E.B. Crocker and the South Bend Fugitive Slave Case

E.B. Crocker [n.d.] from a graphic by AL Bancroft & Co, San Francisco, California History Room, Picture Collection, California State Library

About midnight on the 27th of September in 1849, a party of ten Kentuckians broke into the house of a Mr. David Powell, who lived near Cassopolis, Michigan, while he was absent. They drew their pistols and bowie knives and dragged his wife Lucy and three of his four sons from their beds, bound them with cords and hurled them into their covered wagons. Their claim was that the Powells were the property of Mr. John Norris and that they were fugitives from justice.

Mr. Wright Maudlin, a neighbor, overtook this band of marauders about noon the following day near South Bend, Indiana, and a writ of habeas corpus was immediately obtained. Maudlin appealed to Edwin Bryant Crocker, Esq., for his legal assistance. Edwin was well known to all the Underground Railroad workers on all the routes in the Hoosier state. Wright assured Crocker that he had no doubt the family were free; that he had known them for some time as quiet and industrious people; and that he never heard any intimation that they were slaves. The Powells had purchased a small tract of land on which they resided at the time of their abduction and were laboring hard to pay for it.

Underground Railroad Routes through Indiana and Michigan in 1848, from Wilbur Siebert’s book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

Edwin Crocker didn’t argue to Judge Elisha Egbert that the Powells were free citizens but that that slave master Norris failed to acquire a certificate of ownership allowing him to transport the Powells through Indiana to Kentucky. After a full and fair hearing of the cause, Egbert decided that they could not be legally held in custody and ordered them to be discharged.

With defiance, Edwin loudly and clearly repeated Judge Egbert’s decision to the crowd.  While the judge was still sitting on the bench, and before any adjournment had been announced, Norris’s men surrounded the captives and brandished their weapons. Norris demanded his slaves from the sheriff but was refused. Mr. J.A. Liston, one of their counsel, jumped up on a table, and called on the Kentuckians to shoot all who interfered. Norris then had the Powells arrested on a writ from the clerk of the Circuit Court. They were held in the jail for the weekend. Mr. Norris and his friends were immediately placed under arrest as rioters against the peace and dignity of the State of Indiana and for assault and battery.

The times that tried men’s souls… The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case report by E.B. Crocker, reprinted by A. Beal in 1873

That weekend a crowd formed of somewhere between 150 to 400 blacks from Michigan and Indiana, Quaker sympathizers from Cass County in Michigan, and supporters from the village of South Bend, some armed with guns and clubs. Norris did not appear in court. Sworn testimony of a white neighbor from Michigan was submitted that the Powells were free persons. Edwin Crocker argued that the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, had decided that all State law, relative to fugitives from labor, are unconstitutional and void, and it followed that the writ issued by the Clerk was null and void—and could authorize no person to hold them in custody. The Powells were accordingly discharged, and quietly departed with their friends and neighbors.

To the citizens of South Bend, the presence of poor trembling captives in their weak and helpless condition, surrounded by a party of armed men in a court of justice, was a practical exhibition of slavery, which needed only to be seen to stir up the deepest fountain of feeling. The Kentuckians were looked upon with loathing and abhorrence. The sight of a family torn from a happy home, separated from those they held most dear, with nothing but hopeless, life-long bondage staring them in the face, made the citizens feel that nothing should be left undone to save them from such a horrid fate.

Edwin wrote:

Never shall I forget my feelings, as I stood among them in their dark cell in prison, when that mother, with streaming eyes and heaving breast, fell on her knees, and begged me to save them from slavery. Oh! What an anguish filled those hearts! Who, possessing the heart of a man, could resist such an appeal?…Never can I forget an interview I afterwards had with the husband and father of this family, who came to express his feelings of gratitude for my efforts in their behalf. The best of his days had been spent toiling for others living in luxury. Said he, “I once had a wife, she was taken from me, and sold South, I have never seen her since, I know not whether she is dead or alive, and when the news came, that this, my second wife, was in the hands of the Kentuckians, I felt that had nothing more to live for,” and he wept like a child.

