Category Archives: Oberlin

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.

Remembering 1858: The Timeline

This is the third 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.

NOTE: All times are approximate and based on testimony offered in the 1859 trials.

12PM
John Price is abducted by a group of three armed men about one to two miles northeast of Oberlin. The men place Price in their buggy, and head south down what is today Hallauer Road, to reach Wellington in time for the late afternoon train to Columbus. The slave catchers want to escape public notice so avoid passing directly through Oberlin, but are spotted en route by people heading there, who alert the town to what has happened.

1PM
The buggy containing Price and his captors arrives in Wellington at Wadsworth’s hotel, the public house at the center of the village. The slave catchers eat in the hotel’s public dining room, keeping their prisoner with them to prevent his escape.

Anderson Jennings of Kentucky, leader of the slave catchers, is notified in Oberlin that the abduction was a success. He eats lunch, then departs for Wellington to meet the group at Wadsworth’s.

2PM
Word has reached downtown Oberlin that a group of slave catchers has abducted John Price and taken him toward Wellington. Groups of local residents, students and professors prepare to head south to liberate Price in vehicles, on horseback, and on foot. It is a nine-mile journey that can take upwards of one hour to complete, even in a wheeled conveyance.

Anderson Jennings arrives at Wadsworth’s hotel. The town square has approximately 300 people in it, watching the cleanup of a massive morning fire on the west side of South Main Street. The crowd is boisterous and, in some cases, intoxicated. Jennings fears trouble and asks hotel keeper Oliver Wadsworth to relocate his group from the second floor to a more isolated third-floor attic.

3PM
Small groups of people from Oberlin begin arriving in Wellington. As word spreads that a young man has been abducted and is being held in the hotel, public focus gradually shifts from the smoldering buildings on the west side of the square, to the hotel on its east side. Witnesses later estimate that 500 people ultimately surround Wadsworth’s hotel.

John Price is brought out onto the second-floor balcony and instructed by his captors to tell the crowd that he is returning to slavery willingly. Some in the crowd aim weapons at the slave catchers and urge Price to jump to safety; he is quickly pulled back inside the hotel.

4PM
In an effort to calm the crowd and demonstrate what they believe to be their legal right to hold Price, the slave catchers speak with several local officials, including Constable Barnabas Meacham, lawyer Joseph Dickson, and Justices of the Peace Isaac Bennet and William Howk. Little information from these exchanges reaches the crowd outside, which is increasingly agitated and impatient for action.

5:13PM
The regularly scheduled train from Cleveland arrives. Rumors have circulated through the crowd that troops from the Cleveland Grays may be on board to assist the slave catchers in carrying Price to Columbus, but no troops disembark. The train departs on time, without the slave catchers or Price onboard.

6PM
Groups comprised of Oberlin students and residents rush the front and rear doors of Wadsworth’s hotel. A few men force their way into the garret room where Price is being held, encircle him, and quickly remove him from the building. Anderson Jennings is knocked back from the door, but no other violence occurs. Price is placed in a buggy waiting in the center of Wellington’s village square, and rapidly driven north to Oberlin, where he is placed into hiding. The crowd soon disperses.

Remembering 1858: The Wellington Indicted

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This is the second 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.

Eli Boies
Eli Boies was born in Massachusetts in 1800, making him fifty-eight years old at the time of the Rescue. He emigrated to Ohio in 1842 and practiced medicine with Dr. Daniel Johns, the man credited with bringing the railroad to Wellington in 1850. Boies was also the proprietor of the short-lived Wellington Journal (1852) with his friend, merchant John Reed. Both men were dedicated members of the abolitionist Free Congregational Church.

Boies is mentioned in one only instance in the transcripts of the Rescue trials. Justice of the Peace William Howk testified that he “heard Doctor Boies advising [the crowd outside the hotel] to quiet.” Boies was one of four Wellington men who served time in the county jail, twenty-one days in total. He was released on $500 bail. His wife, Lydia, later wrote a letter about her life in Wellington, in which she noted, “[T]he Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, which awakened great indignation, and also sympathy for the fleeing slave, who found no rest or safty until safe in Canada, though destitute of every thing…”

Eli Boies served in multiple public offices, including being appointed village supervisor while he was completing his jail term. He died in 1863 and is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery. He is the only Wellington rescuer for whom a studio portrait is known to survive, and also appears in the famous 1859 jail yard portrait.

Robert L. Cummings
Little is known about Robert Cummings. He is mentioned in only one instance in the transcripts of the Rescue trials. James Bonney, an employee of Wadsworth’s hotel, testified that around 4PM, he was approached “in the hall up the first flight of stairs” by school teacher Charles Langston and “Cummins,” who offered him $5 to get the key to the locked front door of the hall. Bonney refused.

Cummings is notable mainly for his absences. He was the only Wellington rescuer not to enter a plea at the December 1858 arraignment hearings; he did not appear for the first time in the Cleveland courtroom until the following spring. He was also the only indicted man from Wellington/Pittsfield who did not attend the so-called “Felon’s Feast” in Oberlin, in January 1859. Cummings was one of four Wellington men who pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) on May 6, 1859. He was ordered to pay $20 plus court costs, and serve one day in jail. He spent the night in a Cleveland hotel.

