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Chapter 21

_My Escape from Slavery_


I will now make the kind reader acquainted with the closing
incidents of my "Life as a Slave," having already trenched upon
the limit allotted to my "Life as a Freeman." Before, however,
proceeding with this narration, it is, perhaps, proper that I
should frankly state, in advance, my intention to withhold a part
of the{sic} connected with my escape from slavery. There are
reasons for this suppression, which I trust the reader will deem
altogether valid. It may be easily conceived, that a full and
complete statement of all facts pertaining to the flight of a
bondman, might implicate and embarrass some who may have,
wittingly or unwittingly, assisted him; and no one can wish me to
involve any man or <249 MANNER OF MY ESCAPE NOT GIVEN>woman who
has befriended me, even in the liability of embarrassment or

Keen is the scent of the slaveholder; like the fangs of the
rattlesnake, his malice retains its poison long; and, although it
is now nearly seventeen years since I made my escape, it is well
to be careful, in dealing with the circumstances relating to it.
Were I to give but a shadowy outline of the process adopted, with
characteristic aptitude, the crafty and malicious among the
slaveholders might, possibly, hit upon the track I pursued, and
involve some one in suspicion which, in a slave state, is about
as bad as positive evidence. The colored man, there, must not
only shun evil, but shun the very _appearance_ of evil, or be
condemned as a criminal. A slaveholding community has a peculiar
taste for ferreting out offenses against the slave system,
justice there being more sensitive in its regard for the peculiar
rights of this system, than for any other interest or
institution. By stringing together a train of events and
circumstances, even if I were not very explicit, the means of
escape might be ascertained, and, possibly, those means be
rendered, thereafter, no longer available to the liberty-seeking
children of bondage I have left behind me. No antislavery man
can wish me to do anything favoring such results, and no
slaveholding reader has any right to expect the impartment of
such information.

While, therefore, it would afford me pleasure, and perhaps would
materially add to the interest of my story, were I at liberty to
gratify a curiosity which I know to exist in the minds of many,
as to the manner of my escape, I must deprive myself of this
pleasure, and the curious of the gratification, which such a
statement of facts would afford. I would allow myself to suffer
under the greatest imputations that evil minded men might
suggest, rather than exculpate myself by explanation, and thereby
run the hazards of closing the slightest avenue by which a
brother in suffering might clear himself of the chains and
fetters of slavery.

The practice of publishing every new invention by which a
<250>slave is known to have escaped from slavery, has neither
wisdom nor necessity to sustain it. Had not Henry Box Brown and
his friends attracted slaveholding attention to the manner of his
escape, we might have had a thousand _Box Browns_ per annum. The
singularly original plan adopted by William and Ellen Crafts,
perished with the first using, because every slaveholder in the
land was apprised of it. The _salt water slave_ who hung in the
guards of a steamer, being washed three days and three nights--
like another Jonah--by the waves of the sea, has, by the
publicity given to the circumstance, set a spy on the guards of
every steamer departing from southern ports.

I have never approved of the very public manner, in which some of
our western friends have conducted what _they_ call the _"Under-
ground Railroad,"_ but which, I think, by their open
declarations, has been made, most emphatically, the _"Upper_-
ground Railroad." Its stations are far better known to the
slaveholders than to the slaves. I honor those good men and
women for their noble daring, in willingly subjecting themselves
to persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the
escape of slaves; nevertheless, the good resulting from such
avowals, is of a very questionable character. It may kindle an
enthusiasm, very pleasant to inhale; but that is of no practical
benefit to themselves, nor to the slaves escaping. Nothing is
more evident, than that such disclosures are a positive evil to
the slaves remaining, and seeking to escape. In publishing such
accounts, the anti-slavery man addresses the slaveholder, _not
the slave;_ he stimulates the former to greater watchfulness, and
adds to his facilities for capturing his slave. We owe something
to the slaves, south of Mason and Dixon's line, as well as to
those north of it; and, in discharging the duty of aiding the
latter, on their way to freedom, we should be careful to do
nothing which would be likely to hinder the former, in making
their escape from slavery. Such is my detestation of slavery,
that I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant
of the means of flight adopted by the slave. He <251 CRAFTINESS
OF SLAVEHOLDERS>should be left to imagine himself surrounded by
myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch, from his
infernal grasp, his trembling prey. In pursuing his victim, let
him be left to feel his way in the dark; let shades of darkness,
commensurate with his crime, shut every ray of light from his
pathway; and let him be made to feel, that, at every step he
takes, with the hellish purpose of reducing a brother man to
slavery, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot
brains dashed out by an invisible hand.