John Norris, outraged by the court’s decision, filed suit in the U.S. Circuit Court against those who had assisted the Powells in their escape. He sued for the cost of his lost “property.” He claimed that, “Every person of the large crowd in the court-house, or out of it, who aided, by words or actions, the movement which resulted in the escape of the fugitives, is responsible (for his loss).” On the 21st day of December, 1849, Norris commenced suit in the United States Circuit Court, for the District of Indiana, against Edwin B. Crocker, Leander B. Newton, George W. Horton, Solomon W. Palmer, David Jodon, William Wilmington, Lot Day, Jr., Amable M. Lapiere, and Wright Maudlin, to recover the value of the slaves and other damages. In this case Norris provided several witnesses that swore he was the owner of the Powells and had been for a number of years.

Fugitive slave reward advertisement, 1838 Printed Ephemera Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (call no. Portfolio 22, Folder 12b)

Edwin revealed in court that Norris allowed David Powell and his family to cultivate a piece of ground in Lawrenceburgh, Indiana and sell produce there. He argued that if Norris permitted his slaves to come into a free State, while there they were free persons; and that the mere fact that such free persons afterwards went into a slave State, could not make them slaves, any more than other free persons going voluntarily from a free to a slave State.

The judge (McLean) decided that because Crocker did not specifically deny the assertions of Norris that the Powells were his slaves, that it should be assumed that they were. Once Crocker had admitted that the Powells were Norris’s slaves, it did not matter how Norris asserted his authority over them. They were his and he had the right to take them back to Kentucky.

A verdict of $2,856 was given by the jury against the defendants, as the value of the slaves and other damages.

Crocker and his fellow defendants filed continuance after continuance. He used filibustering tactics. He sold his land to his father Isaac and his brother Charles to avoid seizure. Team Crocker evaded judgments for seven years.

The very visible presence in South Bend of numerous blacks from Michigan and Indiana during the hearings illustrated the solidarity of Midwestern black communities on the issue of fugitive slave rendition. The response of the South Bend citizens illustrated how antislavery northerners used—and misused—the legal system to protest slavery. The failure of the Powells’ owner to regain his slaves and the seven years it took for him to collect his judgement in the civil lawsuits illustrated the inadequacy of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 for masters hunting runaway slaves who crossed state lines.

Less than a year later, the 1850 federal fugitive slave law amending the 1793 statute was passed. The new, tougher measure was designed to address longstanding southern complaints about the Underground Railroad.  In it no fugitive slave had the right of habeas corpus—the most fundamental right in the Anglo American legal tradition—that is the right to contest the legality of one’s detention in open court. It denied the right to a jury trial.  It denied the right to testify in one’s own defense. It made it a federal crime for any citizen in the North to aid or assist a fugitive slave. And it required citizens to come to the aid of authorities attempting to capture and return a fugitive slave.

Cartoon criticizing the Fugitive Slave Acts Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (reproduction no. LC-USZC4-4550)

Making matters more complicated, Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851 that included Article XIII, which prohibited new settlement of African Americans into the state.

Slave kidnap poster, Boston, April 24, 1851 (Public Domain)

After the law was passed, black people trying to live free in Northern states almost never felt secure in their day to day life. In the cities and in the countryside the sight of law enforcement officers was terrifying. They had little confidence that the officials were motivated to protect their rights.

It was this draconian law that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the story of a daring escape of a fugitive slave from Kentucky. The novel, published in 1852, became the second biggest seller of the 19th century just after the Holy Bible. It went on to become one of the most influential novels in history, causing many Americans to sympathize with enslaved people and abolitionists.


Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lenox Library Association Special Collections Historic Photos Box T-Y, Wyndhurst

Edwin Crocker tragically lost his wife Mary Norton prior to the events of the South Bend Fugitive Slave Case. Her nurse, Margaret Eleanor Rhodes, helped him and his infant daughter, also named Mary, through this turbulent, dark and sad time. Edwin’s energetic and buoyant spirit eventually returned and commingled nicely with Margaret’s merry, resilient nature. In 1852 they were married by the famous Congregationalist minister and abolitionist Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother. They decided to move to the newly formed free state of California.

Edwin along with his new California partners John McKune and Robert Robinson continued to represent fugitive slaves.