Philander Winchester

Life of Philander Winchester

Born in 1812 in Madrid, NewYork, to a prominent and well-established family, Philander Winchester would become one of the most outspoken and active leaders in the Underground Railroad in the state of Ohio. In 1840 he managed the newspaper, The Painsville Ohio Telegraph, a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement. Later, he and his partner, L. L. Rice, piloted a Cleveland newspaper ever more vociferous in its abolitionist leanings. He was not content, however, to do battle with ink and printing press. He was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad, offering his own home as a station for runaway slaves. His son, Phillip, relates that it was not surprising to find slaves secreted in the cellar by day, waiting to be transported by Winchester to the next station when darkness came.

This was a time when it was a common practice for “slavers” to cross the Ohio River to hunt down and return runaways to the plantations of the South and here-in lies the story of Milton Clarke. Clarke and several siblings were the children of a white plantation owner and one of his slaves. Milton, the subject of this discussion was of such light skin color that he was easily mistaken for white. Through his own initiative he had managed to accumulate some money and at an opportune time he had made a dash for freedom on the Ohio side of the river. Here he had made some speeches against the practice of slavery and was considered and “agitator” and southern sympathizers deemed it best that he be brought back to his former occupation as slave. Two slavers were sent to “retrieve” him.

According to Phillip Winchester, his father and others in the anti-slavery movement got word that Clarke had been kidnapped and was being transported back to Kentucky over a certain route in a carriage that would take them down a narrow strip of road where it would be possible to ambush the carriage and tip it over. According to Phillip, it was thought that Clarke would have a better chance to get away if his hands were freed of the heavy ropes that bound them. To this end, Philander Winchester surreptitiously entered the back of the carriage that held the three men in the front seat. He cut the bonds that held Clarke and when the “posse” confronted the carriage and tipped it over Clarke and Winchester sprang from the vehicle and jumped aboard a waiting wagon and lit out as fast as they could go. After some time the slavers managed to untangle the horses and pursued them. At some point, Phillip relates, his father and Clarke exchanged clothing and Winchester led the kidnappers on a merry chase while Clarke fled to sanctuary.

How much this story has been romanticized is hard to tell though Clarke, in his memoirs, does say that Winchester exchanged clothes with him at one point. It does make the point that Winchester was actively involved in the anti-slavery movement, and deeply so.

Sometime shortly after 1860 Philander Winchester and his family moved to the Dupont, Indiana area. Just why he was in Jefferson County is not known. He saw two of his daughters married here and he didn’t leave until sometime after 1870. He and Eliza then moved to Detroit, Michigan and there he died in 1879.

He must have held some esteem in the area for the Madison Weekly Courier published the following upon receiving the news of his death:

Death of Philander Winchester

Philander Winchester, one of the pioneers in anti-slavery and temperance reform, a man of rare ability, high Christian character and long and devoted service in the cause of humanity, died at his residence in Detroit, on Thursday, April 24. Deceased formerly resided in this county, and will be remembered by many who knew him as a man of character and stamina. He was one of the anti-slavery pioneers. He was the leader in the famous rescue of Milton Clark, in the old days when kidnapping of escaped slaves was protected by Federal law. Lewis and Milton Clark, fugitives from slavery (the former, it will be remembered, is the George Harris of Mrs. Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) had gone to Madison, O., from Oberlin on Mr. Winchester’s invitation, to tell the story of their escape to an anti-slavery meeting, and Milton was there seized by men claiming to be his owners. It was Mr. Winchester who gave the alarm, rallied the anti-slavery men, cut the ropes that bound the imprisoned ex-slave, and after the rescue, changed coats with the fugitive, led the slave-catchers on a wild goose chase after himself, while Milton Clark was taken to a place of safety. He was also a zealous laborer in the cause of temperance. During the war he was tireless in his care for, and generosity toward Union soldiers and their families; and since the war he has performed without care, the labors of a pension and claim agent for scores of soldiers and soldiers’ widows. Mr. Winchester, we believe resided near Dupont this county when John Morgan made his raid. Morgan’s men were forcibly taking all the good horses in their route, except those hidden in deep ravines and thickets by their owners (the resident rebel sympathizers being most excited and taking the greatest pains to hide their animals). Mr. Winchester had a fine stallion with a very vicious temper, and no one except Mr. W. could handle the horse, and but few ventured near him. Morgan found the horse in Winchester’s stable, and thought he had captured a prize. It was with great difficulty that the horse was taken from the stable by half a dozen “grey backs,” and in their attempt to ride him they were thrown one after the other as they mounted. Mr. Winchester appearing and watching the proceedings as a “hired farm hand” told them they didn’t know how to handle the horse, and if they wished he would show them how to “sit” him and hold a rein on him. They were anxious to receive the necessary instruction and told him to mount. He did so, and trotted the horse a few times up and down the lane, but in the last dash he did not wheel the horse at all, but shot from the rebel gang like an arrow, followed by a few bullets and many curses. Mr. Winchester resided in this city for a time, in the house now occupied by John W. Thomas. The circumstance of Mr. Winchester’s wife being thrown from a carriage and dashed to the pavement, at the corner of Second and Mulberry streets, and lying for weeks hovering between life and death, and finally recovering, will be well remembered by many of our citizens. – Madison Weekly Courier – May 21, 1879