Last updated: January 16, 2023
Boston lawyer William Ingersoll Bowditch participated in the anti-slavery movement, aided freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad as a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, and served as a leading figure in the Womans' Suffrage Movement.
Born in 1818, William Ingersoll Bowditch spent his early years in Salem, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1841, he began living and working in Boston as a "conveyancer," a lawyer who oversees the transfer of property, including willed estates. In 1845, Bowditch moved to Brookline, although he kept his office at 8 Railroad Exchange in Boston.1
He gave his first recorded antislavery speech in 1845. Abolitionists, he said, must "solemnly pledge ourselves to follow out these great principles [of human brotherhood], and resolve that, constitution or no constitution, custom or no custom, nothing shall ever induce us to acquiesce in or tolerate slavery."2
In 1846, he openly called his listeners to civil disobedience. When law and conscience came into conflict with each other, as they did over slavery, he declared that we are "bound to follow… [our] conscience and to disobey the law."3
Bowditch backed up those words with deeds. He led the Massachusetts opposition to annexation of the slave state of Texas. He resigned his commission as Justice of the Peace rather than take the required oath to support a federal Constitution which protected slavery. He helped organize the 1846 revival of the Boston Vigilance Committee. Four years later he helped reinvigorate that Committee in response to the new 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. He also regularly broke the law of the United States when it conflicted with his conscientious hatred of slavery.
When freedom seekers William and Ellen Craft came to Massachusetts, Bowditch sheltered them in his home at 9 Toxteth St. In 1853, he joined Captain Austin Bearse and others in a bold attempt to rescue a freedom seeker confined on the brig Florence in Boston harbor. Bowditch wrote that Bearse sailed his yacht Moby Dick alongside the Florence, jumped on board and, pretending to be a slave catcher, demanded that the mate release the freedom seeker "quicker than lightning!":
... whereupon the mate rushed below and Bearse after him… the black man… was set free and was on the deck of our yacht in less than a minute… The whole thing was done so neatly and expeditiously that we could hardly refrain from laughing out aloud; and long before we got under full headway we could not restrain ourselves, and the mate saw that he had been mistaken … John K. Pearson [owner of the "Florence"] had seen us start, and watched our whole operation through his glass, but was wholly unable to prevent us, though he afterwards threatened dire vengeance.4
Bowditch took the man to his Toxteth St. house before sending him on his way to safety in Canada.5 Bowditch also sheltered Lewis Hayden when authorities threatened to arrest him for his role in the 1854 attempted rescue of Anthony Burns. In these and many other incidents, Bowditch risked both liberty and continued livelihood in the name of freedom.6
Bowditch opposed all forms of injustice, prejudice, and inequality. He publicly condemned the spirit of racism then common in American business, society, churches, and the military. He helped raise and recruit the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He fought for equal rights for women. When Massachusetts looked to revise its state Constitution in 1853, he, Abby Kelley Foster, Lucy Stone, and others demanded that the state strike "out the word MALE wherever it occurs in that instrument." Bowditch argued that "men and women together by the use of the ballot have an inherent right to govern themselves as they think best," and asked, "Why then has suffrage not been granted?"7 He served as President of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association for seven years. Bowditch also worked as a Director of the American Woman Suffrage Association. He remained a close friend of Lucy Stone, serving as a pall bearer at her funeral in 1893.
William Ingersoll Bowditch died at his home in Brookline on January 24, 1909. He left behind the legacy of a lifelong fight for freedom and equality. As Henry Browne Blackwell wrote, he should always be remembered as "one of Boston's most illustrious workers for anti-slavery and woman suffrage."8
- Bowditch’s first Brookline home still stands at 9 Toxteth Street. It is a listed site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Although he moved to a larger home in 1855, he kept the house on Toxteth St. as a shelter for freedom seekers and other activists.
- "Waltham Pic-nic," The Liberator, (Boston, Massachusetts) August 8, 1845, 2.
- "Remarks of William I. Bowditch, Esq," The Liberator, August 28, 1846, 3.
- Austin Bearse, Reminiscences of Fugitive Slave-law Days in Boston (Boston: Warren Richardson, 1880), 35.
- Bearse says that after the war ended the man visited his rescuers and then settled in Wilmington, NC. Bearse, Reminiscences of Fugitive Slave-law Days in Boston, 35.
- National Park Service, "Aboard the Underground Railroad - William Ingersoll Bowditch House," accessed August, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/ma3.htm; William Ingersoll Bowditch, “Extract from a Letter,” in Sketches and Reminiscences of the Radical Club of Chestnut Street, Boston, edited by Mrs. John T. Sargent (Boston: James R. Osgood and Commpany, 1880), 390 -393; Stephen Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012), 208.
- "THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION AND EQUAL POLITICAL RIGHTS," The Liberator, March 4, 1853, 3; "Its 20th Anniversary," Boston Herald, (Boston, Massachusetts) Jan. 29, 1890, 5.
- Henry Browne Blackwell, "In Memorium," The Woman's Journal (Boston, MA), January 30, 1909, 3.