Henry, dead or alive

Print courtesy of Library of Congress
Joseph Bruin $250 Reward Ad reposted from Washington Union newspaper, July 8, 1858 Courtesy of newspapers.com

This $250 Reward ad was paid for by Alexandria, Virginia slave trader Joseph Bruin and published in a Washington, D.C. newspaper on July 4th – oh, the irony – 1858. The ad tells a compelling but incomplete story. $250 is a lot of money at a time when it was common to see “runaway” ads offering $50 rewards. The tone of the ad, giving the reward for capture “dead or alive” implies a personal cruelty aimed at 19-year-old Henry. Did Henry escape from slave trader Joseph Bruin’s custody or from that of his former owner, or his new owner? Let’s try to find out.

The ad for Henry has a lot of information to sort through. James Spinks, Henry’s new owner, is listed in the Loudoun County, Virginia 1820 census as an “overseer.” Overseer is defined: “On large plantations, the person who directed the daily work of the slaves was the overseer, usually a white man but occasionally an enslaved black man—a “driver”—promoted to the position by his master.” (Spinks was white.) On census forms, Spinks’ home was given as being in or near Aldie, a village 40 miles northwest of Alexandria. So Henry’s new “home” would have been in Loudoun County, in the Aldie area. No Loudoun records show Spinks owning an enslaved man named Henry.

James Spinks’ name, with “overseer” is listed sixth from the top on this 1820 Loudoun County Virginia census page. Shown courtesy of ancestry.com

Henry’s former owner was a man named J. Lewis Hawling, listed on census data as living with his family at Oatlands, a large plantation outside Leesburg. His trade is given as “farmer” so perhaps the Hawlings lived near Oatlands property. (In 1858, wealthy Elizabeth Carter owned and operated Oatlands.) That means that before being sold on, Henry had been living between Leesburg and Aldie, not far from new owner James Spinks’ location.

Henry, traveling to or from Alexandria, “jumped off of the stage about half-a-mile above Alexandria, with his hands fastened by handcuffs.” A Mail/passenger stagecoach went through Aldie on a route between Alexandria and Winchester, 74 miles distant, and made stops along the way. Below is an image of a receipt from the stagecoach’s May 18, 1834 journey. Passengers are listed, including where they boarded and their final destination. For example: “Lieut. Noland,” third name from the bottom, traveled from Aldie to Alexandria.

Joseph Bruin might have put Henry on the stagecoach in Alexandria, since Henry’s sale was through Bruin’s office, not a private sale between Spinks and Hawling. Henry was handcuffed for the journey. It is likely the young man was to be met at his destination by either his new owner, or possibly by Bruin himself, if Henry had actually been sent on his way by Hawling to Bruin in Alexandria, before being handed over to Spinks. Would other passengers have been sitting alongside the handcuffed Henry, or would he have sat with the stage’s driver?

According to research and books, such as Jeff Forret’s Williams’ Gang book covering Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, slave trading was notoriously cruel. Those in the trade often skirted whatever thin laws covered their profession. James Birch, an Alexandria slave trader who partnered with George Kephart for several years, was responsible for kidnapping and selling Solomon Northrup. Northrup famously wrote about his ordeal in “Twelve Years a Slave.”

Joseph Bruin was caught up in similar litigation. He had at least one Loudoun County case which accused him of attempting to unlawfully sell a mother and child. Loudoun County’s Office of Historic Deeds and Records’ file shows, second from the bottom, the 1851 case of Eliza Wedge & child, charging Bruin with their illegal imprisonment.

An archealogical study of Bruin’s slave pen, located at 1707 Duke Street, Alexandria, gives insight into a hellish world of jails and slave pens. The commerce of buying and selling humans for profit may seem a long way from bucolic Loudoun County, Virginia and the Quakers of Goose Creek Meeting. But the business went on legally and right under everyone’s nose. Both Samuel M. Janney and Elizabeth Janney lived in Alexandria for years, along with a large Quaker community. Benjamin Hallowell, a close friend to the Janneys, ran a school in the city. Quakers in Alexandria were prominent and active. All knew, and most condemned, the city’s important role in slave trading. Ships regularly left Alexandria’s port, groaning under the weight of human cargo on the way to slave markets in Mobile and, principally, New Orleans.

1707 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA was the location of Joseph Bruin’s slave trade pen. This building would have had outbuildings around it in which bondsmen, women, and children were kept until sold locally or – more likely – shipped south. Photo courtesy of Alexandriava.gov
Slave pen, Alexandria, Virginia, photo taken in 1861 when Union troops occupied the city of Alexandria at the start of the Civil War. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

I find the $250 Reward “dead or alive” ad in only one newspaper edition, implying Henry was soon captured. It is hard to imagine how he would not have been; handcuffs would make escape almost impossible. Would James Spinks have continued with the purchase of Henry, or would this daring escape attempt have shown Henry to be “unmanageable” to a new owner?

If the sale fell through and Joseph Bruin was forced to take Henry back, which is possible, then the trader might have transported him south. That was a common way to get rid of troublesome captives. No local buyer reading the $250 Reward ad would spend money on a bondsman with a history of running off.

In addition, the monetary value of enslaved workers was higher when sold to cotton or sugar plantation owners of the deep south. Slave transport ships operated by Bruin, Kephart and others regularly advertised in the Alexandria newspapers.

“Negroes Wanted” ads ran regularly in Virginia newspapers, this image being from the December 10, 1855 edition of the Alexandria Gazette. Courtesy of Library of Congress “Chronicling America”
For New Orleans November 10, 1838 advertisement in the Alexandria Gazette, Courtesy of Library of Congress “Chronicling America”

Several Alexandria slave ship manifests are in the New York Historical Society’s Museum & Library Black History Collection. The N.Y. Historical Society’s manifest shown below is dated as 1847; looking closely to the first bondsman on the list, you find an eerie similarity with the young Henry who desperately tried to escape his fate in 1858. The “Henry Brooks” listed here, on the Phoenix, is also 19 and also stands 5’6″. Henry Brooks is being transported by Joseph Bruin and his trade partner, Henry Hill.

Slave transport “Phoenix” manifest, Courtesy of New York Historical Society Museum & Library, Black History Collection

On this and other ship manifests on the N. Y. Historical site, are names that are still familiar in Loudoun County: Carter, Brooks, Jackson, Combs, Berry, etc. The majority of Alexandria’s slave ship manifests are either lost or in less accessible collections; young handcuffed Henry might be listed on one of them. Or, maybe not. In the end, all we can say for sure is: Henry knew slavery and was willing to risk death to escape it. When he leaped from a stagecoach on the road between Aldie and Alexandria, between slavery and a bid for freedom, he flung himself into history’s void.

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