Two escaped slaves from Kentucky touched off riots in Detroit and set an international legal precedent
Detroit Sheriff John M. Wilson glanced anxiously upward. From the courtroom balcony came the sounds of angry muttering and restless shuffling. Peering down over the railing were dozens of black faces.
Before him stood a young couple, well-dressed and respectful toward Judge Henry Chipman, who occupied the bench of the Wayne County Courthouse that Saturday morning in 1833. Thornton Blackburn, 21, and his beautiful wife, Ruthie, some nine years his senior, were accused of being fugitives from slavery. According to Michigan law, those claimed as runaways had to prove themselves entitled to free status before a judge or magistrate. While no black could testify on his or her own behalf against a white claimant, the law guaranteed a legal defense to ensure that the genuinely free could not be carried off to a life of bondage. After all, slave catchers, the unscrupulous bounty hunters who captured runaways and returned them to their Southern owners, had been known to kidnap free blacks and sell them into slavery. Detroit city attorney Alexander D. Frazier was tasked with defending the accused.
Despite an impassioned defense by Frazier, the case was not going well for the Blackburns. They had been unable to produce certificates of manumission, the documentation registered in a local courthouse when a Southern slave was legally freed by his or her owner. On the other hand, the Kentucky attorney employed by the Blackburns’ owners, Benjamin G. Weir, and Talbot Clayton Oldham, the nephew of Thornton’s owner who had traveled to Detroit to identify him, had presented signed affidavits stating that the Blackburns were both “fugitives from labor.”
The Blackburns had lived in Detroit for two years after a harrowing escape from Kentucky. Ruthie had been auctioned off to a Louisville merchant named Virgil McKnight—who was suspected of buying groups of Kentucky slaves to then sell to Southern markets. The couple fled in a bold and incredibly dangerous escape in broad daylight. Traveling up the Ohio River by steamboat as far as Cincinnati, they reached free soil on July 4, Independence Day, 1831, before continuing on to Michigan Territory where they settled down. Thornton had trained as a stonemason in his youth and soon found employment. The couple became both respected and popular in Detroit’s tiny black community.
Shortly after the fugitives reached Michigan, a Louisville native visiting Detroit had recognized Thornton Blackburn on the street. Thomas Rogers knew that Blackburn was Susan Brown’s escaped slave but, inexplicably, he withheld information about his discovery for almost two years. When he finally disclosed the Blackburns’ whereabouts in late May 1833, Judge John Pope Oldham, Brown’s brother-in-law, and McKnight hired Weir, a prominent lawyer and member of the Louisville City Council, to travel to Detroit and present their claim to the Blackburns before the Michigan courts.
Weir and Judge Oldham’s son, Talbot, arrived in Detroit on June 13 and demanded the return of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn. Judge Chipman had little choice in the matter. The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 required that he hand the hapless couple over to their claimants. Likewise, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which forbade slavery north and west of the Ohio River, guaranteed that Southern fugitives apprehended in those territories would be returned to their owners. Runaway slaves like the Blackburns faced terrible punishment: Whippings, brandings and mutilation were well-known consequences of flight. Then, most likely, one or both of them would be “sold down the river.” Thousands of Kentucky slaves, worth less in the cooler climate of that border state than in the great markets at the mouth of the Mississippi River, had been sold over the years to feed the unending appetite of King Cotton for labor.
Black Detroit was incensed at the prospect. When Judge Chipman pronounced his fateful sentence sending the Blackburns back to bondage, the mood turned ugly. Observers in the courtroom that day later testified that the blacks there threatened to burn Detroit to the ground.
Weir and Oldham had booked passage for themselves and the Blackburns on the steamboat Ohio, scheduled to leave for Buffalo the next day, Sunday. Legally, the Detroit courts and keepers of the peace had no further responsibility in the matter. But Sheriff Wilson quite rightly feared the rising racial tension in the city and took the unprecedented step of incarcerating the Blackburns in the city jail. He then set about convincing Ohio’s captain to delay sailing until Monday afternoon when most in the black community would be back at work.
