Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 9: Two Tales of Margaret Morgan


Facts often get lost in legal decisions. Prigg seems to be an interesting example of this phenomenon.

The official report relates that, as of 1832, “and for a long period before that time,” Margaret Morgan, a “negro woman,” was the slave for life, under the laws of the state of Maryland, of one Margaret Ashmore, a resident of Harford County, Maryland. “Some time in the year 1832,” Morgan escaped and fled from Maryland to Pennsylvania. She apparently settled in York County, Pennsylvania, where she resided until her arrest in (apparently) March 1837.

The report relates that Morgan gave birth to “children” in Pennsylvania. One child was born in Pennsylvania “more than a year after Margaret Morgan had fled and escaped from Maryland.” The implication, at least, is that one other child was born less than a year after Morgan fled, and was probably conceived in Maryland.

In February 1837, Margaret Ashmore appointed Edward Prigg, also a resident of Maryland, as “her agent or attorney, to seize and arrest the said negro woman, Margaret Morgan, as a fugitive from labor, and to remove, take and carry her from [Pennsylvania] into the state of Maryland, and there deliver her to” Ashmore.

As we will see, three other men – Nathan S. Bemis, Jacob Forward and Stephen Lewis, Jr. – were later indicted with Prigg. The court report does not relate whether Ashmore appointed them as her agents as well, or whether Prigg hired them as assistants, either in Maryland or Pennsylvania.

Prigg traveled to York County promptly after his appointment. Presumably, Ashmore and Prigg already knew of Morgan’s whereabouts. In the month of his appointment – February 1837 – Prigg appeared before a justice of the peace of York County, Thomas Henderson, Esq. It seems that Prigg was aware of and initially followed the procedures found in the 1826 Act, for he
made oath that the said negro woman, Margaret Morgan, had fled and escaped from the State of Maryland, owing service or labor for life, under the laws thereof, to the said Margaret Ashmore.

Prigg may have sought the arrest of Morgan’s children, as well as of Morgan herself, because Justice Henderson issued a warrant for “Morgan, and her children.” In accordance with the 1826 statute, the warrant was addressed to a local constable:
[T]he said Thomas Henderson . . . issued his warrant, directed to one William McCleary, then and there being a regularly appointed constable in and for York county, commanding him to take the said negro woman, Margaret Morgan, and her children, and bring them before the said Thomas Henderson, or some other justice of the peace for the said county . . ..

In accordance with the warrant, Constable McCleary “apprehend[ed]” Morgan and her children and brought them before Justice Henderson.

Then events took an odd turn. “Henderson thereupon refused to take further cognizance of said case.” Exactly what this means, or why Henderson acted as he did, the report does not say. Was he a quasi-abolitionist who could not bring himself to issue the certificates Prigg was seeking? Did he realize that he had been handed a political hot potato that he wanted nothing to do with?

I infer that Morgan and her children were released from custody because of what happened next. On April 1, 1837, Prigg, with the help of Bemis, Forward and Lewis, simply seized Morgan and her children and “carried [them] into Maryland, and delivered them to Margaret Ashmore.”

Professor Akhil Amar adds facts that make the story of Margaret Morgan and her children even more appalling than the pale outline provided by the court:
Marylander John Ashmore owned several slaves whom he had allowed to live in virtual freedom but never formally emancipated. One of these, Margaret, married James Morgan, a free black. The couple had several children in Maryland and later, with the apparent acquiescence of Ashmore’s heirs, moved to Pennsylvania, where for any years they lived openly as a free family. There, Margaret gave birth to one or more additional children, who under Pennsylvania law were free citizens born on free soil and thus fell far outside the fugitive-slave category. Eventually, Ashmore’s heirs decided to claim Margaret as their slave and sent Edward Prigg and others into Pennsylvania to recover their alleged property. The Prigg party dragged Margaret and her children into Maryland, where the blacks were treated as slaves and apparently sold.

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