Kauffman Trials (1848)

In 1848 Maryland slaveowner Mary M. Oliver filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania against Daniel Kauffman and two associates for helping thirteen fugitive slaves escape. Early in October 1847 two families of slaves – four adults and nine children – left Williamsport, Maryland and headed north into Pennsylvania. As “their master had died and their mistress was going to sell them,” Joseph Whitcomb explained at Kauffman’s trial that “they thought it was best to run off while they had a chance.” Eventually the fugitive slaves arrived in Chambersburg and found George Cole, a free black resident. On October 18 Cole helped the two families get to Kauffman’s farmhouse. Kauffman, who lived in Boiling Springs with his family, had started helping fugitives in 1837 when he was nineteen. Apparently the families hid in a wagon and later that night Kauffman took them to Stephen Weakley, who helped them continue on their  trip north. While Mary Oliver’s cousin John Stake determined that the fugitives had stopped at Kauffman’s house, he could not track their movement after that point. As he later testified, Stake told Kauffman’s wife Catharine that “[he] intended to bring suit against Mr. Kaufman for harboring and aiding those colored persons.”

In November 1848 Judge Samuel Hepburn presided as the trial started at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Carlisle. “A great number of witnesses were produced by [Oliver’s] counsel, who proved that the slaves were brought…to the barn of Kauffman, and after remaining there a part of the night, were taken in his wagon across the Susquehanna River,” as the (Bellows Falls) Vermont Chronicle reported. Yet some witnesses had to be coerced to testify against Kauffman. Some of the “immediate neighbors of Kauffman” had “obstinately refused to answer any questions or inquiries,” but the Chronicle explained that “after remaining [in jail] a short time, they concluded it was better to come forward and give evidence.”

Later that month Judge Hepburn pronounced the defendants guilty and fined Kauffman $2,000. Kauffman, however, hired Thaddeus Stevens and appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In 1849 the Boston (MA) Courier reported that Judge Hepburn’s ruling had been reversed because “state courts have no jurisdiction” and “that the action should have been brought in the Federal courts.” While the slaveowners filed a lawsuit later that year in federal court, a jury was unable to reach a decision. Another trial took place in federal court in 1852, but this time Kauffman lost and Judge Robert Grier fined him $4000. Newspapers around the country had been following the case and published reports about the outcome. The Rochester (NY) Frederick Douglass’ Paper described Judge Grier as a “judicial tyrant” and noted that “no slave case in the United States has been disposed off more infamously than this.” In addition, abolitionist groups raised money to assist Kauffman and other defendants pay the fine. Joseph Barker, who lived in Salem, Ohio, called on “Anti-Slavery friends” to donate money to ensure that “the pro-slavery monsters [did not] have the pleasure of thinking that they have either ruined a man for harboring a fugitive, or frightened others from imitating his example.” Kauffman lived in Boiling Springs until he died in July 1902, but after the trial he apparently stopped working on the Underground Railroad.

Posted in Antebellum (1840-1861), Our History

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