Slave Catching and Kidnapping, and the Struggle for Social Justice

Prior to the Civil War, laws and court rulings aimed at keeping nearly four million African Americans enslaved jeopardized civil rights for free blacks. Whether born into freedom or legally granted freedom from enslavement, the existence of slavery was a constant threat to that freedom. African Americans residing in Pennsylvania and close to the Mason-Dixon line, an area continually scoured by slave catchers and kidnappers, were particularly aware of the threat.

Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland takes a close-up view of the issue of slave catching and kidnapping through the framework of Thomas McCreary, a man engaged in both activities without concern for the difference, and his proslavery community. The narratives examine episodes of questionable arrests and kidnappings committed by McCreary and others. The victims had limited rights, and the proslavery laws gave advantages to their captors. But, surprisingly, despite limited rights, most of the victims in these stories did not remain victims. Those who managed to regain their freedom rather than disappear into the Deep South as slaves for life did so either through their own efforts, the efforts of their community, or the efforts of many outside their community committed to counteracting the injustice.

The center of the debate was the difference between an arrest, a kidnapping, and an ambiguous area that could be labeled “arrests.” Arrests followed rules of due process that resulted in a trial. Kidnappings were the abduction of free blacks to sell on the slave market. “Arrests” were the apprehension of accused fugitive slaves without due process—no warrants, possibly a home invasion, no trial. Instead of a trial, captured blacks were rushed across the state line into Maryland.

Pennsylvania authorities recognized the laws and court rulings upholding the right of slaveholders or their agents to arrest fugitives without hindrance. “Arrests” and kidnappings were the point of contention between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Maryland considered “arrests” perfectly legal and in accordance with the ruling in Prigg v. Pennsylvania. Some Pennsylvanians protested these “arrests” and the laws that permitted them. Pennsylvania authorities took the kidnapping of free blacks in Pennsylvania seriously, but Maryland tended to view many of these kidnappings as “arrests.” McCreary inflamed these conflicting views with his “arrests” and kidnappings. Pennsylvania wanted him tried for several kidnappings, and Maryland wanted to protect him as a bold defender of property rights.

When African Americans in Pennsylvania were “arrested” or kidnapped, they were usually taken to a Baltimore slave pen for sale in the Deep South; for legal and practical reasons, it was up to white citizens in the community to decide if they would give chase across the state line to effect a rescue. For black Pennsylvanians, the Mason-Dixon line was a one-sided color line. African Americans joining in the rescue attempt risked jail, fines, and possible enslavement for entering the state, a violation of Maryland law; they would not have been allowed to testify on behalf of the accused; and white rescuers arriving in Baltimore faced hostile proslavery crowds, and the inclusion of blacks with them would have intensified the hostility. African Americans did form self-defense leagues to protect themselves from the intrusion of slave catchers and kidnappers into their neighborhoods, but they could not safely pursue abductors into Maryland.

Resistance to injustice was not limited to individuals and communities directly impacted. In the cases related to McCreary and his community, additional resistance came from allies. Newspapers and journals fulfilled their role as watchdogs, reporting abuses, rights violations, and questionable arrests and claims of ownership to raise public awareness and outrage. Lawyers defended the accused. Abolitionist societies reported abuses and aided those in danger of losing their freedom. Quakers and others opposed to kidnapping in Pennsylvania and Delaware communicated with contacts in Baltimore. The Baltimore contacts included members of an anti-kidnapping society that routinely visited slave pens to identify and rescue kidnap victims.

The most outspoken critics did not limit criticism to slave catchers and kidnappers, but censured the laws that allowed these rights abuses, laws that sustained the institution of slavery and its brutality and cruelty.  

A brief overview of the arrests, kidnappings, and "arrests"—as well as the countervailing struggles for social justice—in Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line:

The Slave Catching / Kidnapping Incident

The Struggle for Justice

16-year-old freedom seeker in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, is violently “arrested” in a home invasion.

Citizens locate the girl, apparently through anti-kidnapping contacts in Baltimore. Money is raised and her freedom is purchased.

17-year-old Henry Lee Brown of the Downingtown area is lured to Philadelphia on a phony job offer and kidnapped.



Brown persuaded the slave dealer to contact his former employer, who traveled to Baltimore and confirmed he was always free. The kidnappers in Pennsylvania were convicted and imprisoned. The Maryland governor refused Pennsylvania’s request for McCreary’s extradition. Later, Pennsylvania lawyers cited the refusal during the Christiana treason trial to illustrate Maryland's disregard for the rights of Pennsylvania’s black residents.

