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.

1 comment:

  1. this is a good and interesting vein. there are some anecdotal stories of underground railroad activity thru portsmouth as well