Fugitive Slave Case – Red Hook Point, December 4, 1857

It appearing to me, the undersigned City Judge, by satisfactory proof, that one John Roe alias Richard Doe, alleged to be a colored man, is held in illegal confinement and custody in the city of Brooklyn by one Thomas McNulty...

Four years before the American Civil War, a legal battle emerged from a situation that occurred aboard a steamship from Savannah to New York. One of the passengers, Thomas Steele, a light skinned man, was accused of being a fugitive slave by another passenger. There was no proof whatsoever to support this. Nevertheless, as described in the The New York Herald, December 4, 1857, upon the ship’s arrival in New York, Steele was brought to the home of a Thomas McNulty, a grocer and boarding house keeper in Red Hook, where he was to be held until he could be sent back to Savannah.

However, before this could occur, a petition was made to City Judge, E. D. Culver. It informed the court of Steele's plight, explaining that he was being “detained and restrained of his personal liberty.”

The judge ordered that Steele be removed from McNulty's house and brought before him.  McNulty was also ordered to appear before the judge, but he refused. With no one giving evidence against Steele, Judge Culver released him – allowing him to disappear.

The Fugitive Slave Act, a Federal law first passed in 1793 and strengthened in 1850 required free states to cooperate in returning people to slavery. Both escapees and legally free Blacks in the North faced the real fear of being kidnapped and enslaved in a southern state. New York had strong financial ties to the slave economy and profited from its continuation but it also made efforts to circumvent the act. One way was the NY law that stated:

“Every person who shall, without authority of law forcibly remove or attempt to remove from this State any fugitive from service or labor, or any person who is claimed as such fugitive, shall forfeit the sum of $500 to the parties aggrieved, and shall be deemed guilty of such offense shall be punished by imprisonment in the State prison for a period not exceeding ten years.”

It was this act, (after a court hearing partially transcribed in The New York Herald), that the men who had detained Steele were ultimately charged with violating. The men, who to some degree may have been associated with a police force, claimed innocence. (Their association with a police force differed wildly between accounts.)  It is far from clear from the available testimony, whose, if anyone's, orders they were following.

The particulars in The New York Times are slightly different from the The New York Herald.  In their account, the alleged fugitive went by the name James Stead or "Jeams."  Special Policemen Jackson and Cowen arrested Stead aboard the steamer from Georgia in response to a report that he was likely on board. They then took him to McNulty's place in Red Hook via the Hamilton Avenue Ferry.  The account ends the same way as reported in Herald, with the alleged fugitive freed by Judge Culver and his captor's charged with kidnapping.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had a third take on the case - and a decidedly racist one.  In their telling:

"a fugitive slave whose name is of no consequence, (not being a citizen according to the Dred Scott decision) arrived at the port of New York in the steamship Florida..."

Jackson, Cowen and their cohorts are described as New York police officers doing their duty. (Piecing together the facts from the various accounts, the truth appears to be that they were dock watchmen sanctioned by the newly formed Metropolitan Police, but not full fledged members.  None of which explains why they brought their prisoner to the then independent city of Brooklyn).   Like the other accounts, Judge Culver flips the script on then and threatens the with imprisonment for kidnapping.

Judge Erastus D. Culver, prior to this case had already earned a reputation as an abolitionist judge. He was part of a team of lawyers who successfully argued in Lemmon v. New York that a state law of 1841 prohibited slaveholders from bringing enslaved people in transit to the state and freed any that were brought into its borders. The case started in 1851 and reached the highest court of appeals in New York in 1860.  It might of continued to the US Supreme court, giving the court a chance to revisit the Dred Scott decision, but for the Civil War.

As to what happened to the men charged with kidnapping the story appears to end with accounts of their successful plea that Judge Culver would bias any jury against them and that he should be taken off the case.

Aside from the ultimate injustice of slavery this case remains a warning against acting under blind orders and taking the law in to one's own hands.  It is also provides a good example of how accounts in different newspapers can differ greatly, and how nothing can be taken at face value.

Images of several of the newspaper articles referred to in this essay are below. More are listed under "sources."

Here is the complete text of the article from The New York Herald – December 4, 1857

The Fugitive slave case in Brooklyn


The steamship Florida, Captain Crowell, which arrived at the port of New York on Saturday, brought as one of its second cabin passengers, a mulatto, named Thomas Steele, who paid his passage at Savannah, and was bound to New York. He was of so light a color that the fact of his being a negro did not transpire until some days after the ship sailed, when be was recognized by one of the passengers. It was then ascertained that he was a fugitive slave. On the arrival of the steamer at New York the negro was placed in charge of two men, named John Jackson and John Cowen, who took him to the house of Thomas McNulty, at Red Hook Point, where they intended to keep him until the ship should sail, and then put him on board to be returned to Savannah.

