Running From The Law

The slave story that sparked a movement in Wisconsin

A dark night in March

The night that would forever change Joshua Glover’s life started with a bottle of whisky and a deck of cards. It ended in a prison cell.

Nearly two years a free man since an earlier escape from a Missouri plantation in 1852, Glover believed he had successfully slipped into a life of obscurity in Racine, Wis. — a city that was developing a reputation for its strong abolitionist ties.

But a new law — the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850  — was suddenly changing everything for slaves in the North. No longer was an escape to the northern, free states enough. Now slave owners had the right to venture north and return escaped slaves to lives of indentured servitude — the only true path to freedom was one that led all the way up to Canada.

Rumor had it slave catchers were roaming throughout Racine looking for fugitive slaves to return to their masters for a hefty fee in the South. 

Perhaps a bit complacent from his two years as a free man, or perhaps completely unaware of the potential danger he faced remaining in Racine, Glover didn’t flee even as a warrant for his arrest had bee issued by a district judge in Milwaukee.

A strong, working-age man, like Glover, would have been incredibly valuable property to own, and so Glover’s former owner Bennami Garland had put out notices of a two hundred dollar reward (equivalent to $3,890 in 2014 dollars), should anyone return him to St. Louis.‚Äč

Even as Glover sat down to play cards in his home with two other free black men in Racine that night in March 1854, reports suggest he had no idea the trying journey that was about to begin.

After all, he had been free for two years now.


Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID 40836

But then — much to his surprise — there was a knock at the door.

Before Glover knew it, he was shackled, beaten, thrown in the back of a wagon and whisked away 25 miles to a prison in Milwaukee.

By the time he had arrived at his destination at 3 A.M. the next morning, last night’s events had become much more clear: He had been kidnapped by Garland and a pair of Garland’s marshals and he was now on his way back St. Louis. After a quick stop in Milwaukee to make sure that everything was in order with the Milwaukee district judge, it appeared they would be back on their way.

In the span of a few hours things had become bleak for a man that had — one day earlier — been leading a productive life as a free man in Racine.

Now, just one day later it seemed he would be returned to a life of slavery in St. Louis. 

Waking up in prison

Waking up in prison

By the 1850s, Milwaukee was a burgeoning industrial city. The county jail, where Glover spent the night March 11, was located just a few blocks from Lake Michigan in the heart of the city. Lithograph by David William Moody, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington D.C. 20540


A newspaperman caught wind of the incident and telegraphed the news of the kidnapping to fellow editor, Sherman Booth, of the Milwaukee Free Democrat — hoping that he might be able to intercept Glover before it was too late.

Booth already had a long history of support for the abolitionist movement. After growing up in Davenport, New York, he had been raised up in various religious and reform movements by his father, who was a staunch supporter of the abolitionist movement.

When he moved to Wisconsin in 1848 — just days before Wisconsin became a state — he promptly established an abolitionist paper called the American Freeman. He also helped establish the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party to help uniform efforts in the abolitionist movement.

And so when word arrived from Racine that a free man had been kidnapped, Booth immediately jumped to action. He rode up and down the streets of Milwaukee on horseback gathering a crowd of around 500 disgruntled Milwaukee citizens to protest Glover’s kidnapping.

“Freemen, to the rescue!” he cried, according to the Free Democrat.


After less than one day in a Milwaukee prison, Glover broke free and escaped March 11, 1854. Today a marker stands outside the fomer jail in commemoration. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

Demanding that they see Glover, the crowd grew more unruly, eventually requesting that the sheriff of the jail give them the keys to the prison cell. When they were denied, some of the stronger men in the crowd began to break down the doors to Glover’s cell.

Suddenly — for the second time in less than a day — Glover was once again on the move, this time in the company of Milwaukee abolitionists and headed to Waukesha, 25 miles west.

Upon his arrival in Waukesha, Glover was introduced to Chauncey C. Olin, a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Olin, a man who would become infatuated with his own role in the abolitionist movement, recorded his entire encounter leading Glover to freedom and the aftermath of that decision in his memoir, “Reminiscences of the busy life of Chauncey C. Olin,” which he published in 1893.

As soon as they deemed it safe, Olin explains in his memoir that Glover was returned to Racine for a few days, before it was safe to transport him all the way up to Canada — where his freedom could not be revoked.

In the span of only a few days, Glover had gone from free, to slave, to free man all over again.

Meanwhile, Garland felt he had been robbed.

