Information about the 1836 kidnapping of Peter John Lee was related in a recent article on the New York Almanack, “NY-CT Border Disputes & The Kidnapping of Freedom-Seeker Peter John Lee.”
Lee, an African American, was lured out of Connecticut, where he resided, to Rye in Westchester County, New York. Additional aspects of this incident can be gleaned from historical documents.
Although Peter John Lee was often described as a fugitive slave, several sources indicated that he had previously lived in Virginia as a free black man. First, the text that accompanied an illustration in the American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1839 called him a “free coloured man.” William Jay, a son of John Jay, took an interest in the case, and in a letter to city of New York Mayor Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence, observed that Lee was “supposed to have been” a free man. But, more conclusively, Lee’s wife, according to the First Annual Report of the New York Committee of Vigilance for the Year 1837, said that she and her husband had been “driven from Northampton, Va., some years ago, by the violence of the slaveholders of that place, who were determined to expel all free colored persons.” (Mrs. Lee was even presented at a meeting of the Committee.)
Lee was suspected of having been one of the black men who had stolen a boat in Virginia and traveled to New York. He could well have been a freeman who wanted to escape persecution, but who also wanted to help a number of enslaved men get to a free state. If so, he was the type of free black Virginia was anxious to get rid of: a free person of color who might well help slaves run away.
The men who captured Lee in Westchester, and who quickly put him aboard a ship to Virginia, did so under the authority of an arrest warrant from New York Governor William L. Marcy. Responding to a request from the governor of Virginia, Marcy, on October 12th, 1833, issued the warrant – directed to “the sheriff of the city and county of New York, and the sheriffs, constables, and the peace officers of the several counties in the… state.”
The warrant was incredibly imprecise, saying merely that the wanted men were charged with an unspecified felony committed in Northampton County, Virginia. Only a few of the 17 fugitives from justice were identified with a first and last name: the majority of those sought were identified only as Joe, Michael, James, etc. The warrant described them as “slaves, the property of several citizens of that commonwealth” (which, if correct with respect to Lee, would mean that he wasn’t a freeman). Any individuals apprehended by officers of the law were to be turned over – not to a magistrate for an extradition hearing – but instead to Edward R. Waddy, a sheriff from Virginia, who would see to it that they were returned to that state.
The warrant explains why it was necessary for Lee to be tricked into leaving Connecticut (by a man who was paid $1.50 for performing the task). Marcy’s arrest warrant was useless outside New York State. William Jay, who resided in Bedford in Westchester County, was outraged over Lee’s arrest, particularly because two of the men involved were law enforcement officers in the city of New York: Tobias Boudinot was a constable, and Daniel D. Nash was a marshal. Jay organized a meeting of Westchester citizens, held in Mount Pleasant a month after Lee was seized. They resolved that “the conduct of certain New York police officers in seizing a colored man…and hastily shipping him to the South…was an outrage on decency and humanity.” They urged the mayor of New York to remove the officers.
Jay conveyed this information to Mayor Lawrence in a letter dated January 4th, 1837. He also made some very interesting observations. Even if Lee’s capture was made under the authority of a warrant, “the unnecessary violence with which it was made, the indecent haste with which the prisoner was sent out of the State, and the profane and unfeeling language used by his captors in regard to him, are all calculated to excite deep disgust.”
Jay wrote that Lee had been handcuffed, and, also – reportedly – gagged. He was hurriedly taken to the city of New York “without application to any magistrate, or the exhibition of any legal authority.” And, “if the officers acted under a warrant, they were inexcusable…in not showing it to some of our citizens.” They should have “let it be known that they were discharging their duty as officers of justice, and that they were not the hired tools of a vile kidnapper.”
Marcy’s warrant “at a time when an able bodied man of any complexion is worth from $1,000 to $1,500 in the slave market, would in the hands of an unprincipled officer, if allowed…to seize and ship [persons],…prove a source of iniquitous wealth to himself, and of most tremendous calamity to the weak and unprotected. Any poor friendless unknown person, might…be publicly seized and handcuffed, and sent into interminable bondage.”
Jay advised the mayor that “slavery is not confined to one complexion, and that there is not a member of the Common Council of your city, who, if kidnapped, would be unsaleable on account of the whiteness of his skin.” He then summarized several cases where white people had been enslaved (or had nearly been enslaved).
Mayor Lawrence responded to Jay, with two letters. The first, dated January 9th, 1837, confirmed that Boudinot and Nash were officers of the law in the city. Boudinot, however, had been elected by the people, and they mayor thus had no authority to remove him. Nash, he wrote, as a marshal “holds a warrant from me.” Nash was away on business, but the mayor pledged to question him about the matter upon his return. He also expressed frustration that the matter had been brought to him, as, presumably, legal action against the alleged kidnappers could have been sought from the authorities in Westchester.
