The Keziah Affair

The Keziah Affair

During the 1850s, with increasing desperation, the white population of the Upper South witnessed the
success of slaves escaping North, both through individual exploits and organized efforts such as the Underground
Railroad. In 1855 the Norfolk Southern Argus wrote that the “frequent escapes of fugitives from our port” were “an
intolerable evil.” The next year the Virginia General Assembly required that all ships leaving the state for the North had
to be inspected. With this heightened scrutiny and white anger came increasing resourcefulness on the part of slaves and
their allies assisting in their escape.keziah affair
On May 29, 1858 the two-masted schooner Keziah left the port of Petersburg with a cargo of wheat bound for
the North. Complementing the grain cargo were five slaves: Gilbert, Sarah, William, John Bull, and Joe Mayo.
Unfortunately for the fugitives, the Keziah ran aground just down-river from City Point and a search party organized by
Mayor William Waverly Townes discovered the missing slaves. The Keziah was brought back to Petersburg and Captain
William Baylis and his mate were arrested. Many suspected Baylis of what he was, among the most aggressive conductors
on the Underground Railroad. Therefore, his trial engendered intense popular interest.
Baylis was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in prison for abduction. His wife Martha was quick to
come to his defense, even moving to Richmond for over two years to agitate for his release. Baylis served only until the
end of the Civil War when he returned to his home in Delaware and lived there until his death in 1881. The fate of only
one of the Keziah fugitives is known. John Bull was sold south and fetched $1150, ironically almost 1/12 times the price
asked for the contraband schooner Keziah used in his abortive attempt to escape.

During the 1850s, with increasing desperation, the white population of the Upper South witnessed the
success of slaves escaping North, both through individual exploits and organized efforts such as the Underground
Railroad. In 1855 the Norfolk Southern Argus wrote that the “frequent escapes of fugitives from our port” were “an
intolerable evil.” The next year the Virginia General Assembly required that all ships leaving the state for the North had
to be inspected. With this heightened scrutiny and white anger came increasing resourcefulness on the part of slaves and
their allies assisting in their escape.
On May 29, 1858 the two-masted schooner Keziah left the port of Petersburg with a cargo of wheat bound for
the North. Complementing the grain cargo were five slaves: Gilbert, Sarah, William, John Bull, and Joe Mayo.
Unfortunately for the fugitives, the Keziah ran aground just down-river from City Point and a search party organized by
Mayor William Waverly Townes discovered the missing slaves. The Keziah was brought back to Petersburg and Captain
William Baylis and his mate were arrested. Many suspected Baylis of what he was, among the most aggressive conductors
on the Underground Railroad. Therefore, his trial engendered intense popular interest.
Baylis was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in prison for abduction. His wife Martha was quick to
come to his defense, even moving to Richmond for over two years to agitate for his release. Baylis served only until the
end of the Civil War when he returned to his home in Delaware and lived there until his death in 1881. The fate of only
one of the Keziah fugitives is known. John Bull was sold south and fetched $1150, ironically almost 1/12 times the price
asked for the contraband schooner Keziah used in his abortive attempt to escape.

 

 

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