In 1835 the quiet little village of Aurora was the site of one of the nation’s first conflicts between slavery and antislavery forces. The decades leading up to the Civil War was era of growing tensions between the forces that advocated the abolition of slavery and those that felt that the institution was an economic necessity or that it was crucial to the fabric of society.
A wide spectrum of arguments supported the varying viewpoints. Should slaves be emancipated immediately without compensation to their owners? Should slaves be "colonized" by purchasing their freedom and sending them back to Africa? It must also be noted that many believed that while slavery was an immoral institution, they did not believe in racial equality.
The citizens of Aurora, like many in communities throughout Northeast Ohio, were divided over the issue which would tear asunder the United States in 1861.
In nearby Hudson, students on the campus of the Western Reserve College, which was established in 1821, had formed their own colonization society. Like the surrounding communities, both the campus and the village of Hudson were basically conservative and had supported other moral reform movements.
The college soon had its own student led anti-slavery society, which soon overshadowed the work of the colonization society. The students’ efforts to take up the cause of abolition were encouraged by several faculty members which included Elizur Wright, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, Beriah Green, professor of theology and sacred religion, as well as The Rev. Charles Backus Storrs, president of the college.
At the urging of professors Wright and Green students of the college had been encouraged to visit area churches in the Reserve and preach "immediate abolition." One of the young students was Isaac J. Bigelow.
Bigelow was invited by The Rev. John Seward to preach at the church in Aurora. Seward had hoped that Bigelow would educate the congregation about the social and moral degradation of slavery. However, Seward underestimated the zeal with which Bigelow would advocate his position on the evils of slavery. He also underestimated the outrage that the conservative community would have when they heard that Bigelow would be preaching. Seward certainly did not expect what took place July 4, 1835.
Prior to the July 4 presentation, as word spread about the focus of Bigelow’s upcoming sermon among the members of the community and surrounding area, people on both sides of the issue of abolition made their positions known.
Many believed that Bigelow was a "firebrand" and it was said he was warned that if he preached in Aurora he would be tarred and feathered. There were those church elders who believed that the "sacred edifice" should never be used for such a controversial message.
Early on the Sunday morning of July 4, families began to pour into the church, coming from "all quarters in wagons, on horseback and afoot." Many came as spectators for what they believed was going to a circus or the atmosphere of a "camp meeting." By the time the service was to begin the public square had become filled with a "motley throng, full of talk and laughter, but ready to break forward into disorder if led on and encouraged," a report said.
The crowd outside was twice as large as the crowd that had jammed inside when the doors were opened early. By the time the sermon was to commence the anti-Bigelow voices had grown louder.
Reverend Seward began the service with a prayer and while not in total sympathy with abolition, he believed that those who supported it should have a fair opportunity to express their views and certainly to be protected.
But as soon as Bigelow began his service the yelling and jeering inside and outside the church made it impossible for him to be heard. Bigelow continued his sermon and Seward did all he could to quell the noise.
The opposition to Bigelow was well prepared. Forty to 50 men on horseback had gathered near the church and just after the service began to circle the church "yelling, blowing horns, ringing bells, firing guns and horse pistols."
Bigelow persisted but was constantly drowned out by shouts and laughter. A small old cannon was brought into the public square and was fired repeatedly, shaking the very foundation of the church and blowing out the windows.
Fearing for Bigelow’s safety, Seward and his wife led him from the church down the street to their home while being pelted with rotten tomatoes and eggs.
As the three sought refuge the demonstration outside on the public square grew. A monument of stones was erected in the front of the church. Embedded in the pile of stones was a wooden plank with an inscription warning all "Bigelows" that "abolitionism" was barred from the village.
An old suit with filled with straw and Bigelow was hung in effigy from a quickly constructed gallows. The plank mysteriously disappeared the next evening, but was quickly found by the pro-slavery advocates and was replaced with the threat of violence to anyone who would attempt its removal. The monument to slavery remained in the public square for some time.
One evening "when the sun went down the "plank" was gone and "not a splinter of it was ever seen again.
Bigelow’s harrowing escape from Aurora was not his last. He continued his anti-slavery lectures and later went onto to work directly with William Lloyd Garrison in Boston, demonstrating the strength of his convictions that he would die for his principles. Within little over a decade after the "Bigelow Riot" the views and remonstrations of the Aurora community had changed as the church and its followers began to fully embrace the abolition of slavery in America.
Kudley is president of the Aurora Historical Society