Friday, February 26, 2016

Fugitive Slave: Freedom, Capture, Redemption (Part I)

One of the prized possessions in my genealogy book collection is my two-volume, Centennial History of Madison County, published in 1912. One chapter describes a noted fugitive slave case, and I thought retelling it would be an appropriate way to end Black History Month as it is about AMANDA KITCHELL, a slave. It is a fascinating glimpse at writings of the early 1850s and how attitudes were hardening on both sides of the slavery issue. This story will be told in two posts.

My Centennial History of Madison County; personal collection

In the year 1853, a case involving the arrest of an alleged slave, under the provisions of the notorious fugitive slave law, transpired at Alton and attracted national attention. It was brought before Hon. Levi Davis, U.S. commissioner, by a slave trader, who had purchased the slave "running," as the term was. The slave was an attractive mulatto woman, who had supposed herself free. The story is told in the Presbytery Reporter of March 1853, of which the late Rev. A. T. Norton was the editor and is given below:

Mulatto Girl Left in Alton

On Saturday, November 22, 1851, a young man came to the Alton House, in this city, and entered his name on the register as J. T. Leath. In his company was a mulatto girl named, AMANDA KITCHELL, at that time about seventeen. The young man was somewhat older. The pair were from Memphis, Tennessee. The girl had an aunt in town, with whom she found lodgings. The young man remained at the Alton House until the Monday following. He stated repeatedly, in the hearing of Mr. A. L. Corson, keeper of the Alton House, and of others, that the girl had been a slave in his father's family, that he brought her here to set her free, and that he should send her free-papers as soon as possible.

Seized after Marriage

The girl remained in Alton, residing in different families and sustaining a good character until December 23, 1852, when she was married to Alfred Chavers, a respectable young colored man of this city. During all this period of thirteen months, her aunt and other friends seem to have given themselves little or no concern about her free-papers, relying implicitly on the word of the young man -- who was her master's on son -- that she was free. Under this pleasing illusion, she remained in her husband's house, unsuspicious of danger, for about three weeks after her marriage. But on Saturday, Sabbath, and Monday, the 15th, 16th, and 17th of January last, two or three men were noticed prowling about town, and visiting the houses of various colored citizens, pretending they wished washing done.

About sunset of the last of these days, five armed men burst suddenly into the house of Alfred Chavers, in his absence, seized his wife, who was sitting by the fire, and without giving her time to take a bonnet or a shawl, dragged her into the street and hurried her off to the office of the U.S. commissioner, Levi Davis. Here a pause ensued until the court could take supper, when the trial proceeded.

U.S. Commissioner, Levi Davis; image courtesy of  Shared
& Shared 2

The leading spirit in these outrageous proceedings was Malcolm McCullom. Of the other four, two were witnesses brought with him from Memphis -- one was his brother, J. C. Mc Cullom -- one a witness found in Alton; the other, the constable employed to make the arrest. McCullom had laid his train well. He had three witnesses to prove the girl's identity, all the paper documents which the Fugitive Slave law of 1850 requires and a power of attorney from J. T. Leath, the father of the young man who brought Amanda here. These proofs the commissioner deemed sufficient and immediately consigned Amanda, in due form, to the tender mercies of the slave-catcher. No time was allowed for the deliberation, or for the collection of rebutting evidence.

Amanda was marched off to the Franklin House and carefully guarded through the night. During all this time, there was no outbreak. Most of the citizens knew nothing of what was going forward; and those who did, suffered the odious Fugitive Slave law to pursue, unobstructed, its merciless course.

Released for $1,200

The next morning, January 18th, negotiations were entered into for Amanda's redemption. McCullom had the impudence, at first to demand $2,000. When Chavers begged him not to take away his wife, promising to redeem her, the brute replied that he 'wanted her for a wife himself!' He finally, however, reduced his demand to $1,200, and there he stood inflexibly saying that if $1,199.99 were proffered, he would not take it. In the course of the day, the money was raised; $1,000 by voluntary donations from the citizens, and $200 by loan -- $100 of which was from the savings of an industrious colored girl. These $1,200 were handed to the slave-catcher and the girl restored that evening to her husband.