Matthew DeWolf
Matthew DeWolf was born in Massachusetts in 1792. He and his family emigrated to Ohio in 1827. (DeWolf’s sister, Pamelia, was married to Abner Loveland, making the two rescuers brothers-in-law.) While his first occupation in Wellington was as a school teacher, DeWolf soon opened a temperance tavern at the center of the village, which also served as its first Congregational Church. An 1834 psalter with his inscription still survives.

On the day of John Price’s abduction, Matthew DeWolf was assisting with battling a large fire in Wellington. Abner Loveland and Loring Wadsworth were standing with him in the town square as events came to a head at Wadsworth’s hotel. The three men urged Constable Barnabas Meacham to enter the building and serve a warrant for kidnapping on the slave catchers holding Price. Meacham was concerned about his financial liability under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act; if he helped John Price to escape in what was later found to be an unlawful arrest, Meacham could be subject to severe financial penalties and even jail time. Matthew DeWolf’s only recorded action that afternoon was to help circulate an indemnity bond—essentially asking people in the crowd to make pledges against any financial loss Meacham might suffer—but few people were willing to sign.

DeWolf, Loveland and Loring Wadsworth pled nolo contendere (no contest) to the charges against them. All were fined $20 plus court costs and sentenced to one day in jail. The Cleveland Leader published a passionate condemnation of their convictions and noted, “No fugitive from slavery ever went unfed from their hospitable homes,” suggesting the involvement of all three men with the Underground Railroad. Matthew DeWolf died in 1865 and is buried in Pioneer Cemetery.

Matthew Gillett
“Father” Gillett, the most venerated of the Wellington indicted, was born in Connecticut in 1785, making him seventy-two years old at the time of the Rescue. Gillett was a farmer with more than sixty acres producing crops and supporting cattle and sheep herds. His role on the day of John Price’s abduction was relatively minor. Like all of the oldest Wellington rescuers, he never entered Wadsworth’s hotel on September 13th. Instead, he approached keeper Oliver Wadsworth and encouraged him to allow other people to enter the building, to verify whether John Price was being held legally. When Wadsworth objected that a large group of people would likely damage his facilities, Gillett suggested a smaller delegation and the keeper eventually agreed.

What Gillett became justly famous for was his fortitude. Sent to the country jail with twenty other rescuers on April 15th, Gillett of all the Wellington men refused to cut a deal with prosecutors to secure his own release. He remained in custody for nearly a month, so long that federal authorities became concerned for his health. It was not until officials threatened to turn him out in the street, and explicitly told him that their focus was on making an example of the men from Oberlin, that Gillett agreed to return home. He left jail on May 13th and was driven to Wellington in a carriage by a federal marshal.

Gillett seems to have become a beloved figure in Oberlin. He led an Oberlin group that marched in a May 24th Cleveland rally, holding an American flag inscribed “1776.” He also attended a celebration held in Oberlin for the final rescuers released from jail in July, and he was one of the evening’s featured speakers. He was quoted as saying, in part, “Never made a speech in my life; don’t know how to make a speech, and I ain’t going to make a speech; but I’ll just say that every thing under the heavens that I was taken down to jail for was just for being ketched down at Wellington; and that aint all. I havn’t confessed it all yet. I am ashamed that I didn’t do more than just be ketched down there; and if there is ever another such a time I am going to have more to be accused of, and if other folks are cowards, I’ll rescue the fugitive myself. I used to think Oberlin was a pretty bad kind of a place, but I’ve changed my mind about it now.” Matthew Gillett died in 1863 and is interred in Greenwood Cemetery. He is also immortalized in the famous 1859 jail yard portrait.

Lewis Hunt Hines
Lewis Hines was born in Ohio around 1831, making him twenty-seven years old at the time of the Rescue. A farmer by profession, he married Harriet Elizabeth Wells of Wellington in 1853. The couple had at least three children over the course of their marriage, the eldest of which, Hiram, was just six months old when John Price was captured. Lewis Hines later served as a private in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company C, during the Civil War.

There is a single oblique reference to his possible presence in Wellington in the Rescue testimony. Witness Jacob Wheeler, postmaster of Rochester, testified that he saw a group of men, including one otherwise unnamed “Hines,” enter the attic room where John Price was being held. Lewis Hines appeared in Cleveland for his preliminary arraignment in December 1857, but did not return to face judgement the following spring. He died in 1904 and is buried in Saranac, Michigan.

Abner Loveland
Abner Loveland was born in Massachusetts in 1796, making him sixty-one years old at the time of the Rescue. He had emigrated to Ohio in 1819, but did not settle permanently in Wellington until 1855. He was a farmer, and brother-in-law to fellow rescuer Mathew DeWolf. On September 13th, Loveland was standing in the center of town with DeWolf and Loring Wadsworth. All three men had been assisting with the fire that raged on South Main Street that morning. Loveland’s only recorded action in connection with day’s other events was to urge Constable Meacham to go into Wadsworth’s hotel and serve a warrant on the slave catchers for kidnapping John Price unlawfully.

