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Missing historical puzzle pieces and more information on abolitionist William Shreve Bailey

Part 17 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

This is the second part of an article on abolitionist William Shreve Bailey. For last week’s installment, click here.

Historians are a bit like Sherlock Holmes, the main character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels.

They chase relentlessly after small pieces of the historical puzzle. Critical thinking guides their research efforts. Like reporters, attorneys, detectives and scientists, historians gather possible evidence, and then use the processes of analysis and synthesis to reassemble the puzzle. However, often there are missing pieces—jewels that history has buried from our view. These remain the open questions that will intrigue a new generation of historians, in the hope that new evidence will one day appear. Like archeologists, historians remain patient and optimistic, metaphorically hoping that a new wave of spring rains (or more likely spring house cleanings) will unearth the “fossils” of long-hidden evidence.  

Historians face even more obstacles with the topic of abolitionists, whose work entailed a network of secrets necessary to safeguard their movement. While some abolitionists were outspoken in their opposition to slavery, others played more covert roles in the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was not, of course, literally a “railroad.” Rather, it was a metaphor for the operations of both black and white people who helped runaway slaves along their journeys to freedom in the north. Those who used their houses, churches, and facilities—the so-called “stations” on the Underground Railroad—to hide runaways were labeled “conductors.”

William Shreve Bailey (from Accessible Archives)

Aiding and abetting enslaved peoples to escape was a federal offence, hence the need for the Underground Railroad “conductors” to be clandestine, that is, to operate “underground.” Conductors, for the sake of both the runaways and for themselves, had to manage their operations surreptitiously and often under the veil of night.  Hence, abolitionists did not generally leave either written records or other evidence historians generally need to piece together the puzzles of the past.

The first Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the US Congress in 1793 and required that officials in free states return captured runaway slaves to their owners in slave states. Of course, some Northerners opposed to slavery felt that their tax money should not be used in this unethical manner. Throughout the North, states had gradually passed laws and enacted new judicial procedures that either thwarted the federal Fugitive Slave Act or slowed it down. In 1842, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS), in a case entitled Prigg v. Pennsylvania, ruled that states could determine how and to what extent they would respond to the Fugitive Slave Act. In an ironic use of the “states’ rights” provision of the Tenth Amendment (which was often cited by southern state officials in defense of slavery), SCOTUS ruled on behalf of northern free states that:

“The states are the best judges of that mode of delivering up fugitive slaves, which will be most acceptable to their citizens. It is evident, that no general law can suit the spirit of the people in all; and the only rational mode of providing for the evil, is that provided by the framers of the constitution—by committing it to the wisdom and patriotism of the states themselves. The tendency of this course of reasoning is, not only to prove that the general government has not exclusive, but that it has no jurisdiction over this subject whatever” (Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/41/539).

Infuriated, southern slave states, who were overrepresented in the US Congress due to the Three-Fifths Clause of the US Constitution, pushed for a new and much stricter Fugitive Slave Act. Signed into law by President Fillmore in September 1850, this act overrode the efforts of northern courts and officials sympathetic to the cause of freedom. In addition, it lowered the standards of proving ownership of enslaved persons to a mere affidavit—basically the word of a slavecatcher against the captured slave, who had no rights at all. The act also increased federal fines for aiding and abetting runaway slaves to up to six months in prison and $1,000.  To no one’s surprise, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 led to kidnappings of free northern blacks and their abduction into slavery.

The new Fugitive Slave Act was part of the larger Compromise of 1850, engineered by Henry Clay of Kentucky. Although many credit Clay for enacting a compromise that delayed civil war for another decade, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 actually inflamed passions more. The act was especially oppressive to border areas like Cincinnati, Ohio and neighboring Covington and Newport, Kentucky, whose residents were already reluctant to become too involved in a process that divided their population. 

In February 1850, William Shreve Bailey purchased the press of The Newport News, embarking upon an increasingly abolitionist tone to this and other newspapers that he edited. By the late 1850s, his main newspaper had adopted the title, The Free South, and had become one of the principal abolitionist presses of America.

Like many abolitionists, Bailey’s life remains shrouded in mystery. He was born in 1806 in Centerville, Ohio, south of Dayton. That area, extending to Wilmington and Lebanon, Ohio, was a stronghold of Quaker and Shaker settlers, both of whom were opposed to slavery. In fact, many Quaker families were involved in the Underground Railroad. A number of early Quaker settlers to Ohio migrated there from Virginia and North Carolina, wanting to remove themselves from the heart of slave territory. Bailey’s father was a native of Virginia (Ancestry.com), but whether he was a Quaker is unknown at this time. Either way, William Shreve Bailey was likely influenced by the abolitionist views of the Quaker neighbors of his youth, although Bailey himself became rather disenchanted with organized religion in his later life. 

