Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Ellen and William Craft – A Desperate Leap for Liberty

The escape to freedom by Ellen and William Craft is one of the most famous and daring stories of self-emancipation. Over the course of eight days, the newly-weds conceived of, planned and executed a brilliant plot to gain their liberty and find new lives for themselves.

Ellen was the daughter of a mulatto mother who had been raped by her white master. This made Ellen at least three-quarters white – yet, due to her mother’s status, she was still a slave. She met William, partially-owned by her master, in 1848, at the age of twenty. They fell in love and wanted to raise a family, though not as slaves.

Since Ellen appeared to be nearly white, a plan was concocted that she would pose as William’s master, and together would make their way to the North and to freedom.

What follows is a heavily-condensed telling of their ordeal, as penned by William. 1I strongly recommend that you read the full version, as found here.

A Plan Suggested Itself

We were married, and prayed and toiled on till December, 1848, at which time (as I have stated) a plan suggested itself that proved quite successful, and in eight days after it was first thought of we were free from the horrible trammels of slavery, and glorifying God who had brought us safely out of a land of bondage.

William Craft
William Craft

Knowing that slaveholders have the privilege of taking their slaves to any part of the country they think proper, it occurred to me that, as my wife was nearly white, I might get her to disguise herself as an invalid gentleman, and assume to be my master, while I could attend as his slave, and that in this manner we might effect our escape. After I thought of the plan, I suggested it to my wife, but at first she shrank from the idea. She thought it was almost impossible for her to assume that disguise, and travel a distance of 1,000 miles across the slave States.

However, on the other hand, she also thought of her condition. She saw that the laws under which we lived did not recognize her to be a woman, but a mere chattel, to be bought and sold, or otherwise dealt with as her owner might see fit. Therefore the more she contemplated her helpless condition, the more anxious she was to escape from it. So she said, “I think it is almost too much for us to undertake; however, I feel that God is on our side, and with his assistance, notwithstanding all the difficulties, we shall be able to succeed. Therefore, if you will purchase the disguise, I will try to carry out the plan.”

Therefore, with little difficulty I went to different parts of the town, at odd times, and purchased things piece by piece, (except the trousers which she found necessary to make,) and took them home to the house where my wife resided. No one about the premises knew that she had anything of the kind. So when we fancied we had everything ready the time was fixed for the flight.

Some of the best slaveholders will sometimes give their favourite slaves a few days’ holiday at Christmas time; so, after no little amount of perseverance on my wife’s part, she obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days. The cabinet-maker with whom I worked gave me a similar paper, but said that he needed my services very much, and wished me to return as soon as the time granted was up.

On reaching my wife’s cottage she handed me her pass, and I showed mine, but at that time neither of us were able to read them. It is not only unlawful for slaves to be taught to read, but in some of the States there are heavy penalties attached, such as fines and imprisonment, which will be vigorously enforced upon any one who is humane enough to violate the so-called law.

However, at first, we were highly delighted at the idea of having gained permission to be absent for a few days; but when the thought flashed across my wife’s mind, that it was customary for travellers to register their names in the visitors’ book at hotels, as well as in the clearance or Custom-house book at Charleston, South Carolina — it made our spirits droop within us.

So, while sitting in our little room upon the verge of despair, all at once my wife raised her head, and with a smile upon her face, which was a moment before bathed in tears, said, “I think I have it!” I asked what it was. She said, “I think I can make a poultice and bind up my right hand in a sling, and with propriety ask the officers to register my name for me.” I thought that would do.

It then occurred to her that the smoothness of her face might betray her; so she decided to make another poultice, and put it in a white handkerchief to be worn under the chin, up the cheeks, and to tie over the head. This nearly hid the expression of the countenance, as well as the beardless chin.

My wife, knowing that she would be thrown a good deal into the company of gentlemen, fancied that she could get on better if she had something to go over the eyes; so I went to a shop and bought a pair of green spectacles. This was in the evening.

We sat up all night discussing the plan, and making preparations. Just before the time arrived, in the morning, for us to leave, I cut off my wife’s hair square at the back of the head, and got her to dress in the disguise and stand out on the floor. I found that she made a most respectable looking gentleman.

Our Perilous Journey

When the time had arrived for us to start, we blew out the lights, knelt down, and prayed to our Heavenly Father mercifully to assist us, as he did his people of old, to escape from cruel bondage; and we shall ever feel that God heard and answered our prayer. I then whispered to my wife, “Come, my dear, let us make a desperate leap for liberty!” But poor thing, she shrank back, in a state of trepidation.

