The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case:

How Varying Attitudes Towards Slavery Affected the Outcome

Claire Harvey

Despite being fairly sparsely populated, the Ohio River and the river towns along its shores were booming centers of social and economic activity in the mid-nineteenth century. Beyond the surface, however, the Ohio River was an integral point of location for the Underground Railroad. (1) John Norris, a Kentucky slave owner residing on the banks of the Ohio River across from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, probably knew this all too well, for his slaves were prone to cross the river from time to time. In 1847, some of Norris's slaves were successful in reaching the Indiana, possibly by crossing the Ohio state line at Cincinnati, Ohio, and from there they eventually journeyed on to Michigan. It was not until two years later that Norris caught up with them and attempted to take his fugitive slaves back to Kentucky. In what became known as the "South Bend Fugitive Cases," John Norris petitioned to reclaim the escaped slaves. This case was not just a controversial litigation; it also exposed the impact of local cultural attitudes towards slavery at the time upon the outcomes of legal proceedings. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case involved two individual judges, each of whom examined the evidence and rendered quite a different judgment. One case took place in South Bend in front of the Probate Judge of St. Joseph County, Hon. Elisha Egbert. (2) The second case, which was a lawsuit filed by John Norris, took place in Indianapolis, Indiana, in front of the Circuit Court of the United States with U.S. Supreme Court Justice John McLean presiding over it. (3) By examining the proceedings of each judge, one can identify how perspectives of justice and judicial objectivity differed as a result of local community influence. Strong abolitionist views present in South Bend affected the outcome of the case there, and ultimately affected the destiny of the defendants.

Abolitionist vs. Proslavery

The mid-nineteenth century attitudes toward slavery were complex. No matter the location, one would have found a variety of opinion over slavery. This often led to heated discussions between individuals in the form of books, speeches, essays, sermons, lectures, and editorials. According to Gilbert Osofsky, the literature on these debates is far from lacking. After analyzing the various forms of these debates, Osofsky found that three main themes were most prevalent in the literature related to the slavery issue. These themes typically divided abolitionists from the proponents of slavery. Such themes looked at the condition of slavery in the eyes of God, the condition of slavery in the institution of American democracy, and the condition of slavery based upon a genetic or biological superiority of whites over blacks. (4)

The evangelical abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, a strong believer that slavery was an offense against God and the Bible, often testified that slavery was the worst form of sin. Weld and his followers spent their lives trying to spread their doctrine and convince their listeners of the evils of slavery. Weld preached the message that non-slaveholding Christians were just as guilty as slaveholders if they remained silent on the issue. (5) On the other side of this debate was Reverend B. M. Palmer. Although Palmer and Weld were both reading from the Bible, they held radically different interpretations of the biblical teaching on slavery. Palmer interpreted the Bible to say that blacks were destined to be servants for all time because they were the "cursed descendants of Ham." He also claimed that whites had been created separately from blacks and, further, that the serpent who had tricked Eve in the Garden of Eden had been one of these black men. Palmer insisted that "God entrusted the care of 'the black race' to Southern slaveholders." (6) These two "educated" men provide examples of how attitudes toward slavery could be swayed by particular interpretations of Christian theology, which served as a guiding force in this time and influenced opinions of both abolitionists and slaveholders. Indeed, during the 1830s-1840s the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches each split into northern and southern regional churches as a result of their radically different views on this very issue.

The second debate focused on the legitimacy of slavery as an institution of the American Democracy. How could leaders of the United States proclaim that it was a country of freedom if it permitted slavery? Our Founding Fathers, of course, had written and signed the Constitution in order to give liberties to themselves. They were not particularly bothered with the question about whether slaves should have freedoms because this was not an issue that mattered to them at the time. A number of them, including Thomas Jefferson, opposed slavery on moral grounds and later emancipated at least some of their slaves, yet their attitudes remained ambivalent. (7) The assertion that all men had been created equal, however, was an important topic of discussion for abolitionists. How could the United States say one thing and do another? Proslavery advocates also had a problem with the Constitution, for they did not believe that all men had been created equal. Instead, they argued that slavery had existed throughout history and that slaves comprised an essential part of the workforce in any thriving society. The only reason there were no white slaves was because there were already sufficient numbers of black slaves. In the Bible, Abraham had a slave woman and St. Paul ordered the runaway slave Philemon to return to his master. Proslavery advocates also argued that slaves were property, rather than human beings, and that their owners' rights were protected by the U.S. Constitution. (8) Such radically different interpretations of the U.S. Constitution in the mid-nineteenth century led people to question the state of American democracy.

