From Ohio History Central
Lewis was an escaped slave who sought freedom in Columbus, Ohio.
Little is known of Lewis's life as a slave. He was probably born in 1834. Alexander Marshall owned Lewis. In June 1850, Lewis fled from his master's home in Fleming County, Kentucky. A federal marshal, James Black, searched for Lewis, following him across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, Ohio. Underground Railroad operatives then assisted Lewis to Columbus, where he spent three years living as a free man.
In 1853, another federal marshal, Manuel Dryden, apprehended Lewis in Columbus. Dryden intended to escort Lewis back to Alexander Marshall. Columbus abolitionists telegraphed Cincinnati attorney John Joliffe, a fervent abolitionist, who arranged for Dryden's arrest on kidnapping charges once the marshal arrived in Cincinnati.
Dryden requested a hearing to determine Lewis's status as either a slave or free man. If a federal commissioner determined that Lewis was a slave, Dryden could not be found guilty of kidnapping. Commissioner Samuel S. Carpenter agreed to hear the case. Joliffe and future United States President Rutherford B. Hayes defended Lewis. The defense argued that Lewis's owner allowed the slave to come to Ohio. Since Ohio was a state that disallowed slavery, Lewis, according to the defense, immediately became free upon entering the state with his master's permission. Dryden presented evidence that refuted the defense's claims.
White and black Cincinnatians crowded the courtroom. The hearing lasted several days, with Carpenter refusing to rule quickly. While waiting for Carpenter's ruling, Lewis found an opportunity to escape. He fled from the courtroom, with his supporters blocking the way of any pursuers. Lewis took refuge in a local church and eventually traveled the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada. He purportedly concealed his identity by dressing in women's clothing. Carpenter admitted after Lewis fled that he would have ruled in the ex-slave's favor.
Lewis's story illustrates the difficulties that African Americans faced in the United States of America in the early nineteenth century. While many Northern states had provisions outlawing slavery, runaway slaves did not necessarily gain their freedom upon arriving in a free state. Federal law permitted slaveowners to reclaim their runaway slaves.