Biography: Sara Lucy Bagby
The Last Fugitive
Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson (1843-1906) was the last slave in the United States prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act, the federal law, that declared that runaway slaves must be returned to their owners. Lucy was born in Virginia in the early 1840's and in 1852 was purchased from a slave trader in Richmond by John Goshorn of Wheeling for $600.
In 1857, he gave her as a gift to his son, William S. Goshorn. In October 1860, she escaped from Wheeling and made her way to Cleveland. Her owner pursued her there, had her arrested, declared his property and returned to Wheeling by train in January 1861. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Lucy walked to Pittsburgh where she married George Johnson. They relocated to Cleveland, where Lucy worked as a cook and house servant. She died July 14, 1906 of septicemia and is buried in a recently marked grave in Cleveland's Woodland Cemetery. (Margaret Brennan for Legendary Locals of Wheeling)
Last person returned to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act
Sara Lucy Bagby (Johnson) was born in 1843 and was sold in Richmond, Va. to William S. Goshorn of Wheeling in 1852. In October of 1860, she escaped from her owner, making her way to Cleveland. The following are accounts of her subsequent capture, trial and return to Mr. Goshorn.
— from The case of Lucy Bagby, 1860-61
Malvin, John North Into Freedom: the autobiography of John Malvin, Free Negro, 1795-1880, edited with an introduction by Allan Peskin. Cleveland, The Press of Western Reserve University, 1966.
I WILL STATE a circumstance that may perhaps be of some interest, that occurred shortly before the war: A young colored girl ran away from Wheeling, Va., and came to Cleveland, and took up her residence in the family of Mr. W. E. Ambush (1). After she remained there a short period of time, it was ascertained by her owners as to her whereabouts, and the came to Cleveland in search of her. The girl went by the name of Lucy, and she had sought employment in the family of George A. Benedict, and she left Ambush and went to Benedict's. As soon as her owners, who were father and son, named Goshorn, arrived in Cleveland, they obtained a warrant for the girl's arrest, which was placed in the hands of Seth A. Abbey, then United States Marshal, and she was arrested by him and placed in the county jail. A number of the citizens of Cleveland immediately employed Hon. R. P. Spalding on behalf of the girl, and she was taken out of the custody of the Marshal, on a writ of habeus corpus issued by Judge Tilden, Probate Judge of Cuyahoga County. When they were ready for hearing, Judge Tilden inquired of Mr. Spalding whether he desired the prisoner to be brought into his court. Judge Spalding replied that the investigation could proceed without her presence. Thereupon, after a hearing had [been held], Judge Tilden remanded her back again in the custody of the Marshal, who kept her in jail.
She was brought before Judge Wilson [sic], U. S. District Judge. On her way to the Court a crowd of people had gathered near the Post-office building, in which the Court was held, and there was a great deal of excitement about the girl. One of the men in the crowd approached a colored man by the name of C. M. Richardson, who had been a resident of Cleveland for a number of years, and dealt Mr. Richardson a stunning blow on the head, which felled him to the ground. The man evidently thought the Mr. Richardson was there for the purpose of rescuing the girl. Another man in the crowd, an Irishman, stepped up to a colored man by the name of Munson, and raised a club and was about to strike him, when Hon. Jabez M. Fitch, who happened to be near, interposed, and prevented the threatened blow.
The girl was brought into the U. S. Court room, and before the hearing commenced, Mr. Ambush had some words with young Goshorn, right in the Court room, and pistols were drawn on both sides, but they were prevented from firing by the interposition of people in the Court room. After the trial the Judge ordered the girl to be delivered up to her master, who took her back with him to Wheeling, where she was placed in jail and severely punished.
(1) The case of the runaway, Lucy Bagby, was tried in January of 1861[ ... ] Lucy had the unfortunate distinction of being the last runaway slave ever returned to the South under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law. [ ... ]
- from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Nov. 28, 1860:
CHARGED WITH RUNNING OFF A SLAVE.
— On Monday last, a negro named Phillip Herbert, heretofore in the employ of C. W. Russell, Esq., was arrested upon the charge of assisting in the recent escape of a slave girl from Mr. John Goshorn. It appears that Herbert went to Pittsburgh, about the time the girl ran away, and was heard to express a knowledge of here whereabouts and actions. He was committed to jail by Ald. Dulty for further examination.
