Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Edward Prigg (b. 1791 - d. 1853)
MSA SC 5496-051268
Property Owner, Harford County, Maryland


        In 1837, four Harford County residents named Edward Prigg, Nathan Bemis, Jacob Forwood, and Stephen Lewis, conspired to apprehend a fugitive slave, named Margaret Morgan, who was living in York County, Pennsylvania. The slave catchers’ resulting arrest and trials had a significant influence on the strained relationship between free and slave-holding states. Prigg v. Pennsylvania also further illuminated the issue of competing jurisdiction between federal and state governments, ultimately leading to the creation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

         The primary conspirator, Edward Prigg was born and raised in the Fifth District of Harford County, near Dublin. In February of 1816, he married Ann Johnson, with whom he had three children: Mary (b. 1830), one unnamed male and one unnamed female. Despite being willed significant amounts of land from his Uncle Edward in 1827, Prigg did not receive any of his 28 slaves who were nearly all manumitted by the document.1 He appears to have made his living as an attorney and small farmer, with little evidence to suggest that he was a “professional” slave catcher, outside of this infamous example. Census records indicate that, as of 1830, he was a landowner in possession of only two young slaves.2 Ironically, Prigg would have been familiar with reputed Underground Railroad agent, Hazzard “Had” Harris.3  He had grown up with the family, been manumitted by Edward’s brother Joseph in 1832, and even married a free black woman named Amelia Prigg.4 

    The preceding decade had witnessed Harford County’s black slave population decrease by more than 10%, while its free black population experienced a 50% jump.5 Enslaved blacks, particularly in the northernmost counties, fled through the nearby free state of Pennsylvania in large numbers during the 1830's and 1840's. Many feared being sold to the deep south, where whites in states like Alabama and Mississippi paid increasingly exorbitant prices for slaves, whether they were acquired legally or illegally. These developments opened up a lucrative industry for individuals, such as Patty Cannon, to prey on the substantial free and enslaved black populations in Maryland. Edward Prigg likely recognized this economic opportunity when he became involved in 1837.

        Margaret Ashmore, a longtime neighbor, approached Prigg with the request to apprehend Margaret Morgan, who had been owned by her deceased relation. John Ashmore had died in 1823 without leaving a will to appropriately account for his property. Morgan had moved to York County, Pennsylvania in 1832, where she went on to raise a family with her free black husband, Jerry Morgan. Ashmore’s heirs purported to have a legitimate claim to the woman, which would be necessary to pursue her across state lines. It is known that Ashmore had freed at least six of his ten slaves via manumission in the years immediately preceding his death.6 Margaret Morgan was not one of them. Land records indicate that while Ashmore’s farming operations were legally passed down to his niece Susanna and her husband, Prigg's co-defendant Nathan Bemis, no will could decidedly determine the status of his property.7 However, John Ashmore’s estate papers, issued in 1824, do include an inventory that only lists two adolescent, male slaves. In the document, Margaret Ashmore legally attests that it is a “true and perfect inventory of all goods and chattel,” which seems to nullify her later claims of ownership.8 Being a local justice of the peace familiar with the family's circumstances, Edward Prigg also signed to affirm the details of the document. 

    Nonetheless Prigg and Bemis brought in fellow Marylander Forwood, as well as Delaware resident Lewis, who may have actually been a slave catcher by trade. The four men proceeded to pursue Ashmore's “property” across state lines. Pennsylvania logically had become a common destination or jumping off point for African-Americans attempting to escape the yolk of slavery. This prospect was eased by the increasingly negative attitude that many residents of the state developed toward the “peculiar institution.” Slavery had all but died out there by the 1830’s. However, the Pennsylvania government realized that it had to legally acknowledge the issue of fugitive slaves who so often utilized the Mason-Dixon Line. The United States Constitution merely stipulated that slaves should be returned to their owners, without articulating any procedure for that purpose.9 Another 1793 law required that the pursuant acquire a certificate from a federal judge, after the capture had already occurred, in order to establish the legitimacy of his claim. 

    Pennsylvania’s 1826 law closely mirrored these predecessors, further requiring neutral testimony that proves the fugitive’s status before the capture of an individual can occur. Maryland officials, including Judge Ezekiel F. Chambers, had lobbied for the new statute which was supposed to facilitate the process for slaveholders. Edward Prigg appeared to have followed the legal requirements when he consulted with Thomas Henderson, a York County justice of the peace, in April of 1837. Henderson affirmed the claim and issued a warrant for Margaret Morgan to be arrested. However, upon her arrival he “refused to take further cognizance of said case”.10 The official record is unclear about the reasoning of his sudden change of heart. We may presume that the presence of Morgan’s children and husband caused the justice to question the legality of the situation. Perhaps Henderson felt differently about his initial decision after realizing that he may be subjecting several young lives to the horrors of slavery. Jerry Morgan was released when his free status was established. However, Prigg and his three accomplices hauled the rest back to Maryland without any further consent.