The final theme that Osofsky found to be debated between abolitionists and proslavery was whether blacks were racially inferior to whites. Many abolitionists regarded blacks as an infant race that needed more time to grow before they could be judged in relation to whites. They were not being given a fair enough chance to prove that they were not inferior. In order for blacks to show that they were as worthy a race as whites, their chains would have to be broken and they would have to be granted the same liberties as whites. (9) Proslavery advocates, of course, saw this quite differently. They believed scientific proof established that blacks were biologically inferior. They regarded the human race not as a single race, but rather, as one separated into different species. Just as an owl differs from an eagle, so too a black person differs from a white. The proslavery scientists were brought in to prove which human "species" is inferior to the other based upon the size of a brain. These scientists concluded that the brains of blacks were significantly smaller on average than those of whites. Thus blacks must be the inferior species. (10)

The most important aspect to take away from these three debates between slavery supporters and abolitionists is that an individual's biases often exert a strong impact upon his or her fundamental assumptions. This helps explain why abolitionists could come at the issue of slavery from a very different perspective than proslavery advocates, and reach completely opposite conclusions. Of course, such debates raged at the time not only between individuals, but also within local communities. The fact that the initial hearing of the South Bend Fugitive Slave Case took place in a small courtroom in front of Judge Egbert from the probate court likely had a significant impact on the case's outcome. Elisha Egbert was a part of the Portage Township of St. Joseph County community. (11) Although there is no way of knowing for sure, his decision in the case may have been swayed by the strong abolitionist opinions of his fellow community members. Perhaps he held strong abolitionist views himself, but whatever the case there, he was certainly acquainted with many of these community leaders, and we know for certain is that the South Bend community had many abolitionist residents who became embroiled in the South Bend Fugitive Slave Case.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 vs. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850 are important to these cases because they would have been the laws that the judges of the cases looked at when deciding a verdict. The very first case that was brought in front of Judge Egbert in 1849 and also the first suit brought in the Seventh Circuit Court in 1849 would have used the law of 1793, while the final lawsuits that were brought in the Circuit Court of Judge McLean in the fall of 1850 would have subject to the law of 1850. Not only would these two laws be important factors, but the judges also would have had the recent U.S. Supreme Court Case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania to consider.

In 1793, the first fugitive slave law was put into effect. The portion that is important to the South Bend Fugitive Slave Case is the section that tackles how a fugitive slave should be brought back to the place from which he or she supposedly escaped. The law stated that the individual claiming a fugitive slave who was residing outside of his owner's state to be his could capture him or her and take him or her back to the owner's home state as long as he had a certificate that allowed the removal of that slave. A judge or magistrate would issue the certificate if he found that there was sufficient proof that they were, in fact, fugitive slaves. This became extremely important to the South Bend Fugitive case; indeed, it supplied the basis for how the outcome of the case was decided and whether or not the claimed fugitive slaves were to be set free. Another part of the law of 1793 that would prove to be important to the South Bend lawsuit was the portion that stated that any person who was proven to have aided the fugitives in their escape could be sued for a penalty of $500, payable to the owner of the slave(s). In the fall of 1850, John Norris would sue various members of the South Bend community who had aided his slaves in the Seventh Circuit Court in an attempt to collect this additional penalty in addition to recovering damages for the loss of his slaves. (12) In the end, however, he would fail to recover the penalty from the defendants because, under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law which had recently been enacted, the $500 reward was no longer to be offered. Instead, those who aided escaping slaves were now subject to a fine or imprisonment.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was put to the test in 1842 with the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. Slave owner, Edward Prigg, tried to take a black woman named Morgan, whom he claimed to be a fugitive slave, out of the state of Pennsylvania and back to his home without a proper certificate issued by a judge or magistrate. Lacking the proper documentation, Prigg was first taken to court and convicted of kidnapping, a conviction that Prigg appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed Prigg's conviction and, furthermore, in the majority opinion stated that "masters had a common law right of reception, and they could thus seize their slaves without any legal proceedings, as long as they did it without any breach of the peace." (13) Now Southerners could claim any black as a fugitive slave and remove them without going to a judge as long as they did so in a manner that complied with court limitations on public behavior. The outcome of this Supreme Court case would have been in the back of the minds of both Judge Egbert and Judge McLean (who issued the dissenting opinion in Prigg v Pennsylvania), and no doubt exerted an impact upon the two different outcomes of the South Bend cases.

