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David Ruggles

David Ruggles (March 15, 1810 – December 16, 1849) was an anti-slavery activist  who was active in the New York Committee of Vigilance and the Underground Railroad  He was an “African-American printer in New York City during the 1830s”, who “was the prototype for black activist journalists of his time”.He claimed to have led over six hundred people, including friend and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass to freedom in the North.

 

Ruggles was born in Lyme, Connecticut  His parents were David Ruggles, Sr. and Nancy Ruggles, both free blacks. The family moved to Norwich, Connecticut when David was very young and set up home in Bean Hill a wealthy suburb of Norwich. The family lived in a small hut owned by Nancy’s sister, Sylvia. David Sr. was a blacksmith and woodcutter while Nancy was a noted caterer. whose cakes were sought after for any social event of consequence. They were devout Methodists. David was the oldest of eight children. He was educated at sabbath schools and became so learned that Bean Hill residents paid for a tutor from Yale to teach him Latin. At the age of sixteen, he moved to New York City where he worked as a mariner before opening a grocery store. At first, he sold liquor, then embraced temperance. He became involved in anti-slavery and the Free Produce Movement. He was an agent for the Liberator and Emancipator. After he closed his grocery, he opened the first African-American bookstore in the United States. He edited a New York journal called The Mirror of Liberty, and also published a pamphlet called The Extinguisher and contributed to abolitionist newspapers such as The Emancipator  and The Liberator. He also published The Abrogation of the Seventh Commandment in 1835, a call to northern women who let their husbands keep enslaved black women as mistresses. Ruggles was secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance, a radical organization designed to inform enslaved workers in New York about state laws declaring that enslaved workers be emancipated after nine months of residence. On occasion, Ruggles went to private homes where enslaved blacks were hidden, to tell workers that they were free.

Ruggles was especially active against “kidnappers,” bounty hunters who made a living by capturing escaped slaves. With the vigilance committee, he fought for these fugitives to have the right to jury trials and legal assistance.

His activism earned him many enemies. Ruggles was physically assaulted and his business was destroyed through arson. He quickly reopened his library an bookshop. There were two known attempts to kidnap him and sell him into slavery in the South. His enemies included fellow abolitionists who disagreed with his tactics, including his participation in the well-publicized Darg case of 1838 involving a Virginia slaveholder named John P. Darg and one of his slaves, Thomas Hughes.

Ruggles suffered from ill health which intensified following the Darg case. In 1841, his father died, and Ruggles was himself ailing and almost blind. In 1842, a fellow abolitionist and friend, Lydia Maria Child,  arranged for him to join a radical utopian commune called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, in Northampton, Massachusetts, which was located in a village of Northampton later named Florence, Massachusetts in 1852.

Applying home treatment upon hydropathic principles, he regained his health to some degree, but not his eyesight. He began practicing hydrotherapy, and by 1845, had established a water cure hospital in the area now known as Florence. This was one of the earliest in the United States,  although others, notably Joel Shew,and Russell Thatcher Trall (R.T. Trall),had preceded him. Ruggles died in Florence in 1849.