Historians do not know much about her early life but what they do know is that Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson was born in the 1840s in Virginia before real estate broker John Goshorn of Wheeling purchased her from a slave trader in Richmond in 1852 for $600. Five years after the purchase, Goshorn gave Johnson as a gift to his son, William S. Goshorn.
In 1860, Johnson, who was in her teens, escaped from West Virginia and made use of the Underground Railroad to make it to Cleveland. Sources say to hide the fact that she was a runaway slave, she first told a lie that William Goshorn’s daughter, Isabella, had traveled with her up north and into Pennsylvania where Isabella made it known to her that she was now free since she was in a free state.
Having made it to Cleveland, Johnson started working as a maid in the home of A.G. Riddle, who had been elected to Congress. Riddle later sent her to stay and work with his friend, a jeweler on Prospect Avenue. He believed Johnson would be safer there than at his home since he is well known for his antislavery views. He also feared political attacks.
But what Riddle didn’t know was that Johnson’s owner had pursued her. He had her arrested in the jeweler’s home on January 19, 1861, under the Fugitive Slave Act. The Act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The act also said that the federal government was responsible for finding, returning, and trying escaped slaves.
Johnson had been working at the jeweler’s for about two weeks when she was picked up by the U.S. marshals and her owner Goshorn. On January 21, Johnson was tried, with Rufus Spaulding, a former Ohio Supreme Court member, arguing her case. Johnson could not win because Goshorn came with documents to prove that she was his property and had paid $600 for her.
And that was how Johnson returned to slavery in Wheeling, some days before the Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter. She became the last slave in the United States prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act.
Her capture and trial caught the attention of many. From The case of Lucy Bagby, 1860-61, it is written that: “She was brought before Judge Wilson [sic], U. S. District Judge. On her way to the Court a crowd of people had gathered near the Post-office building, in which the Court was held, and there was a great deal of excitement about the girl. One of the men in the crowd approached a colored man by the name of C. M. Richardson, who had been a resident of Cleveland for a number of years, and dealt Mr. Richardson a stunning blow on the head, which felled him to the ground.
“The man evidently thought the Mr. Richardson was there for the purpose of rescuing the girl. Another man in the crowd, an Irishman, stepped up to a colored man by the name of Munson, and raised a club and was about to strike him, when Hon. Jabez M. Fitch, who happened to be near, interposed, and prevented the threatened blow.”
It is also documented that William E. Ambush, Chairman of the Fugitive Aid Society, tried to raise $1,200 to purchase Johnson from her owner Goshorn but Goshorn refused to sell her.
After being returned to slavery, Johnson would later be saved by a Union captain in Tennessee who set her free. She later got married to George Johnson, a Union soldier, and the two lived in Pittsburgh for some time before moving to Cleveland where Johnson died in 1906.
In Cleveland, she often spoke with local groups about her remarkable story. Johnson is buried in a marked grave in Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery.