Saturday, January 16, 2016

Petersburg Citizens' Furor

Threats to the perceived order that slavery provided to citizens of the slaveholding states were often met with a furious response. Southerners banished suspected abolitionists and jailed others for "stealing" their human property. In like cases, it was not uncommon for vigilante justice to overrule law and order. Even when authorities maintained control an undercurrent of fury often surfaced.

An excellent case in point was that of William Baylis, who captained the Keziah.  Baylis aided five Petersburg slaves in making their escape via his small ship at that city's wharf along the Appomattox River. When the slaves' were noticed as missing, the Keziah was suspected as the culprit. Word spread fast and the Keziah was apprehended not too far from City Point, at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers. The schooner was boarded and the five slaves (four men and one woman) were found. The Keziah was towed back to Petersburg by a steamer named the Townes.

There, the June 4, 1858 issue of the Richmond Enquirer copied the Petersburg Express in describing the slave-stealing ship's reception:  
"As soon as this became known, which was not until five in the afternoon, crowds began to flock upon the wharves, and by six, the entire locality was dense with an indignant and excited people. The Mayor, the Sheriff, and several police officers appeared on the ground to prevent any act of violence that might be attempted, notwithstanding which, suggestions of tar and feathers, hanging, ducking, lashing, burning, and every conceivable method of retributive justice recognized in the code of the celebrated Judge Lynch, were rife amidst the crowd. Law abiding citizens expostulated, police officers frown downed all such hints, and other looked upon them as highly unworthy of men of sense and reason. In this manner the ferocity of the crowd was somewhat cooled down for the time.

At seven o'clock the Townes, with the schooner in her wake, appeared coming around the bend at Bates' Spring. The crowd was now greatly increased and the excitement more heated than ever. As they approached the wharf, the people crowded forward to the utmost extremity, many boldly daring the danger of tumbling into the river, to get a view of the crestfallen kidnappers."

The boats were secured to the shore and police were stationed to protect the prisoners. But when Baylis and his partner got off the boat at Petersburg, the crowd buzzed with hatred for the slave stealers.

"But no sooner had their feet touched the earth, than the excitement attained its highest pitch; shouts of 'hang him,' 'kill him,' were commenced; the throng pressed in from all sides; an attempt was made to seize the prisoners, and at one time the mob had attained such an ascendancy that the seizure of the mate from the hands of officer Butts, seemed unavoidable. Blows were struck at him, lunges made for his throat, and all sorts of attempts to drag him into the mob, followed without cessation."

However, other citizens helped the police protect the prisoners until they could be placed in the jail. The recovered slaves were transported on an omnibus that belonged to Powell's Hotel and presumably moved to a holding cell as well.

The Keziah was confiscated. State law dictated that Baylis could  receive a fine of $500 and time in the state penitentiary of three to ten years for each indictment. One source that I found indicated that Baylis received a forty year conviction, but was eventually released in March 1865.

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