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History of the

Quincy Underground Railroad Museum Dr. Richard Eells House

On August 21, 1842, a slave named Charles swam across the Mississippi River and made his way to Quincy. Soaking wet, no doubt confused and lost, Charles approached a free black man who lived in Quincy named Barryman Barnett. He took Charles to the house of Dr. Richard Eells. They knocked on the back door and after a quick check to see that they were not followed, Dr. Eells let the slave, still wet, into his house. He gave Charles a dry set of clothes and hurried him to his buggy. Together they drove to the Mission Institute and the awaiting help to be found there.

Unfortunately for Charles and Dr. Eells, Chauncey Durkee, the owner of Charles, was in Illinois looking for his runaway property. He had gone to the local law enforcement for assistance. They eagerly helped him. Durkee had a good idea of where Charles would go. It was an open secret that the students and faculty of the Mission Institute where Dr. Eells, a physician was a professor, would help escaped slaves. Together with local law enforcement and a posse of slave catchers, Durkee was watching the road from Quincy to the campus of the Mission Institute.

Historic Map of Missouri

As Eells drove to the east, his carriage was spied on by Durkee and the Adams County lawmen. Charles hopped from the wagon and fled into a cornfield. An intense manhunt took place. Charles eluded his captors for a short time before they captured him.

Dr. Eells was able to get away from the pursuing posse and get back to his house, but he had been recognized. The posse went to his house. They forced their way into Eells’s residence. After a quick search, they found the evidence they needed to arrest Dr. Eells. Wet clothes belonging to Charles were still on the property. Dr. Eells was brought before a Quincy judge and charged with harboring (hiding) a slave. After posting a $500 bond, he was released until his trial at the next session of the Adams County Circuit Court. That $500 bond would be the equivalent of nearly $15,000 today.

The state of Missouri was born as a compromise between free and slave state power in 1821. The nation was struggling with whether to allow slavery into the vast territories of the West. Southern states wanted more slave states and northern states wanted more free states. Maine was broken off from Massachusetts and entered the Union free. Missouri came in as a slave state. But in a curious twist, it was destined to be a peninsula of slavery thrust northward into free territory. No other state was to be admitted as a slave state north of the line 36 degrees, 30 minutes north – the southern boundary of Missouri.

Slavery prospered and grew in Missouri. By the time Dr. Eells arrived in Quincy, nearly one in four of the people living in the Missouri counties just across the river were held as slaves. Slaves would have been a common sight in Quincy. Slaveholders from Missouri brought slaves with them to shop. Slaves worked on the riverboats that ran on the Mississippi. Immigrants on their way to Missouri passed through Illinois with their slaves in tow.

Slaves Map
Map showing distribution of slaves in the United States
Nanny and Baby
African American nanny with white baby

Illinois, on the other hand, was part of the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance that created the territory dictated that it was to be a free state. A resident could not legally own slaves in those states. Illinois was to be populated by free-working mechanics and farmers working their own land. There was an exception in the original state constitution that permitted a few slaves who were working in the salt industry in Southern Illinois. When the state was formed, Free Blacks were strongly discouraged from settling in Illinois by the same constitution. They were required to register and post a bond in the county courthouse. Nevertheless, a group of courageous Free Blacks settled and established the town of New Philadelphia in nearby Pike County despite these laws.

Richard Eells and his wife, Jane Bestor Eells, came to Quincy from Connecticut in 1833. It was a thriving community of less than two thousand people. Dr. Eells established a medical practice here. He and Jane had two daughters, but as was common in the 19th Century, death was always nearby. By 1834, both of the Eells children had died. Perhaps to fill this gap in their lives and cope with their grief, they turned to the new abolition movement that was sweeping the nation. They also took in a niece and nephew to raise.

Abolitionism existed before 1833, but with the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society that year by William Lloyd Garrison, it found new life. The new organization began flooding the nation with radical abolitionist tracts. This was a different type of movement. The abolitionists attacked not only slavery – they attacked the morality of slaveholders and the culture of slavery itself.

The new radical abolitionism arose within the context of a religious revival that was sweeping the United States known as The Second Awakening. In slave states, this movement was primarily directed toward personal salvation instead of improving society. But in the north, revivals frequently turned toward making the United States a better place. From these revivals came the prison reform movement, the public school movement, and the temperance movement. Northern revivalists hoped that by removing insufferable social conditions sinners could be brought to God. Converts thought society would be perfected when everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit.

