Fugitive Slave Laws and Great Escapes
Sex Exploitation and Slavery
Frederick Douglass teaches that even men who professed Christianity were corrupted by the decision to own slaves. Other sources tell of the added corruption resulting from the opportunities slavery afforded for the sexual exploitation of female slaves.
By the 18th century, patriotic and religious impulses had turned many Northerners against slavery, but in the 19th century they were repelled even more by the perceived prevalence of sexual abuse under slavery. Abolitionists convinced many that, by giving the slaveholder unfettered access to the bodies of female slaves, slavery promoted sexual exploitation on a scale that further threatened the very moral and ethical fabric of society. They argued that the institution corrupted the slaveholder’s morals, humiliated his wife, defiled his slave women, and produced a progeny of mulatto children who shared the unforgivable burden of being slaves to their own parents.
In her 1861 memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, escaped slave Harriet Jacobs provided firsthand testimony that confirmed these fears. Jacobs detailed years of sexual harassment at the hands of her slaveholder. Recounting her entry into the dangerous years of adolescence, she lamented: “But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import.” Jacobs described slaveholders’ and their sons’ licentious and misogynistic behavior that routinely bedeviled the life of a slave girl, writing, “she is whipped or starved into submission to their will.” From such brutal beginnings extended “relationships” often began, producing hundreds of thousands of mixed-race children in America.
Not only did the inherent dynamics of the slavery setting become more corrupt when slave rape occurred, the misconduct often damaged many relationships. The slaveholder’s relations with his wife were undermined; she was often powerless to stop such misbehavior. An illicit sexual liaison also damaged the relationship between the wife and the slave mistress, who in many cases was a house servant forced to live under the same roof. Even when the slave owner was unmarried, the unequal power dynamics between him and his slave mistress eliminated her ability to refuse consent.
Slavery rendered relations between slaveholders and their slave children bizarre in that their children also could be their slaves. Recent scholarship suggests that at least 2-8 percent of slave children born on Southern plantations were fathered by Whites, and testimony by former slaves collected in the 1930s reveals that more than one-third of ex-slave women who broached the topic of parentage claimed to have a White father or at least one child sired by a White father.
The widespread existence in slave societies of light-skinned, or mulatto, children who carried their slaveholder’s features stood as a physical reminder of sex abuse. Slaveholders typically did not care one way or another about their offspring, but even for those who did, it likely took a bold and self-confident slaveholder to withstand the indignation of a wife and provide affection for such children. At best, he might provide them with a trade or set them free, but he also might sell them to remove the evidence and often did.
The fathering of mixed-race children by slaveholders— the federal census counted more than 400,000 mulattoes in the United States in 1860—did more than corrupt human relations. It damaged human psyches, undermined the slaveholders’ pretenses to respectability, and made hypocrisy of their public posturing on the need for racial purity and the separation of the races. Abolitionist literature was filled with descriptions of slaveholders as lascivious managers of harems where animal instincts were easily gratified. Slaveholders may have denounced and denied such accusations but often lived with knowing winks and nods from others nonetheless.
The documents in this exhibition provide no direct evidence of sexual exploitation, but the visitor will notice words such as “mulatto” or “light colored man” and “light yellow boy” in the descriptions of the slaves or indentured servants. Possibly some of these refer to individuals born from a sexually exploitative relationship.
None of the records in this exhibition speak directly to sexual exploitation of the slaves and indentured servants, some very young, who are the subjects of the transactions, but they raise the possibility. It was this possibility, and sometimes reality, that outraged abolitionists like Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe and like-minded Western Pennsylvanians in the years leading up to the Civil War. Perhaps, amongst others, it was this possibility, and occasional reality, that in the 1790s appalled Hugh Henry Brackenridge, whose satirical novel Modern Chivalry lampooned local slaveholders who were too pious even to shave on Sunday but who nonetheless “held and abused” their slaves.
Fugitive Slave Laws, 1820-1850
Between 1820 and 1847, Pennsylvania waged a back-and-forth battle against the federal government with a series of laws intended to blunt the effect of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Ultimately, in 1850, Pennsylvania lost.
