William and Ellen Craft. The married couple who fled slavery in Georgia in the United States. A terrifying four day journey which took them across seven states.
They evaded slave-hunters even after escaping to what they believed was freedom.
In London, they used their time to further the abolitionist cause and became the first husband-and-wife team to manage a tour on the British anti-slavery lecture circuit.
You’re in for a long one today, but it’s worth it, I promise.
I was thrilled to see, at the beginning of this month, that William and Ellen Craft finally received a blue plaque on their home at 26 Cambridge Grove, where they lived in the 1850s and ’60s (at that time, 12 Cambridge Road). Although, we should also acknowledge the Shepherd’s Bush Housing Association, who were well ahead of the game and who’ve had a brown plaque to the Crafts at the corner of the street since 1995.
Back in January, I created an entire Hammersmith virtual tour just so I could talk about the Crafts and their phenomenal story – I’m actually amazed there hasn’t been a film about them yet. Much of what we know of their lives is from their own account: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, which was published in 1860 and recounts their early lives up to their arrival in England in 1850.
The account is written in William’s voice and was originally published solely under his name, although the authorship has since been contested, with some historians claiming that William was likely assisted by fellow abolitionist, William Wells Brown. In addition, it seems highly probable that Ellen would have had more of an influence on the narrative than originally assumed, seeing as some parts of the account describe events which only Ellen was witness to. For the sake of clarity, however, when referring to quotations from Running, I will use William’s name because it is written from his perspective.
William and Ellen were both born in the 1820s and they met in Macon, Georgia in the United States, although there is nothing in Running about their meeting and very little about their early relationship. Despite there being joy, presumably, in finding one another and being together, they knew that if they ever wanted a proper future together, a family, they were going to have to escape. William writes:
“…the mere idea that we were held as chattels, and deprived of all legal rights – the thought that we had to give up our hard earnings to a tyrant, to enable him to live in idleness and luxury – the thought that we could not call the bones and sinews that God gave us our own: but above all, the fact that another man had the power to tear from our cradle the new-born babe and sell it in the shambles like a brute, and then scourge us if we dared to lift a finger to save it from such a fate, haunted us for years.”
It was finally at Christmastime, 1848, that they made their escape. They had both managed to secure a few days off over Christmas so that their absence wouldn’t be immediately noticed. In their book, William even makes a little joke at this point: he worked for a cabinet-maker in Macon, and when William requested his time off, the cabinet-maker stressed that he was very busy and would need William back as soon as possible. William responds in Running that, unfortunately, “somehow I have not been able to make it convenient to return yet; and, as the free air of good old England agrees so well with my wife and our dear little ones, as well as with myself ,it is not at all likely we shall return at present to the ‘peculiar institution’ of chains and stripes.” Yeah, fair dues, William.
The success of their escape hinged on Ellen’s disguise. She transformed herself into Mr. William Johnson, disguising herself as a young white man with William travelling with her as her enslaved manservant. Ellen was very light-skinned, as her father was white and her mother mixed race.
Josephine Brown, the daughter of William Wells Brown, who would have also known the Crafts, wrote that, “Ellen was as white as most persons of the clear Anglo-Saxon origin. Her features were prominent, hair straight, eyes of a light hazel colour, and no one on first seeing the white slave would suppose that a drop of African blood coursed through her veins.”
For her clothing, Ellen stitched herself a pair of trousers and requested that William purchase the other items she needed – an overcoat, a hat, a cravat, some boots, a pair of green spectacles, and so on – which William did, buying them intermittently from different shops across town.
It was then Ellen who remembered that it was customary for passengers to register their names both at hotels and in the custom houses before travelling. All of a sudden, it seemed like they could see their plan unravelling before their very eyes. As they were enslaved, neither William nor Ellen had been taught to read or write.
“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!'”
Ellen decided to wrap her right arm in a sling so that people would hopefully take pity on her and waive the requirement to sign her name. To further divert attention from her, to try and hide her feminine features and her clean-shaven appearance, she partially covered her face in bandages and pretended it was the result of tooth issues and arthritis, also reducing the risk of people expecting her to talk to them.
