Browse Exhibits (5 total)

The Pearl

Photo Jan 15, 12 04 34 PM.jpg

“Why had not these black people,” Daniel Drayton wrote from his prison cell, “so anxious to escape from their masters, as good a light to their liberty as I had to mine?”

On Thursday evening, April 13th, 1848, the city of Washington was celebrating news of the founding of the French Second Republic. While citizens set public squares ablaze for the triumph of democracy, sailor Daniel Drayton loaded up a small schooner owned by Edward Sayerswith human cargo. Around 76 slaves boarded this vessel named The Pearl, complicating an escape plan that originally only involved 11. Compounded with the desire for freedom, these enslaved African-Americans joined such a venture to evade threats--such as the death of an owner--that could result in a sale and split them from their loved ones.

That Monday morning, Drayton’s plan was foiled.  The unfortunate combination of winds halting The Pearl and the betrayal by fellow slave Judson Diggs, directly resulted in The Pearl’s capture by the posse aboard The Salem. All of the fugitives and crew members  were transported back to Washington D.C. to face their fate. Upon docking in Washington, those on The Pearl were greeted by angry mobs and owners eager to rid themselves of disobedient slaves. Drayton and Sayers faced criminal charges, and eventual trial, for stealing and transporting the fugitives. However, those fleeing on The Pearl  endured a punishment synonymous with death: sale into the vicious slave markets of the Lower South.

The Pearl was the largest and most publicized non-violent escape attempt of the 19th century, and even though unsuccessful, it made an indelible impact. It further polarized public opinion and influenced the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, proving the question of slavery was not to be answered without a fight.

Calley Pierce and Siena Marcelle, Junior Researchers, OC History Lab 2016



Justice for All: An Exploration of Race in DC's Criminal Court


The United States was founded on principals of liberty and justice, but failed to apply these grand ideals to all its citizens. In 1843, thousands were enslaved and thousands more were treated as second-class citizens. The rights of black people in America to fight for change and address their grievances in court were limited. Some "early statutes mentioned ‘all negroes and other slaves’ as subject to the same provisions of law."* This group classification was not sustainable, so legislation designed to push free blacks out of the public view was enacted. The side effect of this specific legislation was that outside of the scenarios it covered, free blacks had largely the same rights as whites.*

In the courts, all free people were to be treated the same way. The law as of 1828 stated that the "person of every freeman being entitled to perfect protection from the exercise of illegal force," any unlawful violence was considered battery.** Exploring the differences in documentation of assault cases on three different classes of citizen gives insight into the way the law was enforced that is not detailed in the legal codes themselves.

In July 1843, two unusual assault cases were brought before the D.C. criminal court, committed by white people on two African-Americans, one enslaved and the other free. In August, a very ordinary assault case committed on a white man by two white men appeared before the court. When compared to the detailed documentation of the cases involving the unnamed enslaved man and the free African-American, named Wilham Smith, the stark simplicity of the documentation of the assault on John Liegenhain, the white man, highlights the charged nature of dispensing justice in a race-driven society.


*Wright, James Martin. The free Negro in Maryland, 1634-1860. New York, 1921. Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Gale. Oberlin College. 12 July 2017 

**Livingston, Edward. A system of penal law for the United States of America : consisting of a Code of crimes and punishments : a Code of procedure in criminal cases : a Code of prison disciplines ; and a Book of definitions : prepared and presented to the House of Representatives of the United States. Washington, 1828. 446pp. American Law: Criminal Law.


 Shira Cohen, Junior Researcher, OC History Lab 2017

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The Defense of Kitty Ann Milstead

On October 7th, 1843, a group of men stoned the house of Kitty Ann Milstead and attacked Edward Robinson, who was there at the time. Though the men were eventually apprehended, her case demonstrates how the chaotic nature of the criminal justice system in the 19th century left women vulnerable. Read the full story.



BEEBE, ANN. "E.D.E.N. Southworth's Civil War Washington." Washington History 27, no. 2 (2015): 27-39.

Edwards, Laura F. The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart : Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, 1992. ProQuest Ebook Central,


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October 7, 1843: An Eventful Night

Between October 7 1843 and October 10 1843, two different people accused the Luckett brothers of several different crimes, two accusations of assault, one accusation of battery, and one accusation of property damage, totaling 4 crimes that were said to have happened at the same place around the same time. 

Two different warrants, issued by two different Justices of the Peace, called for the arrest of not just the Luckett brothers but two other men said to have been involved in the events. One of the victims was issued protection from the police, one was not. 

The two men mentioned in the warrants who were not the Luckett brothers were not tried or brought before the court, instead two other men who had not been previously mentioned in any of the documents or accounts were tried along with the brothers. While all four men were fined, the Luckett brothers were released on bail and the other two men were just released. 

Alex Kohn, Junior Researcher, OC History Lab 2017