On May 12, 1859, a plea of nolo contendere (no contest) was entered for all three men. Their attorney made a lengthy statement about their venerable ages and high status in the community, and their absolute commitment to being law abiding citizens. Loveland later wrote a letter to the editor of a Cleveland newspaper in which he disavowed the entire statement: “I did not intend to authorize my counsel yesterday to give my views on government, to the Court; and disclaim holding to many of the doctrines expressed by him…I am not guilty of violating any law.” Nevertheless, Loveland was sentenced to pay a $20 fine plus court costs, and to serve one day in jail.

Abner Loveland died in 1879. He is buried in Wellington’s Greenwood Cemetery. In 1895, a family genealogy was published which read in part, “He was a firm friend of the bondsman…His house was a well known station on the underground railroad. All trains passing that way stopped there, and the passengers received the needed rest and refreshment and assistance to proceed towards freedom.”

John Mandeville
John Mandeville was a fifty-one-year-old brickmaker in 1858. He was born in New York and in 1843 married Hester Northrup, eventually fathering seven children. The History of Lorain County, Ohio (1879) named him as one of two men who went up a ladder to retrieve John Price from Wadsworth’s hotel, but this claim is not supported by hundreds of pages of testimony offered at the Rescue trials.

In fact, John Mandeville was standing in the crowd outside the hotel, when he was asked by Constable Barnabas Meacham to accompany him up to the garret where Price was imprisoned. William Sciples and Walter Soules were also asked to join the group. Mandeville was “in liquor,” and author Nat Brandt identified him as the man described in testimony as “purty reckless,” taunting the crowds outside by shouting through the garret window. When he pled nolo contendere (no contest) on May 6, 1859, his intoxication was possibly the reason Mandeville reiterated to the court that he was “not guilty in manner and form as he is charged.” He was ordered to pay $20 plus court costs and serve one day in jail. He passed the night in a Cleveland hotel.

John Mandeville moved his family to Penfield after the trials, before permanently settling in Camden Township in 1878. He died in 1900, at ninety-two years old, and is interred in the Camden Cemetery, Kipton.

Henry D. Niles
Henry Niles was thirty-one years old at the time of John Price’s abduction. A lawyer by profession, Niles had five children by his first wife, Lucena Barker, who died shortly after the conclusion of the Rescue trials. He married second wife Elizabeth Phelps in 1862. The couple added two more children to their family. Elizabeth would go on to survive Henry, when he passed away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1895.

Niles was born in Wellington and was a resident of the village at the time of the 1860 census. His role in the events of September 13th, 1858 go completely unrecorded in the trial transcripts. He is only mentioned in connection with his own court proceedings. Niles, Robert Cummings, John Mandeville, and Daniel Williams all pled nolo contendere (no contest) on May 6, 1859. They were ordered to pay a $20 fine plus court costs and serve one day in prison. They each spent the night in a Cleveland hotel.

At his death in 1895, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette published a lengthy obituary in which Niles’s connections to Wellington were detailed. The piece mentioned Niles’s distinguished military service in the Civil War (“Elder Niles was familiarly known in Ohio as Colonel Niles.”), his ordination to the clergy in 1874, and his memberships in the Odd Fellow Society, the G.A.R., and the Freemasons. No mention was made of his involvement in the famous events of 1858. 

William Sciples
Of all the men indicted in connection with the Rescue, perhaps the most enigmatic is William Sciples. Born in New York, he was living in Summit County, Ohio when he married Canadian émigré Laura Ann Elliot in 1843. The couple do not appear to have had any children. Legal documents and census records suggest a fifteen- to twenty-year age difference. They were living and farming in Penfield in the early 1850s.

Sciples was one of three men pulled from the crowd by Constable Barnabas Meacham to accompany him into the hotel on September 13th, 1858. He spent much of the afternoon running errands on behalf of the slave catchers, and later guarding areas of the hotel against the crowd, at the request of keeper Oliver Wadsworth. At trial, Sciples turned state’s evidence and testified against mixed-race school teacher Charles Langston. Constable Meacham, Justice of the Peace Isaac Bennett, and fellow rescuers Matthew Gillett and Loring Wadsworth each took the stand to testify that they had known Sciples for seven to ten years, and that it was “generally believed he is not a man of truth.” After the proceedings, Sciples seems to have been released without bail, presumably in exchange for his damaging testimony. Langston was convicted.

By the time the 1860 federal census was compiled—just one year after the trial—William and Laura Sciples had relocated to Torrey, New York where he was employed as an innkeeper. Perhaps they wished to allow any public controversy surrounding his role in the Rescue to die down. By 1870, the couple returned to farming in Wellington. A decade later they were living in retirement on Mill Street. Laura Sciples is interred in Greenwood Cemetery in an unmarked grave, her husband presumably at her side.

Walter Soules
Walter Soules’s indictment is also somewhat puzzling. Born in Massachusetts around 1827, Soules was a young farmer with a wife, Phoebe Eliza Stanard, in 1858. The couple had seven children over the course of their marriage. Soules fought for the Union during the Civil War and was later a member of the GAR. The family lived in Wellington for at least a decade, then moved to Lagrange and finally settled in Kansas, where Phoebe died in 1885.

Like Sciples, Soules was asked to leave the crowd and accompany Constable Barnabas Meacham into Wadsworth’s hotel on September 13th. When the slave catchers presented Meacham with legal documentation to support their imprisonment of John Price, Soules left the hotel. He never appeared again in court after the initial arraignment proceedings in December 1857. Walter Soules died in 1903 and is buried in Colony, Kansas.