They left in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the 21st of December. When it was time to leave, what must have been a terrifying moment, William recounts that Ellen shrank back in fear, bursting into tears. “We both saw the many mountainous difficulties that rose one after the other before our view, and knew far too well what our sad fate would have been, were we caught and forced back to our slavish den.” Then, in a moment of intense bravery, and one of the few pieces of direct speech from Ellen, she rallies herself – “a few moments of silent prayer” – and, very matter-of-factly notifies her husband, “Come William, it is getting late, so now let us venture upon our perilous journey.” William locks up and, amazingly, despite bringing nothing else (that we’re aware of) from this former life and despite having no intention of returning, he kept that very key which he used to lock the door. He describes having it in front of him while writing. With that, William and Ellen departed, disappearing, as softly as “moonlight upon the water”, into the early morning gloom.
What’s curious, is that from this point onwards, William refers to Ellen as only “he/him” or as “his master”. William makes it abundantly clear that Ellen’s decision to defy nineteenth-century gender norms was born solely of necessity, that his “wife had no ambition whatever to assume this disguise, and would not have done so had it been possible to have obtained our liberty by more simple means”. Whether intentional or not, William’s decision from this moment to refer to Ellen as if she were a man would have made the whole concept more palatable to their nineteenth-century readers – they could think of her solely as Mr. Johnson the gentleman, not as a woman pretending to be a man, and they could be assured in the backs of their heads that this is only a temporary transition and that the normal order of things would be restored as soon as humanly possible.
Their escape took four days: Georgia to Pennsylvania. 1,000 miles to freedom, via numerous steamers and trains. The basic step-by-step of their journey was: a train to Savannah > the steamer General Clinch to Charleston, South Carolina > a steamer to Wilmington > trains to Richmond and then a bit further than Fredericksburg > a steamer to Washington > trains through Baltimore and Havre de Grace > a ferry across the Susquehanna > a train to Philadelphia. A massive undertaking.
As you can imagine, the journey was a heart-stopping, terrifying affair with Ellen, playing the most important role, living in an almost constant state of fear. Hardly before their escape had even begun, they experienced a nerve-wracking near miss.
After boarding the train in Macon, William had to sit separately from Ellen in the segregated carriage for Black passengers. Looking out of the window, he spotted on the platform the owner of the furniture shop where he worked. “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 man was searching the train, slowly, carriage by carriage – he looked in Ellen’s car, but didn’t spare the bandaged invalid a second glance. Thankfully, before he reached William, the train was ready to depart and he had to get off. Ellen had been pointedly staring out of the window through the entire affair, heart hammering through her chest – finally, after the train was on the move, she allowed herself to look away.
Only to realise that the man sitting next to her was Mr. Cray, a close friend of her enslaver, who had known Ellen for years.
Thankfully, her disguise worked, and the man greeted his carriage companion with a simple, “It is a very fine morning, sir.” Ellen said nothing, despite repeated attempts by Mr. Cray to make contact. This caused some amusement in the carriage which must have damaged Mr. Cray’s fragile ego, so he insisted, “I will make him hear,” and commented once more on the state of the morning’s weather. At this point, Ellen didn’t have much choice but to respond, and diffused the situation with a simple, “Yes”, and a nod of the head, which appeared to satisfy Mr. Cray, saving him from some imagined effrontery and, more importantly, saving her own life. She proceeded to sit in silence for the next several hours.
They met many people on their journey to Philadelphia, which makes their success at evading capture even more impressive. Whether all of them were real-life people or said exactly what William quotes them as saying, we’ll never know. Perhaps they are characters created out of an amalgamation of experiences, but either way, you can imagine William and Ellen encountering these, or maybe similar, individuals on their journey.
The captain of their steamer to Charleston who applauded Ellen’s “attentive boy”, William, but warned against him running away when they reached the north.
The enslaver who offered to buy William – he’s described as animal-like: “both elbows on the table, and with a large piece of broiled fowl in his fingers”, speaking with his mouth full, this “hard-featured, bristly-bearded, wire-headed, red-eyed monster, staring at my master [Ellen] as the serpent did at Eve”.
The young military officer who warned Ellen that being polite to William would “spoil” him.
The woman who furiously mistook William for her own enslaved servant, Ned. She goes on to tell a story on the train about how shortly before her husband died she discovered his intention to free all the men and women who worked for him. So she “had the will altered as it should have been in the first place”, forcing about forty people to remain enslaved…
Or the guard on the train who told William to “run away and leave that cripple, and have your liberty”.
