Sydney Howard Gay

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Sidney Howard Gay (1814–1888) was an American journalist and abolitionist.

Early life[edit]

Gay was born in 1814 to the lawyer Ebenezer Gay and Mary Alleyne Otis, niece of American Revolutionary activists James Otis, Jr and Mercy Otis Warren. On his father’s side, he was descended from Governor William Bradford, a founder of the Plymouth Colony, who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. On his mother’s side, he was descended from John Otis, who settled in Hingham in 1635.[1]

Sydney’s father, Ebenezer Gay, was a prosperous, but unhappy attorney who wanted one of his sons to join his practice. Sydney’s older brothers did not meet Ebenezer’s expectations, and he decided to prepare Sydney for a legal career by sending him to Harvard College. But Sydney was fifteen years old and could not adjust to being away from home. He became ill and had to withdraw from his classes. Ebenezer was disappointed when Sydney refused to return to the College.

Sydney set his sights on being a businessman and persuaded his father to loan him money for several unsuccessful business ventures. While he was trying desperately to start a mercantile enterprise in New Orleans, his sister, Francis, informed him that Angelina Grimke had spoken in Hingham against slavery, and she had greatly impressed their mother. Sydney informed Francis that abolitionists were fanatics, and that he wanted no one in the family to associate with them.

When his New Orleans venture failed miserably, Sydney returned to his father’s home, ill and ashamed. Withdrawing into his father’s library, he read and thought deeply about the slavery issue, and to everyone’s amazement, announced that he was an abolitionist. Ebenezer still harbored hopes Sydney would join his law practice, but he refused to take the lawyer’s oath to uphold the United States Constitution because the Constitution sanctioned slavery. He joined the local Antislavery Society, started writing abolitionist articles for the Hingham Patriot, joined William Lloyd Garrison’s American Abolition Society, and traveled on a One Hundred Convention tour with Frederick Douglass.

In 1843, he moved to New York City to become resident editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, a post he would faithfully hold for fourteen years. In 1845, he married Elizabeth Johns Neall, the daughter of Philadelphia’s prominent Quaker abolitionist, Daniel Neall.[2]

Abolition and the Underground Railroad[edit]

Several people helped Gay make his office at the Standard one of New York City’s busiest Underground Railroad depots. His associates included the venerable abolitionist Quaker, Isaac T. Hopper and his daughter, Abigail Hopper Gibbons and her husband, James; Elias Smith; and two black men: the Standard’s printer, William H. Leonard, and Louis Napoleon, who conducted many of the fugitives forwarded to the office from Philadelphia by James Miller McKim and William Still.[3]

Gay’s office was a critical stop for fugitives traveling from Philadelphia to New Haven and Boston, Massachusetts, or to Canada West via Albany, Syracuse, and Rochester. Gay aided three of history’s most famous fugitives: Henry “Box” Brown, Jane Johnson, and Harriet Tubman. In two notebooks, which he entitled Record of Fugitives, 1855—, he recorded the stories of over 200 fugitives he and his associates aided from 1855-to-1856. Because Gay and William Still kept notes about some of the same people, Gay’s Record is the most important primary document to be printed since William Still self-published his classic Underground Railroad Records in 1872.[4]

The contents of Gay's Record were similar to the journal kept by William Still. However, Gay's Record remained literally unknown. The earliest known documented reference was made to it by historian Kathryn Grover in her 2002 monograph about black abolitionists in Boston for the National Parks Service.[5] Tom Calarco, one of the authors of Secret Lives, found the Records as a result of this reference and had it photographed in 2007. Their significance was immediately realized and resulted in the book he eventually co-authored with Don Papson, and which was published in February 2015.[6]

It also was around that time that other historians like Eric Foner first became acquainted with its existence. A copy of his Record of Fugitive Slaves is available for viewing online at the Columbia University Library website.[7]

Career as a journalist[edit]

After fourteen years at the Standard, Sydney resigned when the Boston clique decided it could not afford to kept his associate editor, Oliver Johnson. He was exhausted, and he wasn’t earning enough to support his wife and three children. He nonetheless continued to serve on the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Executive Board and to aid fugitives from slavery.[8]

Following time off to recover his health at his home on Staten Island, Gay accepted the position of assistant to the managing editor, and later the managing editor, for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune. In spite of Greeley, who unrelentingly criticized President Lincoln’s handling of the Civil War, Gay kept the Tribune a pro-Union paper. Gay defied Greeley’s command against arming the Tribune building during the 1863 Draft Riots and prevented a mob from burning it to the ground.

Greeley demoted Gay after the war, and he resigned. Gay was emotionally and physically exhausted. After a long rest in Hingham, he accepted a job at the Chicago Tribune in 1867 where he remained until after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. For two years beginning in 1872 he served on the editorial staff of the New York Evening Post. Later, he returned to New York City to work at William Cullen Bryant’s Evening News. Bryant persuaded him to collaborate on a multi-volume Popular History of the United States for Scribners, and he did most of the writing for it.[9]

Final Years[edit]

In 1877, Harvard’s President and Fellows recognized his accomplishments by awarding him a diploma.[10]

In 1884, he completed A Life of James Madison. He was working on a biography of his Boston abolitionist friend John Quincy when a fall which injured his spine paralyzed him. He died in 1888 and was buried in the Hingham Cemetery with his ancestors on the hill above the Old Ship Church which his paternal great-grandfather, Rev. Ebenezer Gay, had pastored for more than 60 years.[11]


  1. ^ Descendent of Gay who prefers to remain anonymous
  2. ^ Papson, Don; Calarco, Tom (2015). Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City. McFarland and Company. ISBN 978-0786466658. 
  3. ^ Ibid:115-116
  4. ^ Ibid:117-205
  5. ^ Grover, Kathryn and da Silva, Janine, Historic Resource Study: Boston African American National Historic Site. National Parks Service, 2002
  6. ^ Papson, Calarco, Op.Cit:5
  7. ^ Foner, Eric (2015). Gateway to Freedom. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393244076. 
  8. ^ Papson, Calarco, Op.Cit: 206-216
  9. ^ "Guide to the Sydney Howard Gay Papers, 1748-1931". Retrieved 2015-01-15. 
  10. ^ Memorials of the Class of 1833 of Harvard College. p. 113. 
  11. ^ Papson, Calarco, Op.Cit: 237-240

External links[edit]