Wheeling fugitive slave’s experience recounted
WHEELING — Lucy Bagby was blunt with her message: “It started right here in Wheeling, Virginia.”
A dramatic performance, “The Last Fugitive Slave,” was presented Tuesday to tell the story of Bagby, the final enslaved person returned to a master before the Civil War.
The program was offered at the Ohio County Public Library to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States. Actress Robin Pease wrote the script and portrayed Bagby. Six members of the community also participated in the presentation for Lunch With Books.
In October 1860, Bagby — the daughter of a slave and a free white man — escaped from the Wheeling home of her master, William Goshorn. A friend (portrayed by Ron Scott Jr.) helped her flee, on foot and by wagon, following the Ohio River from Wheeling to Pittsburgh. She then traveled to Cleveland, where she found employment as a maid.
“This was the first money I had ever earned for my work,” she said. “I was free. I had a place to live. I had friends. I had a job. No more auction block for me.”
An angry Goshorn (portrayed by Travis Henline) hired trackers to find Bagby and got a warrant for her arrest. He said his father purchased the girl for $600 in Richmond, Virginia, in 1852. He argued that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act gave him the right to reclaim his “property,” even in a free state such as Ohio.
After a U.S. marshal arrested Bagby, crowds in Cleveland demanded that she be released from jail. A judge (portrayed by Belmont County Judge Harry White) ordered that she be transferred from the jail to federal custody at the Cleveland post office.
An abolitionist (played by Jon Coffield) said townspeople plotted to get Bagby out and take her to freedom in Canada, but their plan failed. At a court hearing on Jan. 23, 1861, the judge ruled that federal law must be obeyed and the Union must be preserved. He ordered the U.S. marshal to return Bagby to Goshorn.
Feeling like “a human sacrifice,” Bagby prayed to be rescued. Crowds of angry abolitionists surrounded the train, but were unsuccessful in attempts to free Bagby.
She said the train, taking her back to Wheeling, passed through Ohio towns that were stops on the Underground Railroad.
She was lodged in jail, but was released later. When Union troops arrived, Goshorn was arrested and placed in the same cell where his slave had been kept. Two years later, Bagby returned to Cleveland as a free woman.
For Tuesday’s performance, Jeanne Finstein played Goshorn’s daughter, Isabella, and Walt Warren appeared as a lawyer for Bagby.
Pease, founding artistic director and lead playwright-performer of Kulture Kids in Cleveland, said she has written three versions of the program: one with adults, one for children and a solo work. She said she performs “The Last Fugitive Slave” with fourth-grade students in Cleveland.