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.
What the critics say
“The Kidnapping Club offers readers painful account of how many Black people—both free and self-emancipated—were captured, jailed, judged and shipped south to live and suffer as slaves to support the profitable cotton economy… This thoroughly researched account reminds readers that New York was a pro-slavery city even as the nation was engulfed in the Civil War." (New York Journal of Books)
"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)
"The Kidnapping Club maps and specifies both the top-side financial connections between the capitalists of the North and the slavers of the South and the underbelly of police corruption, violence, and kidnapping that knit together. And it manages to combine acute historical analysis with literary drama and a persistent, gentle humanity. You should read it." (Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States)
“Wells conjures the pungent atmosphere of Manhattan in the early 19th century… Wells writes, one senses, not to memorialize the missing, but to reopen their cases - to make a larger argument about recompense.” (The New York Times)