John Gyser was an African American Ohioan who purportedly assisted slave catchers in returning fugitive slaves to their owners.
Little is known of Gyser's life except his role in the apprehension of nine fugitive slaves in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 15, 1854. The nine slaves, named Lewis, Lee, Shadrack, Anderson, Susan, Almeda, Wesley, John, and Sarah Jane, purportedly fled their owners' homes in Covington, Kentucky. They successfully crossed the Ohio River and entered Cincinnati. Gyser purportedly offered the fugitives assistance to Canada, first directing them to a stable, where the runaways were going to spend the night. Gyser then left the slaves and went to Covington, where he learned that the owners had offered a one thousand dollar reward. Gyser then took federal marshals to the runaway slaves. The fugitives, offering no resistance, surrendered. After a brief court hearing, the nine slaves were returned to their respective owners.
While John Gyser stands accused of assisting the slave-owners, at the time of the slaves' apprehension, the Cincinnati Columbian reported that no African American man named John Gyser resided in Cincinnati. The newspaper claimed that an African American Cincinnati resident actively aided the fugitives and that the owner of the stable actually turned in the fugitives.
While it is debated whether or not John Gyser really existed, his story illustrates the difficulties that African Americans faced in the United States 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 slave-owners to reclaim their runaway slaves, and Northerners sometimes assisted slave-owners in recapturing the fugitives.
- "Fugitive Slave Case." Ironton Register. 13 December 1860.
- Siebert, Wibur H. The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Russell & Russell, 1898.
- Middleton, Stephen. "The Fugitive Slave Crisis in Cincinnati, 1850-1860: Resistance, Enforcement, and Black Refugees." Journal of Negro History 72 (Winter-Spring 1987): 20-32.