Loring Wadsworth
Loring Wadsworth was born in Massachusetts in 1800, making him fifty-eight years old at the time of John Price’s abduction. Wadsworth had emigrated to Ohio at aged twenty-one, walking the entire distance. He and wife Statira Kingsbury built a Greek Revival house that still stands at 222 South Main Street today. A farmer by trade, Wadsworth and his family had hundreds of acres under cultivation south of the village.

On the day of the Rescue, Wadsworth was standing in the village square with brothers-in-law Matthew DeWolf and Abner Loveland, surveying fire damage and clean up. He does not seem to have played any major part in the day’s other events, beyond urging Constable Meacham to enter the hotel—owned and operated by his cousin, Oliver—and serve a warrant on the slave catchers for unlawful kidnapping. After his arraignment, however, Wadsworth found a larger role to fill. He and Matthew DeWolf were named as Wellington representatives to a self-appointed committee for the thirty-seven rescuers, to coordinate their legal and public relations strategies. Wadsworth then found himself in jail for twenty-one days, and was only released on $500 bail. He later pled nolo contendere (no contest) to the charges against him, and was fined an additional $20 plus court costs, and sentenced to an additional night of confinement.

Wadsworth held a number of political offices. He was elected mayor of Wellington on April 4th, 1859, just days before he began his jail term. He was also a township trustee and village supervisor, often serving alongside other rescuers including Eli Boies, DeWolf, and Loveland. Loring Wadsworth died in 1862. Neither his multiple obituaries in the Lorain County News nor his later mention in Commemorative Biographical Record of the Counties of Huron and Lorain, Ohio (1894) note his participation in the events of 1858. He is preserved for posterity, however, in the famous 1859 jail yard photograph.

Daniel Williams
Daniel Williams was born in Vermont in 1815. After emigrating to Ohio at age fourteen, he eventually became a farmer with substantial land holdings in Pittsfield. The house he erected on Webster Road is still standing today. Later in life, the family relocated to a home on Courtland Avenue, where Daniel died in 1889.

Williams was one of four Wellington men who served time in the county jail, some twenty-one days total; as a consequence, he appears in the famous 1859 jail yard photograph. He was later released on $500 bail. But his actions on the day of the Rescue go unrecorded in hundreds of pages of trial transcripts. He later pled nolo contendere (no contest) to the charges against him, and was ordered to pay a $20 fine plus court costs and spend one additional day in jail. He passed the night in a Cleveland hotel.

When he died, Williams’s obituary in the Wellington Enterprise read in part, “He was public-spirited and encouraged all measures that promised good to the community. He was a man of strong convictions; a Republican, an abolitionist…always advocating principles which have forced their way through great opposition. He was conscientious. A frequent expression with him was, ‘My conscience wouldn’t let me do that.’” Williams is buried beneath an impressive granite obelisk in Greenwood Cemetery.

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.

Remembering 1858

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Exhibit on the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858. Photo by author.

Today is September 13th, which means it is the anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858. One of the reasons I have not written as many posts this year is because I have been working since the spring on researching and planning a commemorative exhibit with Marilyn Wainio, President of the Wellington Genealogy Group and board member of the Lorain County Historical Society. We installed it this morning on East Herrick Avenue.

Over the coming days, I will be posting some of the content of the exhibition labels on this blog. We will also be donating a notebook of information to the Herrick Memorial Library. If you are coming out to the town square this weekend for the 37th annual Harvest of the Arts craft festival, please take a few moments to view the display.

Many thanks to local business owner and history lover, Evelyn Hopkins, whose family owns the building in which the exhibit is now housed.

“Fire In The Morning And War At Night”

Cleveland Morning Leader, 9.16.1858. pg. 2

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

Today is the one hundred and sixtieth anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue. September 13, 1858 was one of the most eventful days that has ever occurred in the village’s two hundred years of existence, on both a local and a national level. The day began with a massive conflagration in the southwestern corner of the downtown, and ended with a single act of political resistance–but also human decency and compassion–that at least one historian has argued may have precipitated the coming of the American Civil War. A local woman summed it up as “a fire in the morning and war at night” (Oberlin News, 3-3-1899).

I have written about this date before. Wellington was in some ways a very different place in the fall of 1858 than it is today. The town had been legally incorporated for only three years. There was no Wellington Enterprise, no local newspaper of any name. The railroad line was less than a decade old. Dairy and cheese production was still done on individual family farms, not yet exported in massive quantities by regional factories. There were as yet no large and elegant homes on South Main or Courtland Streets, no imposing brick school filling the community with pride in its educational system. Only about 1,600 people lived in Wellington (one-third of today’s population), of whom none were people of color.

Village of Wellington 1857

Detail of “Village of Wellington” (1857) by Archibald Willard, showing the east side of South Main Street. Original painting owned by Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

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Detail of “Map of Lorain Co. Ohio From Actual Surveys by John F. Geil. 1857” showing the downtown business district, Wellington, Ohio.

