Runaway Slave Was Forced to Return to Wheeling

Ohio historian John E. Vacha visited the Friendly City to share details of a Cleveland federal court case that forced runaway slave Sara Lucy Bagby to be returned to Wheeling a few months before the Civil War began.

Vacha, an adjunct assistant professor of history and director of History Day at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, presented a program, “150 Years Later: Lucy Bagby and the Fugitive Slave Law,” for Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library Tuesday, May 24.

Bagby, a slave owned by the Goshorn family of Wheeling, escaped to Cleveland and, in January 1861, became one of the last slaves to be returned to bondage under the Fugitive Slave Act.

Newspaper accounts of the period called Bagby “the human sacrifice” because of her unwitting role in a futile struggle to prevent Southern states from seceding from the Union, Vacha said.

Vacha is co-author of “Beyond Bayonets: The Civil War in Northern Ohio,” a book that includes an account of the Bagby court case. He noted that Ohio’s Western Reserve, settled by residents of Connecticut and upstate New York, was very anti-slavery. “There was a difference in mood or feeling between the Western Reserve and the rest of Ohio,” he commented.

A stronger Fugitive Slave Law had been passed in the Compromise of 1850 as a concession to the South when California was admitted to the Union as a free state, the historian pointed out. Under the law, U.S. marshals faced heavy fines and imprisonment if they neglected their duty to return fugitive slaves to their owners, and fugitive slaves were denied the right of trial by jury and their testimony was not admissible as evidence, he explained.

John Goshorn and his son, William, of Wheeling arrived in Cleveland Jan. 17, 1861, in pursuit of an escaped female slave, Vacha said. The door of the L.A. Benton home on Prospect Avenue was broken down and Bagby was taken into custody and transported to the Cuyahoga County jail.

An article in the Cleveland Leader newspaper described Bagby as a 24-year-old unmarried woman who claimed she was taken voluntarily by her owner’s daughter to Beaver, Pa. Bagby thought she was free because she was in a free state (Pennsylvania), but she was misinformed, Vacha said. Bagby said she set off with another person to Pittsburgh, then made her way to Cleveland.

The Cleveland Leader, a liberal Republican voice of the Western Reserve, ran a long editorial on the Bagby case on Jan. 21, 1861, Vacha said. Under the headline, “Shall the Fugitive Slave Law Be Enforced Today?” the editorial argued that forcing the slave’s return was unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional.

Rufus Spalding represented Bagby in court and applied for a writ of habeas corpus, but “he didn’t have much of a case,” Vacha said. The judge was forced to concede the right to hold the prisoner, but denied that Bagby could be held in the county jail because she had committed no crime under Ohio law.

That argument, however, was a moot point because Bagby was transported within the hour across the square to the federal court, Vacha said. “Fifty-five deputies formed a posse to guard the prisoner against any attempt at rescue,” he related. An immense crowd surrounded them, but police gathered around the marshals and the prisoner.

In a hearing, John Goshorn testified that his granddaughter never made a trip to Pennsylvania, and he claimed that Bagby escaped from his son’s home in Wheeling. The presiding commissioner “acknowledged that this was a test case,” Vacha said.

There was talk of purchasing Bagby’s freedom, but the Goshorns “were reportedly unwilling to sell” her, the speaker said.

After a two-day recess, Bagby’s attorney announced that he had been unable to turn up any evidence in Wheeling. The presiding commissioner then ruled that it was his “unpleasant duty” to return the runaway slave to her rightful owners. Bagby was returned to Wheeling by railroad; the train sped past stations where danger from abolitionists was threatened, the historian said.

Bagby “probably was the last slave surrendered by the North under the Fugitive Slave Law,” Vacha said.

The federal court action in Cleveland drew a lot of criticism from other abolitionists, he related. Author William Dean Howells’ father was editor of the Sentinel which argued that “Cleveland was made the dirt eaters for the whole Reserve,” while the Liberator carried a one-page layout, “The Human Sacrifice,” in sympathy with Bagby.

Upon arrival in Wheeling, Bagby was placed in jail by her owners. However, after eastern Virginia seceded and Union troops arrived in Wheeling, the troops freed Bagby and arrested the Goshorns as “disloyal Virginians,” Vacha said.

After the war, Bagby married an African-American Civil War veteran and she returned to Cleveland, he said. She died on July 14, 1906 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland.

Recently, “a volunter at the cemetery managed to track down her grave and persuaded someone to donate a marker,” Vacha said. The headstone, put in place last winter, is to be dedicated later this year. The marker for Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson describes her as “unfettered and free.”