A Disabled Deception: Ellen and William Craft's "Desperate Leap for Liberty"

Daisy Holder

Many thought Ellen and William were the lucky ones.

While most slaves had to work in the fields in the savage Georgia sun, Ellen worked as a ladies maid; a personal gift from father to daughter. Meanwhile, William had been apprenticed out to a carpenter, a skilled trade which made him valuable to his owner. They had met in the dying days of 1840 but didn't marry for a number of years. It ruffled feathers at the time, Ellen being as pale as she was. She was the result of the rape of her mother by their old master and was frequently mistaken for part of the family. This slave owner's solution to this problem was to give her away as a wedding present to his daughter. His plan had limited success, as even though she was out of his house, she became a trusted assistant and frequent presence. But that wasn't enough for them. They wanted to start a family but couldn't bear the idea of having children that would be at the mercy of the slave owners. William remembered the trauma of watching his entire family being separated. They couldn't allow that to happen to their own children. They made a plan to escape. It was simple, but ingenious. Rather than trying to slip away with the help of abolitionists, they would hide in plain sight. Ellen's paleness could be used to their advantage; since she worked inside, she was essentially white passing. They would dress her up as a white slave owner, with William as ‘his’ personal attendant. But there was one major stick in the mud: Ellen couldn't read or write. There was no doubt she would be expected to sign her name on a number of occasions throughout the journey, on passenger lists and tickets to confirm her identity (or not to, in this case). They came up with a brilliantly simple solution. They bandaged up her hand and put it in a sling. They couldn't possibly demand ‘he’ sign his name with such an injury, surely? Their eventual destination was Philadelphia, the centre for modern medicine in America at that time. Of course, a young rich white man would travel that distance for treatment and take his attentive servant with him!
A Disabled Deception: Ellen and William Craft’s “Desperate Leap for Liberty”
Ellen and William Craft

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It was under this pretence that they got on their first train, after leaving their owners.

They had got permission for a few days leave just before Christmas, and as they were valued slaves, this in itself wasn't too difficult for them. It gave them a buffer of a few days before anyone started looking for them. They hit a snag almost immediately. The local station seemed to be chock full of people they knew, putting them in danger of being recognised. When a friend of Ellen's mistress sat right next to her (when I bet there were loads of other seats), she immediately pretended to be Deaf; a handy tactic they reused whenever convenient to stop any conversation in its tracks. They encountered a number of people on their journey north who hilariously warned them that abolitionists would try to convince William to run away, but people were impressed at how well he cared for his sickly young master. Ellen made friends with steamer captains, rich men and guards, being invited to dinners and drinks and offered the nicest bedrooms. Her ‘disabilities’ allowed them to pass through areas quickly, avoid raising suspicion and prompted kindness from many. While there were some hairy occasions on their journey (at one point they were briefly detained) their plan worked. On Christmas Day 1848, Philadelphia gained two new residents. Ellen and William lived anxiously but happily there, becoming high profile advocates for abolition. Less than two years later the Fugitive Slave Act was made law and slave hunters were sent to capture them. They had hoped to use the couple as an example. No matter how far you run, how famous you are, we will find you and we will catch you. And so, yet again, they bundled up their lives and escaped into the unknown. "It was not until we stepped ashore at Liverpool that we were free from every slavish fear." -William Craft They lived in Britain for nineteen years- many of them spent in London- speaking and campaigning for abolition, universal suffrage and telling the story of their escape. In those years, they learned to read and write, built up a wide social circle and were frequently invited to posh dinner parties, where Ellen gained a reputation for arguing with racists who had unwittingly been sat next to her. But most importantly for them, they had 5 children and finally, the freedom and the family they had always wanted.
Ancestry UK
A Disabled Deception: Ellen and William Craft’s “Desperate Leap for Liberty”

Daisy Holder

Daisy Holder is a disability history researcher and writer from Bristol, UK. She has written for numerous publications in addition to her own website and runs the Covid Disability Archive as well as the Disability History in Pictures Instagram page.
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