The Freedman's Story

An escaped slave tells his story—including his account of his violent showdown with slave-catchers in Pennsylvania

"The man must be a fool! If he should come back and not say anything to me, I shall say something to him."

We then looked down the road and saw him coming again. He rode up to the same place and halted. I then went to the fence, and, looking him steadily in the eye, said,--

"Am I your slave?"

He made no reply, but turned his horse and rode off, at full speed, towards the valley. We did not see him again; but that same evening word was brought that kidnappers were in the valley, and if we were not careful, they would "hook" some of us. This caused a great excitement among the colored people of the neighborhood.

A short while prior to this, a number of us had formed an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers, and had resolved to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives. We collected together that evening, and went down to the valley; but the kidnappers had gone. We watched for them several nights in succession, without result; for so much alarmed were the tavern-keepers by our demonstration, that they refused to let them stop over night with them. Kidnapping was so common, while I lived with the Doctor, that we were kept in constant fear. We would hear of slaveholders or kidnappers every two or three weeks; sometimes a party of white men would break into a house and take a man away, no one knew where; and, again, a whole family would be carried off. There was no power to protect them, nor prevent it. So completely roused were my feelings, that I vowed to let no slaveholder take back a fugitive, if I could but get my eye on him.

One day word was sent to me that slaveholders had taken William Dorsey, and had put him into Lancaster jail to await a trial. Dorsey had a wife and three or four children; but what was it to the slaveholder, if the wife and children should starve? We consulted together, as to what course to take to deliver him; but no plan that was proposed could be worked. At last we separated, determining to get him away some way or other on the day of trial. His case caused great excitement. We attended the trial, and eagerly watched all the movements from an outside position, and had a man to tell us how proceedings were going on within. He finally came out and said that the case would go against Dorsey. We then formed in a column at the court-house

* This sentence was written before the beginning of our civil war. Viewed in the light of subsequent events, it is somewhat remarkable.-- E.K.

door, and when the slaveholders and Dorsey came out, we walked close to them,--behind and around them,--trying to separate them from him. Before we had gone far towards the jail, a slaveholder drew a pistol on Williams Hopkins, one of our party. Hopkins defied him to shoot; but he did not. Then the slaveholder drew the pistol on me, saying, he would blow my black brains out, if I did not go away. I doubled my fists to knock him down, but some person behind caught my hand; this started a fracas, and we got Dorsey loose; but he was so confused that he stood stock still, until they tied him again. A general fight followed. Bricks, stones, and sticks fell in showers. We fought across the road and back again, and I thought our brains would be knocked out; when the whites, who were too numerous for us, commenced making arrests. They got me fast several times, but I succeeded in getting away. One of our men was arrested, and afterwards stood trial; but they did not convict him. Dorsey was put into jail, but was afterwards bought and liberated by friends.

My friends now said that I had got myself into a bad difficulty, and that my arrest would follow. In this they were mistaken. I never was disturbed because of it, nor was the house at which I lodged ever searched, although the neighbors were repeatedly annoyed in that way. I distinctly remember that this was the second time that resistance had been made to their wicked deeds. Whether the kidnappers were clothed with legal authority or not, I did not care to inquire, as I never had faith in nor respect for the Fugitive-Slave Law.

The whites of that region were generally such negro-haters, that it was a matter of no moment to them where fugitives were carried,--whether to Lancaster, Harrisburg, or elsewhere.

The insolent and overbearing conduct of the Southerners, when on such errands to Pennsylvania, forced me to my course of action. They did not hesitate to break open doors, and to enter, without ceremony, the houses of colored men; and when refused admission, or when a manly and determined spirit was shown, they would present pistols, an strike and knock down men and women indiscriminately.

I was sitting one evening in a friend's house, conversing about these marauding parties, when I remarked to him that a stop should be put to such "didos," and declared, that, the next time a slaveholder came to a house where I was, I would refuse to admit him. His wife replied, "It will make a fuss." I told her, "It is time a fuss was made." She insisted that it would cause trouble and it was best to let them alone and have peace. Then I told her we must have trouble before we could have peace "The first slaveholder that draws a pistol on me I shall knock down."

We were interrupted, just at this stage of the conversation, by some one rapping at the door.

"Who's there?" I asked.

"It's me! Who do you think? Open the door!" was the response, in a gruff tone.

