The Kidnapping Club

Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War


By Jonathan Daniel Wells

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Winner of a 2020-2021 New York City Book Award

In a rapidly changing New York, two forces battled for the city's soul: the pro-slavery New Yorkers who kept the illegal slave trade alive and well, and the abolitionists fighting for freedom.

We often think of slavery as a southern phenomenon, far removed from the booming cities of the North. But even though slavery had been outlawed in Gotham by the 1830s, Black New Yorkers were not safe. Not only was the city built on the backs of slaves; it was essential in keeping slavery and the slave trade alive.
In The Kidnapping Club, historian Jonathan Daniel Wells tells the story of the powerful network of judges, lawyers, and police officers who circumvented anti-slavery laws by sanctioning the kidnapping of free and fugitive African Americans. Nicknamed "The New York Kidnapping Club," the group had the tacit support of institutions from Wall Street to Tammany Hall whose wealth depended on the Southern slave and cotton trade. But a small cohort of abolitionists, including Black journalist David Ruggles, organized tirelessly for the rights of Black New Yorkers, often risking their lives in the process.
Taking readers into the bustling streets and ports of America's great Northern metropolis, The Kidnapping Club is a dramatic account of the ties between slavery and capitalism, the deeply corrupt roots of policing, and the strength of Black activism.



Summer 1832


THE STREETS OF NORFOLK WERE EERILY QUIET, MAKING IT ALL THE more important that the group of men and women lurking behind buildings in the city’s small business sector remain absolutely silent. A heavy blanket of humid air and the smell of salt water hung over the furtive group of enslaved people. The slightest cough or mere whisper could give them all away. If caught, there would be hell to pay.

Though they had been toiling in hot, steamy cotton fields since the sun rose, they had only pretended to sleep when the overseer rang the bell for curfew. Sure, to a person they were physically tired, but the danger and excitement gave them renewed energy and they crouched low, creeping through the alleyways of the port town.

Their likes and dislikes, their loves and hatreds, their personalities and dreams, have been lost to history. But at least we know their names: Ben, Caleb, Southey, Ann, George Carter, Joe, John Carter, Southard, James, Charles, Jack Cooley, Severn, Michael, Slack, Isaac, Ben, and Henry. One night in August they collectively decided to risk their lives in hopes of escaping slavery and somehow—against tremendous odds and in defiance of an entire country whose laws demanded they remain enslaved—reach freedom.

They likely didn’t know exactly what time it was as they approached the water, but it was probably long after midnight. The midsummer moon may have allowed them to see the outline of the now quiet row of shops—the cabinetmakers, printers, blacksmiths, butchers, shoemakers, clothing stores, and other small wooden storefronts that lined the streets. Every sound, no matter how soft, would have made them halt in mid-step. They heard every bump and scrape, every tick and knock, their ears attuned to any sign of danger. But the prospect of escaping slavery, or making it somehow to a place where they could live without the threat of the whip, where they could work for themselves and start their own families free from control or division by sale in some dehumanizing slave market, generated all of the courage needed.

A few days before, one of them had passed by the bustling wooden docks along Norfolk’s coast, near the US Navy port. Ben had seen a thirty-foot whaleboat tied up along shore, a small vessel barely large enough to fit several of his fellow conspirators, along with the scraps of food and small casks of water to keep them alive on the journey. In fact, Ben had escaped with a similar group years before, but had been arrested as a runaway slave and returned to bondage in Virginia. Thanks to a section of the United States Constitution known as the Fugitive Slave Clause, free states in the North were legally required to return escaped slaves like Ben. This time Ben was determined to make his freedom permanent.

