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Christiana Treason Trial (1851)

Original Citation
James J. Robbins, Report of the Trial of Castner Hanway for Treason, in the Resistance of the Execution of the Fugitive Slave Law of September, 1850 (Philadelphia: King & Baird, 1852).


The federal treason trial for the accused ringleaders of the Christiana Riot began in Philadelphia on Monday, November 24, 1851. The so-called “riot” involved a resistance effort orchestrated by fugitives and free blacks in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that resulted in the death of a Maryland slaveholder named Edward Gorsuch. Castner Hanway, a white neighbor not really involved in the episode, was the first defendant to stand trial. Here are excerpts from the transcript, including selections from the opening arguments by prosecutor John W. Ashmead and defense attorney Theodore Cuyler, witness testimony from U.S. Marshal Henry H. Kline, neighbors Elijah Lewis and Isaac Rogers, closing statements by prosecutor James R. Ludlow and defense attorney Joseph Lewis, and finally, the charge to the jury by Supreme Court Justice Robert Cooper Grier (sitting in circuit). Grier’s charge clearly indicates his disappointment with the prosecution’s case. The jury returned an acquittal within a matter of minutes. Nobody was ever convicted for the killing of Edward Gorsuch, nor were any of Gorsuch’s runaways ever returned to slavery. This was a pivotal act of defiance against the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

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Opening Argument for the Prosecution (John W. Ashmead)

“First. -That on the 11th of September, 1851, in the County of Lancaster, and within the jurisdiction of this Court, the defendant, with a great number of persons, armed and arrayed in a war-like manner, with guns, swords and other weapons, assembled and traitorously combined to oppose and prevent by intimidation and violence, the execution of the laws of the United States already adverted to, and arrayed himself in a warlike manner against the said United States.

Second. -That at the same time and place, the said Castner Hanway assembled with others, with the avowed intention by force and intimidation to prevent the execution of the said laws to which I have alluded, and that in pursuance of this combination, he unlawfully and traitorously resisted and opposed Henry H. Kline, an officer duly appointed by Edward D. Ingraham, Esq., a Commissioner of the Circuit Court of the United States, from executing lawful process to him directed against certain persons charged before the Commissioner with being persons held to service or labor in the State of Maryland, owing such service and labor to a certain Edward Gorsuch, under the laws of the State of Maryland, who had escaped into the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Third. -That in further execution of his wicked design, the defendant assembled with certain persons who were armed and arrayed with the design, by means of intimidation and violence, to prevent the execution of the laws already alluded to, and being so assembled, knowingly and ispatche assaulted Henry H. Kline, the officer appointed by the Commissioner to execute his process, and then and there, against the will of the said Henry H. Kline, liberated and took out of his custody persons before that time arrested by him.

Fourth: That the defendant in pursuance of his traitorous combination and conspiracy to oppose and prevent the said laws of the United States from being carried into execution, conspired and agreed with others to oppose and prevent by force and intimidation, the execution of the said laws, and in the ways already described, did violently resist and oppose them

Fifth: That the defendant in pursuance of his combination to oppose and resist the said laws of the United States, prepared and composed divers books and pamphlets, and maliciously and traitorously distributed them, which books and pamphlets contained incitements and encouragements to induce and persuade persons held to service in any of the United States by the laws thereof, who had escaped into this district, as well as other persons, citizens of this district, to resist and oppose by violence and intimidation the execution of the said laws, and also containing instructions how, and upon what occasions the traitorous purposes should and ought to be carried into effect.”

Ashmead comments on the Fugitive Slave Law:

“If obnoxious acts of Congress are passed they can be changed or repealed. Hence this defendant, if he has perpetrated the offence charged in the indictment, has raised his hand without excuse or palliation against the freest government on the face of the earth. He has not only set its laws at defiance, by seeking to overturn them, and to render them inoperative and void; but the conspiracy into which he entered, assumed a deeper and more malignant dye, from the wanton manner, in which it was actually consummated. I allude to the murder in which it resulted. An honorable and worthy citizen of a neighboring State, who entered our Commonwealth, under the protection of the constitution and laws of the Union , for the purpose of claiming his property under due process of law, was mercilessly beaten and murdered, in consequence of the acts of the defendant and his associates.”

Opening Argument for the Defense (Theodore Cuyler):

“This defendant, gentlemen, is not here through his counsel to defend those sad deeds which disgraced the sweet and peaceful valley near Christiana on the 9th of September last, or by one unkind or reproachful word to open again the yet fresh wounds of any member of that family which suffered so deeply there. It is no part of his defence to defend those who took part in that conflict. His defence is simply that he was in no way a party to these outrages; but as a precaution, I shall pass beyond this line, and added to this, will open to you, that however grave and serious may be and is the offence of those who took part in those outrages, yet it does not amount to the offence charged in the indictment.”