In 1820, the Commonwealth passed the first statute in the United States to prohibit state officials from enforcing the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 as it applied to escaped slaves [An Act to Prevent Kidnapping; Law Book No. XVIII, pg. 24].
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This law made the kidnapping of any Black or mulatto for the purpose of making him or her a slave or indentured servant a felony punishable by a fine of $500 to $2,000 and by seven to 21 years’ imprisonment at hard labor. It also prohibited any alderman or justice of the peace under penalty of fine from exercising jurisdiction or taking cognizance of cases of fugitive slaves under the federal Fugitive Slave Act.
Prompted in part by Maryland’s appeal for Pennsylvania to implement the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, Pennsylvania in 1826 passed its own Fugitive Slave Act [Pennsylvania Archives, Ninth Series, VIII, 6417]. While ostensibly designed to assist slaveholders in recovering runaway slaves, the 1826 law actually made recovery virtually impossible. After enactment of the 1826 law, there was virtually no way for a slaveholder to recapture a fugitive slave in Pennsylvania and be safe from prosecution as a kidnapper.
Pennsylvania retreated from its forward movement in 1837 when, in its new state constitution, it repealed that portion of the 1790 Pennsylvania constitution that had given free Blacks the right to vote.
In 1842, the U.S. Supreme Court entered the fray and decimated Pennsylvania’s fugitive slave legislation. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania [41 U.S. 539], the court affirmed Congress’ right to legislate on the subject of fugitive slaves, denied states the power to legislate on fugitive slavery because that subject came within exclusive federal jurisdiction, and allowed state governments to decide whether or not their officials would help to execute the federal Fugitive Slave Act.
In response to Prigg, Pennsylvania enacted the Personal Liberty Law of 1847 [Laws of Pennsylvania, 1847]. This law provided sanctions for purchasing or removing free Blacks with the intention of reducing them to slaves; prohibited state officials from accepting jurisdiction over cases arising under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793; provided penalties for claimants seizing slaves in a violent, tumultuous, and unreasonable manner; repealed the 1780 provision that permitted the temporary residence of slaves in the Commonwealth; and repealed Pennsylvania’s 1826 Fugitive Slave Act.
In exchange for Southern support of California’s admission to the Union as a free state and ending the slave trade in the District of Columbia, Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to help the South perpetuate slaveholding. This law created a force of federal commissioners empowered to pursue and return to slaveholders runaway slaves in any state. No statute of limitations applied, so that even those slaves who had been free for many years could be returned.
In 1848, Ellen and William Craft, a married slave couple, decided to flee Macon, Ga. Their plan hinged on Ellen being born of a slaveholder and his slave around 1826. Although raised a slave, she looked White. Ellen suffered for her appearance as a child. It only reminded her slaveholder’s wife of his infidelity—particularly when people mistook her as a child of the family—and made Ellen the target of the woman’s scorn.
She was separated from her mother and, at the age of 11, given to the slaveholder’s daughter as a wedding gift. Years later, she met and married William, who came to Macon with a new slaveholder after his previous owner fell into financial straits. He had mortgaged William and his brother to speculate in cotton, but eventually failed; the brothers went on the auction block.
After marrying, William and Ellen realized her appearance, long her curse, could be their salvation. William thought of disguising his wife as a White man—a woman traveling alone with a male slave would not pass muster—with William playing “his” servant.
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He cut off his wife’s long hair and tied a scarf around her chin in pretense of her having a toothache to hide her smooth skin and disguise her voice. Ellen wore men’s clothing and green spectacles over her eyes. Because Ellen was illiterate (and a well-bred White man wouldn’t be), she wore her arm in a sling to avoid having to write. Ellen went to the train station and purchased tickets to Philadelphia for herself and her slave.
