Ripon's Booth War: Aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act in Wisconsin




George W. Carter

George Carter was the oldest son of Jacob Carter, one of the original settlers in the town of Metomen and first postmaster of the Fairwater area post office in Fond du Lac County. Wisconsin Service records indicate that on April 23, 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Carter enlisted in the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry at the age of 22. He was wounded at the battle of Port Hudson while leading an heroic assault, as described in Metomen, Springvale, Alto and Waupun, During the War, published in 1867 by G. M. West, editor of the Brandon Times (see the Fairwater Chronology). Following the war, Carter was an unsuccessful candidate for congress from the district and was appointed warden of the Waupun State Prison in the 1880's. Carter was an intimate of one of Booth's rescuers, O. H. LaGrange, and had firsthand knowledge of the Booth affair.
     This paper was first read before the Ripon Historical Society on April 16, 1902. Later the same year it was condensed and published in Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1902, pp. 161-172. The following transcript is from the Proceedings.

     The historical episode familiarly known as "The Booth War" though characterized by a development of fanaticism, was nevertheless, one of the manifestations of the aroused spirit of resistance to the aggressions of the of the slave power, which prevailed in this country at that time. The spirit became manifest in the Northern states in the years immediately following the enactment of the fugitive slave law, in 1850. It gained force on the repeal of the Missouri compromise in 1854, and was materially intensified by the Dred Scott decision in 1857.
     It was claimed that the fugitive slave law required every citizen of the United States either to become a slave-catcher at the call of the owner, or to suffer penalties for failure to respond; and that the repeal of the compromise act, followed by the construction given to the Constitution in the Dred Scott decision, made slavery national instead of local, and enabled the slave holder to carry his slaves, like other chattels, under the protection of the Constitution and the laws, into every territory in the Union. By logical sequence, it was apprehended that only one further step was wanting, to establish negro slavery permanently throughout the United States.
     Sherman M. Booth was one of the editors of The Free Democrat in Milwaukee. He was an abolitionist of the Garrison and Phillips type, and had the courage of his convictions, but was as impolitic and unpractical as John Brown himself. In season and out of season, he proclaimed the right and duty of every citizen to resist the kidnapping of any man, black or white, for the purpose of carrying him out of state, either to prison or to slavery, until the courts had determined the question of his amenability to the laws of the state demanding him.
     To meet, in a measure, the aroused public sentiment, personal liberty laws had been enacted in many of the northern states. In Wisconsin there was a stature authorizing the writ of habeas corpus to issue in favor of persons claimed as fugitive slaves, and requiring the trial of the question of their right to freedom by a jury. The law also required the testimony of at least two witnesses, who must confront the accused in court, to establish the right of the claimant to carry a person to slavery; and a fine and an imprisonment followed the conviction of any person falsely claiming a free negro to be a slave. Furthermore there was a public sentiment in Wisconsin, far more discouraging to slave catchers than the most stringent of statutes could have been.
     On the fifteenth day of March, 1854, Booth was arrested on a charge of having aided the escape from C. C. Cotton, deputy United States marshal, of one Joshua Glover, alleged to be a fugitive slave whom the marshal had had in jail in the city of Milwaukee. Booth was held at bail in the sum of $2,000 by United States commissioner, Winfield Smith, but obtained a writ of habeas corpus from the supreme court of Wisconsin, and the case was argued before Associate-Justice A. D. Smith. Byron Paine, afterwards a justice of the same court, defended Booth. The writ of arrest was held to be irregular and was dismissed, and Booth was discharged from custody. The opinion of Judge Smith not only declared the writ irregular, but contained an elaborate and vigorous denial of the constitutionality of the fugitive slave act. At the rehearing before the full bench, during the July term, the decision of Judge Smith was unanimously affirmed. Chief Justice Whiton, who wrote the opinion, concurred with Smith that the act was unconstitutional; and Justice Crawford, in a separate opinion, concurred with both, that the writ upon which Booth was arrested, was defective and void, and all agreed that the prisoner must be discharged. Booth was re-arrested, however, convicted in the United States court on the original charge, and sentenced to thirty days imprisonment, and to be held until he paid a fine of $1,000.
