James Worthington escaped slavery and found a home in Akron.
He didn’t know he was being hunted.
Worthington fled captivity in Kentucky and settled in Akron in the early 1840s when the village’s population was a mere 1,665 people with only a handful of black residents. He became a successful businessman and a popular figure in town.
Akron historian Samuel Lane, who knew Worthington, described him as a “tall, athletic and very black” young man.
“ ‘Jim’ as he soon came to be known, was a barber by trade, and at once opened a shop for the practice of his profession, and being a good ‘artist,’ and of an enterprising business, soon fitting up his shop with fine mahogany and plush upholstered chairs, large and attractive mirrors and pictures upon the wall, with a striped pole in front about a foot in diameter, and 25 or 30 feet in height,” Lane recalled.
Over 12 years, the hard-working barber saved enough money to buy property on what is now East Buchtel Avenue in the Spicertown district and built a two-story home for his new wife, the former Maggie Bird. Unfortunately, the couple suffered a bitter breakup in the early 1850s amid family tensions after her brother William opened a rival barbershop in Akron.
Worthington blamed his estranged wife for tipping off slave hunters.
The U.S. Congress had approved the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which decreed that all runaway slaves, when captured, be returned to their so-called owners, and that those harboring fugitives be imprisoned six months and fined $1,000 per concealed runaway. Free states such as Ohio bristled at being ordered to comply.
Edited by John Teesdale, the Summit County Beacon reported May 24, 1854: “A great outrage was perpetrated in this place on Thursday of last week; one well calculated to increase the abhorrence with which the Fugitive Slave Law has been regarded ever since its enactment, and to remind us more painfully of the humiliations entailed upon the Free States, by the ‘peculiar institution’ in the South.”
Scheme set up
A well-dressed stranger entered Worthington’s shop May 17 and asked for a shave. While being lathered up, the customer mentioned that he was in town to look for a home for his widowed sister and her children before they moved to Akron.
Worthington couldn't believe his good fortune. With his wife gone, he had wanted to sell his home. So he took the customer to see the house that afternoon. The men discussed the financial terms of a sale, and the stranger said he would soon be in touch.
“ ‘Jim’ little dreamed that it was himself, personally, instead of his house, that was being examined,” Lane noted.
Akron Marshal J.J. Wright was notified that out-of-town lawmen wanted to meet him early the next day at Union Depot, a train station that operated from 1852 to 1891 on the southeast corner of Mill and Summit streets near present-day Quaker Square.
When Wright arrived at 6 a.m., he met two men who identified themselves as “the sheriff from Chicago” and “a U.S. marshal from Newark, Ohio,” who said they were investigating a counterfeiting ring. They produced an Illinois warrant for the arrest of Worthington, who allegedly was wanted on charges of circulating “spurious coin” in Chicago.
Wright and the two lawmen arrested Worthington in his front yard and took him in shackles to Union Depot. Wright left to find Gen. Lucius V. Bierce, a former mayor, to help sort things out.
“ ‘Jim’ as he is familiarly called here — firmly alleged his innocence, and charged that there was some scheme afoot instigated by his wife, who had recently left him,” the Beacon reported.
Worthington noisily demanded to see legal counsel. As it so happened, Akron abolitionist Eleazer C. Sackett had come to the depot to catch a train for Cleveland. He noticed the commotion and guessed that Worthington was being railroaded.
In fact, the supposed Chicago sheriff was actually a Kentucky sheriff who came to Akron at the behest of a Louisville slave owner who wanted his “property” to be returned south.
Sackett ran to the nearby homes of Akron attorneys Christopher P. Wolcott and William H. Upson, and alerted residents that Worthington was being kidnapped. As a crowd gathered at Union Depot, Wolcott and Upson confronted the lawmen and demanded to see the Illinois warrant. Just as the lawyers suspected, it was fake.
The kidnappers were ordered to release Worthington at once.
“They refused and threatened to shoot the first man who attempted an arrest,” the Beacon reported. “This infuriated the crowd. Mr. Sackett and others set them at defiance, telling them that if they dared to exhibit arms, they should be torn to pieces.”
Fred Wadsworth shook a cane in the face of the kidnappers. The Rev. N.P. Bailey used “some very emphatic language” that Worthington be released. The crowd closed in around the out-of-towners.
There probably would have been a massacre if a train hadn’t pulled into the station at that moment. The frightened kidnappers hastily freed Worthington and climbed aboard the train, where they were permitted to leave without their quarry. The Akron barber remained on the platform with the cheering crowd that had saved him.
He was safe for the moment, but Akron residents feared that slave hunters might return for another attempt at abduction.
Defying the Fugitive Slave Act, Judge Alvin C. Voris took Worthington into his South Broadway home and hid him for nearly a month in the attic. He quietly contacted an Underground Railroad agent, who safely spirited Worthington north across the U.S. border.
Lane reported in the late 1880s that Worthington “at last accounts was living the life of an industrious and respectable citizen” of Canada.
As far as anyone knows, he spent the rest of his life as a free man — a triumphant ending for a former Akron barber who survived a close shave.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.