Charles Torrey: Maryland’s Forgotten Abolitionist

Lovejoy, J. C. Memoir of Rev. Charles T. Torrey, Who Died in the Penitentiary of Maryland, Where He Was Confined for Showing Mercy to the Poor. Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1847.

Despite the title, the book is not a proper memoir but a collection of letters and other original writings of Charles Torrey which provide valuable insight into the beliefs and character of an influential if now overlooked member of the abolitionist movement. Torrey is sometimes referred to as the Father of the Underground Railroad because his work moved beyond the “moral suasion” tactics of his colleagues like William Lloyd Garrison; he actively encouraged people to flee from their enslavement and assisted in their escapes. Torrey became well-known for his January 1842 arrest and imprisonment in Annapolis Jail while attempting to report on a slaveholder’s convention held in the city. The memoir includes the detailed narrative of John and Emily Webb from Virginia who fled to Canada along with several of their children. Although their affidavits do not include reference to Torrey, he was imprisoned in Baltimore Jail (401 E. Eager Street) in 1844 in part because of accusations that he participated in the flight of the Webb family. He was also indicted on the charges of having “enticed, persuaded, and assisted” Hannah, Judah (or Judae), and Stephen Gooseberry in their escape from William Heckrotte of Baltimore City. The complete trial transcripts are included in the memoir. Torrey was convicted and sentenced to Maryland State Penitentiary (954 Forrest Street) where he died of tuberculosis.

Republican Daily Argus, 5 June 1844. Maryland State Archives, Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), “Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813 – d. May 9, 1846)” citation, 12 July 2008.

Tavern owner William Heckrotte placed this advertisement offering a $100 reward for the return of the fugitive Gooseberry family. The ad includes a detailed physical description of Hannah and her children, Judea, and Stephen. It also praises Hannah as a “first rate cook, washer, &c.” In a post-script, Heckrotte, whose address is listed as the corner of Charles and Camden Streets, notes, “If the Servants will return to their duty, they shall not be punished in any manner; as I believe they were evil advised in taking the step they did.” This appears to refer to the suspected influence of Charles Torrey. The image of the newspaper clipping can be used for the interactive map.

The same advertisement was printed in the Baltimore Sun on 6 June 1844 and was rerun in the Sun on 10 June 1844 with the reward increased to $150.

“To The Public,” Baltimore Sun, 30 August 1844. Maryland State Archives, Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), “Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813 – d. May 9, 1846)” July 12, 2008.

While imprisoned in the Baltimore City Jail awaiting trial, Charles Torrey published a notice presenting his case to the people of Maryland. Rather than plead his innocence, Torrey constructed a legal argument against prosecution of those who aid fugitives. He compared his actions with those of the United States Navy who freed Americans held captive in Tripoli. The real entities on trial, he contended, were the laws permitting slavery. “Maryland and Virginia must go on trial before the tribunal of the civilized world on this broad issue,” he proclaimed. He had instructed his lawyers to “make no admission, even by way of argument, that it can be a crime to aid God’s children, formed in his image, to escape from slavery. The crime is to make God’s child a slave!” In this manifesto, Charles Torrey demonstrates that there were people even in the mid-nineteenth century arguing not just for abolition but for racial equality.

“Baltimore City Court,” Baltimore Sun, 30 November 1844. Maryland State Archives, Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), “Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813 – d. May 9, 1846)” citation, 12 July 2008.

Transcripts from Charles Torrey’s trial were printed in the Baltimore Sun. On the first day of testimony, Charles Heckrotte, a relative of William, positively identified Charles Torrey as the man he saw conferring with Judah Gooseberry at the property’s gate on Camden Street on a May night about a week before the Gooseberrys escaped. Nicholas Woodward testified that he rented a carriage to Torrey in June 1844 and that the horses had been “very much fatigued” when returned. George Rigdon described the white man and black boy he observed with a carriage and horses matching Woodward’s on a bridge across Den Creek “about 30 miles from Baltimore.” The boy’s appearance and clothing matched the information listed in the runaway advertisement for Stephen Gooseberry. Robert Rigdon, who “[l]ives in Harford county on the Peachbottom Road, the other side of Deer Creek, about a mile and half” saw all four outside his blacksmith shop, which is 12 to 15 miles from Peachbottom and about 33 miles from Baltimore. The group was also seen by George Amos at Peachbottom and Baltimore roads, about four miles north of Deer Creek, and by Benjamin Amos about a mile from Deer Creek. Several of the witnesses also saw Torrey returning by the same route alone. Along with other testimony reported in this article, we should be able to plot a portion of the escape route from Baltimore to Pennsylvania used by Torrey.

“Baltimore City Court,” Baltimore Sun, 2 December 1844. Maryland State Archives, Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), “Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813 – d. May 9, 1846)” citation, 12 July 2008.

