An elegy for Jim Gray

10/26/2020 Christopher Schnell

One of the most intriguing historical sources in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s book collection is Report of the Trial of John Hossack, Indicted for Rescuing a Fugitive Slave from the U.S. Deputy Marshal, at Ottawa, October 20th, 1859. As its title implies, it details the trial of a white man, John Hossack, who was arrested for violating the Fugitive Slave Act by helping an enslaved Missouri man named Jim Gray escape to freedom.

Jim Gray was a self-emancipated enslaved man who left his work camp in Missouri in 1859 and crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois, where he was arrested as a fugitive. From the events recorded in Trial of John Hossack, we know Gray escaped the custody of state and federal authorities who sought to return him to his Missouri owner. Anti-slavery activists forced Gray's hearing to occur on friendlier ground in northern Illinois, where they were able to overcrowd the courtroom with supporters and usher Gray out the door. He jumped over the courthouse fence and dove into a waiting get-away carriage. These stories were presented by white witnesses as evidence during Hossack’s trial on charges of helping Gray escape.

Gray’s story, at least the known historical record of it, largely ends in the receding dust left by the carriage’s rapid exit from the courthouse square of Ottawa, Ill., 161 years ago.

The courthouse from which Gray escaped

Not once in the trial transcript do we see Gray speaking for himself, nor do we know his thoughts, other than by the actions he took according to the recollections of Hossack trial witnesses. Trial transcripts before the Civil War are quite rare, their recordings of spoken words precious to historians. Yet even with this historical treasure, we are left with only a few impressions of Jim Gray, an intriguing figure in our republic’s history before the Civil War. Through his actions we know Gray survived childhood, worked, survived, escaped, worked, and escaped again. In a strange twist, most of what we know about Gray comes down to us because of his enslaved status under the U.S. Constitution and the laws of Missouri and Illinois. There are no known sources generated by Jim Gray once he jumped the fence and made himself a free person of color.

What makes Trial of John Hossack so rare as a source is that it is a trial transcript rendered in print by a court reporter who sat in the courtroom in Chicago and used shorthand during the trial. Robert R. Hitt was perhaps first known for being Abraham Lincoln’s chosen “phonographer” to capture his words during the 1858 campaign against Stephen A. Douglas for U.S. Senate. Hitt was on the cutting edge of his profession and verbatim trial transcripts from before the Civil War are quite rare.

If there was a source in which Jim Gray spoke for himself, Trial of John Hossack should have been it. Instead Gray appears in the background of the evidence. He never appears as a witness, since he was a fugitive and wisely stayed away. Ironically, Gray’s testimony would have assisted the prosecution’s case since Hossack’s defense was to state that he thought Gray was a free man kidnapped by slave hunters. State and federal law also prohibited Gray, whether enslaved or free, from testifying in court.

Most of what we know of Jim Gray’s life stems from the historical records of forced agricultural labor in the middle-Mississippi Valley. In this system of work he was as a value on a tally sheet of “hands” working at the plow or hoeing rows in fields. The federal census for 1860, for instance, records the presence of 66 enslaved people working or living on his former owner’s land in New Madrid County, Mo. These women and men, girls and boys, counted only as male or female, black or mulatto. They all had an age, ranging from 70 years to as young as a few months. None of them were named, but three-fifths of their numbers counted in the eyes of the government for the purposes of allotting Congressional districts in Southern states.

From the transcript we know that Jim Gray was born to enslaved parents in New Madrid County in southeastern Missouri in the late 1820s or early 1830s. Gray’s father may have had mixed parentage and was owned by a white landowner named Richard Phillips. Gray’s mother was owned by yet another white landowner and was subsequently purchased and forced to move to a Kentucky work camp where she later died. It is unlikely he ever lived with both of his parents at the same time.

When his mother was sold, five-year-old Jim was sold to Susan Gray who lived in nearby Scott County, Mo. Around 1855 Richard Phillips paid his sister, Susan Gray, $1,000 for Jim and he was moved to a New Madrid County work camp run by an enslaved “overseer.” Phillips gave Jim his surname “Gray” to distinguish him from another Jim, “Yellow Jim,” who labored in the same camp. We don’t know if he ever thought of himself as Jim Gray.

The nearby Mississippi River may have offered enslaved people in Phillips’s work camp a measure of independence, and Gray was known to frequent nearby riverports to gamble and hire himself out. Gray took it to another level when he simply left Missouri behind on one of these sojourns in September 1859. He may have gone to Cairo and moved north into southern Illinois’s “Little Egypt” where he hired himself out as a farm laborer.

There’s no evidence of how he ended up in a Jonesboro, Ill., jail, only that he had been arrested in Union County and held as a fugitive. The Illinois “Black Code” prohibited people of color from establishing residency in Illinois. Those apprehended with no evidence supporting their status as free were incarcerated until they could be returned to their owners. When Phillips was notified that Gray was incarcerated in a southern Illinois jail, he quickly moved to stake his claim for the fugitive. The trip was worth the expense for the value in labor, sale, or debt that Gray represented.

From here Gray only appears in the transcript as an object of highly regulated property or as the symbol of an unjust system of labor in the legal tangle among those who tried to return him to enslavement in Missouri and those tried to free him. In Jonesboro, Gray was bound and paraded through the street on a lead chain held by the sheriff. Gray was again paraded in a similar fashion in the northern Illinois town of LaSalle. In the former place white bystanders laughed at Gray; in the latter there were jeers for Phillips.

Bystanders in LaSalle had a chance to interact with Gray on that grim day. They asked, “What are you in for?” and told him “You’ll be OK” (I’m paraphrasing here). Phillips, the witness who tells us about this interaction, didn’t testify about Gray’s response to the crowd.

This is the elegy he certainly doesn’t deserve. We’ll never know what he said, if anything, or what he thought. We only know that when he had a chance to run, he did.

When we use historical sources to interrogate our past we have to pay attention to the silences in the record as well as to the loud voices. Doing so, we may be able to gain insight about a complicated and contingent world of the past. On a smaller scale we can build empathy for individuals who quietly built our republic.

Christopher Schnell is manager of manuscripts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

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