A Chester County Farmer Went Too Far in 1851 to Save His Kidnapped Servant

Abolitionists won at Christiana in 1851, then lost in Baltimore. Border life was like that, and the costs to keep free blacks free were high.

Photo by Margaret Scott/Newsart.comEvery action is accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction. It’s Newton’s third law of motion, but also applies to the killing of Edward Gorsuch and Joseph Miller.

Gorsuch, a Baltimore slave owner, died in September 1851. He’d come north to Christiana on the Chester-Lancaster County line to retrieve four runaway slaves being sheltered there by William Parker, a free black. The blacks resisted. Nearly 40 local residents were arrested on charges of treason for resisting the federal Fugitive Slave Law in the so-called “Christiana Riot.” When a trial that December resulted in quick acquittals, Southerners—who thought Gorsuch a martyr—were outraged.

Weeks later, that outrage led to Miller’s death in Baltimore. The Chester County farmer had gone south to rescue Rachel Parker, a free black girl who’d been kidnapped from Miller’s West Nottingham home. Miller pursued the kidnappers to Baltimore and successfully plucked the girl from one of the city’s slave pens. But a rumor spread that one of the abolitionists who had killed Gorsuch was in town—a story made more plausible by the fact that William and Rachel Parker, though unrelated, had the same last name. Miller didn’t make it out of Baltimore alive.

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“His body was found hanging in a woods near Stemmer’s Run [railroad station],” wrote journalist Carter Woodson in the Journal of Negro History in 1920. “Investigation proved that Miller was dead before his body was hanged to the tree, and that he had been poisoned.”

Little is known of either Miller or Rachel Parker personally. Miller and his wife, Rebecca, had four children and their small farm—valued at $2,000 in the 1850 census—was still sufficiently successful that they could afford a live-in black servant. After his murder, the 40-year-old Miller was described at a public protest meeting as “kind and benevolent.”

Parker, 16, had come to the Millers at age 10. She was one of at least four children born to Ned and Rebecca Parker, a black family that had lived in West Nottingham for at least two generations. A sister, 10-year-old Elizabeth Parker, was employed as a domestic at the East Nottingham farm of Matthew Donnelly.

Both Miller and Parker were victims of Thomas McCreary. McCreary, who lived in Elkton, Md., was a post office contractor who delivered mail between northern Maryland and central Lancaster County. Raised in Chester County, he was familiar with the territory. That was useful in his second job as a freelance catcher of runaway slaves. But McCreary wasn’t especially careful in making identifications, as more than a few of those he seized turned out to be free.

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In 1849, McCreary was tried in Baltimore on a kidnapping charge arising out of a Negro stealing in Marlboro Township, but was acquitted by a friendly jury. Just a week before the Parker kidnapping, reported one newspaper, McCreary “stopped for refreshment at one of the taverns past which he carried the mail. Such was the feeling against him, he had to defend himself by employing his favorite weapon, the Bowie knife, to retreat safely to his team.”

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McCreary first came for Elizabeth Parker in a kidnapping seemingly arranged with her employer. One night in December 1851, after Elizabeth had put the Donnellys’ little boy to bed, she was instructed to go outside to fetch a bucket. “While stooping over to pick up the bucket, I was grabbed by McCreary, who placed a gag in my mouth and handcuffs upon my wrists,” she recalled to a local newspaper reporter in 1891. “I remember Mrs. Donnelly came out about that time with a coal lamp in her hand and, looking at me, remarked [to McCreary], ‘Well, you have got the nigger, have you?’”

Elizabeth was sealed in a wooden box with air holes, then loaded in the back of a wagon. She was driven to Baltimore and sold at auction for $1,000. “Before being put on the block, the slave traders had used all manner of means to compel me to lay claim to a name that was not my own,” Elizabeth recalled. “They tied my thumbs to ropes and drew me up on my toes and then lashed me with whips. I refused to do as they bid, and told the circumstances of my capture at every opportunity.”

Eventually, Elizabeth landed in New Orleans, where she sold flowers on the street. Soon, though, it was noticed that her “language and action were different from the Southern colored people.” The next day, she was taken before a magistrate and sent back to Baltimore, where authorities could investigate her case.

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About two weeks later, on Dec. 29, McCreary knocked at the Millers. The Donnellys hadn’t reported Elizabeth Parker missing, so no alarm had been raised in the border counties. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning. Rachel Parker opened the door.

