Previous in this series: Some Context. White Children Sold into Slavery? Ellen’s Life in Bondage William’s Life in Bondage The Dismemberment of William’s Family Quoting the Slave Codes Reason to Flee The Perils of Flight The Plan Leaving and Literacy Last Minute Fears William’s Close Call Ellen’s close Call The Steamer Irony The Helpful Officer Some Humor The Lady Arrives The Lady’s Unkindness Sectionalism Antislavery Men on the Train Philadelphia Quakers and Boston Full text of the narrative.
Safe in Boston, the Crafts began a new life. They joined the church led by Theodore Parker, who also led the local fugitive slave protection operation. Their experiences made for a gripping narrative which the antislavery press widely disseminated. They had little reason to hide in Boston, home to two to three hundred fugitives just like them. They must have felt very safe, far from slavery, in a community hostile to it, and personally acquainted with white people sworn to protect them. Boston subscribed to Seward’s Higher Law against slavery and took from it authorization to break lower, mortal law.
Congress passed James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act on September 18, 1850. By that time, the Crafts’ owners had word that the couple lived free in Boston. Armed with the new law, which required local law enforcement to arrest and deliver back to slavery any black person that an owner or an owner’s agent proclaimed a fugitive and which stripped from the accused any possible defense, their owners sent two men to take the Crafts back into bondage.
The slave catchers, Hughes and Knight, reached Boston on October 25. William and Ellen went to ground. My sources disagree on where they hid. Their narrative places William at his home and Ellen at “a retired place outside the city.” James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom puts William at the home of a free black abolitionist who kept kegs of gunpowder on his porch and an arsenal in the kitchen. Ellen hides in the home of Theodore Parker, who kept a gun on his desk. I would normally give credence to the Craft’s own narrative, but McPherson had the luxury of writing long after the Fugitive Slave Act ceased to have legal force. The Crafts wrote in 1860, when naming people who aided them so directly would have also repaid their kindness with heavy fines. Their careful vagueness, especially in an otherwise specific portion of the text, speaks volumes.
While William and Ellen hid, the Vigilance Committee kicked into overdrive. Recruiting new members, it spawned sub-committees devoted to opposing Hughes and Knight, and slave catchers to come, in various ways. One group called on them and suggested they ought to leave town. Others put up posters calling them “man-stealers”. Still others arranged for their arrest, repeatedly, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap and, amusingly, defamation for calling the Crafts slaves. Still others harassed them openly on the streets.
As the Crafts hid and the Vigilance Committee frustrated Hughes and Knight, another man tried to put an end to the affair through more legal means: he promised if they surrendered that he would buy their freedom. William refused, seeing himself as a test case. Should the Boston abolitionists set the precedent that fugitives remained slaves and their freedom required their purchase, what would happen to the other two or three hundred of them? Did the abolitionists have pockets that deep? And given slave catchers often worked in secret, they could spirit off fugitives before the abolitionists knew to start raising the cash. Beyond that, the notion that after two years of freedom and a harrowing flight before he and his wife could still have their fates chose to suit the finances of whites must have chafed.
After five days of harassment short stays in jail, and assurances that Boston did not want them and would not ensure their safety, Hughes and Knight left. Their employers, the Crafts’ owners, did not so easily give up. They wrote to Millard Fillmore, who had signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. Fillmore condemned the Boston abolitionists and promised to call out the military to take them back to slavery.
The Vigilance Committee could turn away two men. Could it turn away a hundred soldiers? If so, for how long? The prospect of hiding the Crafts from the army, and the consequences of failing to do so, must have daunted fugitives and abolitionists alike. Furthermore, the Fugitive Slave Act did not only warm the hearts of the Slave Power South. The Crafts spend most of a page quoting Northern clergymen supporting it, including a Bostonian minister who plainly declared preserving the Union worth more than a fugitive’s freedom. If the army came to Boston, surely it would find many eager to trade the Crafts and any other fugitives in exchange for its departure.
With the clock running out, the Crafts took ship to England with a letter of introduction in hand. There they remained until the war and the Thirteenth Amendment brought about slavery’s end.