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The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey

E. Fuller Torrey

Publication Year: 2013

During his brief yet remarkable career, abolitionist Charles Torrey -- called the "father of the Underground Railroad" by his peers -- assisted almost four hundred slaves in gaining their freedom. A Yale graduate and an ordained minister, Torrey set up a well-organized route for escaped slaves traveling from Washington and Baltimore to Philadelphia and Albany. Arrested in Baltimore in 1844 for his activities, Torrey spent two years in prison before he succumbed to tuberculosis. By then, other abolitionists widely recognized and celebrated Torrey's exploits: running wagonloads of slaves northward in the night, dodging slave catchers and sheriffs, and involving members of Congress in his schemes. Nonetheless, the historiography of abolitionism has largely overlooked Torrey's fascinating and compelling story.

The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey presents the first comprehensive biography of one of America's most dedicated abolitionists. According to author E. Fuller Torrey, a distant relative, Charles Torrey pushed the abolitionist movement to become more political and active. He helped advance the faction that challenged the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison, provoking an irreversible schism in the movement and making Torrey and Garrison bitter enemies. Torrey played an important role in the formation of the Liberty Party and in the emergence of political abolitionism. Not satisfied with the slow pace of change, he also pioneered aggressive abolitionism by personally freeing slaves, likely liberating more than any other person. In doing so, he inspired many others, including John Brown, who cited Torrey as one of his role models.

E. Fuller Torrey's study not only fills a substantial gap in the history of abolitionism but restores Charles Torrey to his rightful place as one of the most dedicated and significant abolitionists in American history.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

“Martyr Charles Turner Torrey, the Abolitionist” was one of twelve names on the yellowing piece of paper to which my mother vainly tried to direct my attention. The paper was titled “Prominent Torreys,” but despite sharing a few genes, distant relatives held little interest...


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pp. xiii-xvi

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1. An Abolitionist Schism

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pp. 1-19

Wednesday, January 23, 1839: It was, wrote Maria Chapman, “the largest anti-slavery gathering ever witnessed in Massachusetts, and a noble sight it was to look upon. . . . Bigotry and sectarism [sic] were pitted against religious liberty and Christian love. . . . It was a turning point in the cause. A strong and mighty wind had come to winnow...

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2. Discovering God and Slaves

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pp. 20-48

The road Charles Torrey traveled to reach his 1839 confrontation with William Lloyd Garrison was not easy. He had been born on November 21, 1813, in Scituate, a coastal town south of Boston. Later in life, Torrey recalled the “wide marshes, covered with short salt grass, through which curves for many a mile old North river.” The river...

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3. Political Abolitionism

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pp. 49-69

The 1839 meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society would be a watershed for American abolitionism. In the early years of the century, the abolitionist movement’s dominant theme had been gradualism—the belief that the emancipation of slaves could be...

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4. The First Arrest

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pp. 70-88

Charles Torrey arrived in Washington in early December 1841. His ostensible job was to be a Washington reporter for the Boston Daily Mail, the New York Evangelist, and several other small abolitionist papers. Joshua Leavitt, the former editor of the Evangelist, may have helped Torrey get the assignments. As an accredited reporter...

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5. Aggressive Abolitionism

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pp. 89-103

It is unclear when Charles Torrey first formulated his plans to assist slaves to escape their bondage, but he had been considering it for many months. His experience with John Torrance, who failed in his attempt to free himself, showed Torrey that slaves often needed assistance if they were to be successful. The mutinies of slaves aboard...

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6. The Second Arrest

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pp. 104-126

In October 1842, Charles Torrey moved from Washington to Albany, New York, where his family joined him, the first time he had lived with them in almost a year. He had accepted a position as editor of the Tocsin of Liberty, an abolitionist weekly whose name was subsequently changed to the...

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7. Trial

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pp. 127-143

The Baltimore city jail to which Charles Torrey was taken on June 24, 1844, was on Madison Street, immediately adjacent to the Maryland Penitentiary. It was, coincidentally, the same jail in which William Lloyd Garrison had been incarcerated for seven weeks in 1830 for...

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8. Prison and Death

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pp. 144-166

Charles Torrey fully expected the guilty verdict handed down by the jury members on December 2, 1844. In the weeks preceding his trial, he had thought about what more he might accomplish in whatever time remained to him and had focused on two goals: first, to justify his past actions, and second, to raise funds to pay his lawyer’s fees...

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9. Aftermath

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pp. 167-182

Charles Torrey’s influence did not end with his death on May 9, 1846. Shortly after his body had been laid to rest in the Mount Auburn Cemetery, his spirit appeared to have been resurrected in the person of William L. Chaplin, one of Torrey’s greatest admirers...

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10. Assessment

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pp. 183-194

What can be said regarding the life and abolitionist career of Charles Torrey? When he died at age thirty-two, he had been an abolitionist for eleven years, from 1835 to 1846, with one of those years having been spent recuperating from tuberculosis and two years spent...

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pp. 195-200

Charles Torrey’s wife, Mary, continued to live in West Medway, Massachusetts, after her husband’s death. Her house, just west of her parents’ house on Main Street, was built for her in 1850 by the Massachusetts Abolitionist Society, and it still stands. She lived through...

A Note on Sources

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pp. 201-202


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pp. 203-228


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pp. 229-239

E-ISBN-13: 9780807152324
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807152317

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 1 map
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World
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OCLC Number: 858946675
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Clergy -- New England -- Biography.
  • Fugitive slaves -- Maryland -- History -- 19th century.
  • Antislavery movements -- Maryland -- History -- 19th century.
  • Underground Railroad -- Maryland.
  • Abolitionists -- Maryland -- Biography.
  • Abolitionists -- United States -- Biography
  • Torrey, Charles T. (Charles Turner), 1813-1846 -- Death and burial.
  • Torrey, Charles T. (Charles Turner), 1813-1846 -- Imprisonment.
  • Torrey, Charles T. (Charles Turner), 1813-1846 -- Trials, litigations, etc.
  • Torrey, Charles T. (Charles Turner), 1813-1846.
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