An Important Fugitive Slave Case

[Author Unknown]


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 23-24

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AN interesting pamphlet has recently been secured by the State Library, entitled, "The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case, involving the Right to a Writ of Habeas Corpus," published at New York, and "For sale at the Anti-Slavery Office, 48 Beekman St.," dated 1851. The immediate occasion of the pamphlet was a suit by George Norris, of Boone county, Kentucky, against Leander B. Newton and others, of South Bend, Indiana. From the pamphlet it appears that George Norris claimed to have been the owner of a negro, David Povrrell, and his wife, Lucy, and their children. According to his story, these negroes, who had been allowed large freedom of movement, disappeared on October 9, 1847. After searching for them in various places in Indiana, Norris claimed to have discovered them living in a negro settlement in Michigan. Norris and his associates surprised the family in the absence of the man and took the woman and three sons and drove off with them. At South Bend the party was overtaken by pursuers, who secured and served a writ. In the trial before the county court by which the writ was issued, the negroes were ordered released. Meanwhile, however, Norris had secured a writ from the United States court and held the negroes prisoners by force and display of weapons until they were taken into custody. Action was then brought against Norris for this display of arms and threats (this action was afterward dismissed) and a writ of habeas corpus for the release of the negroes secured, and the next court day, Norris failing to appear, the local court ordered the negroes released, which was done in the presence of all the other interested parties.

Norris later (December 21, 1849) brought suit in the United States Circuit Court, District of Indiana, against Leander B. Newton and others, of South Bend, these parties being those involved in the release of the negroes on writ of habeas corpus, to recover damages for the loss of the negroes. The case was tried before Judge McLean in May, 1850, and, in accordance with the instructions of the judge, the jury returned a verdict of $2,856 damages against the defendants. The pamphlet utters a vigorous protest against this decision and the principles involved in it. Added interest is given the case by the fact that it occurred during the agitation and discussion that led up to the Compromise of 1850, one of the more important items of which was the Fugitive Slave law, compelling the Federal officials to take charge of the return of fugitive negroes and putting the whole matter almost entirely into the hands of the Federal courts.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.