- from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Dec. 10, 1860:
EXCITEMENT AMONG THE COLORED FOLKS.
On Saturday afternoon one Phil Herbert, a negro who has been confined in jail for several weeks charged with assisting in the escape of Lucy, a slave girl belonging to Mr. Wm. Goshorn, had a hearing in the Sheriff's office before Col. Knox. Thirty-one negroes, of all hues of the rainbow and sundry other hues, ages, sexes, and conditions, were examined, and we do not suppose that, ever in the this knowing world did an equal number of colored folks know less upon any other stated subject. They knew the slave girl Lucy, (or the "young lady," as they called her) some slightly, some intimately and some otherwise. They knew Phil only slightly. One or two even knew that Phil went to Pittsburgh about the same time that the girl disappeared, but they didn't know what he went for, or if they did they wouldn't tell. Col. Knox discharged Phil and admonished him to be careful in the future and he said he would. All afternoon the negroes were marching in and out of the sheriff's office, single file, and the colored population were never before in such a flurry. No set of witnesses ever told off their stories so glibly, and we never before saw so much ivory.
-from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Jan. 22, 1861:
The following dispatch appeared in the Pittsburgh papers yesterday. Why it was not sent here we cannot tell:
CLEVELAND, Jan. 19. — A colored woman, claimed as a fugitive slave from Wheeling, Va., was arrested here to-day. She will be examined on Monday. Judge Tilden issued a habeas corpus, which will be returned on Monday morning. There is but little excitement, which is entirely confined to the colored population. She admits herself to belong to the claimant.
In addition to this, we have (last night) the following additional particulars:
CLEVELAND, Jan. 21. — The fugitive slave girl, Lucy, was brought before the Probate Court this morning. Judge Tilden ordered her to be discharged from the custody of the Sheriff. She was taken in custody by the U. S. Marshall, and removed to the U. S. Court, where she is now undergoing examination. On the way to the Court an unsuccessful attempt was made at rescue.
We presume this is the slave lost some time ago, by Mr. Goshorn, of this city.
- from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Jan. 23, 1861:
THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LUCY.
Wm. S. Goshorn, the owner of the fugitive slave girl, Lucy, recently arrested at Cleveland, Ohio, returned from that city yesterday morning, with a view we believe, of procuring evidence to refute a statement made by the girl that she had been taken into Ohio by a daughter of the claimant, with the knowledge and consent of her master.
From the Cleveland paper, we glean some particulars of the arrest of the girl from which it appears that she went to Cleveland about three months ago, shortly after leaving here. A great effort was made to ascertain her whereabouts, but, in vain. Recently, it is said, information was given to her master by a negro woman in Cleveland, and she was accordingly arrested on Saturday morning last, by the U. S. Marshall, at the house of Mr. Benton, and committed to jail. Judge Tilden afterwards issued a writ of habeus corpus, and when this was known, says the report, "it was currently asserted that Lucy would be rescued by a negro force large enough to overpower the Sheriff's posse, and spirited away before a recapture could be made. The officers were aware of this, and Sheriff Craw and his Deputies acted accordingly. A detachment of city police took possession of and cleared the jailyard, keeping the crowd in front of the Court House. Various rumors were prevalent, and a strict watch was kept to prevent her removal secretly. No such disposition has thus far been manifested by the authorities. The excitement was almost entirely confined to the colored population, for though there was a large number of white people on the ground, the universal sentiment was that the affair must be left to the law.
As the time approached when, it was supposed, the girl was to be taken from the jail and carried before Judge Tilden, the crowd increased in size and grew more boisterous in demonstration. As the excited negroes gained new accession, however, those who were there to see the law enforced increased in number and determination. The negroes threatened boldly that the girl should never go back to Virginia alive, and some were evidently prepared for a fight.
Under these circumstances it was not deemed prudent to take the girl from jail, and the hearing therefore proceeded without her presence.
Judge Tilden asked Sheriff Craw if he had council, and the officer responded that he did not deem it necessary, after making his return upon the writ. Judge Tilden said, in view of the importance of the case, he desired to take time to consider it. It was said the city of Cleveland was disloyal to the Union, but he knew it was a slander, and the forbearance exercised to day proved it. He cautioned the colored people against any act of violence, and then announced that he should hold the case for advisement until Monday at 9 A. M.