But, enough of this. I will now proceed to the statement of
those facts, connected with my escape, for which I am alone
responsible, and for which no one can be made to suffer but

My condition in the year (1838) of my escape, was, comparatively,
a free and easy one, so far, at least, as the wants of the
physical man were concerned; but the reader will bear in mind,
that my troubles from the beginning, have been less physical than
mental, and he will thus be prepared to find, after what is
narrated in the previous chapters, that slave life was adding
nothing to its charms for me, as I grew older, and became better
acquainted with it. The practice, from week to week, of openly
robbing me of all my earnings, kept the nature and character of
slavery constantly before me. I could be robbed by
_indirection_, but this was _too_ open and barefaced to be
endured. I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each
week, pour the reward of my honest toil into the purse of any
man. The thought itself vexed me, and the manner in which Master
Hugh received my wages, vexed me more than the original wrong.
Carefully counting the money and rolling it out, dollar by
dollar, he would look me in the face, as if he would search my
heart as well as my pocket, and reproachfully ask me, "_Is that
all_?"--implying that I had, perhaps, kept back part of my wages;
or, if not so, the demand was made, possibly, to make me feel,
that, after all, I was an "unprofitable servant." Draining me of
the last cent of my hard earnings, he would, however,
occasionally--when I brought <252>home an extra large sum--dole
out to me a sixpence or a shilling, with a view, perhaps, of
kindling up my gratitude; but this practice had the opposite
effect--it was an admission of _my right to the whole sum_. The
fact, that he gave me any part of my wages, was proof that he
suspected that I had a right _to the whole of them_. I always
felt uncomfortable, after having received anything in this way,
for I feared that the giving me a few cents, might, possibly,
ease his conscience, and make him feel himself a pretty honorable
robber, after all!

Held to a strict account, and kept under a close watch--the old
suspicion of my running away not having been entirely removed--
escape from slavery, even in Baltimore, was very difficult. The
railroad from Baltimore to Philadelphia was under regulations so
stringent, that even _free_ colored travelers were almost
excluded. They must have _free_ papers; they must be measured
and carefully examined, before they were allowed to enter the
cars; they only went in the day time, even when so examined. The
steamboats were under regulations equally stringent. All the
great turnpikes, leading northward, were beset with kidnappers, a
class of men who watched the newspapers for advertisements for
runaway slaves, making their living by the accursed reward of
slave hunting.

My discontent grew upon me, and I was on the look-out for means
of escape. With money, I could easily have managed the matter,
and, therefore, I hit upon the plan of soliciting the privilege
of hiring my time. It is quite common, in Baltimore, to allow
slaves this privilege, and it is the practice, also, in New
Orleans. A slave who is considered trustworthy, can, by paying
his master a definite sum regularly, at the end of each week,
dispose of his time as he likes. It so happened that I was not
in very good odor, and I was far from being a trustworthy slave.
Nevertheless, I watched my opportunity when Master Thomas came to
Baltimore (for I was still his property, Hugh only acted as his
agent) in the spring of 1838, to purchase his spring supply of
goods, <253 ALLOWED TO HIRE MY TIME>and applied to him, directly,
for the much-coveted privilege of hiring my time. This request
Master Thomas unhesitatingly refused to grant; and he charged me,
with some sternness, with inventing this stratagem to make my
escape. He told me, "I could go _nowhere_ but he could catch me;
and, in the event of my running away, I might be assured he
should spare no pains in his efforts to recapture me. He
recounted, with a good deal of eloquence, the many kind offices
he had done me, and exhorted me to be contented and obedient.
"Lay out no plans for the future," said he. "If you behave
yourself properly, I will take care of you." Now, kind and
considerate as this offer was, it failed to soothe me into
repose. In spite of Master Thomas, and, I may say, in spite of
myself, also, I continued to think, and worse still, to think
almost exclusively about the injustice and wickedness of slavery.
No effort of mine or of his could silence this trouble-giving
thought, or change my purpose to run away.

