A study of mid-Victorian British newspapers soon reveals numerous individuals said to have escaped from slavery. Some obtained financial support and purchased their freedom or that of relatives; they wrote slavery narratives and toured all over the British Isles; some raised families, others married local people, a few moved on to Australia, Jamaica and Africa. The press reports are inconsistent over spellings — the individuals were generally illiterate. Obtaining an education in Britain was one of several ambitions held by these men and women. Escaped slave lecturers were capable of drawing large audiences, usually in public halls where collections were made to support the speaker’s endeavours.
There was room for liars to abuse the system, and British sympathisers soon requested references. What has been uncovered on Reuben Nixon seems to be an extreme example. He abused the sympathies of his British and Irish contacts, cheated, thieved, lied, and served at least two spells in prison although the exact range of his activities may never be known for he used at least six names — Reuben Nixon, Charles Hill, William Love, David Clarry, Andrew Baker, and Hiram Swift. His victims suffered, and so did genuine African American ex-slaves. The latter had support from Louis Chamerovzow, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society of London, anxious to alert supporters to knavery. In the Anti-Slavery Advocate of August 1853 he warned readers about ‘a coloured man named Charles Hill’ who claimed to be collecting funds to redeem his wife from slavery. Chamerovzow urged great caution. In March 1854 the Brighton Gazette and the Brighton Herald reported the impostor’s appearance in court and the details were republished in the Anti-Slavery Advocate of May. Chamerovzow had travelled to that coastal town and testified at the trial.
Nixon told Chamerovzow that he had arrived in Liverpool, as a cook’s mate, on the Summers but the port documents listed no such arrival. He was sent to prison for three months with hard labour for obtaining money under false pretences. Nixon wrote to Chamerovzow from Lewes prison on 12 April 1854. Having his name as Robert Nixon, the Windsor and Eton Express of 15 April (page 3) noted he had been born free but obtained much money from his false tales of sufferings as a slave.
He worked as Hiram Swift in Dundee and Dunfermline in 1855 and settled — as David Clarry — in Southsea near Portsmouth in 1856. On arrival in Portsmouth he gave a successful lecture, told a ‘plausible tale’ and expressed his wish to settle down, running a hairdressing shop for he had been a valet in America. He had a white wife. The shop opened in Cross Street, Southsea and also sold toys. In mid-1865 he disappeared along with books and clothing loaned to him, having sold the shop goods. ‘The kind-hearted people who assisted him have now to regret their misplaced generosity, whilst their guest is doubtless carrying out the same system in another part of the country’ noted the Portsmouth Times on 12 July 1856 (page 5).
Fifty days later a letter was published in Ireland. The Waterford Mail (2 September 1856) had the letter from a correspondent in Lismore, which warned the charitable against giving money to the ‘man of colour’ who was travelling around Ireland. He used the names Nixon and Clarry, and others. His wife was from County Cavan but was said to have met her husband in America. They had a baby. The truth was that they had married in Dublin where they had been servants but had found begging to be ‘more pleasant and profitable than an honest way of living’. They were known to have been in Plymouth, as well as Cork in Ireland where they planned to visit Fermoy and Waterford.
In 1857 he took the name Love and spoke in Darlington and in Scotland. The Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin Review (6 February 1857) noted he spoke at one meeting for two hours. The following week it noted he was an impostor and rather than being a fugitive slave was a fugitive from ‘those whom he had duped and fleeced’. The Londonderry Standard (3 September 1857) reported he had pawned a watch he had borrowed, repeated the Dublin marriage detail for his wife remained in Londonderry, and suggested he had been involved with the police in Sunderland. And that winter was spent by Nixon in prison.
This evidence adds to our understanding of Victorian British and Irish support for African American freedom in the years immediately before the Civil War and slavery’s abolition. Nixon was one of several hundred African Americans touring the islands at that time, and details of his misdeeds fills out the story based on the much-researched anti-slavery and Christian publications. The shop in Southsea, Chamerovzow’s pursuit of the villain to Brighton, the letter from Lismore add to our understanding.
Other fugitives such as Ellen and William Craft, John Brown, Henry Box Brown, and Frederick Douglass must have been much discomforted when they read about Nixon and his roguery. The need for testimonials, an atmosphere of distrust, the suspicions that never vanished all had an impact on these and other ex-slaves. The un-named man who claimed to be an ex-slave and was noted singing ribald songs and had a large capacity for gin-and-water — which alerted some to his doubtful status was chased from a public meeting in Saffron Walden in January 1856 by a mob, after the local police chief had told the audience the man was a ‘discharged and disgraced gentleman’s servant’. He ran ‘as fast as his legs could carry him’ in the direction of Cambridge according to the Chelmsford Chronicle of 18 January 1856 (page 3).
Where Reuben Nixon went after early 1858 remains untraced. His wife and child were last reported in Londonderry.
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