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WILLIAM FREEMAN, the subject of this notice, was born at Auburn, in the county of Cayuga, New-York, in the year 1824. His father was born a slave, but became a free man in 1815, by purchase of his time, under the act for the gradual abolition of slavery in New-York. He died in 1827, from disease of the brain, caused, as was supposed, by a fall from the dock into the basin at Albany. Of his brothers and sisters two only survive, and one of them has for twelve years past been a wandering lunatic; one of those that have died, a sister, was, for many years immediately preceding her death, insane.
The wife of James, and mother of William, was a native of Berkshire, Massachusetts, from which place she was transferred, as a house servant, to Auburn in 1817. Her father was black, her mother a red woman of the Stockbridge tribe, but in whose veins, however, ran some French blood, as was said; so, that subject to that qualification, William was a quadroon of Tartar and African descent, with a visage strongly marked with the distinctive features of the North American Indian.
So far as is now recollected by those who observed him, William indicated the possession of capacity equal to that of ordinary colored boys of his age, until he attained the age of twelve or fourteen years, when he began to display eccentricities in manners that were attributed rather to an extraordinary penchant for strolling than to any mental defect or depravity. As he advanced in years, however, a species of taciturnity seemed to mark his behavior. This was observed by his employers, and especially by his mother, who, though a poor colored woman, had a care for his habits and welfare. From the best information that can now be obtained, it appears that when
William, as he is called, (Hannibal, as he was named,) arrived at the age of seven or eight years, he was placed in the family of Captain Allen Warden, then of Auburn, as a servant boy, where he lived about a year. He was then transferred to the family of Ethan A. Warden, Esq., where he served in the same capacity, until some time in 1833, when he was discharged on account of an uncontrollable disposition for play with other colored boys, which rendered his services valueless. Not long after this, his mother obtained a place for him in the family of Judge Satterlee, of Lyons, in Wayne county, where it was hoped that his habits might be corrected. But no benefits resulted from removing him from his former associates. Although sometimes obedient, he was inclined to wander and rove, and in respect to this, exhibited a tact at strategy that was strikingly indicative of his Indian maternity
But notwithstanding his faults, he had a buoyancy of spirit, a playfulness of manner, and an elasticity of movement, that arrested attention and induced a strong desire for his retention as an errand boy and domestic. The young Indian, as he was sometimes called, however, could not be confined to either kitchen or yard, nor did the rigor of any discipline tame his wildness or repress his inclination to rove. Nearly every attempt to abridge his liberty was anticipated by a nimble bound over and beyond the pale designed for his imprisonment; so that all the efforts of Judge S. to retain him in steady service were unavailing.
These characteristics, then of little moment, have since become the subjects of medical examination, in view of the probable effects of his subsequent imprisonment, as in his veins coursed the blood of a race that has never been restrained without difficulty-never incarcerated without mental disaster.
After leaving the family of Judge S. he lived with and labored for sundry persons in and about Auburn, among whom were Messrs. Cadwell, Jones, Seeley, Curtis, Andrus, Smith, and Depuy, his brother-in-law, by most of whom he was regarded as honest and faithful in the execution of particular commands, but generally unsteady, and at times intemperate. For short periods he served as a waiter at several hotels and in private families prior to 1840, but those periods were always brief. Although taciturn and morose at times, he was ever ready for a frolic or a dance, and according to the testimony of his sister, “he acted very smart on such occasions.”
But so little of popular favor has been accorded to the negro race since the abolition of slavery in New-York, that not much information in detail can be gathered of one so obscure as Freeman was, prior to his arrest and imprisonment for the offence of another man—for a crime, which it is conceded on all hands, he never committed. Hence, he can be but faintly traced as he passed along through the vicissitudes of his early life to the occurrence which resulted in his imprisonment on a charge of larceny, and introduced him to public notice as a felon.
In the spring of 1840, whilst Freeman was living with Depuy, his brother
in-law, a Mrs. Martha Godfrey, of the town of Sennett, some five miles distant from Auburn, lost from her stable a horse, which she alleged to have been, and which doubtless was, by some one, taken feloniously. For some cause, Freeman was suspected and arrested, but protested his innocence, and upon examination before Robert Cook, Esq., a magistrate, he was discharged. Some weeks afterward, the horse was found in the county of Chemung, whither it had been taken and sold by a negro, as was alleged. The description given was supposed to answer to one Jack Furman, another negro, who thereupon was arrested, examined, and committed to jail for want of bail, to await an indictment by a grand jury. But knowing that Freeman had been once arrested for the theft, Jack took occasion to renew the charge, and to insist that he should be arrested again. This was finally done in June, and from that time, with the exception of a few days when Freeman was absent, until September following, both of them were detained for the same offence.
In July, Freeman broke the lock of his cell, and with another prisoner escaped from the jail. His fellow was at once re-taken, but Freeman made rapid flight to the woods, and was not captured until two weeks afterward, when he was found at Lyons, where he had formerly lived. When arrested, he protested his entire innocence, and excused his escape by the expression of his fear that Jack Furman would swear him into the State Prison. It was known to the jailer that he had offered to do so upon the condition of his own release.
In September he was indicted, as well for breaking jail as for the larceny charged against him. He was also, at the same term of court, tried and convicted, mainly upon the oath of Jack, who gave his evidence for the people in exoneration of himself. Three witnesses only were sworn on his trial : Mrs. Godfrey, to the loss and recovery of her horse; Mr. Doty, a neighbor, that he saw a negro on the horse the night it was stolen, and Jack, that he went with Freeman to the stable and saw him take it. The jury, under charge of the court, found him guilty, whereupon he was sentenced to be confined in the State Prison at Auburn, at hard labor, for the term of five years. Jack received, as the reward of his perjury, a discharge.
