By Kim Gerould
The title of the only full-length biography of David Ruggles, written by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, sums up the essence of his relatively short life: “A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City.” Even when he joined the utopian Northampton Association of Education and Industry later in his life, he continued his anti-slavery work and also became a healer, as a practitioner of the then-popular water cure.
Ruggles was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1810 to a free Black family. While Connecticut gradually abolished slavery in the late 1700s, it wasn’t formally ended until 1848. Ruggles’ neighborhood life was fairly benign and integrated. His father was a blacksmith and his mother a caterer. He was educated in religious charity schools, since there were no public schools for Black people at that time, and he became well educated and highly literate, clearly evidenced in his later writings. By 15, he left his large family and began work as a mariner, which exposed him to a larger world, particularly militant Black abolitionism. By age 17, he had settled in New York City.
Within a few years, Ruggles had opened a grocery store in the city, and joining the temperance movement, declined to sell alcohol. He began to meet the Black leadership in abolition and other reform movements, and by the early 1830s, was increasingly active himself in the growing antislavery movement. In 1833, he became an agent for The Emancipator, the weekly paper of the American Anti-Slavery Society, traveling widely to sell subscriptions, and later did the same for William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. He began to write regular articles and published his own pamphlet criticizing the American Colonization Society. By this time, his grocery store had transformed into an abolitionist bookstore and printshop, most likely the country’s first Black bookstore, and it was attacked and burned in 1835.
Ruggles also helped found the New York Committee of Vigilance and became its secretary. The Committee formed to fight kidnappers of both free Black people and fugitives, and to also protect runaway slaves. Ruggles and the Committee were dedicated to direct action, confronting police, kidnappers, and enslavers both on the streets and in the courts. He suffered assaults, court appearances and even short stays in jail. Some considered him too radical for the movement. Nevertheless, the New York Committee’s radicalism and grassroots Black activism and tactics inspired other Committees of Vigilance throughout the North.
Ruggles was probably one of the most visible and active conductors on the nascent Underground Railroad, helping some 600 fugitives during the 1830s, including Frederick Douglass, whom he sent to New Bedford, and Basil Dorsey, who later settled in Florence, Massachusetts. Ruggles’ home at 36 Lispenard Street was known to be the most welcoming Underground Railroad “depot” in the city. He would also publish the names of Black people who had been kidnapped as well as details about slave catchers and slave ship captains in New York City.
Ruggles continued to speak publicly and publish anti-slavery articles and pamphlets, and in July 1838, published the first issue of the Mirror of Liberty, the first Black-produced magazine in the U.S. It reported on the Committee of Vigilance and local cases, and also included poetry and essays on women’s rights. The National Reformer of Philadelphia praised this new venture, calling Ruggles “a thorough-going abolitionist – one that works by day and by night, with his hands, feet, and pen… He is the most successful and the most inveterate enemy of the slaveholder.” All of these efforts were taking a toll on his health; he was losing his vision and suffered from intestinal issues, and was only 28 years old.
That fall Ruggles became embroiled in The Darg Case, at great risk to himself. New York had only freed its slaves in 1827, and there was a great deal of pro-slavery sentiment and deep economic ties with the South in New York City. Ruggles and fellow abolitionists Isaac Hopper and Barney Corse were involved in giving refuge to Thomas Hughes, a self-emancipated person from Virginia brought to the city by his enslaver John Darg. The formerly enslaved person had taken money from the master, and while Ruggles, Hopper and Cornish continued to provide Thomas refuge, they did return what was left of the money. Ruggles and Corse were briefly jailed, falsely accused of larceny.
The abolition movement, both white and Black, was divided by deep disagreements over philosophy and strategy. David Ruggles was often more radical than his peers and known to be confrontational and difficult to work with at times. Fellow Black abolitionist Samuel Cornish and he were involved in a bitter dispute regarding Cornish’s newspaper The Colored American, and in retaliation, Cornish demanded a detailed accounting of the Committee of Vigilance’s finances. Finding that their funds were short as a result of mismanagement, Ruggles was forced to resign as the Committee’s secretary. He continued writing and speaking, often in New England, but found himself caught in the bitter abolitionist splits.
