Harwich’s Heated Reckoning

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2022 /

Writer: Susanna Graham-Pye

Harwich’s Heated Reckoning


Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2022 /

Writer: Susanna Graham-Pye

One hot August afternoon in 1848, emotions and beliefs collide in what has become known as the Harwich Mob.

Photo by Susanna Graham-Pye

The wind moving through the grove’s old cedar-scented pine boughs sounded like water. The air had traveled over the ocean, picking up hints of salty, colder depths, bringing them inland, making rivers of sound as it pushed through the branches.

Leaves flipped and rolled in the currents, revealing minnow-silver underbellies, a sign seen by most in these maritime parts that a thunderstorm could be on its way.

The dance between land and sea breezes on hot days near the shore creates a summer blessing strong enough to move heavy, humid salt air, and in Harwich, on this day in 1848, the last Sunday of August, people needed such a blessing. Temperatures during that long ago summer had been record-breaking, and unfortunately, rains didn’t fall as they often did, as the late-day storms popped up alongside the prevailing southwest winds. The clouds instead skirted north, avoiding the beckoning arm of the Cape. 

An anti-slavery rally held in what was called The Grove had gone well to this point. The multi-day event had been planned by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the organization that had grown out of the New England Anti-Slavery Society created by William Lloyd Garrison a decade earlier. The group sponsored “agents,” or speakers, to travel throughout the region advocating for the abolition of slavery. 

The most significant speakers attending the Harwich event were Parker Pillsbury, Stephen Symonds Foster, W.W. Brown, and Lucy Stone; all notable abolitionists from elsewhere in New England.

Stone, a West Brookfield, Massachusetts native had graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio the previous spring, and had just been hired by the society. Despite her mother’s concerns for her safety, and liberal Oberlin’s refusal to let her train as a public speaker, she had persevered and was living the life she wanted. Her fight for an education had been a long one. Stone was nearly 30 when she finished school, and had just celebrated her birthday this month. Despite efforts from every corner of her world, she was determined to be a public voice for “…not the slave only, but for suffering humanity everywhere.” 

Lucy explained to her mother that she understood the perils facing her in her chosen vocation to speak and fight for suffering, oppressed people, “Mother, I know you too well to suppose that you would wish me to turn away from what I think is my duty …. I surely would not be a public speaker if I sought a life of ease, for it will be a most laborious one. Nor would I do it for the sake of honor, for I know I will be disesteemed, nay even hated by some who are now friends or profess to be.”

Parker Pillsbury, who frequently appeared with Stone, had grown up on a New Hampshire farm. He was a gentle person who shunned violence in all forms, though he was often the recipient of it during lecture events such as this one.  

The 1754 Massachusetts Slavery Census shows eight males and six females recorded in the town of Harwich.

As the convention hours and days passed, reasons for agitation among the crowd collected into angry pockets. Lucy Stone’s appearance on the speaking platform was unsettling to the audiences simply for its unfamiliarity, for she was a woman. Pillsbury’s words often, if not always, caused agitation for his calling out church practices that he believed endorsed and perpetuated people’s enslavement. Pillsbury had already been stripped of his license to preach as a Methodist minister because of his criticisms of the church. Despite opposition to his stance from many, even some fighting the same battle, Pillsbury bravely adhered to his beliefs, describing a Christianity that was based upon “complexional salvation.” He said, “The Methodist Discipline provides for ‘separate Colored Conferences.’ The Episcopal church shuts out some of its own most worthy ministers from clerical recognition, on account of their color. Nearly all denominations of religionists have either a written or unwritten law to the same effect. In Boston, even, there are Evangelical churches whose pews are positively forbidden by corporate mandate from being sold to any but ‘respectable white persons.’ Our incorporated cemeteries are often, if not always, deeded in the same manner. Even our humblest village graveyards generally have either a ‘negro corner,’ or refuse colored corpses altogether; and did our power extend to heaven or hell, we should have complexional salvation and colored damnation.”

Despite the violence that often greeted them at engagements where they spoke, Pillsbury was known for responding to hostility and violence with nonviolence. Where Pillsbury was a pacifist, Stephen Symonds Foster, another New Hampshire native, was known to be aggressive, intense, often provoking incidents among the audiences to whom he spoke. His anger was stoked by his belief that the people filling church pews, people claiming to be Christians, had a duty to speak out against slavery. He often attended churches in the towns where he was lecturing, quietly taking his place among parishioners, only to rise at some point during the service and condemn the institution, calling it the very “bulwark” of slavery.  

