Monday, January 14, 2008

Escape From Slavery

The following account of Basil Dorsey's escape
slavery was written by Robert Purvis, a
antislavery activist, in a letter to
R.C. Smedley.
Smedley was researching the
Underground Railroad, and
published the letter
in his 1883
History of the Underground
Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring

Counties of Pennsylvania

"Among the hundreds of cases, which came under my
notice, none excited my interest more deeply than that
of four brothers, who came from Frederick County,
Maryland, and arrived in Philadelphia in the summer
of 1836. They were finely developed and handsome
young men, reputed to be the children of their master,
and after his death, finding themselves slaves when
they had been promised their freedom, they took 'French
Leave' and arrived safely in Philadelphia, under the
assumed Christian names of Basil, Thomas, Charles and
William, and retaining the surname of Dorsey. I took
three of the brothers to my farm in Bucks County -
Thomas preferring to live in the city. I succeeded in
securing places with some of* the neighboring farmers
for Charles and William, Basil remaining in my employ.
The latter was a married man, having a wife and two
children whom he left in Maryland. She was a free
woman and by a previous arrangement with her brother
in-law likewise free, they were brought to Philadelphia,
where I met them and took them to my house. This man
proved afterwards to be a false and treacherous villain.
He opened a correspondence with the son of their old
master, who bought these men at the settlement of his
father's estate and bad become their owner. By a
well-arranged plan, with the assistance of a notorious
slave-catcher, they were enabled to surprise and capture
Thomas, who was hurried before, one of the judges of the
court and sent back to slavery. He was carried to
Baltimore and imprisoned with the view of shipping him
thence to the New Orleans market. By the timely efforts
of his friends in Philadelphia money was raised, and the
sum of one thousand dollars paid for his freedom. He
afterwards became the popular caterer of Philadelphia,
and died a few years ago, leaving a handsome competence
to his family. Immediately following the capture of
Thomas, by the direction of the, brother-in-law, they
went to Bristol and secured the services of a constable
by the name of Brown, who repaired with the claimant and
his friends to Doylestown and obtained warrants from
Judge Fox for the arrest of the three, brothers. Basil,
while ploughing at some distance from the house, was
overpowered after a severe struggle by the slave-holder
and his friends, placed in a carriage and taken to
Bristol, three miles distant, where he was thrown into a
cell used for criminals. I had just returned from the city
and was in the act of eating my supper, when a neighbor's
son came in great excitement to tell me that Basil bad been
carried off. I sprang from the table and hastening in the
direction where I knew the man had been working, learned
from the farmers assembled there the particulars of this
outrage with the added information that be had been taken
to Bristol. Burning with indignation, hatless as I was, I
hurried thither, where I found the captors and the captive.

"An excited crowd of people was gathered about the market
house, whom 1 addressed, and succeeded; 11 enlisting their
sympathies in behalf of the poor victim. After a parley
with the slaveholder, it was agreed that we should meet
there at seven o'clock in the morning and start thence for
the purpose of appearing before Judge Fox, at Doylestown.
Availing myself of the kind offer of a friend, I was
driven rapidly home for the purpose of securing the safety
of Basil's brothers. I was rejoiced to find them already
there. They had heard of Basil's capture and were pursued
by a part of those men led by Brown, who had taken him.
These men had halted in a field near my residence,
evidently deliberating how to proceed. By my advice,
Charles, in whose hands I placed a double-barreled gun
heavily charged, walked out in front of the house and
defied them. The slave-catchers, thinking doubtless
discretion the better part of valor, instantly departed.
Under the cover of the darkness I was enabled to convey
the two men to my Brother Joseph's farm, about two miles
distant, and that night he drove forty miles and left
them in New Jersey at the house of a friend. There they
remained safely until an opportunity offered to send them
to Canada. The next morning about six o'clock I was on
my way to Bristol. Before reaching there I met a woman
who informed me that at five o'clock a wagon passed her
house and she heard Basil cry out, 'Go tell Mr. Purvis
they are taking me off.' The object of the movement was
to deceive me in regard to time and enable them to appear
before Judge Fox, and by ex-parte testimony have the case
closed and the victim delivered into their custody. Upon
receiving this information I hastened home and quickly
harnessing a fleet trotting horse pursued them. I left
instructions that Basil's wife and children should
follow in another carriage. By good fortune I came upon
the fugitive kidnappers about four miles from Doylestown,
where they had stopped for breakfast. I immediately drove
to the residence of William H. Johnson, the noted
abolitionist, who instantly took hold of the matter,
and went out to spread the news far and wide among the
anti-slavery people. I arrived in Doylestown fully an
hour before Basil was brought by his captors who were
of course amazingly surprised to see me. I at once
secured the services of the ablest lawyer in the town,
Mr. Ross, the father of the late Judge Ross, who urged
the postponement of the case upon Basil's oath of
having free papers left in the hands of a friend
living in Columbia, Pennsylvania.

"Doubtless the judge was deeply impressed by the
appearance in the court-room of the delicate and
beautiful wife and the young children clinging to
the husband and father, who, looking the picture of
despair sat with the evidence in his torn and soiled
garments of the terrible conflict through which he
had passed. The claimant obtained legal services
in the person of a Mr. Griffith, a young lawyer.
Notwithstanding the urgency of their council to have
the case immediately decided, the judge postponed it
for two weeks.

