The Cleveland Daily Herald

Cleveland, May 14, 1859

Statement of the Oberlin Prisoners Now in Jail.

Cuyahoga County Jail

May 12, 1859.

To the People of the Western Reserve:

      The undersigned, citizens of Lorain County, now confined in this prison, under indictment for alleged violation of the Fugitive Slave Act, have reason to know that the history of their incarceration is quite generally misapprehended, and that this misapprehension is greatly prejudicing their cause with the public.

      To make the statement proposed intelligible and complete, the narration must begin with the arrest, which brought us before the U.S. Court. At the rising of the Grand Jury in December last, Marshal Johnson visited Oberlin, and notified the indicted, who lived there, that he had warrants for their arrest, and that he should expect to meet them in Cleveland at a given hour on the next day. The parties of whom the notice was served proved their appreciation of the politeness of the Marshal, in dispensing with the usual forms of arrest, and their disposition to give prompt answer to whatever charges the law might bring against them by appearing in Court at the time appointed. Being brought to the Bar, they declared themselves ready and anxious for immediate trial. The District Attorney, evidently taken by surprise at the unexpected promptness of the defence, asked delay. The defence earnestly protested against an adjournment of their cases. The court, however, granted the motion of the District Attorney; but, in consideration of the fact that the defendants had made prompt appearance, and that they had been refused trial, discharged them on their personal recognizance, instead of putting them under bail as the Prosecutor had asked them to do. The cases were set for trial on the second Tuesday of March. At the approach of that time the District Attorney asked for a further continuance of the cases to the fifth of April. The delay, although it put the defence to great inconvenience, was conceded by its Counsel. When the appointed time at length came, all the indicted who had been arrested, except one gentleman who was very ill, presented themselves at the bar of the Court, nor did any of them fail of daily attendance during the Bushnell trial without the express permission of the District Attorney.

      In the course of the Bushnell trial it was made clear to the defence that there was a desire on the part of the Court to secure the conviction, and a determination on the part of the District Attorney to bring about the humiliation of all the indicted. The proofs of a purpose to make a judicial and personal war upon them were so plain, that the defendants could not shut their eyes to them. They felt constrained, therefore, to be on their guard and to be watchful against emergencies, which might involve them in lasting injury and reproach. This purpose, however, did not prevent their continuing the full compliance with the rules of the Court and with the terms of their recognizances, which they had before rendered.

      Affairs being in this posture, the Government evidently seeking opportunities for assault, and the defence looking well to its means for parrying the assault, the Bushnell trial came to an end. On the rendition of the verdict, conversation arose between counsel on the two sides as to what case was to be tried next. It was finally determined by the Government that Langston’s case should be called on, and counsel for the defence, which had previously said that it was not ready to go on with that case, signified that it would be ready by the time the jury was drawn. What was the surprise of counsel at hearing the court declare that the same jury was to try all the “rescue” cases – all of them be it noted, involving the same material points. How then could a jury just having risen from the consideration of one of them impartially address itself to the consideration of another? Against this remarkable order of Court, the counsel for the defence made earnest protest, and finally declared that “under such a ruling, the court might go on with the cases as fast as it please, the defendants would not stultify themselves by either offering evidence or appearing by counsel.” With this, the District Attorney moved that the defendants be ordered into custody. The court replied – “The District Attorney is entitled to the order. Let the accused be called.”

      The clerk then read the names of the indicted, and those present were directed to put themselves under the control of the Marshal, who cleared seats for them. While this was going on, Mr. Ralph Plumb, one of the indicted, whose case had previously been put over to the November term, went to Judge Spaulding and asked if his recognizance could not be taken up so that he could cast in his lot with his now imprisoned brethren. The Judge replied affirmatively, and moved the Court in Mr. Plumb’s behalf to cancel his recognizance, and allow him to join those who had been put in custody. The motion was granted. This occurrence called the attention of counsel to the recognizances of those who were now in the Marshal’s keeping, and Judge Spaulding arose and said – “Your honor will of course direct the Clerk to cancel the recognizances of all the gentlemen who have been put into custody. It would be improper that their recognizances should stand while they are in prison.” “Certainly,” replied Judge Willson, “ it will be done of course.”