    The situation created a tense legal standoff between the states. The Maryland legislature actually allocated money for a commissioner, to travel to Pennsylvania and lobby on behalf of Prigg and the others, seeking to “preserve the rights of slave holders, and cherish good will between the two States”.11 There was a significant of correspondence between the two governors, orchestrated by executive council clerk Thomas Culbreth, who made the trip to Harrisburg. His letter to Governor Thomas W. Veazey on March 27, 1837 fully displayed the dilemma Prigg's case caused for each state's leadership. Culbreth stated that: 

          "I do not see how you can avoid complying with the demand without violating a Constitutional obligation, and yet your compliance with such a demand would ... probably, nay certainly, produce great excitement and clamour."12 

    Both sides clearly hoped to resolve the matter without a high-profile trial and the potential embarassment it would bring to both states. Veazey finally wrote to his counterpart Governor Joseph Ritner on November 27, 1837, to formally comply with the indictments. Again he emphasized "that the Constitution and Law of the the United States made it my imperative duty," while arguing that the men's were most likely without criminal intent. Referring to Thomas Henderson, Veazey further contended that the legal violations were "most probably caused by the ignorance of your own officer."13 When the Harford County sheriff was ordered to assist York County officers with the arrests, the former were "absent when called for." Prigg was not apprehended until at least May 23, 1839, when the Maryland government submitted a special application to the Pennsylvania Legislature to authorize the men's surrender.14

    Despite the special counsel provided by his home state, Prigg was prosecuted and found guilty of kidnapping by a York County court later that year. According to Pennsylvania attorney Thomas Hambly, he had already sold Margaret and her children to a southern slave trader, shortly after their return to Maryland. This transaction had allegedly been sanctioned by Judge Stevenson Archer, of Harford County, though any relevant record has been lost.15 However, the family was recaptured in the same county, where they were confined until their freedom status was determined. Thomas Culbreth would write, in October of 1837, that the Morgans' freedom petitions had been denied and that they were therefore determined to be Margaret Ashmore's property.16 They may have been sold shortly thereafter, though there is no further evidence of there whereabouts after that time. 

    After the 1839 conviction, Prigg would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the Pennsylvania law was in conflict with the Constitution, and was therefore illegitimate. Justice Joseph Story's court agreed in an 1842 decision, ruling 8 to 1 that Pennsylvania had violated the Supremacy Clause, under which federal law supersedes and can render a state law unconstitutional.17 Still, there has been significant debate as to what the justices actually decided in seven separate opinions. As the court's chief justice, Story would state that, "the owner has the same security, and the same remedial justice, and the same exemption from state regulations and control, through however many states he may pass with the fugitive slave." In his opinion, that the state authorities could only intercede in order to support the retrieval process. The court disregarded the state's 1826 law as an interruption of the "positive and unqualified recongition of the right of the owner of the slave."18 While Justice Robert B. Taney agreed that this particular state law was unconstitutional, but strongly disagreed about the federal government's requirement of local authorities. He felt that "it is enjoined upon them as a duty to protest and support the owner when he is endeavoring to obtain possession of his property." 

    The exact nature of this role was the main issue of contention amongst the jurists. Only one, John McClean, argued that states should not be required to support the recovery of fugitive slaves. McClean would issue another infamous dissent on behalf of African-Americans' rights, in the Dred Scott case twenty years later. In Prigg, he even went a step further by questioning whether the presumption of truth from the master was just as erroneous as presumption of a colored person's freedom, in essence calling for steps to defend free blacks from kidnapping.19 Several other justices wrote varying opinions regarding the extent to which state officials were required, or allowed, to intercede. Paul Finkelman parses out the many inconsistencies at length in Sorting out Prigg v. Pennsylvania.20 It is clear that the Supreme Court decision was hardly definitive in determining the process and legality of fugitive returns. However, Edward Prigg and other slave catchers certainly received more favor than the alleged fugitives that they pursued.  

    Prigg lived out the rest of days in Harford County, with little fanfare, until his death in 1853. It is unknown where Margaret Morgan and her children were sold to, or if they were ever able to experience freedom again. The Prigg decision essentially laid the ground work for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. By siding more with the rights of slaveholders, the Court hindered free states’ ability to establish the rule of law within their boundaries. At the same time, slave catchers were emboldened to pursue their increasingly profitable venture throughout the North with less fear of legal recourse. Maryland continued to embody the conflicted conscience of the nation. Slaveholders on the one hand were desperately trying to maintain control of their property, while African-Americans and their white accomplices sought to acquire freedom by any means necessary. The federal government’s actions in 1842 and 1850 further deepened these divisions, particularly along regional lines, putting the country on an almost inevitable crash course towards the Civil War.

Footnotes - 

1. HARFORD COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Wills), CM599, 1814-1832, MSA CM599-4.

2., 1830 United States Federal Census, Harford County, MD, Dublin, p. 7.

3. Samuel Mason Jr., Historical Sketches in Harford County, Maryland. (Intelligencer Printing Company: Lancaster, PA, 1940) p. 118.

4. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record, Counties), Harford County, 09/1911, MSA SE43-380.

5. Carolyn Greenfield Adams, Slave Manumissions and Sales in Harford County, Maryland: 1775-1865. (Heritage Books: Bowie, MD, 1999) p. xi.

6. Adams, pp. 23-24.

7. HARFORD COUNTY COURT (Land Records), HD 5, 1821-1822, p. 503.

8. HARFORD COUNTY REGISTER OF WILLS (Estate Papers), 1823-1826.

9. U.S. Supreme Court, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 16 Pet. 539 539 (1842).

10. Ibid. 

11. GENERAL ASSEMBLY (Session Laws), 1837, Volume 601, p. 452. 

12. Governor (Letterbook). 1838-1896. Letters to Governor Veazey from Ths. Culbreth, pp. 554.

13. Ibid, 570-1. 

14. Argument of Mr. Hambly, of York, PA, in the case of Edward Prigg, Plaintiff in Error vs. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Defendant in Error: In the Supreme Court of the United States. Lucas & Deaver: Baltimore (1842).

15. Ibid.

16. Governor (Letterbook), 568.

17. U.S. Supreme Court.

18. Ibid. 

19. Paul Finkelman. "Sorting out Prigg v. Pennsylvania." Rutgers Law Journal, 24-3 (1993), p. 630.

20. Ibid.

Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2011. Revised September 2012.

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