The plan was to sail north to New York, carefully skirting the coast within sight of land but out of the view of passing ships and slowly snaking their way in between islands and peninsulas. Just a few months before Ben and his collaborators fled Norfolk, Virginia had passed a law expelling free Black residents from the state. Some of those free African Americans fled Virginia’s latest round of repression and ventured to New York, where they hoped a new community might welcome them. Such hopes were not to be realized. New York’s city government responded to the influx of these refugees by devising new ways to keep Black Virginians out of New York.1

But Ben and his compatriots probably thought that discrimination in New York had to be better than bondage in Norfolk, and so cooperatively they had risked their lives to confiscate the whaleboat and set their sights on Gotham. They executed the plan to perfection, quietly landing on a small island off the southern tip of New Jersey within a few days. The self-emancipated group then cautiously made its way to New York City, no doubt with a combination of fear and excitement.

They likely first noticed the city’s loftiest structure, the two-hundred-foot-tall steeple of Trinity Church that dominated the labyrinthine alleyways of Lower Manhattan. No skyscrapers yet lorded over the southern shores of the island, and the Statue of Liberty was still decades away from beckoning immigrants into the harbor, so visitors would have first gazed at the soaring stone spires of Trinity as they coasted into the busy harbor. The largest church in the city, Trinity was known as the place where George Washington and Alexander Hamilton had worshipped when the federal government sat in New York.2

Coming from the Virginia Tidewater, the fugitives would have never seen anything like Trinity or the hurried and crowded streets of New York City. Although the massive wave of Irish immigrants would not come for a few more years, even by the time this tiny band slipped onto shore the city had emerged as an important port to rival Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The city already boasted major financial institutions, such as the Bank of New York, as well as major corporations, such as the Mutual Insurance Company and the New York and Erie Railroad headquarters, all grouped together within a few doors of each other on Wall Street. About 10 percent of the population was African American in the early 1800s, some sixteen thousand people who had already created rich and vibrant communities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The city had several churches for people of African descent, a few Catholic churches (which would balloon in number during the next decade as a wave of Irish immigrants arrived), and about a dozen Baptist churches. In the same summer as the Virginia runaways disembarked from the whaleboat, the city was rocked by a deadly cholera outbreak. For good and for ill, New York by the early 1830s was on its way to becoming a modern and major metropolis.

Still, in countless ways, as befuddling as the city would have seemed to Ben and Ann and the other fugitives, New York in the early 1800s was by our modern standards a mere town. Just after the Revolution, only twelve thousand people called the city home. That number would soon grow exponentially, but even by 1830 almost all of the structures in Lower Manhattan, including the wharves that lined the southern tip of the city, had been hastily built of wood and prone to fire and decay. Little central planning went into the rapid growth of the town or its deepwater port, and so alongside the chaotic and haphazard alleys that carved through Manhattan sat residential neighborhoods intermingled with artisan workshops and warehouses, taverns and teahouses, horse barns and hotels. Three ferries but no bridges provided links to the growing town of Brooklyn, and the lack of clean water was a constant source of consternation among city dwellers. Most streets were muddy and unpaved, gaslights were only beginning to be installed on major thoroughfares like Broadway, and omnibuses, horse-drawn carts that crisscrossed the island, remained the main form of public transportation. Central Park, which wiped out the lively Black community known as Seneca Village, was two decades in the future. New York was still heavily and noticeably marked by a Dutch past that had dominated the first two centuries of European settlement in Manhattan. There were seventeen Van Winkles in the city directory in 1832, the same year that Ben and the others slipped out of Norfolk.3

Over the next thirty years, until the Civil War broke out in 1861, New York underwent a dramatic transformation, and this book tells the story of how New York became the New York we know today: a major global capital with a diverse and cosmopolitan culture. Between the 1830s and the 1860s, New York built skyscrapers, paved and lit its streets, began connecting via the telegraph to the farthest reaches of the planet, and became a financial titan equaling London. Railroads connected Lower Manhattan to Harlem, while tracks also carried travelers from the wharves near the East River north beyond Central Park. After a horrific fire destroyed much of the city in 1835, the municipality embarked on a physical transformation: new marble and stone edifices were erected, including the now famous imposing columns of the New York Exchange; Croton Reservoir finally brought fresh water to homes and businesses; and the wealthy began moving to the more bucolic areas north of Houston Street. Railcars replaced horse-drawn omnibuses, and city boosters turned newfound wealth into magnificent opera houses, theaters, and museums. Setbacks like major financial panics in the first half of the nineteenth century only temporarily halted the long-term trajectory: New York was becoming an economic and political powerhouse. That often-stirring account of Gotham’s rise to greatness, however, hides a much bleaker history about the human costs expended on the path to wealth and power.4

