175 years ago today, Chicago auctioned off a black man

LaSalle and Randolph streets

By Mark Jacob | Chicago Tribune

The handbills posted in Chicago declared: “A Man for Sale.”

And on Nov. 14, 1842 — 175 years ago today — an African-American man was auctioned off near the corner of LaSalle and Randolph. He may be the only black person ever legally sold into slavery in Chicago.

The bondage was supposed to be temporary — a year maximum under the law — but the idea infuriated abolitionists in Chicago.

The man being auctioned was Edwin Heathcock, described by early Chicago historian Alfred Andreas as “a colored man, industrious and well-behaved, and a member of the Chicago Methodist Church.” While working on a farm along the North Branch of the Chicago River, Heathcock got into an argument with a white worker. That worker accused him of being a runaway slave and had him arrested.

Although Illinois was never a slave state, it did have Black Codes under which free African-Americans were denied basic rights. They couldn’t vote, their testimony in court was restricted, and they were required to have a certificate of freedom to prove that they weren’t escaped slaves.

Heathcock didn’t have any papers. So he spent six weeks in jail as a presumed runaway while an advertisement in the Chicago Democrat newspaper sought out his slaveholder. If no one came forward in such a case, state law declared that “It shall be the duty of the sheriff to hire them out, for the best price he can get … from month to month for the space of one year.” After that, the person in question would have the opportunity to get a certificate of freedom.

No slaveholder came for Heathcock, and so after six weeks an auction was scheduled to sell him as a temporary slave.

Zebina Eastman, an abolitionist active in the Underground Railroad, heard about the auction and decided to print the “Man for Sale” handbills and post them along Clark Street to whip up public outrage. A large crowd turned out on a Monday morning when Sheriff Samuel Lowe brought out Heathcock, who shuddered in the cool air.

The sheriff, insisting he was just following the law, explained that he was auctioning off Heathcock for a month to pay for his stay at the jail.

He asked for bids.

He got none.

He asked again.


He kept asking, and finally warned the crowd: “If I can get no bid for this man, I must return him to jail.”

Up stepped Mahlon Ogden, whose brother William was Chicago’s first mayor. Mahlon took out a silver quarter and offered 25 cents for Heathcock. The sheriff accepted.

Mahlon Ogden then told Heathcock: “Go where you like.” And that was it.

It’s unknown where Heathcock went after that. When Eastman recalled the incident in the Tribune in 1874, he wrote that “nothing has been heard of him since.”

The headline on Eastman’s article read: “The First Slave-Sale in Chicago.” But it wasn’t. In the 1830s, a white man whose last name was Harper was similarly sold into a month’s slavery because he was a vagrant. The winning bidder was a black man named George White, whose job was described by Andreas as “town crier of auctions and lost children.” Harper reportedly ran away and White didn’t bother hunting for him. But details are sketchy. Both auctions occurred before the Tribune was even in business.

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