"What do you want?" I asked.

Without replying, the man opened the door and came in, followed by two others.

The first one said,--

"Have you any niggers here?"

"What have we to do with your niggers?" said I.

After bandying a few words, he drew his pistol upon me. Before he could bring the weapon to bear, I seized a pair of heavy tongs, and struck him a violent blow across the face and neck, which knocked him down. He lay for a few minutes senseless, but afterwards rose, and walked out of the house without a word, followed by his comrades, who also said nothing to us, but merely asked their leader, as they went out, if he was hurt.

The part of Lancaster County in which I lived was near Chester County. Not far away, in the latter county, lived Moses Whitson, a well-known Abolitionist, and a member of the Society of Friends. Mr. Whitson had a colored girl living in his family, who

was pounced upon by the slaveholders, awhile after the Dorsey arrest. About daylight three men went to Mr. Whitson's house and told him that the girl he had living with him was their property, and that they intended to have her. Friend Whitson asked the girl if she knew any of the men, and if any of them was her master. She said, "No!" One of the slaveholders said he could prove that she was his property; and then they forcibly tied her, put her into a carriage, and started for Maryland.

While the kidnappers were contending with Moses Whitson for the girl, Benjamin Whipper, a colored man, who now lives in this country, sounded the alarm, that "the kidnappers were at Whitson's, and were taking away his girl." The news soon reached me, and with six or seven others, I followed them. We proceeded with all speed to a place called the Gap-Hill, where we overtook them, and took the girl away. Then we beat the kidnappers, and let them go. We learned afterwards that they were all wounded badly, and that two of them died in Lancaster, and the other did not get home for some time. Only one of our men was hurt, and he had only a slight injury in the hand.

Dr. Duffield and Squire Henderson, two respectable citizens of the town, were looking on during this entire engagement; and after we had stopped firing, they went up to the slaveholders, and the following conversation took place:--

Squire Henderson. What's the matter?

Slaveholder. You may ask, what's the matter! Is this the way you allow your niggers to do?

Squire. Why did you not shoot them?

Slaveholder. We did shoot at them, but it did not take effect.

Squire. There's no use shooting at our niggers, for their heads are like iron pots; the balls will glance off. What were you doing?

Slaveholder. Taking our property, when the niggers jumped on us and nearly killed some of the men.

Squire. Men coming after such property ought to be killed.

Slaveholder. Do you know where we can find a doctor?

Squire. Yes; there are plenty of doctors South.

Being much disabled, and becoming enraged, they abruptly left, and journeyed on until they reached McKenzie's tavern, where their wounds were dressed and their wants attended to. So strongly was McKenzie in sympathy with these demons, that he declared he would never employ another nigger, and actually discharged a faithful colored woman who had lived a long time in his employ. Dr. Lemmon, a physician on the road to Lancaster, refused to attend the slaveholders; so that by the time they got to the city, from being so long without surgical aid, their limbs were past setting, and two of them died, as before stated, while the other survived but a short time after reaching Maryland.

A large reward was offered by the Maryland authorities for the perpetrators of the flogging, but without effect.

McKenzie, the tavern-keeper referred to, boasted after this that he would entertain all slaveholders who came along, and help them recapture their slaves. We were equally determined he should not, if we could prevent it.

The following affliction was eventually the means, under Providence, by which he was led to adopt other views, and become a practical Abolitionist.

A band of five men stood off, one dark night, and saw with evident satisfaction the curling flames ascend above his barn, from girder to roof, and lap and lash their angry tongues in wild license, until every vestige of the building was consumed.

After that mysterious occurrence, the poor fugitive had no better friend than the publican McKenzie.

