'Reverse Underground Railroad' is the term used for
the pre-American Civil War practice of kidnapping free black Americans
from free states and transporting them into the slave states for sale as
Organised gangs of 'man-stealers' sought to 'run-off' Negroes from the
free states and sell them south. These free-booters were known as
kidnapping of free blacks was a dirty business. Kidnappers physically
abused and psychologically terrorized their captives into stating that
they were slaves. Many were beaten repeatedly for the attempt to try and
claim their free status. This was a large part of the reason that
kidnapping accounts were not often told. Once kidnappers sold their
victims into slavery, the chances of the person’s free status being
revealed were reduced much further. An enslaved free black person’s only
chance was to gain the sympathy of a white person who would work to free
them. Even then, a slave owner would not be pleased to hear that a newly
purchased slave was kidnapped and would often times ignore the facts.
Unfortunately when a kidnapping was recognized and taken to trial, the
verification of the black’s freedom was extremely hard to prove. Not all
blacks carried freedom papers, and those who were kidnapped were often
stripped of their papers. On occasion, a judge would not allow freedom
papers as evidence on the account that they could be easily forged. The
most debilitating factor was that in many places blacks could not
testify against whites, leaving families, friends and eyewitnesses out
of the courtroom. Only a white person could confirm a black’s freedom.
This also presented a problem for those seeking legal recourse. Many
whites would be afraid of persecution for helping a black person and
sending a fellow white person to jail.
Some victims of the reverse underground railroad were
kidnapped in the dead of night, stolen from their homes. However, most
were probably tricked into boarding a ship as laborers, and delivered
into slavery before they knew their fate.
Martha "Patty" Cannon
(circa 1760 - 1829)
Martha "Patty" Cannon (also referred to as Lucretia P. Cannon)
was the leader of a gang in the early 19th century that
kidnapped slaves and free blacks from the Delmarva Peninsula and
transported and sold them to plantation owners located further south.
[The Delmarva Peninsula is occupied by most of Delaware
and portions of Maryland and Virginia.] Working from her base at
Johnson's Crossroads in Dorchester County, Maryland, Cannon and her
husband Joe Johnson operated a slave trade business preying on African
American children from Philadelphia and on African Americans arriving by
ship in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey. Once snared, the gang used
a system of station houses to move their prey from freedom to slavery.
accounts printed in the abolitionist journal the African Observer
state that captives were chained and hidden in the basement, the attic,
and secret rooms in the Cannon house. Captives were taken in covered
wagons to Cannon's Ferry (now Woodland Ferry). At the ferry, they would
sometimes meet a schooner traveling down the Nanticoke River to the
Chesapeake Bay and on to Georgia slave markets.
The gang's activities continued for many years. Local
law enforcement officials were reluctant to halt the illegal operations,
given the lack of concern that most people in authority felt for negroes
in those days, and may have been afraid of the gang's reputation for
violence. When Patty Cannon learned the police were coming, she would
slip across state lines away from local police forces.
According to depositions from victims who fought their
way back to the north, Joe Johnson kept the captives in leg irons. He
also "severely whipped" captives who insisted they were free. His wife,
Patty's daughter, was overheard saying that it "did [her] good to see
him beat the boys." ("Boy" was a degrading reference to a black man of
any age; Mrs. Johnson was not referring to male children.)
A 25-year-old free negress named
Lydia Smith testified that she was kept in Cannon's home before being
moved to Johnson's tavern. There, she was held for five months until she
was shipped south with a large lot people being sold into slavery.
The gang was initially indicted in May 1822. Joe Johnson
was sentenced to the pillory
and 39 lashes; records show the sentence was carried
Cannon and several other gang members, though charged
with Johnson, apparently did not go to trial nor receive sentences.
In 1829 however bodies
were discovered on the farm
property Cannon owned in
Delaware by a tenant farmer doing plowing there. Cannon was
iand was taken to Georgetown, Delaware. She was charged with four counts
of murder which she
confessed, and was sentenced to death by hanging. She committed suicide
by poison the night before the hanging.
