William F. Channing

Quick Facts
Activist, Physician, Scientist, Inventor, Member of the Latimer Committee, Member of the Boston Vigilance Committee
Place of Birth:
Boston, MA
Date of Birth:
February 22, 1820
Place of Death:
Boston, MA
Date of Death:
March 19, 1901
Place of Burial:
Cambridge, MA
Cemetery Name:
Mount Auburn Cemetery

Physician and scientist William F. Channing participated in the Underground Railroad as a member of the Latimer Committee and the 1850 Boston Vigilance Committee.

Born to a prominent Boston family in 1820, William F. Channing grew up in a world of privilege as the son of a renown and influential Unitarian minister and intellectual, Dr. William Ellery Channing. After graduating from Harvard in 1839, Channing received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1844. He lived at 83 Mt. Vernon Street, in Boston's prestigious Beacon Hill neighborhood.1

Like his father before him, Channing also became involved in social reform efforts, including the abolition movement. For example, in 1842, when authorities arrested freedom seeker George Latimer, Channing joined Henry I. Bowditch and Frederick S. Cabot to create the Latimer Committee. This committee published six editions of The Latimer Journal and North Star to raise awareness about the case, advocate for Latimer's release, and "oppose the inroads of slavery on our own State."2

Channing joined the third and final iteration of the Boston Vigilance Committee following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Vigilance Committee records indicated a donation of $5 from "William Channing" in May 1851, but this may be referring to his cousin and fellow committee member William H. Channing.3 He also served as Secretary of the Vigilance Committee following the death of committee member Charles List.4

Channing also provided assistance to Boston Underground Railroad leader Lewis Hayden following the unsuccessful courthouse rescue of Anthony Burns in 1854. Hayden had participated in the attack on the courthouse and believed that he had fired the shot that killed a deputy marshal. Fearing arrest, Hayden turned to Channing, who later wrote:

I drove Hayden out of town to Wm. I. Bowditch's House, the Sunday evening, following the attack on the courthouse, after conferring with Theodore Parker.5

Hayden stayed with Bowditch in Brookline, and eventually went to Worcester, before heading back home to Boston once things had settled down.6

In the aftermath of the Burns case, Channing joined the newly formed the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League.7 This league included other Vigilance Committee members, including Austin Bearse and Joshua B. Smith. Though they trained for confrontational direct action against slave catchers, the league never "had any opportunity of trying our plan," according to member Henry Bowditch. Bowditch believed the "excitement" produced by the Burns case kept the "slave driver" from Boston "for fear of something worse, perhaps, happening to him."8

In addition to his work in the abolition movement and Underground Railroad, Channing also developed and nurtured an interest in science, geology, and electricity, authoring several books on the subject. He designed and patented several inventions, including a city-wide fire-alarm system, a railroad for transporting ships, and a telephone bought by the Bell Company.

He moved to California later in life for the health of his wife and lived there for sixteen years. Following her death, he returned to Boston and died six months later on March 19, 1901.9


  1. "Death List of the Day," New York Times, March 21, 1901, page 9; "Members of the Committee of Vigilance," broadside printed by John Wilson, 1850, Massachusetts Historical Society; Boston City Directory, 1850-1851, 114. NPS maps geo-locate 83 Mt. Vernon Street at the approximate 1850 location.
  2. Liberator, December 23, 1842, page 3.
  3. Francis Jackson, Treasurers Accounts Book of the Boston Vigilance Committee, May 21, 1851, 83.
  4. Dean Grodzins, "'Constitution of No Constitution, Law or No Law:' The Boston Vigilance Committees, 1841-1861," Massachusetts and the Civil War, Matthen Masson, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick, eds. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), 73, n. 57.
  5. William F. Channing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, February 6, 1898, T.W. Higginson Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  6. Stephen Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 208-211.
  7. Manisha Sinha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 538.
  8. Vincent Yardley Bowditch, Life and Correspondence of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1902), 280.
  9. "Death List of the Day," New York Times, March 21, 1901, page 9.

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: October 27, 2023