A few days before Christmas in 1848, an enslaved woman named Ellen Craft wore a stovepipe hat in Macon, Georgia. of trains, steamers and carriages. Ellen told fellow travelers she was a planter who went north to seek medical care. Her enslaved husband, William, came with her and pretended to be her property.
The ruse worked. Together, Ellen and William Craft made one of the most dramatic escapes in American history by acting as master and slave in broad daylight. But their story didn’t end there. By the time the American Civil War began, the Crafts had an international reputation. And as Ilyon Woo points out in her excellent new book, “Master Slave Husband Wife,” the couple also played no small part in the sequence of events that led to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
It began with a scheme that some sources, including Woo, attribute to Ellen being born into slavery to her own father, James Smith, a white planter who also enslaved Ellen’s 18-year-old mother, Maria. The laws of slavery afforded Mary no protection against rape by her owner, and in 1837, no doubt because of Ellen’s fair complexion and physical resemblance to Smith, his wife gave Ellen to their daughter Eliza as a wedding present upon her marriage to Robert Collins. from Macon.
In Macon, while legally owned by her half-sister, Ellen met and fell in love with William Craft, an enslaved cabinetmaker in town. They shared traumatic memories of family members’ separation. In Ellen’s case, her transfer from Smith’s plantation to Collins’ home tore her apart from her mother. William was permanently snatched from a beloved sister, who was sold at public auction when the siblings were children. Determined not to be separated or to have children to be sold off them, the Crafts decided to carry out their escape plan as 1848 drew to a close.
The first half of “Master Slave Husband Wife” is a thrilling, sensitively rendered account of their four-day journey north, interspersed with flashbacks to their former lives. Along the way, Woo, the author of a previous book, “The Great Divorce,” about a scandal involving a feuding couple and the Shaker religious cult in the 1810s, explains how they managed to pull it off. A key part of the plan was Ellen’s costume, which consisted of dark green glasses, a sling for her right arm, a black tie, and that “double storied” silk hat, “fitting to how high he soars and the fiction he is covered.” As they boarded train cars and entered dining halls full of white travelers, Ellen also wore bandages on her face and hand to convince all observers that she was the ailing young offspring of a wealthy family, who crossed the Mason-Dixon River with a loyal servant. line traveled. to see a doctor. Her injured hand also served as an easy explanation for why she was unable to sign travel documents at several stops, and disguised the fact that she was never allowed to learn how to write her name.
Woo tells the story of that disguise and the journey it started, with a cinematic eye. She excels at scene setting, evoking the sensations the Crafts experience at every poignant point: the sound of “Ellen’s boot heels clacking hard down with every step up the gangway” to a steamboat in Savannah, the medicinal smell of the poultice William tenderly applied to her face before she went to sleep in her bunk, “freshly plastered in stinking flannel.”
The vivid details help Woo convey the Crafts attention to every element of their plot. Ellen’s skill as a seamstress certainly helped her change the clothes she wore. William had bought pieces of her costume with money he had managed to save by doing carpentry work for clients who wanted to pay a token wage to an enslaved man. But of even greater value to the fugitives was Ellen’s hard-won knowledge of the mannerisms of young white men, drawn from her work in the intimate spaces of the Collins home. Likewise, William knew how to fulfill the role expected of him by white Southerners on the journey: that of a subservient servant who hurried to anticipate his ailing master’s every need.
Most of all, their disguise worked because of the privileges granted to white male Southerners at a glance. “As the son of a white man,” Woo notes, Ellen Craft “now had infinite mobility through the streets she was once forbidden to walk without a stride.” “Master Slave Husband Wife” convincingly argues that the Crafts escape exposed and undermined the rickety foundations of the gendered and racial categories of master and slave.
But the pair were not out of danger in the north. Following the Crafts from Philadelphia to Boston, where they settled after a stint on the antislavery lecture circuit, Woo’s story slows down a bit to enlighten readers on the politics surrounding the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. story then picks up again as she describes the collective resistance of Black Bostonians and their white allies to the infamous law. Its enforcement would first be tested in Boston, when Robert Collins sent two agents to capture the Crafts.
In the battles that followed in the courtrooms and streets of Boston, the couple was determined to fight reslavery by any means necessary; William waved a gun more than once and made it clear that he would use it. In the end, Collins’s agents left empty-handed, hampered in part by confusion among officials over the new Fugitive Slave Law. But it was clear that the slave catchers would return.
No longer safe in the United States, the Crafts moved to England, where in 1860 they published a story of their escape, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom”, adding to the transatlantic printing campaigns that precipitated the sectional crisis over slavery. William toured abroad as a lecturer with abolitionist William Wells Brown, a fellow refugee. Ellen began raising their children—they eventually had six—as she navigated the fractious politics of Britain’s anti-slavery movement. And both man and woman pursued the formal education they had been denied while enslaved.
Their partnership, Woo claims, continued to challenge convention, though even in England Ellen couldn’t quite escape the social order she had bent to her advantage while disguised as a white man. Abolitionists, including her husband, often referred to her as a “white slave,” despite her disapproval, and only William Craft was credited as the author of their book. Throughout the story, he referred to Ellen simply as “my wife” and claimed that she initially balked at the escape plan, though, Woo argues, she was starring and may have come up with the idea.
As Woo points out, the archive contains fewer traces of Ellen’s voice than William’s, although at certain key moments the woman who had once impersonated a master “assumed she had mastered the story.” A great success of Woo’s book is the careful attention to the moments when Ellen Craft’s perspective flashes through the archive, such as in a signed letter, an overheard song or a caustic laugh at a pastor, as well as the incisive examination of what her silences can mean.
In a lively yet moving coda, Woo also reflects on a final silence in the archive: the exact date and cause of Ellen’s death after the Crafts returned, remarkably, to the American South after the Civil War. Ellen would be buried under a tree in Georgia, after a dangerous and discouraging two decades in the post-Reconstruction South, whose twists and turns could fill many more pages.
Still, the part of her story that Woo lavishly tells deserves this book-long treatment. Shortly after the Crafts escape, famed abolitionist Wendell Phillips predicted, “Future historians and poets would tell this tale as one of the most thrilling in the annals of the land, and millions would read it with admiration for the hero and heroine.” He was right, and Woo’s book should increase those legions of admirers, especially from her heroine.
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