About two months after applying to Master Thomas for the
privilege of hiring my time, I applied to Master Hugh for the
same liberty, supposing him to be unacquainted with the fact that
I had made a similar application to Master Thomas, and had been
refused. My boldness in making this request, fairly astounded
him at the first. He gazed at me in amazement. But I had many
good reasons for pressing the matter; and, after listening to
them awhile, he did not absolutely refuse, but told me he would
think of it. Here, then, was a gleam of hope. Once master of my
own time, I felt sure that I could make, over and above my
obligation to him, a dollar or two every week. Some slaves have
made enough, in this way, to purchase their freedom. It is a
sharp spur to industry; and some of the most enterprising colored
men in Baltimore hire themselves in this way. After mature
reflection--as I must suppose it was Master Hugh granted me the
privilege in question, on the following terms: I was to be
allowed all my time; to make all bargains for work; to find my
own employment, and to collect my own wages; and, <254>in return
for this liberty, I was required, or obliged, to pay him three
dollars at the end of each week, and to board and clothe myself,
and buy my own calking tools. A failure in any of these
particulars would put an end to my privilege. This was a hard
bargain. The wear and tear of clothing, the losing and breaking
of tools, and the expense of board, made it necessary for me to
earn at least six dollars per week, to keep even with the world.
All who are acquainted with calking, know how uncertain and
irregular that employment is. It can be done to advantage only
in dry weather, for it is useless to put wet oakum into a seam.
Rain or shine, however, work or no work, at the end of each week
the money must be forthcoming.

Master Hugh seemed to be very much pleased, for a time, with this
arrangement; and well he might be, for it was decidedly in his
favor. It relieved him of all anxiety concerning me. His money
was sure. He had armed my love of liberty with a lash and a
driver, far more efficient than any I had before known; and,
while he derived all the benefits of slaveholding by the
arrangement, without its evils, I endured all the evils of being
a slave, and yet suffered all the care and anxiety of a
responsible freeman. "Nevertheless," thought I, "it is a
valuable privilege another step in my career toward freedom." It
was something even to be permitted to stagger under the
disadvantages of liberty, and I was determined to hold on to the
newly gained footing, by all proper industry. I was ready to
work by night as well as by day; and being in the enjoyment of
excellent health, I was able not only to meet my current
expenses, but also to lay by a small sum at the end of each week.
All went on thus, from the month of May till August; then--for
reasons which will become apparent as I proceed--my much valued
liberty was wrested from me.

During the week previous to this (to me) calamitous event, I had
made arrangements with a few young friends, to accompany them, on
Saturday night, to a camp-meeting, held about twelve miles from
Baltimore. On the evening of our intended start for <255 I
ATTEND CAMP-MEETING>the camp-ground, something occurred in the
ship yard where I was at work, which detained me unusually late,
and compelled me either to disappoint my young friends, or to
neglect carrying my weekly dues to Master Hugh. Knowing that I
had the money, and could hand it to him on another day, I decided
to go to camp-meeting, and to pay him the three dollars, for the
past week, on my return. Once on the camp-ground, I was induced
to remain one day longer than I had intended, when I left home.
But, as soon as I returned, I went straight to his house on Fell
street, to hand him his (my) money. Unhappily, the fatal mistake
had been committed. I found him exceedingly angry. He exhibited
all the signs of apprehension and wrath, which a slaveholder may
be surmised to exhibit on the supposed escape of a favorite
slave. "You rascal! I have a great mind to give you a severe
whipping. How dare you go out of the city without first asking
and obtaining my permission?" "Sir," said I, "I hired my time and
paid you the price you asked for it. I did not know that it was
any part of the bargain that I should ask you when or where I
should go."

"You did not know, you rascal! You are bound to show yourself
here every Saturday night." After reflecting, a few moments, he
became somewhat cooled down; but, evidently greatly troubled, he
said, "Now, you scoundrel! you have done for yourself; you shall
hire your time no longer. The next thing I shall hear of, will
be your running away. Bring home your tools and your clothes, at
once. I'll teach you how to go off in this way."

