Benjamin Russel Hanby was born into a deeply religious family on July 22, 1833, in Rushville, Ohio.
He was a pastor, abolitionist, and the author of several well-known songs, including “Darling Nelly Gray,” “Up on the Housetop,” and “Who Was He in Yonder Stall?”
His father, William, was a bishop, a co-founder of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, and an abolitionist who helped hundreds of escaped slaves. The Hanby home was even a station on the Underground Railroad.
Benjamin was deeply moved by the story of one escaped slave, Joseph Shelby, who stayed in his family’s home.
Before Joseph died of pneumonia, he told them about his sweetheart, Nellie Gray, and how he had hoped to go back to the south and rescue her.
Years later, this was the inspiration for Benjamin’s song, “Darling Nelly Gray,” which has been called the musical equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin due to its popularity and influence.
In 1858, Benjamin graduated from Otterbein University, and was ordained in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, the following year. He went on to become a teacher, pastor, principal of the Seven Mile Academy, a pastor again, and an operator of a singing school.
Eventually, he moved to Chicago to pursue more publishing opportunities and, while there, died of tuberculosis in 1867.
Versatile in his song writing, he wrote about eighty songs in his short life.