Characters

These are the characters you will meet at the historic sites or see during the performance. 
 
 
Gideon Madison "Matt" Ashmore: (1810-1892) Matt was one of the few abolitionists in northern Coles County in 1847.  He had been the school teacher and was a businessman, running a tavern at the corner of Pike and Main Streets in the town, Independence (now Oakland), that he had founded.  He is the first person to come to the aid of the Bryants: he sheltered and fed them, then raised the money to pay for their legal defense including a large donation from himself.  He drove the family to Quincy after the trial to start their trip to Liberia.  At the time of the trial, he was married to Polly and they had three boys and two girls all under the age of 12 with the youngest being a newborn.  His business and social standing in the community was damaged by his standing with the Bryants, and resulted in his leaving in 1848 to found the town of Arena, Wisconsin where he successfully lived his remaining years.

Anthony Bryant: (1775 - after 1848)  Anthony was a free person of color at least from 1830. Jane was his second wife, and he had married her around 1843 in Kentucky.  He moved to Illinois when she was relocated here by Matson.  As a licensed Methodist exhorter, Anthony, was able to lead the local African-Americans at Brushy Fork in services and attended to their spiritual needs.  He could read, with effort, and was respected by Matson and others in the area.  Anthony sought help for his family after Mary Corbin threatened them from his contacts in the church.  He persisted until he found Matt Ashmore.  Anthony, about 70 years old, stayed in the Oakland area after Jane and the children were imprisoned, and wasn't reunited with her until the trial concluded.  He and his family moved to Liberia in 1848 in hopes of finding a new and better life, however, the opposite was true.  Rev. Anthony met a visiting African-American minister from Springfield in Monrovia four months after they arrived, and begged him to return the family to the United States, which was not possible. We do not currently know the fate of he and his family.

Jane Bryant: (b. 1807-1815 - d. after 1848) Jane was Robert Matson's slave, along with her four children.  She was a light-skinned mulatto woman, as were three of her four children.  It was believed that her father was Robert Matson's brother, James, and that her children were also fathered by white men.  She and her mother were probably owned by Matsons their whole lives. Matson had brought her to his farm, Black Grove, two miles east of today's Newman in 1845 to keep house.  She is a strong and courageous woman, who when her children were threatened, protected them and won their freedom.  She and the children endured 58 days in the Coles County Jail awaiting the circuit court trial, then with hope they traveled thousands of miles to Liberia in search of a "free" life. Unfortunately, they arrived in Liberia with little money and became sick in the foreign environment.  We do not know what happened to the family as the recent Civil War there caused the destruction of many records.

Mary Chesnut: (1823-1886) Mary was a South Carolinian high-society wife, and while she had nothing to do with this trial, she did leave some comments about southern life in her published diary that shed light on the lifestyle to which Jane would have been subjected. Mary began her diary on February 18, 1861, and ended it on June 26, 1865. She was an eyewitness to many historic events as she accompanied her husband to significant sites of the Civil War. Although she edited the diary during the 1870s and 1880s for publication, she retained the sense of events unfolding without foreknowledge. She was forthright about complex and fraught situations related to slavery, particularly the abuses of sexuality and power. For instance, Chesnut confronted the problem of white men fathering children with enslaved women in their own extended households. Literary scholars have called the Chesnut diary the most important work by a Confederate author. (From Wikipidia)

Mary Corbin: (1812 or 1821 - 1874)  Head-strong, temperamental, and yet a "good woman," Mary is at the center of this story.  It was her fit of temper that sparked the Bryants search for aid and caused her lover and future husband, Robert Matson, to lose six of his slaves. The first we know of her, Mary Ann Ladore married Isaac Corbin in Shelbyville, Illinois in 1842. She apparently left him in November 1844 and ended up with Robert Matson on his Black Grove farm serving as his housekeeper and mistress.  She bore his child, Mildred, in 1846. Matson split his time between Kentucky and Illinois, leaving Mary in charge.  She got angry with the slaves in the summer of 1847 and threatened to sell the children south.  The Bryants wouldn't tolerate this, so they put into motion their route to freedom.  Mary's divorce from Isaac was finalized in May 1847 and she married her fifty-two year old, bachelor lover in November 1848 in Gallatin County, Illinois.  The moved to Fulton County shortly thereafter, raising a family of six children.  She died and is buried on the family farm.

