The New York Kidnapping Club

A gripping and dramatic account of the illegal trade in African Americans on the streets and in the harbors of antebellum New York City, The New York Kidnapping Club argues that slavery and capitalism developed together in the pre-Civil War North. Utilizing largely unexamined legal and criminal records, this book shows how precarious simple existence could be for New York’s large African American community. Beginning in the 1830s, when judges, police constables, and agents lurked in the city’s alleyways, and throughout the 1850s when Portuguese traders used New York’s harbors to bring kidnapping victims into slavery, this untold story of early America brings to light the complicated ways in which slavery and capitalism were intertwined in America’s great metropolis.



African American children were vanishing into thin air, snatched mysteriously off the streets of pre-Civil War New York City, and no one seemed able to stop it.

At first the reports of missing children were sporadic, but if city police had cared about lost black children, town leaders might have noticed a dangerous trend. Soon distraught parents reported many more vanished children, more than one a week as the city’s winter turned to spring and summer. Frances Shields, a young girl of twelve with a dark complexion, short hair, and a scar over her right eye, disappeared one morning on her way to school, dressed in a purple and white frock and a straw hat. Eleven-year-old John Dickerson had been sent out on an errand by his parents and went missing from Broadway near the family home. Jane Green, a light-skinned African American girl the same age as John Dickerson, seemed to have been enticed away by a stranger. Rumors swirled that the stranger might have taken Jane to New Orleans, but no one saw her abductor.

As New York police constables and judges barely acknowledged, children were taken from their parents, desperate mothers and fathers who placed newspaper ads describing in minute detail their children’s clothes and physical appearance at the time of their disappearance. Relatives scoured neighborhood streets and visited orphanages, prisons, and poor houses, hoping that someone might have taken the children in. Yet, as anguished parents were coming to realize, missing children rarely reappeared. In fact, no one heard from Frances, John, or Jane ever again. Bewildered mothers and fathers wondered if a dark spirit had snuffed out their children’s existence, some malevolent force come to make real every parent’s most hideous nightmare.

Frances, John, and Jane had fallen prey not to a supernatural force but to a very real and human ring of kidnappers. In fact, the corrupt criminal networks into which these three young black New Yorkers fell were shadowy enough without resorting to mythical evil. Dubbed “The New York Kidnapping Club” by black activists, the ring held sway over the city’s African Americans for more than 20 years before the Civil War, from the 1830s and through the 1850s, striking fear in the hearts of even the most courageous protestors.

The perpetrators were all-too-real and motivated by a very human hunger for money. By abducting New York’s African Americans, not just children but women and men of all ages, criminal rings could with remarkable speed place victims on ships docked at the many wharves that lined Manhattan, from the Hudson around to the Battery and along the East River. Kidnappers then transported their victims through New York harbor and into the southern and foreign markets to be sold as slaves. It was almost too easy, especially when kidnapping rings knew that they had little to fear from white politicians, judges, and constables. The problem was not so much complacency as complicity: in fact some of the kidnappers were police officers themselves.