Not far out of Georgia, the Crafts had another close shave. In Charleston, they were almost refused passage on their steamer to Wilmington, North Carolina, because Ellen wouldn’t sign the register. They were only saved when the captain of their next ship happened by, vouched for the two of them, and signed the register himself on their behalf!
They finally arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas day. There must have been such an overwhelming array of emotions, as well as a release of all the stress and fear built up over the previous four days. As soon as they were out of the station, Ellen burst into tears, crying out, “Thank God, William, we’re safe!”
And they were for a time – they were taken in by abolitionists in Philadelphia, moved to Boston, and started lecturing, telling people their story to gain support for the abolitionist cause. William also started a prosperous furniture business and Ellen worked “at her needle” (but I’m not entirely sure what that means – embroidery? As a seamstress? For their household or for income? It’s unclear). Unfortunately in 1850, only two years after their escape, “slave hunters” arrived in Boston to take the Crafts back to Georgia, sanctioned by the Fugitive Slave Act of the same year, which is when they made the decision to leave America for England.
Once again, they were on the road, travelling from Boston to Halifax (where they were to catch the steamer to England). There is one story, in particular, during that journey that strikes a chord. William and Ellen arrive in Halifax. After a long, arduous journey, trekking through mud and driving rain, they secure a room at the local inn. Ellen was sent to arrange the room because she was more likely to get one for her and William on account of her lighter skin. They spend the night, much to the consternation of the landlady when William later turns up (and after she has mistaken him for a thief stealing his own luggage…), but eventually word gets out to the other guests, who become “agitated”, that there are Black people staying at the inn with them. The following morning, the landlady says she can no longer accommodate William and Ellen and, in a justification which sadly could have come straight out of 2021, she clarifies, “you must understand, I have no prejudice myself; I think a good deal of the coloured people, and have always been their friend; but if you stop here we shall lose all our customers, which we can’t do nohow.” At the Crafts’ request, the landlady tries to find them an alternative, but all other accommodation in town is suddenly, conveniently full, so she settles for giving them a list of Black families in town who might be willing to look after them. William and Ellen stay with Rev. Mr. Cannady and his wife until they are able to make their way to England.
In England, the Crafts were finally able to settle and start their family – they had five children: Charles, William, Brougham, Alfred, and Ellen. They turned their home in Hammersmith into a centre for Black activism and abolitionist activity, inviting fellow abolitionists, like Sarah Parker Remond, to stay, and Ellen and William continued to tour and tell their story.
The Crafts toured the UK extensively, originally with William Wells Brown, sometimes just William Craft, and other times the Crafts together. Unfortunately, despite demonstrating her tenacity, bravery, and intelligence during their escape, Ellen was rarely permitted to speak at these lectures. Whether this was at her own request, we don’t know, but considering that it was still frowned upon for a woman to speak in public to mixed audiences, it seems likely that her role was kept minimal to keep the audience on-side.
Instead, she would normally just have to stand on the stage while William told their story or she would be summoned to the stage after William had finished. In the press, when their lectures were advertised, William Wells Brown and William Craft were announced as the speakers while Ellen was tagged onto the end – more like a curiosity or exhibit than an equal, sensationalised as the “White Slave” in men’s clothing. There are examples, however, such as in Newburyport in Massachusetts, where Ellen is recorded to have spoken to an audience of 800 to 900 people, and her presence on stage, even when silent, is not to be underestimated. Her appearance as a light-skinned woman – while it should not have been necessary to incentivise people to act – would have struck a chord with their mostly white audiences; that slavery was an issue which affected people very similar in appearance to themselves.
It is much harder to find the voice of Black women in the historical archive of the nineteenth-century, but wonderfully a letter has survived which Ellen Craft wrote to the Anti-Slavery Advocate in December 1852. There were crazy rumours flying around that Ellen had become tired of freedom and was planning to return herself to slavery in Georgia, “So I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage.”
“I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that every breathed upon the American continent.”