By his early 30’s Ruggles decided to retreat from New York City. Lydia Maria Child, then editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, heard of Ruggles’ travails and health, and recommended he join the recently organized Northampton Association of Education and Industry (NAEI) in what is now known as Florence, Massachusetts. Her husband David Child, who was growing sugar beets there as an alternative to slave-grown sugar cane, knew the organizers of this utopian community and recommended Ruggles to them. Ruggles arrived in November 1842 and stayed with the community until close to its dissolution in 1846.
Ruggles became an integral and respected member of the community, and lived in the communal living space above the Association’s silk factory. Nearly blind and in broken health, he pursued treatment with a practitioner of the popular water cure, a Dr. Wesselhoeft of Boston. After nearly a year and a half, his health had improved somewhat and he began to share his knowledge of hydropathy with other Association members, including Sojourner Truth, who joined the community in 1844.
Ruggles continued his work locally for the Underground Railroad as well as his abolitionist agitating. In 1844 he rallied the “Colored Citizens of Northampton,” a short-lived group which brought together Black people who were Association members and local Black people from the community. Sojourner made her first public speech against slavery at their first gathering, and later, several members of the Black community publicly protested the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Ruggles also continued to write and support abolitionist newspapers, including Frederick Douglass’s North Star and Garrison’s Liberator. As his health allowed, he traveled to anti-slavery conventions; in 1845 he chaired a large convention in New Bedford attended by the biggest names in the movement.
By the end of 1845, Ruggles was working to secure his own home, and on a small scale started to treat local people with the water cure techniques he had been learning over the past few years. People reported him to be very sensitive to their ailments, and word spread regarding his skills. With loans and support from the abolitionist community, he enlarged his establishment on the Mill River, and would eventually have from 30 to 50 patients at a time, including abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and William Cooper Nell.
In the midst of his success as Dr. Ruggles and the popularity of his water-cure establishment, by fall of 1849, his own health was again failing. He suffered a severe eye inflammation, followed by a relapse of the intestinal inflammation he had previously experienced. His mother and sister came from Connecticut to try to help him, but unfortunately it was not to be. He died on December 16, 1849 at the age of 39.
The NorthamptonCourierlauded him as a “zealous and uncompromising advocate of the rights of his oppressed and downtrodden race.” Douglass and Garrison and many others praised his heroism and unrelenting work on the Underground Railroad and for abolitionism. He participated not only in the anti-slavery movement, but also in radical communitarianism as a member of the Northampton Association, and in the water-cure movement. We can only speculate what impact he could have had in the local African American and wider community had he lived longer, but know that he continues to inspire contemporary activists as we learn about his powerful life.
Kim Gerould is a volunteer with the David Ruggles Center for History and Education. She is a community activist and a recently retired teacher from Northampton’s Jackson St. School.
 Hodges, Graham Russell Gao, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2010.
Hodges, David Ruggles, 2010, p. 30.
Wells, Jonathan Daniel, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of The CIvil War, Bold Type Books, New York, 2020, pp. 16-17.
Hodges, David Ruggles, 2010, pp. 43-44.
Hodges, David Ruggles, 2010, pp. 81-84.
Wells, The Kidnapping Club, 2020, pp. 68-70.
Hodges, David Ruggles, 2010, pp. 124-126.
National Reformer, October 1838.
Hodges, David Ruggles, 2010, p. 116.
Wells, The Kidnapping Club, 2020, pp. 61-66.
Clark, Christopher and Buckley, Kerry W., Lettersfroman American Utopia: TheStetsonFamily and the Northampton Association, 1843-1847,University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst & Boston, 2004, p. 259-260 (see Paul Gaffney’sessay “ColoringUtopia”).
Ibid., p. 259-260.
Laurie, Bruce, Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst & Boston, 2015, p. 39.
Clark, Christopher, The Communitarian Moment: The Radical Challenge of the Northampton Association, Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London, 1995, pp. 198-202.
Hodges, David Ruggles, 2010, pp. 184-185.
Ibid., p. 186.
Ibid., pp. 189-192.
Clark and Buckley, Letters from an American Utopia, 2004, pp. 262-263.
Northampton Courier, December 27, 1849.
Hodges, David Ruggles, 2010, pp.196-197.