I turned and asked what was the matter; she made no reply, but burst into violent sobs, and threw her head upon my breast. This appeared to touch my very heart, it caused me to enter into her feelings more fully than ever.

However, the sobbing was soon over, and after a few moments of silent prayer she recovered her self-possession, and said, “Come, William, it is getting late, so now let us venture upon our perilous journey.”

Title page to their book.
Title page to their book.

We then opened the door, and stepped as softly out as “moonlight upon the water.” I locked the door with my own key, which I now have before me, and tiptoed across the yard into the street. I say tiptoed, because we were like persons near a tottering avalanche, afraid to move, or even breathe freely, for fear the sleeping tyrants should be aroused, and come down upon us with double vengeance, for daring to attempt to escape in the manner which we contemplated.

We shook hands, said farewell, and started in different directions for the railway station. I took the nearest possible way to the train, for fear I should be recognized by some one, and got into the negro car in which I knew I should have to ride; but my master (as I will now call my wife) took a longer way round, and only arrived there with the bulk of the passengers. He obtained a ticket for himself and one for his slave to Savannah, the first port, which was about two hundred miles off. My master then had the luggage stowed away, and stepped into one of the best carriages.

But just before the train moved off I peeped through the window, and, to my great astonishment, I saw the cabinet-maker with whom I had worked so long, on the platform. He stepped up to the ticketseller, and asked some question, and then commenced looking rapidly through the passengers, and into the carriages. Fully believing that we were caught, I shrank into a corner, turned my face from the door, and expected in a moment to be dragged out. The cabinet-maker looked into my master’s carriage, but did not know him in his new attire, and, as God would have it, before he reached mine the bell rang, and the train moved off.

I have heard since that the cabinet-maker had a presentiment that we were about to “make tracks for parts unknown;” but, not seeing me, his suspicions vanished, until he received the startling intelligence that we had arrived freely in a free State.

As soon as the train had left the platform, my master looked round in the carriage, and was terror-stricken to find a Mr. Cray — an old friend of my wife’s master, who dined with the family the day before, and knew my wife from childhood — sitting on the same seat.

The doors of the American railway carriages are at the ends. The passengers walk up the aisle, and take seats on either side; and as my master was engaged in looking out of the window, he did not see who came in.

After a little while, Mr. Cray said to my master, “It is a very fine morning, sir.” The latter took no notice, but kept looking out of the window. Mr. Cray soon repeated this remark, in a little louder tone, but my master remained as before. This indifference attracted the attention of the passengers near, one of whom laughed out. This, I suppose, annoyed the old gentleman; so he said, “I will make him hear;” and in a loud tone of voice repeated, “It is a very fine morning, sir.”

My master turned his head, and with a polite bow said, “Yes,” and commenced looking out of the window again.

One of the gentlemen remarked that it was a very great deprivation to be deaf. “Yes,” replied Mr. Cray, “and I shall not trouble that fellow any more.” This enabled my master to breathe a little easier, and to feel that Mr. Cray was not his pursuer after all.

Savannah to Charleston – ‘You Are Very Likely to Spoil Your Boy’

We arrived at Savannah early in the evening, and got into an omnibus, which stopped at the hotel for the passengers to take tea. I stepped into the house and brought my master something on a tray to the omnibus, which took us in due time to the steamer, which was bound for Charleston, South Carolina.

Soon after going on board, my master turned in; and as the captain and some of the passengers seemed to think this strange, and also questioned me respecting him, my master thought I had better get out the flannels and opodeldoc which we had prepared for the rheumatism, warm them quickly by the stove in the gentleman’s saloon, and bring them to his berth. We did this as an excuse for my master’s retiring to bed so early.

Inscription to William Lloyd Garrison - "Sincere thanks for his indefatigable labours in the cause of freedom."
Inscription to William Lloyd Garrison – “Sincere thanks for his indefatigable labours in the cause of freedom.”

It was by this time warm enough, so I took it to my master’s berth, remained there a little while, and then went on deck and asked the steward where I was to sleep. He said there was no place provided for coloured passengers, whether slave or free. So I paced the deck till a late hour, then mounted some cotton bags, in a warm place near the funnel, sat there till morning, and then went and assisted my master to get ready for breakfast.

