1847-10-24 Daniel Kaufman and Thirteen Escaping Slaves

Boiling Springs, PA, circa 1872

Daniel Kaufman (also spelled Kauffman) was born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1818.  He became a founder of the small town of Boiling Springs and also helped organize the Underground Railroad in the area.  He was involved in a dramatic fugitive slave escape on October 24, 1847.

According to evidence later presented in court, thirteen slaves belonging to the Oliver family escaped from Maryland, crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania, and were soon hiding in Kaufman’s barn in Boiling Springs. Kaufman agreed to provide them with shelter and food, and then offered his wagon to help transport the slaves eastward across the Susquehanna River. News of the escape spread quickly, and within a few months the master’s family filed suit against Kaufman.

The case Oliver et al. v. Kaufman began in the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County in early 1848 and included defendants Stephen Weakley and Philip Breckbill, two men accused of helping in the escape. Attorneys for the defendants argued that the case should not be tried in state court since the fugitive issue was the subject of  federal law (1793 Fugitive Slave Statute). Nevertheless, the judge allowed the suit to proceed and the jury eventually delivered a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs. Kaufman was supposed to pay $2,000 in damages. Yet the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed this verdict, with the majority opinion noting pointedly,  “that Congress possesses the exclusive right to legislate on the subject [of fugitive slaves] and that State Legislatures have no right whatever” to interfere and therefore the Olivers could not recover any damages.

The plaintiffs then brought the case to federal court in 1852, and once again, Kaufman lost, this time facing $4,000 in damages and fines.  He reportedly received help from relatives and leading abolitionists in order to pay off one of the highest recorded fines in the history of fugitive slave cases.

Paul Finkleman’s An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (1981; rev. 2000) offers good background on the legal issues at stake in the Kaufman case.  For a more detailed summary of the separate state and federal cases in this particular litigation, see the House Divided file, including newspaper articles and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision.

Kaufman’s barn no longer exists but the site lies near the grounds of the local swimming pool.  There is a state marker nearby that commemorates Kaufman’s role in the Underground Railroad in front of his post-Civil War home on 301 Front Street.

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