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photo courtesy of the Historical American Buildings Survey

The New Castle County Courthouse, a National Historic Landmark, is a Georgian style brick building, built in three sections between 1730 and 1830. Among its many court cases were the Hunn-Garrett Trials of 1848. Thomas Garrett(1789-1871), a businessman, and John Hunn, (1818-1894) a minister, were Delaware's two most prominent Quaker abolitionists and activists on the Underground Railroad, channeling freedom seekers from Delaware and Maryland to Philadelphia. Thomas Garrett was not secretive about his Underground Railroad work in the 1840s and 1850s, and was fearless in standing up to slave catchers. He kept a list of those he assisted - by his own reckoning 2500 -- and periodically reported the count at meetings of abolition societies in Delaware and Pennsylvania. His letters regarding the transfer of this human "cargo" were kept by William Still, the African American secretary of the Philadelphia Abolition Society, and several were published in Still's book The Underground Railroad in 1872.

The downfall of Hunn and Garrett came in 1845. In November Samuel D. Burris, an educated free African American from Philadelphia, led Samuel Hawkins, a freeman from Queen Anne's County, Maryland, his enslaved wife, Emeline, and their enslaved children out of Maryland. In December they arrived at the Middletown, Delaware, farm of John Hunn who aided Burris and the runaways. Unfortunately the pursuers tracked the runaways to Hunn's farm. The pursuers convinced the sheriff to hold the family in the New Castle jail illegally until proper papers were prepared. Garrett heard the news, met with the family, and arranged for an attorney to present a Writ of Habeas Corpus. The judge accepted a copy of a will manumitting Emeline, found no evidence of slave status, and freed the family to continue their journey to Byberry Township, Pennsylvania, where they settled.

This assistance by Thomas Garrett and John Hunn led to a well-publicized Federal trial. Garrett and Hunn were prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 which made it a Federal crime to assist, aid and/or harbor a "fugitive from servitude." They were found guilty by a jury consisting mostly of Sussex County slaveholders. The decision by presiding Judge Robert B. Taney of the US Supreme Court, set a precedent by stating that the fine of $500 under the Fugitive Slave Act applied to each fugitive harbored or assisted, rather than a blanket fine. The judgement for damages caused Hunn to lose his farm and Garrett to lose his home and business in Wilmington. Although bankrupted, Garrett remained defiant. After the sentencing, Garrett gave an impassioned speech to the courtroom, stating he had no regrets: ".... And had I believed everyone one of them to be slaves, I should have done the same thing... I should have done violence to my convictions of duty, had I not made use of all the lawful means in my power to liberate those people and assist them to be men and women, rather than leave them in the condition of chattels...." Thomas Garrett and John Hunn dedicated the rest of their lives to assisting those escaping slavery, and, after the Civil War, to those newly freed from bondage.

The New Castle County Courthouse is located at 211 Delaware Street, New Castle, Delaware. It is free and open to the public on Wednesday-Saturday, 10:00 am-3:30 pm and Sunday, 1:30 pm-4:30 pm but closed state holidays. Hours are subject to change. Tours and other interpretive activities take place throughout operating hours. Reservations are required for some activities. For information call (302) 323-4453.

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