Monday, July 30, 2007

James Emmitt’s Anti-Abolition Mob

Part II

The anti-abolitionist mobs of Pike County were not simply an isolated event – they were part of a larger phenomenon that broke out in the mid-1830s. From Alton, Illinois to Cincinnati, Ohio, to the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, white Americans reacted violently to the emergence of immediate abolitionism, the movement for which Rev. Edward Weed was a paid organizer. In the history of the Lower Scioto River Valley and Pike County, in particular, the violence experienced by the Rev. Weed in the late summer of 1836 occurred at a moment when the economy of the region was experiencing dramatic growth.

The Ohio-Erie Canal had been in operation for about three years. The citing of the canal had transformed the development of the towns of Pike county. In one of the great controversies of the period, the canal commissioners, under the influence of Robert Lucas (a resident of Pike County and speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives and a future governor), the canal was run down the west side of the Scioto River through a tiny village soon to be known as Waverly. Rather than run down the east side through the original county seat of Piketon, it ran through lands owned by Lucas (among others), where he laid out a new village, which he named Jasper.

The citing of the canal on the west side helped make the young James Emmitt a wealthy man, as his town of Waverly became the economic hub of Pike County. Waverly soon eclipsed Piketon and after a long drawn out battle, the county seat would eventually be moved to Waverly.

By the summer of 1836, when Rev. Weed came to Pike County, Waverly was experiencing its initial boom time and James Emmitt was already the wealthiest businessman in the area.

James Emmitt

Edward Weed arrived in Waverly around the 14th of July, where he was welcomed into the home of Dr. William Blackstone, a local supporter of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Exactly where Weed gave his first lecture is unknown, but once word spread an angry mob began to form, which according to Weed, had none-other-than James Emmitt at is head.

In his memoirs, James Emmitt provides a fairly detailed account of Rev. Weed’s visit, but strangely, he changes Weed’s identity to that of George Thompson, a much more infamous English abolitionist, who was met with angry mobs on his tour of New England. Although a mob sought Thompson in Boston around this time, the British abolitionist never visited Ohio in 1836. Writing some fifty years later, perhaps for dramatic reasons, Emmitt chose to portray Weed as Thompson, but one thing that is clear is that Emmitt downplayed his own leading role in the whole affair. He acknowledged his opposition to abolitionism at the time, but explained it as being the common sentiment. As he put it in his memoir, “Blackstone and his … followers, in 1836, had arrayed against them the combined, determined, outspoken sentiment of this whole community, and this whole section as well.”

According to Emmitt, Dr. Blackstone publicized the upcoming visit of Rev. Weed and at that time was warned that if the abolitionist speaker “came he would not be allowed to make a public speech, and warned that it would not add any to Dr. Wm. Blackstone’s happiness, for him to slap public sentiment in the face. But warnings and threats only intensified the doctor’s bitterness, and strengthened his determination to have [Weed] come to Waverly and enlighten us as to the iniquity of the national crime we were sustaining in upholding slavery….”

Weed arrived the night before his first scheduled lecture. That evening, according to Emmitt, his opponents broke into Blackstone’s stable – they clipped the mane from Weed’s horse and shaved off all of its hair. They took Weed’s buggy and smeared it with excrement. The following morning, a mob gathered outside Blackstone’s house. According to Emmitt, the leader of the mob yelled: “I tell you, Blackstone, the unanimous sentiment of the people is agin this thing. You’ve imported [an outsider] into Pike County to teach seditious doctrine. …. And I tell you, Blackstone, the loyal people ain’t going to stand it. Do you expect us to stand here and listen to a traitorous [abolitionist] telling us what is right and what is wrong? Do you think we’re going to let [this] fanatic lead us around by the nose and give us good advice, and tell us just what an iniquitous, miserable lot of scalawags we are? …. We’re here to tell you that that man isn’t here to preach for our good. And we are here to tell you that that man can’t make a speech here today. We are fully determined on that.”

The leader of the mob then told Blackstone: “That man … is a traitor and here for a traitor’s purpose; and the sooner he gets out of this community, the better it will be for Dr. William Blackstone” and his unwelcome guest. With the cheers of the crowd behind him, he continued: “The best thing you can do for your nigger-loving friend, Blackstone, is to get him out of the country, just as soon as it is possible to jump the border.”

