Napoleon, Louis (1800 – 1881)

Napoleon, Louis (1800 – 1881)

  • <p>Courtesy of the New York Municipal Archive.</p>

In April 1800, Louis Napoleon was born free in New York City, to a father of Jewish heritage and an enslaved mother. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to “Mrs. Miller’s Tobacco and Snuff Warehouse.” Soon after entering the tobacco trade he was befriended by the prominent abolitionists Gerrit Smith, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, George William Curtis, and Sydney Howard Gay. The cultivation of these relationships assuredly launched his career as a principal member of the anti-slavery movement and agent of the Underground Railroad. Mr. Napoleon appears in an entry on the very first page of Sydney H. Gay's Record of Fugitives in which it is noted that he took a fugitive to the train station. His name later turns up in letters, writs of habeas corpus, and some of the most important court cases arising out of the contentious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. (See sections of the Record of Fugitives and his court cases below). He was arrested on several occasions but was able to avoid convictions based on the aid provided by his many influential friends and good legal counsel. Mr. Napoleon assisted many freedom seekers fleeing slavery, but two that are particularly noteworthy are the important cases for emancipation he initiated by writs of habeas corpus: George Kirk and the Lemmon Slave Case.

George Kirk (1846)

Kirk was found as a stow-away and chained to the ship. Louis Napoleon finds him and gets a writ to help free him. John Jay is secured as the lawyer. Jay uses the argument that once you leave a slave holding state you become free. A judge agrees, and Kirk is finally freed.

The Lemmon Slave Case (1852)

Louis Napoleon hears about 8 enslaved people on Carlisle Street in Manhattan. Napoleon obtains a writ and the 8 people are brought before a judge. The judge, using the same principle as in the Kirk case, rules that they should be free. The decision is appealed and upheld in both the NY Supreme Court and the NY Court of Appeals (NY's highest court). This causes a major rift between Virginia and New York.

Louis Napoleon remained an Underground Railroad conductor for many years, and worked simultaneously for the American Antislavery Society and the newspaper arm of the organization The National Antislavery Standard between 1855 and 1862.

At the end of a long and productive career of successfully assisting self-emancipators establish their freedom, Mr. Napoleon retired and received a pension from his friends and colleagues. Shortly after the Civil War, Mr. Napoleon and his wife Elizabeth settled on the South Shore of Staten Island in a home located at 570 Bloomingdale Road, in the town of Westfield in the community known as the Sandy Ground. (Text and information courtesy of NPS UGRR Louis Napoleon House Site Application).

Read his obituary below.

Read about the Lemmon Slave case at:

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Audio clips: Louis Napoleon Obituary read by Gabriella Leone.

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  • <p>Louis Napoleon's Obituary mentions his connection to prominent abolitionists including Gerrit Smith, Horace Greeley, and George W. Curtis. New York Tribune, 30 Mar 1881, p2.</p>
  • <p>Courtesy of An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity By Paul Finkelman, p134.</p>
  • <p>Courtesy of the Library of Congress.</p>
  • <p>Courtesy of the Library of Congress.</p>
  • <p>This and following images courtesy of the Columbia University Library.</p>

Transcription of the image above: May 27th. A man was found by L. Np. on board of Schn. 'Peter Demise,' Capt. Hoey. from Savanah, who had concealed himself to escape. Napoleon sent him at once to Syracuse, en route to Canada.

The document above outlines expenses paid to Napoleon as part of his work moving people through the Underground Railroad.

Expenses: Napoleon + Sarah to

New Haven + Albany 10.50

At Albany 2.

N. from Albany 1.

Children from Brooklyn. (carriage) 2.

To Syracuse +c 15.37


Napoleon going to N.H. 3. 33.87

  • <p>Map showing the Napoleon's home next to the Rossville AME Zion Church in the Sandy Ground Settlement. Image courtesy of Sandy Ground Historical Society.</p>