"This was all I expected to obtain. My duty lay
clearly before me, and I resolved that no effort
should be spared to secure Basil's freedom. With
this view, I strove to arouse the colored people to
rescue him in the event of his being remanded to his
captors. The plan adopted was to assemble in squads
about the three leading roads of the town and use
means adequate for the purpose of liberating him.
Most fortunately, however, by an unexpected turn of
events, a resort to these desperate measures was
rendered unnecessary. Desiring to make use of every
available means to secure the liberty of this worthy
mail, I called upon that eminent lawyer and
philanthropist, David Paul Brown, and asked him
if he would not appear in behalf of the defense. He
promptly responded to my request, saying, 'I am
always ready to defend the liberty of any human
being.' I then tendered him a fee of fifty dollars,
which he at once refused. "I shall not now," he said,
nor have I ever accepted fee or reward, other than
the approval of my conscience, and I respectfully
decline receiving you[r] money, I shall be there;"
and turning to his barber he asked: 'Will you get me
up so that I can go in the stage coach which leaves
at four o'clock in the morning?'

"The day of trial came and the slave-holder was
there, bringing with him additional proof in the
persons of his neighbors to swear as to the
identity of the man. Armed with the bill of
sale, the victory seemed an easy one. The claimant
at one time was willing to take five hundred dollars
for his slave, which we agreed to give, yielding to
the earnest entreaty of Basil, although it was in
violation of our principles, as we have always denied
the right of property in man. He advanced his price
to eight hundred dollars at Doylestown, and when that
was agreed to declined taking less than one thousand
dollars. Basil then said, 'No more offers if the
decision goes against me. I will cut my throat in
the court-house; I will not go back to slavery.' I
applauded his resolution; horrible as it might be,
it seemed better than his return to a living death.
There for the first time I unfolded our plans for his
liberation. The case was called promptly at the hour
agreed upon, and Mr. Griffith spreading out his bill
of sale and pointing to his witnesses the friends of
the claimant who had come for the purpose of
identifying this man as his property, opened his
case with an air of the utmost confidence in the
result. Mr. Brown in his turn quickly rose and
the magnetism of his presence was felt by the crowded
courtroom, nine-tenths of who were doubtless in
sympathy with the poor slave. He commenced by saying,
'I desire to test this case by raising every objection,
and may it please your honor these gentlemen, who hail
from Liberty, Frederic County, Md., are here according
to law to secure their "pound of flesh," and it is my
duty to see that they shall not get "one drop of blood."
As a preliminary question I demand authority to show
that Maryland is a slave state.'

"Mr. Griffith, with a self-satisfied air, remarked:
'Why, Mr. Brown, everybody knows Maryland is a slave

"'Sir, everybody is nobody,' was the quick retort of
his opponent.

"The judge entertained the objection, and Mr. Griffith
went out and soon returned with a book containing a
compilation of the laws of Maryland. The book was not
considered authority, and poor Mr. Griffith, confused
and disconcerted, requested Mr. Brown to have the case
postponed until afternoon.

"'Do you make that request,' inquired his adversary,
'on the ground of ignorance of the law?'

"Mr. Griffith in an appealing tone said: 'Mr. Brown,
I am a young man and this is my first case; I pray you
do not press your objections; give me some time, for
should I fail in this case, it would be ruinous to my
future prospects.'

"Laying his hand on the young lawyer's shoulder, Mr.
Brown replied, 'Then, my dear sir, you will have
the consolation of having done a good deed, though
you did not intend it." The judge was prompt in
dismissing the ease, saying that he would not furnish
another warrant, but the might secure his rearrest by
obtaining one front a magistrate Profiting by this
suggestion, Griffith and his clients hastily left the
court-room. I was equally prompt; having previously
ordered my horse and buggy to be brought in front of
the courthouse, I took hold of Basil and hurried him
towards the door. In the excitement which prevailed,
a colored man, who was outside, seeing me hustling
Basil before me, and thinking lie had been remanded
to slavery and I was his master, raised a heavy stick
and was about to strike me, when a friendly hand
interposed, and saved me from the blow. We were no
sooner seated in the vehicle than the slave-catchers,
armed with a magistrate's warrant, came rushing upon
us. As they were about to seize the horse, a stroke
of the whip on the young and excited animal, caused
him to rear and dash ahead. A round of hearty
applause from the sympathizing crowd served as an
additional impetus to urge us onward. After running
the horse about two miles, I came upon a party of
colored men who were to assist in rescuing the slave.
Resting a short time, I pursued my journey to
Philadelphia, a distance of twenty-six miles, and
drove directly to my mother's house, where Basil was
safely lodged. I afterwards accompanied him to New
York, and placed him in the hands of Joshua Leavitt,
the editor of The Emancipator, who sent him to
Connecticut to find employment on his father's farm.
He remained there some time and then removed with his
family to Northampton, where he worked for Mr. Benson,
a brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Mr. Dorsey
died a few years ago, a highly esteemed and
respectable citizen, leaving a widow and a number
of children."

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