Hidden Among Abolitionists and Mobs: Matilda Lawrence

The woman known as Matilda may seem unremarkable; however, she was anything but! As a housebound slave, she taught herself how to read, and she would inspire countless more runaway slaves to take legal action.

Matilda’s birth around 1816 was one that was common of slave owners who raped slave women. She was born in southern Missouri to an enslaved “mulatto” mother and her owner Larkin Lawrence. “He was an elderly man, unmarried, and a testy invalid,” recalled William Birney (as told by Matilda). Since Matilda could pass as white, being described as a brunette “octoroon,” or 1/8 black, Larkin raised her as his servant and dependent, belonging to no community but to him. The whole area knew her story, so white society barred her and her father did not permit her to interact with blacks. Matilda was in a prison of isolation. She used her forced shut-in status to learn to read, using the books in Larkin’s library. When Matilda was 16, her mother died, leaving Matilda to take up her work as housekeeper on top of her work as Larkin’s personal assistant.

Matilda was in a prison of isolation.

In the winter of 1836, Larkin took Matilda with him as his daughter to New York (or Maryland) for health consultations. “Her remarkable beauty attracted admirers, her pensiveness and modesty being additional charms,” noted William Birney. Now exposed to the outside world and opportunities of the North, she eagerly learned more, especially of freedom and her own condition of slavery. Larkin declined her continued requests for freedom. She even said she promised to return with him to work for him, as long as she was free.

Concerned about Matilda’s newfound wishes, Larkin set sail for Missouri, docking at Cincinnati’s wharf in May 1836 and spending the night at a hotel near there, intending to resume passage on a steamboat the next day. There, she left in the middle of the night and sought refuge in Church Alley with a local black barber. Larkin left a few days later, surely inquiring about his daughter and angry that she’d delayed his passage back to Missouri. His thoughts of Matilda were festering, and a white man with festering thoughts is dangerous.

It was about the same time as his departure that Matilda found employment as a white family’s servant. Then, in October 1836, Agatha McDowell Birney hired her as a chambermaid and nurse. Her health was failing, and she had children. Her husband, James G. Birney, former slave owner and author of the abolitionist journal The Philanthropist, had been continually targeted by angry anti-abolition mobs earlier that year at work and at home. The mobs increased in violence as Birney’s voice grew stronger and more persuasive, taking to violence against Blacks in Church Alley and attempted violence against Pugh, Birney, and Chase. This was a dangerous city for Matilda to be in, if anyone ever found out that she was not 100% white.

With Cincinnati being a border city, it was a battleground for abolition, and abolitionists could not declare themselves so, lest they be attacked. Rather, they labeled themselves as proponents of free speech, and most were in the Semi-Colon Club (the Mitchels, Stowes, Footes, Beechers, Carys, etc.). Birney was first to shake the city up as an outspoken self-labeled abolitionist and former slave owner, and Matilda was about to help… but not on purpose. Harriet Beecher Stowe, vehemently against any mob and against slavery, took to what she did best to support Birney and enact change: writing. She wrote a letter, published by her brother Henry, disguised as “Franklin,” in the Cincinnati Journal and Western Luminary, writing: “Every man is glad of a mob that happens to fall in with his views, without considering that if the mob system gets once thoroughly running, it may go against as well as for them.” Matilda would have been in the thick of the mobs, likely scared out of her mind, in a city of promise for both North and South, as well as the new Northwest—which made it the battlegrounds for all their ideals.

With the Birneys, she proved herself to be “a modest, industrious girl, of respectful manners and affectionate disposition,” William Birney noted, and she quickly found herself beloved by the Birneys, though she didn’t talk about her past. She had twisted her story to be a white woman born into poverty in Missouri with a dead mother. She was developing a new home, a place where she was loved. But not loved enough to have revealed her secret heritage, even to the known abolitionist family, in this time of immense turmoil and fear.

Matilda had only been working with the Birney family for five months when she returned from an errand, shaken to her core in early March 1837. John W. Riley approached her in the streets and charged her with being a runaway slave. According to Riley, Larkin Lawrence hired him as a bounty hunter to track down Matilda for fleeing. However, Riley was a bounty hunter after one thing: money. Riley’s affidavit from Larkin could have been fabricated from rumor by an upset old man who lost his favorite slave and a gossipy town that noticed her absence. Birney plotted to have Matilda stay with a friend in western New York until this passed over, but the house was under constant surveillance by Riley and his hired crew. Matilda was arrested on 10 March 1837 by the 1793 law, under warrant by Judge Doty.

While detained, James Birney hired his friend Salmon P. Chase as Matilda’s defense attorney. Usually, runaway slaves were sent to appear before a magistrate without a jury and sent back with the claimed owner. Chase and Birney would try to change that. The two men had been friends since 1835, and he taught Chase anti-slavery rationale as they spent many late nights conversing in Birney’s library. Chase applied to the self-venerated Judge David K. Este, a member of the Whig party, for a writ of habeas corpus, or the chance to appear before the judge to fight for Matilda’s unlawful imprisonment. Common Pleas Court clerk William Henry Harrison issued the writ, and Matilda and Chase appeared before Judge Este, who had already made up his mind before Chase spoke.

