Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case

From Ohio History Central

Oberlin Rescuers.jpg
Reproduction of a photograph depicting the Oberlin Rescuers at the Cuyahoga County Jail in April 1859. These twenty men were arrested upon attempting to free an alleged slave from his captors. The event became known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. The image was collected by Ohio State University professor Wilbur H. Siebert (1866-1961). Siebert began

researching the Underground Railroad in the 1890s as a way to interest his students in history.

The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case of 1858 showed how divided Ohio had become over the issue of slavery.

On September 13, 1858, a federal marshal in Oberlin, Ohio arrested a fugitive slave named John Price. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the federal government was required to assist slaveholders in reclaiming fugitive slaves. The marshal knew that many Oberlin residents were committed to abolitionism. To avoid conflict with local people, he took Price to nearby Wellington. As soon as Oberlin residents heard of the marshal's actions, a group of them went to Wellington. There, they joined like-minded residents of the Wellington community and attempted to free Price. The marshal and his deputies took refuge in a local hotel. After peaceful negotiations failed, the mob stormed the hotel and found Price in the attic. The group immediately returned Price to Oberlin, where they hid him in the home of Oberlin College's president. A short time later, they took Price to freedom in Canada. Unfortunately for Price, he died soon after reaching Canada.

A federal grand jury indicted thirty-seven of the people who freed Price. Ohio authorities responded by arresting the federal marshal, his deputies, and other men involved in John Price's detention. Following negotiations between state and federal officials, the arresting officers were set free, as were thirty-five of those arrested under the federal charges. Only two of those indicted went to trial. Simeon Bushnell, a white man, and Charles Langston, an African-American man, were found guilty in federal court in April 1859. Bushnell received a sentence of sixty days in jail, while Langston's punishment was set at twenty days.

Bushnell and Langston filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Ohio Supreme Court. They claimed that the federal government did not have the authority to arrest or to try them because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was unconstitutional. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law by a three to two ruling. This ruling angered members of Ohio's abolitionist community. More than ten thousand people participated in a Cleveland rally to oppose the federal and state courts' decisions. Because of his support for the Fugitive Slave Law, Ohio Chief Justice Joseph Swan failed to win reelection to the court.

See Also


  1. Baumann, Roland M. The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 2003.  
  2. Brandt, Nat. The Town That Started the Civil War. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.  
  3. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.  
  4. Weisenburger, Francis P. The Passing of the Frontier: 1825-1850. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941.