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The John Allen Story

The turnout was great and sales of Secret Lives terrific during Staten Island’s Sandy Ground Historical Society’s May 22nd book signing in the Unitarian Universalist Church. Tom  Calarco passionately proclaimed that Secret Lives proves that the Underground Railroad was well organized. He appealed to everyone to emulate the abolitionists and oppose today’s controlling forces.

On Staten Island it is widely believed that the West Brighton homes of Sydney Howard Gay and his Unitarian friends, Francis George and Sarah B. Shaw and their  son-in-law, George William Curtis, were  stops on the Underground Railroad. Local historians and reporters have repeated this oral history so many times, it is accepted as an indisputable fact.

As Don Papson was carrying copies of Secret Lives into the Church and arranging them on a display table, a member of the congregation asked him if the Staten Island’s Unitarian abolitionists are in Secret Lives. The gentleman picked up a copy of the book and started searching for their names. When Don replied that Secret Lives is not about Staten Island, he immediately set the book down in disappointment.  Not wanting to lose the man before the event had even started, ” Don quickly added, “But I will be talking about the Unitarian abolitionists tonight.”

Sandy Ground Historical Society’s Executive Director, Sylvia Dallesandro, had asked that the  presentation include information about the Underground Railroad on Staten Island.

These are Don’s findings.

Sydney Howard Gay and his wife, Elizabeth Neall Gay,  moved to Staten Island in 1847. Francis George Shaw and  his wife, Sarah Blake Shaw, and her sister, Susan, and her husband, the Rev. John Parkman, came a few years later from Boston.

The Shaws were pillars of the Church of the Redeemer, the precursor of today’s  Unitarian Universalist Church of Staten Island. Rev. Parkman became  minister of the Church in the early 1850s. In 1856, he performed a wedding ceremony for the abolitionist author and lecturer, George William Curtis, and his bride, the  Shaw’s daughter, Anna. It was said  that from that moment on,  “the anti-slavery conflict became more engrossing”  to Curtis’s “mind and heart” and that it “entered more largely into his public utterance.”[i] Anna Curtis’s brother, Robert Gould Shaw, was the first Colonel to command a Colored regiment in the Civil War. When he died in July of 1863 leading  the Massachusetts 54th  in its  assault on Ft. Wagner, South Carolina, he was buried with his men. The Shaws, the Parkman’s and the Curtis’s were a tightly knit family, and Sydney Howard and Elizabeth Gay were two of their closest friends. On Sunday afternoons, Mr. Gay and Mr. Curtis took afternoon walks together.

In 1845, Rev. Parkman was one of 170 Unitarian ministers who signed a protest imploring their northern brethren who might go to slave holding regions, “to go determined to make every sacrifice of profit or convenience rather than become “abettors” of the “inhuman institution” of slavery.[ii]

It was also in 1845 that Gay moved to New York City to become editor of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Large numbers of slaves were self emancipating themselves and being forwarded through Philadelphia to New York City, and in the ensuing years, Gay’s office on Nassau Street would be one of  the city’s busiest Underground Railroad depots.

A Baltimore correspondent of the New York Tribune reported in December of 1849 that two hundred slaves valued at $100,000 had “absconded” from their Maryland masters. “None but a blind man could fail to see” that this was proof that there was “a systematic effort… to ruin slave property.[iii]

On June  13, 1850, Gay reported that the “emigration” of slaves  to ‘free soil’ was multiplying “thickly.” In the same issue of the Standard, he announced that Sarah B. Shaw had donated $50 to the American Anti-Slavery Society.[iv] On June 20th, he reported that a correspondent from another newspaper had visited Baltimore and concluded that if  antislavery people remained active and determined,  “victory” would “crown their efforts.[v] He was certainly doing his part; he had just forwarded a Baltimore fugitive to Francis “Frank” George Shaw,  a wealthy businessman who lived with his wife, Sarah, and their children in Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood.

On June 21st, Shaw notified Gay that Sarah, who, had just visited the Gays on Staten Island, had arrived home safely with “her entourage.” Shaw added,

John Allen has been staying with us since he came, making himself useful. He has now gone to town for a few hours, in hopes of finding some place. We shall do what we can to help him.

