The Boldest Slavery Escape Story (History Class Skipped Over)

One of the boldest escapes in the dark days of slavery was that of Ellen and William Craft, who escaped in plain sight.
The Boldest Slavery Escape Story (History Class Skipped Over)

In the dark days of slavery (so … every day), hundreds of men, women, and children risked their lives to escape to freedom. Most of them embarked on the perilous journey of the Underground Railroad, slipping through woods by night and relying on a network of safe houses. A few, however, chose slightly different strategies to get their freedom. Anna Maria Weems disguised herself as a male train porter to get to Canada. The aptly nicknamed Henry "Box" Brown mailed himself to Philadelphia in a wooden crate. But one of the boldest escapes was that of Ellen and William Craft, who escaped in plain sight ...

Meet Ellen And William Craft

Ellen was born in 1826 to a mixed-race, enslaved woman named Maria; her father was their enslaver. Ellen, due to her largely white heritage, looked very similar to the "legitimate" children on the plantation and was often mistaken for one of them, much to the pissed-off plantation owner's wife. To cover it up, she actually gave Ellen as a "wedding present" to her daughter -- who also happened to be Ellen's half-sister (although no one talked about that). Ellen was only 11 years old. Eventually, the half-sister took Ellen and moved to Macon, Georgia, where Ellen lived as a house servant. This gave her access to a lot of information about the household, its white occupants, as well as the area in general, which would end up being invaluable later in her life

Ellen Craft, fugitive slave, abolitionist

The Liberator

She learned that white people really liked eating organic and owning other people. 

William Craft was born in Macon at around the same time as Ellen, possibly in 1824, and had been sold to a bank cashier at the age of 16 to settle his previous enslaver's gambling debts. Even at such a young age, he was already a skilled cabinetmaker, and the bank cashier had Craft work in a local shop and pocketed most of the money he earned

William Craft, fugitive slaves, abolitionist

The Liberator

It made him feel unhinged. 

Like Ellen, he'd also experienced the terrible pain of family separation, witnessing the selling of his 14-year-old sister, a fate which had also befallen his parents and brother some years earlier, scattering his family throughout the South. 

Ellen and William met and married when Ellen was 20. Her enslaver held a half interest in William and was intrigued by the income William's carpentry work could potentially bring to his estate. Unsurprisingly, he didn't exactly care about them as actual human beings. While Ellen and William were happy to be together and wanted to start a family of their own, but they were terrified of the very real possibility of their family being split up and understandably didn't want to bring children into the brutal world of slavery. In addition, they were all too aware of the danger of sexual abuse faced by enslaved women and girls. They were also both religious and wanted a formal church wedding, something not allowed to enslaved people. So there was only one option as far as they were concerned: They had to escape. 

The Plan

William was the one who came up with the plan initially: In their book, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, he writes: "Knowing slaveholders have the privilege of taking their slaves to any part of the country they think proper, it occurred to me that, as my wife was nearly white, I might get her to disguise herself as an invalid gentleman, and assume to be my master, while I could attend as his slave, and that in this manner we might effect our escape."

It was a seriously bold plan, one that would take a lot of meticulous planning. Needless to say, Ellen was, at first, a bit taken aback by the suggestion, but she soon got on board and started practicing the posture, gestures, and speech of an upper-class white man. Since women did not travel alone, much less with a male servant, it was necessary for her to pass as male. William purchased expensive men's clothing piece by piece, under the pretense that he was picking it up for an enslaver. Meanwhile, Ellen sewed herself a pair of trousers that would both fit her and make her look more masculine

Trousers, men's, linen, unlined white trousers, front falling flap, bone buttons, fob pocket at front, side pockets.

Auckland Museum

Probably stuffed them to show off her massive dong. That's what we would have done. 

They also devised a way to get people to not look too carefully at her: They would wrap her in bandages and make it appear that she was quite frail and sickly, which would also give her an excuse to avoid company and conversation. They would also put her right arm in a sling to avoid any situations where she might have to write or sign anything, as both Ellen and William, at the time, could not read or write. To make sure she wouldn't have to read anything, Ellen would also wear a pair of tinted glasses, suggesting that her eyesight was very poor. In addition, they were able to secure passes from their enslavers that would grant them a few days off -- which meant they'd have a few days' head start before anyone realized they had left. 

On the night of December 21, 1848, William cut Ellen's hair to the nape of her neck. She put on her trousers and top hat, said a prayer, and they set off. 

Close Calls On The Train

The first leg of their journey was by train, and it was also where they would experience the first of a few narrow misses. William had to ride in a separate car from Ellen, who sat with the white passengers, and as he was boarding, he spotted the owner of the cabinetmaker's shop on the platform. As the shop owner came to investigate, William shrank down in his seat and braced himself, but then the train left just in time. 

