Benjamin Hanby was a minister, abolitionist, and American musician in mid-nineteenth century Ohio. He was born on July 22, 1833 in Rushville, Ohio. From there his family moved to Circleville and, in 1853, to Westerville. His father, William Hanby, was active as a minister and then a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and helped establish Otterbein College in Westerville in 1847. Benjamin would also join the church and became a minister.
The Hanbys were deeply religious, and their faith led them to actively participate in the Underground Railroad. Their homes in Rushville and Westerville provided shelter to many fugitives from slavery. The story of one fugitive from slavery, Joseph Selby, who died and was buried in Rushville in 1842, is presumed to be the inspiration for Hanby’s best known song, “Darling Nelly Gray.” Selby died at the Hanby home while attempting to reach Canada, where he hoped to earn money to purchase his sweetheart’s freedom.
Hanby first presented “Darling Nelly Gray,” for which he wrote both the words and the music, at a musical gathering for friends in the Hanby parlor. His music teacher, Miss Cornelia Walker, to whom the song was dedicated, suggested that he send the manuscript to a publisher. He submitted it to the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston. He assumed that the song had been rejected until his sister heard it sung at a recital. It was soon discovered that the Ditson Company had published the song under Hanby’s name but secured the copyright for themselves. Hanby sued the firm, but won only fifty dollars and twelve free copies of the sheet music.
“Darling Nelly Gray” was popular in the pre-Civil War days, promoting so much antislavery sentiment that it was referred to as the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of songs. Troops on both sides sang it, with Confederate soldiers revising the words.
Hanby also wrote "Up on the Housetop" and "Who is He in Yonder Stall?" However, he did not financially prosper from his music. Hanby attended Otterbein College and in his adult life had many different jobs. He worked as a principal, a pastor, and even opened his own singing school. Hanby later took a job with the music publishing company of Root & Cady in Chicago, Illinois.
The author of more than eighty songs, Benjamin Hanby died of tuberculosis on March 16, 1867. His body was buried in Otterbein Cemetery at Westerville. He was thirty-three years old.