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‘If you want freedom come with me’

Ottawa author, historian pens account of runaway slave

One of the most dramatic incidents of La Salle County’s involvement with the pre-Civil War Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad was shared Friday morning with the Ottawa Sunrise Rotary.

The presenter was Heinz Suppan of Ottawa, who spoke about his new book, “The Ottawa Rescue Case.”

Suppan, a teacher at Marquette Academy for 35 years, has written books that include local history topics such as the Indian Creek Massacre and the Radium Girls.

The new book centers on the 1859 case of Jim Grey, a runaway slave from Missouri.

After sneaking abroad a steamboat and crossing into Illinois he was apprehended by two slave catchers who each stood to receive $50 for his return to his owner.

While being held in the Union County jail, a local abolitionist protested.

Eventually, the case ended up in the courtroom of John Dean Caton, of Ottawa, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

In those days there were three branches of the state supreme court. The northern branch was in Ottawa, where cases were heard at a wooden courthouse located where today’s county building in downtown Ottawa now stands.

Local sentiment of slavery was divided, Suppan said.

“You had people, obviously, who were against slavery, and you had some people who were neutral,” he said.”And then you had a group of people who said, ‘Yeah, we support slavery and we don’t want them to be free because they’ll come up here looking to take our jobs away.’ ”

Grey and his escorts arrived in Ottawa by train, alighting at the station on East Marquette Street that preceded the current brick depot occupied by CSX offices.

“When they got (Grey) off the train he was really a pathetic sight,” Suppan said. “He still had his chains on his ankles and he was barefooted. He had his arms tied behind his back. He had a noose around his neck with a rope pulled between his legs.”

A member of the curious crowd at the station was John Hossack, a wealthy grain and lumber businessman from Scotland as well as an ardent abolitionist.

“He yelled at the deputy accompanying Grey, ‘What has this man done? What laws has he broken, besides wanting to be free?’ ” Suppan said.

The following day some 200 people crammed into the courthouse, with an equal crowd outside.

Caton ruled Grey free of state charges, but said he needed to go to Springfield to face federal fugitive slave law charges.

“As they began to leave the courthouse, people began to push against the deputy, forcing him against the wall,” Suppan said. Then “Hossack grabbed Grey by the arm and said ‘If you want freedom, come with me.’ “

Grey was taken out of the court through a side door where a coach was waiting he dove into. 

“As they they got down to where Papa John’s is now, a guy named Meyer jumped out and grabbed the horses by their bridals and said ‘You’re not going anywhere. That man’s still under arrest,’ “ Suppan said.

“And Hossack went up and said ‘Let him go or I’ll drop you where you stand.’ And Hossack was a pretty good size guy. The guy let him go and Hossack grabbed him and shoved him into the street and says ‘Now get our of here.’ “

At Superior Street the coach turned east and crossed the tow path on the Illinois & Michigan Canal aqueduct over the Fox River where there was another coach waiting.

“They took him down to a place called Brown’s Ford where the marina is today and got him across the Illinois River,” Suppan said. 

The destination was the Strawn farm in Bruce Township near the Livingston County line.

After a night at the Strawn farm Grey was taken to Dwight, then by mule to Chicago and by boat to Canada.

However, Hossack and five others were arrested for violation of federal law and ordered to Chicago for trial.

At the Ottawa train station there were speeches and the men were transported to jail in Chicago. They were found guilty after a jury trail. But the judge, who could have sentenced them to 10 years in jail and $10,000 fines, instead only imposed $100 fines and 10 days in jail.

Chicago residents took up a collection to pay the fines.

“But the best part about it was this,” Suppan said. “Every night for the next nine days the mayor of Chicago, John Wentworth, came down to that jail and got permission from the jailer to take those guys out to the nicest restaurants in town —plus a cruise on Lake Michigan.”

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