Wilson Ledger, 13 November 1860.
Wilson Ledger, 8 January 1861.
John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation includes a detailed discussion of “negro dogs” and their widespread use in the antebellum South. The chapter begins: “One of the most widespread methods of tracking runaways was to use highly trained so-called ‘negro dogs.’ Frederick Law Olmsted observed that no particular breed was used in the hunt — bloodhounds, foxhounds, bulldogs, Scotch staghounds, curs — but slave hunters and planters had a method of training each breed to be effective. The dogs were locked and ‘never allowed to see a negro except while training to catch him.’ They were given the scent of a black man or woman’s show or article of clothing and taught to follow the scent. Slaves were sent out as trainees, and when the dogs treed them, they were given meat as a reward. ‘Afterwards they learn to follow any particular negro by scent.'”
J.W. Hamlet and Jacob D. Farmer had illustrious company. President Zachary Taylor was a renowned importer of bloodhounds from the Caribbean, fearsome dogs who would tear a man to pieces if not constrained. John William Hamlet, born about 1823, was a Virginia native. He appears in the 1850 census of Edgecombe County as a poor farmer owning little or nothing, but the next decade saw his fortunes soar. Negro-hunting was good business. Hamlet is listed in the 1860 census of Wilson, Wilson County, as the owner of $4500 in real property and $4800 in personal property (primarily, one can assume, in the form of slaves and dogs.) Curiously, his occupation is not listed. Nor is that of his business partner, Jacob D. Farmer, who enjoyed a similar rise in circumstances from a penniless laborer in 1850 to the owner of sizeable real and personal estates in 1860.
Though the census enumerator may have been exercising discretion, Hamlet was notorious for his derring-do as a slave tracker. In October 1859, a local newspaper published a spine-tingling account of his standoff with three cornered runaways in neighboring Nash County. If the report is be believed literally, only Hamlet emerged from this do-or-die fray unbloodied.
Tarborough Southerner, 15 October 1859.
Others were less enchanted by Hamlet’s exploits. On 6 June 1860, Honorable Charles H. Van Wyck of New York delivered his “Despotism of Slavery” speech on the House floor. In his spirited response to Southerners’ defense of slavery as a human and elevating institution, Van Wyck called “a few facts” to their attention, including the burning slaves at the stake, the branding of slaves, and the common practice of splitting families on the auction block. If slavery is so “godlike and divine,” he thundered, why do slaves run away? Why the need for ads like this one?:
“Catch him! catch him! But how can you catch him, unless you have along the well-trained pack of negro dogs owned by J. W. Hamlet. This pack consists of five blood-hounds and two catch-dogs, which are very sagacious, and which, once on the trail, will be very apt to start the game.
“The subscriber having prepared himself, with considerable trouble and expense, for this line of business, is ready at any time to undertake the capture of fugitive slaves, in this or any of the adjoining counties or States.
“His rates will be found reasonable; and he is confident that his past success will justify others in employing him. Among many other names which could be given, if necessary, he begs leave to refer to the following: B. H. Bordon, Esq., Wilson; Junius Daniel, Esq., Halifax; R. D. Atkinson, Esq., Smithfield; John Lemon and James Winfield, Esq., of Nash. — J.W. Hamlet, Wilson, North Carolina.”
After a series of such speeches in 1860, on February 22, 1861, three men attempted to assassinate Van Wyck near the Capital building. The Congressman fought off the attack, surviving only because a book and congressional records tucked into the breast pocket of his coat blocked the blade of a Bowie knife. His assailants fled and were never identified.
Van Wyck’s speech reported in 29 Cong. Globe Appx. 434-439, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. Image from Franklin and Schweninger, Runaway Slaves.