Friday, March 15, 2013

David Ruggles, born March 10, 1810

David Ruggles was born in Lyme, Connecticut. His parents were David Ruggles, Sr. and Nancy Ruggles, both free blacks. David was the oldest of eight children. 

The family moved to Norwich, Connecticut, when David was very young and set up home in Bean Hill, a wealthy suburb of Norwich. The family lived in a small hut owned by Nancy's sister, Sylvia. David Sr. was a blacksmith and woodcutter, while Nancy was a noted caterer, whose cakes were sought after for any social event of consequence. 

They were devout Methodists. He was educated at sabbath schools and became so learned that Bean Hill residents paid for a tutor from Yale to teach him Latin

In 1827, at the age of sixteen, he moved to New York City, the same year New York State abolished slavery. He worked as a mariner before opening a grocery store. At first, he sold liquor, then embraced temperance. He became involved in anti-slavery and the Free Produce Movement. He was an agent for the Liberator and Emancipator newspapers.

He died 10 years before the Civil War began.

"The Extinguisher", 1934
His grocery shop at 1 Cortlandt Street was the nation’s first black bookstore until a mob destroyed it.  From his home at 36 Lispenard Street, he opened a bookstore and circulating library (blacks were restricted from “Reading Rooms”), which became a hub for abolitionists. He operated the first black-owned printing press and published his own works, including The Mirror of Liberty,  the first black magazine. 

By 1834, Ruggles was also writing regularly. That year, he published his own pamphlet entitled The “Extinguisher” Extinguished: or David M. Reese, M.D. “Used Up…” a satirical screed attacking the leading local proponent of the American Colonization Society. This organization, which roused fiery anger in Ruggles and other blacks, argued that the only solution for America’s racial problems was to ship all free blacks to Africa.  His self-published booklet was the first imprint by an African American. 

He contributed to abolitionist newspapers such as The Emancipator and The Liberator. In addition, he  published The Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment in 1835, a call to northern women to shun Southern women who let their husbands keep enslaved black women as mistresses.  Ruggles beseeched Northern women to consider whether they would “tolerate the adoption of a system which would recognize as their domestic servant the spurious off-spring of their own husbands, brothers, and sons.” He lashed out at Southern women as “inexcusably criminal” for disregarding the sexual exploitation of enslaved black women. 

In 1835, Ruggles was a founder and secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance, a radical organization designed to inform enslaved workers in New York about state laws declaring that enslaved workers be emancipated after nine months of residence. With the help of New York City magistrates, kidnappers seized blacks off the street, held a quick hearing to “prove” their identity and within a matter of hours forced their unfortunate victims onto boats headed for Southern ports. Angered by this practice, Ruggles and the rest of the Committee of Vigilance openly confronted slave catchers, demanded that the city government grant jury trials to fugitives and offered legal assistance to them. Backed by the New York Manumission Society, whose members included the lawyer William Jay, son of Chief Justice John Jay, the Committee of Vigilance proved highly effective in protecting the rights of local blacks. On occasion, Ruggles went to private homes where enslaved blacks were hidden, to tell workers that they were free.

One of Ruggles’ most controversial methods was to demand the arrest of white sea captains he suspected of trading in slaves. Illegal since 1808, slave trading still occurred clandestinely. Ruggles’ unmasking of these transactions nearly cost him his freedom. 

