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Castner Hanway Treason Trial: 1851

Castner Hanway Treason Trial: 1851

Defendant: Castner Hanway
Crime Charged: Treason
Chief Defense Lawyers: John M. Read, Joseph J. Lewis, Theodore Cuyler, Thaddeus Stevens, W. Arthur Jackson (David Paul Brown, an attorney for a defendant who was indicted with Hanway, also sat at the defense table)
Chief Prosecutors: For the United States: John W. Ashmead, George L.Ashmead, James R. Ludlow; for the State of Maryland: Robert J. Brent, Z.Collins Lee; for the Gorsch family: James Cooper, R. M. Lee
Judges: Robert C. Grier, John K. Kane
Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Dates of Trial: November 24-December 11, 1851
Verdict: Not Guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: To show the country that it would strictly enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, the U.S. government put a Pennsylvanian on trial for treason after he refused to help a posse search for a runaway slave.

By 1840, an informal and secret network of hiding places existed to help runaway slaves escape from the South into northern states and Canada. Between 1830 and 1860, an estimated 50,000 blacks, aided by thousands of abolitionists, Quakers, and escaped slaves, used this "Underground Railroad" to find freedom. In 1851, in an attempt to halt this exodus, the federal government accused one man of treason.

To cut down on the number of runaway slaves, the federal government adopted the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This law provided, among other things, for the appointment of special commissioners who were authorized to issue and order U.S. marshals to execute warrants for the arrest of escaped slaves. An affidavit from the slave owner was all that was needed to prove ownership, and a black who claimed that he was free was denied the right to testify on his own behalf in any later court proceeding. Furthermore, the commissioners were entitled to call upon bystanders and to organize posses for help when deemed necessary to recover a runaway slave. Finally, people convicted of hiding or otherwise preventing the arrest of a fugitive slave were subject to a $1,000 fine and six months imprisonment.

Slave Master Killed Chasing Fugitive

In 1849, four slaves escaped from the Monkton, Maryland farm of Edward Gorsch. Two years later, Gorsch learned that the four were in Christiana, Pennsylvania. After receiving a warrant for their arrest, Gorsch, his son, deputy U.S. marshal Henry Kline, and six others, all heavily armed, went to Christiana. On September 11, 1851, the nine approached the house of William Parker, an escaped slave who was reported to be hiding the runaways.

Parker refused to hand over his guests, an argument ensued, and shots were fired. Mrs. Parker blew a horn to signal the local black community that help was needed. Other blacks (estimates vary from 30 to over 100) soon began to arrive with guns, scythes, and stones. Also arriving on a horse was a white man, Castner Hanway, who lived at the home closest to the Parker residence. Hanway was neither an abolitionist nor a Quaker, but he felt duty bound to prevent any disturbances in his neighborhood.

When the Gorsch party saw Hanway, they automatically assumed that he was an abolitionist protecting the runaways. Kline handed Hanway the warrant for the arrest of the four slaves. In the meantime, another white, Elijah Lewis, showed up. Hanway advised the deputy marshal that "the colored people have a right to defend themselves. You had better leave or there will be bloodshed." The deputy told Hanway and Lewis that he was holding them responsible for the Gorsch slaves and ordered a retreat. Hanway and Lewis, realizing that there was nothing they could do to alter the increasingly dangerous situation, also left. Suddenly, Gorsch turned to face the blacks and shouted, "I won't leave without my slaves. I'll have my property or go to hell." The crowd surged and during a short but fierce battle, Edward Gorsch was shot and then hacked to death with a corn cutter while his son was severely wounded. At least two blacks were wounded in the melee. It is not certain who shot or killed Gorsch.

The local district attorney, based on Kline's statements, issued warrants for the arrest of suspects for murder and riot. Since he did not know the names of those who gathered at the Parker home, Kline insisted on the apprehension of everyone, black and white, who could possibly have been involved. Hanway and Lewis turned themselves in once they learned that they were going to be charged. Parker and the four runaway slaves fled before they could be arrested. Then, the federal government decided to intervene.

Politics Dictates Treason Charge

News of Gorsch's death quickly spread across the country. People in the South (especially in Maryland) were demanding blood. Southern newspapers made the incident sound like a planned rebellion. President Millard Fillmore, along with his secretary of state, Daniel Webster, and his attorney general, John Crittenden, knew that something had to be done or the South would regard the whole affair as proof of the federal government's inability to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Therefore, it was decided to charge all the participants in the riot with treason. Even if there were no convictions, the government reasoned, the trials alone would dampen northern opposition to the enforcement of the fugitive slave law.

Treason is defined by the Constitution as levying war against the United States. The government's argument was that any action to prevent, by force, the enforcement of any federal law was treasonous. Furthermore, anyone who advocated such action, even if he or she did not actually participate in the violence, was also guilty of treason. Eventually, 41 people, including Hanway and Lewis, were indicted. (Parker and the four runaway slaves were among those charged with treason, but since they had escaped arrest, they would be tried in absentia.)

