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Hanover’s “peculiar man:” Big Bill Otter

In the years before the Civil War, the Baltimore Sun frequently ran paid advertisements from slave owners seeking the recovery of runaways. Often the escaped slaves would try to reach Pennsylvania, where the Underground Railroad could assist them.

In 1885, a McSherrystown, PA, newspaper editor deemed William Arter (as he misspelled Otter) as “a peculiar man” who did “some very foolish things.” Otter, who lived in nearby Hanover from 1809 until 1821, was certainly one of the most unique individuals of his day, a man whose strange exploits were still being discussed seven decades later in the media.

The predominantly German-speaking residents of Hanover called him “der gross Bill der plasterer,” or, in English, “Big Bill the plasterer.” At the time, everyone seemingly knew him, or at least knew of him and his reputation as a practical joker, entrepreneur, and as a master craftsman.

I briefly re-introduced York Countians to Big Bill Otter last night during the York Daily Record’s 3rd Annual Unraveling York County’s History event at the DreamWrights venue center.

Here’s the scoop on this colorful character.

1860 map of Hanover, Pennsylvania (PHMC). Many of the buildings near the square dated from Big Bill’s day.

William Otter was born in 1787 in Yorkshire, England, near what is today known as Kingston upon Hull. At the age of 11, he ran away from home to be a cabin boy on a whale boat headed for the waters off Greenland. A year later, he survived a shipwreck only to be forcibly impressed into the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Four years later, Otter escaped and returned to Hull, where he learned that his parents had emigrated to the United States. Becoming an indentured servant, he traveled to New York City, where he finally reunited with his family in 1801. He soon apprenticed as a plasterer, joined an anti-Irish street gang, and became widely known for his strength and girth. He grew into being 6 feet, four inches tall and weighted more than 250 pounds as an adult.

In 1807, he slipped away and went to Philadelphia. Over the next two years, he married and worked his way westward to McSherrystown. He and his wife settled in 1809 in Hanover in southwestern York County, renting a place near the town’s square. With his massive size (a rarity in an era of short, slender people), biting wit, self-confidence, and strong British accent, Big Bill readily stood out among the Hanoverians. He pursued a number of schemes to make money, including collecting horses to sell to the U.S. Army. He became known as a notorious practical joker, one that brought him local fame and many friends, as well as steady employment as a plasterer in local taverns, businesses, and homes.

He soon used those connections to make some excellent money on the side.

Slave catching.

Otter charged $5 up front for his time and expenses, and demanded $50 upon the successful retrieval of the escaped slave. He pursued fugitives throughout York County, including snatching a former slave being secreted by early Quaker Underground Railroad operative William Wright of Columbia. Otter, at least according to his autobiography, was quite adept at his craft and was successful more often than not.

Big Bill is regarded as the first professional slave catcher in York County.

He would not be the last.

In 1819, Otter’s ever-present wanderlust led him to leave Hanover. He traveled to Cincinnati, but soon decided to return to Hanover. Two years later, he left York County permanently, heading to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He later moved to Baltimore and then in 1824 to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he lived for several years and published his memoirs in 1835. He stayed for fourteen years, still a master plasterer and slave catcher, before returning to Baltimore, where he died in 1856.

Cornell University republished Otter’s autobiography in 1995, bringing his story back to light for the modern reader. It is a fascinating account, rife with Bill’s frequent boasting of his prowess in the barroom and in a variety of brawls. I recount some of his stories of slave catching in my book, The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa. (York, PA: York County History Center, 2016).

Big Bill Otter remains one of the strangest people in Hanover’s history.