Welcome to stop number 5.
You are now standing outside Deisey’s Bakery.
Kidnapping is a word you may know and understand the meaning of, but we don’t usually hear much about it. You probably feel it could never happen around here. The truth is, it used to happen around here all the time. Kidnapping was happening just down the road at the Cox house as we learned just a few stories ago. Chester County was the front-lines as you will soon hear.
The Other Underground Railroad was written for KURC by Chris Densmore. We hope you enjoy it.
The Other Underground Railroad: Stealing People
The Underground Railroad assisted people to freedom who had been enslaved, but there was also the “Reverse Underground Railroad” also known as kidnapping. Today we think of kidnapping as abducting people and holding them for ransom. Originally, kidnapping meant stealing people to turn them into property, that is, into slaves.
In the decades before the Civil War there was a lively and entirely legal business in buying slaves from Maryland for sale in the cotton fields and sugar cane fields of the lower South. Many of the fugitives who came through Chester County from Maryland did so because they feared that they or family members were about to be sold South, to Mississippi or Louisiana where conditions were harsher and where they would never see their families or homes again. Baltimore, Maryland, was a major center of this trade. A free person living in Pennsylvania who could be tricked into crossing the Mason Dixon Line or could be kidnapped might be put on a railroad car for Baltimore and within two hours find themselves in one of the slave pens awaiting sale.
That kidnapping was illegal was acknowledged by both North and South, and there were cases where kidnapped people were able to prove they were free and therefore able to return to the North. Pennsylvania passed increasingly severe laws against kidnapping but the practice continued anyway. An Anti-Kidnapping Society was formed at London Grove in 1820 and operated for a number of years. Resident African-Americans in Chester and Lancaster Counties had less formal but very effective organizations to protect themselves, their families and friends from kidnap. The number of people taken by the “Reverse Underground Railroad” is unknown, but the possibility of being kidnapped was a real and constant threat.
John Read of Kennett Square was an escaped slave and could have been legally taken back to slavery. However, when the slave catchers came for him in 1820, they attempted to kidnap him in the middle of the night rather than trust the Pennsylvania legal system which was becoming increasingly unfriendly to slave catchers. Read successfully defended himself against kidnap. In 1849, at Taggert’s Crossing, now Willowdale, Thomas Mitchell was kidnapped during the night and taken to Baltimore. Again, the slave-catchers preferred to work in secret rather than trust the legal system. In Mitchell’s case his Chester County neighbors purchased his freedom, and Mitchell returned home.
In the conflict between freedom and slavery, Chester County was on the front line.
Time to move on. Walk up to the intersection of State Street and Lincoln Street. Turn right on to Lincoln Street and walk one block to the corner of Lincoln and Linden streets. Cross Linden Street and look for our sign!