     The excitement throughout the state was intense, and a large subscription was immediately secured to pay the legal expenses of another trial. The second appeal to the supreme court of Wisconsin, resulted in a re-grant of the writ of habeas corpus, and Booth was set free in February, 1855. The case was then referred to the United States supreme court, where a conflict of jurisdiction occurred. It was argued before the latter court in December, 1858, and March 1, 1860, Booth was re-arrested and confined in the United States custom house in Milwaukee.
     It should be noted that this was not the only personal liberty demonstration occurring during these years. In May, 1859, Simeon Bushnell and Charles Langston were tried in the United States district court in Cuyahoga, Ohio for rescuing a negro alleged to be a fugitive slave, from the custody of a United States deputy marshal. Judge Brinkerhoff of the supreme court of Ohio said, "Congress has usurped a power not granted by the Constitution, and the federal judiciary, through a medium of lame, halting and contradictory reason has sanctioned the usurpation. The enactment and enforcement of the fugitive slave laws of 1850 have awakened inquiry and thought upon the enormity of these usurpations, and so surely as the natural convictions of the mass of the intelligent minds in this country must ultimately control the operations of government, so surely must this question be settled. When it is settled right, then it will be settled and not before then."
     The time had also come when political parties were lining up on this question. A national convention convened at Charleston, to nominate candidates for president and vice-president, resolved that "All citizens have an equal right to settle with their property in the territories undisturbed by Congressional or territorial legislation." Also, that "it is the duty of the Federal government to protect the rights of persons and property wherever the authority of the Constitution extends."
     Prominent speakers and newspapers throughout the northern states, were setting forth the doctrine, that it was a religious and patriotic duty to resist to the bitter end, the unjust and unlawful demands of the slave oligarchy, and by precept and example, to make slave catching in free states so odious that no man who had respect for the opinions of his fellow citizens would be found to engage in it. Mr. Doolittle, senator from Wisconsin, in a speech in the United States Senate, said: "An unconstitutional law is no law;" and that the state judiciary had the jurisdiction and the undoubted right to interpret the Constitution of the United States, "so far as to protect the rights and liberties of citizens of the state." Judge Sloan, a candidate at that time for judge of the state supreme court declared on March 6, 1860: "I concur in the opinion of Judge Smith in the Booth case , that the fugitive slave law is unconstitutional, and that Booth has committed no offense for which he should suffer imprisonment." Yet Booth was at that time in the customs house in Milwaukee deprived of his liberty without redress from the courts.
     So, considering the influences of the pulpit, the press, and the forum at that time, it was not unnatural that some courageous young patriots should have come to the front in Ripon and elsewhere in Wisconsin, to dare to enforce the doctrine of freedom so generally and so eloquently proclaimed.
     The excitement in the state over the continued imprisonment of Booth was becoming intense. Governor Randall, learning the Captain Barry of the "Union Guards," a military company in Milwaukee, contemplated calling his company to the defense of the custom house in case of an attempted rescue of Booth, disbanded the guards. James H. Paine, a prominent lawyer of Milwaukee, and 39 others issued a stirring call "To all who are in favor of maintaining the dignity and high character of our Supreme Court in upholding the bulwarks of freedom" to meet in Milwaukee, March 19, 1860. At this meeting spirited speeches were made and ringing resolutions passed, denouncing the action of the United States courts, and sustaining the supreme court of Wisconsin. Booth in a letter denominated a "Voice from the Bastille," published March 23, 1860, in the Ripon Times, says he was kidnapped by virtue of a pretended judgment upon the cause of action from which, by our supreme court on February 3, 1856, he had been discharged; and that he had, since his arrest, been denied the right of counsel and the visit of friends. He demanded that if the laws and courts of the state were of any force and effect, means should be found for his liberation.
     The Ripon Times in its issue of July 6, 1860, called upon the people of the rural districts to do something to aid Booth to secure his liberty, closing with the words: "We have had speeches enough, we want money and muscle."