The next morning it was observed that the McCulloms did not take the Altona, the regular 9 o'clock packet for St. Louis; but went on board the Excel, an Illinois river boat which passed down about an hour after the Altona left. Why was this? We have it on good authority, that young Leath -- the same who brought Amanda to Alton -- was on the Altona that morning, having come up on her the evening previous. Did the McCulloms wish to avoid him? Had he -- having failed to procure from his father the girl's free-papers -- followed them all the way from Memphis, to prevent the accomplishment of their design? These questions we have not now sufficient light to answer positively; but from the evidence before us, we imagine the young man honestly designed to set the girl free. For this purpose he brought her here, without the knowledge of his father, and left her here, telling her and others that she was free and that he would send her free-papers; which he doubtless expected to procure, but could not. As to his motives in pursuing such a course, we hazard no conjecture.

Mississippi riverboat; image courtesy of LaSalle Canal Boat

We have said that McCullom proceeded against Amanda under a power of attorney from J. T. Leath, the elder. All the documents which he used in the trial, were in accordance with the idea that he was only Leath's agent. He appeared in no other character until after Amanda had been adjudged to him. When, however, the citizens of Alton wished to purchase Amanda's freedom, it came out that McCullom was her true owner. While proceeding against her as the slave of another man, he carried in his pocket a bill of sale -- the original -- of which is now in Amanda's possession -- from J. T. Leath to himself. This document is as follows:

"For, and in consideration of four hundred dollars, in hand paid, I have sold to Malcom McCullom, all my right, title, and interest, with a certain female slaved named Amanda, aged 18 or 19, and of yellow complexion, and who is now a fugitive, supposed to be in the State of Illinois. I guaranty the said girl to be a slave for life; but I do not guaranty her recapture; the said McCullom buying the chances of her, and he bearing all expenses for her recapture; but I give the use of my name and my power of attorney to proceed for her recover under the authority of my name and right.
-- January 11, 1853, J. T. Leath

The power of attorney from Leath to McCullom was of the same date.

Now all ask, with all due deference for lawyers and judges, if a man can legally -- we say not morally, that is too plain a question to be argued at moment -- but can a man legally act as an agent for another, when and where he is himself entire and complete owner, and that other has no more present right or claim than the man in the moon? If this questions is answered in the negative, then the entire legal proceedings in Amanda's case were contrary to law; as every one, with the least spark of a soul, knows they were to all natural justice.

Again: Amanda is termed a fugitive. She was recovered under the Fugitive Slave Law. But was she a fugitive? Did not her own master's son take her away, carry her to a free State and leave her there, telling her and others that she was free? If there was any fugitive in this case it was J. T. Leath, the son, and not AMANDA KITCHELL, the servant. We believe it is both law and gospel, constitution and common sense, that when a slave is brought into free territory by those who claim ownership, and left there, that slave is free forever.

The above article was penned by the editor of this magazine. He has personally, and with much painstaking, investigated the facts, and feels quite sure of their correctness. The opinions he has express, will, of course, be taken only for what they are worth; but the facts may be relied on.

Some of our readers may be curious to see the bill of sale by which Amanda at last came into possession of herself. Here it is:

"For, and in consideration of the sum of twelve hundred dollars, to me in hand paid by Amanda, the Mulatto girl, menionted in the above bill of sale, (that from Leath to McCullom on previous page,) I do hereby guarantee unto her, her freedom and absolute control of herself, and that I have good rights so to dispose of her to herself; as witness my hand and seal, this 18th day of January 1853.
-- Malcom McCullom

To be continued...

Slave Name Roll Project


  1. Bill of Sale. Amanda's FREEDOM PAPERS. I'm so glad that town folk and her husband came and stuck by her. I do wonder what the real motive was for the Son to bring her there. Great Piece and I enjoyed all the particulars and Sources you provided. I hope her family knows her trials and tribulations and find her. This Case is what scared even FREE people. Sometimes the system didn't work and your Freedom could be snatched just like Amanda's even if you had papers. Thanks for Releasing her Name, Amanda Kitchell Chavers! Rest in Peace my Dear. Schalene and Tangled Roots and Trees Remembered you. Thanks Schalene!

    1. I always wondered about the son, too. And why he came back to Alton if he never got her freedom papers from his father.

  2. This is a terrific story! Thanks so much for telling it! I wanted to let you know that I have included it and part 2 in my NoteWorthy Reads post: