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Authors: Solomon Northup,Dr. Sue Eakin

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Merrill and Russell applied for release based on adequate bail set to guarantee their attendance at the following term of the Oyer and Terminer Court. Because the District Attorney had concerns about whether the Statute of Limitations were applicable, Russell’s bail was nominal. Merrill’s bail was $800 [See
Washington County People’s Journal

In order to understand the long, drawn out, legal actions involving the kidnappers at this point, the reader should understand that disputed legal cases could be appealed from the county court, in this case, Oyer and Terminer of Saratoga County, to the New York Supreme Court. If there was further disagreement with a decision, the case could be appealed to the Court of Appeals for a final judgment. The decision of the Oyer and Terminer Court to demur the case until after the New York Supreme Court decided jurisdiction in the four counts against Merrill and Russell was the first step in this process.

Ballston Democratic Whig Journal
reported on the results that July 17, 1855, stating that the first count of the indictment, that of Merrill and Russell tricking Solomon Northup into leaving Saratoga County in order to sell him as a slave, was found good. However, the other counts were dropped because the crimes listed were committed in the District of Columbia, not in New York; therefore, New York courts had no jurisdiction. The decision was appealed to the New York Supreme Court, but it was confirmed. The District Attorney decided at that point to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals [See
Ballston Democratic Whig Journal

Throughout these years as the case wended its way through the New York Court system, all of the press of New York actively followed the court proceedings. The small contingent of African American papers were, naturally, especially interested. Suspicious of the proceedings, they still hoped for justice, as witnessed by these two examples printed in 1855, at least one year before the trial was scheduled:




What will be done with the kidnappers of SOLOMON NORTHRUP [
]? This is a query we have often made, and one which has as often been propounded to us. The question could be very easily answered, and the case would have been settled long ago, had the aggrieved party been a white man. We hope the vile offenders, MERRILL and RUSSELL, will have ample justice meted out to them. We learn from the Saratogian, that the Supreme Court has sustained the demurrer to the indictment against them. The effect of this decision will be the striking out of these counts of the indictment in each of which the crime was charged to have been committed in the District of Columbia, and to leave only the count in which the inveigling of MR. NORTHRUP [
] is charged to have been committed in the County of Saratoga, with intent to sell him as a slave, and that he was afterwards sold in pursuance of that intention.

The proceedings in this case have not been quite as ‘summary’ as they might have been or as they would have been if SOLOMON had kidnapped his kidnappers, or had he been a recaptured fugitive. This is a strange face land we live in, to say the least, abounding in kidnappers, and women whippers, and Fourth of Julys, and Stringfellows, and Atchisons with a considerable sprinkle of proslavery preachers to add a charm to the delightful and expressive picture . . . [See
Frederick Douglass Paper
, July 20, 1855].

And from another article of the black abolitionist press:


] CASE. It now looks marvelously as though the scoundrelly kidnappers of Solomon Northrup [
], the free man of color who was inveigled from Washington County, N.Y., to Washington City, and there sold as a slave, would escape unwhipped of justice. Three counts of indictment against them have been swept away by the court, leaving only a single count in which they are charged with having inveigled their victim abroad for the purpose of selling him. The final decision was given on the 4th inst. The defendants are under five hundred dollars bond only, a less sum than would be required if they were under indictment for stealing a spavined horse [See
Frederick Douglass Paper
, August 24,1855].

When the case finally reached the New York Court of Appeals, it reversed the decisions of the lower courts because the indictment legally could not be split, with one count being acceptable while the other three were ruled not acceptable. Consequently, the case was returned to the county. These conclusions are explained in the New York Court of Appeals’ “Report of Cases”.

After that ruling,
The Daily Saratogian
reported that the trial on the indictment of Russell and Merrill would likely be in September of 1856. However, in a column headed “Court Proceedings” in the
Ballston Journal
of May 26, 1857, the following terse statement appears: “The People agst Henry Merrill and Joseph Russell, under an indictment for kidnapping Solmon [
] Northup. Case discharged.” The case was never brought to trial.

The Fate of Solomon Northup

The fate of Solomon Northup following the terse announcement by Oyer and Teminer Court that the case was cancelled has puzzled readers. Solomon had not appeared for the trial. Why? No one knew what had happened to him.

Despite all of the publicity in New York newspapers and the impact of Solomon’s story, which resonated throughout the pre-war period, there was no outcry from the public as to the fate of Solomon Northup. A New York researcher, studying the accounts in the state’s newspapers of the 1850s dealing with the Northup story, remarked that in a case that had fascinated New York for four years, from the rescue of Solomon by Henry Northup in 1853 to the trial scheduled for 1857, it would seem enough interest had been focused on the story to bring questions from abolitionists or humanitarians or the simply curious as to what was the final resolution to the case. Not a word of inquiry, much less a demand for investigation, has been found by this editor or other researchers trying to find what happened to Solomon Northup. Not only the editor but highly qualified New York researchers have searched for information on the subject to be included in this volume, but in vain. What follows are the bits and pieces of the story that remain to help us conjecture about what may have happened.

As to why Solomon disappeared, there are many conjectures. Some felt that Northup might have been killed by his kidnappers, or perhaps he was kidnapped a second time. Yet, in summer 1857, he was in Canada as a speaker, as is apparent from notices regarding disruptions of his speeches by angry mobs, so there is evidence he was alive after the case was dismissed. There is some evidence that Solomon was involved in the Underground Railroad, aiding escaped slaves in reaching Canada, and perhaps he felt it too dangerous to the people of the railroad and to himself to appear. Or perhaps the district attorney found the case too difficult to prosecute with Solomon Northup himself always away from the area earning speaking fees and others wondering if Solomon himself had been a party to the kidnapping (Fiske, 43-51).