On 11 March 1837, at 9:30 a.m., Chase made a widely-read, logos-based defense of Matilda’s right to freedom that would rock the nation to its core. He asked not for sympathy but for careful ears in this case under national spotlight. The results of this case could forever influence U.S. democracy, law, and society. He insisted that this fame and any emotions toward Matilda—racist or sympathetic—do not intervene in sound judgment.

“If color be sufficient cause of imprisonment, let us know the exact shade.” -Salmon P. Chase

One of the first aspects tackled in Chase’s defense was the matter of race. To progress the case, it had to be seen as a non-issue in this matter, looking past Matilda’s skin color (which was white) to see her as a human being. He asked the court what crime she’d committed to be imprisoned? “Absolutely none,” he answers himself, “unless color be a sufficient cause of detention: and if so—if color be sufficient cause of imprisonment, let us know the exact shade.” This sassy wit… “The time has not yet arrived in Ohio, when color implies either crime nor bondage. And far distant be the day! For that day will not come, till the solid foundations of our state institutions shall be upheaved and scattered by the volcanic energies of revolution.” This was a powerful statement of idealism and technicality but entirely untrue in social reality—then and now. Using this technical argument that law had not been written to criminalize being black, he could delve into the further technicalities of the lawfulness of her enslavement and her imprisonment. This point served to disengage a white audience with race and look at the technicalities of law instead.

Pressing on, he argued for her personal liberty. State courts, he said were designed for protecting personal liberties, something everyone should care about and relate to. If your liberties were being taken away, would you fight for them? So why not allow others the same right? Besides, Ohio (and Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana) was designated a free state and that under no circumstances would slavery be allowed. A black person should have been free here.

Well, it turns out her captivity was unconstitutional. Chase requested that Matilda be freed from prison because it is her constitutional right—but moreso her natural and divine right as a human.

Federal law supercedes state law and purports to ensure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Had the writers of the constitution intended slavery standards or requirements, they would would have set specific provisions regarding slavery and race, and offices would have been accordingly appointed over slavery matters.

The Fourth and Fifth Amendments, ratified by the states counter actions against slavery and runaway captures. The first clause of the Fourth Amendment states that unreasonable searches and seizures are unlawful, regarding “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” The third clause of the Fourth Amendment states that “no man shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Chase states: “It provides no process for the apprehension; none for the detention; none for the final delivery of the escaping servant.” It is therefore entirely illegal to detain Matilda under these grounds.

With these laws in action, any employer can have an employee arrested, claiming that work was not done. Technically, every person could be tried for personal liberty, so “what constitutes the exemption? Color?” Chase points out. “The act says nothing about color: it reaches white apprentices, as well as negro slaves. Condition or character?” The white upper class’s personal liberties are quite safe, but the working classes must worry more about their personal liberties being taken from them. “There is no security for the poor, the ignorant and the unfriended,” speaking directly of Matilda. “Vitally important as the issue of this cause is to the petitioner—for liberty is sweet even to the humblest, and slavery, disguise it as you will, is still a bitter draught,—the community has in it even a deeper stake.” No one’s freedom is safe. It borders on the edge of slipper slope tactics, but relies heavily on constitutional reason. Matilda, as a mulatto passing off as white in Cincinnati, became more than a symbol of slavery; she became a symbol for workers, regardless of skin color. Or at least that was the intent.

After Chase’s eloquent speech, Judge Este ruled that Matilda be returned to slavery, stating that she was clearly the rightful property of Larkin Lawrence, according to Riley’s oath and affidavit, and was so when she was in Cincinnati.

The terrified, screaming Matilda was sent back to an independent prison in Covington, Kentucky, manhandled by three hired men, transporting her by carriage and then by ferry. Here, she could not be saved in a slave-owning Southern state. She was now outside of Ohio law and the threat of being taken to a higher court. That night of 11 March 1836, she was placed on a steamboat bound for New Orleans, unbeknownst to the Birneys at the time. There, she was sold into slavery once more and was lost in record. The high price on her head gave Riley and his Democratic lawyers (General Robert T. Lytle, M. N. McLean, and N. C. Read) a hefty reward.

Birney was now brought before the court, indicted for harboring a fugitive slave. He lost, but Chase took his case to the upper courts. The Ohio State Supreme Court trial lasted for over three hours with William Birney being used as a witness against his own father. Birney won, and the lower court sentence was reversed. Through Pugh’s new office at Main and 5th, Birney published and distributed Chase’s defense to those within the realm of law.

