Though he was a man of the cloth, Charles Turner Torrey went out of his way to publicly mock his enemies and alienate his ever-dwindling supply of friends. He was always short of money. He abandoned — or at least, severely neglected — his wife and two children. During a celebrated court case in the 1840s, he was described as "the most hated man in Maryland."
But a new book makes the case that the difficult, driven minister was one of the greatest abolitionists in U.S. history, although almost no one today knows his name.
In "The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey," a distant descendant describes how Torrey forged a branch of the Underground Railroad that ran through Baltimore and Harford County in the decade before that network's most famous conductor, Harriet Tubman, was active.
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatric researcher and amateur historian, credits Charles Turner Torrey with personally rescuing about 400 former slaves in less than three years.
"I first became aware of his name from my mother, who kept a list of famous Torreys," says the 76-year-old biographer, who just stepped down as executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Chevy Chase.
"There were just a few vague references in the abolitionist literature to Charles Torrey, but no full-length biography. He personally freed more slaves than any other abolitionist. This is the guy that John Brown said was one of his three major models. And yet, he's lost to history. I wanted to find out how that happened."
Luckily, the author, who makes his living researching schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, thrives on intellectual challenges.
His weekends and evenings are spent writing; to date, he's written about 20 nonfiction books. His best-known work, "The Roots of Treason," an account of the 12 years that the poet Ezra Pound spent in an insane asylum, was a finalist for the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award.
But ferreting out his ancestor's story, Torrey said, posed special challenges.
"Torrey's wife destroyed all of his correspondence after his death," Torrey said. "There were bits of information scattered all over the place. It was almost like a treasure hunt, where one clue leads you to another clue and another."
In the following edited and condensed conversation, the author reveals some of the nuggets that his search unearthed:
Why is Charles Torrey so little known today?
Until I wrote this book, I thought history was history. It never occurred to me that history is written by the people who live long enough to tell it.
The most famous abolitionist reformer of the day was William Lloyd Garrison. He and Torrey really hated each other, and Garrison just outlived him.
Garrison, the poor boy, felt put down by Torrey, who had come from a well-respected family and was well-educated. I think they both looked down on each other and both had real edges to their personalities. When they didn't like someone, they let you know.
Torrey was dead by 1846 at the age of 32, and Garrison lived until 1879. Most of Torrey's supporters also died early, while Garrison's had long lives. When his sons wrote their definitive, three-volume biography of their father, they wrote Torrey out of it.
Was Torrey indeed "the father of the Underground Railroad," which the book says was how he was known at that time?
It depends on what you mean by the Underground Railroad. When Torrey started his abolitionist activities, there was an existing network of people who passed on escaping slaves from place to place. It was especially well developed in Ohio.
What Torrey did was to organize a slave wagon. He didn't just wait for people to appear at his door. He recruited them and personally drove them to freedom in Philadelphia and Albany. He claims that he ran about 400 slaves on the railroad in 21/2 years. No one had ever done that before.
Why did he concentrate his activities in Baltimore and Washington?
At the time, Washington wasn't just the capital of the government. It also was the capital of the slave-trading empire. He didn't just want to fight slavery. He wanted to fight it big time. One of the things that I find endearing about him is that he targeted congressmen of Southern states and other important people and enticed away their slaves. He thought that if he could make slavery very unstable in Washington, it would create a domino effect and break the institution.
The Green Mount Cemetery was one of his major meeting places. He would pick up 15 or 20 slaves at a time, hide them in a wagon, and then drive north through Harford County. They'd cross the Susquehanna River into Pennsylvania at Deer Creek or at Peach Bottom.
Later, after he was arrested, he spent two years in the Baltimore jail and penitentiary on Madison Street.
Why do you think he went out of his way to make himself almost universally disliked?
He mocked the Baltimore police and called them "poor puppies." He mocked the people he had stolen slaves from in letters that he published in the newspapers. That doesn't get you good will.
What was hanging over Torrey was tuberculosis. His mother, father and sister all died from TB before he was 4 years old. He knew he wasn't going to live to be 70. He felt that if he was going to do something that would make an impact, he'd have to do it early.
You write that one of his biggest accomplishments was co-founding a political party of abolitionist sympathizers.
Yes, the Liberty Party. I was quite surprised to find that in 1844, the Liberty Party swung the presidential election by keeping New York from going to the Whig candidate, Henry Clay. If New York had gone the other way, James Polk would have lost the election.
I was struck that Torrey forged close personal friendships with free African-Americans who also worked in the abolitionist movement. That must have been unusual in the pre-Civil War era in even the most liberal circles.
Torrey was among the first to treat blacks as equals, and that was not at all common. He stayed in their homes, he went to their churches, and he shared their dangers. That was very impressive. He walked the walk. He didn't just talk the talk.
About the book
"The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey" by E. Fuller Torrey was published late last year by LSU (Louisiana State University) Press. $39.95, 248 pages.