In a second letter (January 10th, 1837), Lawrence explained that Boudinot had shown him Marcy’s warrant, and told him that Lee was suspected of being “Henry,” which was one of the names listed in the warrant. Lee, Boudinot claimed, had admitted to being Henry – in front of witnesses (though, in all likelihood, the witnesses were the same men who had seized him).
As it turns out, Nash did get fired… but not because of his involvement with the capture of Lee. In 1837, in Savannah, Georgia, Nash had denounced John Hopper (son of Isaac T. Hopper) for intending to distribute abolitionist literature. This caused Hopper to be detained by the local authorities. But, on searching Hopper’s papers, they found nothing advocating abolition. Instead, he had materials in support of colonization, which were not considered objectionable. Upon Nash’s return to New York, according to the Liberator newspaper, the mayor sent for Nash and requested that he “account for his conduct in leading the mob to murder Hopper in Savannah.” (Hopper, though threatened, was not murdered, however.)
Nash, defiant, said that if he were fired, “I’ll make a business of it…I’ll catch them whenever and wherever I can find them.” He was indeed dismissed, and, when encountering black abolitionist David Ruggles on the street, told him: “I’ll make a business of it now. It don’t require a warrant from the mayor to catch n*****s.”
One might think that, having fallen out of favor (to at least some degree), Nash would’ve put the Lee incident behind him. However, when the 1839 edition of the Anti-Slavery Almanac was published, late in 1838 (a good two years after Lee had been spirited to Virginia), it included a sketch depicting Lee’s seizure, and the accompanying text said that Lee had been “kidnapped” by Boudinot, Waddy, John Lyon, and Nash.
In the summer of 1839, Nash filed a libel suit against the publisher of the Almanac, Seth W. Benedict. The defense tried to argue that Benedict had information from newspaper accounts that supported his belief that Lee had been unlawfully kidnapped…but information had come out–long before the Almanac was published – that Lee was arrested by authority of Marcy’s warrant. The defense tried to argue that the publication had only meant that Nash, et al., were guilty of common law kidnapping (a misdemeanor) and not felonious kidnapping. (This would have reduced the amount of damages due Nash, if he won his suit.) Nash prevailed in court, and Benedict was ordered to pay him a $1,500 award in the spring of 1841. Benedict requested a new trial, but that was not granted.
During the trial, an affidavit from Amos F. Hatfield was introduced as evidence. Hatfield told how, back in 1836, Nash, Boudinot, Lyon, and one or two others had stopped at a public house he kept in Mamaroneck, early one evening. They left, but returned about 10 o’clock that night, with a black man in custody. He asked about it, and was told they had a warrant from the governor. Hatfield did not mention if Lee was handcuffed, but perhaps he was, since Hatfield could tell that the men had him in custody. He did provide testimony that they bought Lee some liquor, and had “him sit up by the grate and warm himself. I say nothing otherwise but that they treated him perfectly kind.”
The legality of Marcy’s warrant – and, in particular, the way in which in was executed in Lee’s case – is questionable. But it can be concluded that its ultimate purpose was not so much to return an alleged felon to Virginia as to enslave Lee there. Once he arrived in that commonwealth, Lee was put on trial and sentenced to hanging, but was instead turned over to a slaveholder, said to be his master. Adding to the likelihood that the goal was to enslave men, rather than to bring them to justice, was the fact that a man called Isaac, who was one of the other men listed in Marcy’s warrant, had previously been returned to Virginia, tried and sentenced to death – but was instead pardoned and made a slave. (Isaac’s story was related in “More Legalized Kidnapping,” [Warsaw, NY] American Citizen, April 19th, 1837.)
Reportedly, Lee made a second attempt to escape Virginia, sometime before the summer of 1844. Lee’s story was summarized in “Peter John Lee: The Man Who Stole Himself” in the Emancipator on December 5th, 1844. That item consisted of a letter dated July 18th, 1844 in which William Johnston, the secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance, wrote that Lee had successfully escaped and was once again free.
Additional Sources: The correspondence between Wiliam Jay and Mayor Lawrence appeared in the Emancipator, April 8, 1841.
Court proceedings of Nash’s libel suit are printed in: State of New York. In Supreme Court. Seth W. Benedict, ads. Daniel D. Nash ; and in “Nash vs. Benedict,” Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Judicature, and in the Court for the Correction of Errors of the State of New-York, Vol. XXV, Albany: 1842, pp. 645-648. A transcription of the main proceedings also appeared in the Emancipator issue cited above.
Illustrations, from above: Kidnapping sketch from American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1839; and Portrait of Governor William L. Marcy courtesy Office of General Services/Empire State Plaza.