At 67 Lispenard St., a Stop on the Underground Railroad

David Ruggles sheltered and comforted many escaped slaves on Lispenard Street, including the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Illustration: Eberhard Froehlich

Jul. 01, 2013

He was described as a man of “ordinary size, with an athletic form and dark complexion” who presented “an intelligent and benevolent countenance.” He would have doubtless passed unnoticed in New York in the 1830s, which would have suited him fine. His name was David Ruggles, and he is an unsung hero of the Un derground Railroad, the storied network that aided and protected slaves escaping from the South before the Civil War. He lived and worked in what is now Tribeca.

Although New York State had outlawed slavery in 1827, blacks were nonetheless barred from most white institutions and were frequently assaulted by gangs of white hoodlums.

Ruggles arrived here in 1827, at the age of 17, from Norwich, Conn., and within a year or two had become a “butter merchant” operating from a store near his residence on Chapel Street (today’s West Broadway). The business flourished, but Ruggles’ interest shifted to the plight of his fellow blacks.

In 1833 he left his store to write for a black newspaper and lecture on the evils of slavery. His writing was incisive, and his talks were instantly popular; he spoke, said one observer, “in a manner which excited the liveliest emotions in every heart.” The next year, he moved to 67 Lispenard Street and opened a bookstore, stocking it with anti-slavery publications. (He is thought to be the first black bookseller in the U.S.) The store soon became an esteemed gathering spot.

Increasingly involved in the abolitionist cause, in 1835 he was instrumental in setting up a New York Committee on Vigilance, whose goal was to “protect unoffending, defenseless and endangered persons of color, by securing their rights as far as practicable.” The biracial group, of which Ruggles was the secretary, cared for escaped slaves who came through the city—feeding, clothing and, if necessary, hiding them before sending them on to Canada, Boston or elsewhere in New England. Ruggles sheltered many of them under his own roof, making it a key stop on the Railroad.

Among the hundreds of fugitives he helped during these years was Frederick Douglass, whom he hid for several days on his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Years later Douglass described his protector as “fully imbued with a love of his afflicted and hunted people, and took pleasure in being to men as was his wont, eyes to the blind and legs to the lame. This brave and devoted man suffered much from the persecutions common to all who have been prominent benefactors.” Indeed, a mob once set Ruggles’ store afire.

But caring for escapees was only part of his work. He published the names of the slave-catchers sent by slave-holders to round up fugitives and ship them back south, and pointed them out to other blacks on the street. He boarded newly arrived ships in search of slaves being smuggled into the U.S. He went door to door in fashionable neighborhoods to tell black domestics of a new New York law that freed imported slaves after nine months of residence. He worked tirelessly to raise money for the abolitionist cause. Most important, he represented captured runaways in court to see that they got a fair hearing (most often, they did not). So effective were his efforts that he became a marked man and had to keep changing his lodging to avoid being kidnapped. He was more than once jailed on false pretenses.

By the late 1830s, overburdened and racked by worry, Ruggles’ health was deteriorating. His eyesight was failing; he was forced to close his store and give up his work for the Committee. In 1842 his doctor gave him only weeks to live.

Thus did his extraordinary work for the abolitionist cause come to an end.
But there ensued an amazing postscript. He moved to Florence, Mass., the home of many blacks whom he had helped.

There, a white abolitionist named Lydia Maria Child took him in. While recuperating, Ruggles began a treatment known as hydrotherapy, based on water treatments, diet and rest, and he eventually regained his health. He then set himself up as a hydrotherapist, and his patients marveled at his acute sense of touch, with which he diagnosed many ailments.

In 1846, he raised the money to build a 20-room treatment center, the first of its kind in the U.S. Although he admitted that hydrotherapy was not a panacea, his ads claimed that he could cure “headache, bronchitis, general and nervous debility, pulmonary affections, liver complaints,” among other ailments.
Sadly, in late 1849 his eye trouble recurred. Complications set in, and by the end of the year he was dead. Either of his two careers would have been an impressive life’s work for one person. At his death he was just 39 years old.

This article was first published in the Trib in April 1999.