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Burnt in Retaliation

~by Julia Stewart~

The History Behind Alexander Murdock’s House

Hello everyone! My name is Julia Stewart and I’m a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University. Just some background information about me is that I love to dance and explore new places, and I’m planning to study abroad next semester to explore different cultures! I hope your tour has been interesting so far. I will continue by taking you to 217 S. Geneva St. where Alexander Murdock’s house used to be located during the period of the Underground Railroad. Before talking about this specific site, let me just say a few introductory words about the historical context. Slavery existed within a significant part of the United States’ history. The Underground Railroad, as you’ve learned from my colleagues, was used to help slaves escape. It was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people from the South. Many other people also used this “railroad” to provide packages and money to the runway slaves. Along with slavery, segregation was very prevalent in these areas and the black people continued to be to victims of unfair treatment. People who tried to take action against segregation would be arrested, allowing for minimal change to be made over the years. Finally, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation: the Proclamation stated “that all persons held as slaves […] are, and henceforth shall be free.”[1]

© National Archives | Page 3 of the Emancipation Proclamation

This document from the National Archives that I printed for you is a page from the original Emancipation Proclamation written by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. I’m going to pass the document around. Please feel free to take a look at it and keep passing it around so everyone has the chance to view it.

            It is hard for new generations to understand the impact slavery had on this country and how long slavery lasted here. There were both Indian and black slaves even though it was not directly established by the law. The main center where the slave trade occurred was Newport, Rhode Island. Slave ships sailed from the Long Island Sound and some of them were owned and manned by people who lived in the colony of Connecticut. At the time, slave trade was the driving power of all commercial machinery, and it benefitted the United States’s economy. The second episode of the 1619 podcast, “The Economy That Slavery Built,” explains this in clear terms:

State-chartered banks would take this slave-backed mortgage from this plantation owner, and this one, and this one. And they would bundle that debt and make something called a bond. And they would sell those bonds to investors all over the Western world. And so when owners made payments on their mortgages, the investors got a little return.[2]

The majority of the slave trade economy was powered by the London money market since the British were the highest consumers when it came to purchasing slaves. People wouldn’t even have to own slaves in order to make a profit off of them. This simply added to the benefits that the economy received from the slave trade system.

            Some of the slaves were sometimes freed for a money equivalent, and during the American Revolution they were freed when they enlisted in the Continental Army. However, in 1788, the General Association of Connecticut Congregational Ministers declared the slave trade an unjust practice and suggested that means be taken by individuals and the colony to suppress it. It wasn’t until 1848 that an act was passed by the State Legislature emancipating all slaves in Connecticut.[3]

            During this time, the Underground Railroad was used to help slaves escape. Most of the enslaved people helped by the Underground Railroad escaped border states such as Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland. People known as “conductors” guided the fugitives. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations,” “safe houses,” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”[4] There were many well-used routes stretching west through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa. Others headed north through Pennsylvania and into New England or through Detroit on their way to Canada. The reason many escapees headed for Canada was the Fugitive Slave Acts.[5] The first act, passed in 1793, allowed local governments to catch escaped enslaved people from within the borders of free states and send them back to their point of origin, and to punish anyone helping the fugitives. The first arrest under this act was in New York City on September 26, 1850. Eric Foner tells this story in his Gateway to Freedom:

On September 26, 1850, eight days after President Fillmore signed the measure, two deputy U.S. marshals arrested James Hamlet at his job as a porter in a local store. Hamlet had left Baltimore two years earlier on a train to Philadelphia and then made his way to New York. He settled on South Third Street in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn village with a small black population, along with his wife and three children, all born in Maryland. In 1850, Hamlet’s owner, Mary Brown, learned of his presence in New York and hired a “police firm” to retrieve him.[6]

As soon as the Fugitive Slave Act came into effect, change immediately started to occur. People who were finally starting to live their own life, were captured again and sentenced to a restricted life again. Due to this, more slaves were seeking freedom in other ways and the Underground Railroad was formed.

            There was no select person who ran the Underground Railroad. Most Underground Railroad operators were ordinary people, farmers and business owners, as well as ministers. Some wealthy people were also involved in the network. One of the earliest known activists to help fugitives was Levi Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina. He started around 1813 when he was 15 years old. Coffin said that he learned their hiding places and sought them out to help them move along. Eventually, they began to find their way to him. Coffin later moved to Indiana and then Ohio, and continued to help escaped enslaved people wherever he lived.[7] The Underground Railroad ceased operations around 1863, during the Civil War. In reality, its work moved above ground as part of the Union effort against the Confederacy. At the end of1861, Lincoln declared that all slaves who had reached Union lines would be set free. This began the end of the Underground Railroad. By 1862, the federal government had essentially taken over the work of the Underground Railroad. Foner writes:

No longer did slaves have to reach the North or Canada to escape from bondage. As new gateways to freedom opened within the South, what the Liberator called the “National Underground Railroad” superseded its predecessor. Far more slaves—men, women, and children, of all ages—escaped to Union lines than had reached the free states and Canada during the preceding thirty years.[8]

People had no reason to escape using the Railroad since there was no need to keep it a secret. There was now an easier and faster way for them to reach freedom which also followed the law. Eventually, over time, the need for the Underground Railroad came to a halt leading to the end of it. 

            Ithaca has a very important history surrounding the Underground Railroad. Even if we may not be able to see it today, the most ordinary looking houses may hold the highest historical value in the area. One such house existed near 217 S. Geneva St. During the activity of the Underground Railroad, this house belonged to Alexander Murdock. Alexander was a member of the abolitionist party and his family were strong supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery cause so it is not surprising that shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter, young Alex enlisted for three years in the Pittsburgh Rifles as his regiment. 

