Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
“Nigger Thieves”
WHITES AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

As William Still was completing The Underground Rail Road, he received a letter inquiring whether his book would include accounts of Underground Railroad activities in Illinois and Missouri, stories the writer believed were among the most “thrilling” fugitive tales.1 Still was in no position to provide information on the workings of the midwestern network so far from his own base in Philadelphia and had “deemed it best … to confine himself to facts coming within his personal knowledge, and to the records of his own preserving.” Even with this limited focus, however, Still found himself having to omit many interesting narratives told by slaves passing through Philadelphia. Elsewhere, as the letter writer had suggested, were many more stories worth preserving.2

The sales of Still’s book suggested the popularity of exciting adventures connected with the Underground Railroad. Many of those who had aided fugitives in some capacity were eager to describe their experiences. One of the attractions of the abolitionist reunion held in Chicago in 1874 was the opportunity it provided for participants to hear and share Underground Railroad reminiscences. Rev. George Thompson told the audience of spending five months in a Missouri prison for “stealing” slaves. Mr. Turner related the dangers he had faced during his Underground Railroad career, and Mr. McBride shared his story of his efforts in Ohio. The well-known midwestern abolitionists Levi Coffin and his wife and Laura Haviland were especially well-received. Levi Coffin, a Quaker born in North Carolina who moved to Indiana in 1826 and to Cincinnati in 1847, was a businessman so active in helping fugitives that he was known for many years as the president of the Underground Railroad. He and “Aunt Katy” Coffin, his wife and helpmate, were “greeted with the warmest applause.” Coffin made some remarks about his activities, estimating that he and his wife had helped over 3,000 escaping slaves. Laura Haviland, dubbed “an ancient Quakeress of Adrian, Michigan” by the New York Times (although she was only in her midsixties), created “a good deal of feeling by her graphic portrayal of the way in which she and other good old souls used to aid the ‘niggers’ in their

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