In the enthusiasm of these movements, the anti-slavery cause found a place to grow. Revivalists like Theodore Weld and Albert Barnes began to preach against slavery. If slavery could be abolished, they argued, master and slave could be brought to God. This religious abolitionism caught fire and churches became bases for rapid expansion. Dr. Eells, along with Henry Snow organized the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society in 1835.

Anti-Slavery Meeting Sign
Anti-slavery agitation poster

The constitution of the new organization set forth their goal.

“Whereas we the undersigned citizens of Adams County in the State of Illinois feeling deeply impressed with the sense of the awful sin of slavery as sanctioned by the laws and unblushingly practiced by many in these United States and feeling conscious as we do that it is in direct violation of the Laws of God and of the first principles of our republican institutions; that the continuance of it is highly dangerous to our civil and religious Liberties; and that we cannot conscientiously discharge our duty to our God and to our fellow men without giving our Public and united testimony against it.”

1836, saw a dramatic event. Dr. David Nelson, a Presbyterian minister who had been converted to abolitionism by Theodore Weld was run out of Missouri by pro-slavery forces when he was caught with two agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society and a trove of anti-slavery literature. David Nelson fled from Philadelphia, Missouri to Quincy. He brought with him the idea for a new school to be formed in Quincy to be called the Mission Institute. The idea was to train “home missionaries” to work in the United States and within the territories with Native Americans to promote new radical ideas including abolitionism. Dr. Eells and Dr. Nelson became fast friends and worked together to create the new school.

Dr David Nelson
Dr. David Nelson

One of David Nelson’s converts in Missouri was Elijah Lovejoy. He was an editor of a newspaper in St. Charles and distributed in St. Louis. After he became an abolitionist, his newspaper began agitating against slavery. His press was destroyed and he was run out of the St. Louis area. He moved across the river into Alton, Illinois where he continued publishing. Pro-slavery men came over and with their Illinois supporters destroyed his press three more times. On November 7, 1837, in the final assault, Lovejoy was shot and killed by one of the mobs.

It was about this time that Dr. Eells, Dr. Nelson, and the students and staff at the Mission Institute began helping runaway slaves. However, we know nothing about how they functioned. According to accounts, it appears that Quincy abolitionists kept watch on the riverfront for runaway slaves, but that would have resulted in few, if any, slaves receiving help to escape. In the summer of 1841, that changed. Three men, Thompson, Work, and Burr, two students and a worker from the Mission Institute, crossed into Missouri, found slaves working unattended, and invited them to run away to freedom.

Interior of Palmyra MO Jail
Thompson, Work, and Burr in jail in Palmyra, MO

This didn’t work out well for the abolitionists. The slaves they approached didn’t trust them. They had no idea there was such a thing as white people who opposed slavery. Canada had just abolished slavery in 1840. They had adopted a law to eliminate slavery in August of 1834, but emancipation was spread out over six years. The slaves didn’t know they could escape there and live freely. The slaves did know they had value. They decided that the three men from the Mission Institute were slave thieves, men who stole slaves and sold them in the markets down the Mississippi. The slaves turned the abolitionists over to their masters. The abolitionists were tried and sentenced to twelve years in the Missouri Penitentiary.

But one good thing came from the arrest of the abolitionists. One of the slaves came to the window of the Marion County jail and apologized to Thompson, Work, and Burr. They told them they hadn’t known about abolitionists and the movement. Word spread through the slave communities of Northeast Missouri. It was with this knowledge that Charles crossed the river to Quincy and with the help of Barryman Barnett made his way to Dr. Eells’s house.

Dr. Eells was arrested for harboring an escaped slave and posted a five-hundred-dollar bond. The governor of Missouri, Dr. Thomas Reynolds of Missouri sought to have him extradited to Missouri, but Illinois Governor Thomas Ford refused because of threats of violence against him. Dr. Eells was tried in front of Judge Stephen Douglas, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, who would go on to fame as a distinguished senator from Illinois and 1860 Democratic candidate for president.

Dr. Eells was convicted and fined four hundred dollars. He appealed his conviction but left Quincy. He died on a riverboat on the Ohio River in 1846. His appeal was continued beyond his death by the Anti-Slavery Society. Nevertheless, his conviction was affirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. One of his attorneys was Salmon P. Chase, a prominent Ohio attorney who served his state as Governor and U.S. Senator. He would go on to serve in the Lincoln Administration as Secretary of the Treasury. But the influential lawyer failed to sway the United States Supreme Court, which upheld Dr. Eell’s conviction. He was pardoned posthumously (after his death) by Governor Pat Quinn in 2014.

Anti-Slavery Record

Samples of the Illinois Black Code in effect from the time Eells was Arrested and Prosecuted