Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Run-away … a Molatto Fellow named BEN.”
On July 20, 1771, Ben, an enslaved man, liberated himself from Isaac Woodruff of Waterbury, Connecticut. Two days later, Woodruff penned a runaway notice to appear in the Connecticut Journal and submitted it to the printing office operated by Thomas Green and Samuel Green in New Haven. The advertisement appeared in the next issue, published on July 26, and then again in the next two issues on August 2 and 9. By the time the advertisement first ran, Ben had eluded Woodruff for nearly a week. That may have been enough time for Ben to put considerable distance between himself and the man who intended to re-enslave, especially if he managed to find work aboard a ship departing for a faraway port. Woodruff suspected that might be the case, stating that Ben “has been used to the Sea, and tis supposed he will endeavour to get on board some Vessel as soon as possible.”
Woodruff solicited the aid of readers of the Connecticut Journal, encouraging them to engage in surveillance of young Black men in order to identify “a Molatto Fellow … of a Copper Complexion, about 17 Years of Age” with “a black bushy Head of Hair.” Woodruff also noted that Ben “speaks good English and is addicted to swearing” to aid readers in determining if any of the Black men they encountered might be the fugitive from enslavement. To encourage their collusion in the endeavor, he offered a reward for “Any Person that shall take up said Fellow, and return him to his Master or give notice where he is.”
In publishing the advertisement, Woodruff embarked on what he hoped would become a community effort to return Ben to bondage. Thomas Green and Samuel Green, the printers, were already complicit, providing Woodruff space in their newspaper and accepting payment for the advertisement. They ran the notice on three occasions, but then continued to collude with other enslavers. The first item on the first page of the August 16 edition, the first published after the last appearance of Woodruff’s advertisement offering a reward for the capture and return of Ben, was an advertisement about “a Negro man slave named BOSTON” who, like Ben, had liberated himself. The Greens were not unique when it came to publishing such advertisements in their newspaper. Printers from New England to Georgia generated revenues from notices about enslaved people. In the process, they played a significant role in the perpetuation of slavery during the era of the American Revolution.