Abolitionists Storm Milwaukee Jailhouse

By Bob Peterson

Teachers please note that the following story can be adapted for many uses in the classroom: an oral story presented to the students, a base o f information for the creation of an original drama, a reproducible Wisconsin history article to enhance the social studies curriculum.

Why did a man ride through the streets of Milwaukee on a white horse 133 years ago urging people to come to a mass meeting at what is row Cathedral Square? What cause was so important that a group of men rammed down the door of the city jail with a huge timber? Why did many black residents of Milwaukee flee the city in panic in the mid-1850’s? Why is there a street named Booth Street in our city? 

To answer these questions we must go back to pre-Civil War days-in our city. With the end of the Black Hawk War of 1832, Indian resistance in the area ended and settlers streamed into the Wisconsin territory. Most newcomers came from Northern states bringing anti-slavery attitudes. Some came from the South bringing pro-slavery attitudes — a few even brought slaves to work in the lead mines in southwest Wisconsin, an area that became a bastion of pro-slavery sentiment

In 1848 in the struggle over the state constitution, Wisconsin residents voted against granting the vote to black males, with Milwaukee County going 3 to 1 against. Two years later this vote was reversed, but opponents succeeded in getting it nullified on grounds of legal technicalities.

Then in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act gave slave catchers greater authority to pursue runaways in the free states of the North. The small black community in Milwaukee (15 out of 3,131 residents in 1838, and 107 out of 20,000 in 1850) immediately organized a meeting of the black residents who soundly condemned the federal law. This law, they emphatically stated, endangered every black resident of Wisconsin — free or fugitive. They passed a lengthy resolution which said they would “choose death to chains”…and “pledge ourselves to stain every inch of earth with blood for [a fugitive slave’ss]…deliverance.”


Just a year later a black youth, George Wells, was kidnapped in Milwaukee. He was never heard of again. Slave catchers prowled the streets of Milwaukee, causing uneasiness in the black community. A few black citizens fled to Canada; others worked for the abolitionist cause.

And then another black man was kidnapped catapulting Wisconsin into the national spotlight.

Joshua Glover, a former slave in St. Louis, had escaped North to freedom in late 1852 and found work in a sawmill just outside Racine. On March 10, 1854, Benjamin S. Garland, Glover’s “owner”, a federal marshall, and five other men broke into his shanty while he was playing cards with two black friends and, according to Milwaukee abolitionist Sherman Booth, “knocked him down, handcuffed him, and put him mangled and bleeding into a Democrat wagon and, with a marshall’s foot on his neck took him to Milwaukee.”

The Mayor of Racine sent an urgent telegram to Sherman Booth, editor of the American Freeman, at 9:00 a.m. the following morning. Booth learned that a “negro”, Joshua Glover, had been kidnapped and brought to the Milwaukee jailhouse. Booth immediately demanded that Glover receive a fair trial and be permitted counsel, then printed and distributed handbills throughout Milwaukee calling on people to keep watch at the jail to prevent the marshalls from spiriting Glover away and back to the South. A few hundred people began to gather at the jailhouse.

Meanwhile, on the same morning in Racine “the largest meeting ever” (involving several hundred people) took place in protest of the slave catchers’ actions. They passed strong resolutions in favor of Glover’s freedom and against the Fugitive Slave Law. The meeting culminated in the selection of a delegation of 100 people headed by the Racine sheriff. Armed with warrants for the arrest of Garland and the federal marshall, the delegation set off by ferry to Milwaukee to apprehend and arrest these men.

Hearing of the meeting in Racine, Booth issued another “extra.” A report that Glover would be turned over to Garland at two that afternoon led Booth to mount his white horse and dash through the main streets of Milwaukee calling, “Freemen to the rescue! Slave catchers in our midst! Be at the court house at 2 o’clock!”


People came by the thousands. Newspaper accounts reported a crowd 5,000 strong gathered in front of the jailhouse. Leading citizens spoke out against the fugitive slave law, and speakers read telegrams describing the Racine meeting. A Vigilance Committee of 24 was organized, and the rally ended with cries of “reassemble at ringing of the bells.”

The delegation from Racine landed at the steamboat wharf at 5:00 that evening and marched in solid column to the jailhouse. The bells rang out, and the people assembled once more. Booth addressed the citizens explaining the crisis, denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act, and counseling against violence. The head of the Vigilance Committee, Charles Watkins, reported that the judge had denied the writ of habeas corpus saying, “No power on earth can take Glover from my jurisdiction.” Such action was an outrage, Watkins charged. Glover should not be kept in jail over the Sabbath “without medical aid as he had been badly assaulted, maimed, and was covered with blood…” Watkin’s expressed the opinion that at times people had to take the law into their own hands. He told the crowd it was up to them.


