In the 1850s, a banging on a door marked the beginning of a seven-year saga that would end with a state defying the U.S. Supreme Court. That defiance continues to this day.
Joshua Glover was playing cards in his single-room, dirt-floor cabin near the shore of Lake Michigan when he heard the ruckus outside. He yelled at his companions not to open the door when the insistent banging started, but it was too late. The door was flung open and three men charged into the room. One was armed with a gun. Glover resisted, but a second man cracked him over the head with a pair of cuffs, and Glover fell to his dirt floor, bleeding profusely. The men drug him out of his home, threw him roughly into a wagon and spirited him away toward Milwaukee.
Under federal law, this kidnapping was perfectly legal.
The three men who rushed into Glover’s home that night were Deputy U.S. Marshal Charles C. Cotton, a deputy marshal by the last name Kearney and Bennami Stone Garland. Garland had in his possession an arrest warrant signed by federal judge Andrew G. Miller based on his ownership of Glover.
Joshua was a fugitive slave.
Several years earlier, he ran away from Garland’s farm near St. Louis. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Garland had the absolute right to travel north and reclaim his “property.” Joshua didn’t even have the right to testify on his own behalf or present evidence to a court of law. The word of the “master” was sufficient to justify kidnapping under federal law. Anybody interfering was subject to arrest and prosecution.
Many northerners refused to accept the federal edict. Among the defiant in Milwaukee was a newspaper editor by the name of Sherman Booth. He was a staunch abolitionist, and when he got word marshals had captured an accused fugitive in nearby Racine and locked him up in the Milwaukee jail, he sprang into action.