The costs were high indeed. Much of the city’s growth had been built on the backs of southern slaves who picked cotton for hundreds of thousands of cotton bales every year, a crop that was financed by Wall Street banks and exported to New England and British textile mills via New York brokers, businesses, and financiers. Slave masters depended on New York insurance companies to protect their investments in bondage and embraced the credit extended by the city’s banks. As the dependence of Wall Street on slave-grown cotton became ever more apparent through the early 1800s, New York’s rise to prominence and prosperity harbored a somber and sinister side, one that rendered the city a dangerous place for vulnerable people, especially African Americans. It sometimes seemed that the entire city, knowing that its richness and supremacy depended on southern slavery, was more interested in reassuring slaveholders than in protecting the basic human rights of its Black residents.

The forces arrayed against the city’s Black community were seemingly insurmountable. African Americans were up against a pervasive racism that suffused the city’s Democratic Party and its political machine based in Tammany Hall, a police force that violated Black civil rights at every turn, Wall Street financiers who cared far more about increasing trade with the cotton South than they did about the enslaved families picking the crop, and a legal system that at best proved indifferent to the claims of Black folks. New York was a perilous place for Black people despite a small cadre of dedicated activists (like the indomitable David Ruggles) working tirelessly for the abolition of slavery. And perhaps worst of all, the federal government made it easy to ignore the calls for protecting Black civil rights. After all, the recapture and arrest of runaways was enshrined in the nation’s founding document, explicitly requiring northern communities to return those with the audacity to flee slavery. Conservative Democrats running the Tammany Hall political machine were more than happy to comply with the law.5

The explosion of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine greatly empowered the Democratic Party. The Irish, too, suffered discrimination and poverty, and politicians played upon their misery. Leading Democrats told the Irish working class that Black people were to blame for their economic and social ills, as African Americans hustled for jobs in the city’s businesses and along the docks that welcomed ships from all over the world. In speeches, newspaper editorials, and before rallying audiences, demagogic politicians preyed on Irish workers, claiming that their dreary living conditions in large tenement buildings, where crowded families yearned for natural light and fresh air, or the low wages they brought home, which barely allowed those families to buy enough to eat, had one easily understood cause. Democrats told the white painters, bootmakers, blacksmiths, cartmen, and stevedores that Blacks were to blame for their low wages and unlivable tenement apartments.6

At the other end of the economic ladder, support for Democratic policies could also be found in the business community around the Stock Exchange. At the center of New York’s beating heart sat the banks, insurance companies, and stores of Lower Manhattan, the making of what would soon fall under the umbrella term “Wall Street.” The exchange was still in its infancy in the early 1800s, and Wall Street was known as an open-air market in which virtually anything could be traded, rather than the behemoth that it is today, but the watchword “Wall Street” is convenient shorthand for the nascent business world of antebellum Manhattan. Even before the Civil War, the phrase “Wall Street” stood for the dramatic expansion of banking and credit systems, the vast and lucrative cotton trade with the South, the humming wharves along the southern shores of Manhattan, and the thousands of merchants whose shops sold everything from apples and silk garments to furniture and sewing machines.

