Remembering 1858: The Event

This is the first in a series of posts that will feature the label text from a small exhibit currently on display in Wellington’s downtown, commemorating the capture and rescue of John Price on September 13, 1858. A photo of the display can be seen here.

When the residents of Wellington awoke on Monday, September 13, 1858, they cannot have known what an extraordinary day it would be in history of the village. The first thing many people would have noticed when they went out into the warm, clear morning was an enormous cloud of billowing black smoke rising from the town center. The businesses on the west side of Main Street were ablaze, and as Wellington had no fire department, every able-bodied man who could started toward the disaster to help. By mid-morning, some three hundred people were in the square, frantically passing buckets of water or moving the contents of burning stores out of harm’s way.

What they did not realize, as they struggled to contain this local emergency, was that a situation was unfolding barely ten miles away that would soon pull the village into the center of a national controversy. In nearby Oberlin that morning, a young black man called John Price was abducted by a group of men who believed him to be a runaway slave from Kentucky. The men paid a local child to act as a decoy and lure Price outside of town with an offer of paid employment. They captured him and transported him by carriage to Wellington. They planned to take the 5:13PM train that ran south to Columbus, and from there to Cincinnati and on to Kentucky.

The slave catchers arrived with Price in Wellington sometime after 1PM. Though they were surprised by the crowd congregating outdoors—some of whom were celebrating the extinguishing of the fire by becoming intoxicated—they proceeded as planned into the large brick building at the center of town known as Wadsworth’s hotel.

By 2PM, word had gotten back to Oberlin that a young man had been kidnapped from their community. Crowds of people, including students and professors from the college, began gathering. They left Oberlin in small groups, in carriages and wagons, on horseback, even on foot if they could not find other transportation. The journey was just nine miles, but the undulating dirt road made for an average travel time of up to one hour.

After openly eating lunch in the public dining room, with John Price in tow to prevent his escape, the slave catchers decided it might be more prudent to maintain a lower profile. They asked hotel keeper Oliver Wadsworth to relocate them from the second floor to a more inaccessible part of the hotel. He took them up a narrow, ladder-like staircase to a garret under the eaves of the hotel roof. It was a dark and cramped part of the building, which became even gloomier as afternoon turned into early evening.

As people from Oberlin began to arrive in the village square, they mingled with the fire crowd and spread the word that a young man had been kidnapped and was being held inside the hotel. Witnesses estimated that as many as five hundred people eventually gathered. Some reported seeing weapons, though none were ultimately used that day.

Wellington’s constable, Barnabas Meachum, heard that a kidnapping victim was being held in the hotel and went to the nearby town hall to secure a warrant to arrest the kidnappers. When he attempted to serve the warrant on the men from Kentucky, he discovered that they were being assisted by a deputy marshal and deputy sheriff from Columbus. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, any slave owner could take steps to apprehend a runaway anywhere in the country, and any person asked for assistance in the capture—regardless of their stance on slavery—was legally required to comply.

All afternoon, people passed in and out of the hotel. Wellington lawyer Joseph Dickson and Justices of the Peace Isaac Bennet and William Howk were all asked to mediate the dispute. The crowd was increasingly agitated, not necessarily because they all wished to see Price liberated. Some witnesses later testified that they simply wanted action after waiting for hours in the heat of the day and the fire. The ongoing drinking also contributed to a rising commotion around the hotel; people inside commented on the constant noise of the crowd shouting and whistling.

Rumors spread that troops were coming on the 5:13PM train, to escort Price and his captors safely to Columbus. When the train arrived and no troops disembarked, it seemed to energize those who wanted to free Price. Small groups of men from Oberlin rushed the front and rear doors of the hotel. They pushed their way to the second floor and were able to press into the garret where Price was held. A few men encircled him, rushing him outside and putting him into a carriage that immediately bolted north. Price’s terrifying ordeal had lasted six hours. The crowd dispersed as the sun began to set.

In the months to come, Wellington and Oberlin would find themselves at the center of legal proceedings that inflamed the nation. Thirty-seven men were indicted on charges of violating the Fugitive Slave Act and became known as the “Rescuers.” Twelve were from Wellington or its adjacent townships. Federal prosecutors were intent on making an example of famously abolitionist Oberlin; the U. S. District Attorney told some of the Wellington men that “he did not consider them in reality responsible for the Rescue.” Indeed, it is unclear why some of the men were charged at all. Author Nat Brandt speculated that almost all the Wellington indicted were singled out because they were “known” conductors on the Underground Railroad, but he offered no evidence to support that claim. The biographical details of the men’s lives, and the testimony offered in court about their actions on September 13th, do not seem to support that theory. Ultimately, most of the men from Wellington pled no contest to the charges against them and paid small fines. Four completed short jail terms and so appear in the famous 1859 jail yard photograph of the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers.”

There is no known historical record of what happened to John Price, of how or where he passed the remainder of his life.

Cleveland Morning Leader, 9.16.1858. pg. 2

“Cleveland Morning Leader,” 9-16-1858, pg. 2.

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