NEW BEDFORD — It was the talk of the town, but it was also deadly serious. The freedom of a woman and three girls -- their lives, really -- were at stake.

Nathan Johnson, a respected New Bedford businessman, stood accused in the fall of 1839 of cooperating to re-enslave Betsey Gibson, her two daughters and another girl by agreeing to put them on a boat for Georgia.

The accused man was black, and slavery had been illegal in Massachusetts for 56 years.

In essence, he was charged with kidnapping.

“A most awful story has been got up about Nathan Johnson,” wrote anti-slavery activist Deborah Weston, who was white, to her sister in November of 1839. “... in short the whole town is ringing with it — I will tell you the whole story as soon as I get it myself.”

So, when word tore through New Bedford that Johnson had seemingly acquiesced to pressure from a white southerner to bring the Gibson women to Newport, it was a true scandal.

“They thought he was a turncoat,” said Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society, in a recent interview.

No fugitive slave had ever been captured in New Bedford, and the city had a reputation as a place of tolerance, where a person might not just be left alone, but in some ways protected.

“That was a point of pride,” Blake said.

She said African-American men formed “vigilance committees” that would scope out new people arriving in New Bedford, both black and white, to see why they were here. At least once, a suspected slave catcher was beaten and run out of town.

“That became part of New Bedford’s legend and reputation,” she said.

The Gibsons, however, were not fugitives. They came north not in secret, but traveling with Patrick Gibson, a wealthy Georgia plantation owner. He lived with Betsey as his wife, according to a newspaper report in the New Bedford Mercury in January of 1840. He also acknowledged that he was the father of their daughters, Helen and Jane.

Along with the third girl, Margaret, all were legally Gibson’s slaves.

Although it was not unusual for a slaveholder to treat a concubine better than other slaves, it was unusual that Gibson brought his family out of the South, to a free state, to be boarded and educated at his expense, Blake said.

She said no evidence exists that Gibson was married to anyone else, though some of the county records were destroyed by fire.

He arranged for Betsey and the girls to stay with the Johnsons, and he wrote to Nathan Johnson more than once, urging him to give the children warm blankets in the winter and get whatever they wanted.

He also sent news of the women’s relatives in Georgia.

“No doubt the children are anxious to hear from home,” Gibson wrote in one letter, published with a summary of the kidnapping allegations the following March in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper printed in Boston.

“Grandma Cloey is anxious to hear from Betsey and the children,” he said, referring to Betsey’s mother. “Be sure and write very soon. Tell Helen she ought to be able to write to her grandma. I hope they are learning to read fast.”

He promised that the girls’ grandmother, along with “Maggy’s mother,” would visit in the spring.

But whatever his relationship with Betsey Gibson, Patrick Gibson was participating in the institution of slavery.

Gibson had entertained the idea of freeing his slaves and moving abroad, but he never did, according to Earl Mulderink, a history professor at Southern Utah University.

Mulderink told the little-known story of the Johnson scandal in a paper published in New England Quarterly in 1988, “‘The Whole Town is Ringing with It’: Slave Kidnapping Charges Against Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1839.”

“It was a fun story and a fairly self-contained story to tell,” he said in an interview this summer.

Patrick Gibson’s unexpected death in 1837 set the drama in motion.

Some people believed that Gibson intended to free Betsey and the children, but he had not altered his will to do so. Instead, he willed 34 slaves, including Betsey, Helen, Jane and Margaret, along with a sizeable sum of money, to his friend, Edmund Molyneux.

“As chattel property deeded to Edmund Molyneux, Betsey Gibson and her children as well as Margaret could be treated as Molyneux saw fit, in accordance with the laws of Georgia,” Mulderink explained.

Whether he actually promised them their freedom has never been determined, author Kathryn Grover wrote in her 2001 book, “The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts.”

At the time, Georgia law forbid the freeing of slaves, even in one’s will, unless the slaveholder received permission from the Legislature, according to Grover and information from the Georgia Archives.

And Molyneux had plans for the Gibson women.

“There’s a testy back-and-forth between the estate and Nathan,” said Blake, the historical society president. The society owns the Johnsons’ home at 21 Seventh St. in New Bedford.

Molyneux wrote to Johnson to announce his plans for Betsey and the children to go to Jamaica with a friend of his, who was living in Newport. Slavery was already illegal in Jamaica, but according to Mulderink, Betsey felt uncertain about the move and had no reason to believe that her relatives, still enslaved in Georgia, would be able to join her.