New York was the most potent proslavery and pro-South city north of the Mason-Dixon Line, due in large part to the lucrative trade between Manhattan banks and insurance companies and the slaveholders of the cotton South. The city council, the board of aldermen, the mayor, the police department, the legal system, and other city agencies seldom acted without consulting the business community. Whether Wall Street businessmen joined the Democratic Party or the opposition Whig Party, they agreed almost to a man about one thing: the need to protect the cotton trade with slaveholders that had made them incredibly wealthy. It was a system that rendered both sections of the nation heavily dependent on the continuance of slavery and the constitutional government that had made the trade possible. Merely mentioning the abolition of slavery quickly earned the scorn of those on Wall Street and in the Democratic Party who knew exactly where their wealth came from.

In defending the cotton trade with the South, Wall Street and Democratic politicians could count on support in the city’s growing newspapers, where journalists and editors jockeyed for public attention by publishing sensational stories of murders, crime, and prostitution alongside current prices for dry goods; a wide range of advertisements; editorials on political and economic matters; local, national, and foreign news; and even poems and serialized novels. By the 1850s, just before the Civil War broke out, New York boasted dozens of daily and weekly newspapers, aided by the emergence of the penny press.

While Wall Street, the New York Police Department, the conservative press, and the Democratic Party aligned to defend slavery and the constitutional compact with slaveholders, the legal system often proved just as hostile to African Americans in New York. The federal courts made it very difficult to prosecute slave traders who used the Port of New York to build ships designed for the illegal transatlantic slave trade. City police officers collected reward money for returning runaways, essentially serving as a patrol force for southern masters.

While the tribulations of Solomon Northup (made famous by the book and film Twelve Years a Slave) are now more widely known, the true extent of the kidnapping of African Americans from free cities like New York is only now coming to light. This book tells the street-level stories of an epic battle over the soul of New York, over whether an increasingly powerful and wealthy metropolis would choose basic human rights over money and trade, generating daily struggles that rocked Gotham in the decades before civil war tore the nation apart.7

The allied forces of wealth and power did not go unchallenged. Relentless African American activists like Thomas Van Rensselaer, Charles B. Ray, Samuel Cornish, Philip Bell, and scores of others risked their lives to protect human rights. They formed antislavery organizations, held conventions and rallies, delivered speeches and sermons, and marched in the streets to defend their communities. Radical David Ruggles, whose story will unfold in the following pages, fought back vigorously, leading a large Black public determined to thwart the kidnapping and fugitive recapture of its fellow citizens. Ruggles burned with passion and anger over the mistreatment of his people, those who toiled under southern bondage as well as those struggling against the rigid discrimination and pervasive racism that he experienced firsthand in the North. Several dedicated white abolitionists joined Black New Yorkers to fight against kidnapping, but the movement to eradicate American slavery was small. Ruggles and the tiny abolitionist community in New York were up against a true Goliath, a potent, systemic enemy that believed Black bodies were cheap and expendable. Ruggles labeled this enemy the New York Kidnapping Club.8

It was not an organized party or ring, or even a group of men who socialized together, but nonetheless what Ruggles publicly declared the New York Kidnapping Club was a powerful and far-reaching collection of police officers, political authorities, judges, lawyers, and slave traders who terrorized the city’s Black residents throughout the early nineteenth century. They cared little whether an individual they arrested was in fact an escaped slave or born free. Alongside them stood the city’s business community, cheering on every attempt to return fugitives so that peace with the slave South remained intact. The New York Kidnapping Club was a microcosm of the much broader and more widespread disregard for Black lives that pervaded the city.

At the apex of the New York Kidnapping Club stood two police officers named Tobias Boudinot and Daniel D. Nash. When Virginia’s governor realized not only that Ben and his compatriots had absconded from Norfolk, but also had stolen a vessel in the process, he angrily fired off a letter to his counterpart in New York. Governor William Marcy granted Boudinot a wholesale right to arrest anyone he could even remotely accuse of being a runaway. Boudinot and his fellow officers, including the notorious Nash, used the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause as a subterfuge to terrorize Black New Yorkers. The New York Kidnapping Club was born. Boudinot wielded the document he received from Marcy for the next two decades, using the paper so often that he eventually had to have it copied and signed at least once more.