But as it soon became reasonably certain that Freeman was at another place all the night when the larceny was committed, and as Jack was soon thereafter convicted for a similar offence, the public mind at once exonerated Freeman from the felony for which he had been convicted. He was doubtless innocent of the offence.
The conviction of Freeman, therefore, appears to have been unjust, and to have had a powerful influence upon his mind when in prison. He repeatedly asserted his innocence to the constables, justice, and jailer, before, and to the keepers of the prison after, his conviction, and vainly urged his release. Unlike most negro convicts, he never became in any degree reconciled to his condition, until he had resisted the authorities of the prison and received a
blow, which, to use his own expression, “knocked all the hearing off, so that it never came back to him again.”
On being reprimanded by the contractor in whose shop he was placed, he said he had “done nothing worthy of confinement—that Captain Tyler, the keeper, was going to whip him, and he did not want to be punished when he did'nt deserve it.” To James E. Tyler, the keeper, he made similar complaints, and at all times, when he had the opportunity, he protested his innocence and complained of his imprisonment. Not doing as much work as he was deemed capable of performing, he was ordered to do more, under the penalty of the lash. This not having the effect desired, he was called up
to be flogged, when a scene occurred that was related by Tyler as follows: “I called him up and told him I had done talking to him— I was going to punish him. I told him to take his clothes off. I turned to get the.cat, and received a blow on the back part of the head from him. It started me a little. As I looked around, Bill struck me on the back-I kicked at him and knocked him partly over-perhaps he fell clear down. He jumped up, went across the shop, took up a knife and came at me. I took up a piece of board lying on the desk, went down and met him. It was a basswood board, two feet long, fourteen inches wide and half an inch thick. It was a board one of the convicts had laid on my desk, on which was a count of lumber, planed on both sides. When I came in reach of him, I STRUCK HIM ON THE HEAD, flatwise-split the board, and left a piece in my hand four inches wide."
He was then punished and sent to his work, but afterwards appeared downcast and sad, and, as the witnesses testified, “ went about with his head down." His hearing was dull before, but heavier afterwards; and many have supposed that his auditory organs were then injured, notwithstanding the confident opinion of Tyler “ that the blow could not have hurt him.” Certain it is that he was afterwards very deaf, and that the deafness continued to increase while he remained in prison; and upon a post mortem examination it was found that the drum of his left ear had been broken, and that his left temporal bone was carious and diseased.
Freeman remained in the State Prison until the expiration of his sentence, but was more stolid and dull after than before his difficulty with Tyler. He had before been allowed to attend the Sunday school, but after this occurrence that opportunity was, for some reason, denied him. Some of the police appear to have considered him too dangerous for such a liberty-some, that by his resistance of authority he had forfeited the privilege—and others that he was not susceptible of any instruction. Which consideration prompted the denial to him of the advantages of the Sunday school is not known. He never was permitted to go there afterwards.
After an unsuccessful effort to exact from him a prescribed amount of labor in the hame shop, he was given up by the contractor and permitted to do miscellaneous work in the yard. In the fall of 1843 he was employed in the dye house, where Captain William P. Smith was foreman. Smith con
sidered him then "a being of very low, degraded intellect; hardly above a brute, and treated him accordingly,” (vide his testimony ;) “ that he was a man of very quick passions; would fly in a moment at any thing he thought an insult;" that another convict changed the position of a pole on which yarn was hung, for which he fought him, was reported for so doing and was flogged; that he had greased a pair of shoes and set the same on a pile of wood, which another convict caused to fall, when Freeman struck him, and for which he was also flogged. After this he went to Captain Smith, crying, and represented that he had been flogged very severely, that a hole had been cut between his ribs which he could lay his fingers in. He also told Captain Smith that the flogging pained him so at night that he could not sleep.
As to his capacity at this time, it appears from all the witnesses sworn on his trial, that it was very limited; that commands had to be repeated several times before he could understand them sufficiently to obey them. Some represent him as being weak and child-like; some thought him a little shattered, but all were willing to keep him at work at such things as he had capacity to execute. In this condition he remained until the expiration of his sentence, in September, 1845.
His mother never saw him during the time he was in prison, but occasionally sent some one to see him, that his condition might be reported to her. This was generally done by John Depuy, her son-in-law, who says he saw William five times during his confinement; that his mother had heard that somebody had struck him on his head and that it was going to kill him, whereupon he went in to see him. He testified on the trial, that he found Freeman with a knapsack on his back, walking back and forth in the yard ; " that he would walk a little way and turn round.” Depuy considered him deranged, and so told his wife and mother-in-law on his return.
On the morning when Freeman's sentence expired, Depuy went to the State Prison for him and took him home. Thus ended his imprisonment on the charge of stealing Mrs. Godfrey's horse.
During the fall and winter he lived most of the time with his brother-in law, but occasionally at the houses of other colored people. He was sometimes employed at sawing wood, but was generally sluggish, stupid and indolent. He talked but little, and gave but a confused relation of occurrences in the prison when he was there. The injustice of his imprisonment and the rencontre with Tyler seemed to be uppermost in his mind, and formed about the only topics of his conversation when he said any thing. He frequently inquired for Jack Furman, and upon being told by Depuy that he was a convict in the State Prison, replied, “ he had not seen him.” He said he had been there five years for nothing, and he wanted pay for it.
After enquiring for magistrates, he told Depuy that he must go down and get a warrant for the folks, and that they must pay him; that he could not make any gain so, and could'nt live. He then applied to two magistrates,