Incensed by the judge’s attitude, the crowd rushed the jailhouse door. Crashing through with axes, crowbars, and a huge timber taken from a nearby construction site of St. John’s Cathedral, they liberated Glover. For the next half hour, a crowd which soon grew to more than 1,000 surrounded Glover, keeping the sheriffs posse at bay. The whole mob slowly moved south until they were able to get Glover into the carriage of Milwaukee businessman, John Messinger. He was whisked away at high speed to Waukesha, pursued by men and officers. In Waukesha, Glover ate and was transferred to another Underground Railroad Station. After disguising himself, he went on to Racine and embarked on a boat to Canada. There Joshua Glover lived the rest of his life, a free man.


While the anti-slavery white community saw the Glover case as a victory, the black community felt otherwise. Although they celebrated in the freedom for the fugitive, they realized Glover was free in spite of the legal system. As long as slave catchers came to Milwaukee, no black was safe. Many black citizens fled, although they were replaced by the influx of others due to the expulsion of free blacks from the stale of Virginia in the late 1850s.

Four days after the dramatic rescue, Sherman Booth was arrested and charged with “aiding and abetting the escape of Joshua Glover.” He was also burned in effigy in Milwaukee by those who favored the Slavery Party. Two months later, on May 11, 1854, the Grand Jury of Milwaukee County indicted four more people for assisting in the escape, including a black citizen named Martin Smith. After a lengthy court battle, these four were found not guilty by a jury which included a free black farmer.

Booth and another of those arrested, C. Ryecraft, were not so fortunate. After extensive battles between the federal and state courts, a temporary victory was won when the Wisconsin State Supreme Court unanimously condemned the Fugitive Slave Law, However, on March 7, 1859, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Wisconsin Court’s decision in a precedent setting states’ rights decision. Ryecraft was fined $200 and sentenced 10 days in jail;

Booth was fined $1000 — what Glover was said to have been worth — and given one year imprisonment.


Eventually Booth served a year and ten days in jail, enjoying a short reprieve when a group of Ripon abolitionists liberated him from the Federal Customs House in Milwaukee on August 1, 1860. For two months Booth traveled surreptitiously throughout Wisconsin speaking at antislavery rallies. In some communities he was protected from recapture by irate crowds of local residents. In Pickett a group of farmers gathered at 4:00 a.m. armed with pitchforks, scythes and harvest rakes to rout federal marshals and prevent Booth’s recapture. However, on October 8 in (New) Berlin, Booth was apprehended and sent to jail again. Supported by thousands of people in Wisconsin, he steadfastly held to his convictions, gaining pardon by President Buchanan in 1861, two days before Lincoln’s inauguration. Upon his release Booth, financially ruined and bankrupt, continued his activities. In 1865 he assisted Ezekiel Gillespie, an emancipated slave, register and vote. This challenge went to court and resulted in the reinstatement of the problack referendum vote of 1849. The struggle was over. Black males could finally vote in Wisconsin.

Booth eventually moved to Chicago where he lived until his death in 1904. Years after the Glover incident and the events which followed he reflected:

“There was something deeper in the struggle in which I was engaged than the questions of technical law. There was something higher than the decisions of courts or the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act. It was the old battle—not yet ended— between freedom and slavery, between the rights of the toiling many and special privileges of the aristocratic few. It was the outlawed right against the despotic might — it was human justice against arbitrary power — it was Divine mercy versus infernal cruelty.”


Chicago Chronicle. “Booth Scrapbook”. Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin

Ford, Sarah Ann, ed. Black Heritage in Milwaukee: Preliminary Guide to Blacks in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, July, 1981, University of Wisconsin – Extension.

Maher, William. The Anti-Slavery Movement in Milwaukee and Vicinity, unpub – lished Marquette Masters Thesis, 1954.

Still, Bayrd. Milwaukee; The History of a City Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1948.

Turner, Linda. “The Underground Railroad in Wisconsin,” The Thirtieth Star, Decernber, 1961, published by the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

Vollmar, William, J. The Negro in a Midwest Frontier City, Milwaukee: 1835 – 1870 impublished Marquette University Masters Thesis, 1968

Wisconsin State Historical Society, “Wisconsin Negroes” in Badger History, Vol. XXII, No. 2, November, 1968.

Bob Peterson teaches fifth grade at Vieau Elementary School.