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





     On March 10, 1854, in what would become a test of the United States Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and only a few days before the Ripon schoolhouse meeting that would launch the Republican party, Joshua Glover, a runaway slave from Missouri, was captured at a cabin near Racine. When Glover was delivered to a Milwaukee jail pending his return to Missouri, Sherman W. Booth, abolitionist and editor of the Free Democrat, called upon the citizens of Milwaukee to respond. Although Booth would later claim that he had merely advocated a peaceable protest, federal authorities held him responsible when a mob battered down the door of the jail on March 11 and freed Glover.
     The fugitive law found few defenders in the state of Wisconsin. When it was used to arrest Booth, the state's legal machinery moved immediately to declare the law void in Wisconsin, and it released Booth on a writ of habeas corpus. In his history, Wisconsin: A Story of Progress, William Raney summarizes the legal battle that followed:

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Sherman M. Booth

For the next six years Sherman M. Booth was the center of legal proceedings initiated by the federal authorities under the Fugitive Slave Act. He was arrested, and while in the custody of the United States marshal was released on a writ of habeas corpus issued by a judge of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The whole court reviewed the case and on July 19, 1854 upheld the habeas corpus. Arrested again and tried by a federal court, Booth was sentenced to a month's imprisonment and a fine of $1,000 in January, 1855. He was again set at liberty by a writ of habeas corpus issuing from the state supreme court. At this time the full court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional and void. When the Supreme Court of the United States asked for a copy of the record in order to review the case, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin took no notice of the request. In March, 1857, the United States assumed jurisdiction, procured a copy of the record, and on March 7, 1859, gave judgment reversing that of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In March, 1860, Booth was again arrested by federal authorities and released by friends and rearrested, and the case was finally ended when President Buchanan pardoned him in March, 1861. (Raney, Wisconsin: A Story of Progress, Appleton: Perin Press, 1963, pp. 148-49)

     In writing the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case (Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506), a decision cited as a precedent as late as the 1950's, Chief Justice Taney argued that the Wisconsin courts had no jurisdiction over what was a constitutional issue, and therefore that Booth's conviction must stand. His argument cited the court's essential role in arbitrating conflicts between states, a specter that would become actuality only two years later:

[L]ocal interests, local passions or prejudices, incited and fostered by individuals for sinister purposes, would lead to acts of aggression and injustice by one State upon the rights of another, which would ultimately terminate in violence and force unless there was a common arbiter between them, armed with power enough to protect and guard the rights of all by appropriate laws to be carried into execution peacefully by its judicial tribunals.

     As Wisconsin's legal efforts foundered, Booth's sympathizers took matters into their own hands. Not satisfied with the court's decision, a group of men led by Professor Edward Daniels of Ripon "rescued" Booth from the Milwaukee Custom House on August 1, 1860, as reported with deliberate irony two days later in a headline in the Ripon Weekly Times:

A Writ of Habeas Corpus Executed by Wisconsin Freemen

     The events that followed from the time Booth was "released by friends" on August 1 to his capture and rearrest on October 8, have come to be known as Ripon's Booth War. The cat and mouse game between Booth and federal marshals during that period led to a string of violent confrontations that reached a peak in Ripon on August 4. On that evening, in Ripon's City Hall, deputy marshals attempted to capture Booth as he was addressing a crowd of supporters. Over the next week, reports of the incident sent a shock of alarm and excitement throughout the state. One representative but not entirely accurate account was published by the Berlin News and was reprinted widely:

Booth addressed the Republicans of Ripon Saturday night, and during his speech, McArthur [McCarty], a Deputy U. S. Marshal, stepped upon the stage and arrested him. Booth essayed to draw his pistol, but the Marshal caught his hand. Immediately thirty or forty Ripon wide-awakes rushed upon the stage, yelling shoot him, stab him, &c. Prof Daniels endeavored to shoot the Marshal, but was prevented. He was hustled out of the room. He was then stabbed several times during the melee, but not fatally injured.

     For the next two months, while Booth evaded capture, reports of the events preceding and following the Ripon incident continued to excite the state. It was alleged that on his way to Ripon Booth had received the armed protection of the guards at the State Prison in Waupun, led by Prison Commissioner Hans Christian Heg. One paper reported that Heg had proposed calling out the military for assistance. Milwaukee papers reported that Booth's brother-in-law was brutally attacked and beaten by U. S. Marshall Lewis in that city. The Milwaukee News suggested that Governor Randall was implicated in the escape. Saterlee Clark, of Horicon, wrote that an anonymous citizen had encouraged the people of that village to tar and feather him for not assisting in Booth's arrest. Booth himself wrote a sensationalized account of an armed encounter between marshals and as many as one hundred supporters at the home of Armine Pickett in Winnebago County, eight miles from Ripon. And throughout, the papers conscientiously reported the movements of drilled and uniformed companies of Wide Awakes, whose evening torchlight parades frightened some and reassured others.