Shortly after the incidents just related, I was married to Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard, a fugitive, whose experience of slavery had been much more bitter than my own. We commenced housekeeping, renting a room from Enoch

Johnson for one month. We did not like our landlord, and when the time was up left, and rented a house of Isaac Walker for one year. After the year was out, we left Walker's and went to Smyrna, and there I rented a house from Samuel D. Moore for another year. After the year was out we left Smyrna also, and went to Joseph Moore's to live. We lived on his place about five years. While we were living there, several kidnappers came into the neighborhood. On one occasion, they took a colored man and started for Maryland. Seven of us set out in pursuit, and, soon getting on their track, followed them to a tavern on the Westchester road, in Chester County. Learning that they were to remain for the night, I went to the door and asked for admittance. The landlord demanded to know if we were white or colored. I told him colored. He then told us to be gone, or he would blow out our brains. We walked aside a little distance, and consulted about what we should do. Our men seemed to dread the undertaking; but I told them we could overcome them, and that I would go in. One of them said he would follow at the risk of his life. The other five said we should all get killed,--that we were men with families,--that our wives and children needed our assistance,--and that they did not think we would be doing our families justice by risking our lives for one man. We two then went back to the tavern, and, after rapping, were told again by the landlord to clear out, after he found that we were colored. I pretended that we wanted something to drink. He put his head out of the window, and threatened again to shoot us; when my comrade raised his gun and would have shot him down, had I not caught his arm and persuaded him not to fire. I told the landlord that we wanted to come in and intended to come in. Then I went to the yard, got a piece of scantling, took it to the door, and, by battering with it a short time, opened it. As soon as the door flew open, a kidnapper shot at us, and the ball lodged in my ankle, bringing me to the ground. But I soon rose, and my comrade then firing on them, they took to their heels. As they ran away, I heard one say, "We have killed one of them."

My companion and I then rushed into the house. We unbound the man, took him out, and started for home; but had hardly crossed the door-sill before people from the neighboring houses began to fire on us. At this juncture, our other five came up, and we all returned the compliment. Firing on both sides was kept up for ten or fifteen minutes, when the whites called for quarter, and offered to withdraw, if we would stop firing. On this assurance we started off with the man, and reached home safely.

The next day my ankle was very painful. With a knife I extracted the ball, but kept the wound secret; as long before we had learned that for our own security it was best not to let such things be generally known.

About ten o'clock of a Sabbath night, awhile after the event last narrated, we were aroused by the cry of "Kidnappers! kidnappers!" and immediately some one halloed under my window,--

"William! William!"

I put my head out and demanded his errand. He said,--

"Come here!"

I answered,--

"You must be a fool to think I am going to you at this time of the night, without knowing who you are and what you want."

He would not satisfy me, so I took my gun, and went out to him. I was then informed that kidnappers had been at Allen Williams's; that they had taken Henry Williams, and gone towards Maryland. I called one of our party, who dressed and proceeded to arouse our men. Two of us then started for the Nine Points, in Lancaster County, and left instructions for the other men to meet us in the valley. They did so, and we hurried on to our destination. We had not gone far before we heard some one calling, "Kidnappers! kidnappers!" Going back some distance, we

found the cry came from a man who had fallen into a lime quarry. He was in a bad situation, and unable to get out without assistance, and, hearing us pass, concluded we were kidnappers and raised the cry. We were delayed for a time in helping him out, and it provoked me very much, as it was important we should be in haste.

We started again for the Nine Points, but, arriving there, learned to our dismay, that the kidnappers had passed an hour before. The chase was given up, but with saddened feelings. A fellow-being had been dragged into hopeless bondage, and we, his comrades, held our liberty as insecurely as he had done but a few short hours before! We asked ourselves the question, "Whose turn will come next," I was delegated to find out, if possible, who had betrayed him, which I accordingly did.

Lynch law is a code familiar to the colored people of the Slave States. It is of so diabolical a character as to be without justification, except when enforced by men of pure motives, and then only in extreme cases, as when the unpunished party has it in his power to barter away the lives and liberties of those whose confidence he possesses, and who would, by bringing him before a legal tribunal, expose themselves to the same risks that they are liable to from him. The frequent attacks from slaveholders and their tools, the peculiarity of our position, many being escaped slaves, and the secrecy attending these kidnapping exploits, all combined to make an appeal to the Lynch Code in our case excusable, if not altogether justifiable. Ourselves, our wives, our little ones, were insecure, and all we had was liable to seizure. We felt that something must be done, for some one must be in our midst with whom the slaveholders had communication. I inquired around, quietly, and soon learned that Allen Williams, the very man in whose house the fugitive was, had betrayed him. This information I communicated to our men. They met at my house and talked the matter over; and, after most solemnly weighing all the facts and evidence, we resolved that he should die, and we set about executing our purpose that evening. The difficulty was, how to punish him. Some were for shooting him, but this was not feasible. I proposed another plan, which was agreed to.

