Greenwich mayor descended from man who attempted to rescue a kidnapped “slave”

by Tim Tefft
The Greenwich Journal and Salem Press 
May 17, 2012 

Greenwich’s mayor, David Doonan (and wife Judy), will be out of town this weekend. This announcement is being made, not to encourage a coup de ville, but to alert residents of our small town that Hiz Honor will be, briefly, somewhat of a celebrity in another small place on Saturday afternoon, May 19.

He will be one of a number of guests of honor at a living history event to be held in West Nottingham township, Pennsylvania. That’s a small town that borders the Mason Dixon line in southwestern Chester County. Maryland, a slave state until the end of the Civil War, lies just to the south of West Nottingham.

The fact that West Nottingham lies north of the Mason Dixon line (the traditional antebellum border – by imaginative extension – between this nation’s free and slave states) plays a big part in the story of Mayor Doonan’s ancestry. One of David’s great great grandfathers, Joseph Miller, lived in West Nottingham one hundred sixty-one years ago, and he played a major, tragic role in response to an incident that took place there in those perilous times when tension between North and South was increasing.

Saturday, at 2 p.m., at the Union United Methodist Church, Nottingham, a living history program, “The Parker Kidnapping and Rescue,” will be presented with David in the audience. Three speakers – Shirley Whyte, Ralph Denlinger, and Milt Diggins – will reveal the story of Rachel and Elizabeth Parker, sisters who were falsely accused of being escaped slaves. In December 1851, they were kidnapped by a “slave catcher.” Thomas McCreary, acting under the supposed authority of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, took Rachel from the kitchen of Miller’s home. Sixteen years old and employed as a servant in the Miller home, Rachel was the daughter of free African-Americans Ned and Rebecca Parker.

McCreary succeeded in dragging Rachel from the house and, with two accomplices, was attempting to wrest her into a nearby carriage, when Miller attempted to stop the kidnapping, but McCreary pulled a knife out and forced Miller to let go of Rebecca’s arm, which he had just seized. Moments later, with a gagged Rachel inside, the carriage pulled away from the end of Miller’s lane and headed for the Maryland state line, just a mile or two away.

Miller, on foot, gave chase and caught up with the vehicle at his neighbor’s lane, which was blocked by his neighbor’s wagon. As Miller approached, one of the kidnappers pulled out a long knife (possibly a sword) and threatened to injure Miller with it. The carriage then turned and, with its precious cargo, sped down another road, leaving Miller and his neighbor, James Pollock, behind.

Providing testimony later, Rachel said that after the kidnappers had pulled away from Pollock’s lane, “one of the men tore a hole in the back of the carriage, to look out to see if they were coming after us, and they said they wished they had given Miller and Pollock a blow.”

Upon reaching the railroad station at Perryville, they boarded a train and, by evening, were in Baltimore, where Rachel was locked up in a slave dealer’s holding cell in the company of her sister, Elizabeth, who had been kidnapped by McCreary from the East Nottingham home of her employer, Matthew Donnelly, about two weeks before.

It so happened that a friend of Miller, Eli Haines, had been at the Perryville train depot when McCreary and his cohorts had arrived there with Rachel. Seeing Rachel’s distress and hearing her protests that she was a free Black, Haines assumed that Miller would soon be on his way to do what he could to rescue the girl who had lived in his household for six years. Haines and a companion boarded the same train to Baltimore and eventually followed the kidnappers and their victim to the slave dealer’s establishment. They then went back to the Baltimore station to await what Haines had assumed would be Miller’s appearance there.

Miller arrived in the company of three other West Nottingham men, learned from Haines where Rachel had been taken, and then with the aid of a Quaker friend, Francis Cochran, went to the police. Soon a city constable agreed to take Rachel into custody and hold her in the city jail until the question of her status could be determined in court. McCreary was arrested and charged with kidnapping (but soon set free), and Miller and the other members of Rachel’s rescue party headed back to the train station so that they might return to their homes. They boarded the train but had to wait for its scheduled departure time. Miller, against the advice of his friends, left the car that contained his friends, and stepped down to the platform to enjoy a cigar. He never got on the train again, alive.

Just before the train, steam up, was to move away, his friends made a frantic search for Miller. They could not find him. Several days later, early in January 1852, Miller’s body was found about nine miles from Baltimore at a place called Stemmer’s Run. He had been hanged from a tree, but a county coroner declared he had committed suicide (a determination reiterated after a second post-mortem examination of Miller’s body). Later, the body was disinterred from a grave in Maryland and returned to Pennsylvania, where physicians found evidence that Miller’s wrists had been bound, that he had been tortured, and that he had been made to swallow arsenic. Joseph Miller, obviously, had been murdered as a result of his having attempted to rescue Rachel Parker from slavery.

More than a year would transpire before, largely due to publicity generated by a Washington, D.C., newspaper, the National Era, Rachel and Elizabeth Parker would be taken to court, set free, and allowed to return to Chester County. Their kidnappers and the men suspected of killing Joseph Miller were never brought to justice. They were indicted in Pennsylvania but Maryland refused to extradite them.

Another Greenwich connection

Mayor Doonan is a transplant to Greenwich and a most welcome one. As Greenwich claims to have been a “Hot Bed of Abolitionism,” we are proud that he is descended from a man who, though not necessarily an avowed Abolitionist, took immediate action to help a girl who was falsely accused of being a fugitive slave.

Greenwich has another connection to the Parker kidnapping case. The National Era would not have been able to print the story of Rachel and Joseph Miller and turn public sentiment to outrage over Miller’s murder and in favor of Rachel’s release without significant financial support from a Greenwich resident, William H. Mowry. He and his wife, Angelina, lived at 6 Church Street, where they harbored fugitive slaves and employed them as domestic servants in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. Tradition has it that the Mowrys had documentation attesting to the freedom of all of their servants but, as some moved north to freedom in Canada or to homes of their own, others took their places (and names) until they, too, moved on.

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