Dr. J.E. Snodgrass: “My money – ay, my life would be well sold in such a cause!”

To affect change as radical as abolishing slavery, the activists at Goose Creek Meeting had to reach an audience beyond the mills and farms of their own community. In letters, essays to newspapers, public lectures, and even the infamous Goose Creek Literary Society Meeting, we have examples of efforts to influence the world outside Goose Creek (Lincoln) village. Frequently the Quakers found common cause with non-Quaker abolitionists.

The village’s most eminent scholar and intellectual, Samuel McPherson Janney was not only a teacher and area merchant. He also traveled extensively on Quaker or personal business. He was a minister, speaking “when the spirit moved him” at Society of Friends’ meetinghouses, notably in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and the western states of Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa. His attendance in far-flung towns and cities attracted an audience of Quakers and non-Quakers alike. All through his Memoirs Janney catalogs travels, lectures, and sizable crowds gathered to hear him speak. 

Many supported and sought guidance from this Virginia anti-slavery campaigner; Janney documents archived in Swarthmore’s Friends Historic Library contain letters received during his decades long effort to abolish slavery through persuasive argument. 

Two such letters are from Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass (1813-1880) of Baltimore. Dr. Snodgrass, born in Berkeley County, Virginia but now a Baltimore resident and businessman, must have attended a Janney lecture, or read his anti-slavery writings. Somehow the two men made a connection. Doctor Snodgrass was not only a physician, but also a temperance advocate and, an editor at the  Baltimore Saturday Visiter. (As a historical aside: Dr. Snodgrass met and befriended young writer Edgar Allen Poe, and it was Snodgrass who was called to the gothic writer’s side when Poe was found collapsed in Baltimore in September, 1849. Snodgrass oversaw Poe’s mysterious ailment from which the writer went in and out of fevered consciousness until death, five days later.) 

J.E. Snodgrass’ letters to Samuel M. Janney show how the topic of abolitionism were common ground for these two very disparate men. They had different styles and manners, but Snodgrass recognized Samuel Janney to be a teacher, mentor and something of a public figure. His 1845 letter starts off with commentary about education, then moves to the topic of slavery. The letters are transcribed below the shown document, top image of letter pages one and four, lower image of letter pages two and three: 

page 1 and 4 of June 23, 1845 letter from J.E. Snodgrass to Samuel M. Janney. The village of Goose Creek had no post office in 1845. Snodgrass’ letter was sent to the post office of nearby Purcell’s Store, later to be re-named Purcellville. Letter shown with Permission and courtesy of Swarthmore Historic Friends Library.
page 2 and 3 of September 23, 1845 J.E. Snodgrass letter, permission of Swarthmore Friends Historic Library


Baltimore, June 23rd 1845
Dear Janney:

I have not, until now, found time to answer your letter of the 7th, which I read with great pleasure. I like its talk about matters and things – but have no time now to answer fully, or make suitable comments.

In reply to your question about costs of 500 extras of the Visitor containing the accompanying essay on “Education in Slave States” I would say that they shall be furnished in wrappers, for nine dollars, $9.00, and I will try and use them to advantage. I like the tone as well as arguments of your reply, and I believe it will do good – and that I know to be your chief aim.

By the by, would it not be better [illegible] and specially appropriate for your name to- to an essay relating to education? It so seems to me.

I suppose you have ere this, received the first numbers of C[Cassius] M Clay’s new paper – and no doubt you were as much disappointed in it as I. That [leading?] leader was a poor and bad affair. Cassius did not do himself justice thereby. He must have been thrown off his balance, certainly by the threats of his foes – and that he had been much and pointedly threatened, I judge from an apology for his course, which was made by the editor of the Frankfort “Commonwealth.” I perceive you have been writing for him, and I am glad to see it – as I was to find the entire of your “review” in the first number of the “True American” It will get the very sort of circulation needed – it having been already very widely copied in papers of the free states.

You talk truly of the impossibility of discussing the subject of slavery in slave states, without producing excitement. I find my paper beginning to produce a good deal of it, now that religious quarrels have made my southern readers touchy. I have had a number of orders to “stop” – some quite abusive – one of which I shall publish with comments. I have just been most maliciously traduced in the New York Herald by a Balt [Baltimore] correspondent called an “abolitionist” – an “agent of Torrey’s friends” – of being in the pay of the Northerners”, & c & c

I have just finished a letter in reply, which I will send you, if published. I believe the crisis in my affairs is at hand. Well, let it be so, if it is God’s will! I am ready for the trial, with divine assistance. My money – ay, my life would be well sold in such a cause! I could not have said this a year ago, even – certainly not two years ago, as you know – but, thank God, I can now. Therefore come what will, I am ready.

Yours truly, J.E. Snodgrass

J.E. Snodgrass to Samuel M. Janney Sept. 14th 1847 letter page one, with Permission of Swarthmore Friends Historic Library
J.E. Snodgrass to Samuel M. Janney Sept. 14, 1847 pages two and three, with Permission of Swarthmore Historic Friends Library

Balt. Sept. 14th 1847

SM Janney,

                        My Dear Friend, – I have just dispatched a carefully written, latitude consulting letter to Connolly of the Leesburg “Chronicle,” the precept for which was a brief notice of my Pennsylvania tour in his last paper. You who once had to adapt your thoughts and expressions to my partially opened mind and the less open minds of my Southern readers, will readily understand the drift of it!

                        I write to you to ask of you the favour, in case it does not appear in reasonable time without any [?] agency, to call on Connolly, and procure its publication, for either love or money – for I am anxious to get it in. Perhaps taking so many copies of the “Chronicle” would open his columns, as that plan opened mine. Any way, and I will foot the bill. Doubtless the “Quaker influence” of you “nest of Abolitionists” will do something – has done something with your local press.

                        You may safely assure Connolly, from your knowledge of my mode of viewing such matters, that I will not not think hard of any exceptions he may suppose it necessary to take, in publishing! If he should not publish at all, please procure the ms [manuscript], and bring it with you or send it first private opportunity you have! Am I forgetting that this is the day of changed postage – sent it by mail, I should have said.

                        Now, my friend, I must say that you have caused me to have some “hard thoughts” by passing me by, so unceremoniously, during your visit to Baltimore! I could not serve you so, without a strong effort, upon my word, I could not! After getting into this abolition scrape, are you resolved to leave me without even the sympathy of one mind in my native state?

                        Do write me a long letter, and tell me, minutely, the results of your educational movements. What (and when) you mean to do for the good cause hereafter, &c, &c.

                        With regards to your good wife,         Yours truly

                                                                                                            J E Snodgrass


According to archive newspaper notices in various papers, Dr. Snodgrass traveled and lectured on abolitionist topics, sometime to friendly audiences and sometimes to hostile criticism. He did more than talk, however; at least once Snodgrass got in the papers for a high profile purchase of an enslaved fugitive from the misbegotten ship, the Pearl. The story of the Pearl is found on many sources, including this article at blackpast.org website. Frederick Douglass’ paper, the North Star published this snippet (very poor scan.) A transcript is found in the caption below the scan:

Snodgrass in North Star 1848 (1)
North Star August 25, 1848. “Dr. Snodgrass, of Baltimore, with the aid of some kind friends, has purchased Mrs. [Dolley] Madison’s slave who attempted to esape on board the Pearl, and set her at liberty.”

Surely there is – somewhere – a picture of Dr. J.E. Snodgrass. Hopefully someone will forward one to this Nest of Abolitionists site. He was a public man and his picture must be out there, perhaps in a family collection?