Site of Woolfolk/Donovan Slave Pen

Site where the business of slavery once took place.

While nothing remains to indicate what once transpired here, we pinpoint this location to memorialize the victims of enslavement in America.

Austin Woolfolk was one of the first major slave traders in Baltimore, beginning as a 19-year-old in 1816. He was instrumental in turning the trade into a business. Like most traders at that time, he started with informal transactions in taverns and hotels. Once he acquired enough people to sell South, he would march them chained together over a thousand miles to Georgia, where his uncle would sell them to local planters. Eventually, he expanded his operation with saturation advertising in newspapers and by distributing handbills throughout the region searching for people to buy. He also employed a network of agents who would scour the region for prospective “stock.” Finally, he built a residence and slave jail at Pratt & Cove Streets (near present day Martin Luther King Boulevard). By setting up his business at a fixed location, he gave his trade an air of respectability. The idea of creating a jail/pen for the purpose of collecting and holding people for sale was a new concept at the time. This idea and his business model were emulated by the largest firm of human traffickers in the country, Franklin & Armfield. Woolfolk continued his operation until retiring a very wealthy man in 1842. Joseph Donovan purchased this location and operated there from 1843 until 1846, when he moved to 13 Camden Street near the harbor.

Once his business was established, Woolfolk was able to ship the enslaved from Fells Point and the Inner Harbor to New Orleans and other southern ports, where they were sold to their new owners. It wasn’t long before those being “sold South” became aware of the hell those two words represented, beginning immediately when their families were broken apart. Knowing what awaited them was more than some could bear. One young woman took her child’s life and then her own in the spring of 1826 while in Woolfolk’s pen. In 1821, a man slit his own throat at the wharf after learning that he had been sold to a trader. 

From "Baltimore's Own Version of 'Amistad:' Slave Revolt" by Ralph Clayton (Full article can be found here)

On one night, April 20, 1826, 31 enslaved people, bound with chains, began their fateful journey down to the wharf at the foot of Fell's Point. There, they were placed in small boats and rowed out to the schooner Decatur, at anchor a short distance offshore. Several hours later, the captain, Walter Galloway ordered the anchor pulled and the sails set for the journey down the Chesapeake.

There was a common practice of allowing small parties of slaves above deck. Five days out to sea, the captain made his way above deck for inspection. During the tour he noticed a great deal of mud on the anchor stocks and took a seat astride the rail to scrape it away. Suddenly, from beyond his field of vision, two enslaved people, Thomas Harrod and Manuel Wilson, rushed toward him, seized his legs, and threw him overboard.

After subduing the other crewmen, the newly freed people attempted to make the remaining crewman steer the ship, but they had killed the only two people who knew how to man the schooner. The vessel floated at sea for five days before being apprehended by a whaling ship. 

In an amazing turn of events, 13 captives escaped. The others were re-captured and sold away. One enslaved man, William Bowser, was put on trial for the murders of Galloway and the other seaman. After his capture, he was returned to New York City to await trial.

According to the New York Christian Enquirer, Austin Woolfolk attended the trial (an account he was to later deny). During the trial, William Bowser stood and looked directly at Woolfolk. He proceeded to tell the trader that he forgave him for all the injuries he had brought upon him and that he hoped to meet him in heaven. On December 15, 1826, Bowser was executed. 

Back in Baltimore, Benjamin Lundy, editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation, wrote a scathing report, attacking the character of Woolfolk. Calling him a "monster in human shape" for his conduct during the trial of Bowser, Lundy completed the column by stating, “Hereafter, let no man speak of the humanity of Woolfolk." Woolfolk was incensed and he went looking for Lundy.

According to Lundy he was heading toward the post office to mail some letters when Woolfolk found him. An argument ensued, during which Woolfolk, the much stronger of the two men, knocked Lundy to the ground. Although Lundy offered no resistance he was savagely choked and beaten by Woolfolk. Only the quick actions of several bystanders saved Lundy's life.

The following month Woolfolk's trial on charges of attempted murder took place in Baltimore. During the trial he denied having been present at the trial of Bowser and brought several witnesses into the court in his defense. Nevertheless the jury found Woolfolk guilty. When Woolfolk rose to hear the sentence that Judge Brice had decided upon, many in the court were stunned to learn that it was to be a fine in the amount of only one dollar. After the trial, Austin Woolfolk continued as one of the leading traders in the history of slavery, profiting by tens of thousands of dollars* a year well into the 1830's.

* Hundreds of thousands of dollars in today's currency