In March 1860, authorities captured Moses Horner, a suspected runaway slave from Virginia, a few miles outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, federal agents were to recover fugitive slaves from the North and were permitted to force Northern citizens to aid them in seizing suspected blacks. Some Northerners, especially abolitionists, refused to enforce the law, which enraged Southerners, but despite opposition, over 300 fugitive slaves were captured during the decade in the North and hearings were held to decide whether to send the captured person back to his or her master. Some of these fugitive slave hearings, especially the ones where there was a rescue (or attempted rescue) of the slave, received extensive coverage in newspapers throughout the nation. The last of these high-profile slave cases took place in Philadelphia in March 1860, after Horner’s hearing and his attempted rescue by some citizens of Philadelphia received nationwide attention because of the excitement it created in the city. This presentation will examine newspaper articles related to Horner’s hearing published in papers around the country to determine the reaction of newspaper editors and correspondents, as well as the citizens of Philadelphia, to Horner’s trial and attempted rescue. This study will give us a clearer understanding why Horner was regarded in Philadelphia as the last victim sacrificed to the Fugitive Slave Law in that city and demonstrate that Northern attitudes, especially those in Philadelphia, toward slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law were complex. 

James Scythes is an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. His research interests focus on antebellum America, American Civil War, and 19th century military history. He has a number of publications, including his first book "This Will Make a Man of Me": The Life and Letters of a Teenage Officer in the Civil War and is the current president of the Gloucester County Historical Society.

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