Concluding the story of Charles Nalle: the rescue and aftermath.
The slave catcher, Wall, and the Deputy Marshall stopped Nalle in the street, and arrested him. Before he knew what had happened, he was manacled and taken back to the reluctant U.S. Commissioner, Miles Beach. When Charles didn’t return from the bakery, Uri Gilbert’s son went out to look for him. He went to his landlord, William Henry, but Henry had not seen him since that morning.
It was not like Charles to disappear, and William Henry, who knew Nalle’s history, suspected the worst. Henry was a member of the Vigilance Committee, a Troy abolitionist group that aided escapees in secret and spoke out against slavery and the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Law in public. He made some inquiries, and quickly found out that Charles had been arrested and was in the hands of a slave catcher. With no time to waste, he sent the word out and told his people to get ready to act.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a fine piece of evil legislation, with some especially nuanced advantages for the slave holder written into it. Not only could a slave owner or his or her representative come north and snatch a suspected escapee off the street, that person had no rights, and no recourse to prove that he or she was not a slave or was not even the person they were looking for. There were usually no photographs or sketches, as enslaved people were usually not the topic of art or photography. There were only vague descriptions which would match any number of people. This was fine with the slave catchers, because they got a bounty for each fugitive returned South. If they had the wrong person, it really didn’t matter, who would believe a slave?
When Charles Nalle was brought before Beach, all the paperwork had already been prepared by Henry Wall, filled out days before he had even been captured. Nalle was not allowed to identify himself or testify on his own behalf or give any names for potential witnesses. His fate had already been decided. All that was needed was the formality of having Wall and the informer, Horace Averill, stand before the Commissioner and declare that Nalle was the fugitive Negro slave who had unlawfully escaped his enslavement, and run away. His lawful owner, Mr. Hansbrough, had just stepped off the train to meet them, and the fugitive would be taken back to Virginia, where he belonged.
Charles was being held in the cells in the basement of the Commissioner’s office, in the Mutual Bank Building, on the corner of State and First Streets. A prominent Troy attorney named Martin I. Townsend quickly volunteered to be his lawyer. He went to the Commissioner’s office to represent his client, but it was already too late, the paperwork had been signed. Townsend rushed out to prepare a writ of habeas corpus to present to a judge, and thereby get a stay.
Continuing the story of Charles Nalle and his escape from slavery:
Charles’ travels as the family coachman had allowed him to mingle with all kinds of people over the years, both black and white. It’s unknown exactly when it happened, but one of the people he met was a young Northern tutor named Minot S. Crosby, the son of a New England Congregationalist minister. Crosby was traveling through the South, supporting himself as a tutor to wealthy families. For a time, he had tutored the son of one of Blucher Hansbrough’s neighbors.
Unbeknownst to the planters, Crosby was also an ardent Abolitionist. Like a secret agent behind enemy lines, he found time to speak with the enslaved, passing along information about the Underground Railroad. His employers would have been furious to find out that young Crosby was in contact with Harriet Beecher Stowe and other New England Abolitionists, as well as more local agents. They would have killed him.
Charles and his brother-in-law James Banks decided to escape together. Banks was a big man and had been a blacksmith for most of his life. Banks was not owned by Hansbrough, he lived on a neighboring plantation. Charles went to Blucher and asked to visit his wife one last time. He told him that Kitty was having problems with her pregnancy and may not survive. He begged to be allowed to see her. Blucher had his family in the Washington area look for Kitty to find out if that were true.
Around the small world of Culpepper County, the state of Virginia was gearing up for the inevitable war between the North and South. Politics in Washington had deteriorated between slaveholding states and free. Congressmen were coming to blows on the floor of Congress over the issue of slavery, while on farms and plantations, people were escaping north in greater numbers, as Southern slaveholders tried to hold on to a way of life that was unsustainable. Charles Nalle probably knew little about that, but he knew his window of opportunity was shrinking. In the Quarters, people whispered that Blucher was on the verge of losing the farm and had spoken to others about selling most of his slaves to raise capital. It was now, or never.