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was amended and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed on September 18, 1850. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law made it easier for Southerners to claim and transport a slave back to his home, so that henceforth it did not really matter whether he was a freed black or a fugitive slave. Every county in the United States now had an appointed commissioner whose job it was to enforce this new fugitive law. The commissioners had the power to hold hearings and give out certificates of removal of blacks out of state. The commissioners could also call for U.S. marshals and the U.S. military as a means of enforcement of the law. This new law also stated that any person who interfered with the law could be fined or jailed, thus making the aiding of fugitive slaves a criminal offense. The law was also specific about how fugitive slaves should behave in court. Slaves were prohibited from testifying before the commissioner, and the only ways in which they could have an attorney represent them was if they could pay for one themselves, or, alternatively, if one volunteered to represent them. Even the way that the commissioner was paid worked against the fugitive's favor. (14) "The commissioners were to be paid by the claimants, receiving five dollars if they held against a claimant but ten dollars if they found in the claimant's favor and ordered the black returned to slavery." (15) All of these prejudiced aspects of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made life harder for freed blacks as well as for fugitive slaves. They lived in constant fear of being seized by Southerners and forced back into slavery. Such biased laws were predisposed to favor slave owners, but in John Norris's case, both the first trial in South Bend and the second trial in the Seventh Circuit Court were concluded prior to the enactment of this law. Only the final lawsuits to collect a $500 penalty under the 1793 law from each of those accused of having aided in the escape of the Powells were filed after the new law had been enacted.

The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case

The story of the South Bend Fugitive Slave Case begins with slave owner, John Norris, and his slaves, the Powell Family, who lived on the banks of the Ohio River in Boone County, Kentucky, on the south side of the Ohio River across from Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Norris had a total of six slaves--Lucy and David Powell together with their four sons, Lewis, George, James, and Samuel. Norris had allowed some of his land to be cultivated and harvested by the Powell family to keep for themselves, and would on occasion allow them to cross the river to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, to sell their crops for money of their own. However, despite this leniency, and possibly because of it, late on the night on October 9, 1847, David and his family set off for the North, using the Underground Railroad, escaping first to Indiana and eventually settling in Michigan. It took until the next morning for the escape to be discovered and an alarm to be given. Norris and a party of about forty men set out to find the family. After two months their party was still far behind, and had only found a few articles of clothing that had belonged to the Powells. Discouraged, Norris and his men eventually gave up the pursuit. (16) About two years later, however, Norris received information that the family was in Cass County, Michigan. With this new information, Norris and a group of eight men set out once again in search of the fugitive slaves. (17) Eventually, on September 27, 1849 Norris and his group of men found and forcibly entered the new home of the Powell family. The extent of the violence that went on during the capture depended upon who told the story. According to Lucy Powell, Norris and his armed men violently broke into her house and threatened the entire household. (18) According to Norris, however, he and his men had peacefully arrived at the house, informed the Powells that they had come to take them back to Kentucky, upon which the younger boys and Lucy had all expressed a willingness to return to Kentucky with little objection. (19) At the time, David and his son Samuel were away from the household, but Lucy and their other three sons were still there. The Powells' oldest son, Lewis, had just recently married and now was forcibly separated from his new wife. Norris and his men immediately took custody of Lucy and her three sons, bound and placed them in a covered wagon, and set off for Kentucky, traveling through the state of Indiana. (20)

