The Tocsin of Liberty Newspaper
In early 1842 Abel Brown began his work in Albany as secretary of the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery sociaty. This group was initiated with a founding meeting in Albany’s then City Hall. One of the works this organization and its supporters was to engage in was the publication of the newspaper called the Tocsin of Liberty. The word Tocsin is an old word meaning bell or alarm. So in a sense the newspaper was named The Liberty Bell or The Alarm of Liberty. This name communicates the sense of urgency while also making a connection with the Liberty Bell that had becoem a symbol for the abolitionist cause.
The paper served several functions. It served as a communication device for the anti-slavery movement. The newspaper went out to subscribers and readers across a wide area. It communicated news of what was happening with the Liberty Party, the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society, and other anti-slavery efforts around the country. It also served as a way to raise anti-slavery feeling by communicating stories about the horrors of slavery and promoting anti-slavery publications. Finally it also seemed to serve an unusual purpose by telling the stories of fugitives from slavery in the paper. On the one hand this telling of stories served to say that the fugitives told about were safe in Canada. On the other hand the stories were used as a way to throw slave catchers off the trail of a fugitive. The stories sometimes told of them reaching Canada when they had not already done so. These newspaper stories were then sent to slave owners, often with a bill for services rendered in an attempt to ruffle the feathers of the slave owner and impress them that enslavement property was not secure property.
The stories in the newspaper are of particular interest in another way. While it is often said that there were no records kept of it or if there were records kept of the Underground Railroad they were destroyed. The stories in th pages of the Tocsin are of interest in the way they record the presence of the individual fugitives they tell of. In effect they are the records of the Underground Railroad published in a newspaper! This inventive approach is one way to hide information that is supposed to be secret!
The newspaper is a font of interesting information about local anti-slavery and underground railroad efforts. The names of people, places, and events are found within its pages. Among interesting events chronicled in the pages of the surviving copies of the Tocsin of Liberty are the annual report of the local vigilance committee, notes on anti-slavery meetings in Washington County and Schoharie County, notes on the progress of the Liberty Party and exchanged stories from other anti-slavery papers.
Abel Brown was a key figure in the operation of the paper. Among other key figures, Charles Torrey figures in an important role as well.
Once again, and in another way this tells us that contrary to the reputation of the underground railroad for secrecy, there was a public dimension as well as a secret side to the movement.
In terms of learning about what the Underground Railroad was in our local community this newspaper can help in identifying manypeople, places, and events that were part of the story. These people can be looked up in City Directories and the places they lived or worked can be identified on maps of the period. We can learn who these people were, where they worked and lived, and what kind of activities they carried out on a day to day basis. We can not only see who the people were in the articles, but also the advetisers as well.
The Tocsin of Liberty newspaper is available on micro-film throgh many libraries and through inter-library loan through most public libraries.