On my master entering the cabin he found at the breakfast-table a young southern military officer, with whom he had travelled some distance the previous day.

After passing the usual compliments the conversation turned upon the old subject, — niggers.

The officer, who was also travelling with a man-servant, said to my master, “You will excuse me, Sir, for saying I think you are very likely to spoil your boy by saying ‘thank you’ to him. I assure you, sir, nothing spoils a slave so soon as saying, ‘thank you’ and ‘if you please’ to him. The only way to make a nigger toe the mark, and to keep him in his place, is to storm at him like thunder, and keep him trembling like a leaf. Don’t you see, when I speak to my Ned, he darts like lightning; and if he didn’t I’d skin him.”

Just then the poor dejected slave came in, and the officer swore at him fearfully, merely to teach my master what he called the proper way to treat me.

After he had gone out to get his master’s luggage ready, the officer said, “That is the way to speak to them. If every nigger was drilled in this manner, they would be as humble as dogs, and never dare to run away.

Charleston to Wilmington – ‘Your Massa Is a Big Bug’

There were a large number of persons on the quay waiting the arrival of the steamer: but we were afraid to venture out for fear that some one might recognize me; or that they had heard that we were gone, and had telegraphed to have us stopped. However, after remaining in the cabin till all the other passengers were gone, we had our luggage placed on a fly, and I took my master by the arm, and with a little difficulty he hobbled on shore, got in and drove off to the best hotel, which John C. Calhoun, and all the other great southern fire-eating statesmen, made their head-quarters while in Charleston.

On arriving at the house the landlord ran out and opened the door: but judging, from the poultices and green glasses, that my master was an invalid, he took him very tenderly by one arm and ordered his man to take the other.

On arriving I found two or three servants waiting on him; but as he did not feel able to make a very hearty dinner, he soon finished, paid the bill, and gave the servants each a trifle, which caused one of them to say to me, “Your massa is a big bug” — meaning a gentleman of distinction — “he is the greatest gentleman dat has been dis way for dis six months.” I said, “Yes, he is some pumpkins,” meaning the same as “big bug.”

[The next morning…]

When we reached the building, I helped my master into the office, which was crowded with passengers. He asked for a ticket for himself and one for his slave to Philadelphia. This caused the principal officer — a very mean-looking, cheese-coloured fellow, who was sitting there — to look up at us very suspiciously, and in a fierce tone of voice he said to me, “Boy, do you belong to that gentleman?” I quickly replied, “Yes, sir” (which was quite correct). The tickets were handed out, and as my master was paying for them the chief man said to him, “I wish you to register your name here, sir, and also the name of your nigger, and pay a dollar duty on him.”

My master paid the dollar, and pointing to the hand that was in the poultice, requested the officer to register his name for him. This seemed to offend the “high-bred” South Carolinian. He jumped up, shaking his head; and, cramming his hands almost through the bottom of his trousers pockets, with a slave-bullying air, said, “I shan’t do it.”

This attracted the attention of all the passengers. Just then the young military officer with whom my master travelled and conversed on the steamer from Savannah stepped in, somewhat the worse for brandy; he shook hands with my master, and pretended to know all about him. He said, “I know his kin (friends) like a book;” and as the officer was known in Charleston, and was going to stop there with friends, the recognition was very much in my master’s favor.

craft1

The captain of the steamer, a good-looking, jovial fellow, seeing that the gentleman appeared to know my master, and perhaps not wishing to lose us as passengers, said in an off-hand sailor-like manner, “I will register the gentleman’s name, and take the responsibility upon myself.” He asked my master’s name. He said, “William Johnson.” The names were put down, I think, “Mr. Johnson and slave.” The captain said, “It’s all right now, Mr. Johnson.” He thanked him kindly, and the young officer begged my master to go with him, and have something to drink and a cigar; but as he had not acquired these accomplishments, he excused himself, and we went on board and came off to Wilmington, North Carolina. When the gentleman finds out his mistake, he will, I have no doubt, be careful in future not to pretend to have an intimate acquaintance with an entire stranger. During the voyage the captain said, “It was rather sharp shooting this morning, Mr. Johnson. It was not out of any disrespect to you, sir; but they make it a rule to be very strict at Charleston. I have known families to be detained there with their slaves till reliable information could be received respecting them. If they were not very careful, any damned abolitionist might take off a lot of valuable niggers.”

