Filed Under Conflict

The Arrest and Trial of Lucy Bagby

Sara Lucy Bagby was born in the early 1840s in Virginia. While visiting Richmond John Goshorn purchased Lucy on January 16, 1852 from a slave trader named Robert Alois for $600. After employing Lucy himself for five years, on November 8, 1857, Goshorn gave her to his son William Scott Goshorn.

While William Goshorn was away in Minnesota during the fall of 1860 Lucy was able to escape north via the Underground Railroad by the Ohio River to Beaver, Pennsylvania before moving on to Pittsburgh. To erase her fugitive status she fabricated the story that William Goshorn's daughter, Isabella, had brought her up north and into Pennsylvania where she told Lucy that she was now free because she was in a free state. Lucy eventually made her way to Cleveland where she worked as a domestic servant in the home of Congressman-Elect A. G. Riddle.

On January 16, 1861 William Goshorn arrived in Cleveland to reclaim Lucy under the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed in 1850 to provide the judicial machinery for slave owners to reclaim their "property." The authorities arrived at the door of Lucius A. Benton's home on January 19, 1861. Benton, who worked professionally as a jeweler, had been employing Lucy for nearly two weeks leading up to that time. As the U.S. marshals knocked on the door Lucy looked out the window to see her owner William standing there with the marshals. After being arrested, Lucy was placed in a waiting carriage and taken to jail where she awaited trial on Monday, January 21. On her way to the jail U.S. Deputy Marshal J. H. Johnson asked Lucy why she had escaped with her reply being that she was afraid she was going to be sold south.

During this time William E. Ambush, Chairman of the Fugitive Aid Society, tried to raise $1,200 to purchase Lucy from Goshorn but Goshorn refused to sell her. His family worth was approximately $300,000 so the economic incentive to sell failed to sway him. With the court hearing coming almost immediately upon her arrest, the funds were never collected anyway.

On Monday she was brought before Probate Judge Daniel R. Tilden. Antislavery supporters filled the courtroom and area immediately outside the courthouse. Rufus P. Spalding, a former member of the Ohio Supreme Court, A. G Riddle and C. W Palmer served as her counsel. Judge Tilden issued a writ of habeas corpus on the oath of William E. Ambush against the sheriff and jailer. The question arose as to whether a fugitive slave could be retained in a jail, an establishment supposed to house criminals. Since it was a crime to escape from bondage the court determined that prisoners and fugitives could in fact be jailed based on the 1850 law.

There was no argument against the Fugitive Slave Act. Since John and William Goshorn had all the documents proving ownership of Lucy the court had no choice but to enforce the law much to the dismay of Cleveland and the black community of the city.

Following the trial and with U.S marshals as escorts, Lucy was transported by train back to Wheeling, Virginia. En route to Wheeling it was discovered that a plot to rescue the girl had been hatched by a large group of supporters but the train's conductor was able to thwart the attempt by skipping the scheduled stop where the rescue was to occur. During the war while travelling south with her owner Lucy was freed by a Union officer and following her emancipation she made her way to Pittsburgh. Later Lucy married a Union soldier by the name of George Johnson and the two continued to live in Pittsburgh for a number of years before eventually returning to Cleveland where she remained until her death in 1906.

In 1904 Lucy was invited to attend the annual Early Settlers' Association meeting held at Grays Armory. Presented to the crowd as Mrs. Lucinda Johnson, she rose and bowed as the band struck up "Dixie." The crowd responded with wild applause, warmly embracing their adopted daughter who they had once helplessly watched marched off to bondage.


Lucy Bagby Johnson Tombstone
Lucy Bagby Johnson Tombstone Although she was forced to reenter the bonds of slavery in Virginia, Lucy Bagby would later return to Cleveland where she passed away in 1906. She is interred in Woodland Cemetery on the city's east side. Source: Woodland Cemetery
Lucy Bagby, 1904
Lucy Bagby, 1904 In the last high-profile case to be prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Lucy Bagby was arrested in Cleveland in January 1861. Following the trial Bagby was returned to her master and taken back to Virginia but would eventually return to Cleveland, passing away in the city in 1906. Source: Annals of the Early Settlers' Association of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Vol. V, No. 1 (1904) Date: 1904
Compromise of 1850 Headline
Compromise of 1850 Headline This 1850 newspaper headline announces the Compromise of 1850, which was passed into law later that year. The second bill of the compromise established the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 with provisions described as being "simple and efficient." The ramifications of the bill's passage, however, would be neither simple nor efficient, as the case of Lucy Bagby clearly illustrates. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: May 3, 1850
Political Cartoon, 1851
Political Cartoon, 1851 Although originally produced in 1851 as a political cartoon intended to lampoon the law broadly, "Practical Illustration Of The Fugitive Slave Law" is a rather accurate depiction of the scenario that played in Cleveland at the time of Lucy Bagby's arrest. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Date: 1851
Location of Lucy Bagby's Arrest
Location of Lucy Bagby's Arrest The arrow on this 1874 map of Cleveland's first ward highlights the location of Lucius A. Benton's residence, site of Lucy Bagby's dramatic arrest on January 19, 1861. The eight-story Columbia Building later stood on this site until it too was demolished for a casino parking lot. Source: Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery Atlases, Maps, and Park Plans of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Date: 1874
Site of Lucy Bagby's Trial
Site of Lucy Bagby's Trial Seen on the left in this photograph with the Illuminating Building between it and the Old Stone Church, the courthouse (constructed in 1858) served as the site of the trial of Lucy Bagby. On the day of the trial the courtroom was filled to capacity and throngs of antislavery supporters gathered outside anxiously awaiting the judge's verdict, creating a near riot atmosphere on Public Square. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Special Collections
Daniel R. Tilden
Daniel R. Tilden Presiding over the court proceedings, Probate Judge Daniel R. Tilden ultimately sided with the Goshorns who produced sufficient evidence proving their ownership of Lucy Bagby and forced her return to servitude. Source: Bench and Bar of Ohio: A Compendium of History and Biography (1897) Date: 1897
Rufus P. Spalding
Rufus P. Spalding A former Ohio Supreme Court judge and Ohio state representative, Rufus P. Spalding served as counsel for Lucy Bagby during her trial alongside fellow antislavery men A. G. Riddle and C. W. Palmer. Source: James Harrison Kennedy, A History of the City of Cleveland: Its Settlement, Rise, and Proggress, 1796-1896 (1896) Date: 1896
Trial Headline, 1861
Trial Headline, 1861 This is the headline to the Plain Dealer article that chronicled the events of Lucy Bagby's trial. The circumstances surrounding the arrest and trial caused emotions among the city's antislavery population to run high, but ultimately widespread violence and rioting did not occur. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: January 23, 1861


Woodland Cemetery, Cleveland, OH


Michelle A. Day and Joseph Wickens, “The Arrest and Trial of Lucy Bagby,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 23, 2024,