Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Francis Julius LeMoyne in the early 1860s.

Francis Julius LeMoyne in the early 1860s.
Washington County Historical Society

In 1839, when William Lloyd Garrison (1805–79) and his allies lost control of the abolitionist movement in Warsaw, New York, African Americans could only vote in seven states. In the North, free blacks could neither sue nor own weapons, and their wages were disproportionate with those of their white counterparts for the same type of work. The Slave Power seemingly strengthened its influence in the federal government, and the peculiar institution’s expansion across the Western Frontier seemed inevitable as the Texas population favored annexation by the United States. Most Democrats and some Whigs in the U.S. Congress supported the opinion of the Texans. What Garrison was offering in the form of moral suasion had yielded very few results for the antislavery struggle. It looked as if institutional racism and slavery were so deeply embedded into the fabric of the nation by the end of the 1830s that many disillusioned abolitionists plotted new un-Garrisonian ways to infiltrate the political system.

Garrison, the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with duties to travel the Northern states espousing nonresistance, was under siege by a group of politically driven abolitionists of all colors and denominations who were motivated by the 1836 gag rule that shut down congressional petitions on slavery. This outlying group of antislavery activists took a different approach in its attempts to overthrow the slavocracy. One of their leaders in Pennsylvania was a liberty-loving renaissance man named Francis Julius LeMoyne, a doctor from Washington, Washington County, who had just recently taken up the fight to abolish slavery and provide free blacks with universal civil rights.

Except for a year LeMoyne lived in Philadelphia to study at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent his entire life in Washington. Born September 4, 1798, he was the first child of LeMoyne blood born in the United States. His mother, Nancy McCully, was a Scots-Irish emigrant from County Down in Northern Ireland. His father, John Julius LeMoyne, was from France, where the family was royalty. John Julius had escaped a throng of people who stormed the Bastille when he fled with “some five hundred royalist emigres across the seas,” wrote Margaret C. McCulloch in her 1941 biography of Francis LeMoyne, Fearless Advocate of the Right.

In America, John Julius purchased land from the historically contentious Scioto Company and settled in Gallipolis, Ohio. In 1796, two years after the Whiskey Rebellion, the LeMoynes moved to Washington, where John Julius started a medical practice. After another two years, Francis Julius entered the world.

The young scion opened a medical practice of his own in 1823 after his father was injured in a tragic chemical accident that severely burned both of his legs. LeMoyne was compelled to take over his father’s practice, which operated in his parents’ home. He lived the life of a frontier physician for two decades — treating and operating on patients across large expanses of land, in all weather, and without anesthesia or skilled assistants — before he became drawn to abolitionism.

By age 36 LeMoyne had made quite a name for himself in Washington. Aside from his medical practice, the doctor served on the board of the Washington Agricultural Society. He worked as an “engineer” for the Hope Fire Co., responsible for  contriving a method of putting out fires by forming a bucket brigade all the way from the town’s well to the scene of the fire. LeMoyne participated
in the Washington Lyceum Society that hosted discussions on science, history, philosophy, religion, abolitionism and colonization. He also found time to serve as a trustee of Washington College (later Washington & Jefferson College). In that position, he spearheaded the construction of the Washington Female Seminary.

The LeMoyne House in Washington, built in 1812 by LeMoyne’s father, John Julius. Washington County Historical Society

The LeMoyne House in Washington, built in 1812 by LeMoyne’s father, John Julius.
Washington County Historical Society

In 1834 a group of men were working to form a local auxiliary to the American Anti-Slavery Society, which had been founded a year earlier at a meeting in Philadelphia. It was while the national society finalized its constitution that LeMoyne realized his passion for the cause of the enslaved and half-free African Americans.

“[I]t was a revelation to himself when he discovered he was an abolitionist,” said George P. Hayes about LeMoyne. Hayes, who later became president of Washington & Jefferson, explained that his friend’s transformation was a natural evolution. “One day a stranger asked him if he had made up his mind on the subject of the abolition of slavery,” Hayes recounted. “He then replied that he did not know that he had.” As an impartial party, LeMoyne was asked to examine the constitution and by-laws of the American Anti-Slavery Society. After reading the documents, he said to himself, “I must be an abolitionist.”

LeMoyne spent the next year meeting with abolitionists throughout the commonwealth. With the support of Pennsylvanians who were involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society, the doctor organized antislavery men and women in his hometown. On July 4, 1835, the Washington County Anti-Slavery Society was officially organized, making the borough western Pennsylvania’s sanctuary for fugitive slaves. At the center of the society was LeMoyne, who was elected its first president.