Sadly, the two white men who fought for Matilda went on to have bigger careers while Matilda suffered in slavery, probably never allowed to read again. Chase served as President of Ohio’s Liberty party, Governor of Ohio twice, Ohio Senator, Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, Supreme Court Chief Justice and four-time presidential bid nominee for the Democratic and Liberal Republican parties. From Matilda’s case was born Constitutional law, and it made Chase known as the “Abolitionist Lawyer” or “Attorney for Runaway Slaves,” an adviser for cases all over the North and Northwest and labels we wore with pride.

Birney became the Liberty party nominee for President, losing to William Henry Harrison, and died in 1857, before the Civil War started. He continued his progressive abolition work, condemning abolitionists who “continued to vote for their old parties, or who refused to vote at all, preferring to ‘entreat’ Whigs and Democrats for abolition measures, or to petition Congress for them, or to indulge in wordy denunciations of men and things,” as William Birney wrote.

But Matilda, in all her efforts for freedom and with that small taste of it, spurred a revolution. Runaways all over the North began to apply for writ of habeas corpus to fight for fair trials. Free states, moved by Matilda and reasoned by Chase’s defense, began to pass personal-liberty laws, “designed to secure the right of trial by jury to every person claimed as a slave, and to punish as kidnappers all persons aiding or abetting in delivering as a slave any person not proved to have escaped from a slave into a free State.” Many of these cases did not end well, especially in Cincinnati, where those in judiciary roles were yet swayed by the power of slavery, tradition, proximity to the South, and by pressure of white anger. But Matilda changed how many people viewed the legal system and gave hope to thousands of southern refugees.

Want to take a Matilda pilgrimage in Cincinnati?

I’m sorry there’s really nothing to see regarding Matilda’s journey. We don’t have a diary or letters from her, so it’s hard to make more of a Matilda trip, and none of the buildings stand anymore. But you can make the most out of it as you track her journey to attempted freedom.

Matilda Lawrence's Cincinnati journey
Mapping out Matilda’s journey, from the docks to the courthouse
  • Walk along the river: Go to the old Green Line Wharf, about where the docks are in front of U.S. Bank Arena, between Taylor Southgate Bridge and Broadway, along the Ohio. This would be a great opportunity to fit in a trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the banks, where Little Africa used to stand.

  • Take me to church: From the Banks, head on up to what was known as Church Alley, between 4th and 5th and Walnut and Main, behind the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland building, where Matilda sought refuge and where the mobs attacked.

  • Feeling philanthropic? On the way to the next destination, you can see where Achilles Pugh’s office was—where Birney’s Philanthropist was printed and where Matilda may have sent messages from the family.

  • Home is where the car is: If you get hungry on the way to see where Matilda worked for the Birneys, you can stop at Fins Feathers & BBQ or Cafe de Paris on Garfield Place, or any other place you see along the way. Take a walk through Piatt Park, Cincinnati’s oldest park. At the corner of 8th and Race, you’ll be standing in front of where the Birney house (Franklin Hotel) was. You can still see the alley between the two building sets between the parking lot and Ron Hamilton Photo. The buildings would have stretched into what is now Piatt Park, as 8th Street was only E Garfield Pl at the time. The Birney house would have been likely on what is now W Garfield/8th.

  • Porkopolis: On Main at the end of Court, you’ll see the current Hamilton County Courthouse. Where the east side of the building is, you’ll find the site of the courthouse Matilda’s case was held in. It was a small two-story building that caught fire from the pork plant next to it.

  • Explore the world: Tag us in your adventures to honor Matilda on instagram, twitter, or facebook with hashtags #queensofqueencity and #MatildaLawrence. Tag us in any other women-centric adventures, too!

Photo Gallery

Quick Facts

  • Name: Matilda Lawrence
  • Birth: ~1816, Southern Missouri
  • Parents: Larkin Lawrence and an as-of-yet-known slave woman
  • Known for: Sparking northern change with her case on unconstitutional captivity
  • Connections: Agatha Birney (friend, employer), James G. Birney (friend, employer), Salmon P. Chase (friend, attorney)

  • Time in Cincinnati area: May 1836 – 11/12 March 1837

  • Places lived: Southern Missouri; briefly New York (or Maryland); Cincinnati, OH; New Orleans, LA

  • Death: Unknown

  • Burial: Unknown


Note: When words are bolded, links are present.


S.E.’s Notes: It could be that Matilda went by the last name of her father, most definitely in New York and maybe in Cincinnati, but it’s likely she was forced to have a whole new life in New Orleans—including a new name.

The Democrats were traditionalist, slave-holding sympathizers, and Republicans tried to be progressive liberals. The Liberty party was born out of abolition because Republicans weren’t progressive enough.

I’m trying to find out what happened to Matilda—to whom she was sold and if she had children. If you know or know of ways, please contact us.

I’m also trying to recover her mother’s name through records in Missouri.

Concerning photos: All photos are taken/owned by Queens of Queen City or given permission for use here only and are indicated when originating elsewhere. Please do not reproduce without our consent or the originators’ consent, respectively.

This page is composed by S.E. Andres.