For eight days and a thousand miles, they traveled by train and steamer among White Southerners undetected. If anyone asked, they said Ellen was traveling north for medical care—a believable story given her bandages. A police officer in Baltimore asked for proof that Ellen owned William. The train’s conductor attested that they had traveled with him from Washington to Baltimore, and the hurried officer let them continue. Abolitionist and fellow escapee William Wells Brown, welcomed the Crafts when they finally arrived in Philadelphia—on Christmas Day 1848.
What became of Ellen and William Craft?
It is a common practice for gentlemen (if I may call them such), moving in the highest circles of society, to be the fathers of children by their slaves, whom they can and do sell with the greatest impunity; and the more pious, beautiful, and virtuous the girls are, the greater the price they bring, and that too for the most infamous purposes
The Crafts settled in Boston following their journey, and well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison encouraged them to take their tale on the antislavery lecture circuit. Ellen once again found herself in a paradox. Just as her maligned biracial birth had saved her and William, she could not tell their tale of escaping to freedom to the audiences that came to hear it—society frowned upon women speaking publicly. Instead, William told the story with Ellen standing beside him.
Warrants were issued for the Crafts’ return to Georgia, but to no avail. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, however, William and Ellen feared they would be captured and moved to England. They continued their public appearances in England and raised five children. William chronicled their escape in the 1860 memoir, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.
In 1868, William and Ellen returned to the United States with two of their children and purchased land near Savannah, Ga. They started a plantation and opened an industrial school for African American children, where Ellen taught free of charge. Aggression and sabotage from neighboring Whites caused both ventures to fail. Ellen died in 1891 and was buried beneath her favorite tree on their land. The land was later auctioned to pay William’s debts, and he moved to Charleston, S.C., where he died in 1900.
William and Ellen’s great-granddaughter, Ellen Craft, lived in Pittsburgh and married Donald Dammond, a 1938 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and the nephew of William Hunter Dammond, the first Black graduate of Pitt.
In 1824, 9-year-old Henry Highland Garnet and 10 family members fled New Market, Md. They were slaves and they were on the run. Led by Henry’s father, George, the family spent weeks traveling by foot and carriage to Wilmington, Del., more than 100 miles away. The Trusty Family, as the Garnets were known before escaping, had received permission to attend a family funeral, but they never intended to return. Their former master, William Spencer, a bachelor, had died. His brother and nephews, harsh slaveholders, stood to inherit his estate, including the Trustys.
Upon reaching Wilmington, the Trustys split up with Henry, his father and mother, and sister traveling another 60 miles to New Hope, Pa. In 1825, they moved on to New York and changed the family name to Garnet. Henry’s mother, Henny, became Elizabeth. His sister, Mary, became Eliza. It appeared the Garnets had succeeded in escaping, but their troubles were not yet over. Henry worked as a cabin boy on a schooner, traveling to Cuba and Washington, D.C.
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When he returned to port, he learned that slave hunters had invaded his parents’ home while he was away. George had barely escaped, and the family home was destroyed. White neighbors hid Henry’s mother, and his sister Eliza was arrested and then released when her New York residency as a free slave was established. Friends spirited Henry off to Long Island, where he worked as a farmhand for two years before returning home.
What became of Henry Highland Garnet?
Henry Highland Garnet went on to become an outspoken— and sometimes controversial—opponent of slavery as well as a central figure in Black education and spiritual life. He attended New York’s African Free School between 1826 and 1833 and later enrolled in the Phoenix High School for Colored Youth. Garnet graduated from the Oneida Institute in 1839 and married Julia Williams in 1841. Their family included three children, two sons and a daughter. In 1840, a leg injury from Garnet’s youth resulted in amputation, and he needed crutches throughout his lifetime.
Nonetheless, in 1841, Garnet began an eight-year ministry at the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, N.Y., where he developed into a fierce and emotional advocate of abolition and Black suffrage. During the 1843 Negro National Convention in Buffalo, Garnet gained notoriety with his speech, “Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” which encouraged slaves to resist the institution: “Let our motto be resist, resist! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance!” Although his audience was reportedly moved to tears, such abolitionists as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, both of whom embraced moral suasion, felt that Garnet’s speech was too inflammatory. Garnet’s angry response was: “Maybe the slaves ought simply to ask for their liberty since the masters would surely let them have it.” But Garnet’s speech diminished his role as a Black leader— he was considered too volatile. Even his support of Blacks expatriating to Africa was outdated as Black delegates to the convention positioned themselves to demand equal rights on American soil.
