Calling Sherlock Holmes…

My latest volunteer project, to quote Winston Churchill, was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” I was handed twenty-eight legal depositions, tucked in a manila folder, with a notation that simply said: “The depositions were part of a suit by multiple claimants for the $500 reward.”

Several of the Scott depositions

First, the riddle:  Who offered the $500 reward?  And what for?

I started reading the depositions, which were given between April 1855 and May 1857 before County Commissioner Peter C. Bacon of the Worcester Court, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Not a single deposition mentioned the reward, but they told twenty-eight versions of a story.  I thought I was inside the set of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon!

The City of Providence charged that Charles B. Scott, an African American of that city, got into an altercation with John H. Springer, store keeper, over the cost of a pair of pantaloons, robbed the store, and seriously wounded Springer.  Scott fled.

Several days later, on December 29, 1854, an African American man was found in Royal Thayer’s barn in Uxbridge by Captain Scott Seagrave. Believing the man to be the escaped Scott, Seagrave instructed two men, Colonel Horatio Cogswell, an inn keeper and officer of the law, and Josiah T. Bliss, a carriage maker, to take charge of Scott and transport him to the hotel in Uxbridge.

There, under questioning, Scott claimed to be John Hewins, a fugitive slave, escaped from his master Richmond Taylor of Wilmington, Delaware. Many people in town believed his story because his feet were badly blistered and he was inadequately dressed for New England December weather. Dr. Robbins treated his sore feet and gave him a shirt and warm stockings. Captain Charles Wing provided a coat.

So far, I still had found no clear explanation of who had offered the $500 reward.

The mystery:  Who was this man – a criminal running from the law? Or a runaway slave headed for Canada?

Scott’s origins were contentious and divided the town, even to the point that bets were made about his true identity. Lucien C. Boynton, an attorney who had lived for nine months in Wilmington, was consulted and thought the slave story was plausible. Local abolitionists raised money and planned for Messrs. Cogswell and Bliss to take Scott by train to Worcester, where he would be interrogated by Henry Chapin[s], a magistrate. If the justice believed Scott to be a fugitive of the law, he would be returned to Providence to stand trial; if he was deemed to be a fugitive from slavery, he would continue his journey to Canada.

Tensions were high. When Cogswell, Bliss, and Scott were boarding the train for Worcester, a “scuffle” broke out. Cogswell and Bliss were roughly prevented from boarding the train, but Scott managed to slip on board.  However, as the result of a telegraph, when the train reached the Whiten/Linwood Station, Scott was taken into custody by Thomas Aldrich, deputy sheriff of Uxbridge, and returned to Providence.

After reading the depositions, I still didn’t know who offered the reward. Was it the state of Rhode Island for the return of the alleged criminal Charles B. Scott?  Was it Richmond Taylor of Wilmington, Delaware, for the return of his purported runaway slave John Hewins?

The enigma: Who was awarded the reward?  Was justice served?

I still don’t know. This is what I do know: Scott was finally identified by an African American barber from Providence.  Some of the brakemen on the train said they knew Scott and that the man they saw was not him. Regardless, Scott was returned to Providence, tried as Charles B. Scott, and sent to state prison on April 7, 1855, for four years.

I learned from newspaper accounts that the reward was offered by the City Council of Providence. Captain Scott Seagrave[s] and Thomas Aldrich both claimed the reward for apprehending Scott.

The National Aegis reported the case on January 10, 1855, saying, “The $500 reward has occasioned a good many versions of the story and it is difficult to get the exact facts.”  I was unable to find further reporting about the outcome of the case nor was I able, at the Worcester County Courthouse, to retrieve the case.  It has been stored offsite.  So, I still don’t know who got the reward, or maybe the two men split it….

Nor am I sure justice was served.  A number of people claimed to know Charles Scott and said this was not him. So, if you happen to see Sherlock Holmes lurking, tell him the AAS has a good mystery for him.

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Sande Bishop

AAS volunteer in the Manuscripts Department and AAS member (elected 2002)

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