The Case of Lucy Bagby: The Last Fugitive Slave

By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in November 2022.


The saga of Sara Lucinda (“Lucy”) Bagby begins in Richmond, Virginia. In 1850 Virginia’s population of 1.12 million people included 479,000 slaves, seven-year-old Sara Lucinda (“Lucy”) Bagby among them. The slave trade in Virginia was far and away the state’s largest industry, and in Richmond the traffic in slaves surpassed all other areas in the state. In 1850 more than 80,000 men, women, and children were sold in the Virginia slave markets.1

Other than her year of birth (1843) little is known about Lucy Bagby before 1852 when she was most likely in a holding pen on Richmond’s Wall Street (now 15th Street) where the slave trade was centered. Nine-year-old Lucy, trembling in fear on the auction block, was sold by Robert Alois to John Goshorn for $600 on January 6, 1852. Goshorn brought her back to his home in Wheeling, Virginia to serve as a house slave.2

John Goshorn was 62 years old when he purchased Lucy. He was a prominent Democrat and a wealthy man who owned and operated a successful mercantile business, Goshorn, Kelley & Company. His partner was his former clerk, Benjamin Franklin Kelley, who later became a Union general during the Civil War. Goshorn, at various times, held positions of prominence in the community. He had a seat on the Wheeling city council, was a director of the Northwestern Bank of Virginia and also of the Farmers’ Bank, and was president of the Fire & Marine Insurance Company. He was worth over $300,000 dollars in 1860 (equivalent in purchasing power to about $10,255,000 today). He retired from the business in 1844 and with his wife Mary purchased a farm four miles east of Wheeling. The couple had three children – Jane (who died in early childhood), William, and Isabella, whom everyone called Belle – and six slaves.3

When John stepped down, William Goshorn, now thirty years old, entered as a partner with Kelley. William, like his father, served on the Wheeling city council and became a director of the Merchants & Marine Bank and the Fire & Marine Insurance Company. William married Priscilla Jane Zinn, and they had six children. In 1852, John gave Lucy to William as a gift to help with his growing household.4

Isabella Goshorn married Benjamin Franklin Kelley in 1835. It was Kelley’s second marriage. His first wife and child had died of cholera in 1832. Belle was ten years Kelley’s junior, but the two lived happily together also having six children.

Things changed for Belle in 1846. Belle became ill with severe erysipelas. Erysipelas is a bacterial infection of the skin that can cause serious systemic problems. As her illness progressed over the years, Belle’s mental stability deteriorated. In the late 1850s Benjamin began to struggle with work, the children, and taking care of Belle. To aid Benjamin and Belle, William Goshorn loaned Lucy to them, as did John Goshorn with a male slave named Tobey Barlow. By 1859, Belle’s condition had reached the point where Benjamin Kelley decided to commit her to the Pennsylvania Insane Asylum for treatment. The family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a free state) to be near Belle, taking Lucy and Tobey with them. Benjamin got a job as a freight agent for the Philadelphia & Wilmington Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to support the family. Each day Lucy traveled to and from the Pennsylvania Insane Asylum to help in Belle’s care, besides taking care of the Kelley household. What transpired between Belle and Lucy during their time together would never be known.5

Lucy Bagby as a fugitive slave

In 1860 Belle died, and the Kelley family returned to Wheeling, Virginia. Benjamin Kelley returned Lucy to William’s household. While he was away on a business trip to Minnesota, and shortly thereafter, the 17-year-old Lucy seized the opportunity to escape. Helped by a negro named Phillip Herbert, who was an employee of C.W. Russell and was also familiar with the Underground Railroad, Lucy crossed the Ohio River and made her way to Beaver, Pennsylvania and then to Pittsburgh. Her final stop was Cleveland, Ohio, in the company of William E. Ambush, Chairman of the Cleveland Fugitive Aid Society.6

In Cleveland, Lucy secured employment as a domestic servant in the home of Congressman-elect Albert G. Riddle, a strong anti-slavery advocate. However, Riddle’s views were vulnerable to political attacks and especially dangerous to the legal ramifications of harboring a fugitive slave. According to the Fugitive Slave Law, it was the duty of every person, when called upon by an officer, to assist in the capture and return of any fugitive slave. Refusal to do so made a person liable to fine or imprisonment. It was also a punishable crime to assist a slave seeking freedom. Through Riddle’s expedient recommendation, Lucy began to work in the home of a local jeweler, Lucius A. Benton.7