      The Court and some of its officers seemed to realize, at once, that injustice had been done to the parties in custody, and that some means for escape from the odium which would be incurred by the order for imprisonment would be found. Accordingly the Marshal soon came to the company in duress, and proposed that eh whole party should go home, giving its promise to return on the next Monday morning. The proposition was accompanied, however, with the distinct statement, repeated at least once, that “Bushnell was not to be included in the category.” The Court also, in reply to a proposition from the District Attorney that ample security should be required of the persons in custody before they should be permitted to go at large, replied that if they chose, they should go out on the same terms on which they had had liberty since their arrest, viz – by giving personal recognizance. This ruling plainly implied that the procedure which had resulted in the commitment had originated with the District Attorney and Court (otherwise it would have been rebuked by a change of the terms of bail; that it was warranted by no wrong-doing or short-coming on the part of the persons committed; and that it was regarded by the Court itself as being legally unjust.

      Confident that the commitment had proceeded from personal malice and a determination to humble them on the part of the District Attorney, and at least a willingness to have them driven to the wall on the part of the
court, and feeling that they would enter most emphatic protest against the insult and legal injustice, which they had suffered by remaining in custody of the Marshal until the Court should amend the wrong or the law should relieve them, and that while the question as to the Jury was yet open it would be politic to let the responsibility of the commitment rest with the Court, the defendants for the time refused the offers both of the Court and Marshal. They were further prompted to this course by the consideration that it would permit them to share Bushnell’s fortunes as long as possible. They did, however, say to the Marshal that “they were under his orders, and should do, to the letter, what he directed.” He replied by sending them to jail.

      It was, therefore, because the Court without being justified by wrong-doing of any kind on their part, had ordered them into custody and thus grossly insulted and wronged them, and because they were unwilling to be made the scapegoats of the judicial outrage as they would have been had they, by making concessions or accepting favors, relieved the Court of the burden of the indignity which it had forced upon them, that the committed “rescuers” came to jail on the afternoon of Friday, April 15th.

      But it was expected by the imprisoned company that when Court was called on Monday morning it would, by recalling its order respecting the Jury, if not otherwise, open the way for their restoration to liberty upon the same footing which they had occupied before their commitment. They were not disappointed in their expectation that the Court would recede from its (as it seemed to them) exceedingly unjust rulings to the Jury. But they were disappointed in finding that their way to an honorable release was hedged by an entry on the journal of the court which averred that the defendants were ordered into custody because they had surrendered themselves in discharge of their recognizances. They at once saw that this entry either grew out of a misapprehension of facts or resulted from a determination to compel them to remain in custody or to regain liberty at the expense of a plain acknowledgment that they had been guilty of folly and indiscretion which well deserved punishment. Hoping that the first was the correct view, they made, through counsel, a statement of the facts, and asked that if the journal could not be so corrected as to correspond with the truth, it should be either vacated or made to present, in a new entry, the fact that they differed with the Court in their understanding of the matter. The Court kept the request under advisement through the day, and then announced that it had determined to let the record stand as it was. This announcement compelled the imprisoned to believe that their humiliation was determined by the Court. Under such circumstances self-respect forbade their entering into new bonds.

      Knowing that the matter they had in hand was an important one, and that either remaining in custody or giving new recognizances involved great issues to themselves and others, the imprisoned took time to consider both their position and their duty. While they were pursuing their inquiries, they entertained the hope that the Supreme Court would release them from duress by granting them Habeas Corpus. Their hope in this direction was presently blighted by the refusal of the court to grant the writ, and then they found the way to honorable escape from custody more effectually closed than it had ever before been. If they had entered into recognizances or given bail upon the heels of their defeat at Columbus, they would have encouraged the prosecution in the belief that they were effectually humbled, and that they had forsaken their cause as being lost. That they were justified in believing that their entering into recognizances or giving bail at this time would have been regarded in this light is proved by the dispatch which Marshal Johnson sent to the President of the United States on the afternoon of the 27th, the substance of which was stated in the Washington Constitution as follows:

      “The President last evening received a telegraphic dispatch, dated at Cleveland, from the Marshal of the Northern District of Ohio, stating that the Supreme Court of that State had unanimously refused the writ of habeas corpus in the case of the persons in his custody, under the fugitive slave law, and that three of the most respectable of them had given bail for their appearance to stand their trial before the District Court of the United State. Everything was quiet.”

