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Laura Haviland - Second Effort to Retake the Hamilton Family

After the passage of the famous Fugitive-slave Bill of 1850, turning the whole population of the North into slave-hunters, Thomas K. Chester, with renewed assurance, came to Lawyer Beacher's office, in Adrian, and solicited his services in capturing the Hamiltons, as he was now prepared to take legal steps in recovering his property. Said he:

"I ask no favors of Adrian or Raisin, as I have my posse of thirty men within a stone's throw of this city. All I ask is legal authority from you, Mr. Beacher, and I can easily get them in my possession."

"I can not aid you," said Mr. Beacher; "it would ruin my practice as a lawyer."

"I will give you $100, besides your fee," rejoined Chester.

"You have not enough money in your State of Tennessee to induce me to assist you in any way whatever."

"Will you direct me to a lawyer who will aid me?"

"I can not; I know of none in our State who could be hired to assist you. And I advise you to return to your home; for you will lose a hundred dollars where you will gain one, if you pursue it."

At this advice he became enraged, and swore he would have them this time, at any cost. "And if old Laura Haviland interferes I'll put her in prison. I acknowledge she outwitted us before; but let her dare prevent my taking them this time, and I'll be avenged on her before I leave this State."

"All the advice I have to give you is to abandon this scheme, for you will find no jail in this State that will hold that woman. And I request you not to enter my office again on this business, for if it were known to the public it would injure my practice; and I shall not recognize you on the street."

In a lower tone Chester continued, "I request you, Mr. Beacher, as a gentleman, to keep my name and business a secret." With a few imprecations he left the office.

My friend R. Beacher sent a dispatch to me at once by Sheriff Spafford, to secure the safety of the Hamilton family at once, if still on my premises, as my Tennessee correspondents were probably in or near Adrian. I informed him they were safe in Canada within six months after the visit from the Chesters. Mr. Beacher also advised me to make my property safe without delay, but this had been done two years previously. On receiving this information my friend Beacher replied, "Had I known this I would have sent for her, for I'd give ten dollars to see them meet." Mr. Chester heard that the Hamilton family had gone to Canada, but he did not believe it, as he also heard they had gone to Ypsilanti, in this State, where he said he should follow them.

We learned in the sequel that he went to Ypsilanti, and took rooms and board in a hotel, while calling on every colored family in town and for two or three miles around it, sometimes as a drover, at other times an agent to make arrangements for purchasing wood and charcoal. During four weeks he found a family that answered the description of the Hamilton family in color and number. He wrote to his father that he had found them under an assumed name, and requested him to send a man who could recognize them, as they had been away over eighteen years. The man was sent, and two weeks more were spent in reconnoitering. At length both were agreed to arrest David Gordon and wife, with their four children, as the Hamilton family, and applied for a warrant to take the family as escaped slaves. The United States Judge, Hon. Ross Wilkins, who issued the warrant, informed one of the most active underground railroad men, George De Baptist, of this claimant's business. He immediately telegraphed to a vigorous worker in Ypsilanti, who sent runners in every direction, inquiring for a Hamilton family. None could be found; and the conclusion was reached that they were newcomers and were closely concealed, and the only safe way was to set a watch at the depot for officers and their posse, and follow whithersoever they went, keeping in sight. This was done, and the place they found aimed for was David Gordon's. On entering the house the officer placed hand-cuffs on David Gordon, who in surprise asked, "What does this mean?"

Said the officer, "I understand your name is Willis Hamilton, once a slave in Tennessee."

Gordon replied, "No, sir, you are mistaken; I never was in that State; neither is my name Hamilton, but Gordon, and I have free papers from Virginia."

"Where are your papers? If they are good they shall save you."

Pointing to a trunk, "There they are; take that key and you'll find them."

While the officer was getting the papers, Chester went to the bed of the sick wife, placed a six-shooter at her head, and swore he'd blow her brains out in a moment if she did not say their name was Hamilton. "No, sir, our name is Gordon." Their little girl, standing by, cried out with fear. He turned to her, with pistol pointing toward her face, and swore he'd kill her that instant if she did not say her father's name was Willis Hamilton.

At this juncture, the officer's attention was arrested. "What are you about, you villain? You'll be arrested before you know it, if you are not careful. Put up that pistol instantly, and if these papers are good, I shall release this man, and return the warrant unserved."

He examined them and said, "These papers I find genuine." He then removed the handcuffs from David Gordon, and with the discomfited Thomas K. Chester and Tennessee companion returned to the depot for the Detroit train.

While on their way they met a colored man that Chester swore was Willis Hamilton. Said the officer, "You know not what you are about; I shall arrest no man at your command."

On returning the unserved warrant to Judge Wilkins, Chester charged him with being allied with the "d----d abolitionist, old Laura Haviland, in running off that family to Malden, to keep me out of my property."

"I knew nothing of the family, or of your business, until you came into this office yesterday," replied the judge.

In a rage and with an oath, he replied, "I know, sir, your complicity in keeping slave-holders out of their property, and can prove it." He threw his hat on the floor and gave a stamp, as if to strengthen his oath.

The judge simply ordered him out of his office, instead of committing him to prison for contempt of court; and with his companion he went back to his Tennessee home, again defeated.

Source: Laura A. Haviland, A Woman's Life-Work, Walden & Stowe, Cincinnati, 1882.

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Updated 08/31/2010

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