“Mr. [Stephen S.] Foster kept his feet and held the crowd at bay, showing our religion to be falsehood and hypocrisy, when [Captain Stillman Snow], a member of the orthodox [Congregational] church, who had just come from his meeting (and it was said from the sacrament), leaped like a lion onto the platform. His eyes flashed fury if not fire; his teeth and his fists were clenched, and he seemed a spirit from the pit, who might have been commissioned to lead its myrmidons in a deadly fray, for such a faith and such a church as his, that a dozen years before had been proven by one of its eminent members ‘the bulwark of American slavery.' (Probably a reference to James Gillespie Birney’s “The American Churches: The Bulwarks of American Slavery.”) He asked no leave to speak; paid no respect to president [sic] or rules. His first note was a shriek. ‘It’s a lie; what you say is a lie; a damned lie! And I’ll defend the church!'”
— Parker Pillsbury, Acts of Anti-Slavery Apostles, 1883. Page 356.
It was Sunday afternoon, Aug. 27, 1848, the last day of an Anti-Slavery Convention held “a mile from the Congregational Society” at “The Grove,” next to Laban Snow’s store off Sisson Road, near the intersection of Bank Street and Hoyt Road, or behind the Ayer Lane area of Harwich Port (possible locations vary). Organized by residents of this small (population 3,258) fishing town including Joshua H. Robbins, Zebina H. Small, and Isaac Mayo, at least one of whom was a sea captain, its speakers invited from the Boston-based Abolitionist community included Foster, Pillsbury, William W. Brown, and Lucy Stone. A Sunday gathering focused on the lack of religious support for Abolitionism expanded into a four-day event with 2,000 to 2,500 in attendance.
Why Harwich and why that theme? While slavery was accepted and then rejected by the Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies and the Commonwealth, Harwich’s attitude was lukewarm. Though few residents could afford slaves for domestic or agricultural purposes, sea captains living in West Harwich and Harwich Port depended financially on the “Triangular Trade” transporting captured Africans to the Caribbean islands and southern states. They also had personal relationships with southern plantation owners, with both vacationing in the other’s section of the country.
Not all sea captains were pro-slavery, just as not every Harwich resident was anti-slavery. While many northerners felt negatively about the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850, requiring escaping slaves to be returned to their owners, and the Compromises of 1820 and 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing the expansion of slavery, Harwich’s approach was laissez faire.
In 1848 the issue was strong enough for this event to happen, and its focus on the failure of religion to oppose slavery should not be surprising. There were four Harwich Christian houses of worship then: two Methodist, one Baptist and one Congregational. Though the latter had in 1846 excluded from “fellowship” anyone sympathetic to slavery, the town’s clergy leadership was in flux, and positions on slavery at their churches were neither cut nor dried. Harwich’s ministers had already been criticized for favoring less important matters like erecting new edifices, despite the fact that none of the four Harwich churches were engaged in major building projects. Pillsbury reports that throughout the four-day convention the Congregational Church was locked, and the establishment in 1854 of the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Harwich Port as a pro-abolition congregation suggests some unhappiness with the commitment of its sister church.
Little is recorded of what transpired on the first days of the convention. On Saturday afternoon Pillsbury learned of and relayed the story of an unnamed sea captain from Harwich or Dennis who had agreed to transport two fugitive slaves to a free state in return for $100, only to have them arrested. Later he returned the money to the slaves’ owner and received a $25 bounty.
By Sunday morning that captain learned what Pillsbury had reported, and, feeling falsely accused of being a thief, demanded the chance to clear his name. Foster had begun speaking when the platform was cleared to allow the captain successfully to convince his listeners he had done no wrong. However, before he could leave the stage, Foster demanded the captain share that he was a Baptist. This allowed the speaker to resume his fiery comments on the stated topic, “That our nation’s religion is a lie,” prompting Captain Snow’s aggressive response. (Some reports say Lucy Stone followed Foster and that Snow was reacting to her similar opening words.)
What followed was a violent riot pitting members of the audience against the speakers on the stage. The speakers were physically injured and their clothes were torn while others in the crowd verbally insulted them, possibly in retaliation for derogatory comments by Pillsbury about the town’s fishermen or a satirical treatment of the Rev. Elkanah Nickerson, a beloved Methodist minister and well-known opponent of slavery. Finally, sympathetic sea captains stepped in to protect them from the rioters, bringing them to safe locations before escorting them from Harwich.
Though the story of the “Harwich Mob” was widely reported (often inaccurately) by pro-abolition publications and later newspaper articles and books, the convention had little lasting effect. The passage of the Compromise of 1850 lead to new efforts to end slavery, including Lincoln’s return to the political arena. In 1851 a meeting held in Harwich’s Union Hall decried the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and in 1860 The Exchange hosted a peaceful and well-attended convention of the Cape Cod Anti-Slavery Society that called for “immediate and unconditional Abolition.”
In essence the “Harwich Mob” was not a violent confrontation between persons with pro- or anti-slavery sympathies. Nor was it a fight over the proper role of religion in society, though both issues were involved. Rather, it stemmed from Harwich’s social, institutional, and economic fabric. Most male residents made their living from the sea as fishermen, sea captains, and sailors, the latter two often participating in the Triangular Trade. Though not all those holding anti-slavery feelings supported the Abolition Movement represented by the convention speakers, many questioned the morality of benefiting from its activity. This may explain why some sea captains and residents were supportive of the convention while others felt threatened by it.