3 minute read

Castner Hanway Treason Trial: 1851

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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Castner Hanway Treason Trial: 1851 - Slave Master Killed Chasing Fugitive, Politics Dictates Treason Charge, Hanway Tried In Test Case, Suggestions For Further Reading