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Harper Twelvetrees, 1823-1881
The Story of the Life of John Anderson, the Fugitive Slave
London: W. Tweedie, 1863.


The identity of the author of The Story of the Life of John Anderson, the Fugitive Slave (1863) is unknown. While the title page lists no author, the text lists Harper Twelvetrees, a British abolitionist, as its editor. Twelvetrees also contributes a preface to the text.

Twelvetrees was born in 1832. He owned the Imperial Chemical Works, a soap and washing machine manufacturing plant, in Bromley-by-Bow, now a ward in London's Tower Hamlets Borough. He died in 1881.

Information about the life of John Anderson comes almost entirely from the Story. Born into slavery in Missouri, Anderson never knew his exact age, although he is in his early thirties at the time of the Story's publication. He never knew his father, who was described to him as a light-skinned mulatto who had escaped to the North. His mother belonged to "Moses Burton, of the town of Fayette, Howard County, Missouri," but she was sold to a slave trader bound for a New Orleans slave market after offending her master (p. 8). Anderson himself was later sold at "the age of manhood" to Jack Burton for $1000 (p. 8). Burton's wife was apparently a kind mistress, and Anderson spoke of her "in terms of gratitude and affection, call[ed] her his 'mother,' and [said] he was 'raised' by her" (p. 9). Anderson eventually became a Freewill Baptist, and on Christmas Day of 1850, he married Maria Tomlin, a woman enslaved by a neighbor of the Burtons. They later had a child together. Sometime around August 1853, Anderson was sold to "a man of the name of McDonald, whose residence was thirty miles distant from . . . the owner of Anderson's wife" (p. 11). McDonald forbade Anderson from visiting his wife and child and told him to "abandon and forget them, and take a new wife, or mistress" from McDonald's female slaves (p. 11). Anderson found this arrangement unbearable, and after sneaking away to visit his wife, child, and father-in-law, he escaped to the North. On his way, he encountered a white slaveholder named Seneca T. P. Diggs, who recognized him as a fugitive. Diggs led a manhunt to recapture Anderson, and during a confrontation in the chase, Anderson stabbed and killed Diggs before continuing on his way to freedom.

Anderson made his way to Windsor, Canada West (now Ontario), which he reached in September 1853. Worried that slave catchers from the U.S. and law enforcement officers might be looking for him, Anderson moved around different parts of Canada and lived under assumed names for the next five years. Eventually a friend betrayed Anderson to authorities, and he was arrested in April 1860, sparking a legal controversy: American slaveholders wanted Anderson extradited to stand trial for murder, while Canadian and British abolitionists felt that "a slave attempting to escape from bondage, and killing the person who attempted to re-enslave him, did not, according to the common law, commit murder, but justifiable homicide, and that the rendition of Anderson, would be a virtual recognition, on British soil, of the slave laws of the United States" (p. 34). After much legal debate, including intercession by the British government, Canadian courts acquitted Anderson and freed him. In 1861, Anderson moved to England, where he could "enjoy his liberty without the fear of persecution" (p. 85). In England, Anderson was funded by a committee of British abolitionists chaired by Twelvetrees. This "John Anderson Committee" had Anderson speak about his life at anti-slavery meetings for a brief time and then focused on providing him with a basic education (p. 147). Eventually, the committee decided to send Anderson to be settled in the African nation of Liberia. They raised money for Anderson's passage and arranged for him to be provided land when he arrived. On Christmas Eve, 1862, Anderson, accompanied by black abolitionist Alexander Crummell, sailed on "the African Steam Ship Armenia" (p. 179). The details of his life in Liberia—as well as the date and circumstances of his death—are unknown.

In his preface to the Story, Twelvetrees makes it clear that he sees Anderson as "the type and representative of eight millions of the human race" who are enslaved, an individual whose life story represents "the actual condition of a slave in all countries where chattel servitude is permitted" (p. vi). Twelvetrees declares that he and the rest of the John Anderson Committee are opposed to slavery because they believe it "reduces beings created in the image of God, to the level of the beasts that perish, or the clods of the earth" (p. x).

The main body of the Story describes Missouri's history and the state's place in U.S. debates about slavery. Anderson's life in Missouri and his escape are covered fairly quickly. The author's main interest is the legal debate sparked by Anderson's arrest. The text goes into great detail about the charges leveled against Anderson and the claims of jurisdiction that various governments—Canadian, American, and British—have over him. Given that the story is published by the British abolitionists who helped bring Anderson to England, it is unsurprising that the Story's author is heavily in favor of acquittal.

The Story's longest chapter (Chapter 11) is dedicated to the proceedings of an abolitionist meeting held shortly after Anderson's arrival in England in which the committee declares its position against slavery and its willingness to aid Anderson. Subsequent chapters describe Anderson's speaking engagements at anti-slavery events, the tutelage he receives from several British abolitionists, and his departure to Liberia. In these chapters, the Story is more focused on the proceedings of white British abolitionists than it is on Anderson as a person. Indeed, while the committee does provide Anderson with considerable aid, they often treat him as a dependent and make decisions on his behalf. For example, after Anderson's few appearances as a speaker, "it was deemed advisable [by the committee] to withdraw Anderson from public life" (p. 149). The Story does not say whether Anderson himself participated in this decision, or the others made about him, including the resolution to send him to Liberia.

Aside from occasional brief anecdotes—such as an account of Anderson's courtship of his wife at a religious "camp meeting"—Anderson's personal thoughts and opinions remain largely absent from the text (p. 130). Rather than informing readers of Anderson's perspective on the events of his life or if he was ever reunited with his wife and child, the Story focuses more intently on the legal issues of Anderson's arrest and the work of the British abolitionists.

Works Consulted: "Bromley by Bow" in Bromley by Bow Centre (accessed April 3, 2009); Hatts, Leigh, The Lea Valley Walk, 2nd ed., place of publication unknown: Cicerone Press, 2007; Ripley, Peter C., ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Volume II: Canada, 1830-1865, Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1986.

Harry Thomas

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