Charles spoke to his siblings about escaping. His brothers had married and were fathers. They did not want to leave their families and chose to stay put. But they encouraged Charles to go. In the fall of 1858, Blucher received word from his contacts in Washington that Kitty was indeed doing poorly. He decided to be magnanimous and allow Charles to have a one-week pass to Washington. He would be allowed to go with James Banks, and the two would take the baggage car of the local train to Washington. Blucher had to go to Richmond on business, so Charles and James would be watched by Hansbrough relatives who would be on the same train.
The two men, with their meager luggage, and all-important travel passes, boarded the baggage car, and headed north to Washington. When they got there, the Hansbrough contacts were supposed to keep an eye on them, and make sure they went to their wives, but Charles and James blended into the crowds, gave them the slip, and never came near their families. They did not want to give law enforcement or their owners any indication of their wives’ involvement in their escape. They were able to contact one of the many representatives of the Underground Railroad, as given to them by Crosby, and go into hiding.
When it became obvious that Nalle and Banks had escaped, Blucher Hansbrough was furious. He rushed back home from Richmond. The first thing he did was question Charles’ family, who feigned ignorance. In retaliation, he sold all three brothers “down the river,” further South, where slavery was much harsher, and conditions more dire. They were never able to be found again. Charles would carry that guilt for life.
The following is my retelling of one of Troy's greatest stories:
The train from New York City rolled into Troy’s Union Station on a hot August 9th, 1932 and opened its doors to release its passengers. Among them was an older, well-dressed African American man, tall, slender and fair-skinned. He was 72 years old, a recent widower who was travelling alone, carrying a suitcase and his hat. His train ticket from Washington, DC, announced his destination as Saratoga Springs, less than an hour’s trip to the north.
His name was John Charles Nalle, recently retired from the Washington, DC school system, where he had started as a teacher, and retired as the Superintendent of Colored Schools. He was stopping in Troy on his way to a summer vacation in Saratoga, but because he had once lived in Troy as a boy, he had accepted an invitation to see his old home.
Greeting him at Union Station was Garnet Douglass Baltimore, Troy’s most distinguished and famous African American citizen. Mr. Baltimore was the first black graduate of Troy’s prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A successful civic engineer, his legacy to the city was his design of Prospect Park, Troy’s largest and most beautiful public park. Unlike most African Americans of his day, he was respected and accepted in both board rooms and black churches.
Garnet Baltimore’s father had been a friend of the Nalle family during their stay in Troy, long ago, so as the surviving sons of their fathers, Garnet and John met at the train station – two old black men who hadn’t seen each other since they were small children. To John’s amazement, their reunion was also being covered by the press. The Troy Times had dispatched a white reporter who was eagerly awaiting the chance to interview Mr. Nalle.
Nalle wondered why the press was there. Garnet Baltimore was a prominent citizen, but it still made very little sense. Who would care if two old black men met and reminisced? “Let me show you something, John,” Baltimore said. “We’re going to visit a place that was quite important to your father.” They got into a car and rode down the hill to the center of the city. The reporter followed.
The car stopped at the corner of First and State Street, only blocks from the river, in the heart of what was once Troy’s banking district. At the north-east corner of the street stood a four-story red brick and limestone mid-19th century building which had been built for the Mutual Bank of Troy. A large brass plaque was affixed to the building’s side. Baltimore guided his guest to the wall so that he could read it.
“Here was begun on April 27, 1860, the Rescue of Charles Nalle, an escaped slave who had been arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act.”
John Nalle turned to his friend in shock. “What? I’ve never heard a word about this,” he exclaimed.
“Well, my friend,” said Garnet Baltimore, “Have I got a story to tell you!” He guided him to a shady spot by the wall. “It all starts in Culpepper County, Virginia.”
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.