“On the borders of Lancaster county there realties a band of miscreants, who are well known to the laws, and well known to the records of the Penitentiary in this State. They are professional kidnappers...These men by a series of a lawless and diabolical outrages, have invaded the peace of this valley-begetting dread in every household, and a general sense of insecurity in every home.”

“Treason shall consist only in levying war against the United States . Do the facts of the case sustain the charge?

Sir-Did you hear it? That three harmless, non-resisting Quakers, and eight-and-thirty wretched, miserable, penniless negroes, armed with corn-cutters, clubs, and a few muskets, and headed by a miller, in a felt hat, without a coat, without arms, and mounted on a sorrel nag, levied war against the United States.

Blessed be God that our Union has survived the shock.”

Witness testimony (Henry H. Kline)

Kline: In the mean while Mr. Hanway came up on horseback. The old gentleman, Mr. Edward Gorsuch, requested me to go and ask him to assist us. We found that there was a larger force in the house than we calculated. I came out of the house and went to the bars where Mr. Hanway was sitting on a sorrel horse, and went up to him and said, “Good morning, sir,” and he made no reply. I then asked him his name, and he allowed it was none of my business. I then asked him if he lived in the neighborhood, and he made a remark in the same way. I then told him who I was, and showed him my authority. I took my papers out and handed them to him, and he read them.

Question: Did you hand him these papers? (The warrants.)

Kline: I did, and he read them not only once, but twice.

Question: What did you say to him at that time?

Kline: I told him I was Deputy Marshal, and came to arrest two fugitives belonging to Edward Gorsuch.

Question: When you told him that, what did he say?

Kline: He allowed that the colored people had a right to defend themselves. There was some fifteen or twenty standing there, as near as I can tell, with their guns loaded.

Question: Will you state to the Court again, exactly what Mr. Hanway said at that time?

Kline: After I got through telling him these things, who I was, and he had refused to assist me, I told him what the Act of Congress was, and urged him to assist me. After I had told him my warrants, he read them and handed them back, and he said the colored people had a right to defend themselves, and he was not going to help me, and I asked if he would keep them away, and he said No,--he would not have anything to do with them.

Ashmead: Had you any conversation with Mr. Hanway in regard to any law of Congress?

Kline: I had, sir.

Ashmead: Be good enough to state to the Court and Jury what it was.

Kline: After he refused, I told him what the act of Congress was as near as I could tell him. That any person aiding or abetting a fugitive slave, and resisting an officer, the punishment was $1000 damages for the slave, and I think to the best of my knowledge imprisonment for five years. I told him that. He said he did not care for any act of Congress or any other law. That is what he said.

* * *

Witness testimony (Elijah Lewis):

Mr. Brent: When Hanway said to Kline he would have nothing to do with it, was not that in reply to Kline’s request to assist him?

Lewis: It was.

Mr. Brent: When he requested him to assist him, his reply was, he would have nothing to do with it?

Lewis: Yes.

Witness testimony (Isaac Rogers):

Question: What did Mr. Hanway do?

Rogers : He turned on his critter and he says several times, “don’t shoot, boys.”

* * *

Closing Statement by Prosecution (James R. Ludlow)

“But I may here notice, what perhaps was intended to weigh with the jury-that this man Hanway-the miller in his shirt sleeves, and with the felt hat on, intended to levy war against the United States. Sir, it struck me painfully-ridiculous as the description seemed-it struck me painfully, when I remembered, that within a few feet of that same miller, lay a man-dead-and within six hundred yards of him was another, riddled with shot, and sir, in addition to that-if the evidence for the prosecution is to be believed-that that man had instigated these blacks to do these deeds of horror. You need not tell me, that to lead a set of conspirators, you are to be armed and arrayed in all the panoply of war. It is not law nor fact. Their general left them when his own life was in danger, but he commanded them as efficiently while upon the ground; they knew him in his every day dress.”

“What would be the conduct of a guilty man upon that occasion? If he had been an ignorant one, we can easily perceive what he would have done. He would have rushed, as did these blacks, right into the middle of the fight, he would by some overt, positive act, have convicted himself upon the spot. But with all the shrewdness of a leader, he just so far mingles in the affray, as to direct it, and the moment he has started the attack he makes good his escape.”

Closing Statement by Defense (Joseph Lewis)

“The whole prosecution, gentlemen, is founded upon a mistaken idea; that idea seems to be, that in this township of Sadsbury there prevails an unwholesome and unpatriotic spirit, or I should rather say sentiment, upon the subject of the Fugitive Slave Law, and that Castner Hanway is one of those who cherishes the bane of these opinions, and that therefore he was fitted to become a sacrifice to the spirit of concord. Now, gentlemen, nothing of this kind appears in the evidence at all; it supplies us with no facts upon which such an idea can be based. The evidence leaves us here, and the truth leaves us here; without any ground whatever for the suspicion that Mr. Hanway belongs to any sect or any class which have set themselves in opposition to this law, or who cherish opinions that are adverse to its execution.”