In the 1850s, Garnet traveled around England speaking against American slavery. He also served as a missionary in Jamaica, where he founded two schools for Black children, an industrial school for women headed by his wife, and helped to establish the African Civilization Society, which stressed the importance of Black missionary work and Black entrepreneurship in Africa. He returned to the United States following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 to help his friend and Pittsburgh abolitionist Martin R. Delany recruit Black troops for the Union Army.
In 1865, Garnet became the first Black person to deliver a sermon to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Garnet moved from his home in New York City to Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh’s North Side) in 1868 when Avery College, a Black religious school established by Pittsburgh philanthropist Charles Avery, hired him as president. During his two years in Pittsburgh, Garnet established Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the city’s first Black Presbyterian church. Garnet returned to New York in 1870 and his wife, Julia, died the following year. In 1881, Garnet was appointed U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Africa, and accepted the post despite his fragile health. Garnet was determined to feel the soil of Africa beneath his feet. He died several months later, on February 12, 1882, and was buried on a hill in Liberia “overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, which separated his two beloved countries.”
Frederick Douglass not only had the luck to escape, but to try it more than once. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to slave Harriet Bailey and an unknown White father in Maryland in 1818. Douglass lived with his grandmother until he was old enough to work. At age 6, he was sent to the farm of Aaron Anthony as a field hand where he experienced the horrors of slavery: ragged clothes, meager meals, and witnessing brutal whippings.
At age 8, Douglass was sent to Baltimore as the house servant of Hugh Auld, the brother-in-law of Aaron Anthony’s daughter, Lucretia Auld. Hugh Auld managed a shipbuilding firm, and his wife, Sophia, began teaching Douglass to read until Hugh forbade her. Undaunted, Douglass continued his education by learning to read from local White children and anything else he could find. He came to admire Baltimore’s large free Black community. He learned of the abolitionist movement and secretly resolved to become a free man.
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In 1833, Douglass, 15, returned as a field hand to the Anthony farm, now run by Hugh Auld’s brother Thomas, who inherited it from his late wife, Lucretia. Thomas Auld worked his slaves hard and kept them near starvation. He found the learned and forthright Douglass unruly and beat him often before selling him in 1834 to farmer Edward Covey, a reputed “slave breaker.” After a year of severe beatings—culminating in a surprisingly successful fistfight with Covey—Douglass was sold to a kind master. But he only wanted freedom. In 1836, he and some other slaves plotted to flee for Pennsylvania by boat and on foot. They were betrayed, however, and arrested. After a week in jail, Douglass—fearing he would be sent to the deep South—was instead retrieved by Thomas Auld and sent again to Hugh Auld. Once in Baltimore, Douglass worked in the shipyards and joined free Black educational groups where he honed his famous debating skills. In 1838, he met a free woman named Anna Murray and they were engaged. Now Douglass had to escape.
In September 1838, Douglass fled Baltimore dressed as a sailor and carrying a friend’s “protection papers,” which certified that he was a free American sailor. Anna bought him a ticket to Philadelphia and a friend brought his luggage to the Philadelphia train “just at the point of starting.” When Douglass produced his protection papers, the conductor gave him only a casual glance. In Wilmington, Del., he took a steamboat to Philadelphia, but Douglass knew he was not safe from slave hunters. He took another train north to New York City, arriving September 4, 1838, as a free man.
What became of Frederick Douglass?