Boudinot and Nash were soon joined by leading powerful white men like City Recorder Richard Riker, judges on the federal bench like Samuel R. Betts, and lawyers like Fontaine H. Pettis and the legal firm of Beebe, Dean, and Donohue. All of them knew each other, despite their different stations in life, and Ruggles battled with them so much and so often over Black civil rights that his health began to fail. Ruggles especially tangled closely with Boudinot, Nash, and Riker. In fact, further demonstrating the small-town feel of Lower Manhattan in the early 1830s, Ruggles lived on Lispenard Street, just a few doors down from the home of Chief of Police Jacob Hays. Mere blocks away, on the other side of City Hall, lived Recorder Riker. Boudinot lived a few streets to the west on Warren. Such close proximity meant that the battle for the future of New York would play out in the neighborhoods, parks, and city buildings of Lower Manhattan, where Trinity Church faced down Wall Street businesses and where City Hall stood at the literal and symbolic center of Gotham.9

THE SEVENTEEN MEN AND women who risked their lives to flee slavery in the summer of 1832 could not have known the repercussions of their desperate voyage. In a modern, well-worn tale, the flapping wings of a butterfly can be magnified through cause and effect, ultimately affecting global weather patterns. The self-emancipation of Ben and the others would have similarly far-reaching effects, leading quickly to the massive search for their whereabouts, a search that not only helped to create the New York Kidnapping Club, but also rendered freedom highly precarious for Black residents all the way to the Civil War. The forces unleashed by the simple desire to live free, to be able to work and love and raise children away from the violent scourge of southern slavery, would shake the foundations of liberty in New York City and its environs.

The following chapters, then, tell a sordid tale, difficult to read at times, especially when children are involved, but ultimately it is a story about how a booming and prosperous metropolis proved tragically indifferent, complicit even, in the abuse of its Black residents, who toiled every day to resist and fight back. In that important sense the chronicling of antebellum New York is the also the narrative of the young republic itself.

Chapter One

The Battle Engaged

AFRICAN AMERICAN ACTIVIST DAVID RUGGLES FOUND HIMSELF riding the nighttime rails through the hills of western Pennsylvania in 1833 on his way back to Manhattan, the clacking of the metal wheels on the tracks creating a droning sound that would have put him to sleep if not for the adrenaline running through his veins. Returning from an invigorating meeting in Pittsburgh, a gathering of Black and white protesters who had promised to work harder for the end of slavery and segregation in America, Ruggles was filled with optimism. Slavery had plagued the nation since its founding, thought Ruggles, and though northern states had mostly outlawed bondage by the early 1800s, slavery seemed stronger than ever in the southern states. In fact, by writing a Constitution that protected slavery, the Founding Fathers had left future generations a colossal problem.

Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the others who helped found the United States created a Constitution filled with compromises over freedom and slavery. Ruggles and his fellow activists wanted to take the founding idea of liberty and extend it to Black folks. Now, nearly fifty years later, another generation of politicians was dealing with a nation bitterly divided. White southerners defended the institution with a fierce determination that rendered mere mention of abolition grounds for physical attack. Though the Civil War lay in the distant future, America was riven by the tension between freedom and bondage. That same strain threatened to rip New York City apart, just as it was beginning to emerge as a world commercial and financial capital.

The transplanted New Yorker Ruggles lived at the heart of that tension. In his mind, even worse than white southerners who supported slavery was the complicity of northern whites in maintaining bondage. Most white citizens in the free states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts thought slavery had little to do with them. It was a southern problem only, for the southern people to deal with, and without interference from others. The only time northerners had a role to play in slavery was not to end the institution but to make sure that any runaways who fled southern farms and plantations and made their way north were returned to their masters. As northerners knew, the Union would have been stillborn were it not for compromises between the North and South over servitude. Ruggles thought these northern compromisers and conciliators were abettors of southern slavery.1

Riding the train that evening, though, Ruggles had reason to believe that the abolition of slavery seemed to be moving ahead, just as train travel had quickened the pace of movement for a hurrying young nation, speeding journeys between cities like New York and Pittsburgh from punishing days over bumpy wagon roads to mere hours. As the train gained momentum on its tracks, Ruggles took his seat, hopeful that the momentum to end slavery was finally gaining steam among the hectic citizens of the Northeast.

