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Illustration by Security Management

Today in Security History: The Christiana Riot

On 11 September 1851, the Christiana Riot occurred near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act strengthened the rights of slave owners seeking to capture their runaway slaves. It also gave U.S. Marshals more authority to capture escapees and outlined sanctions against Marshals they refused to do so. No one could aid or assist freedom-seeking slaves without facing serious consequences: six months’ imprisonment and $1,000 fine per count.

This game-changing legislation pushed police into slave hunting to a greater degree, and pitted profit-seekers against abolitionists.

While in pursuit of four escaped slaves, a Maryland farmer named Edward Gorsuch and a posse of others arrived 11 September 1851 at the Christiana, Pennsylvania, home of William Parker. Parker was an African American who was giving the escaped slaves refuge. A large armed crowd of African American neighbors and white abolitionists gathered to defend the farmhouse and the escapees. Fighting ensued, and Gorsuch was killed. In the aftermath, nearly 150 people were placed under arrest, 39 were brought to trial on federal charges of treason, and most were acquitted.

This incident was significant because it further polarized the national debate over slavery. The Christiana Riot and other conflicts between abolitionists who helped escaped slaves and slave catchers were common. Aside from the capture of escapees, some slave hunters engaged in the practice of kidnapping free blacks and taking them deep into the South to be sold into slavery. The kidnappings further incensed the abolitionists. Both legal slave captures and kidnappings served to increase tension between the North and South in the period leading to the American Civil War.

Slave hunters were often law enforcement officers, even in the Northern states.  A Deputy Marshal was present at Christiana. Police officers in cities and sheriffs and constables in smaller towns and rural areas comprised law enforcement at the time. As pay was low, many supplemented their income with fees and rewards. There were also private police agencies that participated in the capture of escaped slaves. Security service firms would return the “property” to his or her owner for a fee.

This bears some similarity to early private detectives who retrieved stolen property as well as police detectives who worked on a property return fee. American police detectives worked for fees rather than salaries into the early 20th century. Not all security and law enforcement agencies participated, though. Alan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Agency, forbade the collection of fees by his operatives.

Chris Hertig, CPP, CPOI (Certified Protection Officer Instructor) writes and speaks on slave hunters. He is active with the Security History Group on Facebook and Linkedin; he’s a Lifetime Member of ASIS and is on the Professional Development Community.