Local residents of the Michigan community in which the Powells had been residing, having learned of their abduction, quickly took up pursuit of Norris and the Powells. One of these pursuers was a neighbor of the family, Mr. Wright Mauldin, an active member of the Underground Railroad in Michigan who had aided in other daring escapes away from slavery. Mauldin, along with the Powells' family lawyer, Edwin B. Crocker, and other local members of the South Bend community, were successful in overtaking Norris's wagon just outside of the city of South Bend, Indiana, and stopped them from moving on any farther. Mauldin drafted, signed, and swore to a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, asserting that Lucy and her children were free blacks who had been kidnapped in Michigan and were now being deprived of their liberty illegally "under the pretense that they were fugitive slaves." (21) Hon. Elisha Egbert, Probate Judge of St. Joseph County, Indiana, with special authorization to issue and try writs of habeas corpus, issued the writ demanding that Norris deliver the abducted Powell family members to the court and show valid reason for their detention. Deputy Sheriff Russell Day, accompanied by several armed local citizens, went in search of Norris and his men and the captives to serve the writ. Norris and his group, it seems, were sufficiently intimidated by Deputy Sheriff Day and his men that they agreed to halt their trek back to Kentucky long enough for a trial to be convened to investigate Norris's claim that the Powells were his slaves. Meanwhile, a cautious Norris insisted that his captives be held securely in jail until he could obtain counsel. (22)

As word spread around town that there were kidnappers of free blacks within the town's vicinity, anxiety and fear spread throughout the community. Hundreds of Cass County neighbors arrived in South Bend for the hearing in support of the Powell family. Norris hired two prominent lawyers from northern Indiana, Messrs. Liston and Stanfield, to present his defense, while Messrs. Deavitt and Crocker volunteered to represent the Powells. (23) Working with his lawyers, Norris returned the following writ to the court:

I John Norris the person to whom the within writ is directed, do hereby return the same, as commanded with the within-named persons in my custody, that I am a resident of Boone County, Kentucky, that the within-named persons are my slaves according to the laws of Kentucky, and are my property according to the laws of said State, that I have a just claim to the services of the within-named persons, agreeably to the laws of said State, and that said persons named in the within writ, sometime in the month of October, 1847, absconded and fled from my service in said State, and fled and took refuge in the State of Michigan, where I found them on the 27th instant, and then and there arrested them as fugitives from labor, and took them into my custody, and I am now on my journey proceeding to Boone County, in the State of Kentucky, with the within-named persons as my own slaves and property, as such fugitives from labor. (24)

Arguments by both sides continued until nightfall as to whether or not Norris should be allowed to take his slaves back to Kentucky, or whether instead, as the captives' attorneys argued, he had failed to meet the provisions of the Federal law of 1793. The entire courthouse was filled with spectators who were anxious to learn the decision of Judge Egbert. When the decision was read that the Powell family be ordered to be released, the courthouse buzzed with excitement. The judge ruled that, under the Federal law of 1793, Norris did not have a certificate that was required by the act of Congress for him legally to hold his captives and transport them through a state other than the state in which he had found them. Since Norris had found the Powells in Michigan but was now transporting them through Indiana, the law required him to go before a judge of the circuit court or of the state or county, in this case within Indiana if not previously in Michigan, and provide proof of his ownership of the slaves in order to obtain such a certificate. Because Norris had not done this, Judge Egbert decided to let the Powells go. (25)

Not surprisingly, Norris was outraged at the court's decision. What happened next depends upon whose rendition one believes. According to the version of the story published by the Anti-Slavery Office in New York, Norris and his men attempted to seize the captives. One of Norris's counsels, Liston, announced that Norris and his men would shoot anyone who attempted to interfere with the seizure and that they would be justified in doing so. Unarmed, the citizens in the courthouse wisely decided not try to intervene in any way, but afterwards, rather than trying to take the Powells out of town by force, Norris and his men, vastly outnumbered, quietly allowed the sheriff to lock the Powells up in jail for safe keeping. According to the Circuit Court report from the trial that took place later, Norris and his group of men had drawn their weapons, warned the crowd not to approach, and then asked the sheriff to keep the Powells in his jail rather than let them escape. The sheriff had allegedly seen Norris do "all he could to pacify the crowd," and agreed to do so. (26) Despite the differences in the stories of the intensity of the threats in the courthouse, the Powells were in jail once again, this time with the sheriff holding them as an agent of Norris because, it now came to light, during the period of the lawsuit Norris had obtained a writ under a law of the State of Indiana (even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled such state laws on fugitive slaves unconstitutional) by which he claimed legally to own the slaves. (27) Meanwhile, some 150-400 armed blacks from the Michigan community from which the Powells had been abducted arrived in South Bend, only adding to the racial tensions there. (28)

