The BAGBY FUGITIVE SLAVE CASE, heard in Cleveland's federal court in January of 1861, resulted in the return of one of the last fugitive slaves to the South before the Civil War.
William S. Goshorn of Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) purchased Sara Lucy Bagby (ca. 1833-14 July 1906) in Richmond in 1852. Bagby escaped from her master in October of 1860 and sought refuge in Cleveland. She secured employment as a domestic servant in the households of ALBERT G. RIDDLE, a Republican congressman, and L.A. Benton, a local jeweler. Tracing her to the city, Goshorn had Bagby arrested by U.S. marshals on January 19, 1861. Before her scheduled hearing on January 21, Bagby's counsel, RUFUS SPALDING secured a habeas corpus hearing for his client. Probate Judge Daniel R. Tilden could find no reason to release her but ruled that she could not be held in the local jail. Granting Spalding a two-day recess to interview witnesses in Wheeling, U.S. Commissioner Bushnell White ordered a room fitted out for Bagby on federal property in the post office building. When the hearing resumed on January 23, White restored Bagby to Goshorn given her own admission that she was Goshorn's slave and Spalding's failure to uncover any favorable evidence.
It was widely believed at the time that the Bagby case was a test of the North's disposition to obey the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Both Tilden and White had cautioned that the city, as well as the alleged fugitive, was on trial. With four southern states already having seceded, even the Radical Republican CLEVELAND LEADER counseled submission to the law for the sake of preserving the Union. The city was not entirely compliant: several skirmishes were reported during the passage of the prisoner from the local to the federal court. Precautions were taken to foil a rumored rescue attempt on the train returning Bagby to Wheeling. Although the abolition press severely criticized Cleveland, Bagby's re-enslavement proved to be short-lived. She was freed when Union forces occupied Wheeling in June 1861 and arrested Goshorn. Bagby later moved to Pittsburgh and married a Union soldier, F. George Johnson. Local abolitionists held a Grand Jubilee upon Bagby's return to Cleveland on May 6, 1863. She lived her last years in Cleveland and is buried in WOODLAND CEMETERY.