Sarah may have taken Allen back to Boston with her as part of her “enourage.” In a separate note, she informed Sydney,

John as Frank told you, is to go tomorrow to Smith who is head waiter in Boston­ & if capable he can earn a good living. I do not know one person dear Sydney to apply for assistance for his sister—As to yr feeling about giving me trouble about him, haven’t I sworn myself to be active in the cause at any cost to myself?—Bridget & Gretchen have become more quite & reconciled, so in fact, I have had no trouble I shall let him report himself to Garrison with yr note, in case he should get into trouble.[vi]

Mr. Shaw added a postscript.

John tells me that in the trunk  he lost were two letters from Mrs. Catherine Fox at Barnum’s Hotel Balt  Perhaps he told you­—If not, would it not be better to advise her in some sure way lest trouble should come in case the trunk were found? He will have employment after Monday with J.B. Smith who will do all he can to find a permanent place for him.[vii]

Shaw believed that Gay knew how to contact Mrs. Fox, but there are no letters from her among Gay’s papers at Columbia University, so her identity is a mystery.

However, the Shaws made a number of significant researchable references. Baltimore’s  Barnum’s Hotel at Calvert and Fayette Streets was owned by David Barnum. It was one of the finest hotels in the United States,  and it was popular among both Southerners and Northerners. More than a dozen slave traders operated from Baltimore’s harbor side storefronts. Some of them regularly advertised in the Sun and other newspapers, and out of town dealers routinely stayed up to a week at Barnum’s and other downtown hotels.[viii]

It was a different world in Boston. There,  black and white men and women collaborated to aid men, women and children who escaped from their southern oppressors. William Lloyd Garrison, Rev. John Parkman, Francis George Shaw and Joshua Bowen Smith were members of the Boston Vigilance Committee. In fact,  Smith was on its Executive Committee.[ix]  On Saturday, April 24, 1847, the Vigilance Committee appointed Smith to be “their relief Agent” and decided that “thereafter all cases of relief of fugitives needing board &c, & employment” in Boston would be  “attended to by him.”[x]

Sarah Shaw’s note is especially interesting because she discloses that Smith was the “head waiter” in Boston. And it was true: J.B. Smith owned a very successful catering business and was one of the most prosperous black men in Boston.  Gay had apparently appealed to Mrs. Shaw to find someone who could help Allen’s sister, but she says she does not know anyone who can. Most importantly, Sarah tells Sydney that there is no need for him to apologize for inconveniencing her with John and reminds him that she has sworn to be active in the cause “at any cost.”  She also discloses that although “Bridget & Gretchen” have opposed her benevolent work, they  have become “more quiet & reconciled” and are no longer giving her “trouble.” Twenty-two year old Bridget Devine was one of her three Irish female servants. The others were Marianne Durnham, Honora OCarroll and Peter OCarroll. Gretchen’s identity is not known; she  was not listed in the 1850 census.[xi] The Shaws counted on Joshua B. Smith to give John Allen a job, and if he “should get in trouble”, they would send him with Sydney’s note to the President of the American Anti-Slavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison.

The July 12th  issue of the Liberator reported that Allen had been with Garrison at a July 4th celebration in Abington.

At the close of his speech, Mr. Garrison introduced to the meeting a noble stalwart representative of our colored brethren who gave his name as JOHN ALLEN, (not his real name,) very recently from the South, by the underground railway. This fugitive from bondage gave an interesting account of the mode of the escape, and the particular act of oppression which led him to make the attempt. His chief object, at present, he stated to be, to raise money enough to purchase his sister, who had been sold to the slavedealer, and sent to New Orleans, for the very heinous crime of praying with her fellow-slaves, and reading the Bible for their religious edification!

In the July 19th issue of the Liberator, Garrison announced that “Loring Moody and JOHN ALLEN, recently from Maryland,” would be lecturing against slavery in nine Massachusetts cities between July 19th and July 30th.[xii] The next week, the paper only mentioned Moody.[xiii] Where was Allen? Had he gone to Canada?