On Tuesday Mr. Theodore Tilton, hearing of the facts went before Judge Culver and issued out a writ of habeas corpus on the following affidavit:-

To the Hon. E. D. Culver , City Judge:-  The petition of Theodore Tilton shows that John Roe, alias Richard Doe, a colored man, is secretly confined in this city against his will, and detained and restrained of his personal liberty against his will by Thomas McNulty, a grocer, at the corner of Dikeman and ___ streets, and that he is not committed and detained by virtue of any process issued by any court of the United Slates, or by any judge thereof; nor is he committed or detained by virtue of the  execution issued upon such judgment or decree; that the cause or pretense of such retraining and detention of such person according to the best of the knowledge and belief of the petitioner, is that the person so detained may be shipped on board the Charleston steamship which sails on the 2nd inst. for Charleston, S. C. , and be sent out of this State against his will, and to be held to service against his will, whereupon your petitioner prays that a writ of habeas corpus issue directed to the said Thomas McNulty, and to his servants agents, and to every and any persons having the charge, detention or keeping the person so detained, commanding him or them or any of them to have the body of the person so detained before me at your office, 114 South Ninth street. Brooklyn, forthwith.

December 1, 1857. THEODORE TILTON
County of Kings, City of Brooklyn,ss. – Theodore Tilton, being duly affirmed, doth depose and say that the facts set forth in the above petition subscribed are true.

Affirmed before me this 1st day of December, 1857. – Samuel, L. Harris, Commissioner of Deeds.

The writ was placed in the hands of Mr. Samuel L. Harris, Clerk of the City Court, who, with a number of officers, went to the house of McNulty and arrested the negro, taking him out of the custody of the persons in whose charge he was – Timothy K. Mason and Thomas Lawler – and conveyed him before Judge Culver, at his residence in South Ninth street, about nine o'clock. Here the Judge proceeded to adjudicate the case, and McNulty not appearing to return to the writ, the Judge after taking testimony released the fugitive. Since that he has not been seen or heard from.

Yesterday Judge Culver issued warrants against Thomas Lawler, Timothy K. Mason, John Jackson and John Cowen, charging them with conspiracy and attempt to kidnap. They were arrested by officers Wm A. Russell and Martin w. Greene, of the Deputy Superintendent's office, New York, and brought into court.

Thomas McNulty also appeared by counsel –Robert W. Andrews and S. D. Lewis, Esqrs. – and made return to the writ of habeas corpus.

The return set forth that McNulty had not detained the person of Thomas Steele, nor had he ever had him in his custody, and had not the person of the said Steele in his custody at the time, nor did he know where he was; that he was forcibly taken away from his house, and if his body was demanded, a habeas corpus sued out to Samuel L. Harris, the Clerk of the Court, would possibly produce him.

Mr. Andrews, on making the return, objected to the writ, as it did not set forth that it was issued by any Judge of the Supreme Court and did not bear the seal of the Supreme Court. It was witnessed by Wm. H. Campbell, but did not set forth of what court he was clerk. By the act of 1847, the writ must set forth a seal of the Supreme Court. The County Clerk acts in several capacities, and it does dot appear in what capacity he acted in issuing this writ. This writ does not conform to the provisions of the act of 1847, as it is issued by the Judge as a Commissioner of the Court, and bears no certificate of such authority.

Counsel submitted that therefore the writ was void. The Court stated that writs of this kind were generally issued in a hurry, and mistakes or errors might have occurred.

Counsel  – Writs of this kind are too often issued in a hurry, and prostituted for the purposes to which this has been.

Court  – I will allow the writ to be amended.

Counsel objected to this, as the Court sitting as a Commissioner has no right to amend.

The return was then made, when the petitioner's counsel, W. H. Gale denied the allegations therein set forth, and proceeded to traverse the return verbally and not on oath.

Objections were made to this form of proceeding by counsel, but the objections were overruled by the Court.

Counsel stated that they were ready to show that they had not restrained the man of his liberty, and also that the writ of this court had been prostituted to aid these other parties in kidnapping.

Court  – Well, if you can show that go on. If the order of this court has been tampered with we will punish the parties. 