She would not go.

Molyneux threatened to stop paying board for the family if they stayed in New Bedford.

Next, he tried to arrange for Betsey and the children to go to Georgia, suggesting in letters that they could meet their family there and travel together to Jamaica.

Eventually, Betsey seemed resigned to going, according to later testimony to the New-Bedford Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society.

“Betsey Gibson decides she is going to put faith in God,” Blake said.

In early November, Johnson and the Gibson women left for Newport.

Fortunately for the Gibsons, they did not get on the boat.

Two things happened: First, Benjamin Rodman, an influential white resident of New Bedford, rushed to Newport and urged them not to board the vessel, according to an account authored by “A Friend to Humanity” in the Mercury, a New Bedford newspaper.

Second, a customs agent in Newport warned Johnson that the family would only be allowed to board as slaves because free people could not be cleared for travel at the Customs House, Mulderink wrote in 1988, citing a letter in the Gibson papers.

Mulderink suggested that although Rodman was sincere, his intervention “reflected an unwillingness to trust Nathan Johnson’s judgement and reinforced speculation that he had been doing something wrong.”

The story was all over town, as Deborah Weston informed her sister within days of the Newport trip.

Rodman wrote to Molyneux on Nov. 6 to clarify the women’s situation. The Mercury printed the letter.

He said Betsey and the children had been sent to New Bedford “for education and the enjoyment of freedom,” and that they were now considering going to Jamaica with financial support provided in Gibson’s will. He asked for details about their freedom, saying they “are now in the quiet possession of freedom as a legal right, as well as natural.”

What happened next shocked New Bedford’s antislavery community.

Molyneux answered, “With the exception of the fact of the slaves alluded to having been sent to New Bedford for education, every circumstance stated in your letter is untrue.”

“Molyneux had not only denied that Patrick Gibson had made any provisions for his family in his will, but the agent emphatically referred to them as slaves,” Mulderink wrote.

On Nov. 18, the largely white New-Bedford Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society appointed a committee to investigate the charges against Johnson.

Two months went by, and Johnson still had not been exonerated. Waiters at a ball Johnson catered refused to work with him.

“The colored people are much excited against Nathan & at the ball the waiters refused to serve under him,” abolitionist Deborah Weston wrote to a relative in January of 1840. Images of her letters are available online at Digital Commonwealth, a repository of Massachusetts historical documents.

David Ruggles, a black abolitionist who aided Frederick Douglass and others, testified to the committee that Johnson was indeed very wary of allowing the Gibsons to leave. He said he visited them at home a day or two before they left.

“The Woman said that she had made up her mind to go & trust in God. NJ remarked that it seemed almost like going into the Lions den & that there was great danger that they would be again enslaved,” Ruggles said, according to a typewritten copy provided by the New Bedford Historical Society.

According to Ruggles, Johnson said that “he should feel almost unwilling to go,” and that if it were him, he would not, but that he felt confident from Molyneux’s most recent letter that the women would, in fact, be sent to Jamaica.

“Mrs. Gibson said that Mr. Gibson had frequently told her that it was his intention to setttle [sic] the family somewhere under the British Government,” Ruggles said.

In March, a report of the Anti-Slavery Society investigation was the top story in the weekly Liberator two weeks in a row.

“Interesting and Important Investigation—the Innocent Defended,” read the headline. Each story filled two-thirds of the front page.

The main line of inquiry, it said, was the circumstances under which the family had gone to Newport: Why did Johnson not only consent, but also assist?

The committee of the Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society concluded that Johnson had not violated his duty to the Gibsons, nor as a member of the society, saying the facts of the situation were “wholly unknown” to him and to the rest of the New Bedford community at the time of the events “for which he has been called to answer at the bar of public opinion.”

“The committee here bring their labors to a close,” they wrote.

“I think Nathan Johnson didn’t have the full story or was proceeding on an optimistic feeling that everything would turn out OK,” Mulderink said in a phone interview.

In his article, he talked about what the incident revealed about the relationship between the black and white communities in New Bedford. While both supported abolition, Johnson could not be cleared of the charges solely on his word, “but had to await the judgment of the largely white anti-slavery society in which he had admirably served.”

Still, Blake said, black and white residents stood up, both separately and in cooperation, to made a difference in the Johnson affair and in abolitionist New Bedford.

 

“I think it’s important for people to know how much the black and white community worked together on some of these issues,” she said.

 

Follow Jennette Barnes on Twitter @jbarnesnews.