After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law on September 18, 1850, Underground Railroad traffic to the Queen's Dominions increased dramatically.  A North Carolina newspaper reported that “Upwards” of 110 fugitive slaves left Pittsburgh and Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and that they were “armed to the teeth” and “determined to die” before they surrendered. Several Southerners  suspected of being slave hunters were in Pittsburgh, and major hotels were “left without servants.”[xiv]

In the October 31st issue of the Standard, Gay reported that a colored impostor by the name of Charles W. Swift had deceived people in Worcester, Massachusetts. Swift  had raised “the steam of excitement” by “telling a long story of his escape, his pursuit by his master, his knocking down an officer in New York who tried to arrest him, &c, &c.” Although money had been raised to get him to Canada, he had returned. In fact, he had previously spoken at Antislavery meetings in Worcester “under the name of John Allen.”[xv]

This sounds like a very different John Allen,  but destitute and unscrupulous free blacks occasionally took advantage of the generosity of abolitionists.

The next year, Gay informed his readers that they could forward donations to the Treasurer of American Anti-Slavery Society in Boston or to him in New York City.[xvi] On November 1, 1851, Francis George Shaw sent him the following note: “I enclose 25Dls for the cause, also two dollars for my subscription to the Standard, the other 25 Dls we have paid over to the vigilance committee in Boston.”[xvii]

Francis Jackson was the treasurer of the national society as well as the Boston Vigilance Committee.  On November 1, 1850, he noted that  Shaw had made a donation. On the 13th, the Rev. John Parkman  brought in a donation from a friend.[xviii] On March 24,1851, Rev. Parkman and his mother, “Mrs. Susan Parkman” each donated $5. (This was  error, unless the Reverend’s mother and his wife had the same name.)[xix] J.B. Smith’s name appears in Jackson’s records each of the several times he was reimbursed for fares he  paid to send fugitives to Canada.[xx]

On April 1, 1851, Rev. Parkman informed Gay,

            …We have had exciting meetings of our vigilance committee during the last few days. I hear very much the same talk about slavery, & ‘the niggers’ & the ‘[damned abolitionists,’ that I heard in 1832, & I find I can’t stand it quite as well as I did then—therefore, give my pro slavery relatives & friends a wide birth, as much as possible.[xxi] The Vigilance Committee’s records confirm Parkman’s statement. On March 31st , they paid for the passage of John Thomas and his wife to Toronto,  for William C. Nell’s expenses in aiding 18 fugitives, and for Mrs. Charles Williams’s expenses in  assisting “destitute” fugitives.[xxii]

On June 5, 1855, the name John Allen was recorded in the Vigilance Committee’s records when Samuel May Jr. was given $26 for rescuing a man with that name from Boston Harbor.[xxiii]

Was this still a different John Allen?

Staten Island’s abolitionists were involved in the antislavery cause for many years, and they contributed in a number of ways. While they aided fugitives from slavery, they also petitioned, lectured, and donated money to the cause. And the women sewed. On November 6, 1851, Sydney Howard Gay listed his wife, Elizabeth, and Sarah B. Shaw as contributors to the Eighteenth National Anti-Slavery Bazaar scheduled for Christmas week.[xxiv] The ladies sewed quilts and created household items. In a determined effort to raise $1,000 for her husband’s Fugitive Fund, Elizabeth Gay helped organize New York City’s 1857 Fair.  Their dear friend, Sarah B. Shaw, was also on the committee.[xxv]

Because the Gays, the Shaws, and the Parkmans were Underground Railroad associates before the Parkman’s and Shaws moved to Staten Island, we can logically assume that they sheltered fugitive slaves on Staten Island. But written proof that they did may never be found. They no longer needed to correspond with one another.  They were neighbors now and could meet to decide how they would help someone.

Rev. Parkman resigned from the Church of the Redeemer in December of 1858. When Francis George Curtis died in 1881, it was said that he was one of the “most prominent contributors to and ardent workers in the ‘underground railroad’ by which slaves were forwarded from the South into Canada.”[xxvi] When Sarah Blake Shaw died in Boston in 1902, the New York Times eulogized her for having been “one of the noted abolitionists who had lived in and “about Boston.”[xxvii] Staten Island was mentioned in Mr. Shaw’s obituary, but not in Mrs. Shaw’s.