Wilson’s actions further enraged blacks in the city. They considered him to be acting in the interests of the slaveholders, above and beyond his responsibilities as sheriff. Furthermore, rumors spread that both Wilson and the city jailer, Lemuel Goodall, had been promised $50 by Weir for the safe delivery of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn to the docks.
By the early 1830s, there were already numerous former slaves living in the nominally free territory of Michigan. Detroit was an important station on what would soon be called the Underground Railroad. If the judge and sheriff willingly handed over the Blackburns to slave agents, then no black man, woman or child living in Michigan Territory was safe. The more militant elements of the community immediately armed themselves and took to the streets.
Angry crowds milled around the jail on Gratiot Street well into Saturday evening. People came from as far away as Fort Malden, Upper Canada, to lend their support. The sheriff ’s deputy, Alexander McArthur, later testified:
There were assembled around the said jail a large number of blacks and mulattoes armed with sticks, clubs, knives, pistols, swords, and other unlawful weapons avowing with loud threats their determination to rescue the said Prisoner Thornton Blackburn then in the custody of the said John M. Wilson, Sheriff of the said County. The Sheriff…endeavored reasoning with them to persuade them to disperse, but without effect, they telling him that they expected some of them would be killed but that they were determined to rescue the prisoner at all hazards.
Saturday night, after the case had been decided, concerned men and women met at the home of respected local businessman Benjamin Willoughby. Willoughby was an emancipated slave from Kentucky who had lived very close to the place Thornton had been born. He brought his family to Detroit in about 1826, and he and his wife wielded considerable influence within the black community.
Several other people who would later become leaders in the Underground Railroad activities along the Detroit River shore were also present: Madison J. Lightfoot and his wife, Tabitha; George and Caroline French; and John Cook, who owned a profitable hairdressing establishment that served a largely white clientele. Frazier, the white attorney who had defended the Blackburns, and his friend Charles Cleland, the white publisher of the Detroit Courier and also an attorney, were there, too. The group hatched a daring plot to rescue the Blackburns and, at the same time, send a strong message to Michigan’s territorial government that returning fugitive slaves to bondage would not be tolerated.
The next day, Sunday, June 16, crowds of armed blacks flocked to the district near the jail. They also gathered at the steamboat docks at the foot of Randolph Street where Ohio bobbed gently at its berth. That afternoon, Tabitha Lightfoot and Caroline French approached Sheriff Wilson. Could they possibly visit Mrs. Blackburn in her cell to pray with her and comfort her before her journey? Wilson, concerned about the possibility of civil unrest, quite likely saw granting the visit as one means for diffusing the tension and agreed.
It was well after dark when two very distressed ladies, covering their faces with veils as they wept, emerged from the jail and hurried home. When the jailer entered Ruthie Blackburn’s cell the next morning, he found Caroline French in her place. The editor of the Detroit Courier of June 19 wrote, “By a contrivance that demonstrates that Negroes are not wholly wanting in shrewdness, the female was rescued from jail on Sunday evening and made her escape to Canada where she is now.” It was later revealed that she had been taken across the Detroit River on the advice of Frazier, who had visited the Blackburns in their cells and informed them that their only safety lay in reaching the British colony of Upper Canada.
When Weir and Talbot Oldham learned of Blackburn’s flight, they approached Judge Chipman to claim Mrs. French in lieu of their rightful prisoner. They intended to sell her as a slave so Ruthie Blackburn’s owner, McKnight, could recoup his losses. Fortunately for French, her husband George and Madison Lightfoot worked at the popular Steamboat Hotel in downtown Detroit. Many members of the legal profession frequented the hotel bar, including Judge Charles Larned, who sympathized with French’s situation. Larned immediately issued a writ of habeas corpus protecting French and she was freed, but she soon crossed the river and remained in Canada for some months after the incident.
By now, Ruthie Blackburn was safely ensconced with friends at Amherstburg in what is now Ontario, but her husband still remained in prison awaiting his imminent return to slavery.
About 4 o’clock on the same day that Ruthie’s escape was discovered, Monday, June 17, Thornton was brought in chains to the door of the jail flanked by Sheriff Wilson and Jailer Goodall. Deputy McArthur and Oldham were also present; Weir had already boarded Ohio. Only a few black men and women were outside the jail, but they were armed and very agitated.