At this point, Blackstone emerged from his house and declared that his guest would speak “if he had to wade in blood knee deep to protect him.” The mob’s leader responded: “If that man attempts to make a speech here today … we’ll pull down the last log in the house over your head. If you think you can defy the sentiment of this community, just let that traitorous [abolitionist] attempt to make a speech. I say attempt, because he’ll never finish it. Now, we give [your guest] just fifteen minutes to get outside of the city limits, and five hours to leave the county.” According to Emmitt, this threat led Blackstone to give in and Rev. Weed fled out a back door and to his horse, which he quickly road off upon without a saddle or any of his belongings. As he galloped down the road towards Piketon, the young children of the town were waiting with rotten eggs, with which they pelted the young minister – what Emmitt called “a fitting, loud-smelling, farewell salute.”

Judge Samuel Reed

Emmitt’s account underplays his own role and misrepresents how the standoff was actually resolved. According to a letter later published in the Chillicothe Gazette, Samuel Reed, a former Associate Judge of the Court Common Pleas in Pike County, negotiated Weed’s peaceful exit. Reed, who was later accused of being an abolitionist for his role in the affair, defended his actions, stating that he “went and reasoned with [the leaders of the mob] on the impropriety of using any force, it being in direct violation of law – and proposed that, if they would use no violence to the persons or property of any of the citizens, I would persuade Weed to leave the place, which he did….”

With the intervention of Judge Reed, the Reverend Weed fled to Piketon, where he spent the night in the home of another supporter before leaving the county the following morning. While there he wrote a letter to his new wife, who at the time was living near Cincinnati: “Much violence is abroad in the land. For the last four days” – Weed had apparently lectured in Waverly, contrary to the account provided by Emmitt – “I have been in the midst of an infuriated mob who were seeking my life. But the Lord has delivered me out of their hand. …. Now, while I am writing, there are men all around thirsting for my blood, and would kill me, if they had a good opportunity, as soon as they would a snake! Pray for me, that I may, in patience, possess my soul, and be ready to depart whenever God calls. We have fallen upon perilous times; law is prostrate, God alone must be our shield and protector. The crisis is not yet come, but is fast approaching. I say, with all my soul, let it come; I may fall, but truth must and will triumph”

The crisis would come at the village of Sinking Spring and Edward Weed would live to tell about it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Reverend Weed

This past April, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Beaver Valley Historical Society Annual Heritage Banquet, which was held in the auditorium of Eastern High School in Pike County. Jim Henry, an officer in the Society and columnist with the Pike County News Watchman, arranged the invitation and made sure that I was not only well-fed, but welcomed into their community. I chose for my topic the anti-abolition mobs of Pike County in the 1830s.

As part of my research for my book project, which is tentatively entitled, "Southerners in the Promised Land: The Lower Scioto River Valley in the Early American Republic," I had been looking into the activities of valley abolitionists. To my surprise, I discovered a thoroughly fascinating story that has long been overlooked by local historians, as well as by scholars of the antislavery movement.

Below is the first installment of my talk, “When Reverend Weed Came to Town.” Over the coming days more will follow.

Part I

In the early fall of 1836, reports began to appear in Ohio papers and later in national newspapers, such as the Boston Courier and the Washington Globe, that a mob in southern Ohio had attacked the Reverend Edward Weed, who had come to the region to speak in favor of the abolition of slavery. According to the reports, after the mob had offered him “some indignities,” “Mr. Weed soon after left town, was followed by the mob, his wagon broken to pieces, his horse killed, and at length himself suspended to a tree by a rope … until he was dead.”

The reports of Rev. Weed’s lynching eventually made it back to the region’s most influential newspaper, the Chillicothe Gazette. The editor of the Gazette decided to set the record straight.

Rev. Edward Weed

While it was true that the Rev. Weed had visited the area earlier in the summer and there had been some “outbreaking of popular passion” against his lectures, there was no truth to the story of his lynching. “Mr Weed himself,” assured the Gazette’s editor, had been in Chillicothe less than a week ago, attending a regional meeting of Presbyterian ministers. Rev. Weed was alive and well and still traveling in the region. The Gazette’s editor distanced the people of Chillicothe from the residents of Pike County, where Weed’s lectures had generated, in his words, a “disturbance.” “The peaceable community of Chillicothe, although generally opposed to Abolitionism, have, during the whole history of this exciting topic, kept aloof from any outbreaking of popular passion. No part of it would ever permit transactions such as” a lynching of an abolitionist speaker “to transpire within our borders.”