In 1939 the Maryland State Roads Commission erected an
historical marker placed at the "Patty Cannon House", Reliance,
Delaware. Research by a PBS history series proved the marker was placed
on land Joe Johnson bought in 1821, and that Patty Cannon bought from
him in 1826 - but that her actual home was several hundred yards away.
Her house, built sometime in the 18th century, was torn down in 1948.
The 1939 marker has now had the words "Nearby stood" added. There
is however a newer marker:
Marker erected in 2012 by Delaware Public Archives,
John Anderws Murrell (1806
John Andrews Murrell was a notorious bandit, know as a 'land pirate'
operating along the Mississippi River. As a child Murrell and his
brothers were petty thieves, known to have stolen horses and to kidnap
slaves and sell them to other slave owners. It was for slave stealing
that, in 1834, he was sentenced to 10 years hard labour in the Tennessee
State Penitentiary. He died of pulmonary consumption just nine months
after leaving prison.
The location of his
hideout is open to question, however he symbolised Natchez Trace
lawlessness in the antibullum period and it's understandable that his
'hideouts' have been said to have been located at most of the well-known
areas of particular lawlessness along the Natchez Trace.
before he was apprehended for slave stealing, it was said he was about
to spearhead a slave revolt in New Orleans in an attempt to take over
the city and install himself as a sort of potentate of Louisiana.
In 1835 Virgil Stewart, who was the chief witness
against Murrell, wrote an account of an alleged Murrell-led slave
rebellion plot, financed by highwaymen and Northern Abolitionists. It
was published as a pamphlet titled "A History of the Detection,
Conviction, Life And Designs of John A. Murell, The Great Western Land
Pirate; Together With his System of Villany and Plan of Exciting a Negro
Rebellion, and a Catalogue of the Names of Four Hundred and Forty Five
of His Mystic Clan Fellows and Followers and Their Efforts for the
Destruction of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart, The Young Man Who Detected Him, To
Which is Added Biographical Sketch of Mr. Virgil A. Stewart."
Stewart wrote his "confession of John Murrell" under the
name "Augustus Q. Walton, Esq.," for whom he created a biography. Most
historians view Stewart's pamphlet as fictional, since Murrell and his
brothers were inept as thieves, having bankrupted their father, who
tried to make up for their misdeeds.
the pamphlet was widely believed at the time, especially in the South,
and caused the "Murrell Excitement". It definitely increased tensions
between the races and between locals and outsiders. On July 4, 1835,
there were coordinated actions in the red-light districts of Nashville,
Memphis and Natchez; twenty slaves and ten white men were hanged after
they confessed to complicity. On July 6, an angry mob in Vicksburg
gathered to expel all professional gamblers from the town, since a rumor
claimed they supported the plot. Five gamblers barricaded themselves
inside a building, refusing to come out. They shot and killed a
widely-respected doctor. They were eventually overcome and all five were
The entire episode of the
Excitement" was inspired by the depraved Virgil Stewart's
John Hart Crenshaw (1792 -
|One of Southern Illinois most famous slavers, and key operator of the
reverse underground railroad, was John Hart Crenshaw. Crenshaw grew rich off
of the slave trade operating at Shawneetown in the far southern section
of Illinois, close to both Missouri and Kentucky. He owned salt mines which were worked by indentured
servants, and he made an undisclosed fortune from arranging the
kidnapping and sales of free black families. He and his hired men would
capture free backs from the North and smuggle them across the Ohio River
into Kentucky where the would be 'sold down the river' into slavery in
the Southern States. In 1834 he had a large, eerily beautiful three story pseudo
Greek Revival style mansion built for himself in a Southern Illinois
town ironically named "Equality", some 9 miles west of
Crenshaw and his wife, Francine
Slave House" (also known as Hickory Hill and Old Crenshaw Place) sits on
a small green hill overlooking the Saline River, surrounded by miles of
beautiful pasture. The bottom two floors have wooden front balconies and
numerous windows, paned with old, wavy glass. The house is filled with
antique furniture and the opulence of the era. The second floor contains
a large ballroom where guests were entertained. A small narrow hallway
leads to the third floor, where suddenly the scenery changes. The walls
become bare, and the rooms become cells, including two whipping posts. Slaves were held here, some as
house servants, some as breeders, and some as passengers on the reverse
underground railroad, doomed to be sold back into slavery".