Days later, another legal proceeding convened as Norris still hoped to take the Powells out of the county in route to the Ohio River. Norris, meanwhile, had been expending energy trying to persuade the local residents that he was a kind master. He was now telling them how he had given the Powells "ground to cultivate for themselves, and many other privileges, that he permitted them to go to Lawrenceburgh, in Indiana, whenever they pleased, to sell their garden stuff, and that they had taken advantage of this liberty to run away." (29) Supporters of the Powells later argued that this constituted his granting permission for the Powells to move to a free state. Other witnesses later recalled that Norris had insisted that they had only been given permission to "attend the market at a village on the Kentucky side" of the Ohio River, and that the Powells had crossed the river to the Indiana side without his permission. (30) With good reason, therefore, Norris was anxious about the upcoming trial and what might be his final opportunity to prove that the Powells were in fact his property. (31) In the end, he was unable to convince the court and, after a lengthy hearing, the court decided once again that the Powells should be released. This time, after the decision of the court had been read aloud, the Powell family was immediately swarmed by friends and neighbors and taken away to their homes with cheers of freedom and rejoicing. (32) David Powell later told an interviewer of his anxiety throughout all of this: "I once had a wife, she was taken from me and sold South. I have never seen her since, I know not whether she is dead or alive, and when the news came, that this, my second wife, was in the hands of the Kentuckians, I felt that I had nothing more to live for." (33) Unfortunately, this would not be the last that the community of South Bend would hear of John Norris.

On December 21, 1849, John Norris filed a law suit in the United States Circuit Court, for the District of Indiana, against Leander B. Newton, George W. Horton, Edwin B. Crocker, Solomon W. Palmer, David Jodon, William Willmington, Lot Day, Jr., Amable M. LaPierre, and Wright Mauldin for their participation in the Powells' "escape" from South Bend as a last-ditch effort to recover the value of the Powell family to him as well as other damages. (34) Since Mauldin was a resident of Michigan rather than of the state of Indiana, the suit against him was dismissed. The other defendants were charged with having knowingly harbored, concealed, and enabled the four members of the Powell family to escape from the plaintiff, Norris, who put them up as being worth $2,500. The court commenced its session on May 20, 1850, with Norris represented by O. H. Smith and J. A. Liston, and the four defendants by Joseph G. Marshall and J. L. Jarnegin. (35) It was heard before Judge John McLean and a jury. McLean was Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1829 to 1861. (36) In this capacity he had issued a dissenting opinion in Prigg v Pennsylvania, arguing that Prigg should first have been obligated to prove that Morgan was his slave before removing her from the state of Pennsylvania. In 1837, McLean was assigned as Justice for the Seventh Circuit (covering Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan), in which capacity he was still serving at the time of the South Bend case. (37) During the trial, Kentucky Governor Crittenden visited Indianapolis at the invitation of the governor of Indiana to address a Union mass meeting. Judge McLean dismissed the trial hear Governor Crittenden's address before the convention, which the jurors also attended.

The Court was adjourned over to attend this great convention, over which Judge Huntington presided. Crittenden, of course, was called upon to address the meeting. This afforded him a favorable opportunity, which was not neglected, of lecturing the citizens of Indiana upon their constitutional duties to the South, one of the most important of which, he seemed to think, was this in relation to restoring fugitive slaves, which he was very sorry to say had been so often violated to the great annoyance of Kentucky slaveholders. He remarked, however, that he would give Indiana credit for one thing, which was that whenever a Kentuckian had applied to her courts to enforce the law of 1793, he had always secured his claim, and he hoped Kentucky would never have any reason to complain in this respect, otherwise it might weaken her attachment to the Union. (38)

