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This photograph of abolitionist and inventor Thaddeus Hyatt was sent to his Massachusetts lawyer and fellow abolitionist Samuel E. Sewall in April of 1860 from Hyatt's cell in the Washington jail.
Inventor, Philanthropist, Abolitionist
Thaddeus Hyatt was born in 1816 in Rahway, New Jersey, and is perhaps best remembered as a structural engineer and inventor of translucent paving glass for sidewalks and walkways. Hyatt's "vault lights"--glass lenses set into cast iron (and later concrete) frames--created sidewalks which provided light to the areas below. The fortune amassed from this invention and others allowed Hyatt to pursue his passions which, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, included the establishment of Kansas as a free state and the abolition of slavery. He became a friend of the ardent abolitionist John Brown, spearheading a fundraising effort on behalf of his family after Brown's arrest. Newspapers lauded Hyatt's effort, noting that his "integrity and devotion to freedom and humanity are widely known…"
Harpers Ferry Commission and Its Aftermath
After the failed raid on Harpers Ferry, the United States Senate commissioned an investigation into the matter, casting a wide net to find those who had helped Brown. Thaddeus Hyatt, who--in addition to being Brown's friend—had been falsely implicated by co-conspirator John E. Cook as one of the people who knew of Brown's plans beforehand, was drawn into their net. At first, Hyatt indicated his willingness to testify, but after arriving in Washington at the beginning of February, he stonewalled the committee and its increasingly imperious requests, asserting that the Senate was overstepping its power by compelling him to testify in an "unconstitutional exercise of authority." Needless to say, the Senate was not amused by his challenge to their authority and on 12 March 1860, voted 44 to 10 to jail Hyatt for contempt despite a lengthy argument on his behalf by Boston attorneys Samuel E. Sewall and John A. Andrew.
Hyatt, viewing himself as a martyr to the cause, accepted his imprisonment and continued his crusade. According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Instead of taking his imprisonment seriously he had his prison room decorated and furnished and then issued invitations to his friends. He never lacked visitors." He seemed to take a perverse pride in being locked up, having checks emblazoned with the jail's return address printed up, mailing "at home" cards to friends and politicians in Washington, and sending out his photograph to various friends inscribed from the Washington Jail.
In the end, the Senate investigation turned up little of what had been viewed by some Senators as an "intricate plot by Northern abolitionists to wreak havoc throughout the slaveholding south." Just thirty three people were interviewed between January and May, although others were called and failed to appear. Of the "Secret Six," Brown's financial backers, only George L. Stearns and Samuel Gridley Howe testified, both categorically denying any prior knowledge of the plot. Brown's son, John Jr., who presumably would have been privy to the planning, also refused to testify, remaining in Ohio and surrounding himself with armed bodyguards. Although arrest warrants were issued to John Brown, Jr., James Redpath, Franklin B. Sanborn, and Hyatt for failure to testify, only Hyatt was ever arrested. In June of 1860, the Senate wrapped up its inquiry and Hyatt was released from jail. In his insouciant fashion, he wired friends in New York, "Have been kicked out; will be home tomorrow." In the months after his release, Hyatt ran a contest for the best essays on the Constitutional limits of senatorial power; solicited funds to publish 40,000 copies of a speech by Charles Sumner; and offered a $1000 prize for the invention of a flying machine. He again became involved in Kansas relief efforts. In 1861, he went to France to serve as American Consul at LaRochelle. He moved to London in 1869 and died in 1901 at the age of 85 at his summer home in the Isle of Wight.
Who was Samuel E. Sewall?
Samuel Edmund Sewall (1799-1888) was a Boston-born lawyer and activist with impeccable antislavery credentials—his great-great grandfather, witchcraft trial judge Samuel Sewall wrote The Selling of Joseph, the first antislavery tract published in New England. Samuel entered Harvard University at age 13, graduating four years later near the top of his class and earning his law degree from Harvard in 1820. His first antislavery essay "On Slavery in the United States," published in 1827, called slavery "the curse of every country in which it has been adopted, equally baneful to the oppressed and the oppressor," but stopped short of demanding immediate and total abolition, advocating instead gradual emancipation and colonization.
In 1830, Sewall attended William Lloyd Garrison's first public lecture on slavery and became convinced that immediate abolition of slavery was a moral imperative, quickly putting his resources to work on the issue. He helped fund Garrison's Liberator and was a co-founder of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In the 1850s, he worked tirelessly on behalf of fugitive slaves including Shadrach Minkins, Thomas Sims, and George Latimer. After the Civil War, Sewall became involved in the women's rights movement. He died of pneumonia at the age of 89.
For Further Reading
Langsdorf, Edgar. "Thaddeus Hyatt in Washington Jail," Kansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 3 (August 1940), p. 227-239.
Renehan, Edward J. The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.
Sewall, Samuel E. "On Slavery in the United States," Christian Examiner, vol. 4, no. 3 (May and June 1827), p.201-227.
Sewall, Samuel E. and John A. Andrew, counsel. Argument on Behalf of Thaddeus Hyatt, Brought before the Senate of the United States on a Charge of Contempt for Refusing to Appear as a Witness before the Harper's Ferry Committee. S.l.: s.n., 1860.
Tiffany, Nina Moore. Samuel E. Sewall: A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898.