22 Feb 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: Henry and Sylvia Wilson

Richard Wallach

Five years ago, we looked at the aftermath of a raid on Henry Wilson, a young enslaved African-American. Despite having almost bought himself free, he was taken away from Mrs. Sprigg’s boarding house and sold. Joshua Giddings, Abraham Lincoln’s messmate at Mrs. Sprigg’s, attempted to rescue the young man from a slave pen, but was thwarted because young Henry Wilson had already been taken across to Alexandria and downriver. The day after this event, Giddings entered a resolution in the House of Representatives: This is where he ends his story. It turns out that there was a true resolution to it – and a happy ending.

In Kenneth J. Winkle’s 2013 book Lincoln’s Citadel the author delves into old issues of Cleveland’s Daily True Democrat to find out what happened next. Surprisingly, Giddings found an unlikely ally – Duff Green. Unlikely, in that Green was actually a slave-owner and vocal defender of that abominable institution. Nonetheless, as owner of the house in which Mrs. Sprigg ran her business – and himself a tenant thereof – Green may have known the wronged man himself. It’s also possible that he may simply have seen that the slave-dealers were in the wrong here.

Green thus sent a letter to William Williams, the slave-dealer, demanding the return of the young man. Williams, in turn, said that it would cost Giddings $700, far more than the $300 he had paid for him. Green replied that this was unacceptable, and that he would turn the case over to the District Attorney in case the young man was not freed. He also said that, “if this be not done immediately, we will take efficient measures to compel his return and do all that is in our power to prevent the recurrence of a similar outrage.”

Williams was sufficiently worried that he did not reply directly, but sent his reply to the lawyer Richard Wallach (pictured above) who was a member of the D.C. Common Council. Wallach eventually convinced the original owner (whose name is not mentioned in the book, only that she was referred to by Green as an “old Jezebel”) to repay Williams what money he had paid her, minus $180 she had already spent, which would be provided by Giddings, and that in turn, Williams would cause the slave to be freed.

The $180 were raised by Giddings by requesting donations from members of the Whig caucus in the House. Some 36 members each chipped in $5 to make it happen. By the end of February, about six weeks after being kidnapped, Henry Wilson was back with his family.

Article in the April 1, 1848 issue of The (London) Anti-Slavery Reporter reporting on Henry Wilson’s return. (University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana via Hathitrust.org)

Wilson moved back in with his wife Sylvia, though sadly, the story runs out at this point. There is a Henry Wilson with a wife “Silvey” listed in the 1860 census. They are listed as having a 19-year-old daughter Emma, but not the ca. 20-year-old son that is the only child listed mentioned in Winkle’s book.

One of the problems in determining Wilson’s fate is that he shares his name with a Senator from Massachusetts – and later Vice President – whose main claim to fame is that he introduced the Emancipation Act for the District of Columbia.

One can only hope that Henry and Sylvia had a quiet and prosperous life after this unnecessary ordeal.

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