The History Thread Escapes!

Welcome to this week’s History Thread! I didn’t have time to prepare a full article, but I did discover the story of William and Ellen Craft, two slaves from Georgia who made a remarkable escape from captivity in December 1848.

The Crafts married at a young age after William’s bankrupt owner sold him to Ellen’s master Robert Collins in Macon, Georgia. William himself apprenticed as a carpenter, though his master claimed his wages; Ellen, the child of Collins and a slave woman, was light-skinned and often “passed” for white. William had seen virtually his entire family broken apart (as a teenager, he endured the horrific experience of watching his 14 year old sister sold on the auction block), while Ellen was frequently threatened with sale because her father’s wife suspected her parentage. “The mere thought” of separation “filled [Ellen] with horror,” William recalled; the two were reluctant to have children as a result unless they could find a way out of bondage.

On December 21, 1848, after several months of planning, the Crafts obtained a holiday pass from the Collins and made good their escape. Ellen disguised herself as a white man; she cut her hair short, wore a top hat, spectacles and men’s trousers. William, who posed as her slave, convinced Ellen to wear her arm in a sling so she wouldn’t have to sign any incriminating documents. Ellen bought the two train tickets to Savannah, intending to reach Philadelphia by boat or train.

Their escape was exceedingly narrow. William, relegated to the “Negro car” at the back of the train, spotted his employer, the carpenter, on the platform; according to William’s account, the man recognized him but was unable to stop the train from leaving the station. Ellen experienced an equally close call; seated in the white section of the train, she discovered to her horror that sitting next to her was a friend of her old master’s! The man greeted Ellen, apparently not recognizing her; Ellen, to avoid conversation, feigned deafness for several nerve-wracking hours.

After reaching Savannah, the two boarded a steamer and arrived in Charleston. There, Ellen refused an offer from a slave trader to buy William, then checked into a hotel where she used her feigned disability to obtain a swanky room and private dinner table. The couple enjoyed a brief night of relaxation, only for an officious ticketmaster to demand that Ellen sign for her tickets despite her bandaged arm. Fortunately, a ship captain vouched for Ellen and warned her to keep William safe from “cut-throat” abolitionists!

The two proceeded by train through Virginia (where a woman mistook William for her own slave and demanded that Ellen return him), then to Baltimore. At this last stop, a slave patrol detained the couple, demanding that Ellen verify her ownership of William. The train’s conductor refused Ellen’s explanations about her lack of papers and threatened to have the patrol arrest her. “We felt as though we had come into deep waters and were about being overwhelmed” and returned “to the dark and horrible pit of misery,” William later wrote. Fortunately, a railroad official intervened demanding that the conductor “let this gentleman and slave pass.”

Finally, on Christmas Day the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia! It had been a harrowing journey with many close calls, but the two finally reached a free state and, with the help of the Underground Railroad, received room, board and employment. The Crafts eventually moved north to Boston, where William worked as a carpenter and the two held public lectures on their escape, but their freedom was short-lived. Dr. Collins discovered their whereabouts and, taking advantage of the Fugitive Slave Act, dispatched two bounty hunters to kidnap the Crafts and return them to bondage. The Crafts learned of this and relocated to Liverpool, England.

The Crafts remained in England for 19 years, where they had five children and continued to write and speak on behalf of abolition. William published a book, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, which recounted their escape, while opening a carpentry business in Hammersmith. Ellen became increasingly involved in radical politics, including the Women’s Suffrage Association, and once humiliated the Governor of Jamaica for his role in executing a wrongly-condemned black man at a London dinner party. “I had much rather starve in England, a free woman,” Ellen wrote, “than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.”

The two finally moved back to Georgia in 1868, buying a farmstead outside Savannah where they constructed the Woodville Co-operative Farm School in 1873, which employed and educated over 100 freedmen and women. However, the ebbing of Reconstruction impacted the Crafts; William was charged with misuse of funds, the school closed and the couple were forced to sell their property. The two relocated to Charleston in 1890, where they lived the rest of their lives in obscurity; Ellen died in 1891, and William in 1900. Though the Crafts are largely forgotten today, William’s memoir remains a minor masterpiece of fugitive slave literature. A film adaptation of Running a Thousand Miles is supposedly in development, with Zendaya attached to play Ellen.