In 1856, Gay recorded this account of another man who escaped from Barnum’s Hotel:

Nathl West, belonged to W.D. Bowie of near Washington, was servant at Barnum’s Hotel at Baltimore. A light mulatto, & evidently a gentle servant. Had been advised by friends here of the practicability of escape, so bought a ticket at the depot, & came off in the cars like a gentleman. Sent to Albany.
Expenses of all except B. Dickerson $11[xxviii]

[i] “Mrs. George William Curtis,” The Morning Call (San Francisco, CA), September 11, 1892.

[ii] “Religious Protest Against American Slavery, By One Hundred and Seenty Uniarian Ministers,” Emancipator and Repulican (Boston, MA), October 22, 1845.

[iii] “Fugitive Slaves,” Tarboro’ Press (Tarborough, North Carolina),  December 8, 1849.

[iv] “A Baltimore correspondent of The Tribune relates an interesting incident;” “Donations to A.A.S. Society,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, June 13, 1850.

[v] “Domestic Correspondence,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, June 20, 1850.

[vi] Sarah Shaw to Sydney Howard Gay, June [n.d.]1850, Sydney Howard Gay Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

[vii] Francis George Shaw to Sydney Howard Gay, June 21, 1850, Sydney Howard Gay Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. J.B. Smith’s complete name was Joshua Bowen Smith. He was a friend of the Shaws and William Lloyd Garrison and an agent of the Boston Vigilance Committee. In Adams Boston Directory 1847-1848, he is listed as one of the city’s “colored residents” and as a caterer living at 16 Brattle Street. (See Irving H. Bartlett, “Memoranda and Documents, Abolitionists, Fugitives, and Imposters in Boston, 1846-1847,”  The New England Quarterly Vol. 55, No. 1 (Mar., 1982), 98; Black Remembered & Reclaimed, Smith, Joshua Bowen (1813-1879)

[viii] U S Slave, Baltimore Slave Trade,

[ix] Austin Bearse, Reminiscences of Fugitive Slave Days (Boston: Warren Richardson, 1880), 6-7.;idno=12851220;view=image;seq=11;cc=mayantislavery;page=root;size=100

[x] John W. Browne, Committee of Vigilance Agents’ Record, 23, Crawford Blagden Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.

[xi] 1850; Census Place: Roxbury, Norfolk, Massachusetts; Roll: M432_330; Page: 180A; Image: 365

[xii] “Anti-Slavery Lectures,” The Liberator, July 19, 1850

[xiii] “Anti-Slavery Lectures,” The Liberator, July 26, 1850.

[xiv] “Fugitives Slaves,” Tarboro’ Press, October 5, 1850.

[xv] “A Colored Impostor,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, October 31, 1850.

[xvi] “National Anti-Slavery Standard,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, October 30, 1851.

[xvii] Francis George Shaw to Sydney Howard Gay, November 1, 1850, Sydney Howard Gay Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

[xviii] Francis Jackson, The Boston Vigilance Committee 7.

[xix] Francis Jackson, The Boston Vigilance Committee, 15.

[xx] Francis Jackson, The Boston Vigilance Committee, 24.

[xxi] John Parkman to Sydney Howard Gay, April 10, 1851, , Sydney Howard Gay Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

[xxii] Francis Jackson, The Boston Vigilance Committee, 4

[xxiii] Francis Jackson, The Boston Vigilance Committee, 24

[xxiv] “The Eighteenth National Anti-Slavery Bazaar,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, November 1851.

[xxv] “New York Anti-Slavery Fair,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, November 28, 1857.

[xxvi] “Obituary,” New York Herald, November 9, 1882.

[xxvii] “Death List of the Day. Mrs. Sarah Blake Shaw,” The New York Times, December 31, 1902.

[xxviii]Don Papson and Tom Calarco, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015), 169.

Listen to Andy Flynn's interview of Don about the leg iron on display at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm, New York. The museum is now open for its fifth season.