064: The Black Preacher, 1885-1886

From June 1885 into January 1886 numerous Christians around Britain had thrilled to the talks in churches and their homes given by the Revd David Nero, a very tall black missionary. His impact in Glasgow was the greatest, and readers of the Glasgow Herald of 2 February 1886 were surely incredulous when it said his missionary project was “pure invention”. Ever since he arrived in their city he had told people he was from West Africa, had been taken to Martinque (French West Indies) as a child and sold as slave, and had been educated in Canada. He had returned to Glasgow in October 1885.

The Dundee Courier of the next day noted “Serious Charge Against a Negro Preacher” following Nero’s appearance at Glasgow’s police court on 2 February accused of fraud. He had obtained money “from prominent citizens” and from congregations  in nearly every Glasgow Free and United Presbyterian Church in Glasgow to which he preached, obtaining some £400. He pretended to be the principal of Sumner College, Kansas collecting to evangelise Africa. He had been in Edinburgh, too, noted the Belfast Newsletter (5 February) which indicated that when a dress ordered for Mrs Nero had not been paid for, enquiries were made and his bogus status discovered – along with numerous love letters from “highly-respectable ladies in Glasgow, Liverpool, and elsewhere” disclosing “remarkable indiscretions and folly” as the Dundee Courier (3 February) described them.

His “wife” was from Liverpool: the North British Daily Mail said he was a “lion among the ladies” and seemed to have been in Paris. The Dundee Courier (6 February) added he had been in Carlisle, Manchester, Liverpool and Eastbourne. One fellow brought a private charge against the “negro imposter” to get back the £10 he had given for Sumner College (Dundee Courier 12 February). Others told their stories to the police, and he was duly charged with obtaining £55-7s-0d by “falsehood, fraud, and wilful imposition” and a second charge for obtaining £52-13s-0d through a fabricated letter. The Glasgow Herald reported this on 22 February, adding that he was in prison but would be moved to Kilmarnock to be charged with obtaining £20. Bail for the first two charges was set at £150.

Days before, the Aberdeen Weekly Journal (18 February 1886) published a report dated St Louis, Missouri 3 February that had appeared in the New York Times. Nero, a “native of Demerara, British Guiana” had taught in St Louis and had been dismissed for “bad conduct”. His summer 1885 visit to Britain had led to him being lionised, and he had stayed with the leading Baptist minster Charles Spurgeon “as his guest” before he returned to the U.S.A. with an Englishwoman. She found letters from other women in Britain, and informed the school board, and he was then discharged.

The Glasgow police faced a dilemma. How can you prove someone was not a missionary? He had spoken in private and in public, and had been given money. Much of that money remained, some had been sent to America. The three cases were dropped, the bail deposit was repaid, cash was returned to Nero, and he walked free. The Glasgow Herald‘s long editorial of 28 April 1886 suggested that locals were gullible to missionary claims, prepared to donate to mission efforts far away rather than deal with the city’s poor and sick, that Nero’s “success in the pulpit was only excelled by his success in the boudoir” and that he had netted some £1,000 [£50 a year was a decent wage in 1886]. The police were unable to prove a negative. It warned “a mouth full of texts does not necessarily imply a heart full of grace”. Nero entertained with an amusing lecture at the city hall on 8 March (North Eastern Daily Gazette, Middlesbrough 9 March 1886) following his release. Otherwise Glasgow was antagonistic, so he moved away.

His reputation – and the embarrassment of those who had given, had listened and believed, and those fortunately anonymous ladies – remained. When a “coloured” pedlar named John Hassan was charged with breach of the peace in Banff, far away on the north-east coast of Scotland, the Aberdeen Weekly Journal (18 November 1886) noted he had pleaded guilty, and when questioned by the judge if he was Nero “indignantly repudiated the insinuation, and denied any connection with the black preacher”. The pedlar promised to behave, and left town.

David Nero was in the cotton mill town of Rochdale, Lancashire in mid-October 1886. His story was now that he was collecting to have the scriptures translated into Mandingo, and for Sumner College (now in Kansas City). He was now the Revd Gustavus Adolphus Nero Rodman-Fraser. A minister in Rochdale had asked him where the Mandingo country was, and was told it was on the Cunene river south of the Congo. He looked at the atlas of central Africa published by the London Missionary Society, and found the river but not the Mandingo country [Mandingo was the name Europeans gave to Moslem traders in western Africa’s Sierra Leone and Senegal: thousands of miles from the Congo]. He then gave the black missionary five shillings (25% of £1); Nero later gave a talk on his experience as a slave boy in Cuba.

Yet again, everything collapsed. Rochdale magistrates heard some of the evidence on 26 November and passed the matter on to a higher court and it was at Salford (near Manchester) that Nero or Rodman-Fraser went on trial for fraud in early December. Several worthies from Glasgow appeared as witnesses, with the secretary of Glasgow’s Y.M.C.A. saying he had known the prisoner since 17 June 1885, and that he had been charged in February 1886 when he was David Victor Adolphus Nero. The Glasgow police superintendent who had arrested him then said he had seen him “a great many times” in the city in 1885, and that £150 bail had been paid. But as those matters had not been brought to court, the law was that Nero was innocent.

The authorities struggled to bring evidence of fraud before the Salford court. A man who had lived in Kansas City until October 1884 testified that the prisoner had lived there for two years, teaching at a school for coloured children. Others said that Nero had attended, part time, the Collegiate Institute in Liverpool. He had also gone under the names Jamieson and Daniells.

The magistrate said there was no evidence the prisoner was not a missionary, and as he had told donors he was seeking to improve himself through education, that he had attended English colleges meant that there was no fraud. The sole case that the jury had to decide was over that five shilling donation for his education – and that was how the money had been spent. With the court’s permission Rodman-Fraser gave a lengthy address about his early life to the jury.

The jury retired for 45 minutes, and to the surprise of almost everyone brought in a verdict of guilty. The black preacher was sentenced to six months with hard labour. (York Herald and Manchester Times, both 11 December 1886.) There can be little doubt that all the Glasgow details and the testimonies of Glasgow and Lancashire citizens had helped convince the jurors that the black preacher was a fraud. The accused’s lengthy speech had surely added to his reputation as an imposter. The sentence was somewhat harsh but the jury was considering all those other incidents. As far as we know, Nero did not challenge the verdict. He knew, as American newspapers (both white- and black-edited) had reported from 1881, that he had been charged there with bigamy, violence, and other crimes – and eventually those matters would be likely to emerge in Britain.

He seems not to have returned to this career after serving his sentence. He had been successful in his sixteen months around Britain, and surely had some money in a safe place. His audiences had thrilled to tales of life in Africa, slavery in Martinique and Cuba, his education in Canada, and his ambition to spread Christianity in Africa. So they had received good value for their donations. The self-important people who had attended those events had been tracked down by Nero, who seduced them in giving larger donations than the coins they had no doubt placed in the earlier collections. He had charmed numerous women, who were bored by their lives and were thrilled by his tales and his personality (he was over six feet tall), so gave money and so on. There was an unspoken legacy, however: these British men and women would be very unlikely to believe another black missionary in the future.

Nero had betrayed their trust.

My thanks to David Killingray.


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