The 5 Most Badass Ways People Escaped from Slavery

#2. Eliza Harris Leaps Across the Ice

John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images

In 1838, a woman subsequently known as Eliza Harris escaped from slavery with her baby grandchild. Racing on foot through the snow, she could hear the barking of dogs behind her as her pursuers gained ground. Reaching the Ohio River, she was forced to pause. Despite the vicious cold, the river was not frozen solid, but was chock-full of thin, fast-moving ice floes.

This was the point where most people would give up and turn back, or, accepting their fate, perhaps would pick up one of the smaller ice chunks and attempt to throw it like a Frisbee. Fortunately, Eliza Harris was not most people. Instead she strapped the baby to her back, climbed out onto the ice, and leaped from floe to floe across the river like it was a goddamned Mario level.

And when we say ice floe, if you're picturing big, stable icebergs like a polar bear might frolic on during a breath mint commercial -- think again. This was more like trying to jump from a bucking surfboard onto a moving shark if both those things were made of wet ice. Eliza slipped several times during her crossing and would have been swept away if not for a fence post she was carrying to steady herself. She eventually made it to the other side. It was so badass that a slave catcher who had been lying in wait for her on the other side just helped her up and pointed her in the direction of safety.

Adolphe Jean-baptiste Bayot
"Wow, maybe this whole hunting down mothers and newborns thing was a shitty life choice."

Now when you've just done something so awesome that one of the worst human beings in the world decided to help you out, you could probably be forgiven for taking it easy for a while. Eliza, on the other hand, simply headed straight back South and, despite the huge reward that had been put on her head, succeeded in liberating her other five grandchildren. Her incredible story eventually made it back to the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, who based the climactic scene in her famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin on her escape across the ice. The book's heroine is named Eliza in her honor.

Library of Congress
In the movie adaptation of the book, she scissor-kicks every one of those dogs into a coma before crossing the ice flow.

#1. Robert Smalls Hijacks a Confederate Ship

Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images

In 1862, the Confederate naval vessel Planter cast off from its mooring in Charleston and expertly navigated through the heavily mined harbor. Passing beneath the guns of Fort Sumter, the Planter's captain, in his trademark white naval jacket and straw hat, cheerfully waved to the guards before giving the secret signals that prevented them from blowing his ship out of the water.

Library of Congress
"Did that ship's captain seem ... uh, darker than usual?"
"Well, his wife's having an affair, so it was bound to get to him."

The same guards were probably a little surprised when the ship carefully waited until it was out of reach of the guns before immediately turning north and heading for the Union. You see, the man in the captain's uniform waving to the guards was in fact a slave named Robert Smalls. And he was stealing the shit out of the Planter.

U.S. Naval Historical Center
"Ooh, hey, sorry, you guys didn't need this boat, did you?"

At the start of the war, Smalls had found himself as one of the many slaves forced to work in the Confederate Navy. Not missing the bitter irony that he was somehow expected to fight against his freedom, he immediately began planning how to escape in the most audacious manner possible. First, he took the opportunity to memorize the signals needed to get past the fort. He also made sure to remember where the mines were in the harbor, which wasn't hard because he'd laid most of them himself. And of course he also stole every single Confederate naval secret he could lay his hands on.

Amazingly, Smalls managed to keep from cackling hysterically during all this, because his white crew mates were so taken in with the deception that they decided to trust him to stay alone on the boat while they went to get drunk. Smalls immediately gathered 12 other slaves and their families and staged his famous defection to the Union, who were grateful enough to give him permanent command of the Planter, making him the only black captain of the war. He became a hero in the North and played a big part in persuading Abraham Lincoln to allow slaves to join the armed forces.

Mathew Brady/Levin Corbin Handy
"For the sake of humility, I'll concede that slave owners weren't that smart to begin with."

For more amazing escapes, check out 6 Insane Prison Escapes That Actually Happened and The 5 Most Badass Prison Escapes in the History of War.

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 5 Real Baby Names That Won't Make Any Sense in a Few Years .

And stop by LinkSTORM to learn the best ways to break out of the slammer.

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Extra Credit: For more myths from a very racist era, read this article about the truth behind the Civil War. Did you think the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery? If so, you're just ignorant enough to need us. To go back further in our history of dishonesty, click this link and learn the truth about America's founding. Finish your blast from the past by discovering the American civil wars you never learned about. Utah hasn't always been as benign as they seem today.

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