The massive fire that tore through the shops on the west side of South Main Street in the early hours of that Monday morning destroyed buildings and inventory. It gutted the pharmacy of Dr. James Rust, and the meeting rooms of the Wellington Masons. (Rust later invited Masonic Lodge #127 to relocate to his new building and occupy its third floor, which they did for nearly forty-five years.) In the absence of a fire department, volunteer bucket brigades were assembled to quell the flames, even as bystanders risked their lives running back into buildings to save precious contents. In a community so compact and close-knit, and with smoke from the blaze visible for miles in the clear autumn air, it did not take long before hundreds of people were assembled in the public square. Had those large, otherwise unoccupied crowds not been present in Wellington that afternoon, the events of the rescue might have transpired quite differently.

For a detailed description of the day, I would recommend reading A History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue compiled by Oberlin student and Rescuer Jacob R. Shipherd in 1859 from court transcripts and contemporary writings. Nat Brandt’s 1990 publication, The Town That Started the Civil War, is also an informative and enjoyable read. Ten Wellington men were indicted in connection with the rescue of John Price, and Brandt argues that eight of those ten were “singled out because they were conductors on the Underground Railroad” (125). The indicted Wellington men were:

Thinking of all the Oberlin and Wellington people who took action that day against slavery and the inhumanity of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, I am reminded of  the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a century later, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

The Seminary

Seminary Close Up

Detail of “Map of Lorain Co. Ohio From Actual Surveys by John F. Geil. 1857.” Original object in private collection. Photo by author.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to examine a magnificent hanging school map. The massive, brightly colored object is sixty inches long by fifty inches wide, and depicts all of Lorain County in the mid-nineteenth century. In the upper right corner is a tiny inset, just eight by eight inches at its widest points, showing the young village of Wellington. When I first saw this oversized map, my family owned a house on North Main Street, so my eye was drawn to that area of town. There, in the block just south of my future home, was written in letters less than one-quarter of an inch wide the notation “Semy.”

The first association that came to mind was of course the word “seminary.” But I had never heard of any sort of religious preparatory school in Wellington, no institution dedicated to training future priests, ministers or rabbis, which is the modern usage of that term. What was this mid-century seminary? Whom did it teach? Whom did it employ? What I have come to discover is that the story of the Wellington Seminary is the story of two Wellington women, who founded it and ran it for fifteen years.

Mary Ann Adams was born in Otis, Massachusetts in 1816. She was the youngest of thirteen children; her parents, Amos (1766-1836) and Huldah Wright Adams (1772-1840), celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary a few months after her birth. The Adams family left western Massachusetts around 1821, and by 1823 had settled in a wilderness area soon to be named Wellington, Ohio. Mary Ann was just seven years old as her father and older brothers set to felling trees and cultivating land for several family farms in what is now the northeast quadrant of the town.

A decade later and ten miles north, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute opened its doors. December 1833 saw the first classes held for what would eventually become Oberlin College. Mary Ann Adams was one of the first females in the new institute; her name appears on an 1834 list of students certifying their views regarding admitting people of color to the school. (Adams, as did more than half the student body, voted against admittance.)

Ladies Hall 1835-1865

Ladies’ Hall, home of the Ladies’ Department of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute (after 1850, Oberlin College) from 1835 to 1865. This wood frame structure stood on the south side of College Street, facing Tappan Square. Today that area is an access road between the Oberlin College bookstore and Bibbins Hall, home of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. From “General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1833-1908,” pg. int. 71.

Though Oberlin did accept both male and female students from its inception, initially only male students could pursue the “classics course” and receive a bachelor’s degree. In its earliest days, Oberlin’s female scholars were expected to follow the “ladies’ course” which did not result in a degree. Adams pursued the ladies’ course, which took five years of study (including preparatory work), and finished in 1839. It was not until 1841 that the first three female students elected to complete the more rigorous classics course, and were awarded bachelor’s degrees. By that time, Adams was serving as Assistant Principal of the Ladies’ Department. She would hold that position for three years, before being named Principal for seven more, beginning in 1842. All told, Mary Ann Adams would be a key figure in the Ladies’ Department of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute for its first, formative fifteen years.

In her history of coeducation at Oberlin, Father Shipherd’s Magna Charta (1937), Frances Juliette Hosford describes the Ladies’ Board, a small group of women who governed the actions of all females admitted to the institute in its earliest days. Hosford points out that there were no college-educated women in the country at that time. The Ladies’ Board was instead comprised of the wives of college officials and prominent Oberlin community members. The group was socially very conservative and operated independently of the faculty, reporting only to Oberlin’s trustees. As a result, Hosford argues, it became “a law unto itself” and operated in “a star chamber atmosphere” (pg. 27).

Adams seems to have come into conflict with the Ladies’ Board repeatedly over her tenure. The precise nature of the conflict is not always clear, but there are tantalizing clues left in letters from students that can still be read in the Oberlin College Archive today. Antoinette Brown, one of Oberlin’s most distinguished alumnae, thought very highly of Miss Adams, and mentioned her frequently in letters to friends. Only once did she ever describe discord between them, when in 1847 Adams arranged for Brown to earn extra money by teaching additional classes, but “the Ladies Board disarranged everything” because they disapproved of Brown wanting to study theology with male students and become a minister (quoted in Lasser, Soul Mates, pg. 22). Brown continued to admire Adams even after the trouble, noting her “firmness & dignity of charac[ter]” in another letter weeks later (ibid., pg. 29).

