A Rescue In Milwaukee And What Followed
January 3, 2010 5:19 PM   Subscribe

On March 12, 1854 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a fugitive slave named Joshua Glover, apprehended by a federal marshal and held in the city jail pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was freed by a mob roused by noted local abolitionist and newspaper editor by day Sherman Booth. The freed fugitive was quickly spirited to Canada and freedom, but Booth's road to absolution had several more twists and turns.

Upon his arrest and following his conviction and sentence, he became the subject of a protracted tug-of-war between the Supreme Court (and eventually the Legislature) of Wisconsin and the Supreme Court of the United States which echoed the South Carolina Nullification Crisis that helped precipitate the Civil War. In an ironic twist, the federal law the Wisconsin institutions sought to nullify was the Fugitive Slave Act.

When all avenues for appeal seemed exhausted, Booth was himself sprung from custody, and briefly became a fugitive before being recaptured.

Booth was only exonerated seven years after his act, in March of 1861, when outgoing President James Buchanan granted a pardon (PDF) as he prepared to hand the reins to Lincoln. By then there was little to be lost by doing so; seven of the eleven states that would form the Confederate States of America had already seceded.
posted by The Confessor (15 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Apologies for the bloggy nature of this post; that's just how I write.

Apologies also that most sources cited are in various untranscribed image formats. Although I've read that it's best to use primary sources when compiling links, this might have caused me to choose otherwise... except that I had so much fun reading and confirming the particulars of the story in marginally legible newsprint (with text of occasionally dubious journalistic quality) that I couldn't deny all of you the pleasure of doing the same.

For those who wish to undertake further research into this awesome story:
Documents primarily focused on events immediately surrounding the Joshua Glover rescue.
Documents focused more specifically on Sherman Booth.

If you can stand the abysmal microfiche quality and the writers' bare assumption of the morality of slaveholding, this defense of the slaveowner from his legal representation makes for an especially interesting read.
posted by The Confessor at 5:20 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Mr. Booth met Glover again at the Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876."

Now that's a meet-up I would travel to attend.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:30 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nice post....
The Mural
The Book
posted by fixedthefernback at 5:52 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for your hard work.
posted by localhuman at 6:24 PM on January 3, 2010

Interesting post, nothing to apologize for that I see!
posted by marxchivist at 6:55 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

any relation to another well-known Booth clan of the era?
posted by mwhybark at 6:57 PM on January 3, 2010

Also, The Confessor, as microfiche has moved online but understandably remained untranscribed, following tracks up into the unsearchable has become a favored personal pastime.
posted by mwhybark at 6:59 PM on January 3, 2010

Thanks for the additional context, fixedthefernback, and thanks for the kudos, everyone else.

While I was researching this incident I think that I got the mistaken impression that it was a more obscure and forgotten bit of American history than it actually was, merely because I didn't remember ever encountering it before and it just seemed so very juicy. I mean come on, a state supreme court and legislature basically telling the assholes on the Dred Scott-era Supreme Court to go screw their bigoted old selves? There should be a movie about this, for chrissakes!

The discovery and research that led to this post stemmed from the realization that there was a whole class of white abolitionists and advocates for the black people in America whose help did not just consist of being a largely anonymous stop on the underground railroad; there were many like Booth who took very public action, knowing that there would be public consequences. One of the most affecting stories I discovered, albeit not one directly connected to abolition, was that of Prudence Crandall.
posted by The Confessor at 7:24 PM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

There are so many movies that could (and, personally, I reckon should) be made from events in radical (bottom-up) history.

E.g. The New York Conspiracy : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Conspiracy_of_1741 (the wikipedia page is lacking in nuance & info in this case, but always a good starting point)
posted by titus-g at 7:46 PM on January 3, 2010

was freed by a mob

An anti-lynching. Cool.

(By the way, this article uses the terms "battling ram" (first subheading) and "battering ram" (top of second column) to describe the spar used to break down the door. Was "battling ram" an acceptable alternative or a mistake? This is the first time I can remember seeing it.)
posted by pracowity at 11:01 PM on January 3, 2010

I noticed that myself, pracowity, but chalked it up to the "dubious journalistic quality" I mentioned in my first comment rather than examining it further. A Google search for both phrases, however, reveals 5,810 results for "battling ram" and 823,000 results for "battering ram", with no indication that the former is an archaism rather than merely incorrect.

Another instance of dubious journalistic quality that I might have mentioned was this article, which includes no indication of the paper in which it ran, or whether it was specifically marked in the paper as an editorial. Either way, it brings to mind the portion of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in which the main character tasks Clarance with starting a newspaper, and the blatantly editorialized "frontier" style of journalism that resulted.

(I hope this doesn't count as overmoderating my own thread; I just found so many awesome things while researching this post that I couldn't seem to fit into the post itself or my initial comment.)
posted by The Confessor at 5:28 AM on January 4, 2010

outgoing President James Buchanan granted a pardon

President James "Aunt Fancy" Buchanan remitted Booth's fine and court costs. As his one month sentence was already served and he was only awaiting payment of the fine, there was no need for a pardon and none was granted.


(source: Thomson, A.M. (1900) A Political History of Wisconsin, E.C.Williams, Millwaukee, Wis., Page 103)
posted by Pollomacho at 7:44 AM on January 4, 2010

any relation to another well-known Booth clan of the era?

Probably not; John Wilkes was born in Maryland, the son of a Londoner. This guy was from New York state.

I mean come on, a state supreme court and legislature basically telling the assholes on the Dred Scott-era Supreme Court to go screw their bigoted old selves?

The reason for the Dred Scott case, and the repeatedly revised Fugitive Slave Laws, was that they were openly flouted. In abolition-friendly parts of the country, it was nearly impossible to enforce, and as a result most of the fugitive slaves were retrieved by private contractors using a bounty system. This wouldn't have been necessary if the local authorities could be depended on. Even the US Marshals proved ineffective, at least at the scale necessary.

This is an inexact and potentially derailing analogy, but think of abortion today, and how you have a movement dedicated to eliminating it, but you have supporters and opponents everywhere. In some places it's socially dangerous to open your mouth and declare your position.

Also, you may be unaware of just how often state courts come to conclusions that differ from US Supreme Court decisions.

An anti-lynching. Cool.

There's a similar story here in my nearby hometown of Janesville. A slave escaped from Kentucky and was taken on as an apprentice by a local blacksmith, living openly. The slave owner got wind he was here and traveled to apprehend him by himself. (Note that this was approximately the time the Civil War began, and my county contributed more soldiers per capita to the Union effort than any other in the state. Nevertheless, or perhaps as a direct result, we somehow had a copperhead mayor.) The town got wind of the hotel where he was staying and formed a mob around it. The slave owner had to be spirited out the back for his own safety and skulked back to Kentucky without his "property".
posted by dhartung at 12:30 PM on January 4, 2010

"Nevertheless, or perhaps as a direct result, we somehow had a copperhead mayor.)"

What's a copperhead mayor?
posted by Mitheral at 2:04 AM on January 5, 2010

Mitheral: "What's a copperhead mayor?"

$15, same as in town.

posted by mwhybark at 7:37 PM on January 5, 2010

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