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Abolitionist Charles T. Torrey describes his role in the Underground Railroad in a letter written to Milton M. Fisher from Cell Number 3 in the Baltimore Jail, 16 November 1844.
As we organize and describe the extraordinary documents and artifacts held by the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), we often find unexpected items within collections. A talented volunteer working at the MHS, Kathleen Fox seems to have a particular knack for locating remarkable items "hiding in plain sight" as she re-folders and re-boxes manuscript collections. While re-housing the Hixon Family Papers, Fox came across an interesting letter that does not appear to be directly related to the Hixon family, except that the Hixons and the recipient of the letter, Milton M. Fisher, were members of intertwined families that lived in Medway, Massachusetts, during the middle decades of the 19th century.
Reverend Charles T. Torrey wrote the letter that Kathleen Fox found two weeks before he went on trial in Baltimore for "aiding, enticing, or assisting" enslaved African Americans living in Maryland to escape to freedom in the North. Torrey, a celebrated abolitionist martyr at the time of his death in whose memory the "Friends of the American Slave" erected a monument at his grave site at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a less familiar figure today, but he played an important role in the early years of the Underground Railroad. Torrey worked with free blacks and former slaves in the District of Columbia and Maryland, and drew upon the local knowledge of his African American colleagues and the sympathy and support of members of the white antislavery community to pioneer routes northward for "companies" of fugitive slaves that he helped to escape to freedom. In his letter to Fisher, Torrey freely—and indiscreetly —claimed that it had been his "happiness" to free about 400 people, "who, otherwise, would have lived, and, most of them died, in slavery."
Charles Torrey was born in Scituate, Massachusetts, in 1813, the son of Charles and Hannah Turner Torrey. Before he was four, he became an orphan when his parents died of consumption. He was raised by his indulgent maternal grandparents who sent him first to Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and then, in 1830, to Yale College, where he frittered away a small inheritance, but graduated in three years. Torrey attended Andover Theological Seminary, but withdrew because of ill health—the consumption (tuberculosis) that would lead to his early death. He continued his theological studies under private direction and was ordained in 1837. He married Mary Ide, whose father, Rev. Jacob Ide, D.D., (the "Dr Ide" in the letter to Milton Fisher), had given Torrey religious instruction and preached at his ordination. After briefly and unsuccessfully serving as a Congregational minister in Providence, Rhode Island, and Salem, Massachusetts, Torrey devoted almost all of his energies to abolitionism, first as an agent for the Massachusetts Abolition Society and as an editor of abolitionist newspapers, and later as a reporter for them, although his newspaper work seems to have been, at least in part, a cover for his direct actions against slavery in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
An aggressive, "new" abolitionist, Torrey was a controversial figure not only among opponents of the antislavery movement, but also among his fellow abolitionists. In the late 1830s, he became a strong opponent of the "old abolitionists" –the existing antislavery movement centered on William Lloyd Garrison and his antislavery newspaper, The Liberator. "Old" and "new" abolitionists were unable to agree about the role of religion in their movement (Garrison described Torrey and his evangelical allies as the "clerical party"); whether women could be full participants in the movement (Torrey was against it); whether abolitionists should participate in politics or devote themselves to moral suasion (in 1839, the "new" abolitionists formed the Liberty Party—an antislavery political party); whether abolitionists should be prepared to break the law to achieve their cause (Torrey was and did); and the importance of pacifism and other reform movements in their struggle (Torrey was armed when he was arrested in Baltimore). Torrey's actions were considered so "intemperate" that some fellow abolitionists thought that he might be insane.
In 1841, Torrey went to Washington as the correspondent of the Albany Patriot and other antislavery newspapers. He attempted to confront slavery directly at a slaveholders' convention in Annapolis in January 1842 that led to a riot. Torrey's notoriety brought him into contact with Thomas Smallwood, a former slave living in Washington who with Torrey formed an integrated network of male and female guides and agents to assist fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad. Smallwood and Torrey were organizers and active participants in slave escapes until a failed escape in November 1843 led to the arrest of John Bush in Washington (a free African American member of their network whom Torrey describes as a fellow "martyr" in his letter) and forced Smallwood to escape to Canada.
This disaster (fourteen people were returned to slavery) only reinforced Torrey's devotion to the cause and made him even more reckless. In June 1844, at the instigation of Hope H. Slatter, a Baltimore slave dealer, Torrey was arrested for helping slaves from Virginia to escape, but he was charged with aiding in the local escape of three slaves who lived in Baltimore. When Torrey's hopes of being tried in Virginia (and transferring his case to a federal court) failed, he attempted to escape from the Baltimore Jail. After a brief trial that began in late November, on 3 December 1844 the jury deliberated for twenty minutes before finding Torrey guilty.