One account, published years later in the February 7, 1870, Detroit Daily Post and probably much embellished, presents an inspiring image of what happened as the carriage arrived to take Thornton to the docks. A crowd of about 200 angry blacks marched up Gratiot Street toward the jail. At their head strode an elderly woman carrying a stake with a white rag tied around it and pointed forward like a spear. The sheriff tried to take the prisoner back inside the jail, but Thornton offered to calm the crowd. Oldham, who had grown up with his aunt’s former slave, said that he thought Blackburn might have more influence than would the sheriff. As Thornton came forward, a black man in the crowd tossed him a pistol and said, “Shoot the rascal,” meaning Wilson, who then tried to wrest the gun from his prisoner. Thornton fired in the air, igniting what came to be known as the Blackburn Riots of 1833, the first racial riots in Detroit history.
Although no one suspected it at the time, the whole event had been carefully orchestrated. Well-known local blacks such as the Lightfoots, Frenches and Willoughbys stayed in the background while a daring group of young men prepared to grab Thornton and carry him off to a boat waiting by the river. All but one were fugitive slaves themselves, and all were readily identified by Wilson and the other officials. The rescuers knew that if they were successful in rescuing Thornton, they could never return from the Upper Canadian shore.
Eminent Detroit historian Norman McRae pieced together the following account of the riot:
Seeing Blackburn in difficulty, members of the mob attacked Sheriff Wilson, while Lewis Austin took Blackburn into the stagecoach that was waiting to transport Blackburn, his captor and the sheriff to the dock. Earlier several women had removed the linchpin from the vehicle in order to disable it. As a result Blackburn was kept inside the coach until two elderly blacks, Daddy Grace and Sleepy Polly, could remove him. Then… Blackburn was placed into a horse-drawn cart that disappeared into the nearby woods.
Considering discretion the better part of valor, Goodall, Oldham and McArthur retreated into the jail, leaving Wilson to face the furious crowd alone. The sheriff fired several shots in an effort to halt the violence, but he was pulled to the ground and terribly beaten. Afterward, Wilson could remember little of the day’s events, and he died of his injuries a year later. Neither did the rescuers all escape unscathed. According to the Detroit Daily Post’s 1870 retrospective edition—published at the time that Michigan blacks were finally awarded the right to vote—“One Negro, named Louis Austin, was shot in the breast, the ball penetrating the lung, and lodging in the shoulder blade….After two years of long suffering, Louis died, attributing his death to the effects of the wound.”
The Daily Post also gave the following description of the escape in which Daddy Grace (or Daddy Walker, accounts vary) took center stage. The numbers are much exaggerated, with most contemporary accounts recording that only 30 or 40 people actually took part in the fray.
During the melee, an old colored man, named “Daddy Walker,” who, with his cart and a blind horse, had been impressed into the service, backed up his vehicle to the jail steps, while an old colored woman by the name of “Sleepy Polly,” and who never before nor after showed signs of activity, seized hold of Blackburn and dragged him into the cart….Daddy Walker, and the mob, which had been swelled to 400 or 500 persons, immediately drove, post-haste, up Gratiot road with the evident intention of turning toward the river as soon as practicable….
The driver was somewhat reluctant about his task, but a Negro in the cart, holding a drawn sword over his head, urged him and his blind horse to respectable speed. The crowd continued to push up Gratiot road and in answer to inquiries whither the fugitive had been taken, pointed forward and said, “further on.” But the cart entered the woods on the north side of the road, about where Russell street now is, and disappeared.
The sound of barking dogs alerted the Blackburn party that a posse had been formed and was in pursuit. They devised a clever ruse to put the dogs off the scent. Sending Daddy Grace and his cart off in one direction as a decoy, the rescuers broke the manacles on Thornton’s feet with an axe and wrapped his chains in bandanas to stop them from rattling. Together they ran through the woods toward the river. They paid the waiting boatman with a gold watch and were safely conveyed across to Sandwich (now part of Windsor), Upper Canada.