            Murdock supported the anti-slavery movement and took many actions to help enact change. He joined the Presbyterian church.[9] Later, he started using the Underground Railroad to help out slaves and get packages with goods for the colored school that he managed. He stated that from 1841 “till President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect [he] managed the Underground RR and though always risky and sometimes dangerous [he] never regretted it for [he] made some rich hauls.”[10]

            Eventually, throughout the years, the dangers of the Underground Railroad finally caught up to Murdock and resulted in the destruction of his house. In the handout “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County” prepared by The History Center, we learn that: “It is reported that Alexander Murdoch’s house was burnt as retaliation for his open support of the anti-slavery movement.”[11] People finally found out about his support for abolitionism and his work with the Underground Railroad and, in retaliation, they burned down his house. 

            After presenting Murdock’s story, I would like to show all of you an original document from the time. This document is part of Cornell University’s Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection. It is an excerpt from Frank Samuel Child’s Thirteenth Annual Report of the Fairfield Historical Society: October 17th 1916.[12]

To me and all of you, it must seem unbelievable that people at this time didn’t come to the realization that slavery was a horrible and inhumane practice fast enough. However, although it did take a very long time, over time people realized the negative effects of slavery and how unjust it was. Everyone, even slave owners, were finally forced to understand how people should not be treated based on their skin color or as poorly as slaves were treated. Although most slaves were freed for a money equivalent, some slaves were freed due to the realization their owners came to when they finally understood the immorality of slavery. This source describes it best as an “instinct of humanity.”[13] Slaveowners finally overcame their narrow understanding of slavery and realized how wrong it was to treat people as objects when they deserved the same respect that other humans of other races received. This primary source describes a specific instance where the slave was released by their owner due to this reason. A shore slave named Prince was released in 1778 because “his owner was ‘convinced of his, the said Prince’s plea, and being convinced of the injustice of the general practice of the country in holding negro slaves during life without consent.”[14] Slowly more people realized how wrong it was to hold control over someone’s life without their consent. Because of slavery, families were broken apart and children lost their parents at a very young age. Their freedom and lives were sold to someone at an unfair price. A human’s life is priceless and can’t be put into a number form. 

            Although it took longer than needed, people started to view the immorality of slavery and revolted against such a inhumane practice. As the colonies grew, especially in Connecticut, more people joined in on the anti-slavery revolt. Abolitionists worked and revolted to ensure that when it came to voting, the majority of people would vote against slavery resulting in the abolishment of it. According to the primary source, in 1774 there were 6,562 slaves in the colony, but in 1790 that number decreased to 2,759 slaves with 2,801 free black people. After 8 years, the Emancipation was fulfilled and in 1890, there were 12,302 black people living in Connecticut.[15] Although time did allow for change and the betterment of society as a whole and slavery was abolished, racism still exists in the world today. 

            I am sad to say that we have reached the end of my part of the tour! Overall, slavery is a sad, but very important part of our history and we should not overlook the actions that certain remarkable people took in an attempt to fight against it. Alexander Murdock and the Underground Railroad are great examples of this fight and the strong attempts people made as anti-slavery activists. I hope everyone enjoyed my part of the tour and I hope you keep enjoying the rest of it. Please feel free to take pictures and I’ll be around if anyone has questions! Thank you so much, everyone!

Works Cited

“Alexander MURDOCH Jr.” Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1872.

Child, Frank Samuel. Thirteenth Annual Report of the Fairfield Historical Society: October 17th 1916. Bridgeport, Conn.: Standard Print Shop, 1916. 

Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. First Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Hannah Jones, Nikole (host). Annie Brown, Adizah Ethan and Kelly Prime (producers). Lisa Tobin and Lisa Chow (editors). “Episode 2: The Economy That Slavery Built.” 1619 podcast. The New York Times. August 30, 2019. Editors. “Fugitive Slave Acts.” A&E Television Networks. December 2, 2009. Updated February 11, 2020. Accessed May 18, 2022. Editors. “Underground Railroad.” A&E Television Networks. October 29, 2009. Updated January 25, 2022. Accessed May 18, 2022.

National Archives. “The Emancipation Proclamation.”

The History Center in Tompkins County. “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom.” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers. 2005.

The History Center in Tompkins County. “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996.”

[1] National Archives, “The Emancipation Proclamation,”, photo of page 3.

[2] Nikole Hannah Jones (host), Annie Brown, Adizah Ethan and Kelly Prime (producers), Lisa Tobin and Lisa Chow (editors), “Episode 2: The Economy That Slavery Built,” 1619 podcast, The New York Times, August 30, 2019,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Frank Samuel Child, Thirteenth Annual Report of the Fairfield Historical Society: October 17th 1916 (Bridgeport, Conn.: Standard Print Shop, 1916).  

[5] Editors, “Fugitive Slave Acts,”, A&E Television Networks, December 2, 2009, updated February 11, 2020, accessed May 18, 2022,

[6] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015).

[7] Editors, “Underground Railroad,”, A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009, updated January 25, 2022, accessed May 18, 2022,

[8] Eric Foner.

[9] “Alexander MURDOCH Jr.,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1872.

[10] The History Center in Tompkins County, “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996,” 18.

[11] The History Center in Tompkins County, “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom,” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers, 2005.

[12] Frank Samuel Child.

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Ibid.