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





     Following Sherman Booth's arrest in 1854 for his role in freeing escaped slave Joshua Glover, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin immediately asserted that the state's laws of habeas corpus superceded the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and consequently that the case against Booth was void. On March 7, 1859, however, the United States Supreme Court decided against that interpretation in the case of Ableman v. Booth, (62 U.S. 506). Writing for the court, Chief Justice Taney based the decision not on the merits of the fugitive law itself, but rather on the state's limited powers and jurisdiction:

The judges of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin do not distinctly state from what source they suppose they have derived this judicial power. There can be no such thing as judicial authority unless it is conferred by a Government or sovereignty, and if the judges and courts of Wisconsin possess the jurisdiction they claim, they must derive it either from the United States or the State. It certainly has not been conferred on them by the United States, and it is equally clear it was not in the power of the State to confer it, even if it had attempted to do so, for no State can authorize one of its judges [62 U.S. 516] or courts to exercise judicial power, by habeas corpus or otherwise, within the jurisdiction of another and independent Government. And although the State of Wisconsin is sovereign within its territorial limits to a certain extent, yet that sovereignty is limited and restricted by the Constitution of the United States. And the powers of the General Government, and of the State, although both exist and are exercised within the same territorial limits, are yet separate and distinct sovereignties, acting separately and independently of each other within their respective spheres. And the sphere of action appropriated to the United States is as far beyond the reach of the judicial process issued by a State judge or a State court, as if the line of division was traced by landmarks and monuments visible to the eye. And the State of Wisconsin had no more power to authorize these proceedings of its judges and courts than it would have had if the prisoner had been confined in Michigan, or in any other State of the Union, for an offence against the laws of the State in which he was imprisoned.

The court's decision reaffirmed the verdict rendered against Booth four years earlier by the U. S. District Court, and in March, 1860, Booth was again arrested and returned to prison in the federal Custom House in Milwaukee.
     What the federal court saw as legal closure, however, was apparently not viewed as such within the state. In his history of the Booth affair written forty-two years later in 1902, George W. Carter, an intimate of the "rescuers" and both a former warden of the State Prison and an unsuccessful candidate for Congress, wrote:

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."

On July 27, 1860, in an editorial written fifteen months after the court's decision, the Ripon Weekly Times, a Republican paper, posed the following questions:

     The people want to know why Judge Miller and Marshal Lewis haven't been made to answer before our State courts for the defiant position they occupy toward the State laws. They want to know, too, why, upon the decision of the Court Commissioner at Racine that he could not act until application had been made to every State judicial officer in Milwaukee, and if refused--why such application had been refused--why such application was not made to every State judicial officer in Milwaukee, and if refused then presented at Racine or elsewhere. The people have waited long and impatiently, asking why these things have not been done. There may be good reasons why they have not, but if there are not one in a thousand has any knowledge of them.
     In short we want to know if there [are] any legal, available means of redress; we want to see some evidence that there is good grit enough somewhere to carry on the contest with energy; and then it will be in point to talk about raising money.

For officials of the state as well as Booth's supporters, the legal question was not settled, perhaps because they had some expectation that the law itself would be changed following the elections of 1860. Furthermore, they understood the difference between enacting a law and enforcing it.
     As George Carter later observed, "excitement in the state over the continued imprisonment of Booth was becoming intense." While the legal wrangling continued in public, Booth's friends and supporters were developing their own extra-legal resolution. In 1902, at about the same time that Carter recorded his history, O. H. LaGrange wrote a letter describing the origins of the plan to free the prisoner:

    In June, 1860, Edward Daniels [professor of geology at Ripon College] suggested to me that Sherman M. Booth, who was confined in the custom house at Milwaukee under sentence of imprisonment for participating in the rescue of the fugitive slave Glover, ought to be released. On July 3, following, I met Daniels and others at Milwaukee, but our plans for the release became known and a squad of United States marines was brought to the custom house to guard the prisoner. It was then decided that I alone should remain in Milwaukee and make a farcical demonstration to mislead the guards and thus prepare for the success of a future attempt to release their prisoner. Early on the morning of the 4th, I went under the window of the second-story room, where Booth was confined, and called out to him to throw down the manuscript of his speech with a cord, and as I could not read his handwriting, his wife read it aloud to me and I copied it.
     About noon I conducted Mrs. Booth and her friend, Madam Ancke, to a shelter near where a crowd had assembled under Booth's window to hear his 4th of July oration, which had been advertised in his paper. The uniforms of the marines showed at the barred window. I called upon Judge Byron Paine [Justice of the Supreme Court] whom I saw in the audience, to read the manuscript which I held in my hand. He replied: "Read it yourself." I then nominated him for president and Fredricks [G. W. Frederick, one of the inner circle of the conspirators] for secretary of the meeting, declared them elected, and after a few words of introduction, read Booth's speech.
     After the reading I made some incoherent remarks about releasing the prisoner, looked for a ladder, and assured the people that the marines would not resist us. I had made the feint as agreed, and a good man, named Hargrave, from Ripon[,] and some others thought I was in earnest, and would have followed had I led. They probably felt humiliated by my inconsequential conduct, but I was satisfied when the newspapers ridiculed me next morning that I had misled them and the guards.