Accordingly, we went to his house and asked if a man named Carter, who lived with him, was at home, as rumor said that he had betrayed Henry Williams. He denied it, and said that Carter had fought for Henry with him, but the slaveholders being too strong for them, they had to give him up. He kept beyond reach, and the men apologized for intruding upon him, while I stepped up to the door and asked for a glass of water. He gave it to me, and to the others. When he was giving water to one of the party, I caught him by the throat, to prevent his giving the alarm, and drew him over my head and shoulders. Then the rest beat him until we thought we heard some one coming, which caused us to flee. If we had not been interrupted, death would have been his fate. At that time I was attending a threshing-machine for George Whitson and Joseph Scarlot.

It must have been a month after the Williams affray, that I was sitting at home one evening, talking with Pinckney and Samuel Thompson about how I was getting on with my work, when I thought I heard some one call my name. I went out, but all was quiet. When I went in, Pinckney and Thompson laughed at me, and said that I had become so "scary" that I could not stay in the house. But I was not satisfied. I was sure some one had called me. I said so, and that I would go to Marsh Chamberlain's to see if anything was wrong. They concluded to go also, and we started.

Arriving near the house, I told Pinckney and Thompson to stop outside, and I would go in, and if anything was wrong, would call them. When I reached the house, I saw a chair broken to pieces, and knew that something had happened. I said,--

"Hallo, Marsh!"

"Who is that?" said he.

And his wife said,--

"Parker, is that you?"

"Yes," I said.

"Oh, Parker, come here!" she called.

I called Pinckney and Thompson and we went in. Marsh met us, and said that kidnappers had been there, had taken John Williams, and gone with him towards Buck Hill. They had then been gone about fifteen minutes. Off we started on a rapid run to save him. We ran to a stable, got out two horses, and Pinckney and I rode on. Thompson soon got the rest of our party together and followed. We were going at a pretty good gait, when Pinckney's horse stumbled and fell, fastening his rider's leg; but I did not halt. Pinckney got his horse up and caught up with me.

"You would not care," said he, "if a man were to get killed! You would not help him!"

"Not in such a case as this," I replied.

We rode on to the Maryland line, but could not overtake them. We were obliged to return, as it was near daybreak. The next day a friend of ours went to Maryland to see what had been done with Williams. He went to Dr. Savington's, and the Doctor told him that the fugitive could not live,--the kidnappers had broken his skull, and otherwise beaten him very badly; his ankle, too, was out of place. In consequence of his maimed condition, his mistress refused to pay the men anything for bringing him home. That was the last we ever heard of poor John Williams; but we learned afterwards why we failed to release him on the night he was taken. The kidnappers heard us coming, and went into the woods out of the way, until we had passed them.

Awhile before this occurrence, there lived in a town not far away from Christiana a colored man who was in the habit of decoying fugitives fresh from bondage to his house on various pretexts, and, by assuming to be their friend, got from them the name of their master, his residence, and other needed particulars. He would then communicate with the master about his slave, tell him at what time the man would be at his house, and when he came at the appointed hour, the poor refugee would fall into the merciless clutches of his owner. Many persons, mostly young people, had disappeared mysteriously from the country, from whom nothing could be heard. At last the betrayer's connection with these transactions was clearly traced; and it was decided to force him to quit the nefarious business.

He was too wary to allow himself to be easily taken, and a resort was had to stratagem. I, with others, thought he deserved to be shot openly in his daughter's house, and was willing to take the consequences.

At last this man's outrages became so notorious that six of our most reliable men resolved to shoot him, if they had to burn him out to do it. After I had sworn the men in the usual form, we went to his barn, took two bundles of wheat-straw, and, fastening them under the eaves with wisps, applied a lighted match to each. We then took our stations a few rods off, with rifles ready and in good condition,--mine was a smooth-bore, with a heavy charge.

The house burned beautifully; and half an hour after it ignited the walls fell in, but no betrayer showed himself. Instead of leaving the house by the rear door, as we had expected, just before the roof fell in, he broke out the front way, rushed to his next neighbor's, and left his place without an effort to save it. We had built the fire in the rear, and looked for him there; but he ran in the opposite direction, not only as if his life was in danger, but as if the spirit of his evil deeds was after him.

(Read Part II, March 1866)

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