Other prominent speakers addressed the convention, reminding those in attendance (again including the jurors) that "it was all-important to sacrifice a few of these 'fanatical abolitionists,' for the good of this 'glorious Union.'" (39) Judge McLean also delivered a lengthy charge to the jury reminding them that "the act of Congress of 1793 gives an action to the plaintiff for the damages received." (40) Not surprisingly, the jurors ruled in favor of Norris this time and the worth of each person was decided upon. Lucy at age 40 was valued at $500, Lewis at age 20 was worth $800, George at age 16 was worth $750, James at age 14 was worth $700 and the plaintiff's expenses at South Bend was worth $165.80 with the jury assessing the damages at $2,856. (41) John Norris successfully received compensation from the court for lost property when just a few months earlier it had been decided in another court that they were not his property to begin with. By this time, however, the Powells were back in Michigan. Meanwhile, arguing that the newly-enacted Fugitive Slave Law of September 1850 applied only to cases arising after its passage, between the spring and fall of 1850 Norris's attorneys filed twelve suits against 15 defendants, seeking to collect a $500 penalty from each of the defendants in accordance with the law of 1793. In May 1851, however, the court decided in favor of the defendants on this issue. (42)

The South Bend Abolitionist Community

The county of Saint Joseph in Indiana was known for being a home to a population of African Americans. Not only was it a place that African Americans could call home, but it was also a place that was home to many prominent abolitionists. John Norris targeted many of these abolitionists as being aids to the escape of the Powells. It seemed that Norris had no proof besides the simple fact that they were known abolitionists in the area. John Norris sued Leander B. Newton, George W. Horton, Edwin B. Crocker, Solomon W. Palmer, David Jodon, William Willmington, Lot Day, Jr., Amable M. LaPierre, and Wright Mauldin. Four of those men were known abolitionists in St. Joseph County, one of those men was a known abolitionist from Michigan, and one of those men, Lot Day, Jr., was the sheriff of St. Joseph County.

The first noteworthy abolitionist from South Bend was Solomon Palmer. Palmer was first an active abolitionist in New York but moved to South Bend in the early 1840s. He owned a mill that was located south of the city. This mill was the site of Underground Railroad activity. Esse Bissell Dakin wrote about this in the South Bend Daily Tribune on April 25, 1899. He stated that:

Mr. Palmer owned and operated a mill ten miles south of South Bend in the midst of dense woods and frequently fugitives were seen by him dodging about in the underbrush. Upon one occasion, when driving home with his son, they saw three negroes by the roadside. Mr. Palmer called to them and they were quick to recognize a friend. Leaving his son to walk back to the mill, he drove the fugitives to his home where, behind locked doors and closely drawn shades, Mr. Palmer gave them supper and they rested several hours. Later in the night he drove them to Niles, where Mr. LaPierre took them in charge, procuring tickets and putting them on the train for Detroit from which point they reached Canada. (43)

This is also where we see that Amable LaPierre took some part in the Underground Railroad. It seems that he was willing to risk going to a train station and buying tickets for African Americans. This could have been an extremely risky thing to do simply for the fact that it was done completely in the public eye. If the wrong person saw or caught wind of this action then LaPierre could have found himself in trouble. John Norris must have known about some of these abolitionist actions that Palmer and LaPierre had undertaken and decided on that basis that they had something to do with the Powells' escaping.

The other two abolitionist supporters from South Bend are Leander B. Newton and Edwin B. Crocker. In the same South Bend Daily Tribune article, Dakin mentions Newton, as well as other members of the community, as being active supporters of the Underground Railroad in South Bend. He however does not state whether they were actual conductors or not. What he does say is that "not all of the gentlemen mentioned harbored fugitives or conducted them to places of safety, but they contributed money and then, as now, the success of any undertaking depended largely upon the amount of money at hand." (44) We, however, do know more about Edwin B. Crocker. Edwin was the attorney who defended the Powells. Dakin described him as "one of the most prominent abolitionists in South Bend and his name was known to workers on the routes both east and west." (45) The fact that Crocker had this abolitionist reputation and, even more importantly, the fact that he represented the Powells probably had a lot to do with why Norris seemed to dislike him so much. These men were prominent members of the South Bend community. They were just a few of probably many people who held abolitionist views in the area.


