October 22, 2020

The Kidnapping Club

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Urbane and bustling, New York City is often considered the epitome of “Northern-ness.” However, in the decades before the Civil War, the city’s interests were very much in line with those of Southern cotton farmers. Through its finance, insurance and shipping industries, New York probably profited from slave labor more than any other city in the country. The city would do almost anything to appease the Southern states, even if it meant sending its own citizens into slavery.

The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells is an eye-opening history of antebellum New York. Wells, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, meticulously details two of New York City’s dirtiest secrets: the city’s illicit backing of the illegal transatlantic slave trade and the Kidnapping Club that helped reinforce it. From the 1830s until the start of the Civil War, and with the support of the city’s judiciary, vigilantes in the Kidnapping Club as well as the police abducted Black New Yorkers on the pretext that they were escaped slaves. With little or no due process, hundreds of men, women and even children were snatched, jailed and then sent south. The broader effects of New York’s illegal slave trade were even more horrific, resulting in the abduction, enslavement and frequently death of hundreds of thousands of West Africans.

There are many villains in this thoroughly researched and fascinating history, including police officers Tobias Boudinot and Daniel Nash, Judge Richard Riker and Mayor Fernando Woods. Yet The Kidnapping Club is more than a story of villainy. It’s also a history of heroes, including David Ruggles, a Black abolitionist who put his body between the victims and their snatchers; Elizabeth Jenkins, who fought against segregated transportation over a century before Rosa Parks; and James McCune Smith, an abolitionist and the first African American to hold a medical degree.

Most important of all, The Kidnapping Club restores the names of the abducted: Ben, Hester Jane Carr, Isaac Wright, Frances Shields, John Dickerson and countless others whose lives were destroyed and humanity erased— until now.

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