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harpweek_7-28-60_disunion.jpg (21139 bytes)
Illustrations of Union and
Disunion published by
Harper's Weekly
on July 28,
1860, 3 days before Sherman

Booth's "rescue."

     As sensational as the actual events were, the Booth War assumed even larger proportions as the state's newspapers exploited it for all it was worth in an election year.
     Political tempers were already running high during the summer of 1860. Southern states were threatening secession. Northern states were obsessed with the slavery question. Hinton Rowan Helper's controversial and widely distributed  book, The Impending Crisis of the South, notoriously expounded the economic implications of slavery for the laboring class. In some states, including Wisconsin, the banking system was in crisis. The nation's economy was struggling to rise from the depression of the late 1850's. President Buchanan's administration was widely viewed as weak, contemptible, and decidedly Southern-leaning. And complicating the campaign was the fact that there were four candidates for the presidency: Lincoln, the "black" Republican backed by anti-slavery forces; John C. Breckinridge, the sitting Vice President and leader of the Southern-rights wing of the Democrats;. Stephen Douglas, the compromise representative of the northern Democrats; and. John Bell of the Union party, a force elsewhere but not in Wisconsin.
     Given this political cauldron, campaign rhetoric ascended heights rarely matched for lack of self-control by the media. One example is an article published by the Madison Patriot, a Douglas paper:

We understand that old Leahey, who was sent to the penitentiary for life, for the crime of murder, having just been pardoned to full liberty, by our republican Governor, is about to take the stump for the black republican ticket. There are some 200 more in the State prison who would no doubt like to accept a free pardon on the same conditions. We expect that during the next 90 days our penitentiary will vomit forth its hordes of thieves, burglars and murderers, to swell the vote for "Old Honest Abe."

     With the Booth War, Wisconsin's political newspapers had the good fortune to find local correlates for the presidential candidates that they could use to whip up the state's electorate and promote their partisan positions. In an editorial on August 8, the Milwaukee News made the connections explicit:

Our readers are well aware, that the Boothites are the faithful exponents of the Lincoln party, and that Jehu [U. S. Marshal Lewis] is one of the pillars of the Breckinridge party in the State. Parties, which Mr. Douglas truly says, "occupy precisely the same relationship to each other as the two blades of a pair of shears. They both turn on the same pivot, but cut in opposite directions." Those who have witnessed the exhibition of lawlessness and ruffianism on one side, and of insufficiency and stupidity on the other, should be prepared to determine now, whether this government can be wisely administered or not, in the spirit which animates either side.

     Reports related to the Booth story filled the papers through the months of August and September. In their hands, events were transformed from news into political broadsides that left everyone in doubt as to what was actually happening. An example, again from the News, appeared on August 9:

While an indictment is hanging over the head of Booth for the seduction of a little, artless girl, and while he is a prisoner on "self parol," [sic] with a revolving "habeas corpus" [pistol] in his pocket while he is going about the country, making republican speeches, addressing republican clubs, &c., the republicans are arming themselves to defend him at all hazards, and to prevent the officers of the law from doing their sworn duty, and arresting him.

What is lost in reading the newspapers' highly partisan accounts, however, is the fact that the "war" had its origins in a difficult moral debate. Justice Taney's rendering of the court's decision in the Booth case represented one side of that debate:

Now, it certainly can be no humiliation to the citizen of a republic to yield a ready obedience to the laws as administered by the constituted authorities. On the contrary, it is among his first and highest duties as a citizen, because free government cannot exist without it.

     For many men and women on the other hand--not just those of central Wisconsin--the context of the case was obedience not to the law in general, but to the fugitive law specifically. In the North, that law was not made more palatable by the court's decision, and in an editorial on August 10, the Ripon Times eloquently represented the other side of the debate:

What is the character of the men who do this thing? They are not the depraved, the debauched, the reckless--the supporters of the grog shop, the gaming-table, or any other of the dens of vice. They are our farmers, our mechanics, our students--men, young and old, of sobriety, integrity, and honor--men who in all the ordinary routine of life are the best neighbors and citizens. Moreover they are persons of strong moral convictions, and uncompromizing in their devotion to their principles.

     The rhetoric in the newspapers aside, for those in the antislavery movement in the summer of 1860 the Booth War came to represent responsibility to the highest ideals envisioned by the nation's founders. For others, fearful of the polarization sweeping the county, its events deepened the shadows descending on the land.

LAST UPDATED 6/18/1999 If you have information to share, please contact Bob Schuster by email at or at 6020 Kristi Circle, Monona, Wisconsin 53716 (608) 221-1421.