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Digital Bookshelf: Newspaper Articles

Tumult and Riot

Original Citation
"Tumult and Riot," Carlisle (PA) Herald, June 9, 1847, p. 2: 5.


On June 2, 1847, there was a "riot" in Carlisle, Pennsylvania that resulted in a successful escape for two out of three detained fugitive slaves and ultimately the death of a Maryland slaveholder named James Kennedy who was injured during the melee. Kennedy's death was a milestone -probably the first fatality for a slaveholder who had pursued his fugitive slaves into the North. People don't always connect the Underground Railroad with such examples of resistance to fugitive slave laws, but the situation in Carlisle in 1847 demonstrates how free blacks in communities along the Mason-Dixon Line organized themselves to defy the laws and aid in escapes. In that sense, this newspaper report about "Tumult and Riot" from the Carlisle (PA) Herald is misleading and vastly underestimates the depth of both black resistance to slavery and northern white resentment over interference with their "states' rights." Eventually, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would throw out all of the convictions in this case, sending an unmistakable message to southerners seeking "justice" for their dead colleague.


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Tumult and Riot.

CARLISLE, June 3d., 1847.

Our town was thrown into great commotion and excitement yesterday afternoon, by an attempt on the part of a large portion of our colored population to rescue several slaves who had been arrested as fugitives. The slaves (one man, a woman and little girl) were arrested in the morning, and in the afternoon taken before Judge Hepburn on a writ of habeas corpus. Mssrs. Adair and ----bury appeared for the retainers, and W. H. Miller, Esq. for the parties claiming the fugitives. In the course of this hearing testimony was taken fully identifying the slaves as the property of Col. Hollingsworth and Mr. Kennedy, of Hagerstown, Md. Exceptions were then taken by the counsel for the slaves, to the commitment by the Magistrate and the holding of the slaves in the custody of the Sheriff. These exceptions were sustained by the Court, who discharged them from the custody of the Sheriff, and they were then taken in charge by their owners. A second writ of habeas corpus, to inquire by what right they were held by the claimants, we are informed was immediately taken out, but the hearing of it was prevented by the occurrence of the riot.

During the hearing a large crowd of infuriated negro men and women gathered in and about the Court House, who evidenced by their violent conduct a disposition to rescue the fugitives by force. An attempt was made first in the Court-room but quickly frustrated by the constables.

A second attempt was made as the slaves were brought down from the Court-room to the carriage, which resulted in a serious riot. The attack was commenced at the door of the carriage, where before the slaves were got into the vehicle a general rush was made on the slave-owners and constables by the negro men and women, and a frightful melee ensued in the street, in which for some minutes paving stones were burled in showers and clubs and canes used with terrible energy. The result was that the woman and girl escaped, while the man was secured and taken back to Maryland. We regret to say that Mr. Kennedy, one of the owners, was very severely hurt, having been felled to the earth under a succession of blows from stones and clubs which completely disabled him A boy in the street by the name of Black, we are informed was also so severely wounded in the head by a stone, that his life is endangered. The remainder of the party received no serious injury.

The rescue was a bold and vigorous attempt, and although there were numerous indications of such a disposition, we believe it was not seriously apprehended by wither the slave-owners or our citizens. If it had been a stronger force and more precaution should have been used. Much excitement prevails in our community in relation to this unfortunate affair, and the Sheriff and Constables have arrested a score or more negroes, who were identified as leaders in the riot, who are now confined in jail to await their trial. Our citizens generally made no inference.-The evidence that the slaves were fugitives was clear, and the mass of our citizens therefore regarded them as the rightful property of their owners.

Inasmuch as the whole affair will be made the subject of legal investigation we refrain from all comments. We regret extremely that our borough has been made the scene of so disgraceful a riot, and especially that its consequences should have been so serious. Mr. Kennedy, the gentleman so severely wounded, has since remained in the hands of Drs. Myers and Mahoe, two of our most experienced physicians, from whom we regret to learn that his injuries are such as will probably unfit him for active duties for many weeks. Besides being much bruised in various parts of his person, he has suffered a more serious injury in the dislocation and severing of the joint and ligament of the right knee, which will probably cause lameness for life. The warmest sympathies of our citizens are with him under his unhappy misfortune. The boy who was wounded is now doing well, his injuries not being as great as was at first thought.



Citation for this page

Carlisle (PA) Herald, "Tumult and Riot," June 9, 1847, Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,


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