Ohio History Journal

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Sara Lucy Bagby







Four southern states had seceded when John Goshorn and his son William

S. Goshorn set out from Wheeling, Virginia, for Cleveland, Ohio, in January

of 1861 for the purpose of reclaiming Sara Lucy Bagby, an escaped slave,

who had found temporary refuge doing domestic work in Cleveland. Even

though the nation was in the midst of its climactic crisis over the slavery

issue, the Goshorns planned to invoke the invidious Fugitive Slave law

in the heart of the North's reputedly most rabid antislavery district, the

Western Reserve.

Arriving in Cleveland on January 17, the Goshorns ascertained the run-

away's whereabouts and reported to United States Commissioner Bushnell

White the following evening. Next morning, Saturday, January 19, they

led a group of United States deputy marshals to the home of L. A. Benton

on Prospect Street, where Sara Lucy was currently employed. After break-

ing down the door, they took her into custody without further interference.

Benton forthwith informed W. E. Ambush, Negro chairman of the Cleve-

land Fugitive Aid Society, of the incident and news of the seizure spread

swiftly through the city.1 The Cleveland Leader reported that this was the

city's first fugitive slave case in nineteen years.2 On the same day as Lucy's

apprehension, Georgia became the fifth state to leave the Union, and in

the midst of the insistent sectional crisis Cleveland found itself with a cause

celebre of its own.

This incident was indeed fraught with explosive potential. Only two years

before, an attempt to reclaim a fugitive by federal authorities in nearby

Oberlin had erupted in the "Oberlin-Wellington rescue," one of the most

publicized incidents in the pre-war antislavery struggle. While the Negro

in the case made good his escape, thirty-seven rescuers were brought be-

fore the United States Circuit Court in Cleveland, forty miles away, to

stand trial for violation of the Fugitive Slave law. Two received jail sen-

tences and stiff fines, a decision later upheld three to two by the Ohio Su-

preme Court after it issued a writ of habeas corpus to have the cases brought

before it and judged on the basis of the constitutionality of the law. This