Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813 - d. May
MSA SC 5496-3363
Accomplice to slave flight, Baltimore County, Maryland, 1844
Born in Massachusetts on November 21, 1813, Reverend Charles Turner Torrey was one of the best-known abolitionists of the Antebellum Era. Working as a conductor for eastern stations of the Underground Railroad, Torrey helped as many as 400 blacks to escape slavery. After losing his parents at a young age, Torrey was raised by his grandmother, who was an abolitionist. Torrey trained in religious studies and joined the ministry, serving in several New England locations before coming south.1 Once he arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1841, Torrey began assisting fleeing slaves from the city, Virginia, and Maryland -- particularly nearby Prince George's County, the county with Maryland’s largest enslaved population. Tactically, Torrey tapped into the non-organized efforts traditionally put forth by many in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, working with blacks and similarly motivated whites in the area to accomplish his goals. Perhaps Torrey's most important local co-conspirator in this respect, Thomas Smallwood, a former Prince George's County slave, worked inconspicuously as a cobbler. Yet Smallwood’s long-standing activities -- providing information, finance, guidance, and transportation to fleeing slaves -- suggest that Torrey's work benefited from a preexisting local custom of assistance. Financially, Torrey linked his Washington, D.C. operation with established assistance networks based in the free states of the North, most notably, that of Gerrit Smith in New York.
In January of 1842, Torrey traveled to Annapolis, Maryland, to take notes on the proceedings of a slaveholder's convention. Slave owners at the convention recognized Torrey as an abolitionist and followed him through town, harassing him and threatening violence.
As part of his anti-slavery activities, Torrey traveled frequently between New England and the Chesapeake, accepting requests for assistance by slaves aiming to escape, and former slaves in the North or in Canada seeking help to retrieve family members still held in the South. Torrey assisted John Webb and his family to escape from their owner, Bushrod Taylor of Wincester, Virginia. On June 24, 1844, Baltimore authorities arrested Torrey on Taylor's charge against him, despite the fact that Taylor had never laid eyes on Torrey.
As Taylor's case developed, others came forward with claims against Torrey, including William Heckrotte, a Baltimore City slave owner. A few weeks earlier, on the evening of June 4, 1844, Hannah Gooseberry and her children, Judah (19), and Stephen(17) -- all the property of Heckrotte -- fled. Heckrotte expressed his belief that his slaves "were badly advised in taking the step they did."2 He had reason to suspect Torrey's complicity. Therefore, Heckrotte brought a suit against Torrey for "aiding, enticing, or assisting" his slaves to escape from Maryland (see: Laws of Maryland, 1818, ch. 157). Baltimore City brought a trial against Torrey during the October Term for 1844. Reverend Johnson served as defense counsel for Torrey. Charles Heckrotte, a relative of the slave owner, testified that one night, several days before the three slaves escaped he saw a white man standing at the gate of to the Heckrotte residence at the corner of Camden and Charles Streets. According to Mr. Heckotte, the man spoke for several minutes with one of the soon-to-be fugitives, Judah, leaving her only when he discovered that Charles was watching him. However, concrete confirmation of Heckrotte’s testimony proved impossible.3 Thomas Southmayd, a man awaiting trial for horse stealing, testified that Torrey, while being held in jail with him, confessed to him that he had taken the slaves, and gave some details of his actions. 4 Southmayd, who was present when Torrey attempted to escape from prison on September 14, 1844, went on to say that Torrey told him not only had he taken away Mr. Heckrotte's slaves, but others as well from elsewhere in the state. Apparently, Torrey directed fugitives from Baltimore City to a house near Greenmount Cemetery, where they would rendezvous en route to Pennsylvania. Southmayd implicated "an old Negro named Nick, near Greenmount Cemetery," as one of Torrey's Baltimore accomplices in these efforts.5 As for the Gooseberrys, several witnesses agreed that they had seen Torrey in a horse carriage with two Black women and a Black young man. Nicholas Woodward swore that he had leased a team of horses and a carriage to Torrey on the day the Gooseberrys fled, Tuesday, the June 4, 1844 (Torrey supposedly returned the horses and carriage the next Sunday).6 Another witness, Samuel F. Ridgon, claimed to have seen Torrey, "go up and down the road often," with other horses, intimating that Torrey may be guilty of more instances than actually charged with.7 On December 3, 1844 the jury went out for only twenty minutes, returning a guilty verdict on every indictment. The court sentenced Torrey to serve in the Maryland Penitentiary for a total of six years (two years on each indictment), the minimum punishment the law allowed. In this regard, he received more lenient consideration than numerous free blacks and lower class whites convicted of similar though lesser acts of aiding and abetting.8 Torrey entered the Maryland Penitentiary on December 28, 1844.While in the Penitentiary, Torrey contracted tuberculosis. Fearing the worst, many lobbied for his pardon and release so he could be with his family in his last days. Governor Thomas G. Pratt (1845 - 1848) granted a pardon, and directing Torrey to leave the state immediately, never to return, and that he pay Heckrotte $1,200 for his lost slaves.9 The pardon reached the prison warden on May 9, 1846, but was sent back. Charles T. Torrey had died of his illness earlier that day.
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