As we shall see, while it is true that Rev. Weed was never lynched and lived to tell his tale of the anti-abolition mobs of Pike County, his visit to the region did end in the death of one Pike county resident. A member of the mob that had risen up against Weed would die as a result of wounds suffered when resisting arrest for his role in the anti-abolition riots that followed Weed from Waverly to Piketon and on to the small village of Sinking Spring, just over the border, in Highland County.

At the time of his rumored untimely demise Edward Weed had just celebrated his 29th birthday. Born in the town of North Stamford, Connecticut, Edward’s ancestry was pure Puritan. At the age of ten, he and his family moved to a newly settled region of upstate New York, where he was swept up in one of the numerous evangelical revivals that covered the region in the 1820s. His biographer wrote that Edward “believed, if God call him to preach, he would make the way plain, and provide the means. He left his trade, and began to use such facilities for the improvement of his mind, as he could obtain.” He eventually enrolled in the Oneida Institute, at the time, a new college in Whitestown, New York, which allowed students to pay their tuition and board by working for the college. After four years of study and work, Weed was among the first graduating class. From there he decided to head west to Cincinnati, to attend Lane Theological Seminary, a newly established evangelical institution that was largely under the control of evangelical Presbyterians. Lane’s first president was the Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher of Boston, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Lane Seminary, near Cincinnati, Ohio

It was at Lane Seminary that Edward Weed became a committed abolitionist – a supporter of an immediate end to slavery. In 1834, the seminary’s literary society hosted a debate on whether or not slavery should be abolished immediately within the bounds of the United States; the debate came on the heels of the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire in 1833. The overwhelming response from the student body and much of the faculty was in support of an immediate abolition. White Americans, even in the South, had long tolerated talk of an eventual, gradual emancipation, with the understanding that such an emancipation was so far off in the distance that the current generation of Americans need not seriously concern themselves with the problem. The demands of an immediate emancipation, however, was considered downright dangerous by a large segment of white America, both in the South and in the North. In the Border States of the North, place like Ohio, talk of an immediate emancipation generated vocal and at times violent opposition.

Lane Seminary President Beecher and his institution’s Board of Trustee’s were concerned that the financial backing and local community support for their new school would collapse if Lane became known as a hotbed of abolitionism. The school administration ordered an end to the debates and forbid its students from joining abolitionist organizations. Many of the students at that point withdrew from Lane. Some of the so-called Lane Rebels transferred to Oberlin College. Others, like Edward Weed, entered the ministry and joined the ranks of traveling agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society, the national immediate abolitionist organization that had been founded by men like William Lloyd Garrison and the Rev. John Rankin of Ripley, in southern Ohio.

The controversy at Lane signaled the beginning of a series of confrontations between the opponents of slavery and those who wanted to silence any public discussion of the abolition question.

Historians have long focused their attention on anti-abolition riots in Cincinnati, as well as in Boston, Massachusetts, where, for example William Lloyd Garrison was dragged through the streets with a noose around his neck and nearly hung before his supporters succeeded in freeing him. In Cincinnati, at the same time that Mr. Weed was touring south-central Ohio, a mob twice attacked and destroyed the press and offices of an abolitionist newspaper edited by James G. Birney. Historians have also focused on the murder of another antislavery editor – Elijah P. Lovejoy -- and the destruction of his press at Alton, Illinois, just across the river form St. Louis, Missouri.

The murder of Lovejoy is one of the most famous acts of violence against a free press in American history and that is why when I first came across the reports that an abolitionist named Rev. Edward Weed had been lynched by a mob in southern Ohio, I was quite surprised. I wondered how could Weed’s story have been left out of our history books? Why weren’t the anti-abolitionist mobs of Pike county, Ohio, as infamous, as those of Alton, Illinois? It is because Weed, in fact, was not lynched, and his encounter with the Pike County mob was overshadowed by the events in Cincinnati that occurred at the same moment in time.