Colby on Bell, 'Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home'

Richard Bell. Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019. 318 pp. $27.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5011-6943-4

Reviewed by Robert Colby (Christopher Newport University)
Published on H-South (August, 2020)
Commissioned by Caitlin E. Verboon (Freedmen and Southern Society Project, University of Maryland)

Printable Version:

Late in December of 1825, a Mississippi slaveholder named John Hamilton discovered a young man named Sam Scomp hiding out on his homestead. Sam had recently arrived in Mississippi as part of a small coffle of men and women whom the slave-dealing couple Ebenezer and Sally Johnson had driven all the way from Norfolk, Virginia, in the hopes of profiting from their commodified bodies. These soul drivers saw in the upwardly mobile Hamilton a likely purchaser for their human property. But between them, Scomp and Hamilton cast a spanner into their best-laid plans. Sam alerted Hamilton that he and the other members of this sorry troop were not legally the Johnsons’ property—that is, in the eyes of the law, they were not slaves, and thus not available for legitimate sale or purchase. Rather, allies of the Johnsons’ had scoured Philadelphia and its environs for vulnerable young black men and women, kidnapped them, and, working through a human trafficking ring based on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, funneled them into bondage. Remarkably, despite powerful incentives to ignore Sam’s claims, Hamilton believed the young man. In response, he initiated the first in a series of legal proceedings that, redounding between Philadelphia and the Deep South, would eventually result in freedom for most of the Johnsons’ victims and in the arrest of several of their associates. By adroitly matching evidence from a host of fragmentary sources, ranging from official depositions to sensationalist literature to scattered newspaper accounts, Rick Bell transforms the stories of five boys abducted from Philadelphia into a poignant microhistory of slave capitalism’s rapacity, antebellum slavery’s deep humanity, and black freedom’s precarity in the United States.

In uncovering the ordeal Sam Scomp and his comrades underwent, Rick Bell exposes the functioning and potency of a diffuse network of human traffickers whose collective efforts he terms the “Reverse Underground Railroad.” Exploiting African Americans’ liminal existence in the so-called free states, the Reverse Underground Railroad inverted the path fugitives took to freedom. Both tracks operated outside of the law, but while stationmasters on the Underground Railroad defied laws upholding enslavers’ property rights in man, their counterparts on the Reverse Underground Railroad did the opposite. These charlatans, sometimes abetted by corrupt local law enforcement, preyed on free black men and women, using their lack of economic opportunity and limited access to legal protections to reduce them to chattel status. In doing so, they abducted uncounted free people of color from the homes and communities they had established, negating the rights and freedoms (however meager) they had won in the antebellum North. These human traffickers then laundered their victims through the United States’ massive domestic slave trade, using it to cloak their victims in anonymity—and to wring a tidy profit from the Cotton Kingdom’s insatiable demand for laborers. Kidnappers gambled that a combination of distance, enslaved people’s legal handicaps, and the relative powerlessness of black communities would render retribution unlikely. While historians have extensively documented the scale and influence of the domestic slave trade, Bell expands our understanding of its scope and power. Through the Reverse Underground Railroad, slave capitalism extended tentacles far beyond its beating heart, threatening African Americans throughout the nation and waging an ongoing guerrilla war on the part of commodification against black freedom.

Against this backdrop, the story Bell relates is simultaneously heartbreaking in its typicality and splendid in its uniqueness. In the summer of 1825, several members of a Maryland-based kidnapping ring stalked Philadelphia’s streets and waterfront where, through a combination of false promises and brute force, they abducted five boys aged fifteen and under—Cornelius Sinclair, Sam Scomp, Enos Tilghman, Alex Manlove, and Joe Johnson—and forced them onboard a waiting vessel. They then carried the children to Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the kidnapping ring to which they belonged—a notorious band comprised of the Cannon and Johnson families and their associates—had its headquarters. The Johnsons then carried their prizes to Norfolk for sale. Finding that city’s slave market insufficiently robust, Ebenezer and Sally Johnson determined that they would drive their chattels overland in search of higher prices. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Johnsons offloaded Cornelius onto a willing buyer; they then wintered with the rest of their captives on a farm they owned before proceeding on to the plantation districts of Mississippi, where the demand for slaves was at its highest. Along the way, in response to their prisoners’ resistance, the Johnsons doled out increasingly brutal punishments until, somewhere just short of their final destination Ebenezer Johnson beat Joe to death, sacrificing financial gain in favor of bloodlust.