There has always been some conjecture that Solomon might have been a willing accomplice to Russell and Merrill. In other words, Solomon might have planned, with the two men, to go with them and allow them to sell him into slavery, with the idea that they split the sales money with him after they arranged for him to be freed. This theory is reflected in a couple of newspaper columns of the time, including the following:


The Saratoga Press
[Republican] in reply to inquiries of the
Albany Evening Journal
, in regard to the
nolle prosequi
entered in the case of Merrill and Russell, the alleged kidnappers of Sol Northup, at the last Oyer and Terminer, says: “We would answer by saying that since the indictment was found, the District Attorney was placed in possession of facts that whilst proving their guilt in a measure, would prevent a conviction. To speak more plainly, it is more than suspected that Sol Northup was an accomplice in the sale, calculating to slip away and share the spoils, but that the purchaser was too sharp for him, and instead of getting the cash, he got something else. [See
Glens Falls Free Press
, May 1, 1858]

This scenario is one that Merrill had attempted earlier in his kidnapping career, according to testimony of John S. Enos.
However, there is no evidence to prove that Solomon Northup’s kidnapping was anything other than what he represented in
Twelve Years a Slave.

As to Solomon’s whereabouts, there was never a confirmation of rumors that he had decided to travel on some mission of his own and had been kidnapped again. However, the most provocative thought on this theory came from lawyer E.R. Mann, who summarized the Northup case in the
The Bench
and Bar of Saratoga County
in 1876:


[The demurrer] narrowed the issue down to the kidnapping charge, but, before the indictment was brought to trial, Northrup [
] again disappeared. What his fate was is unknown to the public, but the desperate kidnappers no doubt knew. A nolle pros. was entered in their case in May, 1857, by District Attorney John O. Mott.

No grave of Solomon Northup has ever been found. Some in his family have said that the time of his death has been passed down as occurring in 1864, that he had gone to Mississippi and been killed. No evidence has been found substantiating this story, either of the trip or his death. There is some evidence that he visited a colleague in the Canadian Underground Railroad after the Emancipation on January 1, 1863, and in 1875 the New York State Census listed the marital status of his wife, Anne, as “Widowed” (Fiske, slideshow,
What happened to Solomon Northu

John Henry Northup, born in Sandy Hill in 1822, a nephew of Henry Northup, was well acquainted with both Solomon and Henry Northup. He wrote his version of the story in 1909 in a letter to his cousin, Edith Carman Hay, who recounted it:


John Henry Northup said not long after they came home, Henry B. “got a young lawyer to hear Sol’s story. Soon by questions he got enough to write a book.” According to John Henry,
Solomon Northup: 12 Years
in Slavery
Twelve Years a Slave
], written quickly and published in 1853, “created a sensation for it came out a short time after
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
] by Mrs. Stowe. The last I heard of him,” said John Henry in 1909, Sol “was lecturing in Boston to help sell his book . . . All at once,” said John Henry, “he disappeared . . . We believed that he was kidnapped and taken away or killed or both.”

The Solomon Northup story reeks of tragedy and injustice, not just in the South at the time, but across the nation. In our pride as citizens in a nation dedicated to freedom, equality, and justice, we must be reminded that these are ideals toward which we continually struggle. Throughout our history, they have not become a reality for all citizens, black, white, red, or yellow. Slavery has existed for millennia throughout the world, with all races enslaving not only other races, but also members of their own. In the United States prior to the Civil War, slavery was a national, not merely a Southern, institution. Slavery still exists in some nations, and even in the U.S. in the form of human trafficking. Residuals of racism exist among our diverse people across the United States. Facts of history must temper our pride and instill a determination to bring democracy nearer to the ideal of the Founding Fathers.

Original Appendix A



An act more effectually to protect the free citizens of this State from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery.

[Passed May 14, 1840.]

The People of the State of New-York, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:

1. Whenever the Governor of this State shall receive information satisfactory to him that any free citizen or any inhabitant of this State has been kidnapped or transported away out of this State, into any other State or Territory of the United States, for the purpose of being there held in slavery; or that such free citizen or inhabitant is wrongfully seized, imprisoned or held in slavery in any of the States or Territories of the United States, on the allegation or pretence that such a person is a slave or by color of any usuage [sic] or rule of law prevailing in such State or Territory, is deemed or taken to be a slave, or not entitled of right to the personal liberty belonging to a citizen; it shall be the duty of the said Governor to take such measures as he shall deem necessary to procure such person to be restored to his liberty, and returned to this State. The governor is hereby authorized to appoint and employ such agent or agents as he shall deem necessary to effect the restoration and return of such person; and shall furnish the said agent with such credentials and instructions as will be likely to accomplish the object of his appointment. The Governor may determine the compensation to be allowed to such agent for his services besides his necessary expenses.

2. Such agent shall proceed to collect the proper proof to establish the rights of such person to his freedom, and shall perform such journeys, take such measures, institute and procure to be prosecuted such legal proceedings, under the direction of the Governor, as shall be necessary to procure such person to be restored to his liberty and returned to this State.

3. The accounts for all services and expenses in carrying this act into effect shall be audited by the Comptroller, and paid by the Treasurer on his warrant, out of any moneys in the Treasury of this State not otherwise appropriated. The Treasurer may advance, on the Warrant of the Comptroller, to such agent, such sum or sums as the Governor shall certify to be reasonable advances to enable him to accomplish the purposes of his appointment, for which advance such agent shall account, on the final audit of his warrant.

4. This act shall take effect immediately.

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