Between 1834 and 1836 antislavery advocates came up against a particularly harsh string of violence intended to silence them. Gatherings in Boston, New York and Philadelphia were met by vicious antiabolitionist mobs notorious for throwing rotten eggs and bricks, vandalizing houses, and committing outright murder in some cases, just to subdue the antislavery agenda. The opposition was a mixture of those who believed in either the perpetuation of slavery or the resettlement of free blacks in Liberia. As noted by McCulloch, “the more abolitionists were attacked; the more determined LeMoyne was that they should be heard.”

The endemic of antiabolitionist mob violence reached Washington in June 1836, when Rev. Samuel Gould, an antislavery clergyman from Massachusetts, addressed the Washington Anti-Slavery Society at a meeting in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. As an incendiary mob surrounded the church, one of the ruffians entered the sanctuary and started up the aisle toward Gould. Discerning an ugly episode, LeMoyne leapt out of his seat to confront the assailant. “Fearless at all times,” said one witness, “the Doctor’s very courage gave him a power over others . . . the young opposition messenger suddenly turned and beat a hasty retreat.”

LeMoyne’s success at driving back the assailant, however, did not deter the hostile mob. Within a few minutes, a volley of eggs and stones were thrown through the church’s windows. Still, the friends of freedom inside the church refused to be intimidated. Gould proceeded to deliver his entire address. When the mob threatened to seize the minister as he exited the building, LeMoyne and his friends formed a “hollow-square,” explained one of LeMoyne’s children years later, and guided the guest out of the church in the style of a convoy.

The image on this 1837 woodcut, originally created for the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England, was also adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Library of Congress

The image on this 1837 woodcut, originally created for the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England, was also adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Library of Congress

A month later, on July 4, LeMoyne hosted the anniversary meeting of the Washington Anti-Slavery Society at his house on Maiden Street, with Gould again as the keynote speaker. The meeting itself was in violation of a recently passed borough ordinance that outlawed abolitionist gatherings for imposing on the lives of Washingtonians. In defiance of the borough’s decree, LeMoyne moved ahead with the meeting. To protect the attendees, he armed 12 men with hickory clubs and instructed them to stand guard on the balcony of his old conservatory, which had been recently converted into a bee colony. Joining the sentinels was LeMoyne’s son John, who was told to “hurl down” one of the hives on any group of ruffians making advancements toward the house. A small gang of protesters did appear, making a few catcalls and taunts, but the evening was spared from a violent confrontation. Soon, the threats and intimidation stopped. For the better part of 1836 the area was as calm as it had ever been.

LeMoyne’s participation in the abolition movement went beyond organizing and educating Washingtonians about the freedom struggle. He also opened his house to fugitive slaves, joining the most active Underground Railroad operatives in western Pennsylvania, William McKeever (1758–1840) and his two sons, Thomas (1791–1866) and Matthew (1797–1884), who hid freedom seekers in their home and barn in Middletown, Greene County. Like the McKeevers, LeMoyne’s entire family was involved in the endeavor. His daughter Madeleine disclosed in an interview years later that they hid up to 25 slaves at one time in their mother’s room of the two-story stone house.

William Lloyd Garrison and others in the American Anti-Slavery Society took notice of LeMoyne’s work in Washington. In August 1837 he was commissioned as an itinerant agent for the society. The job description included the duty of traveling across the Northern states validating Garrison’s moral suasion approach to abolition. Garrison guaranteed him only travel expenses. Additional speaking honorariums were paid by local antislavery societies.

Although he was on the lecture circuit for a short time only, LeMoyne learned quickly that Garrison’s moral suasion approach had serious flaws. Garrison’s antislavery paradigm would hardly make a dent in the proslavery forces’ steel wall that controlled both national political parties. As the Slave Power’s influence over federal and state legislation strengthened during the latter years of the 1830s, he predicted a divorce among antislavery forces. LeMoyne came to believe there was a “preponderance of Slave power” in all aspects of the federal government. In a speech to abolitionists in Pittsburgh, he maintained that U.S. presidents from slaveholding states had controlled the executive branch of the government for most of American history. Likewise, he pointed out that the majority of secretaries of state, speakers of the House of Representatives, presidents pro tempore of the Senate and justices of the Supreme Court came from slave states.

LeMoyne’s theory about the disproportionate level of government collusion with proponents of slavery exposed the simplicity of Garrison’s antislavery model. Accordingly, a burgeoning majority working against Garrison in the American Anti-Slavery Society expressed appeals to create a political party that could work within governmental limits to push back against the slavocracy. These men first defected from Garrison’s organization to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. They then rallied support for the creation of a political party to rival the Whigs and the Democrats.

Francis Julius LeMoyne sat for this painting in the 1840s while he was working for the Liberty Party. Washington County Historical Society

Francis Julius LeMoyne sat for this painting in the 1840s while he was working for the Liberty Party. Washington County Historical Society

Reluctant at first to enter the maelstrom of national politics, LeMoyne eventually aligned himself with the group of political abolitionists when the Liberty Party took shape in the fall of 1840. Founded by 500 of the nation’s abolitionists in time for the presidential election, the Liberty Party, also known as the Abolition Party, was a group of men focused exclusively on the issue of slavery. Party members, hereafter called Liberty Men, felt they might strike fear into Southern slaveholders and their pro-slavery allies in the North by influencing legislation at both the state and federal levels.

