NEWBURYPORT — William Lloyd Garrison's statue stands stoic and dignified in front of City Hall, but there was a time when the famed leader of the antislavery movement had to desperately flee for his life from a Boston mob that wanted to lynch him.
Garrison, who was born in Newburyport in 1805 and spent his childhood and early adult life here, became a lightning rod for death threats during his years as editor of the nation's leading abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. This week, a glimpse into his sometimes dangerous life in pre-Civil-War America is being sold by a prestigious New York City auction house.
A rare 176-year-old handbill that helped spur a mob attack on Garrison — the first of many threats on his life — is set to be auctioned tomorrow. The Swann Auction Galleries estimates the handbill will fetch $1,500 to $2,500.
"It's extremely scarce," said Rick Stattler, director of printed and manuscript Americana at the auction house. He noted that there was one other privately owned handbill that was auctioned off in 1963; the other known copy is in the Library of Congress.
By the time of the near-lynching in 1835, Garrison had been at the helm of The Liberator for four years, a newspaper widely known for its uncompromising opposition to slavery.
Though New England is regarded as the birthplace of the abolitionist movement that would eventually lead to the Civil War, New Englanders were hardly unanimous on the matter. Stattler noted that many New Englanders' livelihoods were directly connected to the South's economy — which was largely buoyed by cotton production and slaves.
"So much of New England's trade depended on relations with the South," Stattler said. "There were people who felt that these abolitionists were stirring things up, and that could only cause trouble with the South."
Even in his native Newburyport, Garrison met with some disfavor.
"At that time, the overwhelming sentiment in Newburyport was not in favor of the abolition of slavery," said Jay Williamson, curator at the Historical Society of Old Newbury.
The attempt to lynch Garrison spurred from a false rumor that well-known English abolitionist George Thompson was slated to appear at The Liberator's office in Boston and give a speech to the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.
"Thompson did a lot to end slavery in the West Indies," Stattler said. "The sentiment was, there was no reason for this Englishman to be meddling in our affairs."
The handbill, which is an early form of advertisement that would have been posted in public places or handed out, offered a reward for "that infamous foreign scoundrel" Thompson. It instructed people to go to Garrison's office at noon.
"A purse of $100 has been raised by a number of patriotic citizens to reward the individual who shall first lay violent hands on Thompson, so that he may be brought to the tar kettle before dark," the handbill states.
The "tar kettle" was used in the process of tarring and feathering, a painful and humiliating act in which hot pine tar was slathered on the victim's body and then covered with feathers. The victim was usually then paraded through the streets.
A mob descended on Garrison's office, but Thompson wasn't there. Instead, the wrath turned to Garrison, who was to give a speech in place of Thompson. The mob seized Garrison, and a rope was strung around his body, presumably to lynch him. Two burly men helped release him, and Garrison fled. He spent the night in the relative safety of a Boston jail.
Garrison survived the death threats and saw his goal of abolition realized by the Civil War. In his later years, he turned his attention to other causes — including giving women the right to vote — and died in 1879. He was buried in Boston, his adopted hometown, where a statue was erected to memorialize him in 1885. Newburyport erected a statue in his honor in 1893, and his South End birthplace is marked with memorial tablets.
The auction begins at 1:30 p.m., and the handbill is one of more than 350 items to be sold. Bids for items can be made online.