      The obvious implication of this dispatch was two-fold; first, that Northern repugnance to the fugitive slave act had received a decided blow from the decision of the Supreme Court, and secondly, that the hearts of those who had entertained this repugnance and had actively expressed it, were fainting under the blow. The imprisoned felt that they could not, in honor or in duty, justify the second intimation of this singular dispatch, and that if they were ever to yield it must be when the cause they loved was not going backward and when their yielding would not accelerate its decline. So they waited for a better day, all the time longing to be at home and about the business, which sorely needed their presence, and suffering under the irksome constraint of prison life, they eagerly sought the place for honorable escape. They thought they would perhaps find that place at the close of the Langston trial. They assured themselves that the developments of that trial would prove to the Court that if the testimony for the Government was justly weighed and the evidence for the defence was measured as it should be, no one of the rescuers could fairly be convicted, and that the prosecution would be dropped. But the end only showed a judicial bias stronger than before, and a partisan feeling on the part of the jury, which could not rest short of a verdict of guilty.

      Thus was the prospect for making honorable escaped, which the imprisoned sought, made darker than it had yet been.

      But that they might leave no stone unturned, the imprisoned presented, on Wednesday last, as from John Watson, one of their number, an affidavit setting forth the facts respecting their imprisonment, and followed it with an appeal from Mr. Riddle, in which, reciting again their story and asserting their rights, they demanded either speedy trial, discharge from process, or such a correction of, or entry upon the journal as would permit them to occupy, without discredit to themselves, the position they formerly held before the court. But the appeal was in vain. A bland intimation that there was no barrier to the liberty of the imprisoned but “punctilio,” and a positive refusal to do what was asked, was the only reply, which the court saw fit to give.

      And so the incarcerated company finds itself effectually shut out from all relief except such as it cannot but scorn. To sum up the points involved in the above history, the imprisoned are here because an order of the court put them here; they stay here because a judicial wrong under which they suffer is unredressed, and because a journal entry of the court will not allow them to go out without personal disgrace – the disgrace they would suffer in virtually acknowledging that they had been guilty of a most foolish action and that they were ready to sneak away from the dilemma in which that action had placed them. – The self respect of the imprisoned, the sense of honor which Heaven planted in their souls, and which revered parents carefully nursed, will not permit them to involve themselves in such disgrace. It could never be with them a matter of mere “punctillio” to avoid the dishonor to which their only chance of escape exposes them, and now the circumstances in which they are placed and the relation which they sustain to a good cause, beset and imperiled by oppressive power, make what might, in another case, be an inconsiderable affair, rise into a duty of the greatest magnitude. The imprisoned cannot allow it to be said that when Freedom was assailed on her last field, they ingloriously dropped their banner to save themselves inconvenience and suffering. They are not willing to have even an appearance of submission to tyrannical power on their part, become a pledge that the diabolical Fugitive Slave act is hereafter to work its own on the Western Reserve.

      It will be observed that in both the historical sketch, and the summary above presented, we (for we will here drop the third person) have laid special stress on the necessity for maintaining a protest against what we regard as judicial tyranny, and the point of honor, which prevents our liberating ourselves by giving bail. Nothing has been said with respect to the policy of our course. This, however, is a matter, which has been constantly kept in view. We have thought, and still think, that in various ways, a manly and straightforward course on our part, would promote our cause. Precisely how the maintaining of our determined protests against what we have regarded as injustice and falsehood, would advance our interests in the defence of our cases, it would not be politic for us to say. In due time we shall give to the public a full disclosure of the motives which have acted on us in this direction, and we believe that such a disclosure will fully satisfy all who have doubted the propriety of our course, that it has been wisely taken.

      We must not close without saying that in all that we have done, we have cautiously enquired what is right, and what is expedient. Nor have we trusted to our judgments only. We have invited the counsel of as wise and judicious men as we could reach, and our conclusions have been those to which we have been conducted by what has seemed to us the decidedly prepondering opinion of the seven or eight eminent lawyers with whom we have been in constant consultation.

      And, withal, we have constantly looked for direction to that Superior Intelligence, which gives “wisdom to all who seek it and upbraideth not.” At every step, what we have regarded as manifest Providence has pointed the way. We still look to our Divine Guide for direction. We know that if earthly tribunals deny the relief we ask, the higher court to which we look will, in due time, send it. We assure ourselves that the Great Arbiter will not be pleased with conduct on our part, which will degrade ourselves, or betray a good cause, and we are equally confident that if we stand to our integrity, he will appoint an issue to our troubles which will honor Him, and fully satisfy us. We cheerfully wait the opening of the “door, which no man can shut.”

H.E. Peck,                                           David L. Watson

Ralph Plumb,                                      Wilson B. Evans,

Chas. H. Langston,                             Henry Evans,

A.W. Lyman,                                      Richard Winsor,

J.H. Scott,                                           W. E. Lincoln,

James Bartlett,                                     J.M. Fitch.

John Watson,