     Carter's description of the events on July 4 is consistent with LaGrange's account, differing primarily in characterizing his friend's speech as an "eloquent address" rather than as "incoherent remarks:"

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.

     Over the next four weeks, the plans and preparations for Booth's rescue were apparently perfected, for while neither Carter nor LaGrange provide any details, on August 1 the Milwaukee Sentinel, a Republican paper, reported with partisan flourishes the news of Booth's sensational and successful escape from the Custom House:

     A few minutes after 12 o'clock ten determined men walked leisurely by the Custom House steps. They might have been taken for merchants having business with the Collector. They seemed entirely unconcerned, and were talking of every day matters. They, however, did not visit the Collector; and the Marshal they could not see, for he was luxuriating in pork and beans--eating his accustomed dinner in all the security and repose of a peaceful conscience and a masterly appetite.
     The vigilant [Deputy Marshal] Burke, whose eye never sleeps, nor is known to wink, was alone visible. One of the gentlemen presented Mr. Burke with a card of admission to see Booth. The vigilant Burke took it, eyed it, spelled it, turned it over and was exerting the whole of his intellectual powers to read it, when one of the other gentle men [sic] caught him by the arms. A revolver gleamed before him. He heard the key turn in the door, and in another moment Mr. Booth stepped lightly over the threshold, and waving an affectionate au revoir, went down the iron steps as comfortably as though on his way to a tea party. Mr. Burke did not reply to the parting words--unfortunately for what he had to say--he found himself thrust into the room, and the key again turned. Ah, vigilant Burke!
     Mr. Booth was prepared for the promenade. His boots were blackened; the greater part of his hair was combed, and holding a fragrant nosegay in one hand, and a pistol in the other, he passed down Wisconsin street, and walked over to the residence of his brother-in-law, T. J. Salsman, on Second street. Here a large concourse of people gathered to congratulate him.
     From Milwaukee Mr. Booth proceeded in a carriage to a railroad station outside of the city, on the La Crosse road, and came on to Waupun. We learn that he addressed the citizens of Waupun on Wednesday evening.
     The Wisconsin and the News state that Prof. Daniels and O. H. LaGrange, of Ripon, were concerned in the rescue.
     We await with some interest the course the U. S. officers will take in the matter. Whether they will make a serious attempt to retake Booth, or to prosecute those who rescued him, is a subject of speculation. In the event that they do, there will be music by the entire band.
     The Marshal has offered a reward of $100 for the apprehension of Booth. We suggest to our Hunker friends that here is an opportunity to replenish their funds--there would be fun, if not funds, realized in the attempt.

     The following day, the Sentinel's Democratic counterpart, the Milwaukee News, published its somewhat different version of the story under a partisan headline clearly meant to demean Booth, his rescuers, and his cause:

     The atmosphere of Milwaukee was purified yesterday. The "Martyr to the glorious cause of freedom " has escaped. He has left his prison house without pardon from the Executive, without paying his fine, and without even saying "good bye" to Marshal Lewis, who for the past five months has been his custodian and protector. What base ingratitude and shameful forgetfulness of past favors!
     About eleven o'clock yesterday forenoon, "Brudder Booth," was seen to issue from the Custom House, hanging upon the arm of his brother-in-law, T. J. Salsman, and carrying a boquet [sic] about the size of a half bushel measure, and occasionally showing the butt end of a six shooter, which he facetiously termed "the Habeas Corpus." His appearance on the street was the signal for a rush on the part of several small boys and a few Shanghais, who followed him up Spring street to the residence of his brother-in-law on Second street. Shortly after arriving here, he was taken from the back part of the house, put into a carriage and driven rapidly out of the city.
     The modus operandi of his release was as follows: While the officers were at dinner, with the exception of one of the guard, (Burke) two men presented themselves at the door of the room, and tendered a card bearing the name of the Marshal, and grunting admittance for Messrs. Smith and Jones to the room of Booth. The appearance of the card was suspicious in Burke's estimation, and he took occasion to very closely inspect it, when he was seized by these individuals, who were none other than a man named La Grange, who has lately made himself very conspicuous in this vicinity, and the notorious Professor Daniels of geologic freedom shrieking notoriety. Daniels immediately presented a pistol at the breast of the guard, and threatened to "blow him through if he opened his mouth," when five or six more came up, threw open the door of Booth's room, by means of a key they had in some way secured, and taking the prisoner therefrom, they unceremoniously substituted Burke in his place and again closed the premises as they found them.
     Booth was out, but Burke was in. The latter shouted, halloed and finally crawled out through the window around on the stone work and succeeded in alarming the officers. Marshal Lewis was not aware of the escape of his prisoner until he was snugly ensconced in the house of Salsman, and when informed of the fact, was incredulous and insisted that "the crowd had seen some other man whom they mistook for Booth." But the prevalence of the rumor and the large number of individuals who saw the "martyr," at last forced conviction on his unwilling mind. He forthwith repaired to the residence of Salsman, leaned against the fence adjacent thereto and deliberated. A crowd gathered about the house, all anxious to see what measures the Marshal would take. One half hour passed and he was yet undecided. In the meantime Booth had taken a carriage....

     The two reports were in essential agreement about the facts. The rescue was timed to take advantage of short staffing during the dinner hour, allowing a superior number of rescuers to overpower the single remaining guard. In addition, after his release Booth ceremoniously carried a bouquet of flowers and a pistol with him down the steps of the Custom House, from where he walked to his brother-in-law's house nearby. The reporting itself, though, does reveal some amusing differences in interpretation. The Sentinel writes, for example, that, "Mr. Booth was prepared for the promenade. His boots were blackened; the greater part of his hair was combed, and holding a fragrant nosegay in one hand, and a pistol in the other, he passed down Wisconsin street." The News, on the other hand, writes that, "'Brudder Booth,' was seen to issue from the Custom House, hanging upon the arm of his brother-in-law, T. J. Salsman, and carrying a boquet [sic] about the size of a half bushel measure, and occasionally showing the butt end of a six shooter, which he facetiously termed 'the Habeas Corpus'."
     While the two accounts were consistent about the basic facts, there are several differences in the details. The Sentinel reports that ten men arrived at the jail just after noon, while the News reports that Booth was seen to leave at 11 o'clock and that only two men initially gained entrance, followed by "five or six" others. The Sentinel does not report who confronted Burke with the "gleaming" revolver, while the News reports that, "Daniels immediately presented a pistol at the breast of the guard, and threatened to 'blow him through if he opened his mouth'." The Sentinel seems to suggest that Booth walked alone to Salsman's house, while the News indicates that there was a "rush on the part of several small boys and a few Shanghais [named for Shanghai Chandler of the Adams County Independent], who followed him up Spring street." Finally, the News reports that officer Burke managed to give some warning of the escape, suggests considerable confusion on the part of Marshal Lewis, and names LaGrange and Daniels as actors in the escape. The Sentinel mentions none of those details.
     While these differences are apparently minor, they are revealing. The News paints an early portrait of Professor Daniels as an armed and violent conspirator, an editorial portrayal that would be repeated and enlarged upon in later Democratic accounts related to the events in Ripon. It also smears Marshal Lewis as somewhat slow-witted and slow to act, a characterization that would later be adopted by Booth's partisans as well. The guard, Burke, is portrayed as basically competent and even somewhat heroic by the News, while the Sentinel makes some effort to shower him in ridicule. That the News names Danels and LaGrange while the Sentinel fails to do so perhaps reflects the discovery of those facts during the lapse of time between the the two publications, but it could also reflect a deliberate decision by the sympathetic Sentinel to protect the two by not reporting their identities.
     Given these differences, it is interesting to compare the first-hand account offered in LaGrange's 1902 letter:

     On August 4 [it was August 1], following, Professor Daniels, Irving Bean, Mr. Morton, Mr. Fredericks [Carter identifies him as G. W. Frederick], Mr. Willits (a guard at the State's Prison) and another guard whose name I have forgotten, and the writer were in front of the custom house at noon to accomplish what I had postponed. Some persons who had been expected were not present.
     Precisely at twelve o'clock noon, Irving Bean, who had carried some jelly to Booth, came down and stood on the steps of the custom house. He drew his handkerchief once across his lips to indicate that only one deputy marshal was on guard over the prisoner, his companion having gone to dinner.
     Bean passed down as we ran up the stairs. A blank card, like those on which the marshal wrote his passes, was handed the deputy, who dropped the butt of his musket between his feet, as he turned the card over, his wrists were seized and he was pushed back into a corner of the hall. His musket fell upon the floor, and I asked, "Will you be very quiet, or shall we gag you?" He replied: "I am in your power, gentlemen. Do with me as you please."
     Morton unlocked the door, with a key made from an impression of the lock taken in softened bread crumbs, and called out: "Come here, Booth. You are wanted." In turning the deputy around to lead him to the door, I saw that one of our party had a navy revolver cocked in his hand, and begged him to put it up, lest it go off and hurt somebody. It probably influenced the amicable surrender of Deputy Burke, who was led to the door, pushed through it and locked in. He opened the window, walked on the coping at the risk of his life to another window and gave the alarm. Booth came out, wearing the fur cap he had worn when confined the winter before, and carrying a huge bouquet.
     The post office was in the custom house and the postmaster (I think his name was Stover), had a lot of loaded muskets on the first floor with which it was intended to arm employees deputized as marshals to guard the prisoner. He ran to the door, calling out: "What's all this! What's all this!" I slid down the hand rail ahead of our party, laid my hand on his shoulder, said "It's alright. It's alright." but was ready to throw him down the steps if he gave any orders.
     In five minutes we were on the street with 500 excited people around us, going to the house of Booth's brother-in-law, named Saulsman [sic]. After a hasty dinner it was decided that Booth with the two prison guards and myself, should drive to a railway station, two or three miles distant, and take the car to Waupun or Ripon. We passed out of Saulsman's house, through a back yard to the stable, while the United States marshal, John H. Lewis, attempted to summon the posse comitatus from the crowd in front of the house, to re-arrest the prisoner. Professor Daniels stood on the porch and argued with the marshal, while the crowd made fun of him, and before we left the stable, word came that the Montgomery guard had been ordered to assist the marshal.
     We reached the railway station just before the train, took the car, and proceeded without question to Horicon.

Of particular interest in LaGrange's account is that it confirms the identities of the rescuers, including the complicity of two guards from the State Prison. Federal marshals would later condemn the State Prison Commissioner and raise the issue of a broad conspiracy among Republican state officials by charging that guards from the state prison were involved in the rescue. The account is of interest, too, in that LaGrange identifies seven men including himself who were present during the rescue and indicates that some others were were expected but absent. The report in the News accurately indicated that seven or eight men were involved. The Sentinel, however, reported that ten men were involved, raising the question of whether the Sentinel was simply in error or whether it had had advance information about the rescue and had prepared its story before the escape. Would the absent members have made a party of ten?
     LaGrange's estimation that a crowd of "500 excited people" followed Booth and his rescue party to Salsman's house is wildly at variance with the accounts in the newspapers. The News mentions only "several small boys and a few Shanghais," perhaps a report as much motivated by political impact as anything else. The Sentinel report, on the other hand, contains no detail, again raising the question of whether it had its story prepared in advance.
     LaGrange's account of the revolver does not explicitly clear Daniels, but it does put a very different construct on the intended use of the gun than was conveyed by the News' report. In the same vein, LaGrange's relatively objective narration contrasts sharply with and makes more obvious the very deliberate attempts by both papers to caricature the major players in the rescue.
     Finally, LaGrange's description of the "hasty dinner" at Salsman's house and the subsequent debate among the rescuers as to their next step is a troublesome detail that can be interpreted in either of two ways. Had the rescuers not planned their escape beyond their arrival at Salsman's, or had they merely not decided who would accompany Booth to the planned destination of "Waupun or Ripon?" Given the careful planning suggested by Bean's handkerchief signal, the key made from the bread crumb impression, and LaGrange's awareness of the armory in the post office, it seems unlikely that they would not have decided how to leave the city and where to go once they had. The alternative interpretation would suggest that the presence of the guards and Booth's subsequent stay at the State Prison were essentially coincidental and thus would clear the Prison Commissioner, Hans Heg, of later accusations that he was part of a broader conspiracy. On the other hand, if the plans had been made and the presence of the guards was more than coincidence, it would give weight to the later charges, made by the state's Democratic papers and by federal officials, that the events in Milwaukee were coordinated at a higher level.

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.