The following evidence was then taken – Timothy K. Mason, sworn – I am acquainted with Thos. McNulty was present when this writ (shown) was served upon him at his house, the writ was served on the day of the election, by Constable John Oliver; Mr. Harris, clerk of the City Court, was with him; two other persons were downstairs, four of them were together a colored man was there – he went by the name of Smith; he was a fugitive runaway, who had come on in one of the Savannah line of steamers  – think on the steamer Alabama; the first I heard  – the colored man sitting with us at the time in McNulty’s house – about 7½  or 8 o'clock I heard a noise in the house ; some one was calling for a light; the room was not dark; I went out to see who it was; Mr Harris stood at the head of the stairs; he said, "You have a man in your charge;" said I, ''You wish to see Mr. McNulty;” he said "No;" in a rough sort of way; "I want to see no Mr McNulty  – I want to see the prisoner in your charge;" I went to call Mr. McNulty, and Harris said, "Come back, I want to see the prisoner in your charge  – there is a prisoner here that I want, and must have him;" "Is that the room,” he asked. "How many boarders have you?" I answered, "Two or three, I supposed;'' Mr Harry called upon Oliver as the Sheriff, who was downstairs. Come up, men, and show your authority;" showed a paper, and asked if I saw it. and then put it in his pocket; Mr Harris called it a warrant, and told this man (Oliver) to produce it: Mr Harris put his hands on the colored man’s shoulders and said "I want you, you are my prisoner; ' when he found he had to go he asked for his pantaloons;  I got them and gave them to him. Mr. Harris spoke to McNulty and said he would like him up at the Hall with them; McNulty said he could not go;  another officer said, “McNulty, you had better go  – you must go to the Hall," McNulty said he could not go, as his wife was not there to attend to business; another officer said if he would be at the Hall at 10 o'clock next day that would do; the colored man put on his coat and they took him away; I have not seen him since;  the negro said that when he got home he would tell them he was never treated better in the world; they said we had shackled him, but that was not so.

Cross examined  – I live at 64 Greene street, New York, and am a special deputy sheriff under the new act, (producing shield of Metropolitan police, No. 29) my family live at the number stated; first saw this colored man last Saturday evening, when the ship arrived.

(Mr. Andrews objected. Overruled.)

First saw him on board of the Florida; I did not take him from the steamer; I was in company.

Mr. Andrews contended that these proceedings could not go on legally without having the party in Court.

The Court  – I am determined to have the facts out some way, to see if this man was restrained of his liberty.

Witness resumed  – Saw colored man about 10 o'clock on Saturday evening;  next saw him about 11 o'clock on Saturday morning; staid with him on the vessel till he went away, which was between 10 and 11 o'clock; he went away with Mr. Jackson and Mr. Cowen; they went away with me to the vessel, gave no direction to take him away did not know where they took him till next day; saw him at McNulty’s house about 11 o’clock; I stopped there the remainder of the day to stop there with the prisoner, stayed till eight o'clock, when I went away; Thomas Lawlor stayed with me; he left with me; Jackson and Cowen took my place: I returned next morning around 8 o'clock and found those that I left there; Lawler returned with me; stayed till about 8 o’clock in the evening; we stayed up stairs in a room with this colored man; never left it; Lawler and myself went away together on Monday night; came again at the same hour next morning; we took turns in watching; Harris and Oliver came there between seven and nine o’clock in the evening; Lawler and the colored man were with me; I opened the door first, in answer to a noise; the room is up one flight of stairs  – the front room; passed one door to go to it; I opened the door and saw Harris at the head of the stairs; he wanted to see the prisoner in my charge; I turned it off, and asked if he wanted to see McNulty; it is a sitting room; the colored man seemed to sleep comfortably at night; he took his meals with the family and played cards with them; a bedroom adjoins the rooms; Harris asked me if I was an officer; I took my shield out and showed it to him; he took the number and put it in his pocket; I never told him I had no authority to keep the man; I had no talk with Harris about authority; suppose the steamship line paid the board; I never had any conversation with McNulty as the payment of my board or about compensation; don’t know by whose authority the colored man was taken from the steamship; Jackson and Cowen told me Sunday night that the colored men was at McNulty’s, went with them there; I did not understand before they took him from the vessel where they intended to take him; the name of the captain of the Florida is Crowell; I was on the vessel when the colored man was taken away; my object was in going to McNulty’s to see that the colored man stayed there; Samuel L. Mitchell, one of the owners of the vessel, directed me to go over there and stay with the colored man; either him or his brother told me on Saturday, if this man came, to take him off the ship and keep him until she sailed, and then put him on again; Mr. Harris and his aids took the colored man away from the house; they showed me a paper, and said it was a warrant; Oliver kept his fingers over it so I could not read it.

Q. Then your object in being there was to restrain this man from his liberty? A. No; he had as much liberty as I had; he always asked us to go with him when he wanted to go out; my object was to stay there a couple of days until the ship sailed, to keep him company; the ship sailed wednesday; I had no handcuffs at the time; did not see a handcuff during the time he stayed there; Lawler is an officer, a special deputy, like myself; never saw him have a shield; I did not go back the next morning because there was no occasion, the colored man being in the possession of Mr. Harris; my business was to be there while the colored man was there.

