BOOK | The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War

The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War

by Jonathan Daniel Wells

Bold Type Books, 2020

Publisher Description

In a rapidly changing New York, two forces battled for the city’s soul: the pro-slavery New Yorkers who kept the illegal slave trade alive and well, and the abolitionists fighting for freedom.

We often think of slavery as a southern phenomenon, far removed from the booming cities of the North. But even though slavery had been outlawed in Gotham by the 1830s, Black New Yorkers were not safe. Not only was the city built on the backs of slaves; it was essential in keeping slavery and the slave trade alive.

In The Kidnapping Club, historian Jonathan Daniel Wells tells the story of the powerful network of judges, lawyers, and police officers who circumvented anti-slavery laws by sanctioning the kidnapping of free and fugitive African Americans. Nicknamed “The New York Kidnapping Club,” the group had the tacit support of institutions from Wall Street to Tammany Hall whose wealth depended on the Southern slave and cotton trade. But a small cohort of abolitionists, including Black journalist David Ruggles, organized tirelessly for the rights of Black New Yorkers, often risking their lives in the process.

Taking readers into the bustling streets and ports of America’s great Northern metropolis, The Kidnapping Club is a dramatic account of the ties between slavery and capitalism, the deeply corrupt roots of policing, and the strength of Black activism.

New York Times Review

Books of The Times: When a Kidnapping Ring Targeted New York’s Black Children

New York Times, Oct. 27, 2020

By Parul Sehgal

In 1833, Black children began to vanish from the streets of New York City.

Frances Shields, age 12, with cropped hair and a scar over her right eye, was last seen walking to school wearing in a purple and white dress. John Dickerson, 11, disappeared while running an errand for his parents. Jane Green, 11, was speaking to a stranger before she went missing. Or so it was believed; none of the children were heard from again.

More children began disappearing — more than one a week. The police refused to investigate the cases, and the mayor ignored the community’s pleas for help. Black parents searched on their own, scouring orphanages, prisons, poorhouses. It was whispered that supernatural forces were involved; what malign spirit was hunting these children?

Not a spirit — a club, of sorts.

In “The Kidnapping Club,” the historian Jonathan Daniel Wells describes the circle of slave catchers and police officers who terrorized New York’s Black population in the three decades before the Civil War. They snatched up children, as well as adults, and sold them into slavery.