David Ruggles had taken down some of the toughest slave holders and their fugitive slave kidnapping lackeys in the business. This slightly built, rather sickly, bespectacled African-American writer and anti-slavery activist was one of the most hated men in late 1830s New York. His life was a series of “firsts” – owner of the first black bookstore and library in New York, publisher of the first black periodical, and more. He and his activist associates, both black and white, formed the New York Committee of Vigilance.
They had taken anti-slavery opposition beyond the genteel outrage of the meeting hall and the broadsheet, and were doing their best to physically liberate any slave brought to New York City by a Southern master. They also worked with the legal system to free those captured by slave catchers and tossed in prison while awaiting extradition to Southern shores. These activities had earned him the hatred of those who profited from the slave trade, as well as the ire of his abolitionist peers, many of whom thought he went too far, too fast.
David Ruggles’ story can be found in the previous chapters of this story, linked below. When we left him last time, he had lost most of his money, his home, and his job. He had also found out that the cause of righteousness could be much more complicated than he thought. Like many dedicated activists to a cause, he had made several broad leaps into complicated situations without seeing all sides first, and had suffered the consequences to his livelihood and his reputation. His activities had also taken their toll on his health.
In addition to his activities with his Committee of Vigilance, he was an outspoken and well-known supporter of the Underground Railroad. Before losing his home in 1839, he operated from his bookstore and printing shop at 36 Lispenard Street, in what is now Tribeca. Between 1834 and 1839, over 600 fugitives passed through his home and shop, on their way further north to freedom in New England and Canada. New York City was too dangerous a place to stay for very long for most fugitives, and everyone knew that you could be snatched up off the street, whether fugitive or free, and sold back into slavery. The Committee of Vigilance was able to stop some, but not all, from that horrible fate.
One of those fugitives was a young man named Frederick Augustus Bailey. He arrived in New York City penniless, hungry and friendless, sleeping in shipping barrels on the wharves until a sympathetic sailor took him to Ruggles’ house. There he was fed, clothed and put in contact with Anna Murray, the free woman who had encouraged his escape north. The man, who changed his name to Frederick Douglass, spent several days with David Ruggles. What that must have been like, the fugitive bursting with intellectual curiosity left to peruse Ruggles’ library to his heart’s content, while having deep conversations with this dedicated abolitionist, long into the night, sharing ideas about freedom.
Douglass and Anna Murray married in David Ruggles’ shop, the ceremony officiated by James Pennington, another of Brooklyn and Manhattan’s unsung abolitionists heroes. Although they had originally planned to go to Canada, Ruggles was able to convince them to journey to New Bedford, Mass. There, with the five dollar bill given to Douglass by Ruggles, they found new friends, and in a few years, Frederick Douglass would emerge as one of the most important men in 19th century America. He never forgot David Ruggles, and mentioned him fondly in his autobiography, and throughout his life. It is because of Douglass that this important man was not forgotten in history, and that new attention is being given to his life and legacy.
Ruggles was only 29 when he helped Frederick Douglass, and during the Darg case, and its aftermath, which was discussed in Part Three of this story. He was not in good health at that time, and the stress of his life’s work was taking its toll. He was rapidly going blind, and he suffered from severe gastrointestinal ailments that nearly killed him several times. In 1841, his father died, and that year, his friends were sure he would soon follow.
In 1842, a friend, fellow abolitionist Lydia Maria Child introduced him to a radical utopian commune in Northampton, Mass. It was called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. This was one of America’s first communal societies, founded that year. It was organized around a communally owned and operated silk mill. The Northampton Association was founded on the principle that “the rights of all are equal without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion.” Everyone in the society was in strong opposition to slavery, and most were followers of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
As the Society grew, it was often visited by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, another great African American abolitionist, was a member of the community. David Ruggles came here to regain his strength among his peers. It was here that he instituted a hydropathical cure for himself, the “water cure,” which helped him regain his health to a great degree, but it did not improve his eyesight, and he went blind before his death. He was so successful with the hydrotherapy that he embarked upon a water cure practice which he operated in Northampton, which changed its name to Florence in 1852.
Again, this was a “first” for him: the first water cure hospital in the United States, and it was very successful. Frederick Douglass often visited him, and wrote that “It was good to see that this man who had zealously assisted others was now receiving assistance from the benevolent men and women of this Community, and if a grateful heart in a recipient of benevolence is any compensation for such benevolence, the friends of David Ruggles were well compensated. His whole theme to me was gratitude to these noble people. For his blindness he was hydropathically treated in the Community. He himself became well versed in the water cure system, and was subsequently at the head of a water cure establishment at Florence. He acquired such sensitiveness of touch that he could, by feeling the patient, easily locate the disease, and was, therefore, very successful in treating his patients.” (Charles Sheffeld’s “History of Florence, 1894”)
David Ruggles never returned to New York City or Brooklyn. He lived in Florence, and dictated articles for abolitionist journals and newspapers, as well as writings on hydrotherapy. He never married. He died at Florence of a bowel infection in 1849. He was not quite 40 years old. He never lived to see slavery’s end. His family came from Connecticut and took his body back to Norwich, where he is buried. William Lloyd Garrison would note Ruggles’ many accomplishments and said that “his biography had yet to be written.”
For over a hundred and fifty years, David Ruggles has been a little known footnote in the abolitionist movement, one that could not have been as effective as it was without him. Fortunately, at last, his story is becoming known. Historian Graham Russell Hodges, a professor of history at Colgate University, is now the leading Ruggles scholar, and has written extensively on Ruggles’ life, his writings, and his place in New York’s Abolitionist Movement, as well as his career as a practitioner of hydrotherapy. Most of the information in the Ruggles part of this series is gleaned from various articles by Professor Hodges, who is writing a biography of Ruggles. David Ruggles was an uncompromising man of courage and principle. Everyone should know about him, he was an important and great American.
David Ruggles, the Tappan brothers, and many of Brooklyn’s known and unknown valiant anti-slavery warriors are part of a ground breaking project called In Pursuit of Freedom: Anti-Slavery Activism and the Culture of Abolitionism in Antebellum Brooklyn. The project was a joint effort of the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Weeksville Heritage Center and the Irondale Theater Ensemble, and represents years of research and investigation into this little known area of American History. There’s a website connected to the project, as well as exhibits and a theatrical production. Please check the website at www.pursuitoffreedom.org.