     Prior to this, on June 28, Booth's appeal was published in the Free Democrat wherein he set forth his attitude and claims at length. The supreme court, he said, had exonerated him; Governor Randall in his inaugural message, had declared the decision of the court in his case to be the doctrine of the state, and pledged all the power of the executive to enforce it; the legislature of Wisconsin had declared all slave judgments in this state void, and imposed a penalty of fine and imprisonment on any one who shall imprison one who has been discharged on a writ of habeas corpus. He declared that every Republican newspaper in the state had sustained the court, and that hundreds of meetings had passed resolutions sustaining him in the position he had taken; that President Buchanan had offered to pardon him if he would acknowledge that he had done wrong, and that the Milwaukee News had immediately published the offer, stating that all Booth was required to do was to get down on his knees and beg for mercy, acknowledging his wrong, to obtain pardon and his discharge; that although he had been four months in prison, his business broken up and his plans frustrated, and though his family sorely needed him, he would never prove recreant to the cause of freedom.
     On the fourth of July posters were placarded about the streets of Milwaukee calling "Freemen to the Courthouse at 2 o'clock. Booth will address the people from his window in the jail." A large crowd assembled. O. H. LaGrange of Ripon, mounted the stone wall under the jail window, and stated that Mr. Booth was not permitted to make the address, but that the manuscript had been conveyed to him, and he would read it to the people. The address was an able and inspiring appeal for the cause in which Booth claimed to be suffering martyrdom, and it elicited great applause. It was followed by an eloquent address by La Grange. Referring to the encroachments of the slave power in recent years, he said: "There is one more decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in reserve, giving the master power to hold his chattels in every state of our Union. If this fails to awaken us, the spirit of our fathers has departed from our government, the torpor of death has fastened upon our body politic, and the crack of doom could not break our slumbers." He closed by proposing cheers for Lincoln and Hamlin, which were given with a will.
     August 1, 1860, Booth was rescued from the jail, carried out of the city in a carriage previously engaged, to a station on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, where he took passage for Waupun. The Milwaukee Sentinel, and other Milwaukee newspapers, told the story of the rescue, which was published in the Ripon Times August 3, 1860, substantially as follows:

Shortly after noon ten men walked up to the Courthouse steps and one of them presented the jailer a card of admission to see Booth. While the jailer was inspecting the card he was seized, his keys taken, the door unlocked and Booth, being in readiness, took a carriage and was driven out of the city. The jailer was thrust inside and the key turned on him. It was all done quietly and without alarm. Mr. Booth took the train to Waupun where he became the guest of Hans C. Heg, the warden of the state prison.

     The Milwaukee News stated that Professor Daniels and O. H. LaGrange were the leaders of the rescuing party. A reward of $100 was offered for the capture of the prisoner.
     Booth arrived in Ripon Saturday evening, August 4, accompanied by an escort from Waupun. It having been announced that he would speak in the city hall that evening, it was crowded to overflowing. William Starr presided at the meeting. Soon after Booth had commenced, Frank D. McCarty of Fond du Lac, United States deputy marshal, with two assistants, entered from a door by the outside stairway, and stepping on the platform upon the side nearest the door, announced to Booth that he had a warrant for his arrest and that he was his prisoner. At the same time he stepped forward and laid hands on Booth to arrest him. His assistants also attempted to grapple the prisoner. In this, however, they were disappointed, for they were thrust aside by stalwart young men who were close at hand, and McCarty was himself collared and hustled off the stage out of the door where he came in, and tumbled down stairs in a very unceremonious manner. It must be conceded that the proceeding was somewhat disrespectful to the marshal and liable to be construed as against the peace and dignity of the United States of America. From the foot of the stairs the deputy marshal made good time to the Mapes House which was the headquarters of his force. An angry crowd shouted, "Hang him," "Shoot him, "Kill him," and uttered other loud and emphatic language of the same import.
     Order being restored in the hall, A. E. Bovay offered a resolution which was adopted with enthusiasm, to the effect that Booth should not be arrested by United States marshals in Ripon. Professor Daniels followed with an impassioned speech proposing the organization of a league of freedom, whose members should be pledged to resist the enforcement of the fugitive slave law. One hundred and twenty names were at once enrolled. The list of these names would be interesting reading, could it be found. It would show to what extent, under the excitement and the enthusiasm of the occasion, the cause of freedom, the hatred of slavery, and the opposition to the fugitive slave law had moved the citizens of Ripon to resist the authority of the United States. It would show the names there recorded of many who later did valiant service for their country in the War of Secession, as well as some, no doubt, who afterward were disposed to repudiate the proceedings, and censure the prominent actors therein.