LeMoyne knew little about how to form a political party and admitted it when he inquired, “[since] the anti-slavery reformation is emphatically a religious enterprise . . . if we make political action so prominent will there not be ground for those who have continually an evil eye upon us, to charge that we have lost our first confidence in strict moral means[?]”

LeMoyne, however, understood how to debate and was good at making public speeches. Liberty Men such as Gerrit Smith, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Lewis and Arthur Tappan felt that LeMoyne with his oratorical acumen, his philanthropic record of caring for the underprivileged, and his fearless advocacy for free speech would be a strong asset to the party. He was then thrust into the political spotlight when he was nominated by his colleagues at the National Liberty Party Convention in 1840 to run as the party’s vice presidential nominee in the upcoming presidential election. While honored, he uncompromisingly declined the nomination. An electoral thumping at the national level was inevitable since the Liberty Party was in its infancy and had failed to merge with any major party that would have made it a formidable force.

More problematic for the Liberty Party in 1840 was the lack of a true leader at the top of the ticket. James G. Birney (1792–1857), a former slave owner turned unapologetic antislavery activist, eventually won the nomination for president, while Thomas Earle (1796–1849), a lawyer from Ohio, was the party’s choice for vice president when LeMoyne turned it down. After some 2 million voters cast their ballots for one of three candidates, Birney and Earle captured a meager 6,797 popular votes and zero electoral votes in comparison to the Democratic nominee, the incumbent president Martin Van Buren, with 1,128,854 popular votes and 60 electoral votes, and the winner, the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison, with 1,275,390 popular votes and 234 electoral votes.

Months later LeMoyne grudgingly accepted the Pennsylvania Liberty Party’s nomination for governor. He would eventually run for governor of the state two more times as a Liberty Man in 1844 and 1847. McCulloch explains in her biography that LeMoyne accepted the three bids for governor “explicitly because he knew there was no chance of his being elected.” In a 1941 interview with LeMoyne’s surviving daughter Madeleine, McCulloch was told that LeMoyne warned the state party to nominate him for “no office which the party had a chance of capturing.” The doctor was apparently more committed to his large family, his medical practice, and his duties as president of the Washington Anti-Slavery Society, which had recently consolidated with antislavery societies in the western part of the state to become the Antislavery Society of Western Pennsylvania. He also made his antislavery auxiliary a local advocacy group for the Liberty Party and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

James G. Birney, here in a c. 1844 hand-colored lithograph published by N. Currier in New York, was a former slave owner turned antislavery activist and presidential nominee for the Liberty Party in 1840 and 1844. Library of Congress

James G. Birney, here in a c. 1844 hand-colored lithograph published by N. Currier in New York, was a former slave owner turned antislavery activist and presidential nominee for the Liberty Party in 1840 and 1844. Library of Congress

While the Liberty Party’s existence as a single-issue party would eventually prove damaging for any sustained success, it existed as a boon to African American voters in the seven suffrage states that were otherwise reluctant to fix their allegiance to the Whigs or Northern Democrats. Ties between black and white Liberty Men were clear; most collaborated in some way on the Underground Railroad. As LeMoyne risked his medical practice to hide fugitive slaves in his home, he was establish-ing political relationships with three black Pennsylvanians living in Pittsburgh: Martin Delany (1812–85), John C. Peck (1802–75) and John Vashon (1792–1853). These men ultimately joined the Liberty Party and campaigned with LeMoyne in his last two gubernatorial campaigns.

LeMoyne had the strongest association with Delany. One of the country’s foremost black nationalist intellects of the early 1840s, Delany was the publisher of the black newspaper The Mystery. He canvassed Pittsburgh for LeMoyne in 1844 and 1847 even though black Pennsylvanians were disenfranchised. On the campaign trail, Delany described the Liberty Party among the most “important movements” for the antislavery cause. He was one of three Pittsburghers who founded Pittsburgh’s Philanthropic Society, a vigilance committee responsible for aiding fugitive slaves. Vashon, one of Delany’s colleagues on the vigilance committee, was a War of 1812 veteran who had been a prisoner of war. Perhaps the busiest of LeMoyne’s black allies, Vashon hosted meetings of the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery Society in his home and was an organizer of the State Conventions of the Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania. Peck was a successful entrepreneur who owned and operated a barbershop, clothing store and oyster house that doubled as a sanctuary for runaway slaves.