John Oliver sworn  – I am a constable attached to the Brooklyn City Court; I know McNulty (identified writ of habeas corpus); was at the home of McNulty on Tuesday last; Mr. Samuel L. Harris, Clerk of the City Court of Brook;yn, was with me; I went there at Mr. Harris’ request; I did not know for what purpose; told me just as we got there, when he handed me the warrant which was issued by Judge Culver; I then arrested the man; he was almost as white as some of us; we would call him a “mustee” in our State; I arrested him, and took him to Judge Culver, where he had a hearing; don’t know that the man was charged with any crime; it was for being kidnapped that I arrested him; have not seen him since; don’t know where he is now, and don’t want to know either. 

The court stated the warrant was issued under the 81st section of the habeas corpus act. The following is the warrant and return:  –

State of New York, Country of Kinds, City of Brooklyn, ss.  – To the Sheriff and to any Constable of said county, greeting:  – It appearing to me, the undersigned City Judge, by satisfactory proof, that one John Roe alias Richard Doe, alleged to be a colored man, is held in illegal confinement and custody in the city of Brooklyn by one Thomas McNulty, and that there is good reason to believe that John Roe will be carried out of this State before he can be relieved by habeas corpus or certiorari – you are, therefore, hereby commanded in the name of the people of New York forthwith to take said John Roe alias Richard Doe, the said alleged colored man, and bring forthwith before me at my office, 114 South Ninth street, Brooklyn, to be dealt with according to law; and have you then there this warrant with you're return.

County of Kinds, ss.  – The within named John Roe having been brought before me, on the within warrant, and having the return of the officer executing the within warrant, and the person McNulty having said John in charge, not appearing to the return the writ of habeas corpus, and having taken the process and allegations touching the detention, I hereby order said John Roe, alias John Smith, to be and he is hereby discharged from imprisonment.

December 1, 1957 E. D. CULVER, City Judge.

Resumed. – Mr. Harris served a paper on the man; don;t know what it was.

Mr. Andrews contended that this was an ending of the case, and read the order of the Judge discharging Smith, at the same time designating the proceedings as extraordinary that they should, under the circumstances, be made to come here.

The Court stated that the defendants showed the reason why they did not bring the man forward, but did not show why they had made no return to the writ. He would now make an order in the case.

Mr. Andrews took exceptions to making another order, as the man had already been discarded.

Mr. Oliver, in his cross-examination, stated that he did not conceal the name on the warrant.

The Judge stated that he was now ready to hear evidence on the warrants charging the parties with conspiracy and kidnapping.

By consent of the parties, all being present in court gave bail in $3,000 in two sureties for conspiracy, to appear at the next criminal term of the City Court in January.

The following are the penalties as shown by sec. 33, title 1, part 3 R. S.: “Every person who shall, without authority of law forcibly remove or attempt to remove from this State any fugitive from service or labor, or any person who is claimed as such fugitive, shall forfeit the sum of $500 to the parties aggrieved, and shall be deemed guilty of such offence shall be punished by imprisonment in the State prison for a period not exceeding ten years.”

Thos. Dobson, No. 282 Atlantic Street, Brooklyn, and Samuel Auld, 22 West street, New York, became bondsmen for Timothy R. Mason, Thomas lawler, John Jackson and John Cowen, the defendant.

The writ of habeas corpus was discharged, which liberates McNulty.

[An image of the original newpaper article as well as the one from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle are included in this essay. A link to The New York Times article can be found in the list of sources.]



Item Relations

This Item is related to Item: Outrageous: A narrow escape from slavery at Red Hook Point, 1850
Item: SLAVE SHIP ERIE, Atlantic Basin, 1860 is related to This Item


  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "Fugitive Slave Case in Brooklyn." December 2, 1957

    The New York Herald.,"The Fugitive Slave Case in Brooklyn." Dec. 4 1857. In Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

    The New York Times, "The Brooklyn Fugitive Slave Case: Kidnapping and Conspiracy," Dec. 4 1857PDF (accessed 7/2020)

    The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "He Found Freedom Here," December 22, 1889

    See also:

    Anti-Slavery Bugle. (New-Lisbon, Ohio), Dec. 12, 1857. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83035487/1857-12- 12/ed-1/seq-2/

    The Brooklyn City Directory, Compiled by J. Lain, 1857.

    "Erastus D. Culver, 1803 -1889," Historical Society of the New York Courts.  https://history.nycourts.gov/figure/erastus-culver/ (accessed 7/2020)

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