Slave-catchers were busily and profitably at work in Washington right up to the last moments before the issuing of the abolition of slavery in the District on April 16, 1862--this coming several months before the Emancipation Proclamation. (Congressman Abraham Lincoln, R-IL, sought the abolition of slavery in the District in 1849 but was shot down, mainly by a coalition led by Democrat J.C. Calhoun.) Historically D.C. had a relatively small slave population, around 6800 in 1830 and 3800 in 1860--Maryland, its neighbor, did not, having upwards of 100,000 slaves at the beginning of the war, making it one of the most densely-slaved state by area in the South., "Absconders" from the counties of Maryland surrounding D.C. often made their way to the District, perhaps thinking that it would be a friendlier place: and it was, comparatively, but the escaped slave was not immune to being hunted and prosecuted, recoverable like any other piece of stolen personal property, the slave in this case basically stealing themselves.
D.C. was a small place, and the slaves were concentrated mainly in what we would today call downtown. There was in fact a slave pen right there on the Mall, very close by the entrance to the Smithsonian. (To this day there is no marker.) So the slave population in the District was highly visible. As Charles Ball writes:
"…I generally went up into the city to see the new and
splendid buildings; often walked as far as Georgetown
This all comes to my mind after bumping into this government-printed document at right---it was keeping track of its part of eternity in the bottom of one of my boxes of pamphlets, shaking its way into a disturbing consciousness.
This unhappy pamphlet details the intolerable conditions of the D.C. Jail, which at the time (February, 1862) housed 300 prisoners, nearly five times the amount it was designed for. Aside from bad/no food, hot/cold conditions, physical torment, and not-discernible terms of imprisonment, the prisoners were desperately overcrowded, sometimes ten to an 8x10 cell.
Conditions were worse for the blacks in the jail—these men were often arrested and imprisoned on no real charge, kept by the DC jailer, in prisoner, at their own expense.
The report states:
“Mr. Amon Duvall, a witness already mentioned, testifies that he has known of a number of colored persons being retained in jail (no offence being alleged against them) after they were known to be free, and of attempts being made to hire them out to secure the marshal his fees. The case of John Waters is particularly referred to. This person was retained in the jail more than a year, and when it was ascertained that he was free a bargain was made with a man in Prince George county, Maryland, to take him and work him for the years' jail fees.”
The longer they stayed, the more they owed. Of course, if you had no money, and you were kept in jail a year—even by fraud—you accumulated quite a debt to the prison. At this point the blacks were “hired out”, enslaved if free, to work for a year or whatever appropriate time to pay for their own (undeserved) incarceration. When these men ran from this service, they were further pursued, now doubly-damned:
“…absconded and ran away from said Prince George County, and are now fugitives from service and labor lawfully due to said affiant in said Prince George County and has reason to believe and does believe that all of the said slaves are now in the District of Columbia; he prays for process and that said slaves may be taken and delivered up to him by order of this court receiving & the statute in such cases made and provided.”[ George Duvall, Dist. Court of the U. S. for the Dist. of Col. Clerk of the Court "Fugitive Slave Cases, 1862," May 15-19, 1862.]
It was an insidious system that provided strong income for those with the power to demand it.