Ruggles settled into a train car so dark (for it was now well past midnight) that he could not even see who was sitting across from him. Given the voices nearby, he surmised that his fellow passengers were two women and three other men, and not long into the journey the conversation turned to slavery and abolition. It is not clear who broached the subject, but the irascible Ruggles was certainly not shy to prod acquaintances about their views on holding people in captivity, and given the fact that he was freshly removed from a meeting that had just established a new antislavery society, Ruggles likely worked the topic into the pleasantries as the unlit train left Pittsburgh.2

The indomitable David Ruggles. (Negro Almanac Collection, Amistad Research Library, New Orleans, LA)

In particular, Ruggles tried to discern what his fellow voyagers thought about the great question rocking the Black community in cities like New York: Should those opposed to bondage work for its immediate and unconditional end, or should they follow the course of moderates and conservatives and recommend colonization? This latter position entailed sending Black Americans back to Africa, an increasingly unpopular position among more radical abolitionists like Ruggles, who not only demanded an immediate end to American slavery, but also insisted that the nation’s future lay in a biracial democracy. In fact, Ruggles and other immediatists derided the American Colonization Society, a group that many middle-of-the-road politicians like Abraham Lincoln and his idol Henry Clay supported, as “the Negro Shipping Company,” little better than the transatlantic slave trade itself.

In the pitch-black train car, Ruggles clearly wanted to gauge what his fellow travelers thought about colonization. Most of them articulated half-formed thoughts or ventured lukewarm support for the movement. One man on the train, though, loudly and forcefully championed colonization and denounced abolitionists as “Madmen! fanatics! disorganizers! amalgamaters!” Ruggles quickly took umbrage at the man’s use of the term “amalgamaters,” which was the nineteenth century’s byword for interracial sex and marriage.

To incite the man further, Ruggles claimed that he would be proud to take a Black woman to the altar, and in fact that he “would marry a colored lady in preference to a white one.” The fellow traveler almost jumped out of his seat, declaring his disgust: “You would! Would you marry a black?” The stunned colonizationist turned to the two women and asked if they would marry a Black man. “I am not prepared to give myself up to any man,” one lady replied. Increasingly frustrated, the man admitted that he never really believed that someone would openly advocate race mixing, until that night. Ruggles stepped up his jabbing: “After all, it is a mere matter of taste whether one married a white or a black.” In reply, the man sputtered his disgust and they settled into a quiet truce as the train rolled on, making its way east through the wee hours.

Soon the early morning began to shed its light on the train, and Ruggles again delighted in nettling the colonizationist. “As soon as I thought my complexion would appear to an advantage,” Ruggles later recalled, “I raised the curtain.” Realizing for the first time that he had been verbally sparring with a man of color, the colonizationist screamed aloud, “Good heavens! a negro! why you are a black man!!” The other four passengers could barely contain their laughter, but the man huffed his dismay that his interlocutor was Black and retreated into silent anger for the rest of the journey. As morning broke, the train stopped for breakfast and Ruggles sat at the same table as his fellow travelers. When the white man approached the table, Ruggles uncharacteristically volunteered to move, but the other men and women insisted that Ruggles remain.