Years of conflict with the Ladies’ Board and ongoing poor health eventually caused Adams to resign in early 1849. Antoinette Brown opined, “I feel as though I had lost a good friend tried and true” (ibid., pg. 48). Adams returned to Wellington, moving into her older brother Gideon’s brick house on what is today North Main Street. Gideon (1809-1875) and wife Bertia Hull Slocum Adams (1812-1880) had seven children, the youngest of which were then a set of infant twins. Mary Ann Adams, nearing thirty-five years of age and used to an independent life, must have immediately concocted a plan of self-employment. In later published accounts–described in more detail below–1849 is universally agreed upon as the year that Mary Ann Adams, using land and a building belonging to her brother, opened the Wellington Seminary.

Gideon Wright Adams

Gideon Wright Adams (1809-1875), older brother of Mary Ann Adams.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the term “seminary” referred to a private educational facility, often exclusively for women. They began to open across the Midwest in the 1830s, as educationally-minded New Englanders emigrated and settled there (Woody, Women’s Education in the United States, pg. 366-368). These were not schools focused solely on religious education, in the modern sense of the term. Adams did refer to the Oberlin Ladies’ Department as “our Seminary, a Literary & Religious association” (Fletcher Papers, B. 7, F. 3). Certainly in the nineteenth century, religion was a much more pervasive component of morally-focused education. But young women would not have attended the Wellington Seminary to prepare for a life of religious orders. And it is worth pointing out that while Adams was a devout Congregationalist, the woman to whom she eventually turned the seminary over was an equally devout Methodist.

It is curious that Adams’ name remains the one most strongly associated with the Wellington Seminary in all subsequent published histories. She did found the school sometime in 1849, but by September 1850 she relinquished it to marry an Oberlin student seven years her junior, Charles Conkling of Leroy, Illinois. There is evidence of love, or at least attraction. A female student wrote in 1848, “Mis Adams & Conklin are ingaged & they court strongly & act just like fools–they cant be married in less than two years for he is only [a] junior” (Oberlin File, 21/1, II: Letters by Students, F. 8). Indeed, they did wait two more years before marrying at Gideon Adams’ Wellington home “in a most elegant style” described in some detail in yet another student letter (AMA Archives #104941). But whatever happiness the pair found together during their courtship did not last.

Oberlin Evangelist, 1850-09-11, pg. 7

Marriage announcement of Charles Conkling and Mary Ann Adams. “Oberlin Evangelist,” 9-11-1850, pg. 7.

Nine months almost to the day of the wedding, the couple’s first child was born. Alice Cowles Conkling was named in honor of Mary Ann’s predecessor as Principal of the Ladies’ Department, Alice Welch Cowles. Two more children, Charles Grandison (named for minister and Oberlin president Charles Grandison Finney) and Florence Perry, followed by 1859, when Mary Ann was forty-two years old. Husband Charles spent three more years studying theology at Oberlin, graduating in 1853. He began traveling out of state; for example, a newspaper notice directs correspondents to address him in western New York in 1854 (Oberlin Evangelist, 11-22-1854, pg. 7). It is unclear whether Mary Ann and the children accompanied him on these trips.

Then, in 1862, tragedy struck. In January, three-year-old Florence died. Ten weeks later, eight-year-old Charles also passed. Whether Mary Ann’s marriage was already beginning to unravel before this unimaginable loss, or the death of two of his children unhinged Charles Conkling, I do not know. But Mary Ann’s life became a nightmare. Two years later, the Congregational Church in Oberlin brought Conkling in to answer charges of cruelty, violence against his family, verbally abusive and violent actions against his boarders, and borrowing money with no intent to repay. Thirteen testimonies survive in the Oberlin College Archives describing a wife in feeble health, fearful for her surviving daughter’s safety, trying desperately to eke out a living and often “on the point of starving” (Records of the First and Second Congregational Church 31/4/1, B. 6). Conkling was characterized as a lazy ne’er do well who forced his wife to keep boarders, then stole her earnings and caused such regular unpleasantness that no one in Oberlin wanted to live in the household.

I do not know the immediate consequences of the church trial. The 1870 federal census shows only “Mary Conklin,” 55, living with daughter Alice, then nineteen and attending Oberlin College herself; she graduated in 1873. Mary Ann Adams Conkling died in 1871 and is buried in Oberlin’s Westwood Cemetery with her two younger children. Her oldest daughter seems to have left Ohio shortly after graduating, and later documents note her places of residence as including both Oklahoma and Texas. She does not seem to have ever married. Her abusive father, Charles Conkling, died in the Wayne County Infirmary, i.e. the Wooster poorhouse, in 1902. A newspaper report dismissed him as “a peripatetic lecturer and idler” (Western Christian Advocate, 6-4-1902, pg. 30).

IMG_0169

Headstone of Mary Ann Adams Conkling (1816-1871), Westwood Cemetery, Oberlin, Ohio. Her two youngest children are buried with her; their names are inscribed on the opposite side of the marker. Photo by author.