Douglass sent for Anna and they married on September 15 in New York. They continued to New Bedford, Mass., to ensure their safety from slave catchers. After a few months in New Bedford, Douglass subscribed to The Liberator, edited by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass joined the society and regularly attended meetings and lectures. He also became involved in New Bedford’s Black community, serving as a preacher and speaking out about issues affecting the community. In 1841, Douglass, 23, finally met his hero Garrison at an abolitionist meeting in New Bedford. As abolitionists, they convened together in various cities, including Pittsburgh, and deeply admired each other. Over time, however, philosophical differences caused them to part ways. Garrison believed that the U.S. Constitution was a proslavery document; Douglass did not. And unlike Garrison, Douglass did not believe in dissolving the Union.
Douglass earned a reputation as an impassioned and tireless orator. He was appointed a lecturer by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and, with Charles Lenox Remond, conducted a One Hundred Conventions lecture tour in the West, stopping in Pittsburgh on November 6 and 7, 1843. Douglass lectured at the First Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, pastored by the Reverend Samuel L. Williams. Because of his education and speaking skills, many people doubted that Douglass had actually been a slave. Determined to make his story public, he wrote The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. In his narrative, Douglass named his slaveholder, a revelation that placed his freedom in jeopardy. In 1845, Douglass left with Garrison for a two-year speaking tour of the British Isles. By 1847, Douglass was an international celebrity, and generous benefactors raised funds to purchase his freedom from Hugh Auld—for about $700. Douglass also returned with enough money to begin his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, eventually joined in that endeavor by his friend and colleague Martin R. Delany of Pittsburgh.
In the 1850s, Douglass moved to Rochester, N.Y., to a house that was close enough to the Canadian border for him to escape from would-be kidnappers. During the Civil War, Douglass insisted in his speeches and editorials that abolition must be an ultimate goal of the war. He helped recruit Blacks
In 1850, John Drennen, a businessman from western Arkansas, and his wife, signed the register at the sumptuous Monongahela House, a five-story hotel on Water Street in Pittsburgh. Their 14-year-old Negro slave was directed below to the servant’s quarters. The trip, lasting more than a month, had been arduous, traveling southeast through navigable sections of the Arkansas River or overland by carriage. When the Drennen party reached the Mississippi River, they made their way north by steamboat, through dangerous currents and the steamy summer weather. Reaching Pittsburgh in July, a carriage at the Monongahela wharf stood ready to take the Drennens to Monongahela House, the city’s finest hotel. The slave girl followed a dray with the luggage.
The trip had been hard on the family’s clothing, which was the girl’s chief responsibility. In their room, she emptied the master’s trunk before filling it again with damaged clothing—shirtwaists with torn buckles, shirts with rips, shoes with their soles coming loose, clothing with stains. The trunk now would go to an assortment of service people: washerwomen, seamstresses, cobblers, bootblacks.
She dressed the mistress for dinner then called for a porter to help her with the trunk. So far the waitstaff had been extremely kind to her. They were servants but not slaves, they told her. She hardly was aware of the laws here—that Pennsylvania had long since abolished slavery and that in recent years all slaves, except for fugitives, were banned from the state.
The girl walked out the hotel’s rear door.
What Became of the Drennen Slave Girl?
The Drennens’ trunk was recovered and returned to them, but no record exists on the slave girl’s life after her escape.
The Monongahela House stood at Smithfield Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard, a handsome sentry overlooking the gentle river for which it was named. Built in 1840, it had 210 lavishly furnished rooms. When the Great Fire of 1845 destroyed the Monongahela House, the proprietor rebuilt the hotel bigger and better. Reopened in 1847, its façade was simple. It had touches of Renaissance Revival, heavy bracketed cornices, and dozens of windows. But its history and its interior were grand.
It rose five stories tall and boasted a 60-square- foot rotunda crowned with an opulent dome that showered natural light. It then had nearly 300 rooms, and its guests, who over time included presidents, royalty, and a multitude of celebrities, gushed about its white marble floors, leather furniture, and massive staircases. Service was premium. Scores of free Black waitstaff catered to guests’ every whim. In a region known for its fierce abolitionist zeal, much of the Black staff used the hotel’s airy corridors to conduct secret antislavery activity.