“Can it be that it is expected to terrify the people of the north, or the people of Pennsylvania, from looking on whenever any attempt is made to arrest blacks, whether fleeing from slavery, or expected to be fleeing from slavery-from looking on to see that no freeman is taken away, that they may have a free field to themselves? If this is the object, it is not such as Pennsylvania deserves. Pennsylvania does not deserve this treatment. She deserves it neither by her legislation, nor by the general feelings or sentiments of her people. She has always stood by the compromises of the constitution, not merely fairly, but with an inclination favorable to the south.”

“It ought always to be remembered, that this business of hunting down fugitives, is the business of the persons from whom they escape, peculiarly, and that we really have nothing to do with it. We have no interest in it-and if the scenes to which such man and woman hunting give rise, are revolting to the sensibilities of our people, it is too much to expect them to assist, and they cannot and will not be frightened into it by prosecutions for treason.

You may irritate and exasperate public feeling, but you cannot make active slave catchers of any respectable men in Pennsylvania , even by threats of the gallows.

If, therefore, the object of this prosecution is to drive our people into an active pursuit of such slaves as may happen to come into our State, it must fail. It cannot and ought not to succeed in the accomplishment of any such object. They will not chase frightened men and women, though they be black, from wood to wood, and from hill to hill, with fire arms and bludgeons, to the great alarm of peaceful neighborhoods, and the scandal of human society.”

“Throw Kline out, and there is not a word in the testimony of any one witness, to inculpate the prisoner in a single impropriety, in word or act. And ought he not to be thrown out? To his cowardice is owing this whole tragedy. Had he kept his force together, and withdrawn them in a body from the ground, there is no probability of their being assailed. After three of the seven, who constituted the force that went to execute the warrants, had retired, the danger was greatly increased, and yet it appears, that even then, if it had not been that Mr. Gorsuch after retreating some sixty yards from the house, had not attempted to return to make the intended arrest, nothing serious could have happened. It was that attempt that exasperated the negroes, and brought about the conflict.”

“If the issue were on the Fugitive Slave Law, and the question here was, whether Mr. Hanway disapproved it; he could not be convicted even of that offence-if offence it may be permitted to call it. Let me ask you, can any one of you say, from any thing you can have heard here, that Castner Hanway has any opinion either one way or the other on that subject. Yet, though he disapproved of that law, I trust there is still some space between that and treason. We are not here to try that law, or to try him for his opinions about it.”

* * *

Charge to the Jury, December 11, 1851 (Justice Robert Cooper Grier)

Without desiring to invade the prerogatives of the jury in judging the facts of this case, the Court feel bound to say, that they do not think the transaction with which the prisoner is charged with being connected, rises to the dignity of treason or levying war. Not because the numbers or force was insufficient. But 1st, For want of any proof of previous conspiracy to make a general and public resistance to any law of the United States . 2ndly, Because there is no evidence that any person concerned in the transaction knew there were such acts of Congress, as those with which they were charged with conspiring to resist by force and arms, or had any other intention than to protect one another from what they termed kidnappers (by which slang term they probably included not only actual kidnappers, but all masters and owners seeking to recapture their slaves, and the officers and agents assisting therein).

The testimony of the prosecution shows that notice had been given that certain fugitives were pursued; the riot, insurrection, tumult, or whatever you may call it, was but a sudden `conclamatio’ or running together, to prevent the capture of certain of their friends or companions, or to rescue them if arrested. Previous to this transaction, so far as we are informed, no attempt had been made to arrest fugitives in the neighborhood under the new act of Congress by a public officer. Heretofore arrests had been made by the owner in person, or his agent properly authorized, or by an officer of the law. Individuals without any authority, but incited by cupidity, and the hope of obtaining the reward offered for the return of a fugitive, had heretofore under- taken to seize them by force and violence, to invade the sanctity of private dwellings at night, and insult the feeling and prejudices of the people. It is not to be wondered at that a people subject to such inroads, should consider odious the perpetrators of such deeds and denominate them kidnappers-and that the subjects of this treatment should have been encouraged in resisting such aggressions, where the rightful claimant could not be distinguished from the odious kidnapper, or the fact be ascertained whether the person seized, deported or stolen in this manner, was a free man or a slave. But the existence of such feelings is no evidence of a determination or conspiracy by the people to publicly resist any legislation of Congress, or levy war against the United States. That in consequence of such excitement, such an outrage should have been committed, is deeply to be deplored. That the persons engaged in it are guilty of aggravated riot and murder cannot be denied. But riot and murder are offences against the State Government. It would be a dangerous precedent for the Court and jury in this case to extend the crime of treason by construction to doubtful cases.”

Citation for this page

James J. Robbins, Report of the Trial of Castner Hanway for Treason, in the Resistance of the Execution of the Fugitive Slave Law of September, 1850, Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,



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