William Camp Gildersleeve


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1. Hannah Mitchell

William Camp Gildersleeve

  • Born: 6 Dec 1795, Midway, Liberty, GA, USA
  • Marriage (1): Hannah Mitchell on 8 Oct 1856 in , , PA
  • Died: 4 Oct 1871, Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne, PA at age 75 1
  • Buried: 7 Oct 1871, Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne, PA

  Noted events in his life were:

1. Newspaper: Wilkes-Barre Evening News: Disgraceful Treatment of An Early Abolitionist, 23 Oct 1943, Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne, PA. Disgraceful Treatment of An Early Abolitionist

A Thrilling, But Malodorous Event Marks the Conduct of Wilkes-Barreans

The Slavery Question Reaches Above the Mason -Dixon Line

Wilkes-Barre Becomes an Underground Station for Escaped Slaves

Its Chief Sponsor Is Tarred and Feathered by an Insane Mob

Editor's Note: In no other incident could the historian of Northeastern Pennsylvania record a more brutal local participation of its inhabitants outside of scenes incident to Revolutionary times than in treatment of the convictions of William C. Gildersleeve on the then controversial slavery question. Viewed la the perspective the action of a mob composed of his fellow citizens seems like a belt out of a clear sky. Mr. Glidersleeve shared with many others of New England stock in his declared opposition to traffic in human beings. As did Quaker settlers along the Ohio, he organized a few trustworthy friends in assisting slaves who had escaped from states where slavery was held legal to the boundaries of other states and territories whose laws forbade holding them in bondage. From Virginia and Maryland northward a natural route of escape led up the Susquehanna. Reaching Wilkes-Barre under guidance of ether members of those who defied laws of the period in aiding these escaped slaves, Mr. Gildersleeve often hid for days at a time many poor, unfortunate creatures in his own home. Then when the coast seemed clear, they were spirited on their way to New England and safety by silent members of the local group. What befell this humanitarian is disclosed today in an authentic story not often publicized by earlier historians.

An incident unusual to a community so far removed from what became known as the Mason and Dixon line as was Wilkes-Barre in the thirties, warned citizens of dangers of lawlessness in connection with a question which may, at the present, seem to have been remotely concerned with local thought and action.

There were those, especially of New England stock, who looked with abhorrence upon slavery in any form and who early began to spread doctrines opposed to the further extension of slavery into new States to be organized. The earliest victory of those who shared anti-slavery doctrines came in the form of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, when President Monroe signed the measure prohibiting the holding of slaves in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase north of 30 degrees, 30 minutes.

Slavery Question Excites Agitation

Agitation of the question, pro and con, followed throughout the whole country. The census of 1840 showed no slaves owned In Luzerne County. The few which had been shown as owned by citizens in earlier census reports had gradually been sold or, in several instances, given their freedom. But while public sentiment did not countenance the actual possession oi blacks in the community, it by no means was in sympathy with the views of early abolitionists who sought to upset a widely established system, backed by powerful and far reaching positive law.

The Gildersleeve Incident

In the year 1821, William C. Gildersleeve came to Wilkes-Barre and engaged as a merchant in a building on the north side or Northampton street not far from its intersection with River. He was pronounced in his opposition to slavery. Born in Midway, Liberty County, Georgia in 1790, he had gained his impression of traffic in human chattels at first hand. His father was a slave owner. He had seen men, women and children placed on the auction block in front of the church where his father preached. As a young man he nap migrated north, settling first in New Jersey and then coming to Wilkes-Barre. Mr. Gildersleeve had, in addition to his impressions, the courage of his convictions.

His Home As "Underground Station"

His home and store building soon became stations on one of those mysterious "underground railroads" which accounted for the escape of many runaway slaves into Canada. Towns along the North Branch of the Susquehanna river usually possessed residents who thought as Mr. Gildersleeve thought. Secreted until late at night by these abolitionists who were willing to be classed as law breakers in their zeal, the fugitive black was conveyed under cover of darkness to the next friendly station. Providence was then the largest village between Wilkes-Barre and Carbondale. It, like Wilkes-Barre, possessed a station whose destinies were controlled by converts to the cause of liberty for all human beings.

