The tale of how residents of Ottawa, Illinois, helped a fugitive slave escape to freedom marks a transitional phase in the state’s history, experts say, but has been largely forgotten.
Historians hope that changes Monday — the Fourth of July — when they will explain the story during the dedication of a historical marker outside the Ottawa courthouse.
According to Illinois State Historical Society research, Jim Gray was one of three enslaved people who escaped in 1859 from owner Richard Phillips near New Madrid, Missouri.
Gray was arrested in Union County, Illinois, and taken to Ottawa for trial. He arrived at the train station with his arms and legs shackled and a rope around his neck. A crowd gathered at the station, where Scottish immigrant and grain merchant John Hossack asked, “What crime has he committed? Has he done anything but want to be free?”
At the courthouse the next day, hundreds of onlookers gathered. Gray was ordered to appear before a U.S. commissioner for a hearing under the Fugitive Slave Law, which likely would have meant his return to enslavement.
According to a plan hatched by local abolitionists and led in part by Hossack, several men restrained the U.S. marshal holding the prisoner, and Gray broke free. Hassock brought Gray out of the building, while the crowd blocked the marshal from pursuing.
Outside, Gray jumped the fence and leaped into an awaiting carriage. Despite an attempt to stop the team of horses, the carriage raced out of town, to Canada and freedom under British law.
Hossack and several others were arrested and taken to Chicago for trial. They were held in jail, where crowds of supporters visited them. Hossack was found guilty and sentenced to 10 days in jail and a $10 fine, but his speech in court was published as an anti-slavery tract. Upon his release, he and his fellow conspirators were escorted around the city and treated like celebrities.
At the time, the Illinois Constitution excluded Blacks from moving to the state without a certificate of freedom, and its “Black Laws” prevented them from voting or having other basic rights.
After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave catchers abducted Black people even if they had certificates of freedom.
Hossack’s mansion, which still stands on a bluff in Ottawa, was a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, and Chicago was a terminus, where Blacks could open a business or find work, according to the Chicago History Museum.
The Illinois State Historical Society offers grants to help pay for such markers, which cost about $5,000 and are made of cast aluminum. Board member Chuck Stanley, who lives in Ottawa and helped lead the effort, said few people know the story of Jim Gray, which means the marker will enlighten visitors about what happened.
“It was a dramatic event, for abolitionists to take a prisoner from a U.S. marshal in a courthouse and get him to freedom,” he said.
The incident stood in sharp contrast to the vigilante lynchings of Blacks at the time.
According to the court transcript, Gray was born to enslaved parents in Missouri, but sold at age 5. What happened to Gray after his escape to Canada remains a mystery.
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While Gray’s thoughts remain a secret, “We only know that when he had a chance to run, he did,” wrote Christopher Schnell, director of manuscripts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield,.
Gray’s escape came at a turning point in American history, when pro- and anti-slavery views clashed in Illinois and across the nation, Schnell said. In general, Schnell said, “Illinois was not a friendly place for enslaved people or freed Black people.”
Abolitionists like Hossack were considered extremists, but his support in Chicago indicates he was not alone.
To put the times in context, the escape came two years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott case, denied citizenship to all Black people.
It came just a year after the first debate, held in Ottawa, between future President Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen Douglas, over the issue of slavery, and less than two years before the beginning of the Civil War.
Despite popular support for exclusionary laws, Stanley said, the Jim Gray escape “shows how strong the sentiment was for the abolitionist cause in northern Illinois.”
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert Carter, who lives in Ottawa, will dedicate the memorial, and former Mayor Robert Eschbach will speak. The Ottawa Historic Preservation Commission, the La Salle County Bar Association and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation also sponsored the effort.