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Publisher's Summary

Winner of a 2020-2021 New York City Book Award

In a rapidly changing New York, two forces battled for the city's soul: the pro-slavery New Yorkers who kept the illegal slave trade alive and well, and the abolitionists fighting for freedom.

We often think of slavery as a southern phenomenon, far removed from the booming cities of the North. But even though slavery had been outlawed in Gotham by the 1830s, Black New Yorkers were not safe. Not only was the city built on the backs of slaves; it was essential in keeping slavery and the slave trade alive. 

In The Kidnapping Club, historian Jonathan Daniel Wells tells the story of the powerful network of judges, lawyers, and police officers who circumvented anti-slavery laws by sanctioning the kidnapping of free and fugitive African Americans. Nicknamed "The New York Kidnapping Club", the group had the tacit support of institutions from Wall Street to Tammany Hall whose wealth depended on the Southern slave and cotton trade. But a small cohort of abolitionists, including Black journalist David Ruggles, organized tirelessly for the rights of Black New Yorkers, often risking their lives in the process. Taking readers into the bustling streets and ports of America's great Northern metropolis, The Kidnapping Club is a dramatic account of the ties between slavery and capitalism, the deeply corrupt roots of policing, and the strength of Black activism.

©2020 Jonathan Daniel Wells (P)2021 Hachette Audio

What the critics say

"A convincing demonstration of the close links between capitalism and the unconscionable trade in human beings." (Kirkus

"Lively prose and vivid scenes of New York street life complement the meticulous research. The result is a revealing look at a little-known chapter in the history of racial injustice." (Publishers Weekly

"With New York City as its backdrop, The Kidnapping Club offers an important and compelling narrative that explores the long struggle for Black freedom and equality. Jonathan Daniel Wells offers a rich and timely account that uncovers a history of racial violence and terror in nineteenth-century Gotham. To no surprise, law enforcement, politicians, and bankers thwarted Black freedom time and time again. But the power and fortitude of Black New Yorkers pressed white citizens to remember and uphold the ideals of a new nation. The Kidnapping Club is a must read for those who want to understand current debates about the intersection of Black lives and structural oppression." (Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge)  

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  • Joshua M. Levin
  • 2022-02-28

Important story, poorly told.

There are many important stories that are far too seldom told, and the story of New York’s smuggling ring that took the freedom and lives of untold enslaved and free Black people is high among them.

An important story warrants a strong narrator, however, and unfortunately the Audible version of this book did not receive one. I confess I am a stickler for clear and accurate pronunciation of important words that are used regularly in the course of a lengthy Audible book. Mr. Johnson, sadly, frequently mispronounced words that should have been easy to practice and confirm beforehand. This includes obvious words like “seaman,” “chafed,” “inexorably,” and “maritime.” It also includes proper names like Tribune, and the last name of the famed New York abolitionist, Lewis Tappan. A few additional minutes of inquiry on the narrator’s part, or conversations with the author or a New York historian, might have avoided these frequent and annoying miss cues.

The narrator has a pleasing voice and hopefully will rectify these errors – beginners errors? – as his career evolves. As it happened, though, I was put off by these easy to avoid errors and diminished my enjoyment of the book a lot.