The trial was held in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Assisted by W. Arthur Jackson, Hanway's defense lawyers were four of the most prominent attorneys in Pennsylvania and included the fiery orator and congressman Thaddeus Stevens as well as Theodore Cuyler, Joseph Lewis, and John Read.

The U.S. Attorney for eastern Pennsylvania, John Ashmead, was initially in charge of the prosecution. Urged by Daniel Webster himself to make as strong a case as possible, Ashmead was assisted by his cousin, George Ashmead, and by Philadelphia lawyer James Ludlow. However, there was a strong suspicion in Maryland that the entire judicial system in Pennsylvania was biased against southern slaveowners. Maryland attorney general Robert Brent advised Ashmead that he expected to play a prominent role in Hanway's prosecution, along with two lawyers hired by the Gorsch family. At first, Ashmead refused, but when the governor of Maryland complained to the White House, Ashmead was instructed to accommodate Brent and the others. One of the Gorsch family's attorneys, James Cooper, eventually became the prosecution's "leading counsel." Baltimore District Attorney Z. Collins Lee was later added to the team. Still, each group of prosecutors had different strategies that often lead to the submission of conflicting evidence.

Hanway Tried in Test Case

Presided over by Robert C. Grier, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, and by U.S. District Judge John K. Kane, the trial began on Monday, November 24, 1851. The prosecution decided to try Hanway first and if a conviction was reached, then the other defendants would be tried separately.

Hanway was charged with five counts of treason. Specifically, it was alleged that he, with "force and arms," did:

assemble with others to "oppose and prevent, by means of intimidation and violence," the execution of the Fugitive Slave Act;

prevent U.S. Deputy Marshall Kline's execution of the warrants for the arrest of the four runaway slaves;

assault Kline and rescue Gorsch's slaves;

conspire before the riot with "persons. as yet unknown" to resist the execution of the Fugitive Slave Act; and

prepare and distribute books, pamphlets, letters, and other writings urging people to resist the Fugitive Slave Act.

The prosecution did its best to prove that Hanway had led and incited the blacks at William Parker's house. For example, Kline claimed that Hanway had said something to the crowd after which the blacks attacked. However, the prosecution's other witnesses cast doubt on his story. It was also claimed that, upon Hanway's appearance, the blacks who were gathered at the Parker house suddenly became "inspired." Mrs. Parker's blowing of the horn and the rapid response by the Parkers' neighbors were even cited as evidence of a previously arranged plan. Still, after 14 witnesses and three days of testimony, all that the prosecution conclusively proved was that Hanway had refused to help Kline arrest Gorsch's runaway slaves.

After testimony was completed and all the lawyers offered their summations, Judge Grier instructed the jury that:

Two questions present themselves for your inquiry

1st, Was the defendant a participant in the offenses proved to have been committed? Did he aid, abet, or assist the negroes in this transaction?

2nd if he did, was the offense treason against the United States?

The first question was purely a factual one for the jury to decide. However, the second was a mixture of fact and law: it was up to the judge to define treason, but it was for the jury to decide if Hanway's actions met that definition.

Grier ruled that, for treason to exist:

The conspiracy and the insurrection connected with it must be to effect [sic] something of a public nature, to overthrow the government, or to nullify some law of the United States, and totally hinder its execution, or compel its repeal.

However, Grier also stated that:

A number of fugitive slaves may infest a neighborhood, and may be encouraged by the neighbors in combining to resist the capture of any of their number; they may resist with force and arms [but] their insurrection is for a private object, and connected with no public purpose.

when the object of an insurrection is of a local or private nature, not having a direct tendency to destroy all property and all government, by numbers and armed force, it will not amount to treason.

So instructed, it took the jury 15 minutes to find Hanway "not guilty." After three months in jail, Hanway was now a free man.

If the other defendants came to trial, Judge Grier's definition of treason would certainly be applied in their cases as well. As a result, on December 17, 1851, six days after Hanway's acquittal, U.S. Attorney John Ashmead announced that the indictments against the others for treason would be dismissed. However, most of the remaining defendants still faced state charges of murder and riot. They remained in custody for another month until Deputy Marshal Henry Kline was himself indicted for lying at the defendants' pretrial hearing.

After the trial, many northerners felt that Hanway and the other defendants were entitled to honor and public sympathy. Southerners, however, were outraged and regarded Hanway's trial as a farce. Maryland's governor pleaded for calm, but warned that when "treason stalks unpunished, through the halls of Justice; the Nation can judge of the probable remoteness" of the violent breakup of the country. Indeed, some historians have called the Christiana Riot the first battle of the Civil War.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bacon, Margaret Hope. Rebellion at Christiana. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975.

Hensel, W. U. The Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials of 1851: An Historical Sketch. 2nd rev. ed.Lancaster, Penn.: New Era Printing, 1911. Reprint, Miami, Fla.: Mnemosyne Publishing, 1969.

Katz, Jonathan. Resistance at Christiana: The Fugitive Slave Rebellion, Christiana, Pennsylvania, September11, 1851: A Documentary Account. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1974.

Robbins, James J. Repont of the Trial of Castner Hanway for Treason. Philadelphia: King and Baird, 1852. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

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