In 1863, William Craft caused quite the stir at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences. As part of the conference, John Crawfund and James Hunt, presidents of the Ethnological Society and Anthropological Society respectively, were presenting their papers. John Crawfund went first, arguing that different races had been endowed with vastly different physical and mental characteristics and in societies where “superior races” had mixed with “inferior races”, there was evidence that those civilisations had gone into decline. At the end of his presentation, William jumped to his feet and contradicted Crawfund, stating that the position of Black people in the United States was not the fault of any kind of “racial characteristics”, but was, in fact, the result of social oppression and lack of opportunity. He argued that in situations where Black people did have access to equal opportunities, “they had shown that they possessed considerable intellectual ability, and many of them had risen to very high positions, in society”. William then fantastically concluded that, in comparison, after thirteen years in England, he’d only found one William Shakespeare. Good job, white people… William’s defiance prompted such a debate that the session had to be concluded early.
James Hunt went next, also advocating Black inferiority, to the extent that he argued no “pure” Black person ever advanced beyond the mental age of a 14-year-old white boy. William countered Hunt with the mockery he deserved. One theory William suggested for the supposed thicker skull of an African person was perhaps to protect his brain against the heat of the tropical climate, without which “their brains would probably have become very much like those of many scientific gentleman of the present day”. In addition, he argued that the “scientific facts” being paraded about by many at the conference were pure invention, promoted solely to justify the subjugation of Black people.
Ellen was no less outspoken in the face of injustice. A newspaper in 1867 relates a situation at a dinner party in London where Ellen was seated next to Edward Eyre, the former Governor of Jamaica.
It was Eyre who had violently suppressed the Morant Bay rebellion by the enslaved population of Jamaica, declaring martial law and killing at least 400 people. Ellen had no idea who she was sitting next to when she began discussing the situation in Jamaica. It was eventually pointed out to her that she was seated next to Eyre. She conveyed no sense of awkwardness and instead confronted Eyre on his decision to execute George William Gordon, politician and critic of the colonial government in Jamaica. Ellen demanded of Eyre, “Do you not yourself, sir, feel now that poor Gordon was unjustly executed?” The ex-governor was apparently so flustered that he “turned very red, excused himself, and walked to the other end of the room.”
Finally, to end on, in amongst all of the Crafts’ activism, lecturing, writing, and travelling, in a wonderful, heart-warming reunion, Ellen was able to locate her mother, Maria, in Georgia. Ellen paid for her passage to England and the two were reunited in December 1865 – they hadn’t seen each other since Ellen had been separated from her mother, age 11.
It was then, a few years later, in 1868, the Crafts returned to the US after the end of the American Civil War – truly an amazing story.
- W. Craft, E. Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, (1860, republished 1999)
- E. Craft, Open Letter to the Anti-Slavery Advocate (December 1852)
- The Times, (29th August 1863)
- ‘Governor Eyre, Artemus Ward and Ellen Craft’, in Chicago Tribune, (28th January 1867)
- ‘The Great Escape From Slavery of Ellen and William Craft’, Smithsonian Magazine, (accessed 01/2021)
- The Daring Disguise that Helped One Enslaved Couple Escape to Freedom’, History, (accessed 01/2021)
- ‘Ellen and William Craft’, Wikipedia, (accessed 01/2021)
- ‘Ellen and William Craft: A Fresh Examination’, Jeffrey Green, (accessed 01/2021)
- ‘English Heritage London Blue Plaque for Ellen and William Craft’, English Heritage, (accessed 20/10/2021)
- ‘Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion’, History Extra, (accessed 22/10/2021)
- ‘Fugitive Slaves in Britain: The Odyssey of William and Ellen Craft’, R.J.M. Blackett in Journal of American Studies, 12.1, (April 1978)
- ‘“A Complication of Complaints”: Untangling Disability, Race, and Gender in William and Ellen Craft’s Running A Thousand Miles for Freedom’, E. Samuels in MELUS, 31.3, ‘Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature’, (Autumn 2006)
- ‘The Profits and the Perils of Partnership in the “Thrilling” Saga of William and Ellen Craft’, B. McCaskill in MELUS, 38.1, ‘Cross-Racial and Cross-Ethnic Collaboration and Scholarship’, (Spring 2013)
- ‘Transatlantic Interracial Sisterhoods: Sarah Remond, Ellen Craft, and Harriet Jacobs in England’, S. Salenius in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 38.1, (2017)