Joe Dean: (1795-1876)  Joe was Matson's right-hand man in Illinois. "Joe Dean was one of those superserviceable creatures, belonging to that stigmatized class designated as 'poor white trash,'" according to Orlando Ficklin.  He was Matson's representative in Illinois when Matson was gone and was the main witness for him during the trial. Being associated with Matson was probably initially a boon for Dean, but by the end it cost him money.  Dean and his family lived on their own rented farm in northern Coles County. Dean posts two $50 bonds on behalf of Matson in 1847. The poor loyal fellow would have lost one of those bonds because Matson didn't show up for his trial on fornication with a woman to whom he was not married.  Lincoln also relied on Dean's testimony that Matson always declared that the slaves were in Illinois temporarily and their real home was in Kentucky.  He remained in the area until 1854 when he married his third wife and moved to her property in the Georgetown area on which he lived the remaining years of his life.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey the son of a slave woman and a white man, Frederick was raised by his grandparents in slavery.  He learned the ship building trade in Baltimore from age eight to fifteen. He was then sent to a brutal farm where he endured the worst treatment of slaves.  He ran away in 1838 and fled north to New Bedford, Massachusetts marrying his wife along the way.  At 23 years old, Douglass gave a stirring, eloquent speech about his life as a slave at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention in Nantucket. Douglass would continue to give speeches for the rest of his life and would become a leading spokesperson for the abolition of slavery and for racial equality. He conferred with Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and recruited northern blacks for the Union Army. He was the keynote speaker at the unveiling of the at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Memorial in Memory of Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D. C. After the War he fought for the rights of women and African Americans alike. working until the last, Douglass died in 1895 after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C.  He is buried in Rochester, New York.

Lucy Dupee: (1790-after 1877)  Lucy was a free woman of color who had been living in northern Coles County with her brother, daughter, and grandchildren forming the Brushy Fork community since 1838.  She was born in Virginia probably as a slave.  She seems to have been moved to Kentucky, where she wed Edward Dupee.  By 1846, Edward is a free man and buys forty acres for Lucy here, though he never appears to live with her.  We have no direct evidence of how Lucy and her family interacted with the Bryants, however, we surmise that Anthony was probably the religious leader of the community.  Black Grove was about eight miles from Lucy's home.  The fact, that Sim Wilmott, Jane's brother and fellow Matson slave, turns to this community once the trial is over is another indication that they were well-known to each other.  Anthony and Jane most likely chose not to involve Lucy in their flight from Matson, so as not to put them in any more danger than they were already in (kidnappings of free blacks to be sold south was a common complaint in southern Illinois).  We believe that the members of this community who valued independence and freedom would have assisted Anthony and Jane in preparing for their journey to Liberia, and may have housed them after the trial.  While most of her family moved to Kansas in 1877, we believe that Lucy stayed and is buried at the "Negro Cemetery" in Douglas County on the Brushy Fork.

Orlando B. Ficklin: (1885-1808) Congressman, state's attorney, politician and another Kentuckian.  He represented the Bryants and Ashmore in the various court actions, though he was not an abolitionist.  He was born and raised in Kentucky and Missouri, attending Transylvania University in Lexington to get his law degree.  He started his political career in the State Legislature, went on to serve several terms in the United States Congress including one when Lincoln was a fellow Representative, and ended his career back in Charleston as an attorney and respected leader of the Democratic Party.  Ficklin recalled many years later, "A few weeks later (after the trial) Abraham Lincoln and myself met in Washington City, on Pennsylvania avenue...The conversation turned on the Matson trial. Lincoln, with earnest tone remarked: "Ficklin, do you know that I think the latter part of your speech was as eloquent as I ever listened to?"

William Lloyd Garrison: (1805-1879) This journalist and evangelical abolitionist did not have an active part in the Matson Slave Trial, though his beliefs and teachings were an significant influence to men like Ashmore and Rutherford.  In fact, Garrison was a friend of Dr. Rutherford's brother, Dr. William W. Rutherford of Pennsylvania. Garrison stayed at William's home when he visited Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1848 and 1858. He was from Massachusetts which is where he started his newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831.  The following year he founded the Anti-Slavery Society that advocated for immediate emancipation of slaves.  Garrison made a name for himself as one of the most articulate, as well as most radical, opponents of slavery. His approach to emancipation stressed nonviolence and passive resistance, and he attracted a vocal following. On July 4, 1844, he publicly burnt a copy of the Constitution condemning it as "pro-slavery". After the abolition of slavery in the United States, Garrison continued working on other reform movements, especially temperance and women's suffrage.

William Gilman: (1800-1880) William Gilman, was a Kentuckian and owner of the Charleston Hotel who had lived in Illinois since the 1830s.  He was not very well-educated though he served as Justice of the Peace and later as Constable for Charleston. During the trial in his court in August, he was considered a pro-slavery man, hence, the defense asked that two other justices of the peace join him as a panel to decide on whether or not Jane and the children should be considered fugitive slaves.  However, by 1864 when he was injured during the Charleston Riot, he was labeled a Republican.  The panel of justices decided that Jane and the children were blacks living in Coles County without a certificate of freedom, so they would be held in jail until, after the proper public notices, the would be hired out to the highest bidder at auction.
  