My master said, “I suppose so,” and thanked him again for helping him over the difficulty.

Wilmington to Baltimore – ‘Such a Devilish Fine Hat’

We reached Wilmington the next morning, and took the train for Richmond, Virginia. At Richmond, a stout elderly lady, whose whole demeanour indicated that she belonged (as Mrs. Stowe’s Aunt Chloe expresses it) to one of the “firstest families,” stepped into the carriage, and took a seat near my master. Seeing me passing quickly along the platform, she sprang up as if taken by a fit, and exclaimed, “Bless my soul! there goes my nigger, Ned!”

My master said, “No; that is my boy.”

The lady paid no attention to this; she poked her head out of the window, and bawled to me, “You Ned, come to me, sir, you runaway rascal!”

On my looking round she drew her head in, and said to my master, “I beg your pardon, sir, I was sure it was my nigger; I never in my life saw two black pigs more alike than your boy and my Ned.”

After the disappointed lady had resumed her seat, and the train had moved off, she closed her eyes, slightly raising her hands, and in a sanctified tone said to my master, “Oh! I hope, sir, your boy will not turn out to be so worthless as my Ned has. Oh! I was as kind to him as if he had been my own son. Oh! sir, it grieves me very much to think that after all I did for him he should go off without having any cause whatever.”

For the purpose of somewhat disguising myself, I bought and wore a very good second-hand white beaver, an article which I had never indulged in before. So just before we arrived at Washington, an uncouth planter, who had been watching me very closely, said to my master, “I reckon, stranger, you are ‘spiling’ that ere nigger of yourn, by letting him wear such a devilish fine hat. Just look at the quality on it; the President couldn’t wear a better. I should just like to go and kick it overboard.” His friend touched him, and said, “Don’t speak so to a gentleman.” “Why not?” exclaimed the fellow. He grated his short teeth, which appeared to be nearly worn away by the incessant chewing of tobacco, and said, “It always makes me itch all over, from head to toe, to get hold of every damned nigger I see dressed like a white man. Washington is run away with spiled and free niggers. If I had my way I would sell every damned rascal of ’em way down South, where the devil would be whipped out on ’em.”

Baltimore to the Liberty of Philadelphia

On arriving [in Baltimore] we felt more anxious than ever, because we knew not what that last dark night would bring forth. They are particularly watchful at Baltimore to prevent slaves from escaping into Pennsylvania, which is a free State. After I had seen my master into one of the best carriages, and was just about to step into mine, an officer, a full-blooded Yankee of the lower order, saw me. He came quickly up, and, tapping me on the shoulder, said in his unmistakable native twang, together with no little display of his authority, “Where are you going, boy?” “To Philadelphia, sir,” I humbly replied. “Well, what are you going there for?” “I am travelling with my master, who is in the next carriage, sir.” “Well, I calculate you had better get him out; and be mighty quick about it, because the train will soon be starting. It is against my rules to let any man take a slave past here, unless he can satisfy them in the office that he has a right to take him along.”

The officer then passed on and left me standing upon the platform, with my anxious heart apparently palpitating in the throat. At first I scarcely knew which way to turn. But it soon occurred to me that the good God, who had been with us thus far, would not forsake us at the eleventh hour. So with renewed hope I stepped into my master’s carriage, to inform him of the difficulty.

I told him. He started as if struck by lightning, and exclaimed, “Good Heavens! William, is it possible that we are, after all, doomed to hopeless bondage?” I could say nothing, my heart was too full to speak, for at first I did not know what to do. So, after a few moments, I did all I could to encourage my companion, and we stepped out and made for the office; but how or where my master obtained sufficient courage to face the tyrants who had power to blast all we held dear, heaven only knows!

On entering the room we found the principal man, to whom my master said, “Do you wish to see me, sir?” “Yes,” said this eagle-eyed officer; and he added, “It is against our rules, sir, to allow any person to take a slave out of Baltimore into Philadelphia, unless he can satisfy us that he has a right to take him along.” “Why is that?” asked my master, with more firmness than could be expected. “Because, sir,” continued he, in a voice and manner that almost chilled our blood, “if we should suffer any gentleman to take a slave past here into Philadelphia; and should the gentleman with whom the slave might be travelling turn out not to be his rightful owner; and should the proper master come and prove that his slave escaped on our road, we shall have him to pay for; and, therefore, we cannot let any slave pass here without receiving security to show, and to satisfy us, that it is all right.”

