On this date in 1851 began the largest treason trial in US history, due to the so-called "Christiana Riot" in which free blacks and white farmers in Pennsylvania united to defend runaway slaves, killing a southern slave-hunter in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act.

A thread. 1/
In 1849, four slaves had escaped from the Maryland farm of white slave-owner Edward Gorsuch. Two years later, Gorsuch learned the four were living in the home of another ecaped slave, William Parker in Christiana, Pennsylvania, just 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line.

In the meantime, the Fugitive Slave Act had passed Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850, requiring northerners to cooperate with southern slave-hunters attempting to track down runaway slaves in the north.

Christiana was home to a large free black community and a refuge for runaway slaves. The community was frequently targeted by slave-hunters, and had organized to protect itself, often preventing the recapture of slaves and even rescuing some who had been recaptured.

In 1851, Gorsuch received a warrant to arrest his four runaway slaves, Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond.

He gathered a slave-hunting party, including his son Dickinson, deputy U.S. marshal Henry Kline, and 6 others. All 9 men were heavily armed.

Shortly after midnight on September 11, 1851, Gorsuch and his party set out for Christiana. They arrived at William Parker's house just before dawn, and demanded that the fugitive slaves be handed over.

Parker refused, and his wife Eliza blew a horn specially prepared for such an event, quickly summoning between 75 and 100 black members of the community, who were armed with guns, scythes, clubs, and stones.

Also arriving in response to the horn were a few white members of the community, including Castner Hanway, Elijah Lewis, and Joseph Scarlett.

Although not necessarily abolitionists, they hoped to mediate between the two sides and avoid bloodshed.

The slave-hunters could not fathom that blacks could organize on their own and automatically assumed the white men must be abolitionist ringleaders.

Kline handed the warrant to Hanway and demanded the fugitive slaves be handed over, but Hanway simply told him, "The colored people have a right to defend themselves. You had better leave or there will be bloodshed."

(pictured: Castner Hanway and his wife)

Kline threatened Hanway and Lewis that they were committing a federal crime by handing over the slaves, and then advised Gorsuch to retreat.

But Gorsuch shouted, "I won't leave without my slaves. I'll have my property or go to hell!" and tried to seize one of his slaves...

Thereupon the crowd surged and gunfire erupted on both sides. Gorsuch was beaten, shot several times, and hacked apart with corn knives, and his son Dickinson was also shot several times and appeared to be dead. Numerous other participants in the battle were wounded.

Hanway and Lewis left when the violence started. Another local white man, Joseph Scarlet, dragged Dickinson Gorsuch out of the fight and took him to a nearby home, saving his life.

For his troubles, Scarlet would later be charged with treason against the United States.

News of the so-called "Christiana Riot" spread like wildfire and was front-page news in newspapers around the country, including the very first edition of the New York Times.

Southern papers portrayed it as a premeditated ambush, and southern states demanded hangings for the perpetrators and threatened secession from the union of the Fugitive Slave Act were not upheld.

(pictured: excerpt from the Baltimore Sun, September 13, 1851)

For reasons that would later become clear, Deputy Marshal Kline had no clue who participated in the battle, so he urged the arrest of anyone who might taken part.

Bowing to southern pressure, President Millard Fillmore (pictured) sent in U.S. Marines to round up suspects.

William Parker, the four runaways, and several other blacks from Christiana had already fled to Canada, but dozens of other Christiana blacks were arrested, as were Hanway, Lewis, & Scarlet.

Under pressure to show toughness, Fillmore insisted on the absurd charge of treason against the United States. He figured even if the charge did not stick, it would signal federal government's determination to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act and deter future resistance.

Altogether, 41 men were charged with treason - 36 blacks and 5 whites.

Kline fingered Hanway as the ringleader, so his federal treason trial began on Monday November 24, 1851 in the Old Pennsylvania State House (now better known as Independence Hall).

The defense was led by none other than Christiana's congressional representative Thaddeus Stevens (left) and the lead prosecutor for the federal government was US District Attorney John W. Ashmead (right).

The star witness for the prosecution was Deputy Marshal Kline, who testified under oath that Hanway had directly incited the attackers, that his arrival had "inspired" to attack, and that the sounding of the horn proved premeditation.

But the defense called 29 witnesses to assassinate Kline's character, including a respected Philadelphia judge, William D. Kelley (pictured); collectively they portrayed Kline as an inveterate liar and known kidnapper.

Under cross-examination, Kline himself admitted that he had fled "over the fence and out through the cornfield" just before the battle erupted, and thus did not have a clear view of the hostilities.

The case collapsed and a jury of 12 white men (average age: 53), deliberated just 15 minutes before returning a verdict of "not guilty" on all counts.

(pictured: Christiana Riot Memorial, Christiana PA)

Ashmead had to drop treason charges against the 40 co-defendants, but he still planned to try them for murder and riot, so they were jailed one more month, until further discrepancies in Kline's testimony emerged and Kline himself was indicted for perjury. All 41 were freed.

The Christiana "Riot" and Treason Trial of 1851 deeply exacerbated existing sectional tensions, becoming a cause célèbre for the burgeoning abolitionist movement and fueling fears in the south that northern states could not be trusted to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act.

Millard Fillmore's strategy of seeking treason charges badly backfired, as even northern whites not in favor of abolition came to fear the Fugitive Slave Act could cause innocent whites to be arrested and tried, and came to view it as a dangerous expansion of "slave power."

Southerners, meanwhile, regarded the Christiana Treason Trial as a gross miscarriage of justice. Maryland governor Louis E. Lowe called the trial a "farce" and ominously alluded to possibility of southern secession:

The Christiana incident also shaped the views of a young Maryland schoolboy named John Wilkes Booth. It turned out Booth's best friend in school was Gorsuch's youngest son Thomas.

Booth would later lament the incident as evidence of northern injustice in an 1860 speech.

The sectional divisions deepened by Christiana continued to worsen over the next decade, eventually leading to the bloody Civil War.

And of course John Wilkes Booth eventually took revenge on behalf of the South by assassinating President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Today, the town of Christiana, Pennsylvania celebrates what it now calls the Christiana "resistance" (rather than "riot") as a point of origin in the Black struggle for freedom.

However the town's main memorial marker, a 10-foot stone obelisk, was erected in 1911 at a time when white supremacy still held sway.

Although it commemorates Hanway and the others as "suffering for freedom" it also commemorates Edward Gorsuch as having "died for law."


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