The Tragedy of Edward “Ned” Davis: Entrepreneurial Fraud in Maryland in the Wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law


ABSTRACT: The celebrated trials of Anthony Burns, Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims were not the only compelling slave cases to occur after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. The little known slave case of Edward “Ned” Davis was arguably just as stunning as they. Although it did not receive the same attention or entail the same fanfare that these other, better-known slave cases did, Davis’s case nevertheless exposed a depth of corruption in the nation’s legal, economic, and political systems that they did not. Unlike Burns, Minkins, and Sims, Davis was not initially a slave; he was a free man of color like Solomon Northup. Unlike Northup, though, who had been illegally deceived and enslaved in the 1840s, Davis’s entrapment was perfectly legal. By 1851, multiple forces in local, state, and federal government—particularly in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware—had converged in such a way as to make it impossible for even a defense team composed of an abolitionist and a slaveholder to prevail. The Davis case scandalized Philadelphia’s abolitionist community, and launched the career of the prominent abolitionist poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.