When a Kidnapping Ring Targeted New York’s Black Children (Review)Historians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, books, New York City, slave catchers
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.”
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