Back in Detroit, all was chaos. General Friend Palmer was a youthful eyewitness to the event. “Great excitement ensued; the Presbyterian Church bell rang an alarm, the cry ‘To Arms’ was shouted through the streets and men with guns, pistols and swords were seen coming from all directions,” Palmer wrote in 1906. Wilson lay bleeding and alone on the jailhouse steps until McArthur, Goodall and Oldham ventured out to bring the sheriff inside and dress his wounds. There they remained until the entire mob had dispersed, about 8 o’clock that night.
In the aftermath of the riot, many of the city’s African- American residents were rounded up and jailed. Their cases were heard before the mayor’s court. Those who were judged innocent still had to provide bail to ensure their good behavior, and then they were freed. At least 10 men, including the aged Daddy Grace, were sentenced to hard labor and served several months in municipal roadwork gangs.
Madison Lightfoot and George French, surely the ringleaders of the plot along with Willoughby, were incarcerated for only a short time, even though Lightfoot was suspected of supplying Thornton with the pistol. Upon his release, French crossed to Upper Canada and remained there with his wife for months; he later returned to Detroit. No suspicion seems to have fallen on the Willoughbys or on Cook, and their names were never mentioned in formal records of the affair. Tabitha Lightfoot was fined $25 as “the prime mover of the riot,” a charge she did not dispute.
A curfew was maintained in Detroit for some weeks, and the militia, under War of 1812 veteran General John Williams, was charged with patrolling the streets. Lewis Cass, a former governor of Michigan and President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, happened to be in town when the incident occurred. He declared martial law and called out federal troops from Fort Gratiot to assist the militia.
Rumors abounded. It was widely believed that blacks from Upper Canada (what is now Ontario) were planning to cross the river en masse and invade Detroit. Contemporary letters attested to the fear felt by the white citizens and made comparisons to the early days of Michigan Territory, when they worried about Indian attacks. A night watch of 16 men was appointed, with orders not to allow any black person to approach the Detroit River bank. Their only catches were a smuggler plying his clandestine trade along the river and the mayor himself who was prowling the streets in search of miscreants and was apprehended by an overzealous picket.
There was a terrible backlash against black Detroiters for the community’s support of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn. People were attacked in the streets, and homes were burned to the ground. Many blacks sold their property for less than it was worth or simply abandoned what they had and fled across the river to Upper Canada. Detroit lost all but a few of its black residents as a result of the 1833 riots and their aftermath, and the population did not again increase until after 1837, when Michigan became a state and ratified a constitution repudiating slavery and safeguarding personal liberty.
Immediately after the riots, Detroit’s municipal government established a citizens’ committee to investigate the events. Its report was published in the Detroit Journal and Advertiser of Friday, July 19, 1833, and included resolutions that reaffirmed support for the federal law regarding fugitive slaves:
That while we hold personal liberty to be a sacred and unalienable right, yet when the property of the master is clearly proven in the slave, it becomes our duty to see that the laws be maintained and that no riotous mob be allowed to violate them.
The report also acknowledged the role of Canadian authorities:
Resolved: that we duly appreciate the prompt and efficient measures adopted by the Civil Authority of the Province of Upper Canada and by our British neighbors in arresting and securing the negroes concerned in the riotous proceedings which occurred in this city.
That statement referred to the fact that the mayor of Detroit had sent a letter to the sheriff of the Western District in Upper Canada, whose administrative center was at Sandwich, demanding the arrest of Thornton Blackburn and his rescuers on the grounds that they had incited a riot and tried to kill the Wayne County sheriff. Blackburn and his friends were arrested and jailed, and Ruthie Blackburn was also taken into custody.
What followed was the first extradition case between Canada and the United States over the thorny issue of fugitive slaves. Sir John Colborne, Upper Canada’s abolitionist lieutenant governor, and his attorney general, Robert Simpson Jameson, defended the Blackburns on the grounds that even if they were acquitted of the criminal charges in Michigan, they would still be condemned to a lifetime of slavery. Canada, under British colonial law, could not extradite people to a jurisdiction that imposed harsher penalties than they would have received for the same offense in Canada. Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn remained in Ontario, and the landmark decision set the precedent for all future runaway slave disputes. More than any other incident, the Blackburn case established Upper Canada as the main terminus of the fabled Underground Railroad.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.