Abolitionist David Ruggles: Frederick Douglass is remembered as a towering figure in history for his long-running campaign against slavery in the United States. Much has been written about the well-known abolitionist, who published hundreds of books and letters detailing his efforts. David Ruggles, whose background work saved Douglass’ life, cannot be said the same. Douglass was taken in by Ruggles, an abolitionist and perhaps the first full-time Black campaigner, shortly after his escape from slavery in Baltimore in September 1838.
When Douglass arrived in New York, he had no money, food, shelter, or friends. Ruggles saving him from slave catchers wandering the streets of New York looking for fugitives was a godsend. Ruggles would mentor Douglass and provide him with a $5 cash to help him relocate to a safer location in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ruggles, on the other hand, would have troubles with the five-dollar money later on.
Ruggles was the eldest of seven children born to free Black parents in Norwich, Connecticut in 1810. Before working as a mariner in New York in 1827, he was educated at religious charity institutions in Norwich. He opened a grocery store the next year. He joined the emerging anti-slavery movement in New York in the early 1830s, fighting for what he called “practical abolitionism.”
According to the David Ruggles Center for History and Education, he maintained that “abolitionists should not merely philosophize about the day slavery will end, but rather try to help all victims of human bondage.” Ruggles fought for civil disobedience as well as self-defense.
The abolitionist and author went on to create New York’s first Black library and bookstore, where he sold anti-slavery materials until it was burned down by a mob. He was hired as an agent to find subscribers for The Emancipator, an abolitionist weekly, in 1833.
Ruggles also began writing for newspapers in the Northeast, publishing articles and booklets. In the 1830s, he created, printed, and published The Mirror of Liberty, the first periodical produced by an African-American.
During this time, he worked as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, assisting roughly 600 enslaved persons, including Douglass, to achieve freedom. He also aided in the fight against kidnapping free Blacks in New York, as well as runaway African Americans who are illegally sold into slavery in the South, as a founder of the New York Committee of Vigilance.
Douglass hailed Ruggles in his writings during his lifetime for saving him when he arrived in New York after leaving Baltimore. Despite the fact that Douglass was on free ground, he was not legally free and refused to speak with anyone for fear of being apprehended. When Ruggles arrived to assist him, he felt relieved. For the first ten days after his release from slavery, Douglass remained at Ruggles’ house.
He began his life as a free man there. Ruggles was his radical abolitionism mentor. Douglass saw scores of men and women who passed through Ruggles’ home on their route to freedom since it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Douglass also wrote to his fiancée Anna Murray in Baltimore, inviting her to join him, and the two married in Ruggles’ home. Following that, the pair moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ruggles wrote him a letter of recommendation and gave him the $5 that put him in trouble with the Vigilance Committee.
Ruggles, whose tactics were often attacked by some Black abolitionists as “too severe,” was fired as secretary of the Vigilance Committee after the latter glanced through its financial books shortly after Douglass had gone. Ruggles could not account for the several five-dollar banknotes he had given to self-emancipated people when he was audited.
As a result, he was asked to leave, but he continued to edit articles and pamphlets until he developed major health problems. He got frail and practically blind as a result of his illness. After undergoing hydrotherapy, commonly known as the “water cure,” his condition improved. Ruggles acquired the technique and established a modest hydrotherapy hospital in Florence, near Northampton. William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Mary Brown (John Brown’s wife), and Lucy Stone were among his patients.
Douglass had risen to prominence as America’s most famous abolitionist about this time. Ruggles in Northampton was a frequent visitor of his. Ruggles died in Florence, Massachusetts, in December 1849, at the age of 39, and the two remained in communication until Ruggles died. In his second autobiography, published in 1855, Douglass described his debt to Ruggles. “Mr. Ruggles was the first officer of the under-ground railroad with whom I met after arriving in the north, and fact, the first of whom I heard anything,” he recounted.