In June of 1844, Charles Torrey arrived in Baltimore. He was well-known as an anti-slavery agitator and architect of the Underground Railroad. He had avoided police many times over the years, in Washington and Baltimore, while helping some 400 slaves to freedom in Canada and the northern states.
Then in Baltimore a slave trader accused him of helping slaves escape. A local tavern owner also accused him of stealing two of his slaves. With specific charges, the police arrested Torrey and tossed him into jail to await trial. It was the last stop in the career of the most successful abolitionist who was largely ignored by history.
Torrey was born in Scituate, Mass., in 1813. By 1817 both his mother and father, as well as his sister, had died of tuberculosis. Relatives then raised young Torrey. Schooled at Exeter and Yale, Torrey became a teacher and then minister.
He seized on slavery as the most dangerous evil of the day, and made it his mission to exterminate it. He travelled New England speaking out against the institution. But soon he grew tired of the slow, pacifist approach taken by William Lloyd Garrison and his Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
Torrey first challenged Garrison for leadership of the movement, and failed. He then joined with other radicals in splitting off and creating the Liberty Party in 1840. But he soon grew weary of the political process, and began taking direct action. He spoke with African Americans, both free and enslaved, and he learned the difficulty of simply running away to the North. Further, the penalties for attempting escape were so fierce that many slaves judged it too dangerous to even try.
Torrey and other hot-headed abolitionists decided to take direct action. They travelled to Washington and Baltimore, encouraged slaves to escape. Then they drove them north by wagons to help them disappear into a Quaker-run network of safe houses.
This new breed of abolitionist sought out slaves owned by southern political leaders to stir as much debate as possible. Over the next several years, Torrey freed hundreds of slaves. But his boldness put a target on his back. Southern congressmen grew more outspoken in their denunciation of abolitionists who liberated slaves. They went so far as to declare they should be shot.
In 1842, Torrey, operating as a journalist, attended a convention of slaveholders at Annapolis, Md.. He intended to report on their organized efforts to defend slavery. Police arrested him for inciting illegal activities.
Torrey soon returned to Maryland for his last attack on slavery.
Abolitionists like Torrey faced not just the official opposition to their work. They also had to operate alongside a murky world of slave traders, slave hunters, corrupt police and black spies. There was a robust trade in slaves where free blacks would induce a slave to flee. The free black would keep the slave in captivity, thinking he was on his way to freedom. Only later would he discover he had basically been kidnapped and ransomed back to his owner.
Corrupt police and jailers would work the crowds at the Baltimore black churches looking for escaped slaves. They would tip off slave hunters, who could negotiate to get the slave returned for less than the advertised reward.
Torrey made it his business to publicize these corrupt practices. It wouldn’t take long before he would fall prey to them in Baltimore.
First, a slave hunter lodged a complaint against him (probably fabricated). Then William Heckrotte, tavern owner, accused Torrey of helping a family of slaves escape north.
Stuck in jail, Torrey used the time to help educate black inmates about how to access the Underground Railroad and escape.
Yet his arrest distressed him.
“I have very little desire to become a martyr,” he said in a letter to an uncle. “How I should act in prospect of being called to that glorious host, I do not know.”
Torrey once attempted escape. His former landlady and her daughters regularly visited him. While not abolitionists, they visited Torrey so he could go outside for an hour of fresh air for the visit. The jailers spread a story that he had an improper relationship with one of the women and had the visits stopped. The newspapers reported that Torrey’s wife had hired an investigator to prove the charges and seek divorce.
Torrey hatched a plan to escape to clear his name, but a fellow inmate alerted jailers to the plan. Torrey’s wife would later write and assure him that she did not believe the charges.
After two years in jail awaiting trial, Torrey was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. He penned a book about his childhood in Scituate, Home! Or the Pilgrims’ Faith Revived, to provide some income for his wife and family.
Torrey even wrote a reconciliatory letter to Garrison, who he had pilloried for his lack of direct action to combat slavery. The letter did little to heal the division between the two.
Torrey’s tuberculosis took a toll in the jailhouse conditions. He died in in prison in May of 1846.
The divisions between the moderate and radical wings of the abolitionist movement followed Torrey to the grave. Though acknowledged by his contemporaries as having freed more slaves via the Underground Railroad than anyone, the staid Park Street Church in Boston withdrew an offer to host his funeral. It was moved to the more progressive Tremont Temple. He was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
In writing the history of the abolitionist movement, the contributions of Torrey and the other advocates of direct action were largely downplayed in the histories of the era, in favor of a version of events that glorified Garrison and his supporters.
During his long incarceration, Torrey gave interviews and wrote letters published in Baltimore. Though he tried to reason with Marylanders, he never lost his harsh edge:
“I make no appeal for sympathy. Let the guilty do that,” he wrote in one broadside. “The states of Maryland and Virginia will go to trial before the tribunal of mankind.”
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Park Street Church By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39075427.