I promised that this was the story of two Wellington women, and in fact, the history of the Wellington Seminary lies mostly with the second. When Mary Ann Adams married in 1850, she transferred management of her new school to Elizabeth “Eliza” Hamilton. Eliza was the daughter of Asa (1799-1866) and Lydia Deland Hamilton (1804-1881). Asa was born in Vermont, Lydia in Massachusetts. By the early 1820s, the young couple was living in Sheridan, New York, and it is there that Eliza was born in 1824. Shortly after her birth, the family moved again to recently settled Wellington, Ohio.

Asa Hamilton was an interesting character. He served as a Lorain County Commissioner, postmaster of Wellington, and was an active Mason. (His headstone in Greenwood Cemetery is topped with the symbol of the Royal Arch masons, a triangle with three T’s joined at the base.) The 1850 federal census shows twelve people living in the household, including a number of young men working for Asa’s carpentry and joinery business. Eliza Hamilton, then twenty-five, had no profession listed. But that was soon to change.

Asa Hamilton grave

Headstone of Asa Hamilton (1799-1866), Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. The symbol atop the stone is that of the Royal Arch Masons. Hamilton was an active Mason, serving as Wellington’s representative to the Grand Masonic Lodge of Ohio in Massillon in 1857. Photo by author.

The Hamiltons and the Adams family were neighbors. Their properties in the northeast quadrant of the village abutted, precisely in the area where Adams and Hamilton Streets are today. Eliza and her mother, Lydia, are listed in Wellington Corporation tax records as owning multiple parcels of land, with multiple structures, in the block between what are now Hamilton and Clay Streets. When Mary Ann Adams decided (if the decision was hers) to relinquish control of the newly formed seminary, it may have seemed to Eliza Hamilton like an opportunity too good to be missed. In the 1860 federal census, her profession line was filled: “Supt [Superintendent] Wellington Seminary.”

It appears that Gideon Adams retained ownership of the land and building for some time. Only in 1860, a decade after she began running the school, do Eliza Hamilton’s taxes first include the half-acre in Lot 21 described as “C[orner] Mn & A[dams] St.” The parcel was valued for tax purposes at $260, confirming the presence of a structure. Hamilton owned the lot until 1864, when she sold it to the village to be incorporated into the public school system. It is struck through in her 1864 taxes and annotated “Wellington Union School Not Taxable.”

I have not been able to locate any primary documentation related to the school itself, whether a student roster or any materials related to the school’s curriculum. In every published instance save one that I have found, it is referred to as a seminary. (One 1861 notice, published in an Oberlin paper, called it the “Wellington Academy.”) It is noted as the “Female Seminary” and the “W.F. Seminary” (which I assume to be an abbreviation for “Wellington Female”) in two separate 1863 Lorain County News notices. However, I found a reference in a brief biographical sketch of Wellington resident Lucius E. Finch which noted that he left “the seminary taught by Miss Eliza Hamilton at Wellington” when he was sixteen, circa 1859. Another biographical sketch of Pittsfield resident Robert Merriam mentioned that he “received his education at the common schools and at the Wellington Seminary…” Since Merriam enrolled at Oberlin College in 1854, presumably his time at the Wellington school predated that year. There are newspaper references to another school, taught by Mary H. Ladd, called both the “select school” and once, the Wellington Seminary. But that school seems to post-date Merriam’s attendance by a decade, while Finch clearly indicates that he attended Hamilton’s school.

What are we to make of this? Was the Wellington Seminary exclusively for females under the guidance of Mary Ann Adams, coming as she was from a decade of female education? Did the school begin to accept young men when Hamilton took over? The evidence of the two male biographies would seem to support that theory. Why then was the school continually referred to as the Female Seminary, as late as 1863, shortly before it closed its doors? In the absence of further evidence, we may never know.

Wellington moved to reorganize its public school system during the Civil War. Asa Hamilton actually presented a remonstrance to the Ohio House of Representatives (via Sidney Warner) protesting the passage of a law authorizing the citizens of Wellington “to levy a tax to build a high school house in said village” (Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Ohio, Vol. 59, pg. 474-475). Whether Hamilton was working to protect his daughter’s economic interests, or just opposed taxation in general, is not clear. Regardless, his efforts failed, the tax levy was passed, and by 1867 the village had a modern, three-story brick Italianate housing its upper grades, the Union School. (Sadly, that very building is being demolished as I write this.)

The village purchased Eliza Hamilton’s land and building in 1864, and renamed it the North Primary School, i.e. what we might today call the elementary and middle school grade levels. (There was also a South Primary School on South Main Street, on the lot adjacent to my family’s current home.) That was the end of the fifteen-year history of the Wellington Seminary. Hamilton continued to teach, offering private classes in her own home. She remained in Wellington until nearly the end of her life, when she briefly moved closer to her brother in Pennsylvania. They died one month apart in 1877. Eliza’s remains were supposedly returned to Wellington and interred next to her father, Asa Hamilton, but there is no stone marking her grave.

Over the course of 1876 and 1877, The Wellington Enterprise published a series of short notices which, taken together, explain the fate of the 1849 seminary structure. Builder Hiram Allyn, who lived directly across from the school, purchased “the old North Primary School building” in April 1876. He moved it across the street onto a lot adjacent to his own house. He then renovated the structure and turned it into a residence. By May 1877, the paper noted, “The old seminary, now the new dwelling house, is further transformed by being painted a light drab, with dark brown trimmings; and blinds have been added. A new fence encloses the yard and lot…” (5-10-1877, pg. 3). I argued in a 2013 post, linked above, that the home which currently sits at 112 Adams Street is, at its core, the 1849 seminary. The village erected a small brick school house to replace the relocated wooden structure, which later became (old) St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, still standing on the lot today.

