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Prigg vs. Pennsylvania – a pivotal moment in York County history

For many years, Jerry and Margaret “Peg” Morgan lived a relatively quiet life. He was a free black man but his wife was a Maryland-born slave owned by John Ashmore near Darlington, Maryland. Ashmore, not needing Margaret’s services, had given her permission to marry and leave his premises. She believed he had set her free but she did not have any documentation. In 1832, the Morgans and their children moved to a farm near Airville and Kyleville in Lower Chanceford Township after living briefly in Peach Bottom Township. While in York County, the couple was blessed with at least one additional child, making a total of six.

On February 22, 1837, trouble came calling on a chilly, rainy night.

John Ashmore had died, and his son-in-law Nathaniel Bemis convinced his widow to sell her excess slaves to raise cash. Mrs. Ashmore agreed. They included Peg and her children, believed under Maryland law to be fugitives because they lived out-of-state though still legally in bondage.

The existing laws of Maryland and an 1826 legal agreement with Pennsylvania spelled out the procedure that needed to be followed in order to return fugitive slaves to their legal masters. That included hiring an attorney. She chose Edward Prigg, a neighbor and friend of the Ashmore family. Prigg, Bemis, and two toughs came to York County looking for Margaret Morgan and her kids. They had a justice of the peace in Peach Bottom sign the necessary paperwork for the extraction and then headed to the Airville-Kyleville area.

Once there, they apprehended Mrs. Morgan and the children and hauled them back to Maryland. Jerry Morgan was powerless to stop them. Being free, he was not a target. Morgan quickly spread the word that his family had been kidnapped. A party of rescuers pursued Prigg and his party but could not catch up to them.

Pennsylvania authorities took up his case. Over time, a York County court convicted Prigg and his accomplices of multiple counts of kidnapping. However, the Marylanders claimed they had followed the legal procedure. However, they had missed one key step — having a judge (not a JOP) bless the apprehension of the “fugitives.” On that note, York convicted them. The 1826 law proscribed a punishment of a fine of $500 to $1,000 and 7 to 21 years in prison at hard labor. Marylanders vehemently denounced the verdict and demanded it be withdrawn.

Maryland and Pennsylvania politicians worked out a compromise. The case would be appealed to the PA Supreme Court but no sentenced would be carried out. Attorneys would then argue the merits of Maryland’s and Pennsylvania’s divergent laws and determine a judgment. That ruling would be binding. York attorney Thomas C. Hambly worked with state Attorney General Ovid Johnson on the case.

In the meantime, Jerry Morgan drowned in a canal near Columbia and Mrs. Morgan and the kids reportedly were sold to a slave dealer who took them to Georgia. They were never heard from again.

In 1842, three years after the Morgan kidnapping, the US Supreme Court overturned the York County court’s judgment in a case known as Prigg vs. Pennsylvania.

Maryland had won the argument.

However, the decision infuriated many Northern abolitionists (and even some moderates) and drove another wedge between North and South over the issue of slavery. In 1854, the Dred Scott decision upheld and reinforced the basic tenets of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania. The seeds of the American Civil war had been sown over generations. The Morgan kidnapping watered and germinated some of those seeds.

It was a pivotal moment, not only in York County history but in the national struggle about the future of slavery in the United States and its territories.

I will briefly discuss this landmark legal case on Tuesday night, December 10, at the Appell Center for Performing Arts (Strand-Capitol Theater). Several of the York Daily Record’s history bloggers will also present on other pivotal moments (positive and negative) in YorkCo history. Tickets are only $10 and off-street parking is free in a nearby garage. The event begins at 7 p.m. Several of the speakers will have their books for sale and signature. I will have many of my titles, including my book on the Underground Railroad which includes a chapter on Prigg vs. Pennsylvania. For more information, please click on this link.

See you there?