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Their work became the stuff of legend as they devised clever, daring escapes to spirit enslaved African Americans to freedom. Women were sometimes disguised as men, runaways were slipped out of back doors, and people were hidden away in trunks.
The Monongahela House waitstaff collaborated with two nearby Black-owned businesses, Vashon’s bathhouse and Peck’s Oyster House. Both establishments served as “railroad stations” to hide runaways and prepare them for the flight to freedom.
Though not officially a part of the Underground Railroad, the Monongahela House did seem sympathetic to the cause of abolition. In one instance, Martin R. Delany, an outspoken Pittsburgh abolitionist and friend of Frederick Douglass, was called to the hotel as activists witnessed the recapture of a slave. Delany came and gathered a crowd, which wrestled the runaway man from the policeman’s grip and hurried the slave to a safe house.
Also, during the era of slavery, one stormy night in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln slept at the Monongahela House. It was Feb. 13 and 14, and the nation’s new leader was on his way to Washington to be sworn in. He slept on the second floor of Monongahela House. The next morning, he spoke from a hotel balcony to the thousands assembled outside.
Lincoln was not the only famous person to visit the Monongahela House. So, too, came presidents Ulysses Grant, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley. In strode Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Buffalo Bill. Before he became King Edward VII of England, the Prince of Wales, too, stayed in Monongahela House.
The Monongahela House existed for 95 years. It was demolished in 1935 to make way for a bus depot.
Henry Box Brown’s escape was so simple it seems unbelievable—he mailed himself to freedom. Unlike many slaves, Brown’s life in captivity was not riddled with horror stories of physical abuse. Born into slavery in 1815 in Louisa County, Va., Brown believed that his faithful service would earn him freedom after his master’s death. Instead, the man bequeathed Brown to his son, asking on his deathbed that the younger man treat Brown, a smart man and good worker, fairly. In 1830, Brown was sent to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory. Again, his overseers were ordered not to abuse him. He was given suitable clothing and money to buy items to send back to his mother.
In time, Brown was permitted to marry another slave, Nancy, with the promise from her slaveholder that he would not sell her. The couple had three children and Brown reimbursed Nancy’s owner for the time she spent caring for them. Despite the slaveholder’s promise, however, Nancy and the children changed owners several times before a final sale to a Methodist minister in 1848 took her and their three children to North Carolina.
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Determined to escape, Brown colluded with a freedman friend, James C.A. Smith, and White storekeeper, Samuel Smith, to have himself shipped to a free state. For $86—a modern value of roughly $2,100 and more than half of Brown’s savings—he was shipped in a dry goods crate to Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim. On March 29, 1849, the box, equipped with a gimlet to allow more air and a “bladder of water,” began the 350-mile journey. For 27 hours, Brown was tumbled and turned upside-down as his crate transferred from wagon, to railroad, to steamboat then to another wagon, a second railroad, a ferry, a third railroad, and finally a delivery wagon.
But McKim was there to receive the crate. Members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, of which McKim was a member, gathered around the box, and McKim inquired, “Is all right within?” Brown replied, “All right!”
What became of Henry ‘Box’ Brown?
Brown earned the nickname “Box” shortly after his adventure and went by Henry Box Brown ever after. He became a popular speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society and published two versions of his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown,” in 1849 (in Boston) and again in 1851 (in Manchester, England).
A well-spoken man with a flare for public presentation, Brown created and exhibited a panorama called “Mirror of Slavery,” which depicted slave life and his escape. Sales of a lithograph by Samuel Rowse, “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia,” which depicted the moment Brown emerged from his box, helped pay for his panorama. The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 forced Brown to flee to England that same year. For the next decade, he toured England with his panorama, helping to garner English support for American abolitionists.
He stayed in Britain as an entertainer for 25 years, eventually performing as a hypnotist, conjuror, and ventriloquist. Never able to find Nancy and his children, Brown began a new family before returning to the United States in 1875 as a family magic act. It’s thought that he later formed a family singing group before dying sometime around 1879.