In the eleven days between his conviction and sentencing, to aid his wife and two young children who were left at home in Massachusetts without financial support, Torrey wrote Home! Or the Pilgrims' Faith Revived, a book-length spiritual guide in the form of an idealized account of Torrey's early life in a New England seaside community (Scituate, Massachusetts). Home! is not the detailed autobiographical account of Torrey's eventful adult years that a modern reader may desire, but tells us something of his religious beliefs and motivation. Torrey was sentenced to six years in the Maryland Penitentiary. His consumption returned and his family and few remaining supporters sought clemency for him. Although Maryland Governor Thomas G. Pratt finally granted him a pardon, it arrived at the penitentiary on 9 May 1846—the day that Torrey died. His body was brought back to Massachusetts for burial, but even that solemn event was not without controversy. Although Torrey had written a conciliatory letter to William Lloyd Garrison from the Baltimore Jail (ironically, years earlier, Garrison had been held in the same jail for his antislavery activities in Maryland), the "new" and "old" abolitionists had not reconciled. Even in death, Torrey remained a symbol of radical abolitionism. Boston's Park Street Church withdrew its offer to host Torrey's funeral which moved across the street to the Tremont Temple. He then was buried with considerable fanfare at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Milton Metcalf Fisher, the recipient of Torrey's letter, was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, in 1811. He attended Amherst College and settled in Medway in 1840, where he launched a successful business career. While Fisher arrived in Medway after Torrey's short residence there, his service as a church deacon brought him in close contact with Torrey's father-in-law, Dr. Jacob Ide. "Deacon Fisher" and Dr. Ide both were pioneers in the antislavery movement—although they had strong reservations about Charles Torrey's reckless zeal. Fisher's antislavery career showed how complicated it could be to sort out where abolitionists stood. While Fisher dated the antislavery movement from the first issue of The Liberator in 1831, he was an early proponent of the Liberty Party that Garrison strongly opposed. Dr. Jacob Ide and Deacon Fisher both lived long enough (Ide died in 1880, Fisher in 1903) that they became local celebrities because of their early antislavery efforts.
In spite of Torrey's criticism of him in the letter, Fisher donated the last lines and signature of this letter to the antislavery bazaar sponsored by the League of Universal Brotherhood in the summer of 1851, "at the time of the World's fair"—the Crystal Palace Exposition in London. The bazaar also received sprigs of Arbor Vitae from Torrey's grave and lines on Torrey's memory composed by English poet Elizabeth Prideaux.
Charles Torrey's brief career as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad was spectacular, but not unique. As he noted in his letter, while he awaited trial in Baltimore, he knew of other black and white abolitionists already serving prison terms or awaiting trial in Missouri, Virginia, Florida, Kentucky, and the District of Columbia. In his letter he places particular emphasis on the case of his "fellow martyr," "Mrs Gregg," whom he describes as the widow of "Prof Gregg," of "Hudson College." The person he described was Alice Bridge Webster, a favorite niece of Daniel Webster, who married, first, Rev. Jarvis Gregg, a classmate of Torrey at Andover Theological Seminary, who taught at Western Reserve College (now Case Western Reserve University) then located in Hudson, Ohio. After Professor Gregg's death, his widow married Rev. George Whipple. In 1844, "Mrs. Gregg" was "Mrs. Whipple," and she was not incarcerated in Kentucky. Torrey apparently confused Alice Bridge Webster (Gregg) Whipple with Delia Webster, who had been convicted and imprisoned in Kentucky along with "Brother Fairbanks" [Calvin Fairbank] for helping slaves to escape. As Torrey put it, the great question for Delia Webster and Calvin Fairbank, and all the other imprisoned "rescuers," was "Is it a crime, or a Christian duty to help men out of bondage, in defiance of wicked laws?"
Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series). MSA SC 5496-3363.
There is a detailed description of the developments of Torrey's court case in Baltimore and his subsequent imprisonment under "Rev. Charles T. Torrey (b. Nov. 21, 1813-d. May 9, 1846)" at the Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series) website.
Fisher, Milton M. The Autobiography of Milton M. Fisher of Medway, Mass. Concord, N. H.: The Rumford Press, 1902.
Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden Story of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Harrold, Stanley. "On the Borders of Slavery and Race: Charles T. Torrey and the Underground Railroad." Journal of the Early Republic. Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 2000), 273-292.
---. Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D. C., 1828-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2003.
Jameson, Ephraim O. The History of Medway Mass. 1713 to 1885. Medway, Mass.: Published by the town, 1886.
Lovejoy, Joseph C. Memoir of Rev. Charles T. Torrey Who Died in the Penitentiary of Maryland, Where He Was Confined for Showing Mercy to the Poor. Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1847.
Torrey, Charles T. Charles Turner Torrey Collection, 1837-1846. Congregational Library, Boston, Mass.
A small collection of Torrey's surviving manuscripts. On Microfilm. A finding aid for the collection is available online.
---. Home! Or the Pilgrims' Faith Revived. Salem: John P. Jewett and Co., 1845.
"Written during his incarceration in Baltimore Jail, after his conviction, and while awaiting—his sentence. . . Published for the benefit of his family."
Torrey, E. Fuller. The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.