The recent New York Almanack post, “Kidnapped Into Slavery On The Hudson River” reprinted an early report of the crime by the New York Evening Post. The accused kidnappers were put on trial (and convicted).
This incident is one of the approximately 50 case studies included in my book Solomon Northup’s Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens before the Civil War (Praeger, 2016). The following is adapted from the account of the incident which appears there.
David Treadwell was one of a number of people of color whom James H. Thompson planned to take from New York for the purpose of selling them as slaves in the South. (There are discrepancies in the number and names of victims. The Evening Post listed: Stephen, age 12; Jacob, 19; Hannah, 23; Mink, 18; Mary, 8; Harvey, 10; Henry James, 20; Caty, 29, and Ann Freedland. But in The New-York City-Hall Recorder, for the Year 1817, Freedland’s surname is given as Freeland, and the following names of victims are given: Stephen Neros, Mingo Smith, Catharine Daniels, and David Treadwell. It also says there were two children, whose names were not given.)
Though Treadwell had been a slave, it was determined that, because he had been kidnapped previously, he was a free person according to state law. Thompson, a resident of Georgia, was known to authorities in the city of New York as an “old offender” who had had dealings during the winter of 1816–1817 with a Captain Storer, who had taken kidnapped blacks from New York and Philadelphia to Baltimore to be sold. Thompson had been arrested in North Carolina while conveying some of those victims to Georgia.
Thompson came back to New York in the spring of 1817 and, with a man named Crabtree, devised a plan to obtain people of color and carry them to the South where they would be sold for a large profit. Thompson purchased a schooner, the Creole of New York, hired William Stillwell as its master, and enlisted helpers Royal A. Bowen and Moses Nichols. Nichols ran a brothel and/or gambling house.
Traveling to Albany and Poughkeepsie, the men (mainly Nichols) bought slaves. (In New York State, the process of “gradual emancipation” was in progress at the time. Since eventually all enslaved persons would be free, some people who owned slaves were willing to sell them at low cost while they could still get something for them. Other owners simply decided to emancipate their “servants” and disassociate themselves from the whole ugly matter.) They told the sellers the slaves were meant for their own use (it was against New York law at that time to export slaves to other states). The victims were told several stories: “At one time they were told they would be employed as gentlemen’s servants; at others they were to be hostlers.” Treadwell was told he was to be taken north, up the Hudson River.
One woman, taken away from Poughkeepsie, “during the whole passage was observed to read frequently in the bible [sic], and at other times to weep and refuse all other sustenance offered her.” When the captain asked why, she said she feared she would be taken out of the country.
The various victims — two of whom were from Albany, six from Poughkeepsie, and one from the city of New York — were gathered at Nichols’ house on Love Lane, until they were taken by carriage one rainy night to the schooner. “This [number of victims] being a tolerable cargo, and delays dangerous, they were preparing to depart with their booty.”
On the morning of June 27th, while the schooner was in the Hudson River, a boat rowed out to it. In the boat were brothers Samuel and Joseph Willets, members of the Vigilance Committee, which had been tipped off by a Poughkeepsie man named Kelly that some scheme was afoot. Hailing the schooner, the Willets boarded it and inquired who was on board besides those who were on deck. Thompson said there were only two crew members. The question was posed again, and a person peeked through a crack in the door of a cabin, and a voice was heard to say that there were other people on board. Two women emerged from the cabin. The hold was then opened, and more people came up on deck.
Thompson explained that two of them were his slaves, and the others had been put on board by Nichols and Bowen. He was, he said, bound for Poughkeepsie and Albany to take on a load of cheese he intended to carry to Baltimore. Joseph Willets left to notify the police, and Thompson tried to leave in the boat, but Samuel Willets told him to stay on the schooner until his brother returned. Police officers soon came and took Thompson and his cohorts into custody, and the schooner was seized by the Customs House.
At the trials of Thompson and Bowen, prosecutors (one of whom was Peter A. Jay, son of founding father John Jay) argued that several of the blacks were actually free, and that the offenders were guilty of kidnapping. Defense counsel insisted all the blacks were slaves, and that the defendants were only guilty of transporting slaves out of the state.
One of the points argued during the trial involved a change that had been made to state law on March 31st, 1817. Whereas the statute previously had defined the crime of kidnapping as applying to persons of color “not being a slave,” the latter wording had been deleted, so that the kidnapping statute applied to any person of color.
The jury found both defendants guilty, but more court sessions took place the following term, after the defense appealed. Some of the victims now testified, including Treadwell. He was at first objected to as a witness by the defense, who said he was a slave who belonged to Nichols (and therefore not eligible to testify in the case), but the prosecution argued that because Thompson had been previously convicted of trying to send Treadwell out of the state, Treadwell had gained his freedom, per state law.
In his charge to the jury, the mayor [though the mayor’s name was not given in the trial record, Jacob Radcliff, a former jurist, held the office at the time] told them: “On this trial, some of these people of color taken on board this vessel appear to be slaves; the others free.” Both defendants were again found guilty. Bowen, as a mere accomplice, was fined $25.00. Thompson was sentenced to three years in prison, though he reportedly escaped not long after being sent to the penitentiary.
The most comprehensive recounting of this case appears in Daniel Rogers, The New-York City Hall Recorder for the Year 1817 (New York, Clayton & Kingsland, 1817). Accessible via Google Books.
Various newspapers carried a version of the New York Evening Post article. A separate report appeared as “Kidnappers Taken,” in the New-York Daily Advertiser (June 30, 1817).
Illustrations, from above: portion of article from the New York Daily Advertiser; header for the kidnapping case in New-York City-Hall Recorder; and portrait of Jacob Radcliff, who presided at trial of Thompson and Bowen courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.
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