the house was built, a secret wagon entrance was constructed in the back
of the house. Covered wagons carrying kidnapped blacks and indentured
whites would go directly into this entry. Then the kidnapped would be
taken up the back stairs to the third floor attic of his home. There
they were imprisoned in cells, tortured, raped, whipped, and sometimes
murdered. According to local legend, there was also a secret tunnel from
the basement to the Saline River so that the kidnapped could be put on
boats quickly and inconspicuously.
Crenshaw then devised a plan to begin a slave-breeding program in
the attic. A slave named Uncle Bob was used as the stud breeder to
sire as many slaves as possible to provide Crenshaw with cargo to sell off to the south. A pregnant black
woman would bring more money at auction in a slave state. An adult
able-bodied slave could bring $400 or more. A child could be sold for
Crenshaw was indicted twice for the kidnapping of black
families. The first time was in 1825, and the second was in 1842. It is
estimated that Crenshaw stayed in the business of kidnapping for at
least 25 years.
Crenshaw was one of three defendants in the 1825
kidnapping case. Unfortunately, it is unknown what the outcome of the
trial was, let alone the identities of the victims. In 1842 Crenshaw
kidnapped Maria Adams and her children, and sold them to a man named
Lewis Kuykendall. The prosecutor had to prove that the victims had been
taken out of state for the charge of kidnapping to have any legal
meaning at the time. Although it was known that Crenshaw kidnapped Maria
and her children, it could not be proven that they had left the state.
Therefore, Crenshaw and Kuykendall were acquitted.
has it that it was during this period of time that Crenshaw brutally
beat several female slaves. In retaliation, a group of male slaves
attacked Crenshaw and during the assault Crenshaw’s leg was severed with
an axe. Following this attack, most of the slaves were sold off. The
Crenshaw’s left the house in 1850 and moved to Equality, Illinois.
Crenshaw continued farming, but also became involved in railroads and
banks. He died December 4, 1871, his wife, Sinia, in 1881. Both are
buried in a tiny, forgotten cemetery down a lonely dirt road located to
the northeast of the house. It is fitting to note that Crenshaw’s stone
has been toppled off of its pedestal, now laying flat on the ground.
Key Reverse UR
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Kidnapping began very early
in the history of the state; and although the legislature commenced as
early as 1816 to take measures against it, the practice gradually
assumed extensive proportions. The laws concerning the free blacks and
the fugitive slaves furnished effective weapons to the kidnappers in
their search for their victims.
were two chief centers through which most of the business was carried
on. One was near Shawneetown on the Ohio, and the other near
Illinoistown, now East St. Louis. From these centers the Negroes were
smuggled on the river steamers and carried down the Mississippi to be
sold by agents in the South. The profits were large, for one was sure to
get at least $100 for an able-bodied slave.
evade the laws against kidnapping, a very neat little scheme was
resorted to. The Negroes were conducted from county to county by
different relays of men and delivered at the border to non-residents of
the state, who saw to their disposition in the South. In this way no
citizen of Illinois was directly concerned in taking them out of the
The Illinois Black Laws of
1819 and 1829 did not do much for the free black population. Both laws
alleged that: an African American who migrated to Illinois without
certificate of freedom papers was considered a runaway slave and jailed.
His or her arrest was advertised for six weeks by the sheriff; and if
after one year the uncertified African American could not establish his
or her freedom, he or she was indentured for a year. If not claimed
during the year, he or she was given a certificate of freedom and
considered free unless claimed by an owner in the future.
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The Myth of a
Free State, an exploration of four Illinois counties:
McConnel, George Murray, “Illinois and It’s People”, 1902
Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865.
Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Blackmore, Jacqueline, African American and Race Relations in
Gallatin County, Illinois from the 18th century to 1870.
Ann Arbor: Proquest, 1996
L., Hipocrene Guide to The Underground Railroad, 1995, Hippocrene