The various attitudes towards slavery obviously affected nineteenth-century Americans in very different ways. Clearly the abolitionists looked at the slavery issue very differently from proslavery advocates. Where the latter would have seen a black slave who was inferior to them racially and belonged in chains, the former would have recognized a human being who was being deprived of his or her liberties given from birth. These attitudes affected many people's day-to-day lives, and it also impacted legal outcomes in court. This helps explain how the South Bend Fugitive Slave Case could be looked so at differently by two different judges. One judge was looking at the case in his hometown community and was surrounded by strong emotions and passion siding towards the Powells. The other judge looked at the case in a community that was distanced from the emotions. Both judges had different opinions on how the case should have gone. They both looked at the same law and to some extent agreed. They both agreed that John Norris should have had the legal certificate that claimed the Powells were his property and that he could take them out of state. The difference was that Judge Egbert was not convinced that the Powells were legally Norris's slaves while Judge McLean believed that they were. The South Bend community no doubt had something to do with that. Had they not been so pro-abolitionist and also passionately certain that the Powells either had never been Norris's slaves or else were free blacks because they had been given permission by Norris to leave the state in order to sell produce at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, the end of this story might have been very different.

1. J. Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2002), 103.

2. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, Involving the Right to a Writ of Habeas Corpus (New York: Anti-Slavery Office, 1851), retrieved from the Library of Congress, (accessed July 27, 2016), 2.

3. "Important Decision," Richmond Weekly Palladium, 19 June 1850, p. 2, col. 1.

4. Gilbert Osofsky, The Burden of Race: A Documentary History of Negro-White Relations in America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1967), 86.

5. Ibid., 87.

6. Ibid., 90.

7. Ibid., 95.

8. Ibid., 99.

9. Ibid., 101-103.

10. Osofsky, The Burden of Race, 105-106.

11. 1850 United States Census, Portage, St. Joseph County, Indiana, digital image s.v. "Elisha Egbert,"

12. Encyclopedia of African American History 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, vo. 2, Oxford University Press, s.v. "Fugitive Slave Law of 1793," 72.

13. Ibid., 73.

14. Ibid., 74.

15. Ibid., 74-75.

16. History of St. Joseph County, Indiana (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman & Co., 1880), 618.

17. John McLean, Circuit Court of the United States, Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Circuit Court of the United States, For the Seventh Circuit, vol. 5 (Cincinnati: H.W. Derby & Co., 1855), 92-106 at 93.

18. Paul Finkelman, "'The Law, and Not Conscience, Constitutes the Rule of Action': The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case and the Value of 'Justice Delayed,'" The Constitution, Law, and American Life: Critical Aspects of the Nineteenth-Century Experience, ed. Donald G. Nieman (Athens & London: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 25.

19. McLean, Reports of Cases, 93-94.

20. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, 1-2.

21. Ibid., 2; Carol E. Mull, The Underground Railroad in Michigan (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010), 62.

22. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, 2-3.

23. Ibid., 3.

24. Ibid., 4.

25. Ibid.

26. McLean, Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Circuit Court of the United States, For the Seventh Circuit, vol. 5, 96.

27. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, 5.

28. McLean, Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Circuit Court of the United States, For the Seventh Circuit, vol. 5, 97.

29. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, 8.

30. McLean, Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Circuit Court of the United States, For the Seventh Circuit, vol. 5, 102-103.

31. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, 7.

32. Ibid., 8.

33. Ibid., 10-11.

34. Norris v Newton et al., in McLean, Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Circuit Court of the United States, For the Seventh Circuit, vol. 5, 92-106.

35. Ibid., 9.

36. Robert M. Cover, Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Press (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975), 243.

37. Cover, Justice Accused, 260.

38. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, 12-13.

39. Ibid., 13.

40. McLean, Reports of Cases Argued and Decided in the Circuit Court of the United States, For the Seventh Circuit, vol. 5, 104.

41. The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, 13-14. Despite his dissenting view in Prigg v Pennsylvania, the New York Anti-Slavery Society was quite critical of Judge McLean in this instance, and especially of his charge to the jury. See ibid., 22-29.

42. Ibid., 29-31.

43. Esse Bissell Dakin, "The Underground Railroad," South Bend Daily Tribune, 25 April 1899, p. 6-7.

44. Ibid., 6.

45. Ibid.