112 Adams Street

112 Adams Street, Wellington, Ohio. I believe this house contains the structure of the 1849 wood-frame Wellington Seminary, purchased and remodeled by Hiram Allyn in the 1870s.

The opening of Mary Ann Adams’ school in 1849 was first recorded in a published history just three decades later. The History of Lorain County, Ohio (1879) credited Gideon Adams with erecting the building, and characterized the operation as “academical” without officially naming it. The passage noted that Adams had experience in female education, without specifying the gender(s) of her Wellington students. In 1896, Adams was heroine-worshipped in Memorial to the Pioneer Women of the Western Reserve, depicted traveling valiantly “back and forth from Wellington to Oberlin on horseback when the mud and water was [sic] up to the stirrups.” It is mentioned in passing that she “taught a private school for young ladies in Wellington” (vol. 2, pg. 310).

In 1922, Mrs. W.B. (Carrie) Vischer restored Eliza Hamilton to her rightful place in the seminary narrative in her lecture and subsequent publication, “History of Wellington.” Interestingly, Vischer referred to the school as “The Academy,” so subsequent modern authors have followed suit and used that inaccurate name. Vischer dated the school to 1849, but erroneously attributed construction of the building to Mary Ann Adams’ father, Deacon Amos Adams, who in fact died in 1836. She described the school as private, but open to “the youth of Wellington” apparently irrespective of gender. Carrie Vischer was born in 1861, so it is possible that she knew Eliza Hamilton, though she would have been a young girl when the latter left Ohio. That having been said, Vischer sketched a charming, albeit simple, portrait: “Miss Hamilton was a very intelligent woman, and to attend her school the road to success was assured. Miss Hamilton was assistant superintendent of the Methodist Sunday school for many years, her father being one of the first members of the Methodist church. Miss Hamilton was unique in appearance, always attired in bloomers. Her reason was ‘she could accomplish her work with more ease and comfort while thus attired'” (pg. 5). Later local history enthusiasts Robert Walden and Ernst Henes clearly borrowed liberally from Vischer’s text, and both highlighted Hamilton’s unorthodox fashion choices.

I find both educators fascinating. They had many similarities beyond the enterprise they shared. Each woman was born in another state but spent her entire life in Lorain County. Adams remained unmarried until much later than her contemporaries; Hamilton chose never to go down the path that ended so disastrously for her neighbor. Both women had a long history of chronic health problems, which they struggled against while working for their own financial support. There is evidence that each assisted other women in her community, providing money and even a place to live within her own household. Mary Ann Adams’ obituary noted, “Her scanty salary was often in great part devoted to assisting struggling young ladies in achieving their education. Many of her pupils will remember her with gratitude, and thank God that they ever came under her influence” (Lorain County News, 4-27-1871, pg. 3). Hamilton’s lengthy tribute in The Wellington Enterprise, very likely written by co-editor Mary Hayes Houghton, suggested that “her sympathy for the helpless and unfortunate prompted her to unreasoning self-sacrifice for those whose lives she sought to make better and brighter. How little she demanded for herself. How generously she planned and unremittingly toiled for others” (11-15-1877, pg. 3)!

As with so many of the topics I have researched, this one only leaves me wanting to know more. What was daily instruction like in the Wellington Seminary and what topics were the young people learning? Were the students, in fact, all females in certain periods of the school’s existence? Did they board in the school building, as Oberlin’s female students boarded and studied in Ladies’ Hall? Does the fact that the school was described as “private” suggest that only the wealthier citizens of the village could afford to have their children attend? And what of Adams and Hamilton–did each woman enjoy teaching, or did she do it simply because it was one of the only occupations open to unmarried women in the mid-nineteenth century? Curiosity is the blessing and curse of the lover of history.

UPDATE: Within one day of publishing this post, I discovered that the Lorain County News (1860-1873) was finally digitized and publicly available. Since this topic was uppermost in my mind, I began searching for additional information about Mary Ann Adams Conkling. I found four notices that furnish new details about the story of her life. The first, dated weeks after her young son Charles died–the second child she had lost that year–announced her opening a private school “at her residence on the corner of Pleasant and Lorain Streets” (6-11-1862, pg. 2). Even in her grief, Mary Ann had to support her surviving daughter. In 1864, the same year her husband was brought before the Congregational Church to answer for his abusive behavior, a “Chas. Conklin” was listed among Oberlin men who volunteered to join a new company of the 41st O.V.I. regiment (4-13-1864, pg. 3). Three years later, “Rev. C. Conkling” was again mentioned in the paper and described as “of Ashland formerly of Oberlin” (3-6-1867, pg. 3). Why was Conkling no longer living with his family? Because his wife was about to divorce him. The divorce was granted in late 1869, with Mary Ann receiving the Oberlin house and lot, as well as $1,000 alimony. Charles Conkling was also ordered to pay all court costs. (1-5-1870, pg. 2). Mary Ann Adams secured her marital freedom after two decades; whether she ever actually received her $1,000 is, though highly unlikely, lost to history.