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books The Kidnapping Club

As this book shows, writes reviewer Rosen, “the slave trade persisted in New York in the decades before the Civil War because the city was the capital of the Southern slave economy.”

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The Kidnapping Club
Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War
Jonathan Daniel Wells
Bold Type Books
ISBN-13: 9781568587523

All New Yorkers need to read this book. By recalling a truly painful era of the city’s history, it clarifies a deeper, structural problem that continues to haunt city life today.

Slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827, but the slave trade lived on in the city until the Civil War. The Kidnapping Club carefully documents how the slave trade lived on in two complementary forms. First, northern free Blacks as well as self-liberated former slaves who fled to the city from the slave states of the South lived in fear of being kidnapped by organized slave catchers and taken south into slavery. Second, “slaver” ships regularly stopped in New York harbor with numerous African slaves hidden on board as cargo to be sold as part of a lucrative, if illegal, business.

As Jonathan Wells stresses, the slave trade persisted in New York because the city was in the decades before the Civil War the capital of the Southern slave economy. The city’s business community of major banks, insurance companies and shipping industry financed and facilitated the cotton trade. Many of the leaders of this community played a decisive role in city social life and politics, including control over the powerful Democratic Party. Together, they backed the authority of the Constitution’s “Fugitive Slave Clause” guaranteeing slavery. Equally critical, city police, leading lawyers and judges (state and federal), with the support of the growing Irish immigrant community, colluded with organized slave catchers to seize, jail and transport Black people, including young children, into slavery.

The author artfully forges a tension between two historical characters who symbolized the kidnapping battles played out in the city during the pre-Civil War decades. On one side stood Captain Isiah Rynders, a U.S. Marshal and a leading kidnapper; on the other was David Ruggles, a courageous Black abolitionists and journalist.

Rynders, originally from Waterford, NY, was a gambler on Mississippi River steamboat who reportedly killed a man after a card game. He fled back to New York and was appointed to the Marshall’s service where he—along with officers Tobias Boudinot and Daniel D. Nash—targeted Black as fugitives. Any Black person could be accused of being an allegedly run-away slaves and seized walking on the street, working on the docks, at home in the middle of the night and even kids on their way to school.

In pre-Civil War New York, the police were underpaid and made money through accepting bribes as well as by securing lucrative rewards from seizing and sending alleged “fugitive Black people to the South or a fee for the sale of free Black person. Because the courts were run by the Democrats, graft and corruption were accepted judicial procedures. And most judges were notorious racists who thought little of Black people and were eager to go along with police charges.

Ruggles was born in Connecticut in 1810 when the spirit of the Revolution still glowed. At age 16, he moved to New York and became an abolitionist activist. He was a prolific contributor to newspapers, including his own paper Mirror of Liberty, published numerous pamphlets and contributed to abolitionist papers like The Liberator. He named “The New York Kidnapping Club” and published a list those he believed participated in kidnappings. Going further, he boarded ships in the harbor in search of Black captives or for signs of participants in the illegal slave trade; and he helped forge the Underground Railroad, thus assisting self-liberated fugitives to safety in the North or to freedom in Canada.

Ruggles was joined by a small but activist antislavery community that included Horace Dresser, Arthur Tappan, Charles B. Ray and Elizabeth Jennings. In 1837, he helped found the New York Committee of Vigilance, a biracial organization opposed to the kidnapping of innocent Black residents as well as self-liberated former slaves. 

They petitioned for jury trials in the cases of those arrested as fugitives.

Not unlike today’s supporters of Black Lives Matter, Black and white activists in pre-Civil War New York claimed that law enforcement was mostly little more than legalized racism. In addition. Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray were married in Ruggles’ New York home after they fled Maryland. He ran a bookstore and was physically attacked, his store burned; he was hounded by the police and even briefly imprisoned. Sadly, by his 30s, he was nearly blind and moved to Massachusetts.

The city’s powerful pro-slavery movement based its support for Southern slavery and slave kidnapping on the Constitution’s “Fugitive Slave Clause” (i.e., Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3). The author’s arguments would have been strengthened had he provided some background on this critical clause. It stipulated that “no person held to service or labor” would be released from bondage in the event they escaped to a free state, thus requiring northern free cities like New York to return the self-emancipated to their southern enslavers. 

In 1793, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act that added more enforcement teeth to the original Clause, explicitly stating that owners of enslaved people and their “agents” had the right to search for escapees within the borders of free states. Henry Clay promoted what was known as the “Compromise of 1850” that further strengthened Fugitive Slave Act to forestall growing talk of Southern secession.

The revised act compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaways and denied escaped people the right to a jury trial, among other actions. The new act was met by fierce resistance in many anti-slavery states, including upstate New York. The new act was adopted as the Underground Railroad reached its peak as many self-emancipated former slaves fled to Canada to escape U.S. jurisdiction.

The Kidnapping Club offers readers painful account of how many Black people—both free and self-emancipated—were captured, jailed, judged and shipped south to live and suffer as slaves to support the profitable cotton economy. It also offers a detailed discussion of the economic and political motives that drove the institutionalized racism and pro-Southern beliefs among of many city leaders, especially the police and judiciary. Equally revealing, it presents a powerful description of Ruggles and other within the New York’s small but determined abolitionist movement.  

This thoroughly researched account reminds readers that New York was a pro-slavery city even as the nation was engulfed in the Civil War. Jonathan Wells recounts how the city’s leadership joined with the growing movement in the South to promote secession. While the South did secede, New York (white) citizens voted against Abraham Lincoln’s election but remained part of the Union. However, built-up anti-abolitionist sentiments exploded in the 1865 Draft Riot that saw Union soldier from the recent Battle of Gettysburg march on the city to suppress the uprising in which the Negro Orphan Asylum burned, numerous churches destroyed and about 100 people died, many of them Black.

Without acknowledging the racial conditions of New York during pre-Civil War era, especially the horrors inflicted by the “kidnapping club,” one cannoy fully understand—nor can society truly address—the complaints raised by the Black Lives Matter movement today. Racial oppression and suffering leave a deep and enduring scar that only true social change can remedy.

David Rosen's most recent book is Sex, Sin & Subversion: The Transformation of 1950s New York's Forbidden into America's New Normal. His writing critically explores American History, public policy, media technology and sexuality. His articles and book reviews have appeared in such diverse venues as Salon, Black Star News, Brooklyn Rails, Huffington Post, CounterPunch, Sexuality and Culture, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.