  • "A convincing demonstration of the close links between capitalism and the unconscionable trade in human beings."—Kirkus
  • "Lively prose and vivid scenes of New York street life complement the meticulous research. The result is a revealing look at a little-known chapter in the history of racial injustice."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "With New York City as its backdrop, The Kidnapping Club offers an important and compelling narrative that explores the long struggle for Black freedom and equality. Jonathan Daniel Wells offers a rich and timely account that uncovers a history of racial violence and terror in nineteenth-century Gotham. To no surprise, law enforcement, politicians, and bankers thwarted Black freedom time and time again. But the power and fortitude of Black New Yorkers pressed white citizens to remember and uphold the ideals of a new nation. The Kidnapping Club is a must read for those who want to understand current debates about the intersection of Black lives and structural oppression."—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
  • "Jonathan Daniel Wells' The Kidnapping Club is a necessary story of black agency and resistance. Bringing to life the competing strains of humanism and oppression that echo our present-day struggles, Wells paints a portrait of New York that reveals the best of American principles in the bodies of black resistors while showing us the economic complexity and complicity of America's greatest city. It is a brilliant history perfectly suited for our times."—Michael Eric Dyson, author of the New York Times bestselling Tears We Cannot Stop and What Truth Sounds Like
  • "The Kidnapping Club maps and specifies both the top-side financial connections between the capitalists of the North and the slavers of the South and the underbelly of police corruption, violence, and kidnapping that knit together. And it manages to combine acute historical analysis with literary drama and a persistent, gentle humanity. You should read it."—Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States
  • "Nineteenth-century New York City was a battleground for African Americans, who most whites assumed to be undeserving of freedom. Jonathan Wells' The Kidnapping Club brings to life the struggles in the courts and on the streets between those who sought to send blacks to slavery in the south; those who benefited from southern slavery; and the small group of interracial activists who fought against slavery and would eventually prevail in claiming freedom for all regardless of race. From politicians and jurists to newspaper owners, and from bankers to ministers to common laborers, everyone had a stake in the central question of the moment: the legality and morality of slavery and the status of people of African descent in the nation. Wells' gripping narrative brings to life the real-life impact of these questions on every New Yorker, and how the struggle over racial equality affected every sector of life in antebellum New York City."
    Leslie M. Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863
  • “This history of eighteen-thirties New York probes the city’s entanglement with the slave economy… Wells details how the funding of the cotton trade fueled a nascent Wall Street and admiringly portrays David Ruggles, a Black abolitionist who gave the Kidnapping Club its name and organized to resist it.”—The New Yorker
  • “Skillful portrayal of the culture of mid-19th century America…highly recommended for those who like history and readers interested in social justice.”—Library Journal
  • “Wells conjures the pungent atmosphere of Manhattan in the early 19th century… Wells writes, one senses, not to memorialize the missing, but to reopen their cases — to make a larger argument about recompense.”—The New York Times
  • “Mr. Wells makes a significant contribution to the literature of American slavery with a powerful book."—The Wall Street Journal
  • “Readers familiar with “Twelve Years a Slave,” the film based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative, might recognize the horror of free Black people forced into Southern enslavement in Wells’s harrowing account of men and women abducted by police officers as they walked the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan…Yet one of Wells’s greatest contributions is his reminder that there were many Solomon Northups.”—The New York Times Book Review
  • The Kidnapping Club offers readers painful account of how many Black people—both free and self-emancipated—were captured, jailed, judged and shipped south to live and suffer as slaves to support the profitable cotton economy… This thoroughly researched account reminds readers that New York was a pro-slavery city even as the nation was engulfed in the Civil War."—New York Journal of Books
  • “[A] beautifully researched study…detailing how white authorities actively and repeatedly subverted Black freedom.”—Journal of Southern History

On Sale
Oct 20, 2020
Page Count
368 pages
Bold Type Books

Jonathan Daniel Wells

About the Author

Jonathan Daniel Wells is a social, cultural, and intellectual historian and a Professor of History in the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at Gonville & Caius College at the University of Cambridge. His published works include The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, Women Writers and Journalists in the Nineteenth-Century South, and A House Divided: The Civil War and Nineteenth-Century America. He lives in Detroit, Michigan.

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