Madison County Historical Society


Douglass Had Brush With Death

Civil Rights Leader was Assaulted During Pendleton Appearance


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 In 1843, Frederick Douglass was just 25 years old when he was invited to Pendleton to deliver a speech on an extremely volatile topic in our country.  His reception left not only an indelible and unfortunate mark on our county's history, but a lasting personal injury that would serve as a reminder to him of his brush with death.

A former slave, Douglass had escaped at an early age and was soon recognized for his unique oratory skills.  He spent his adult life first attempting to overthrow the institution of slavery and, once accomplished, to heal the wounds of slavery that scared our nation.

He was a firm believer in the equality of all people.  So powerful and intellectually stimulating was his message, the northerners found it difficult to believe that this man could have been a former slave, but they soon cast their doubts aside.  As a result of this recognition, he joined the abolitionist movement headed by William Lloyd Garrison, whom he greatly admired.  The movement enjoyed its greatest support in the New England states.

The leaders of the movement eventually realized the need for their message to be heard outside of New England if it was to have any chance of gaining popularity with the rest of the nation.  And, this in 1843, Douglass and other members of the American Anti-Slavery Society's Hundred Conventions Project began a six-month tour of meeting halls throughout the northern states.  They met with some success but history records that their message was not as well received as the leaders had hoped.  Pendleton is a case-in-point.

Taunts and More

 In Madison County, particularly in Fall Creek Township, there were a number of members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers.  They were not overly large in numbers but significant enough that in 1836 they built a log meeting house east of Pendleton for worship.  It would be members of this congregation that would come to the aid of Douglass in his hour of need.

Unable to obtain a building for the meeting, his speech was advertised to be held in a grove on the north side of the J. O. Hardy farm near the falls on Fall Creek.  A platform was erected to which a large number of persons were drawn, perhaps by curiosity as much as anything else.  Among the crowd was Micajah White from Westfield in Hamilton County.  Before this day was over, he would be minus some teeth.

Douglass was escorted to the platform by Edwin Fussel, a local doctor.  A pitcher of water was placed upon a stand and then someone rose to introduce the speaker.

To the surprise of everyone on the platform and many in the audience, a man by the name of John Rix boldly walked upon the platform and taking the pitcher of water in one hand said, "I see there is nothing going to be done unless I start it."  At this point, an estimated 60 rough-looking characters in the crowd began taunting and shouting at Douglass and the others on the platform ordering them not to speak or violence would result.  Attempts were made to restore peace but to no avail.

Douglass was standing and attempting to speak but his words could not be heard 10 feet away because of the shouts from the infuriated crowd of ruffians.

 Taken to a Family Farm

 One eyewitness account states that Dr. M. G. Walker saved Douglass from death from an attacker swinging a heavy iron bar over the head of Douglass, who by now was down.  The doctor threw his weight against the would-be assailant, hurling him away just as Neal Hardy and Edwin Fussel came to the aid of the fallen orator.

The storm now broke forth in all its fury as several men carrying stones made their way towards the platform.  Douglass and the others, seeing themselves in immediate danger, fled the rear of the platform and while going over a nearby fence, Douglass was struck several times by rocks hurled at him by his pursuers.  The fury of hurling stones, clubs and fists knocked him to the ground leaving him unconscious.  Satisfied they had killed him, the angry mob dispersed.

Douglass was helped to his feet by much kinder hands and placed in the care of Mr. William Lukens.  He was taken by wagon three miles east to the home of Neal Hardy where the family cared for and attended him with a tenderness Douglass never forgot.

He had been struck several times, one rock inflicting a serious would on the left side of his face and head.  His hand was also broken in the attack while he was defending himself with a stick.  It healed improperly and bothered him for the rest of his life.

The excitement was still at fever pitch at nightfall.  It had been threatened that Douglass would be taken and strung up to a tree.  Anticipating the additional violence, Neal Hardy, Isaac Busby, Joel James, John Lewis, and others armed themselves with squirrel rifles and formed a line around the Hardy home.

At 10 o'clock, word was received that the mob was coming from New Columbus and every member was armed to the teeth with revolvers and bowie knives.

There was great excitement in Pendleton.  Everyone was on alert.  Guards were placed at the roads leading into town.  Some were in favor of turning Douglass over to the mob while others were determined to fight for him.  Fortunately for all, the mob never showed.

Peter Runnel of New Columbus was arrested and taken to the county jail in Anderson for his part in the attack.  Angered citizens from New Columbus protested the imprisonment of a white man for assaulting a Negro.  Forty men formed and marched to Anderson demanding the release of Runnel.

They were met about a mile south of Anderson by Colonel Nineveh Berry and ex-sheriff, William B. Allen.  The two had been dispatched to negotiate with the mob.  After some discussion the release of Runnel was agreed to and the mob disbanded.

Without trial or jury, runnel was given his freedom and the next day, Douglas, being improved so as to travel, left for Indianapolis.

Frederick Douglass returned to Madison County on at least two occasions according to our county history.  On one of those occasions, only a few years before his death on February 20, 1895, he addressed a large meeting at the fairgrounds north of Eighth Street between Madison Avenue and John Street.

He spoke candidly of the attack at Pendleton 52 years earlier and blamed no one other than the natural dislike for men-of-color that was prevalent at that time.  Douglass had indeed maintained his unfailing love for all mankind throughout his life.

By Stephen T. Jackson, Madison County Historian


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