The So-Called ‘Kidnapping Club’ Featured Cops Selling Free Black New Yorkers Into SlaveryRoundup
tags: slavery, New York City, Fugitive Slave Act, policing
Jonathan Daniel Wells is the author of The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War.
This year’s clashes between protestors and the police from Portland to Atlanta to Kenosha are the latest flashpoints in the long history of policing in America. While the police today emerged from a hodge-podge of national and international iterations, one of the United States’ earliest and most storied forces, the New York City police, offers modern Americans a lesson in the intractability of problems between the black community and the officers sworn to uphold the law. That long history is both bleak and demoralizing. But this past also reminds us that real change will only happen by learning from the collective American experience, one in which those who supported systems of oppression were met by others who bravely battled against them.
As the nation’s most populous city for most of its history, New York has been uniquely affected by this dynamic. In the decades before the Civil War, when Gotham’s police force was becoming regularized and professionalized, Manhattan routinely erupted in riotous violence over the very meaning of equality.
No one individual embodied the brawling roughness of New York policing like Captain Isiah Rynders of the U.S. Marshals. Born in 1804 in the Hudson River town of Waterford, New York, Rynders was a gambler on Mississippi River steamboats. He reportedly killed a man after a card game and fled to his home state around 1837. Known for his thunderous voice, a powerful memory, and a penchant for histrionics, Rynders made an immediate impact on New York City. Black New Yorkers became his main target, and for decades, he patrolled the streets looking for runaways who had escaped enslavement in the South and who, against tremendous odds, had found freedom in Manhattan.
The Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause required northern free cities like New York to return the self-emancipated to their southern enslavers, and the NYPD and officers like Rynders were only too willing to comply, conveniently folding their hatred of black people into their reverence for the nation’s founding document. Armed with the founders’ compromise over slavery, Rynders and his fellow officers, men like Tobias Boudinot and Daniel D. Nash, terrorized New York’s black community from the 1830s up through the Civil War.
And, even worse, it often mattered little whether a black person was born free in New York or had in fact escaped bondage; the police, reinforced by judges like the notorious city recorder Richard Riker, sent the accused to southern plantations with little concern and often even less evidence.