For three days, events had been relatively calm. The convention had in part been organized by Captain Zebina Small. As many men of the sea did, Small would go on to work in the cranberry industry. Active in local and state politics, Small was an avid abolitionist, and often hosted anti-slavery speakers, who came to attend events that were for the most part, peaceful. This event, however, on the fourth and final day of the Harwich Rally, would be different. 

Island Pond Cemetery in Harwich is the final resting place for some of Harwich’s earliest residents. In this corner are the burial sites of Captain Zebina Small and members of his family. When the riots broke out, Small rushed convention guests to his home for safety until they could escape town.

It was, after all, Sunday, the day of worship, and a local captain, Stillman Snow, having heard of Foster’s comments, and having just been to church, arrived in the grove shouting that what Foster said was “a damned lie.”

The onshore breeze wandered through the crowd, lifting the bunting that hung across the bottom of the platform, pushing onward taking with it rustling leaflets dropped after they’d been read. 

 Another angry captain arrived after learning Foster had told the story of “a captain of the area” who’d been asked by a “fugitive slave” in Norfolk, Virginia, for help escaping to the North. The captain had taken $100 from the person, only to return him and the money to his enslaver. The captain earned for himself a $25 reward for his efforts. Foster said the captain, who was known to be a devout, church-going man, was further proof of the church’s depravity.

A perfect emotional storm was brewing as a woman speaker, standing on stage between two men, all questioned the veracity of the church’s stance and teaching; and then there was the heat. It was as though tempers had been tethered to the thermometer’s mercury, which had risen over the course of the convention to more, and more oppressive heights.

At the height of the heated tension, a man living as a fugitive from the law, stepped forward on the platform. 

The hot wind cooled him only slightly. William Wells Brown was a popular speaker on the abolitionists’ circuit. He had been known to hold audiences’ attention for hours. He wiped his forehead as he stood staring out over the “Harwich Mob,” the moniker newspapers and history would come to call the gathering of people on this hot, sticky August day. As anger always is, what he saw was an ugly sight, similar to the complexity of anger and frustration he often tried to describe in his depiction of the experiences of those living in slavery. Brown often said he would “fail to represent the real condition of the slave [because] slavery can never be represented.” But even though he could never evoke true empathy, he would continue to try at least to generate sympathy for the cause of freeing people living in enslavement. His lectures were called “riveting” and “soul stirring.”

Not everyone in the audience in Harwich on this particular Sunday, however, was sympathetic.

“Tar and feather him,” someone yelled.

“Ride him out on a rail,” another voice rose.

Unlike the passing thunderstorms that hadn’t reached Harwich, this emotional storm erupted out in a mob estimated to be anywhere between 1,000 to 3,000 people strong. 

“Havoc was soon made of our platform and what it contained,” according to Pillsbury. The raised temporary structure had a roof over it to protect the speakers, officers of the meeting and older residents. It was destroyed.

A 1775 will written by Thomas Clark included a sentence where he deeded his wife his “little slave Molly” and one of his horses.

“William Wells Brown, one of our eloquent fugitive slave lecturers, was roughly seized up and pitched over back of the platform by the infuriated crowd down some six or eight feet, and left to his fate,” Pillsbury continued. And his friend Foster “…was rescued and taken away from danger—his Sunday frock coat rent in twain from bottom to top, and his body considerably battered and bruised.” 

Underscoring his belief that non-violence was the only response to violence, Pillsbury said he believed
it was Lucy’s “…serene, quiet bearing [that] disarmed the vulgar villainy of our assailants.” She was not hurt.  

The incident, widely reported in local and regional papers of the time, merely hints at the role of the North in the chattel slave trade. Massachusetts was the first colony to make slavery legal. Cape Cod’s seaports were the entry point for the dozens of sea captains who participated in the trade and enslavement of humans. And, until the early 1800s, many Cape families enslaved people. 

“I have seen many mobs and riots in my more than 40 years of humble service in the cause of freedom and humanity, but I never encountered one more desperate in determination, nor fiendish in spirit, than was that in Harwich in the year 1848,” Pillsbury concluded. 

Susanna Graham-Pye is an adjunct editor at Cape Cod LIFE. Read this story, as well as others in her upcoming book detailing the realities of Cape Cod’s enslaved population, when it is released next winter.

Susanna Graham-Pye