Late on the night of December 28, 1836, kidnappers arrived at Ruggles’ home at Lispenard Street. They knocked loudly and asked to speak to David. When Ruggles told them to come back in the morning, they tried to break down his door. Ruggles escaped and returned later with a watchman. At a hearing at the police station, Ruggles exposed his assailants’ plot to grab him and put him on a vessel headed for Savannah, Georgia, where he would be sold into slavery. Frustrated, D.D. Nash tried to arrest Ruggles on a specious writ for any black who looked like Jesse or Abraham, generic names for slaves. If it hadn’t been for the help of his white allies among local lawyers, Ruggles doubtless would have been shipped off into slavery. Sometime later, Nash proclaimed—during a mobbing of a white abolitionist named John Hopper in Savannah—that he would give “a thousand dollars if he had that nigger named Ruggles in my hands as he is the leader of [the abolitionists].” 
Frederick Douglass
Ruggles claimed to have helped 400 fugitive slaves during the 1830s. One such escaped slave later became one of the most famous Americans of the 19th century. In his classic autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalled his dire straits just after he fled north to freedom in New York City in late September 1838. Though exhilarated by his newfound freedom, Douglass was terrified of slave catchers. The young fugitive was broke, lonely and spent several nights sleeping amidst empty barrels on the wharves. Fortunately, he met a sailor who took him to the print shop of David Ruggles, who sheltered him and welcomed him to freedom with great celebration. A few days later, Frederick was married to Anna Murray, a free black woman, in Ruggles’ shop in a ceremony led by James W.C. Pennington, a former fugitive turned Presbyterian minister. Immediately after the wedding, Douglass and his new wife traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, armed with a letter of recommendation from Ruggles and a $5 bill. 
"The Disappointed Abolitionists", Published in 1838 about the Darg Case
On August 25, 1838, John P. Darg, a Virginia slaveholder, arrived in New York City with his slave Thomas Hughes. The issue of Southerners bringing their human chattel to a free state was under intense negotiation between the governors of New York and Virginia, but Darg apparently felt confident about the status of his servant. But a few days later Hughes came to Isaac Hopper’s house, seeking refuge. The Quaker, however, was initially reluctant and asked Hughes to leave his home. The next day, the New York Sun, the most vitriolic of the penny press, published a notice offering a reward for the return of Hughes and the $7,000 or $8,000 he had taken with him. Hopper, Barney Corse and Ruggles served as go-betweens for Darg and Hughes. The slave no longer had all the money, having given some of it to others who helped him escape and a portion to some local gamblers.

Corse and Ruggles decided that returning the cash was moral but turning over Hughes was not. They convinced Darg to free Hughes provided that he gave back as much money as he took. When the sum turned out to be far less than Darg demanded, the slave master ordered Corse and Ruggles arrested for grand larceny. Corse quickly found bail, but Ruggles was jailed for two days with common criminals, even though he had not actually been charged with anything. 

After that incident, a caricature of the three, entitled The Disappointed Abolitionists, was published, suggesting that they were really interested in the reward and, rather than trying to free slaves, were setting up an extortion ring to prey on unwary masters.

The case remained newsworthy over the next few months. In October, a group of black citizens honored Ruggles by giving him a cane with a golden knob.

Concert in honor of Ruggles, 1841
Ruggles suffered from ill health which intensified following the Darg case. In 1841, his father died, and Ruggles was himself ailing and almost blind. In 1842, a fellow abolitionist and friend, Lydia Maria Child, arranged for him to join a radical utopian commune called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, in Northhampton, Massachusetts, (which was named Florence, Massachusetts in 1852).
Lydia Maria Child
Applying home treatment upon hydropathic principles, he regained his health to some degree, but not his eyesight. He began practicing hydrotherapy, and by 1845, had established a water cure hospital. This was one of the earliest in the United States. In January 1846 Ruggles purchased land and a building to conduct his hydropathic treatments. Ruggles became famous in the field and modestly wealthy, offering a cure for ailments that were claimed by conventional medicine to be incurable. His most famous patient was the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Ruggles worked as a hydropathist until a recurrence of an inflamed optic nerve in his left eye in September 1849, placed him in the care of his mother and sister. Three months later on December 26, 1849, David Ruggles died in Northampton, Massachusetts of a severe case of inflammation of the bowels.  
His family buried him in their plot in Norwich.
The David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History and Underground Railroad Studies ( was founded on April 8, 2008, the 166th anniversary of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. 

The organizing committee was granted $150,000 by the Community Preservation Committee to purchase the house at 225 Nonotuck Street which had been saved for nine months from demolition by the Northampton Historical Commission.

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