Thus ended my partial freedom. I could hire my time no longer;
and I obeyed my master's orders at once. The little taste of
liberty which I had had--although as the reader will have seen,
it was far from being unalloyed--by no means enhanced my
contentment with slavery. Punished thus by Master Hugh, it was
now my turn to punish him. "Since," thought I, "you _will_ make
a slave of me, I will await your orders in all things;" and,
instead of going to look for work on Monday morning, as I had
<256>formerly done, I remained at home during the entire week,
without the performance of a single stroke of work. Saturday
night came, and he called upon me, as usual, for my wages. I, of
course, told him I had done no work, and had no wages. Here we
were at the point of coming to blows. His wrath had been
accumulating during the whole week; for he evidently saw that I
was making no effort to get work, but was most aggravatingly
awaiting his orders, in all things. As I look back to this
behavior of mine, I scarcely know what possessed me, thus to
trifle with those who had such unlimited power to bless or to
blast me. Master Hugh raved and swore his determination to _"get
hold of me;"_ but, wisely for _him_, and happily for _me_, his
wrath only employed those very harmless, impalpable missiles,
which roll from a limber tongue. In my desperation, I had fully
made up my mind to measure strength with Master Hugh, in case he
should undertake to execute his threats. I am glad there was no
necessity for this; for resistance to him could not have ended so
happily for me, as it did in the case of Covey. He was not a man
to be safely resisted by a slave; and I freely own, that in my
conduct toward him, in this instance, there was more folly than
wisdom. Master Hugh closed his reproofs, by telling me that,
hereafter, I need give myself no uneasiness about getting work;
that he "would, himself, see to getting work for me, and enough
of it, at that." This threat I confess had some terror in it;
and, on thinking the matter over, during the Sunday, I resolved,
not only to save him the trouble of getting me work, but that,
upon the third day of September, I would attempt to make my
escape from slavery. The refusal to allow me to hire my time,
therefore, hastened the period of flight. I had three weeks,
now, in which to prepare for my journey.

Once resolved, I felt a certain degree of repose, and on Monday,
instead of waiting for Master Hugh to seek employment for me, I
was up by break of day, and off to the ship yard of Mr. Butler,
on the City Block, near the draw-bridge. I was a favorite <257
PAINFUL THOUGHTS OF SEPARATION>with Mr. B., and, young as I was,
I had served as his foreman on the float stage, at calking. Of
course, I easily obtained work, and, at the end of the week--
which by the way was exceedingly fine I brought Master Hugh
nearly nine dollars. The effect of this mark of returning good
sense, on my part, was excellent. He was very much pleased; he
took the money, commended me, and told me I might have done the
same thing the week before. It is a blessed thing that the
tyrant may not always know the thoughts and purposes of his
victim. Master Hugh little knew what my plans were. The going
to camp-meeting without asking his permission--the insolent
answers made to his reproaches--the sulky deportment the week
after being deprived of the privilege of hiring my time--had
awakened in him the suspicion that I might be cherishing disloyal
purposes. My object, therefore, in working steadily, was to
remove suspicion, and in this I succeeded admirably. He probably
thought I was never better satisfied with my condition, than at
the very time I was planning my escape. The second week passed,
and again I carried him my full week's wages--_nine dollars;_ and
so well pleased was he, that he gave me TWENTY-FIVE CENTS! and
"bade me make good use of it!" I told him I would, for one of
the uses to which I meant to put it, was to pay my fare on the
underground railroad.

Things without went on as usual; but I was passing through the
same internal excitement and anxiety which I had experienced two
years and a half before. The failure, in that instance, was not
calculated to increase my confidence in the success of this, my
second attempt; and I knew that a second failure could not leave
me where my first did--I must either get to the _far north_, or
be sent to the _far south_. Besides the exercise of mind from
this state of facts, I had the painful sensation of being about
to separate from a circle of honest and warm hearted friends, in
Baltimore. The thought of such a separation, where the hope of
ever meeting again is excluded, and where there can be no
correspondence, is very painful. It is my opinion, that
thousands would escape from <258>slavery who now remain there,
but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their
families, relatives and friends. The daughter is hindered from
escaping, by the love she bears her mother, and the father, by
the love he bears his children; and so, to the end of the
chapter. I had no relations in Baltimore, and I saw no
probability of ever living in the neighborhood of sisters and
brothers; but the thought of leaving my friends, was among the
strongest obstacles to my running away. The last two days of the
week--Friday and Saturday--were spent mostly in collecting my
things together, for my journey. Having worked four days that
week, for my master, I handed him six dollars, on Saturday night.
I seldom spent my Sundays at home; and, for fear that something
might be discovered in my conduct, I kept up my custom, and
absented myself all day. On Monday, the third day of September,
1838, in accordance with my resolution, I bade farewell to the
city of Baltimore, and to that slavery which had been my
abhorrence from childhood.

How I got away--in what direction I traveled--whether by land or
by water; whether with or without assistance--must, for reasons
already mentioned, remain unexplained.

Frederick Douglass

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