One month after Glover’s second escape from his grasp, he pleaded with the residents of Wisconsin to listen to his side of the story. Eventually he convinced the Stevens Point Wisconsin Pinery newspaper to print his thoughts on the matter:

“The negro man Joshua Glover belongs to Mr. Garland as a slave for life, under the laws of the state of Missouri where Mr. Garland resides. He ran away and escaped in the county of St. Louis in the spring of 1852. … The proceedings of Mr. Garland have been entirely in accordance with the public laws of the United States, and he appeals to all good citizens who respect law and order that he should not here in Wisconsin be denied the justice to which the laws of his country entitle him.”

Despite his desperate plea, Glover was never returned.

The law fights back

Beyond his brief tale of escape in CC Olin’s memoirs, records for Glover become hard to find — perhaps not an accident for a man that had been given a second chance at freedom.

But despite a course of events that only spanned a few days, the dust Glover kicked up when he left revealed a state looking for its chance to make a mark on the abolitionist movement.

Garland was promptly arrested by the sheriff of Racine on charges of assault on Glover in his transportation of his former slave to Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Booth was arrested in Milwaukee for harboring a fugitive.

While Garland quickly obtained a writ of habeas corpus — which allowed him to go free as the sheriff had no proof of the charges — Booth’s trial was only just beginning.

After earning his release on bail, Booth chose to return to the US Marshal just two months later, a seemingly odd choice, but one that later revealed itself to be a calculated effort to challenge the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Led by his lawyer, Byron Paine — who would later become a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court — Booth’s camp promptly began portraying the Fugitive Slave Act as a violation of states' rights. To Paine, the denial of trial by jury for a slave before he could be thrust back into slavery seemed to be in direct violation of the US Constitution.

Remarkably, the judge, Abram D. Smith, agreed in a hearing and on June 7 1854, the Fugitive Slave Act was declared unconstitutional — the first and only state to ever

Wisconsin takes a stand

"Such shall not become the degradation of Wisconsin ... so long as her people impose on me the duty of guarding their rights and liberties" — Justice Smith

declare it as such.

With grand bravado Smith issued his verdict, taking stabs at the unpopular law: “Such shall not become the degradation of Wisconsin, without meeting as stern remonstrance and resistance as I may be able to interpose, so long as her people impose on me the duty of guarding their rights and liberties, and maintaining the dignity and sovereignty of their state.”

For a brief window, Booth and the abolitionists of Wisconsin could celebrate. They had won a monumental battle, and it appeared many future slaves like Glover would be free to live and work in the North without fear of recapture.

Better yet, the Wisconsin Supreme Court chose to overturn the ruling by a federal court that Booth and another man who had helped lead the charge to break into the Milwaukee jail, would be forced to a prison sentence and a $1,000 dollar fine to compensate Garland for the loss of his slave.

The victory, however, would be short lived.

A few short weeks later, by the end of June 1854, US Attorney General Caleb Kushing appealed the Wisconsin decision to the United States Supreme Court.

The winds of change

Without a lawyer to send to court to defend the Wisconsin Supreme Cout verdict, Booth could do nothing but send documentations of Paine’s arguments to the judges of the United States Supreme Court. Meanwhile the US prosecution was directed under US attorney general, Jeremiah Black — whose rise to prominence in the courtroom had been meteoric since his admission to the Pennsylvania bar before he was of age.

It was far from a fair fight.

Just as quickly as Wisconsin’s prominence in the abolitionist movement had risen, Black made sure that it would plummet just as fast.

In one all-encompassing, unanimous decision on March 7, 1859, Chief Justice Taney erased every aspect of the Booth decision. The Wisconsin Supreme Court did not have the jurisdiction to overturn federal rulings and the Fugitive Slave Act was ruled constitutional. As if rubbing salt in the wounds, now Booth would have to return to prison to finish his sentence and pay the $1,000 fine.

In a somewhat prophetic ruling, Taney included in his court brief that if any state tried to free Booth, “it would be his duty to resist it, and to call to his aid any force that might be necessary to maintain the authority of law against illegal interference.”

Angered by the Supreme Court’s ruling, a few armed citizens briefly broke Booth free from the Milwaukee customs house 17 months later, before he was recaptured for good to finish out his sentence.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling had trampled any momentum that the abolitionist movement was trying to make in the North, it signaled a steady growth in distaste for slavery throughout the next year.

Less than two years later, after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, South Carolina

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Photo Courtesy of an online collection of the Brooklyn Museum

seceded from the Union.  The move caused a chain reaction in the South as state after state followed suit and continued the debate over state’s rights that had been started when the Wisconsin Supreme Court voided the federal courts verdict on Sherman Booth.

 Soon enough the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 would decree freedom for all slaves in the ten Confederate states in the South.

Lincoln wrote: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designed part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

While Booth had lost his battle, the war was well on its way to being won.

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