     The names of the officers and of the executive committee were published; the president was A. E. Bovay, then a leading citizen of Ripon, now residing in the city of New York; and the secretary was Charles J. Allen, then one of the editors and proprietors of the Ripon Times. The officers and committeemen were Prof. Edward Daniels, then somewhat noted as a geologist and public lecturer, and afterwards colonel of the first Wisconsin cavalry; O. H. La Grange, then a student and school teacher, afterwards colonel of the first Wisconsin cavalry and brigadier-general of volunteers, and at present governor of the Soldiers National Home at Santa Monica, California; A. B. Pratt, then, and ever since, a prominent citizen of Ripon; Dana C. Lamb; C. D. Loper; J. S. Landon; F. R. Stewart; I. A. Norton; Fred W. Cook; Lucius Thatcher; A. M. May; Ben Pratt; L. P. Rivenberg; Asa Kinney; A. Pickett; J. A. Burk; Fred Fletcher; Edwin Reynolds; and G. W. Frederick; all men of good standing in the community.
     Notice to leave the city, as disturbers of the peace, was immediately served on the deputy marshal and his posse, by a committee of which A. B. Pratt was chairman. To this McCarty replied that he had business here, with a warrant to arrest Booth, and as soon as that was accomplished he would cheerfully depart from the city. The serving of the notice and the rely were duly reported on the return of the committee to the hall. Rev. Hiram MacKee then addressed the meeting. Resolutions denouncing the fugitive slave act and pledging the people of Ripon to sustain our supreme court in maintaining the sovereignty of the state, and in enforcing its judgments for the protection of Booth, were passed. During the progress of the meeting, O. P. Reed, a brother of Judge Reed now of this city, drove into the alley in the rear of the hall; Booth quietly entered the carriage, not being missed by the audience, and was driven to the home of Mr. Reed on Green Lake prairie, where he remained a few days in seclusion.
     The character of the people taking part in this demonstration, as given in the account in the Ripon Times, and in reply to charges and insinuations of the Ripon Star, and other conservative newspapers of the state, was that: "They are not the depraved, the abandoned, the reckless, supporters of grog-shops, the gaming table, or other dens of vice; but they are out farmers, mechanics, merchants, and students, young men and old of integrity, sobriety, and honor, our best neighbors and citizens, persons of strong moral convictions uncompromising in their devotion to principle." To this was added the statement that "it appears clear that public sentiment has reached the point that fugitive slave acts cannot be peaceably enforced in Ripon."
     August 17, La Grange published a letter thanking the deputy marshal and his assistants from Ripon, Messrs. Wentworth, Stollard, and others, for their somewhat unseasonable call at his home on Green Lake prairie the previous evening, expressing his regret at not being there to give them a fitting reception. He had heard of their intended visit, he said, and had invited a few friends to be present at the merrymaking, but had arrived home too late to meet his guests; he would be glad to see them at their convenience.
     In the Ripon Times of August 17, Booth published a letter in which he said he had been advised by some of his friends to go to Canada; or at least to remain in hiding until the excitement was allayed. He could not agree with them; that, as Wisconsin was his home, the land where he had labored in the cause of liberty for twelve years, a work yet uncompleted, he felt justified in remaining here to the end; if he could not be protected here, he could not expect protection anywhere in the United States. He proposed, he said, soon to discuss before the people, the questions at issue between liberty and slavery; and to remain a citizen of Wisconsin until liberty triumphed; or to die in defense of these principles, which unsustained, make life not worth preserving.
     About this time warrants were issued to the marshals for the arrest of those suspected of being engaged in the rescue; Prof. Edward Daniels of Ripon, and G. W. Frederick of Milwaukee were arrested without objection. Professor Daniels furnished bail in the sum of $2,000, but Frederick, being unable to do so, went to jail. Daniels retained James H. Paine, and ex-judge A. D. Smith to defend him.
