On the morning of July 23, 1856, ship mate Joseph Chadwick was sitting on the rail of the schooner Danville when he heard a strange noise coming from below deck. The Danville, as Chadwick later described it, “was one of the regular New York packets, owned in this city.”
The noise was odd, as the ship should have been empty, so Chadwick went into the galley to investigate. There was no one there. He lifted the cook’s mattress, which was lying on the chain-box, and saw a man’s hand. He immediately reported his finding to Captain Chester, who was conversing above deck with the lockkeeper, William H. Knuckols. The three men went down into the galley, searched the chain-box, and found an enslaved man named Tom tucked into the small space. Tom had $390.68 in his pocket—a suspiciously large sum of money for an enslaved person to be carrying. Knuckols took him to the watch house, also referred to as the cage, until proper authorities could deal with the fugitive.
Police Captain Archibald Wilkerson was summoned to the scene. He knew about another missing enslaved person named Martin who escaped from William H. MacFarland only a few days prior. Wilkerson went to the cage to interrogate Tom assuming he had answers about the “other” enslaved man. Tom was reluctant to give up his comrade, but after pressure from Wilkerson, he finally explained that Martin was still onboard, hidden below deck.
When the men searched the chain-box a second time, they found Martin. The newspapers described him as near dead and exhausted. Captain Wilkerson arrested Martin and eventually received a $100 reward for capturing the fugitive and delivering him back to his enslaver.
Lott Mundy had been a steward on board various ships running from Richmond to New York for a few years and was then serving as the cook onboard the Danville. When approached about the stowaways, he appeared confused and unaware that there were enslaved men hiding below deck. As the cook, Mundy had charge over the galley space. Likely putting two and two together, Captain Wilkerson arrested Mundy for assisting in the escape of the two enslaved men. Tom and Martin had apparently been talking of self-emancipating for months. Both men claimed they had never seen or spoken to Mundy before the evening of their escape. Tom paid Mundy $50 to carry both of them to the North.
The newspapers covered this incident quite extensively. We learn further details about the case, such as how Tom acquired nearly $400—he either received or stole the cash from his “negro father-in-law.” The Daily Dispatch provided Richmonders with a lengthy—and presumably embellished—account in their 24 July 1856 issue. Statements from each deponent reveal even more detail than the depositions documented in the Richmond Hustings Court papers.
Editors perceived Mundy’s act as a grave injustice—robbing white Southerners of their enslaved property. The Daily Dispatch heralded Joseph Chadwick, a Northerner, as a hero because he had risen above the supposedly corrupting influence of Northern abolitionists to defend slavery in the South. They clearly stated their objective for praise: “to ensure Mr. Chadwick…the approval of our citizens, and to encourage the enterprise already on foot…” The “enterprise on foot” no doubt referred to capturing fugitive enslaved people. Another paper stated, “[the men responsible] were warmly applauded for the honorable course they had pursued in discovering the fugitives and handing them over to the proper authorities—these gentlemen are from the North, and therefore deserve the more credit for their promptness in obeying the laws of Virginia.”
The Daily Dispatch described Mundy as “a black, high forehead negro” who had been working at the Richmond port for a year or two. It also claimed that Mundy had a white wife and children in New York. Thanks to a little Ancestry.com digging I may have confirmed that this was true. Birth records from the state of New York reveal that two children were born to a Lot and Rosa Mundy in the years 1854 and 1856. Jane Mundy was born June 23, 1854, and Lewis C. Mundy was born May 10, 1856. Jane’s race was recorded as Black, while Lewis’s was recorded as white. (Note to the reader that Ancestry misidentified Jane as male and white because the digital image of the record is skewed—a good reminder for researchers to look for these incongruences).
I also found a Lott Mundy in the 1850 census living in Westchester, New York, with a woman named Rossana Riley. Could this woman be Lott’s future wife, Rose, who is recorded as the mother of Jane and Lewis in the birth records only a few years later? The census listed Mundy as Black and born ca. 1824 in New Jersey, while Rossana was 20 at the time (b. ca. 1830) and from Ireland. She was white. Lott, the only Black and working individual in the household, was a coachman. Given New York State’s decent record-keeping, there’s likely more to be discovered about Mundy’s life before he was arrested and imprisoned in Virginia, not to mention what became of Rosa and their children, Jane and Lewis.
My colleague Ella Swain helped me locate the federal census record that confirms Mundy was serving his time in the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1860. Interestingly, the record states that Mundy was born in New Jersey.
The papers seem to add more weight to Mundy’s offense than he or the enslaved men claimed in their various depositions. The Semi-Weekly Examiner referred to him as a “Yankee Kidnapper.” Both the Dispatch and the Campaign Enquirer connected his act to the Underground Railroad using phrases such as “Underground Explosion—An Operator Captured” and “A Breakdown of the Underground Railroad” as headlines. But according to Tom (in his public deposition, mind you), this was a crime of opportunity: Mundy happened to be in the right place at the right time. If you ask me, I would say Mundy knew exactly what he was doing. The real question is: how many other enslaved people had he rescued to the North?
The court indicted Mundy with the crime of “attempting to carry off and [with] concerning himself in the escape” of two enslaved men. The case was tried in the Hustings Court of Richmond and Mundy was declared guilty. He was sentenced to ten years in the State Penitentiary.
I have not determined what happened to Mundy after serving his ten-year sentence. Did he survive? Did he travel back to New York? I couldn’t help but to consider that as a New Yorker, Mundy was now being punished for a Virginia state crime in a Virginia penal institution. In Mundy’s mind, he may have understood his crime as restoring freedom to two men who inherently deserved the right to be left to their own devices. But in the Virginia legal system, he had committed a gross crime; many white Southerners would call it a moral sin—stealing valuable property from two white Virginians.
These Commonwealth Causes from the Richmond City Hustings Court continue to hold fascinating clues documenting Richmond’s pivotal role in the national story of the Underground Railroad. We continue to learn about multiracial and free Black individuals intentionally applying their agency, skills, and connections to liberate their enslaved communities in the South.
Editor’s Note: Lott Mundy’s court case was originally a part of the Richmond (City) Ended Causes, 1794-1865. Thanks to funding provided by a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant, the Richmond City Commonwealth Causes are being processed, scanned, and indexed and made digitally available through Virginia Untold.