When a Kidnapping Ring Targeted New York’s Black Children

In 1833, Black children began to vanish from the streets of New York City.

Frances Shields, age 12, with cropped hair and a scar over her right eye, was last seen walking to school wearing in a purple and white dress. John Dickerson, 11, disappeared while running an errand for his parents. Jane Green, 11, was speaking to a stranger before she went missing. Or so it was believed; none of the children were heard from again.

More children began disappearing — more than one a week. The police refused to investigate the cases, and the mayor ignored the community’s pleas for help. Black parents searched on their own, scouring orphanages, prisons, poorhouses. It was whispered that supernatural forces were involved; what malign spirit was hunting these children?

Not a spirit — a club, of sorts.

In “The Kidnapping Club,” the historian Jonathan Daniel Wells describes the circle of slave catchers and police officers who terrorized New York’s Black population in the three decades before the Civil War. They snatched up children, as well as adults, and sold them into slavery.

Under the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause, states were required to return anyone fleeing bondage to their enslavers. Some New York police officers, like the notorious Tobias Boudinot and Daniel D. Nash — central members of the club — used the mandate to target the Black population of New York, with the assistance of judges, like the city recorder Richard Riker, who’d swiftly draw up a certificate of removal. There were no trials. The slaves were not even permitted to testify on their own behalf. Some really were fugitives from the South; others were free people — seized off the street, or from their homes in the middle of the night, and sold for a handsome fee. Boudinot bragged that he could “send any Black to the South.”

David Ruggles, an indefatigable journalist and a leader in the city’s Black antislavery organizations, gave the group the sobriquet. He was early to sound the alarm about the missing children, and helped to found the New York Committee of Vigilance, which sheltered runaways and led protests against the abductions.

Ruggles anchored the movement, and he anchors this book. He was a brilliant and frustrating figure, equally nettlesome to his enemies and his comrades. Possessed of unfathomable energy, the man appeared to be everywhere at once — protesting at City Hall, editing his journal, The Mirror of Liberty, needling officials. While members of the Kidnapping Club stalked Black men and women as they walked alone along the desolate wharves, Ruggles stalked them in return.

Slavery had been outlawed in New York by 1827, but the city remained profoundly dependent on the institution. “New York was the most potent pro-slavery and pro-South city north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Wells writes. Slavery had given shape to the city from its earliest days, when enslaved Africans cleared the forests and plowed the farms. By the late 1600s, New York was the largest slaving port in North America. In its infancy, Wall Street had hosted slave auctions, and now it extended credit to the cotton mills of the South. Insurance companies insured slave ships and took on the enslaved as collateral.

Wells conjures the pungent atmosphere of Manhattan in the early 19th century — the crooked streets and smoke-choked skies, the reek of manure, the Dutch village feel. During the 30-year span covered by this book, however, the city boomed. The streets were lit and paved. Railroads connected neighborhoods, and after the fire of 1835 devastated Lower Manhattan, the city sprang out of its own ashes in mere months, grander than ever. Real estate prices soared.

That expansion, Wells writes, “had been built on the backs of Southern slaves who picked cotton for hundreds of thousands of cotton bales every year, a crop that was financed by Wall Street banks and exported to New England and British textile mills via New York brokers, businesses and financiers.”

Slavery was prohibited in the state, but slave ships still docked at New York’s harbors, and the warehouses on the waterfront held cotton and tobacco. Sugar refining was Brooklyn’s biggest industry in 1850. Slavery openly continued in some quarters. When Ruggles heard of a Savannah businessman living in Brooklyn with three enslaved people, he took the ferry from Manhattan across the East River and knocked on the door.

The mistress of the home mounted a vague defense. Finally she claimed that her captives depended on her. She turned to one of them, Charity, and said, “You know you are subject to fits and will suffer if you leave me.”

Charity responded evenly: “Yes, I know I had fits from your beating me on the head, missee.” She left with Ruggles. Difficulties pursued her — a pregnancy and poverty. The press reported on the story with relish. This newspaper denounced Ruggles at the time, for his meddling.

New York was beholden to the South, enriched by it and dependent on it — never mind the frenzy of the Kidnapping Club and the children who kept vanishing.

Like Henry Scott, age 7.

Henry was at school practicing his letters when two men — a Southerner and a New York City sheriff — burst into the classroom, claiming he was a fugitive to be returned to Virginia. Henry’s terrified classmates ran after the men for as long as they could.

Henry was permitted to stay in New York, but his case, Wells writes, left a long scar on the city. The narrative is constructed around such incidents that outraged Black New Yorkers, and incited huge, well-coordinated protests. Hundreds of people would show up at a dock after hearing news of a kidnapped person smuggled in a ship. Protesters flooded courtrooms, and under the public glare, the members of the Kidnapping Club began to quail.

There are other, more comprehensive studies of the kidnappings — Eric Foner’s “Gateway to Freedom,” for example, which looks at their wider history and prevalence. Other cities, like Philadelphia, were also deeply marked by such disappearances. Wells’s achievement is keeping his focus closely trained on New York and on the missing. There are no minor characters in his book; every person on the page is accorded the rights of the protagonist, rendered as fully as possible, with every detail available (like Frances Shields, with her cropped hair and her purple and white dress).

Wells writes, one senses, not to memorialize the missing, but to reopen their cases — to make a larger argument about recompense. “The question of reparations is fraught,” he writes in conclusion, “but surely with the input of historians and many others we can find a solution that will in some significant way attempt to compensate generations of African-Americans north and south who have endured the theft of rights and belongings and lives.”

This is history read with a sense of vertigo, suffused with the present: a rash of child abductions met with official complacency, stories about Black men and women attacked while sleeping in their homes and praying at church.

“So we passed,” Solomon Northup wrote in “Twelve Years a Slave,” his 1853 memoir of traveling from New York to Washington, D.C., and being kidnapped and sold into bondage in Louisiana. “Handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington, through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!”

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