McCreary asked for Rebecca Miller. Rachel invited him in. Then things got crazy. McCreary grabbed Rachel, declared that she was a runaway and began dragging her toward the door. Rebecca Miller protested that the girl was free and had been with the family for years, but McCreary wasn’t listening. Miller tried to pull Rachel free, but McCreary was stronger. The ruckus brought the family’s children running into the room. Now, everyone was screaming. Meanwhile, McCreary was taking Rachel out the door.

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Joseph Miller was a farmer, so he always had work to do. When he first heard the screaming, he was at the far side of the farm. By the time Miller reached the scene, McCreary and an accomplice had Rachel in the carriage. Miller grabbed one of Rachel’s arms, but McCreary waved a knife in his face. Next, the carriage was heading out the gate and down the road toward the Maryland line 2 miles away.

Miller pursued on foot and briefly caught up with the two at the home of a neighbor. James Pollock had sized up the situation at a glance, and purposely blocked the road with his farm wagon. But McCreary again produced a weapon and the unarmed farmers backed off. The carriage sped on to Perryville, Md., where McCreary and his helper pushed Rachel onto a Baltimore-bound train.

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McCreary would claim that Rachel belonged to a Mr. Schoolfield of Baltimore and had run away four years earlier. At this, the editor of the Village Republican newspaper scoffed. “McCreary knew these girls were free. He was acquainted with the neighborhood where they were raised, knew the girls, knew the persons in whose service they were,” he wrote. “His brother, Jesse McCreary, resides almost within sight of Miller’s, where Rachel lived, with whom he was in frequent intercourse. The idea is preposterous that he supposed these girls were fugitive slaves.”

The North Star claimed that the entire business was a plot by “blood-thirsty Marylanders” to lure Pennsylvania abolitionists south in defense of a free person “to wreak their vengeance upon them without mercy.” If so, they followed the bait—although Miller himself had never been politically active.

At the Perryville station, McCreary and Rachel were recognized by Eli Haines, one of Miller’s neighbors. Like Pollock, Haines immediately grasped what was going on. Haines had been heading for Philadelphia. But, presuming that help was on the way, he decided to follow them in an effort to learn where McCreary was taking the girl.

“Soon after [Miller and a rescue party] arrived in Baltimore, they were met by Haines, who had been on the lookout for a rescue party, and gave the information that Rachel was deposited in Campbell’s slave pen,” according to an 1870 account in the Village Republican.

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With the help of local Quaker Francis Cockran, who knew the owner of the pen, the group succeeded in moving Rachel to the city jail. (Cockran was later attacked and beaten by a mob for his efforts.) Moving her to the jail prevented Rachel from being sold, touching off the legal proceedings that would eventually confirm that she was both free and a victim of kidnapping. It also deprived McCreary of his “property” and, possibly, alerted pro-slavery activists that anti-slavery men were in town.

“By this time, it was evening, and the Chester County men all went home with Friend Cockran, where they had their suppers,” wrote the Republican. The judicial system moves slowly. Freeing Rachel would take time, lawyers and witnesses. There was nothing further to do in Baltimore that night.

“The excitement being great, Friend Cockran did not consider it safe for them to go to the depot direct,” reported the Republican. “He procured their tickets and had them driven by a circuitous route to the depot, charging them to keep together and take their seats in the cars at once.”

Miller, however, liked his cigars. And while waiting for the train to leave, he decided to step out onto the train platform for a smoke. That was the last time his friends saw him alive.

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They searched, but to no avail. Days later, Baltimore authorities found Miller’s body hanging from a tree near the train station where he had disappeared. His death was quickly declared a suicide, and he was buried in a rough box in a grave 2 feet deep.

Friends retrieved Miller’s body and returned it to Chester County. An autopsy showed the marks of manacles on his wrists and ankles, a black impression “as if made by a rope or cord” across his abdomen and “the end of his nose bore marks as if held by some instrument of torture.”

Most important, Miller’s stomach was empty—despite having eaten heartily at Cockran’s—and there were traces of arsenic in his system.

“The theory of his friends was that he was lashed down, drenched with arsenic, and puked and purged to death,” according to the Republican.

But no one was ever charged. The governor of Maryland refused to extradite McCreary. And Pennsylvania spent $3,000 for lawyers and witnesses to troop down to Baltimore to identify and testify that Rachel and Elizabeth Parker were, in fact, free. It was a year before they finally returned home.

Action, reaction. Tit for tat.
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