Thomas Mitchell of Unionville, Pennsylvania, is violently “arrested” in a midnight home invasion.



Mitchell’s employer and several neighbors rushed to Baltimore. Others went to Wilmington to Thomas Garrett, who telegraphed a Baltimore contact. A Baltimore correspondent for an antislavery newspaper is unable to intercede. He reported on the events and criticized the ill-treatment of Mitchell and the Pennsylvanians who arrived to help. Mitchell’s community purchased his freedom and held a protest meeting to condemn fugitive slave laws that allow slave hunters to terrorize communities and seize citizens. Mitchell described his ordeal to the crowd.

A gang accompanied by a constable seized Ann Brown in Wilmington.

Brown’s brother physically disrupted the attempt and extracted a commitment to present the claim in court. The Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society and others established the claim was not legitimate and Brown was released. An antislavery newspaper reported in detail, criticized the gang, and explained the basis of their false claim.

Prisoners John Kennard and Elizabeth Williams were purchased from jail to serve as short-term slaves. The purchaser and his co-conspirators illegally took them from Delaware, intending to sell them in Baltimore as slaves for life.

Kennard resisted and foiled the kidnapping plot. Because the two were removed illegally from the state, they were freed under Delaware law.

McCreary kidnapped John Jackson, a seventeen-year-old youth, by deception, aided and abetted by a harsh state law prohibiting nonresident blacks from entering Maryland.

Jackson is lured from Pennsylvania twice on the promise of a job. The first time, an abolitionist society, informed by an Elkton resident, paid his fine. McCreary lured Jackson into Maryland a second time, and Maryland law enabled McCreary to buy him at reduced cost and sell him in Baltimore as a slave for life. Pennsylvania papers reported the incident, and Pennsylvania attorneys retold it at the Christiana treason trial as another example of Maryland's disregard for the rights of Pennsylvania’s black residents.

Catharine Thompson is arrested as a fugitive. She had her infant son with her. Maryland argued the infant was also a slave, and Pennsylvania argued that the infant, born in a free state, was free.

Thompson held on to her infant son when she was brought to Maryland. Pennsylvania convicted the two men for kidnapping the infant, and Maryland officials vehemently protested the conviction. Catharine’s enslaver sold her into the Deep South along with the infant. Maryland refused to extradite the Cecil County slaveholder for kidnapping.

Henry Garnett, an accused fugitive from Cecil County, was arrested in Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia’s first case under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the claimants presented a will naming Garnett as a slave. Judge Grier questioned the document’s certification and released Garnett. Grier ruled correctly; the actual will, on file in Cecil County, did not name Garnett.

Adam Gibson, a former resident of Cecil County, was arrested and falsely accused of being Emory Rice, a Cecil County fugitive slave.

In this second Philadelphia trial under the new law, a commissioner hurried through Gibson’s trial, and Gibson’s attorneys protested not having adequate time to prepare the defense. Gibson was transported to Cecil County. When the slaveholder saw him, he announced, “this is not my slave.” Opponents of the law criticized the commissioner and declared that the fairness of a law should not depend on the honesty of individual slaveholders.

Elizabeth Parker, age 12, was “arrested” and accused of fleeing from Baltimore four years earlier with her mother and sister.

Elizabeth Parker was sold to a Baltimore slave dealer and sent to New Orleans. Later, a group of Baltimoreans agreed to pay the slave dealer a security to return Elizabeth to the city, allowing her to plead for her freedom. Her plea was heard with her sister’s.

17-year-old Rachel Parker, Elizabeth’s sister, was “arrested” a few weeks later.

Eight men from the community rushed to Baltimore and, with the help of a Baltimore Quaker, rescued her from the slave pen. Maryland authorities imprisoned her and delayed hearing her petition for freedom for a year. Rachel’s employer charged McCreary with kidnapping and then disappeared in Baltimore the same day. He was found hanging from a tree the next morning. When Rachel and Elizabeth’s pleas were finally heard, more than 60 men and women from Pennsylvania, including relatives of McCreary, arrived to testify on behalf of the two teenagers. The claimants dropped the claim.



Milt Diggins, an independent scholar, is a former editor of the Cecil Historical Journal and a frequent contributor to local publications. His latest book, Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland is available now.