Against any influence that LeMoyne may have had with party leaders, the Liberty Party lost all its momentum in 1847. After two presidential elections, the party failed miserably in its attempts to pilfer elected representatives from the Whig and Northern Democratic parties. The result was the party splintered into two groups. One faction of traditional Liberty Men led by Gerrit Smith stuck to the one-issue platform. A second wing led by Salmon Chase, Gamaliel Bailey and LeMoyne pressed for a multireform platform that concentrated on human rights, the establishment of direct elections for state and national offices, judicial system reform, a gradual reduction in the size of the Army and Navy, lower tariffs, and the advocacy of a 10-hour workday. In his 1844 gubernatorial campaign, LeMoyne told an audience in Washington that the Liberty Party was the only party  “determined to resist the aggressi[on] of the slavocracy” and “the only party who may rightfully & honestly . . . [be] in favour of protecting home industry and giving honest wages for work.”

In 1848 the division of the Liberty Party led to a realignment of antislavery advocates in the new Free Soil Party. In a single year of politics, New York Democrats called “Barnburners,” antislavery Whigs called “Conscious Whigs,” and multireform Liberty Men joined the Free Soil movement. This new party was organized in support of the Wilmot Proviso, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot (1814–68) as a rider to the Mexican-American War negotiations, asserting that slavery should not expand into the newly acquired frontier land. That concept was certainly appealing to antislavery exponents like LeMoyne, although the proviso failed to pass into law. As it turned out, the party sidestepped the moral issues related to abolitionism in favor of advocacy based on slavery’s threat to white labor in the territories. The party’s slogan, “free soil, free speech, free labor and free men,” apparently applied primarily to white settlers.

In opposition to these motives, LeMoyne resigned himself from political abolitionism. He would return to the feeble Liberty Party once more in 1852, but it was on its last legs as the Republican Party was rising like a phoenix from the ashes of other failed coalitions. Consequently, LeMoyne left politics altogether.

LeMoyne around 1875, about the same time he opened the LeMoyne Crematory.

LeMoyne around 1875, about the same time he opened the LeMoyne Crematory.
Washington County Historical Society

Despite his antislavery and philanthropic work, LeMoyne supported the Southern states’ right to secede from the Union. He questioned, “If the South wished to secede was it not its right to do so?” He was, after all, a fearless advocate of free speech. When war came, however, LeMoyne supported the Union. His son Frank volunteered as a doctor in Company G, 2nd U.S. Artillery. After one year of service, he enrolled in the medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in the winter of 1863. As the new physician wavered between a medical career and military service, LeMoyne stuck to his venerable conviction of individual choice when counseling Frank. “I do not feel free to advise you,” he told his son. “Do you propose to enter again the public service to meet your own wants or to serve your country? Your answer to this query will in a good measure determine your [life’s] course.” Frank eventually reentered the service in 1864 as an assistant surgeon.

After the Civil War, LeMoyne suffered from diabetes. He was confined to his home most of the time and was compelled to give up his medical practice. Although he was ill, his concern for African American equality never wavered. When he read that the American Missionary Association’s Lincoln Chapel School for Freedmen was burned down during a race riot in Memphis, Tennessee, he donated $20,000 for its reconstruction. He wrote to George Whipple of the AMA, “its benefits & advantages [must be] accessible to all pupils whose conduct is orderly and whose character is creditable.” The facility reopened in 1871 as the LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School. At 73 LeMoyne made the long journey to Memphis for the opening. The school is now LeMoyne-Owen College, a fully accredited, four-year historically black institution.

As LeMoyne grew closer to death, he concerned himself with the health hazards caused by the diffusion of bacteria from decomposing bodies that could enter water streams or be released into the air. In 1875 he designed his own cremation furnace. At a quaint location outside of Washington called Gallows Hills, he built his crematory, the first in the United States, and in December 1876 he performed the country’s first cremation (see “Cremation’s Fiery Beginnings,” Winter 2012).

LeMoyne’s involvement in the Liberty Party had become a distant memory. Nevertheless, his lifelong crusade for liberty, particularly for the country’s enslaved and later marginalized African American population, rightfully put him in the vanguard of American progress. “All my life I have been an earnest and consistent advocate of personal liberty,” LeMoyne said before he died on October 14, 1879. The aged abolitionist was at the time fighting for the right to choose how to be treated after death. True to form, he was still advocating for the cause of freedom until his final breath.


The LeMoyne House

Located at 49 East Maiden Street in Washington, Washington County, the LeMoyne House is a National Historic Landmark operated by the Washington County Historical Society. For information on tours, programs and special events, visit wchspa.org.


Todd M. Mealy resides in Lancaster County and teaches at Penn Manor High School. He is the author of several books, including Biography of an Antislavery City: Antislavery Advocates, Abolitionists, and Underground Railroad Activists in Harrisburg, PA and the two-volume Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day. His article “Breaking the Color Line: The Trial That Led to the End of Legal Segregation in Pennsylvania’s Schools” appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.