Abraham Lincoln: (1809-1865) Lincoln was 38 years old at the time of the trial and was two weeks away from leaving for Washington D.C. to take his seat as a Representative from Illinois.  He had married Mary Todd in 1842 and they had two children, Robert age four and Edward about a year and half.  He had been admitted to the bar in 1837 and spent much of his time traveling with the circuit court on the 8th Judicial Circuit ranging from northwest of Springfield to Paris near the Indiana state line.  The 8th circuit included Paris and Shelbyville, which forced the court and its lawyers to pass through Charleston. The lawyers often took extra work here as they passed, though Lincoln was more attached to Coles County because his father and step-mother, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, lived south of town at Goosenest Prairie.  Lincoln made the trip to Charleston in October 1847 for several reasons: he had a few other minor matters before the court held over from previous sessions; he probably wanted to say goodbye to his family before leaving for Washington; and he may have wanted to be involved in the Matson trial which promised to be of some import and that would set precedent for how Illinois felt on the issue.  He represents Robert Matson, the slave owner, at the trial basing his argument on the fact that the slaves were in transit and not permanently settled here, hence they should remain slaves. He never wrote or spoke about this trial leaving his motivations to be surmised by historians.

Usher Linder: (1809-1876) Linder was another of the Kentuckians in their thirties that dominated this story.  He had come to Illinois in 1835 to practice law, first in Greenup and then Charleston.  He was elected to the State Legislature the following year and then again in 1846 and 1850. Before the end of that first session he resigned to become the Illinois Attorney General.  He held that office for 18 months, during which Elijah Lovejoy, an Alton abolitionist publisher, was attacked and murdered by slavery supporters.  Linder, instead of prosecuting the slavers, brought charges against Lovejoy's supporters for inciting a riot.  At one time he was a Whig, but had become a Democrat by 1858 when Stephen A. Douglas used Linder's excellent oratorical skills to augment his senate campaign; then Linder served as a delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Convention. During the trial, Linder represented Matson and argued that slaves were chattel property and that the federal constitution required Illinois to return them to their master.  Linder struggled with alcoholism throughout his life and died in Chicago after moving there in an effort to resuscitate his career.

Robert Matson: (1796-1859) Robert was from a wealthy and slave-rich Bourbon County Kentucky family, though he had years of disagreements with his siblings.  He was a confirmed bachelor for most of his life. He served in the War of 1812 as a lieutenant but in later years was given the honorific of "General."  He was elected to the Kentucky Legislature in 1832 and '34. By 1830 he owned nineteen slaves and seems to have retained about that number until the Civil War.  Only in 1830 do we know him to have owned a slave over 36 years old, and that was a woman, possibly Jane's mother.  He bought property on the Brushy Fork near where Lucy Dupee lived and some in Edgar County about a mile across the county line in 1835, but later sold the southern Brushy Fork property. In 1842 he bought the land he called Black Grove, which was about two miles east of today's Newman.  He divided his time between his Illinois and Kentucky lands.  Matson stated in court that he made a habit of bringing some of his slaves here to help work the land and then returned them to Kentucky, trying to circumvent Illinois laws prohibiting slavery.  Jane and her children had been here, though, for two years when they fled to Oakland.  Immediately after the trial he sold his Illinois land and returned south.  He also sold his property in Bourbon County, moving to Fulton County in western Kentucky where he continued to own slaves and prospered.  We do not know who was the mother of his first two children, both born in Kentucky.  Matson died and is buried on the farm that is still in his family.

Dr. Hiram Rutherford: (1815-1900) Hiram was the only northern in this drama, from an abolitionist family no less.  His father had taken in runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania.  Rutherford did his part for the cause by helping organize and fund the Bryant's defense against Matson.  He told how he tried to hire Abraham Lincoln to represent him in the Matson affair, but Lincoln had already been approached by the other side.  Rutherford was gravely disappointed that Lincoln, who he believed opposed slavery, did not stand with the slaves on this issue.  The doctor had arrived in Oakland in 1840 after graduating from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and spending a couple of years in practice near Harrisburg.  He felt that his education set him apart from the other doctors, and in fact, it helped insulate him from the negative impact Ashmore felt in his business for helping the Bryants.  Hiram prospered on the prairie in his practice, purchasing land, and helping build the Oakland community.  He married his first wife, Lucinda in Pennsylvania then brought her to Illinois.  They had one son before Lucinda died in 1845.  Rutherford met his second wife during the Matson Slave Trial, Harriet Hutcherson of Springfield, the cousin of the Coles County sheriff.  They married in 1848 and would have nine children and raised two African-American children in his home.  It is through his writings that we know much about the trial and life on the prairie in the 1800s.
 
Harriet Beecher Stowe: (1811-1896)  Harriet was born the seventh child of a famous protestant preacher in Connecticut. In her early adult years she worked as a teacher and helped to support her family financially by writing for local and religious periodicals. the family moved to Cincinnati and she married widower Calvin Stowe. While she wrote at least ten adult novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe is predominantly known for her first, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Begun as a serial for the Washington anti-slavery weekly, the National Era, it focused public interest on the issue of slavery, and was deeply controversial. Stowe enlisted friends and family to send her information and she scoured freedom narratives and anti-slavery newspapers for first hand accounts as she composed her story. In 1852 the serial was published as a two volume book. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a best seller in the United States, England, Europe, Asia, and translated into over 60 languages. Following publication of the book, she became a celebrity, speaking against slavery both in America and Europe. She wrote two more books that focused on slavery. In 1862, when she visited President Lincoln, legend claims that he greeted her as "the little lady who made this big war": the war between the states. She died in Hartford, Connecticut at the age of 85.
 
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