The kidnapped children’s experiences to this point—including Joe Johnson’s murder—were all too standard for those caught up in the American iteration of the Middle Passage. But upon arriving in Mississippi, their story diverged from that of a normal slave coffle. When Sam divulged their point and circumstances of origin to John Hamilton, he initiated a remarkable sequence of events. Hamilton, who easily could have leveraged his knowledge of the captives’ origins to purchase them at diminished prices, as the man who had purchased Cornelius had likely done, instead chose to turn the surviving victims over to the local authorities. At Hamilton’s behest, the lawyer Joseph Henderson, a local bigwig and soon-to-be senator, litigated for the children’s freedom and contacted Philadelphia’s Quaker mayor, Joseph Watson, for support. Watson, in turn, gathered depositions to prove the boys’ identity and worked to bring their kidnappers to justice.

The former proved easier than the latter. When Watson’s evidence arrived in Mississippi, Henderson released Sam, Enos, and Alex and dispatched them home to Philadelphia, where they in turn relayed where Cornelius could be found. Assisted by a pair of local ministers, Cornelius regained his freedom after a brief legal tussle. A full measure of justice, however, proved as elusive as the boys’ shadowy kidnappers and the majority of the Cannon-Johnson gang long evaded capture. Eventually, Philadelphia’s constable managed to capture three participants in the abduction; two passed away in jail, while a third secured an early release after a short imprisonment. Although Patty Cannon, the family matriarch, eventually died in a Delaware jail after being arrested for the murder of other kidnapped children, several others—including Ebenezer and Sally Johnson—disappeared and were never heard from again. The five kidnapped boys (along with another kidnapped woman, Mary Fisher) thus received their freedom but only partial justice. Their liberation, moreover, did little to alter the broader impact of the Reverse Underground Railroad; the convictions of a handful of kidnappers did little to dissuade others from following in their footsteps, particularly as booming cotton prices meant that slavery’s undiscriminating maw yawned ever wider in the subsequent decade. The freedom Sam, Cornelius, Enos, and Alex claimed, therefore, stood in stark contrast to the deepened bondage hundreds more just like them continued to suffer.

In Bell’s capable hands, the tale of these five stolen boys offers both a gripping read and an illuminating look at the intersections of slave capitalism’s overarching power and African Americans’ efforts to preserve the scant freedoms available to them. Bell handles numerous potentially thorny subjects with aplomb; he adeptly navigates archival silences to reproduce compelling and probable versions of opaque events, uncovers the truth hidden beneath sensationalistic descriptions of the Cannon-Johnson gang’s activities, and provides challenging reconstructions of often obscure historical motivations. Nowhere is the latter skill shown more clearly than in Bell’s exploration of why men like Hamilton, Henderson, and the two Alabama ministers aided the boys in recovering their liberty in spite of deep personal investments in the slave system. Bell suggests that in defending the boys’ legal freedom, these men sought to deflect criticisms of the institution of slavery writ large—and in so doing, to preserve the bondage in which millions more dwelt. This highly plausible conclusion gives a deeply chilling coloration to acts that, at first glance, appear eminently charitable. Additionally, Bell gives readers memorably vivid tours of the vulnerability of free black lives in the antebellum North, as well as of the workings of the Southern slave market. In doing so, he demonstrates an easy command of extensive historical literatures. Finally, his insightful microhistory underscores the deep, often troubling humanity, of all ensconced in the American slave regime.

Bell’s recounting of the experiences of Sam, Alex, Enos, Joe, and Cornelius stands as the latest in a series of microhistories probing points where the robust structural forces that dictated enslaved life in the United States collided with the deeply personal relationships that determined its everyday reality. Bell’s work joins Adam Rothman’s depiction of Rose Herera’s journey across international boundaries; Erica Dunbar’s exploration of Ona Judge’s flight from the Washingtons; Amy Murrell Taylor’s reconstruction of Edward and Emma Whitehurst’s, Eliza Bogan’s, and Gabriel Burdett’s pursuit of liberty during and after the Civil War; and Caleb McDaniel’s recounting of Henrietta Wood’s search for recompense as outstanding close examinations of enslavement.[1] By relating these boys’ experiences in intimate detail, Bell allows his audience to engage with the brutal, highly contingent nature of enslaved and free African American life in the early nineteenth century. A story of triumph that never loses sight of the encompassing tragedy in which it was embedded, Stolen will prove a compelling, educational read for scholars of slavery and freedom in the early American republic as well as for any and all readers interested in grappling with African Americans’ continual struggle for liberty in the United States.


[1]. Adam Rothman, Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (New York: 37 Ink, 2018); Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); W. Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Citation: Robert Colby. Review of Bell, Richard, Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home. H-South, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.