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Local abolitionist risked all to help slaves find freedom

Toledoan's deed put morality ahead of law

  • HARROUN

    David Harroun III was a farmer, who flouted the law by helping conduct fugitive slaves to safety.

    SHILLING / BLADE

  • Mott

    Richard ‘Dicky’ Mott, left, was a Toledo congressman, who flouted the law by helping conduct fugitive slaves to safety.

  • MAVOR-TOMB

    Mavor Brigham lived in Toledo most of the time from 1835 until his 1897 death. His grave is in Forest Cemetery.

    THE BLADE/LISA DUTTON
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  • Local-abolitionist-risked-all-to-help-slaves-find-freedom

    Mavor Brigham wasn't thinking politics when he and a friend climbed into a hotel room and helped spirit away a slave.

Local-abolitionist-risked-all-to-help-slaves-find-freedom

Mavor Brigham wasn't thinking politics when he and a friend climbed into a hotel room and helped spirit away a slave.

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Scaling ladders to sneak into hotel rooms isn't ordinary behavior for men with an eye on public office.

But Mavor Brigham, who became the 14th mayor of Toledo in 1852, placed a higher value on morality than the law that night when he and a friend climbed into the window of a downtown hotel to free a black man in chains.

A white man, Mr. Brigham was a die-hard abolitionist in the years when slavery was still present in the southern half of the United States.

And he was an active participant in the Underground Railroad, the secret network of houses and hideaways used by fleeing slaves to reach freedom in Canada.

Ohio was a nexus of routes and "stations" on the Underground Railroad. While Sandusky served as the main rendezvous point on the lakeshore, Toledo was a key site for routes crossing into Detroit and then to safety in Windsor.

MAVOR-TOMB

Mavor Brigham lived in Toledo most of the time from 1835 until his 1897 death. His grave is in Forest Cemetery.

THE BLADE/LISA DUTTON
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Northwest Ohio was home to a number of "conductors" who risked prison time and ruinous fines by helping slaves escape bondage in the time before the Civil War.

In close pursuit were agents hired to recapture and return the fugitive slaves to southern owners.

"It's important for everyone to understand, particularly children, that this was extremely dangerous business," said Cathy Nelson, a Columbus school teacher and founder of the Friends of Freedom Society Inc. who gives presentations on the Underground Railroad.

Three of every five escaped slaves were recaptured, Ms. Nelson said.

Historical accounts relate how slaves were caught in Detroit and taken by bounty hunters to Toledo on the way back to servitude.

When one such prisoner arrived at the old Indiana House at the corner of Perry and Summit streets, the hotel's proprietor alerted the area's abolitionists.

In his book The Mysteries of Ohio's Underground Railroads, the late historian Wilbur Henry Siebert related an anecdote about Mr. Brigham that was told to him by James M. Ashley, who was a congressman and co-author of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. Mr. Ashley was the great-grandfather of the late U.S. Rep. Thomas Ludlow Ashley.

Learning of the captured slave, Mr. Brigham and fellow abolitionist James Conlisk headed out with tools and a ladder, which they placed outside the window of the room in the four-story hotel where the shackled black man was held.

HARROUN

David Harroun III was a farmer, who flouted the law by helping conduct fugitive slaves to safety.

SHILLING / BLADE Enlarge

Eluding the slave's captors, the men sneaked inside and cut the prisoner's chains. They then smuggled him out to a buggy and drove the 25 miles to an Underground Railroad stop in Blissfield.

The precise date of this caper is unknown, although it probably happened in the time between Mr. Brigham's 1835 arrival in Toledo and the start of his one year in office as mayor in 1852.

Mr. Conlisk was a well-known local "conductor" who on multiple occasions took escaped slaves into Michigan on his sleigh.

Another lively episode happened in 1838, when a slave catcher arrived in town with a prisoner recaptured in Detroit.

According to Mr. Siebert's research, several local women visited the slave at a Summit Street hotel and dressed him as a woman. The group then summoned Mr. Conlisk, who spirited the cross-dressed slave to Monroe.

It was very much civil disobedience for white northerners such as Mr. Brigham and Mr. Conlisk to assist fleeing slaves prior to the Civil War.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ordered that all runaways be returned to their masters. The law also called for penalties of up to two years imprisonment and $3,000 in fines for those aiding a slave's escape.

Other well-known conductors in the Toledo area included Elijah J. Woodruff, postmaster for the area now known as East Toledo, Richard "Dicky" Mott, a Toledo congressman, David Harroun III, who secreted runaways in his Sylvania barn, and Lucian Lathrop, a minister, state representative, and Lucas County commissioner who hid slaves in what is now known as the Lathrop House in Sylvania's Harroun Park.

It's unknown how many slaves came through Toledo. And although it's difficult to determine the total number of slaves who used the Underground Railroad, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center estimates as many as 100,000 used the system before 1850.

Mott

Richard ‘Dicky’ Mott, left, was a Toledo congressman, who flouted the law by helping conduct fugitive slaves to safety.

Enlarge

In an autobiographical account of his life, Mr. Brigham did not mention his involvement in the Underground Railroad movement.

A foreword to the autobiography, written in 1982 by a relative, speculated on the reasons for such an omission: "This was done at great risk to his reputation, his personal fortune, and perhaps even his life."

Mr. Brigham was born in Oneida County, New York, in 1806. His obituary in The Blade described him as a "strong anti-slavery man" who organized the first anti-slavery society in that county. He went on to spend 52 years of his life in Toledo, with the exception of three years from 1837 to 1840, when he lived in Dundee, Mich.

Mr. Brigham worked as a contractor and builder and was deeply involved in local affairs. He belonged to Toledo's then-volunteer fire department, was a charter member of First Congregational Church, and was deputy clerk of courts and treasurer.

He spent two terms on Toledo council in the 1840s before becoming mayor.

A Republican, Mr. Brigham served for only a year before the governor appointed him "collector of canal tolls." Mr. Brigham died in January, 1897, in his family home, since razed, at 710 Walnut St.

There are few living descendants of Mr. Brigham in the area. Of his two great-great grandchildren born in Toledo in the 1950s, one, Amy Louise (Brigham) Krontz, remains in the city.

His other Toledo-born great-great grandchild, Steven Chase Brigham, 54, of New Jersey, recalled how stories of Mr. Brigham's commitment to ending slavery were passed down through the generations. He was told by his grandfather, Richard Brigham, that Toledo's reputation as a "safe haven" for fleeing slaves was strengthened during Mavor Brigham's time in office.

Mavor Brigham was buried in the family's plot at Forest Cemetery.

Contact JC Reindl at: jcreindl@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.

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