Thanks to the Oscar wins for “12 Years a Slave,” the story of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping will be remembered until toucans call through the rainforests of Iceland.
Thanks to the movie’s success, it’s no longer history just for those pursuing a deep understanding of Saratoga Springs’ identity.
But some aspects of Northup’s case remain littleknown, and they have their own drama.
Often overlooked is the tale of how the two men who kidnapped Northup were eventually arrested — something you don’t learn from the movie.
The men known as Brown and Hamilton in the film were actually named Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, and they were from the Fonda and Johnstown area. They would have gotten off scot-free if Northup hadn’t written his book in 1853; it became a popular read in abolitionist circles.
One reader, Thaddeus St. John of Fonda, developed suspicions. He had long known Merrill and Russell, and had run into them in the company of a black man during a trip to Baltimore and Washington in 1841, according to research done by historian David Fiske.
Fiske is the author, with Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman, of “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave,” where the story of Merrill and Russell’s arrests and subsequent attempts to prosecute them is told.
Merrill was awakened from his sleep at his home near Broadalbin in early July 1854 by a party that included Northup, who identified him as one of the kidnappers. Russell, who then captained a canal boat on the Erie Canal, was also arrested.
During a subsequent court hearing held in Ballston Spa, St. John testified he saw the men a few days after their first southern encounter on a ferry in Maryland and then on the train to New York, sporting new clothes and fresh haircuts, one of them flashing a gold watch and $1,000 bank note. He recalled joking to them that he would watch the papers for reports of “robberies or killings,” according to Fiske’s research.
At the hearing, Northup recounted his story of meeting the men in Saratoga Springs in 1841, being offered work with a circus in New York City, then being convinced to continue on to Washington, where he “became sick” after accepting a drink and woke up in the city’s slave pen.
The defense argued that the statute of limitations for kidnapping had passed, while Saratoga County District Attorney William T. Odell said the three-year deadline for bringing charges didn’t start running until after Northup was freed in January 1853.
A four-count indictment was handed up on Sept. 1, 1854, according to Fiske’s research — but the case never went to trial.
The defense wanted statements from officials who handled the transaction at the slave pen, and two officials there eventually answered written questions. Merrill, using the name Brown, claimed Northup was his family’s slave from Georgia, and having lost money gambling he needed to sell him to raise enough money to get home.
The next court session, in February 1855, focused on whether New York could prosecute the men for a crime that occurred in Washington. An appeals court dismissed three of the four counts on those grounds. The issue eventually went to the state’s Court of Appeals, which ruled in June 1856 that the case should have been tried before the appeals were started.
There the case ended. The new district attorney, John O. Mott, dropped charges in May 1857.
No reason was given, but speculation at the time focused on the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that March, which said that blacks, whether free or slave, were not U.S. citizens and lacked standing to sue in federal court.
Some people continued to believe rumors that Northup was somehow in collusion with the kidnappers, perhaps having been promised a cut of sale proceeds. Northup denied it. The authors give them no credit, but note their persistence.
Or it may just have been politics. Odell had been a Whig, the primary anti-slavery party of the era. Mott was a Democrat, a party that in those days wasn’t above using race issues to appeal to white voters.
“The exact reasons why District Attorney Mott abandoned the case are unknown, but there were several legal and trial-strategic reasons that could have accumulated to reinforce preconceived political perceptions,” the authors concluded.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are how own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or [email protected]