Other Nearby Stations

To Providence. Mr. Gildersleeve made many nocturnal trips, in each case accompanied by one or more of the minted creatures. From Providence, the "underground" left the valleys of the Susquehanna and Lackawanna, the objective being Montrose, where allies of Mr. Gildersleeve were prepared to set the fugitives another step on the wav to freedom. By those content to let the law take its course in such matters or who, at that , period, openly favored slavery as an institution recognized by the Constitution and protected by its laws, the abolitionist was held as an object of contempt and ridicule.

Church Turned Down Abolitionist

Mr. Gildersleeve suffered accordingly. But having set his hand to the plow, he was not one to be turned back. In opposition to general sentiment and in defiance of frequent warnings, he brought the Rev. John Cross to Wilkes-Barre and announced on January 27, 1837, that the speaker would address residents on the subject of slavery. All churches of the community denied the use of their buildings for the purpose.

County commissioners being approached as to the use of the court house for the discussion, curtly refused such permission. Mr. Gildersleeve then opened his own home and invited all who cared to hear the address to enter. A few hardy souls responded to the invitation.

Hostility Toward Meeting

While the meeting was in progress a crowd gathered outside, becoming more pronounced in its hostility as the discussion proceeded.

Finally the mob forced the door and entered the room where the small company had gathered. But Mr. Cross, in spite of threats of personal violence went on with his discourse. Unable to silence him, the mob eventually withdrew after removing objectionable pictures from the walls and carrying away the fence and shrubbery in the yard. Two years later, Mr. Gildersleeve brought on another abolitionist speaker in the person of a Mr. Burleigh of Boston, who had gained both fame and notoriety by his utterances and writings. Upon this occasion, no opportunity for a public meeting was vouchsafed.

Mob Rule Prevails

Shortly after the arrival of Mr. Burleigh at the home of Mr. Gildersleeve, a more determined mob than that which had assembled on the former occasion quickly broke open the doors of the house and made search for the object of their wrath.

Mr. Burleigh, however, had escaped to the home of Judge Dana, who shared anti-slavery views to some extent, and later was taken under guard to the Phoenix Hotel to await an outgoing stage. The mob, robbed of its intended prey, decided to vent its spleen upon Mr. Gildersleeve.

Gildersleeve Tarred And Feathered

Induced by a subterfuge to visit the hotel, he was then set upon by the assembled crowd and a pail of black dye poured over his head and hands. A tarred fence rail was then produced and, borne on the shoulders of his prosecutors, Wilkes-Barre's outstanding abolitionist was "ridden" from the hotel to his home on North Franklin street. The presence of Mr. Gildersleeve's daughter, who fought her way through the crowd and took determined position at her father's side during the unhappy ride, probably prevented further violence at the hands of the jeering captors. Not content with setting down the victim in front of his home, the crowd remained, smashing windows and destroying such furniture as could be reached.

William married Hannah Mitchell, daughter of Jacob Duche Mitchell and Rebecca Burden, on 8 Oct 1856 in , , PA. (Hannah Mitchell was born on 22 Aug 1802 in , , PA,2 died on 23 Aug 1888 in Cape May Point, Cape May, NJ, USA 3 4 and was buried on 28 Aug 1888 in Philadelphia: Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA 3 4 5.)


1 Scranton Wochenblatt, 12 Oct 1871, page 3. Death of William C. Gildersleeve.

2 1850 United States Census, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County, Philadelphia Dock Ward, Series: M432 Roll: 817 Page: 499.

3 FamilySearch.org, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915 (From originals housed at the Philadelphia City Archives. "Death Records."), https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JFH5-GJD Hannah B. Gildersleeve, 23 Aug 1888; citing , Philadelphia City Archives and Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; FHL microfilm 2,079,267.

4 Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.), 28 Aug 1888, page 5. Obituary and funeral of Mrs. Hannah B. Gildersleeve.

5 Wilkes-Barre Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, PA), 25 Aug 1888, page 4. Death of Mrs. Hannah Beecher Gildersleeve.

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