This article continues the court records of Charles Torrey’s trial. One of Torrey’s fellow prisoners at Baltimore City Jail, Thomas Southmayd, swore that Torrey confessed to him. According to Southmayd, Torrey met the fugitives at a house of a free black blacksmith behind Greenmount Cemetery (1501 Greenmount Avenue) and was assisted by “an old negro named Nick.” The reported route of the escapees was through Peachbottom to Philadelphia and then to New York.

Baltimore City Court,” Baltimore Sun, 3 December 1844. Maryland State Archives, Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), “Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813 – d. May 9, 1846)” July 12, 2008.

The Baltimore Sun printed the entire text of the prosecutor George R. Richardson’s closing argument against Charles Torrey but did not mention the defense’s statement at all. The newspaper attributes the large crowds who attended the last day of the trial, including Governor-elect Pratt, to the illustrious reputation of the state’s attorney, Mr. Richardson, rather than to any notoriety on the part of the defendant. Richardson instructed the jury that it was not their place to consider the righteousness of slavery; the sole task before them was to deliberate on the evidence presented that Torrey had violated the laws of Maryland. He used the minister’s position as a member of the upper class and of the clergy against him, asserting that his status and faith required him to submit to the authority of the law. Torrey was found guilty on all counts within two hours. Richardson’s unwillingness to defend slavery itself suggests ambivalence to the institution among the public in Maryland. The Governor-elect’s presence indicates the importance of Torrey’s trial in the state. The Sun’s editorial decision to run the entire closing argument of the prosecution and omit the defense entirely speaks volumes about the perspective of the press on the issue of slavery and abolition.

“City Court,” Baltimore Republic and Argus, 28 December 1844. Maryland State Archives, Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), “Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813 – d. May 9, 1846)” July 12, 2008.

A short notice in the Baltimore Republic and Argus reveals the failure of Torrey’s appeal and his sentence to the Maryland State Penitentiary for six and a half years. It describes his crime as abduction of the property of Mr. Heckrotte rather than of abetting fugitives. The newspaper continues the assertion that, as Heckrotte’s ad suggested, the Gooseberrys were coerced to flee by Torrey and were not willing actors in the escape.

MARYLAND PENITENTIARY (Prisoners Record), Charles T. Torrey #3756, 1844 MSA S 275-2. Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives.

The prison record for Rev. Charles T. Torrey lists his conviction as “Enticing Slaves to run away, 3 Indictments.” His term of imprisonment is listed from December 28, 1844 until April 2, 1851. The entry in the last column for release date records Torrey’s death on May 9, 1846 at 3 o’clock P. M. The scanned image is available online, so we may wish to link to it on our site.

SECRETARY OF STATE (Pardon Papers), Charles T. Torrey, Box 43, Folder 5, MSA S 1031-5. Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives.

C. J. Lovejoy, editor of Charles Torrey’s memoir, contended that many of the members of respectable society in both his home state of Massachusetts and in Maryland worked to secure his release even if they did not share Torrey’s commitment to abolition. In addition to consideration of public sympathy for Torrey’s passion, there were grave concerns about his failing health. Two distinguished ministers from Woburn, Massachusetts, who knew Torrey well, wrote to the governor of Maryland on his behalf, attesting to his good character as well as to the respectability of his wife’s family. Reverend Luther Wright and Rev. Joseph Bennett requested his pardon while disclaiming any sympathy for his cause of abolition. Bennett went further to say, “On the contrary, I regard the cause which he has pursued at the South, as grossly scandalous and immoral.” In fact, both honorable men promised to commit Torrey to the Insane Asylum if he refused to abandon his anti-slavery activity. Whether these northern clergymen were truly repulsed by Torrey’s passion and cause, or whether their professions were merely strategic in order to secure Torrey’s release is difficult to determine. Their petitions offer stark evidence of the range of sentiments about slavery at the time.

SECRETARY OF STATE (Pardon Record), Charles T. Torrey, May 9, 1846, page 6, MSA S 1108-2. Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives.

Governor Thomas G. Pratt issued a pardon to Charles Torrey on May 9, 1846, declaring “that he be immediately released from imprisonment.” He based his decision for clemency on the recommendation of  “the Judges of Baltimore City Court, by a portion of the Grand Jury of Prince Georges County and by a number of the Citizens of this State” as long as Torrey agreed to compensate the slaveholder for his property and leave the state of Maryland. Governor Pratt’s mercy to the man whose conviction he had witnessed came too late. A note at the bottom of the Pardon Letter states: “I[n] consequence of the death of Torrey on the day this pardon was granted, it was returned to this department [.]” Charles Torrey had died that afternoon of tuberculosis. He had become a martyr to the cause of abolition

Source: Primary Sources for the Map of Slavery in Maryland: Charles Torrey by Susan Philpott

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