This conversation attracted the attention of the large number of bustling passengers. After the officer had finished, a few of them said, “Chit, chit,chit;” not because they thought we were slaves endeavouring to escape, but merely because they thought my master was a slaveholder and invalid gentleman, and therefore it was wrong to detain him. The officer, observing that the passengers sympathised with my master, asked him if he was not acquainted with some gentleman in Baltimore that he could get to endorse for him, to show that I was his property, and that he had a right to take me off. He said, “No;” and added, “I bought tickets in Charleston to pass us through to Philadelphia, and therefore you have no right to detain us here.” “Well, sir,” said the man, indignantly, “right or no right, we shan’t let you go.” These sharp words fell upon our anxious hearts like the crack of doom, and made us feel that hope only smiles to deceive.

For a few moments perfect silence prevailed. My master looked at me, and I at him, but neither of us dared to speak a word, for fear of making some blunder that would tend to our detection. We knew that the officers had power to throw us into prison, and if they had done so we must have been detected and driven back, like the vilest felons, to a life of slavery, which we dreaded far more than sudden death.

But, as God would have it, the officer all at once thrust his fingers through his hair, and in a state of great agitation said, “I really don’t know what to do; I calculate it is all right.” He then told the clerk to run and tell the conductor to “let this gentleman and slave pass;” adding, “As he is not well, it is a pity to stop him here. We will let him go.” My master thanked him, and stepped out and hobbled across the platform as quickly as possible. I tumbled him unceremoniously into one of the best carriages, and leaped into mine just as the train was gliding off towards our happy destination.

After the train had got fairly on the way to Philadelphia, the guard came into my car and gave me a violent shake, and bawled out at the same time, “Boy, wake up!” I started, almost frightened out of my wits. He said, “Your master is scared half to death about you.” That frightened me still more — I thought they had found him out; so I anxiously inquired what was the matter. The guard said, “He thinks you have run away from him.” This made me feel quite at ease. I said, “No, sir; I am satisfied my good master doesn’t think that.” So off I started to see him. He had been fearfully nervous, but on seeing me he at once felt much better. He merely wished to know what had become of me.

I also met with a coloured gentleman on this train, who recommended me to a boarding-house that was kept by an abolitionist, where he thought I would be quite safe, if I wished to run away from my master. I thanked him kindly, but of course did not let him know who we were. Late at night, or rather early in the morning, I heard a fearful whistling of the steam-engine; so I opened the window and looked out, and saw a large number of flickering lights in the distance, and heard a passenger in the next carriage — who also had his head out of the window — say to his companion, “Wake up, old horse, we are at Philadelphia!”

I also looked, and looked again, for it appeared very wonderful to me how the mere sight of our first city of refuge should have all at once made my hitherto sad and heavy heart become so light and happy. As the train speeded on, I rejoiced and thanked God with all my heart and soul for his great kindness and tender mercy, in watching over us, and bringing us safely through.

As soon as the train had reached the platform, before it had fairly stopped, I hurried out of my carriage to my master, whom I got at once into a cab, placed the luggage on, jumped in myself, and we drove off to the boarding-house which was so kindly recommended to me. On leaving the station, my master — or rather my wife, as I may now say — who had from the commencement of the journey borne up in a manner that much surprised us both, grasped me by the hand, and said, “Thank God, William, we are safe!” and then burst into tears, leant upon me, and wept like a child.

The reaction was fearful. So when we reached the house, she was in reality so weak and faint that she could scarcely stand alone. However, I got her into the apartments that were pointed out, and there we knelt down, on this Sabbath, and Christmas-day, — a day that will ever be memorable to us, — and poured out our heartfelt gratitude to God, for his goodness in enabling us to overcome so many perilous difficulties, in escaping out of the jaws of the wicked.

Afterward

The couple stayed in Philadelphia for a time, but moved to Boston to put more distance between themselves and the South. 2Here is a link to a letter that ran in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator describing a speech given by Ellen in 1849. When the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, they moved to England to remain free. After nearly two decades – and after the end of the Civil War, they returned. While in England, they had raised five children, three of whom made the trek back to the states with them.

They settled back in Georgia, their home state, and opened a farming school for freedmen. Following Reconstruction, their school closed, and they retired, living out the rest of their days with their daughter in Charleston.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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