Meanwhile, Ellen had her own scare -- the passenger next to her was a friend of her enslaver's, and she assumed at first he'd been sent to catch her. But then he said, "It's a very fine morning, sir." To avoid talking to him, Ellen pretended to be deaf until he got off the train. 

Another time, Ellen found herself the focus of attention of a young lady. Thanks to her upscale clothing and carefully practiced upper-class manners, the young woman saw a potential rich mate. The woman even wrote down the recipe for a family remedy, suggesting it for Ellen's "ailments." Terrified of accidentally looking at it upside down, Ellen simply nodded a quick thanks and stuffed the note into her pocket

Ellen Craft escaped slave


"And that's all I'm stuffing in there, I promise!" 
--Ellen, lying, in our imagined version of this story

Very Tenuous Safety

Over the course of what would be a four-day journey by train and steamboat, Ellen and William became privy to some pretty interesting mentalities from the passengers. As they neared the North, white passengers advised Ellen to go back South and beware "cut-throat abolitionists" who would try to lure William away. One man even offered to buy William from her, and another scolded her for being too polite to him (she'd said "thank you"). Meanwhile, other Black passengers encouraged William to ditch his "owner" once they reached the North and strike out on his own as a free man. 

They were detained several times as ticket sellers, and other transportation authorities demanded proof that Ellen "owned" William, and as they got farther north, people got cagier. However, Ellen's disguise as a sickly person managed to elicit sympathy from many, allowing her and William passage, and often getting her upgrades to first class

First Class Private Suites on Emirates Airbus A380

Shahram Sharifi

Don't get any ideas, person reading this. 

During their travels, Ellen and William stayed in some of the finest hotels between Georgia and Pennsylvania, and Ellen once even dined with the captain of the steamboat. But for Ellen, no amount of luxury travel could make up for the constant fear of being found out, worrying for William's safety, and keeping up the tiring disguise. Finally, on Christmas Day, they made it to Philadelphia, and she burst into tears, crying, "Thank God, William, we're safe!"

With the help of Philadelphia's abolitionist network, they secured lodging for three weeks before moving to Boston, where William found work as a cabinetmaker and Ellen as a seamstress. They became local celebrities among white and Black residents alike, and often spoke to large groups around the city about their escape as well as against slavery, and became involved with abolitionist activism. 

Then Bounty Hunters Chased Them Out Of The Country

Sadly, they would again face the fear of being caught when the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1850, which allowed bounty hunters to come after people who had fled north. In fact, their former enslaver did send two bounty hunters to Boston to track down the Crafts, even getting the support of U.S. president/douchebag Millard Fillmore. Thanks to the actions of the Boston Vigilance Committee, an abolitionist group formed to resist the new law, they managed to evade capture by moving between safe houses while allies ran interference, harassing and misdirecting the bounty hunters until they gave up

Bird's eye view of Boston 1899

E.A. Downs

They lured the bounty hunters into their Sarlacc pit. ("Sarlaac pit" was their name for where Boston dumped its poop.) 

But the constant fear capture was too much, and the Crafts decided once again to flee -- this time to England. "It was not until we stepped ashore at Liverpool that we were free from every slavish fear," William wrote. 

They settled in Ockham, Surrey, where they attended school and connected with the British abolitionist movement. They gave many public lectures on slavery in the U.S., and Ellen turned their home into a hub for Black activism in England, hosting multiple visiting and touring abolitionists. She also participated in the women's suffrage movement and was known for her sharp wit and observations and ability to effectively criticize politicians with racist beliefs. 

When some pro-slavery propagandists suggested she regretted her escape, she wrote: "I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated. Though, had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent."

The Craft Legacy

In all, the Crafts spent 19 years in England and had five children. After the Civil War, Ellen was also able to locate her mother, Maria, back in Georgia and paid for her passage to England, where, after many years, they were reunited. In 1860, they co-authored the aforementioned Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. Not only does the book tell the story of their escape, but it also served as a compelling reflection on the fluidity of race, gender, and class, concepts that were considered concrete and immutable in the 19th century. 

The Crafts, along with three of their children, returned to the U.S. in 1868, where they opened the Woodville Co-Operative Farm School for newly freed men and women in Georgia in 1873, though the school closed only five years later amid some legal trouble. They finally moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to live with their daughter. Ellen Craft died in 1891, and William died in 1900. Today, their legacy still lives on, not just because of their brilliant, daring escape but also their social and political activism and dedication to eradicating slavery and racism. 

Recently, a plaque was unveiled in Ockham, England, where their great-great-great grandson, Christopher Clark, now in his 70s, still lives. On the unveiling of the memorial, Clark said, "I like to think that if people are thought of and spoken about, they still in some respects live amongst us ... and I would like to thank William and Ellen for what they strove for and what they achieved."

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