Remembering 1858: The Ladder

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This is the fourth (and final) 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.

One hundred and sixty years have passed since John Price was abducted in Oberlin and subsequently liberated in Wellington. In that time, the story of his rescue has been embellished by a persistent myth, namely that Price was spirited away from Wadsworth’s hotel via a ladder raised to the attic fanlight window from a second-story balcony.

It is easy to see how such a myth arose. The 1859 trial transcripts are filled with references to ladders being raised against the hotel, as tense and disorderly members of the crowd (some of whom had come to town only to observe the fire, and were intoxicated) tried to learn what was happening inside the garret where Price was being held. At least one witness inside the room testified that he thought the window had been opened during the final rush to free Price, but defense attorneys—and all the other hotel witnesses—countered that while the window may have been broken that day by a ladder laid against it, no person actually ascended and entered the room by that route.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the slave catchers had moved Price to a remote third-floor area of the hotel, accessible only by a wooden staircase so narrow and minimal in construction that it resembled a ladder. The Spirit of ’76 Museum acquired what was purported to be the original staircase in 1970, and displayed it for many years.

Regardless, it is altogether fitting that a ladder should figure so prominently in the story of John Price and his struggle for freedom. One of the most powerful African-American spirituals ever developed in the antebellum United States is We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, a yearning anthem of rising to God and escaping the chains of bondage. Its call-and-response lyrics are simple yet haunting.

We are (We are)
Climbing (Climbing)
Jacob’s ladder
We are (We are)
Climbing (Climbing)
Jacob’s ladder
We are (We are)
Climbing (Climbing)
Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers (soldiers)
of the cross

Ladder Henes pg. 31

Ernst Henes, “Historic Wellington Then and Now,” pg. 31.

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