     August 24, the deputy marshals abandoned Ripon as a hunting ground and returned to Fond du Lac. Booth had kept himself in retirement, and very few knew of his whereabouts, though most of the time he was in Ripon under the protection of armed guards. Toward the last of August he went to the home of Armine Pickett (now Pickett's Station) where on the 27, another attempt was made by Marshal McCarty to arrest him. He arrived with a posse before the family were astir in the morning, and demanded admittance. Mr. Pickett's son James, answered the call, but refused to allow the posse to enter. He told McCarty that the house was full of armed men, and that Booth could not be taken. A parley was held, guards being in the meantime stationed about the house by the lieutenants of McCarty; messengers however passed out and hurried to Ripon and Rosendale for re-inforcements for the besieged. The marshals also sent for help; a few conservatives were found who rallied to his assistance. But finding his posse largely out-numbered by determined farmers and neighbors, armed with shotguns and such other firearms as could be procured, the siege was raised, and the attempt to arrest Booth abandoned. McCarty said he was getting disgusted with the whole business anyway, and would return the warrant to the court unexecuted.
     The writer after the War of Secession, lived next door to Mr. McCarty in the city of Fond du Lac, and found in him a genial gentleman, a good neighbor, and a kind friend. We had conversations about the trying time of 1860, and easily agreed that Ripon was too hot a place in those days, for serving process under the Fugitive Slave act. He did not enlist in the war himself, but held in great regard those who served their country in that way. This was true of many of the conservatives in Ripon and elsewhere, who had no sympathy with Booth and his methods at the time under consideration.
     Soon after the incident of August 27, La Grange published a letter in the Ripon Times, stating that he had concluded to spend a season in retirement to consider the question of submitting to arrest on the charge of having aided Booth to escape. The writer, who had known LaGrange intimately for several years while pursuing studies at Brockway, now Ripon college, and at the State University, had been in the harvest fields since the arrival of Booth in Ripon, up to this time. The time had come, however, when the personal friends of La Grange felt it their duty to rally to the defense of his person, and the cause which he represented; we, therefore, spent several days and evenings with him preparing to enlist and organize an army of defense. The details of this preparation would not be of historical value nor of public interest; and would, moreover, involve those who may not, at this time, regard the affair in the light of a wise or justifiable proceeding. Probably no man now living knew La Grange from his eighteenth year to the time of our going to war together in April, 1861, better than the writer. A considerable part of that time we had roomed together while in school. No one can bear surer testimony to his exalted patriotism, the purity of his motives, the uprightness of his mind, the correctness of his habits, and his devotion to the duty of ultimately extinguishing slavery in the United States by lawful means if possible, but by war if so it must be. If he was ambitious, it was to perform noble deeds to perpetuate his name as a courageous, unselfish patriot. To be rich or scholarly he cared little, except as a means to enable him to strike great blows, and to do vigorous battle in the cause of his country.
     From the last of August for about four weeks, little was publicly known of Booth; nor of any of the prominent actors in the drama. Cooler heads had come into the counsels, public demonstrations were deprecated, and discretion prevailed. La Grange was no where conspicuous and Daniels had been bailed. The people of Ripon had assumed a normal state of mind, and were beginning to line up again on the political questions involved in the pending presidential election. Some of those who, in the excitement of the hour, governed by impulse and the popular wave, had found themselves in the ranks of the radicals, were now seeking more congenial company with their former political associates. Interest in Booth's personal welfare gave way to the more important and absorbing interest in the election of a president for the United States.
     On the eighth day of October, Booth was arrested in Berlin, while returning from a political meeting which he had addressed. He had no defenders with him, being accompanied by ladies only, and though he made some resistance, he was carried off to the train in waiting at the depot, and conveyed to Milwaukee, and assigned to his old quarters and to stricter surveillance in the jail. He remained in custody until the receipt of a remission of his fine which President Buchanan granted March 2, 1861, two days before the inauguration of President Lincoln. All other prosecutions were dropped, and those in custody or under bail were discharged. Thus ended the affair known as the "Booth War in Ripon."

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