Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 972

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 972


This is the grave of Charles Turner Torrey.

Born in 1813 in Scituate, Massachusetts, Torrey was orphaned at age 4 when both his parents and his sister died of tuberculosis. His grandparents raised him. His grandfather had been in Congress for a short time and remained involved in Massachusetts politics, so young Torrey grew up around that. Torrey’s family had some money and so he went to Exeter and then onto Yale, though he had to go into debt to complete his education. In fact, debt was a lifelong problem for Torrey, who didn’t much care about making money.

While at Yale, Torrey got caught up in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. These revivals were different than most in American history in that they took people who were already pretty liberal and made them, well, more liberal. Torrey saw the light and became involved in the evangelical push for social change. He became a Congregationalist minister after enrolling at Andover Theological Seminary. It was here he caught the fire of abolitionism, which was really a fringe movement in the 1830s, even in Massachusetts. Remember that William Lloyd Garrison had to be locked in jail so a crowd wouldn’t lynch him when he tried to speak….in Boston. Moreover, when Torrey got to Andover, it was just after the legendary 18-day debate over slavery at the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, an important moment in the intellectual journey of the white northern evangelical anti-slavery movement. So this really affected Torrey. He was a pastor for awhile in Providence and Salem. But by 1835, he was a full-time abolition worker, at least when his own consumption let him. Supposedly he was also a terrible preacher who gave the worst sermons. There’s evidence of this from people’s writings, so one can assume there’s some truth to it. It didn’t help that his sermons were nothing but sin. He hated the idea of people having fun on the Sabbath and routinely railed against it. He also particularly disliked Providence, which had a significant history of anti-Black riots and few abolitionists.

Torrey then worked for Garrison’s Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He also fell under the influence of Amos Phelps, one of the most important early abolitionists who talked about the institution in terms of good and evil and who noted that slaveholding was “the strong hold of Satan” on the planet. Phelps also bluntly (for the time) discussed the rape of slaves. For someone like Torrey, who saw sexual sins as the worst kind, this only made slavery seem more evil.

By the late 1830s, Torrey felt that Garrison was too compromising. He wanted to prove himself as an abolitionist against evil. That was one of the appeals–to prove to God that you were worthy of salvation. Garrison’s newspaper was one thing, but what about standing up directly in the face of evil and challenging it no matter the cost? Torrey was particularly disgusted by Garrison’s response to the murder of the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois. Whereas most leading abolitionists in Boston were outraged and there was a big memorial service for him, Garrison was disgusted that Lovejoy and his allies had taken up arms in self-defense, so he said that Lovejoy was not a Christian In response, Torrey and his friends attempted to take over the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1839 over the issue of including actions with their words, forcing Garrison to basically pack the building with friends to ensure he remained in charge. Torrey and allies, particularly Amos Phelps, Henry Stanton, and Alanson St. Clair, left and started their own group, the New Organization. Someone needed to work on titles. They also strongly disagreed with Garrison’s focus on women’s rights, which they did not support and felt would distract from the true cause of abolitionism.

Anyway, one thing Torrey wanted was a direct engagement with American politics. Garrison eschewed the political system, thinking any engagement with it was a sin. Torrey knew this was nonsense. When Congress extended the Gag Rule to prevent the presentation of petitions or discussion of slavery on the floor of Congress, Garrison refused to engage. Torrey thought this was idiotic. So he was among those who started the Liberty Party in 1840. Now, it’s true enough that the only thing the Liberty Party accomplished was throwing the 1844 election to James Polk, who proceeded to steal half of Mexico to expand slavery and move the nation significantly toward civil war. So one can question their efficacy.

In the 1840s, Torrey decided to go to the beast. He moved to Washington D.C. to take on slavery where it existed. He wanted to work for abolitionist newspapers there, but what he really wanted to do was to get directly involved in freeing slaves. In 1842, he attended a slavery convention in Maryland and handed out anti-slavery literature, getting himself arrested. He got out of that and basically started the organized Underground Railroad, directly assisting self-freed slaves in their flight to freedom. Of course people had escaped slavery before. But there wasn’t really a set of safe houses that would take fleeing slaves north. That’s what Torrey set up, getting people up to Albany and freedom. But he was doing more than just helping who wanted to flee. He was going into the Black community in Washington and actively telling slaves that he would help them escape. Moreover, he had particularly targets: slaves owned by southern congressmen. He was pretty successful too. By 1843, he had helped about 400 people escape slavery, from Washington, from Maryland, and from Virginia. Gerrit Smith, the radical New York abolitionist and landowner funded all of this.

All of this was illegal and for awhile, Torrey figured he’d better go back North to escape the authorities. So he spent a bit of time in Albany. But this is not what he wanted. He wanted to free slaves. He went back to Washington with his slavefreeing partner Thomas Smallwood. They were nearly arrested. Smallwood, who was Black, got out of the nation entirely and moved to Toronto. Torrey on the other hand just went to Baltimore, where he went back to his project of freeing slaves. Torrey also would only worship in Black churches by this point, believing any white church in Washington too compromising with slavery.

Finally, Baltimore police arrested Torrey in June 1844. He almost broke out of jail at one point but didn’t succeed. Instead, the state of Maryland found him guilty of stealing slaves and sentenced to six years in prison. There was no way his health could stand it. Even someone without tuberculosis often had trouble staying alive in prison. For Torrey, the damp cold conditions were a death sentence. Northern supporters appealed to the governor of Maryland to free him, but that wasn’t going to happen. It’s possible that Torrey could have been freed if he had renounced his previous activities and agreed to leave the South. There was no way he was going to do that. He wrote from prison, “Shall a man be put into the Penitentiary for doing good? That is the real question at issue, and it is one which will shake down the whole edifice of slavery, even if there were no other issue.”

Torrey died in prison in 1846. He was all of 32 years old. Before he died, Torrey did write a book called Home, or the Pilgrim’s Faith Revived, which was about life in Massachusetts.

John Brown saw Torrey as a hero and later cited him as an inspiration.

Charles Turner Torrey is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit additional abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Elijah Lovejoy is in Alton, Illinois and Amos Phelps is also at Mt. Auburn, though I didn’t know that so next time. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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