William Shreve Bailey’s wife, Caroline Ann Withnal (1813-1867), is also a puzzle.  She was born in Wheeling, in the Northern Panhandle of current West Virginia, an area known for its opposition to slavery. How the two met is unknown, but undoubtedly she was as steadfast in her support for abolitionism as her husband. The couple, and many of their eventual fourteen children, worked alongside one another in publishing The Free South. Even the youngest children would have been subject to, and aware of, the violence and harassment that their parents encountered. For instance, in 1851 an angry mob burned down their residence, and in 1859, other rioters destroyed their press.

Also puzzling is the fact that, although William Shreve Bailey appeared to be working in Cincinnati as early as 1830 and moved to Newport in the 1830s, the family still retained strong ties to Ohio. For example, their children were born in many different places, including Cincinnati, Dayton (Ohio), Lebanon, and Newport (Ancestry.com). Was Bailey involved in the Underground Railroad network, using his Cincinnati/Newport and Lebanon connections in the freeing of slaves before he began his abolitionist newspaper in 1850?

In March 1861, William Shreve Bailey traveled to England and then to Canada to raise funds for the reestablishment of his destroyed abolitionist press. Some of the greatest abolitionists of the United States wrote letters of introduction on behalf of Bailey, including John A. Andrew, Salmon P. Chase, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel E. Sewall, George Luther Stearns, and Charles Sumner. 

The gravestone of William Shreve Bailey in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Natalie Halverson Whitton, and courtesy of Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/89318949/william-shreve-bailey

It is likely that Bailey was already well known among British abolitionists. In 1859, a small booklet entitled Little Laura, the Kentucky Abolitionist was published in Newcastle, England. A work of juvenile literature, it was presumably inspired by Bailey’s youngest daughter, known as L.V. Born in Newport in 1847, L.V. Bailey died the same year of the book’s publication. Little is known of the publication’s author, Anna H. Richardson, except that she lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Finally, perhaps the most intriguing missing puzzle piece is the following. It is known that Bailey was well connected to the abolitionist community nationwide. But just how well did he know two of the so-called “Secret Six,” a half-dozen influential men who were steadfast supporters and financial contributors to John Brown’s 1859 Raid on Harper’s Ferry? Recent evidence, uncovered in the form of letters written by Bailey to Gerrit Smith and in the possession of Syracuse University in New York, prove that Bailey corresponded with Smith (1797-1874) over the years. Smith was one of the “Secret Six,” as well as George Luther Stearns (1809-1867), also a friend of Bailey’s.

The biographer of Rev. Photius Fisk of Boston, a lifetime friend and financial supporter of Bailey Massachusetts, provides a further tantalizing glimpse of the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry Raid in William Bailey’s own words:

“A letter, asserted to have been intercepted at the post-office, was privately exhibited at Newport, bearing the signatures of John Brown, stamped with the Harper’s Ferry postmark, and addressed to myself. This letter, I hardly need say, was an infamous forgery, implicating me, as it did, in the Harper’s Ferry insurrection, and giving me instructions for the capture of the United States barracks at Newport, seizing the arms and turning them against the Government. So cleverly was this shameful fraud managed that some of my own friends were deceived by it; and in the excited state of the public mind at that time, it was no matter of surprise that another attack was made upon me, which took place on the night of October 28, 1859, and resulted in the demolition of my type, presses, etc., a great part of which were thrown into the Ohio River, causing me a loss of about $3,000” (Lyman F. Hodge, Photius Fisk, a Biography.  Boston, MA: 1891, p. 159).

Little is known of William Shreve Bailey’s life after the Civil War. His wife, Caroline Ann Withnal Bailey, died in Covington, Kentucky in March 1867. The following year, in Spring 1868, Bailey moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he continued in the publishing business and was again subject to an arsonist fire in November 1875.  He died at age eighty and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. 

Rev. Photius Fisk paid for Bailey’s grave lot and an eight-foot-tall gravestone. In addition to basic biographical information, the stone reads: “One of the bravest pioneers of abolitionism for chattel slavery and of free thought for mental slavery.  Though often outraged and martyred for his principles he was never conquered, suppressed, nor discouraged.  It was through the efforts of such heroes that the world has been made fit for the abode of humanity.  He rests in the peace and honor so nobly won” (Doug Logan, “William S. Bailey: Abolitionist Editor in the Slave State of Kentucky,” Kentucky Historical Society, http://history.ky.gov/landmark/william-s-bailey-abolitionist-editor-in-the-slave-state-of-kentucky/).

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles. 

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