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Castner Hanway Treason Trial: 1851

Slave Master Killed Chasing Fugitive, Politics Dictates Treason Charge, Hanway Tried In Test Case, Suggestions For Further Reading

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.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882