The Judge charged the Sheriff that the prisoner was in his custody, and he should hold her.
On Monday as already reported by telegraph Judge Tilden ordered the girl to be discharged from the custody of the Sheriff and taken to the U. S. Court where at all accounts she was undergoing an examination.
It will be established that the girl escaped, and was not taken away as alleged, when she will be promptly returned to her master. The Plaindealer says that "even the negroes held a meeting on Monday and resolved to obey the laws."
- from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Friday Morning, Jan. 25, 1861:
RETURN OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE, LUCY.
Last evening the U. S. Marshall from the Northern District of Ohio, Mr. Johnson, arrived in this city having in charge the fugitive slave, Lucy, owned by Mr. W. S. Goshorn. The Marshall was accompanied by Chas. B. Flood, Editor of the Cleveland National Democrat, and Mr. Grey, also connected with one of the Cleveland papers, and a half a dozen other gentlemen, all of whom put up at the McLure House. Mr. Goshorn speaks in high terms of praise of the efficiency of the Marshall, and is also under obligations to other officers and citizens for their activity in seeing the law enforced. There was no attempt made, even by the negroes, to rescue the girl upon her leaving Cleveland. At the town of Lima, however, on the line of the road, a large crowd of negroes, some of whom, it was said, were armed for a rescue, but although the Conductor whistled down brakes he considered it unadvisable to stop. After leaving Lima a negro and a white man, both of whom were armed, were arrested and disarmed by the Marshall, upon the suspicion that they meditated a rescue. The Cleveland gentlemen were entertained last evening at the house of Mr. Goshorn.
- from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, Saturday Morning, Jan. 26, 1861:
THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LUCY.
They had some very interesting proceedings in the U. S. Court room at Cleveland, on Thursday morning, just before the surrendering of Mr. Goshorn's slave girl, Lucy. There was a large number of people present. Judge Spalding, counsel for the girl, in withdrawing the defense, said among other things:
"Nothing now remains that may impede the performance of your painful duty, sir, unless I be permitted to trespass and say to this assemblage "we are this day offering to the majesty of Constitutional law an homage that takes with it a virtual surrender of the finest feelings of our nature — the vanquishing of many of our strictest resolutions — the mortification of a freeman's pride, and, I almost said, the contravention of a Christian's duty to his God."
Mr. Barlow, counsel for Mr. Goshorn, said, as reported in the Herald, "that the course of his friend Judge Spalding was patriotic. The right of slavery, or the Constitutionality of the fugitive slaw law, is not involved here. The latter question has been decided. The duty of the Court is to give effect to the law. In justice to the claimants, I must say they are actuated by no mercenary motives. Neither do they come to wake the prejudices of the North. Virginia now stands in a commanding position, and wishes to show the Southern people that the Northern people will execute the laws, and be faithful to the Union. The citizens of Cleveland have come up to their duty manfully; no man has laid a straw in the way of the enforcement of the law, and for my friend I thank them."
Marshall Johnson read sundry provisions of the United States laws, and said he had no alternative -- he must obey them. The girl could be purchased in Wheeling, and he would give $100 for that purpose. Mr. Barlow asked permission for the older Mr. Goshorn to speak, when that gentleman arose and said:
"Language would not express his gratitude to the citizens for his treatment. His mission was an unpleasant one, but it may be oil poured upon the waters of our nation's troubles. I would the task of representing Virginia had fallen to better hands. The South had been looking for such a case as this. I have no office to gain, I want to save the Union. We must do it if our servants will not. We have charged the North with persuading away our servants — I hope God will forgive them. How pleasant it would be if I could come among you with this same girl as my servant, and enjoy your hospitality as I have now. He continued at some length."
Before leaving Cleveland the Messrs. Goshorn sent the following card to the Cleveland Herald:
"Before leaving Cleveland for home, we feel it a duty to the citizens of Cleveland, as well as to ourselves, to express our unfeigned gratitude for the uniform kindness with which we have been treated. Nothing but courtesy has been shown us by all of your citizens, who have even shielded us from the insults of your colored population -- as an instance of which we will refer to an incident which occurred this morning at the breakfast table of the Weddell House. A negro waiter refused to serve us, and upon the fact being known to Col Ross, the proprietor of the House, the waiter was promptly discharged, and ordered to leave the house.
"We again thank you all.
WM. S. GOSHORN."