Somehow in late winter of 1860, William Goshorn learned that Lucy was in Cleveland. Some sources say the information was sent by a negro woman living in the city. William and John telegraphed the U.S. marshal and demanded Lucy’s capture and arrest. The men themselves arrived by train on January 16, 1861 to accept the return of their property. After checking into the Weddell House, the two contacted the U.S. marshal to follow up on their demand for Lucy’s return under the law. William Goshorn also filed a sworn oath before Bushnell White, one of the United States commissioners for the federal court, that Lucy was his escaped slave under Virginia law. With four southern states having already seceded, some said that this would test the newly elected Republican President Abraham Lincoln to see if his administration would uphold the Fugitive Slave Law.8

On Saturday, January 19, while working at the Benton home at 151 Prospect Avenue, Lucy was shocked when she answered a knock on the door to see her old masters in the company of three marshals. She slammed the door closed, secured the bolt, and frantically ran to the bedroom to seek Mr. Benton’s help. The marshals broke down the front door. Despite Benton’s demands to know their business, Lucy was arrested, thrown like a sack of flour into a carriage, and whisked away to the county jail. When she was asked by U.S. Deputy Marshal J.H. Johnson why she escaped, Lucy replied that Isabella Kelley had brought her to Pennsylvania, a free state, and told her that as a result she was now free. She escaped from Wheeling because she was afraid to be sold and taken further south.9

A marker in West Virginia noting the escape of Lucy Bagby

Word of the arrest spread like lightning through the city, and many protesters, black and white, were soon gathering outside the jail. Northeast Ohio was a citadel of abolitionism and reliably Republican. Three attorneys – Rufus P. Spalding, a former member of the Ohio State Supreme Court, Albert G. Riddell, congressman-elect and Lucy’s former employer, and C.W. Palmer – came forward to represent Lucy in her defense. They petitioned Judge Daniel R. Tilden of the probate court for Lucy’s release on the grounds that she was a free person of color and had committed no crime. Judge Tilden issued a writ of habeas corpus and had her released from the city jail, since the Ohio Legislature had passed a law in April 1857 that prohibited the confinement of fugitive slaves in jails in Ohio. But Lucy was then transferred to federal jurisdiction to stand trial as a runaway slave under the federal Fugitive Slave Law. With a U.S. marshal and 55 sworn-in deputies as an escort, Lucy walked from the city jail to accommodations at the U.S. Postal building on the northwest quadrant of amply shaded Public Square. As they walked, there were two rushes by a small group of protesters to try to free Lucy. Both were unsuccessful as the deputies freely wielded their clubs to knock down the would-be rescuers.

A trial date was set for Monday, January 21. To allow time for defense counsel to interview witnesses in Wheeling, the date was pushed back two days. Many were sympathetic to Lucy’s plight. William E. Ambush raised $1,200 to purchase Lucy from the Goshorns, but his offer was refused.10

On January 23, Lucy’s trial began before U.S. District Judge Wilson in the Post Office building. Tempers were high as throngs of anti-slavery supporters gathered outside awaiting the judge’s verdict. There were shouts, scuffles, pushing and shoving, and some punches thrown as the marshals and police tried to control the crowd. The Radical Republican Cleveland Leader counseled in their paper to stay calm and submit to the court’s decision for the sake of preserving the Union.11

The courthouse in which Lucy Bagby’s trial was held

Inside the courtroom tempers were also flaring. Mr. Ambush had some heated words with William Goshorn, an argument that escalated to the point where pistols were drawn. Luckily cooler heads prevailed and no shots were fired, as Judge Wilson had the men separated. Lucy was not permitted in the courtroom when her lawyers told the story of Isabella freeing her in Pennsylvania. On cross examination, however, the timing of this story proved confusing. Isabella had been dead for months when, by Lucy’s reckoning, this “freedom” was conferred. There was no way to prove that Isabella promised or granted Lucy her freedom. It was further proven that Isabella had no claim over Lucy’s bondage, as Lucy was the legal property of William Goshorn. William produced the “bill of sale” transferring ownership from John Goshorn to William, and the defense quickly evaporated. The judge ruled that Lucy be delivered to her master, William Goshorn, and returned south pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Law.12

Rufus Spalding then addressed the court:

“Nothing now remains that may impede the performance of your painful duty, sir, unless I be permitted to trespass to say to this assemblage, we are this day offering to the majesty of the Constitutional Law a homage that takes with it a virtual surrender of the finest feelings in our nature…the mortification of a freedman’s pride…and the contravention of a Christian’s duty to his God.”13

Then Mr. Barlow, the Goshorns’ counsel, spoke:

“…that the course of his friend Judge Spalding was patriotic. The right of slavery, or the Constitutionality of the fugitive slave law, is not involved here. The latter question has been decided. The duty of the court is to give effect to the law. In justice to the claimants, I must say they are activated by no mercenary motives. Neither do they come to wake the prejudices of the North. [The court decision] wishes to show the Southern people that the Northern people will execute the laws, and be faithful to the Union. The citizens of Cleveland have come up to their duty manfully; no man has laid a straw in the way of the enforcement of the law.”14

Then John Goshorn stood to address the court:

“Language would not express [my] gratitude to the citizens for his treatment. [My] mission was an unpleasant one, but it may be oil poured upon the waters of our nation’s troubles. I would the task of representing Virginia had fallen to better hands. The South had been looking for such a case as this. I have no office to gain. We must do it if our servants will not. We have charged the North with persuading away our servants – I hope God will forgive them. How pleasant it would be if I could come among you with this same girl as my servant, and enjoy your hospitality as I have now.”15

While Cleveland’s black and white population was hostile to the verdict, they heeded the pleas for tolerance and to obedience to the law. Some were even sympathetic towards the Goshorns. William Goshorn expressed his thanks to those supporting them through a letter printed in the Cleveland Herald:

“Before leaving Cleveland for home, we feel it a duty to the citizens of Cleveland, as well as to ourselves, to express our unfeigned gratitude for the uniform kindness with which we have been treated. Nothing but courtesy has been shown us by all of your citizens, who have even shielded us from insults. Before leaving Cleveland for home, we feel it a duty to the citizens of your colored population – as an instance of which we will refer to an incident which occurred this morning at the breakfast table of the Weddell House. A Negro waiter refused to serve us, and upon the fact being known to Col [sic] Ross, the proprietor of the House, the waiter was promptly discharged, and ordered to leave the house. – William Goshorn.”16

With volatile crowds outside, Sheriff James A. Craw was quoted, “It was currently asserted that Lucy would be rescued by a Negro force large enough to overpower the sheriff’s posse. The local police kept the crowd in front of the courthouse.” Five deputies escorted the 18-year-old Sara Lucy Bagby out the side door of the building to Rockwell Street and drove her and the Goshorns in a carriage to the Euclid Street station and put them on a train to Wheeling. They were accompanied by Deputy Marshal Johnson and two newspaper reporters. The train pulled out without incident17 and traveled south for a scheduled stop in Lima, Ohio. As the train slowed coming into the Lima station, the conductor saw a large group of African Americans lining the tracks. Fearing there would be an attempt to storm the train and release Lucy, the conductor ordered the train to keep moving and skipped the scheduled stop.18

Lucy Bagby in 1904

When the party safely returned to Wheeling, Lucy was jailed. It was also described later that she was “severely punished.” Lucy Bagby has the unwelcomed distinction of being the last fugitive slave returned to the South. Three months later, William Goshorn was one of many delegates to cast his vote for Virginia to secede. When the Civil War broke out, the Goshorn & Kelley mercantile partner, Benjamin F. Kelley, was commissioned a colonel in the Union army and was with the Union forces that soon occupied Wheeling in June 1861. William was arrested and, when pressed to take the Oath of Allegiance, refused. He was imprisoned at Athenaeum and later sent to Camp Chase as a political prisoner.19

Before his arrest, William Goshorn had Lucy taken to a cousin in Charleston, Virginia. He later hired an agent to take her further south with the idea of sending her to Cuba for sale. Lucy was rescued by Union forces under a Captain Vance in 1863 in Fayetteville, Tennessee and became a free person under the Emancipation Proclamation. She first returned to Athens, Ohio and from there traveled to Pittsburgh, where she married F. George Johnson. The couple moved to Cleveland, Ohio on May 6, 1863, where they both worked and raised a family.20 William Goshorn took the Oath of Allegiance due to his failing health and returned to his family in Wheeling. On his deathbed, Lucy visited him and his sisters. What was said between the two is not known.21

Lucy Bagby’s tombstone

In 1904, Lucy Bagby was invited to attend the annual Early Settlers’ Association meeting held at Gray’s Armory on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. She was present there as the last fugitive slave prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Law, and a brief description of her ordeal was given. At the end, the speaker presented Lucinda Johnson to the assembly. Lucy rose and bowed to wild applause as the band, ironically, played “Dixie.” Lucy lived for only two more years, dying of septicemia on July 14, 1906. She was buried in Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery in an unmarked grave. In 2010, the cemetery’s foundation gave Lucy a headstone that reads, “Unfettered and Free.”22

Footnotes (Click on any of the book titles to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

1. McInnis, Maurice. Hidden Patterns of the Civil War. Digital Scholarship Lab. University of Richmond. https://dsl.richmond.edu/civilwar/slavemarket.htlm. McInnis, Maurice. Slaves Waiting for Sale: Visualizing the Southern Slave Trade. Chicago, Illinois, University of Chicago Press. Some sources quote the number as 550,000 slaves. Helm, Joe. Washington Post, Sunday edition, January 30, 2022.

