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The movement to abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia continued unabated in the latter 1840s, now with the gag rule removed. Slavery placed increasing stresses on the nation as a whole, and Congress responded by passing the Compromise of 1850. One feature of this agreement was the suppression of the D.C. slave trade, which effectively shuttered William H. Williams’ Yellow House. The chapter ends by briefly recounting the careers of Williams’ slave–trading associates Rudolph Littlejohn, Ebenezer Rodbird, Joshua Staples, Nathaniel Boush, and, in greater detail, his brother Thomas Williams.
A group of slaves suspected of brutally attacking a slave patrol in Fairfax County, Virginia, on leap day night of 1840 were placed on trial before a Virginia court of oyer and terminer, which found two of them - the brothers Alfred and Spencer – guilty and sentenced them to death for the crime. The local community divided in its response to the verdict. Whereas some whites in the area welcomed the slaves’ impending executions, others lobbied the governor for a commutation of sentence to spare their lives. Virginia governor Thomas Walker Gilmer reprieved the sentence of one of the brothers to sale and transportation outside the United States of America, but permitted the other brother to hang at the gallows.
Charged with the illegal importation of convict slaves, William H. Williams faced a series of three trials before the New Orleans First District Criminal Court in 1841. Williams’ defense argued that the slave trader was merely passing through New Orleans en route to Texas, with no intention of selling any convict slaves within the state, whereas the state prosecutor maintained that the fact of Williams’ introduction of the convict slaves was proof enough of his guilt. Jurors struggled to reach a verdict, and the first two trials ended in hung juries. At the third trial, however, Williams was found guilty. He opted to serve a year in the Orleans Parish jail rather than pay exorbitant fines. Williams’ attorneys secured an appeal before the Louisiana state Supreme Court in 1842, and although Williams won, by then he had served almost the entirety of his time in prison.
Repulsed from Mobile, William H. Williams offloaded the convict slaves from the Uncas on to a different vessel, the steamboat Roanoke. As the Uncas continued on to New Orleans with the remainder of Williams’ shipment of slaves, the Roanoke took the inland waterways to Lake Pontchartrain, a maneuver that required no new slave manifest and that would lessen the odds of interception by a British cruiser seeking out illegal slaving ships. This chapter reviews the crimes for which many of the slaves were convicted, the most common of which was theft. Soon the Roanoke reached Port Pontchartrain. Williams desperately tried to arrange a meeting with New Orleans mayor William Freret to secure safe passage through the city for his convict cargo. Unsuccessful in doing so, Williams nevertheless placed the convict slaves on to the railcars bound for New Orleans. When he arrived at the railroad depot, city authorities confiscated Williams’ shipment of bondpeople.
William H. Williams relentlessly pursued the return of the convict slaves confiscated from him by repeatedly petitioning the Louisiana state legislature. He eventually proved successful. In 1857, the state restored to Williams all of the surviving transports from Virginia, plus the children born to the enslaved female convicts. Williams’ own lawyer sued him for non–payment for services rendered in the effort to regain the slaves forfeited to the state, but a judge sided with Williams because he believed the attorney’s lobbying efforts were contra bonos mores (against good morals). Williams went on to sell the convict slaves for several thousands of dollars. He died a little more than a year later.
William H. Williams left behind a wealthy widow, Violet, who soon remarried. Violet Williams Abell navigated the 1862 abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, applying for compensation for the five bondpeople emancipated under the new law. As administratror of her deceased first husband’s estate, Violet Williams also endured the lingering legal problems associated with the convict slaves purchased from Virginia for transportation outside the country. In 1847, Allison Nailor of Washington, D.C. allegedly purchased an ownership stake in the enslaved convicts whom William H. Williams had carried to New Orleans. He sued the widow Violet Williams Abell to recover his claimed share of the profits from their sale. His case reached the US Supreme Court in 1869, where it was decided against him. The chapter concludes with brief histories of William H. and Violet Williams’ four daughters and their families.
William H. Williams arrived in Washington, D.C., and set up his own, independent slave–trading operations in the mid–1830s, shortly before the Panic of 1837 brought an abrupt end to the "flush times" of the preceding years. Slave narratives and travelers’ accounts document the visibility of Williams’ slave pen, dubbed the Yellow House, and the horrors experienced by those held captive inside.
Already by the 1820s, the national capital of Washington, D.C. had emerged as a significant depot in the increasingly professionalized domestic slave trade. The introduction sketches the history of slave dealing in the capital, William H. Williams’ emergence on to the slave-trading scene there, and the broad contours of how the slave trade functioned, often depositing its victims for sale in New Orleans, Louisiana. It argues that the story of William H. Williams and his one shipment of convict slaves purchased in 1840 provides a snapshot of the antebellum era socially, economically, politically, and legally.
As William H. Williams’ case coursed through Louisiana’s courts, the state profited from the labor of the convict slaves Williams transported to Louisiana. In 1845, ten of the enslaved felons entered the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Baton Rouge. This chapter chronicles conditions inside the penitentiary, the work the slaves performed, and the difficulties the state confronted in prison management. It also explains how Louisiana law disposed of the children born to enslaved female convicts.
New Orleans authorities accused William H. Williams of violating a Louisiana state law of 1817 against the importation of convict slaves. Williams, as it turned out, had a long history in the courtroom. Although his business practices helped him largely avoid redhibition suits, and he was never charged with slave stealing or kidnapping as were some of his slave–dealing counterparts, he did face multiple suits lodged by free blacks who claimed that they were unlawfully imprisoned in the Yellow House, Williams’ slave jail.
After a protracted bidding war, William H. Williams’ agent, Rudolph Littlejohn, purchased Alfred and twenty–six other enslaved convicts out of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, under an agreement to carry them outside the United States for sale. The convicts were conveyed to the Yellow House and confined there until marched to the coastal slaving vessel the Uncas for transport. After the slave ship set sail, Alexandria mayor Bernard Hooe, a friend of Alfred’s master, expressed his suspicions to Virginia governor Thomas Walker Gilmer that the convict slaves would be sold within the United States, contrary to Virginia law. Gilmer alerted authorities in Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans, Louisiana, to be on the lookout for Williams and his shipment of enslaved felons. When Williams arrived in Mobile Bay and explained to mayor Edward Hall that he was taking the slaves to Texas for sale, Hall denied the slave dealer entry into the city but permitted him to continue on his journey.
The business climate for slave–trading improved in the mid–1840s. This chapter analyzes Thomas Williams’ correspondence with Richmond, Virginia, auctioneer R. H. Dickinson, slave sales transacted in the latter half of the decade, and the variety of returns, exchanges, and cancellations of sale that were part and parcel of the slave–trading business. William H. Williams, meanwhile, was embroiled in a case of the alleged kidnapping of the free black waiter Henry Wilson.
William H. Williams was also intimately connected with a wildcat bank on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Commercial Bank of Millington. Slave traders such as Williams and Thomas N. Davis helped underwrite the state–chartered banks that proliferated after the death of the Second Bank of the United States, supplying a portion of the start–up capital required for them to go into operation. In turn, many of these very same banks kept slave traders awash in the paper money necessary for slave dealers to pay for their human commodities in the cash that sellers wanted. Williams was sued by at least three different plaintiffs who alleged that he paid for slaves with paper money from the dying Millington bank, knowing that those notes would soon be worthless.