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"Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock." - Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, ch. XIII
The Unionist 1:26 🔥
(January 30, 1834) 🔥
On Tuesday afternoon, about 2 o’clock, the House of Miss Crandall, in Canterbury, was discovered to be on Fire, in a place and under circumstances which render the origin of it inexplicable. The smoke and flame burst out from between the plastering and outer covering, in the corner of one of the front rooms, farthest from the fire place. The inmates of the dwelling were very much terrified, but with the assistance of the inhabitants of the village, soon extinguished the flames.—Unionist.
from The Norwich Courier, February 5, 1834
The article from the Norwich Courier - normally among the most hostile newspaper to Crandall - is the only direct reprint of the Unionist content. However, there were paraphrases and commentary published in three other sources. This suggests, by both the editorial and geographic range of these papers, the importance that the Canterbury saga had for the reading public in early 1834.
The Liberator 8 Feb 1834 - from the New Bedford Workingmen’s Press
“MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR. We learn from the Brooklyn Unionist, that on Tuesday afternoon, 27th ult. about 2 o’clock, the house of Miss CRANDALL, the instructress of colored youths in Canterbury, was discovered to be on fire, in a place and under circumstances which rendered the origin of it inexplicable. The flame and smoke burst out from the corner of one of the rooms farthest from the chimney and fire place, but the inmates of the house with the assistance of the neighboring villagers succeeded in putting it out. This would readily be supposed to be accidental, had not public threats been previously made to effectually break up Miss C’s school. If, as is suspected, it shall prove to be the work of any of those opposed to the efforts of this young lady—they may take back the ignoble epithet of ‘incendiary’ with which they have frequently hailed the abolitionists, and wear it like Cain, branded on their foreheads.—N. Bedford Workingmen’s Press.”
Schenectady Cabinet, 19 February 1834
By an article in the Brooklyn, Conn. Unionist, it would appear that an attempt has been made to fire the building at Canterbury, in which Miss Crandall keeps her school for colored females.—“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Commentary and Analysis
The story of the late January fire at the school, is another example of the effectiveness of having a local newspaper supporting the cause of the Canterbury Female Academy. The effects of this especially terrifying attack, and then the false flag feint that the Canterbury opposition pulled by blaming the fire on a local Black man, Frederick Olney, makes this one of the most important incidents for understanding the role of the Black community in sustaining the Canterbury Female Academy.
News of the fire is here reported in four distinct newspapers. As mentioned above, the Norwich Courier was an implacable enemy of the school and the Unionist, but may have printed the story because it said something nice about the neighbors. This is, of course, if we believe that they were reprinting the story accurately.
The Liberator was, of course, deeply invested in the fate of the school, and frequently republished articles from the Unionist. But in this case, they take their content from the New Bedford Workingmen's Press, a genuine working-class paper, that had a trenchant analysis of class relations under capitalism. The fact that this paper came out in support of Crandall's cause points to some inter-racial understanding of shared working conditions among Black and white. Given that New Bedford was a major seafaring port, the possibility of interracial communication is greater than in the rural hinterlands. Teresa Anne Murphy, in her excellent bookTen Hours' Labor: Religion, Reform and Gender in Early New England (Cornell University Press, 1992), quotes extensively from the New Bedford Workingmen's Press, demonstrating its genuine working-class politics:
"there can be no such thing as the cooperation of all classes"
"the Mechanics, Farmers, and other Workingmen, those who are satisfied with the simple appellation of 'common people' [should] form themselves into associations for mutual improvement, independent of the self-styled 'gentry'." (61-62).
It seems fantastical, reading this, to imagine that Marx's Communist Manifesto was still more than a decade away! The notion of incipient support for Immediate Abolition from the labor movement flies in the face of much later history, in which labor was anti-slavery but also anti-Black.
The Schenectady Cabinet newspaper endorsed Crandall's school as early as July of 1833, with original editorials and inter-newspaper squabbles. Edited by a white father and son team, Isaac Riggs (1779-1850) and Stephen Seaman Riggs (1809-1859), the Cabinet also played a role in fostering Abolitionist sentiment in the New York Capital Region.
The technical difficult with this case is, quite simply, whether or not the Norwich Courier's reprint can be trusted. For now, in the absence of any direct evidence that they were exaggerating, I will assume their honesty.