Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Joseph Evans Snodgrass, Slave-owner Turned Abolitionist

If Joseph Evans Snodgrass is famous at all, it is not for being a slaveholder who freed his chattel from bondage, an abolitionist, a writer, or even a Southerner born in Virginia, though he was all of those things. When remembered by the dusty old books kept on the rickety shelves of literary societies, he is the man who was called upon in the waning days in the life of Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

On September 28th, 1849, Poe turned up in Baltimore, less than fresh from Richmond. He was alive, but “haggard” and “bloated.” His body was “repulsive” and “unwashed,” and lying upon a plank spanning a few barrels on a sidewalk. When he was identified, it was Joseph Evans Snodgrass who was called upon to deal with him. Snodgrass took Poe to the hospital at Washington College, but after three days, the doctors were unable to save the prolific writer. This is Snodgrass’ legacy – as the man who tried and failed to save the life of Edgar Allan Poe. 1James M. Hutchisson, Poe, (University Press of Mississippi, 2005) 245-246. I cannot find an exact date for when Snodgrass freed his slaves.

But this ending was a beginning of sorts for Snodgrass. He had been Poe’s close associate a decade before, when both had been published in the Baltimore Museum, a monthly literary journal. Though a teetotaler, they seem to have become close until the spring of 1842, when Snodgrass began to publish his own magazine, called the Baltimore Saturday Vister. 2Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Allan Poe to Joseph Evans Snodgrass, September 11, 1839, June 4, 1842, Letters, Some Edgar Allan Poe Letters, (St. Louis, William K. Bixby, 1915) 16-27.

Poe’s final letter to Snodgrass, in June of 1842, congratulated the editor for getting his own magazine – a position Poe had always envied. Poe was, however, critical of the venture, wondering passive-aggressively how it was ” that a Magazine of the highest class has never yet succeeded in Baltimore?” He lamented that Snodgrass hadn’t joined him in such pursuits instead. 3Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Allan Poe to Joseph Evans Snodgrass, September 11, 1839, June 4, 1842, Letters, Some Edgar Allan Poe Letters, (St. Louis, William K. Bixby, 1915) 16-27.

This may have put Snodgrass off, as it was seemingly the last of their communications. The Vister, though a literary publication until Snodgrass took the stern, then began to change. The next year, here and there, he began to push for not only abolition, but the rights of free blacks. He was a gradualist at first, advocating for emancipation bit by bit. But as the years wore on, he became more radicalized.

Even before having to deal with Poe’s half-dead and bloated body, Snodgrass had become an activist. His paper was described by a British correspondent as one “devoted to the cause of morals and religion, and, in a mild way, to advocate for the peaceful emancipation of the slave-population in the state of Maryland.”

Slaves fleeing their master in Maryland.
Slaves fleeing their master in Maryland.

Accordingly, William Clagett, a state senator from Prince George’s County, himself a wealthy slaveholder, insisted that Snodgrass be prosecuted. The Visiter said Clagett, was “an incendiary paper… and is calculated to create discontent and stir up insurrection among the people of colour of this state.”

Snodgrass appealed to the General Assembly. “The ‘liberty of speech and of the press’,” he assured them, “shall ever find in me the sincerest of defenders, while tyranny in all its forms may ever expect to encounter the most unyielding opposition. These sentiments… are uttered with the calm determination of a settled purpose never to give over while the momentous issues between virtue and vice, truth and falsehood, freedom and slavery, are calling so urgently for the best exertions of all earth’s true-hearted sons.” Clagett’s proposition was tabled. 4“Foreign Intelligence”, The Anti-Slavery Reporter, March 2, 1946, 46.

The financial weight of the Visiter was wearing on him. He understood that there was little support for abolitionist ideas in the South. His advocation of emancipation had cost him readers and money alike. “We are too few and too feeble to stand alone as yet,” he wrote to northern abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman in 1846. 5J. Gerald Kennedy, Liliane Weissberg, eds., Romancing the Shadow; Poe and Race (Oxford University Press, 2001) 28.

This opposition left his weekly with a measly 500 subscribers when it was folded into the newly-minted National Era in April of 1847. The Era would go on to be one of the biggest anti-slavery papers in the nation, and would soon publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But losing the paper was, perhaps, a blessing, as it allowed Snodgrass more time to agitate and organize. 6Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists & The South, 1831-1861, (University of Kentucky Press, 1995) 142.

In September of that year, he organized an anti-slavery meeting near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. This was broken up by a posse, thirty-five strong. They stormed in, smashed the podium, and threatened Snodgrass, but begged off when the sheriff declined to back them. 7Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) 128.

The next year, he was active in the Free-Soil Party and temperance movements. Moving in larger circles, still, Snodgrass had a misunderstanding with Salmon P. Chase over money owed to him for a speaking tour he had taken to Ohio. 8Salmon P. Chase, The Salmon P. Chase Papers, John Niven, ed. (Kent State University Press, 1993) 197n.

After playing the role of three-day baby sitter for a mostly-unconscious and dying Poe, Snodgrass continued his writing and activism. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, he spent his time trying to defeat it, not by legal wrangling, but by “popular action,” as he termed it.

An issue of the Liberator in which Snodgrass appeared.
An issue of the Liberator in which Snodgrass appeared.

Speaking in Pittsburgh, he prophesied that “the day shall yet come when the truth, proclaimed in our Legislature more than half a century ago, that by the eternal principles of natural justice, no master in this State could hold his slave for a single hour….”

“Chattel slavery,” he continued, “shall be circumvented and cornered within the narrow field of a consistent ‘States Rights’ claim; for let the aids and props of the Federal Government be once removed, through the contemplated divorcement of that government from slavery – let the Fugitive Slave Law be annulled by popular action, in advance of its legislative repeal ….”

Snodgrass had traveled to Chicago, where he saw “six fugitives at a single ‘underground depot.” In Detroit, he saw “fugitive slaves as thick as blackberries.” In both cases, they were on their way to Canada and to freedom.

He described this all in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, concluding:

“And now, if you care to know my humble opinion, as a Southerner, of the Fugitive Slave Law, I tell you that I believe it to be utterly outside and violative of the Federal Constitution in its provisions, and that it therefore imposes no moral obligation on me. I have said of it, to promiscuous assemblages in this slave-holding city… that I would suffer my arm to be torn from my body, and my heart to follow it, before I would obey its insolent as well as cruel requirements!” 9The Liberator, October 22, 1852.

Following the Civil War, Snodgrass wrote a biography on fellow abolitionist Benjamin Lundy. In 1880, he passed, dying perhaps a gentler death than Poe’s, leaving behind a strange and forgotten legacy of abolitionist activism in a city that remained true to slavery till war finally did what he could not.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

3 thoughts on “Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Joseph Evans Snodgrass, Slave-owner Turned Abolitionist

  1. A little typo: Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1950…..

    This was an interesting article. Didn’t know about this figure. Assume Poe didn’t join Snodgrass as a follower of the temperance movement!

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