2. Gilot, Jon-Erik. https://emergingcivilwar.com/2020/07/23/benjamin-f-kelleys-confederate-kinfolk/. The receipt for the purchase of Lucy Bagby is in the Wheeling University Archives, Wheeling, West Virginia. The 1860 census does not list enslaved people by name, only gender and age. Day, Michelle A. & Wickens, Joseph. “The Arrest and Trial of Lucy Bagby.” https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/517.

3. History of the Upper Ohio Valley with Family History and Biographical Sketches: A Statement of Its Resources, Industrial Growth, and Commercial Advantages. Vol. 1. Madison, Wisconsin. Brant & Fuller. 1890. p. 300. Pennsylvania State University Libraries. https://findagrave.com. 1860 census of Wheeling. The census listed only 100 slaves.

4. History of the Upper Ohio Valley with Family History. p. 301.

5. Kelley, T.F., Civil War General B.F. Kelley. Hot Springs, Arkansas. Tango Kilo Publishing. 2021. pp. 22-30. https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org./wheeling-history/6016.

6. Malvin, John. North into Freedom: Autobiography of John Malvin, Free Negro 1795-1880. ed. Allen Peskin. Cleveland. The Press of Western Reserve University. 1966.

7. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University. “Bagby Fugitive Slave Case.” www.case.edu/ech/articles/b/bagby-fugitive-slave-case. Riddle was the principal defense lawyer in 1859 in the Oberlin-Wellington Case as well as asked to defend John Brown, but the request arrived too late for him to participate.
Keating, Dennis W. Cleveland and the Civil War, Charleston, S.C. History Press. 2022. pp 27-28.

8. History of the Upper Ohio Valley with Family History. p 301. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. www.case.edu/ech/articles/w/weddell-house. The Weddell house was a regal five-story brick-and-sandstone hotel whose 200 guest rooms were appointed with every attainable luxury. It was located on Superior Avenue and Bank Street (W. 6th St.) President-elect Abraham Lincoln spent the night there on his way to Washington for his inauguration. Cleveland Morning Leader, January 22, 1861.

9. www.ohiocountylibrary.org/wheeling-history/biography-sara-lucy-bagby. www.clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/517. Day, Michelle A. & Wickens, Joseph. “The Arrest and Trial of Lucy Bagby.” Cleveland Morning Leader, January 22, 1861.

10. Ibid. Malvin, John. “Incidents in the Racial History of Ohio, 1840-1860. In Robert Wheeler, ed., Visions of the Western Reserve. Columbus. Ohio State University Press. 2000. p. 359. On Ohio Politics in this period, see Maizlish, Stephen E. The Triumph of Sectionalism: The Transformation of Ohio Politics, 1844-1856. Kent, Ohio. Kent State University Press, 1983, and Knepper, George, Ohio and Its People, Kent, Ohio. Kent State University Press, 1989. Cleveland Morning Leader, Tuesday, January 22, 1861.

11. www.case.edu/ech/articles/b/bagby-fugitive-slave-case. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. “Bagby Fugitive Slave Case.”

12. Ibid. Day & Wickens. “The Arrest and Trial of Lucy Bagby.” The Wheeling Intelligencer, February 2, 2022.

13. Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, January 26, 1861.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Cleveland Herald reprinted in Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, January 25, 1861.

17. Cleveland Historical Society. Day & Wickens. “The Arrest and Trial of Lucy Bagby.” https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/517. Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, 23 January 23, 1861 and January 25, 1861.

18. Ibid.

19. Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, May 13, 1862. Colonel B.F. Kelley was wounded at the Battle of Philippi and recuperated at the estate of his father-in-law, John Goshorn. Kelley eventually rose to brevet major general. William was the only person arrested who refused to take the oath.

20. www.ohiocountylibrary.org/wheeling-history/biography-sara-lucy-bagby. Lucy worked as a cook and house servant. Her husband, F. George Johnson, according to some sources, was a veteran of the Union army, but the author has not been able to verify what unit or his post-war occupation in Cleveland. Annals of the Early Settlers’ Association of Cuyahoga County, Volume 5, Number 1. 1904. pp 31-33.

21. History of the Upper Ohio Valley with Family History, Vol. 1. p. 301.

22. Annals of the Early Settlers’ Association of Cuyahoga County, Volume 5, Number 1. 1904 pp31-33. www.findagrave.com/memorial/66674610. Keating, Cleveland and the Civil War, p 27.