston, probably by sea, and got a job there as a waiter at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee House, an upscale establishment not a block away from the courthouse.

DeBree’s slave catcher, John Caphart, arrived in Boston on February 12, 1851. Three days later, the legal niceties sorted and warrants issued, two men Shadrach waited on seized him from the coffee house and hurried him to the courthouse. They had to use the federal courthouse because Massachusetts law forbade the use of state facilities for slave catching.

The capture did not go unmarked. Shadrach did not put up a fight, but did make a scene. Boston’s white and black abolitionists got on the case in short order and more than a hundred packed into the courtroom for Shadrach’s preliminary hearing. Six lawyers volunteered to help in his defense and the court gave them three days to prepare. Shadrach and the lawyers stayed in the courtroom to confer, with the press and various other interested parties drifting in.

Outside the building an abolitionist mob gathered, hundreds strong. The lawyers had three days to defend Shadrach. The mob took three hours to do them one better. That afternoon, around twenty black men charged the doors and spirited a stunned Shadrach away. Boston’s abolitionists hid him in an attic, got him across the river to Cambridge, then to Concord, and finally along the Underground Railroad to Canada where he lived out the rest of his days in Montreal.

This may not sound like it differs much from the Crafts’ story. Shadrach escaped with the help of Bostonian abolitionists. But it did take things one step farther. The Crafts hid and the abolitionists harassed and threatened their pursuers. To save Shadrach, Bostonian abolitionists turned to violence. Black men used violence to save a fugitive slave from his pursuers. In the South, that had to look like a slave revolt played out in miniature. And the abolitionist press cheered it.

How could they rest easy, how could the white South have any confidence in the security of its laws, its slavery, and the lives of all its white people if the North would stand by and let black people overthrow white law by force? How long before abolitionists armed, trained, and dispatched legions of Nat Turners? How long before the slaves found out and learned they had white allies? The Unionist South nailed its colors to the Fugitive Slave Law and barely months after the law came into force, had this to show for it.

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