Cordelia Loney Escapes By Legal Challenge – Underground Railroad

This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the escape of Cordelia Loney from her well-heeled and seemingly pious mistress.

The mistress had brought her servants with her for a stay in Philadelphia. But Cordelia knew that the Pennsylvanian laws might help secure her freedom.

She reached out to the local committee on the Underground Railroad. We reproduce the interesting story in this excerpt.

About The Book

“The Underground Railroad” was published in 1872. The book gives the testimonies of hundreds of slaves who escaped to freedom using the network of agents and safe houses.

The author, William Still, was a black abolitionist and businessman who was a key member of the Philadelphia stop in the freedom network.

The book is in the public domain. It can be found in the Library of Congress.

[Any headings and italicized text in the excerpt below were added by the website editor. The rest is verbatim from the book apart from some changes to the punctuation]

Excerpt – Cordelia Loney

About the 30th of March, in the year 1859, a member of the Vigilance Committee was notified by a colored servant, living at a fashionable boarding-house on Chestnut street that a lady with a slave woman from Fredericksburg, Virginia, was boarding at said house, and, that said slave woman desired to receive counsel and aid from the Committee, as she was anxious to secure her freedom, before her mistress returned to the South.

On further consultation about the matter, a suitable hour was named for the meeting of the Committee and the Slave at the above named boarding-house.

Finding that the woman was thoroughly reliable, the Committee told her “that two modes of deliverance were open before her. One was to take her trunk and all her clothing and quietly retire.”

The other was to “sue out a writ of habeas corpus; and bring the mistress before the Court, where she would be required, under the laws of Pennsylvania, to show cause why she restrained this woman of her freedom.”

Cordelia concluded to adopt the former expedient, provided the Committee would protect her.

Without hesitation the Committee answered her, that to the extent of their ability, she should have their aid with pleasure, without delay.

Walking Away With The Underground Railroad

Consequently, a member of the Committee was directed to be on hand at a given hour that evening, as Cordelia would certainly be ready to leave her mistress to take care of herself.

Thus, at the appointed hour, Cordelia, very deliberately, accompanied the Committee away from her “kind hearted old mistress.”

In the quiet and security of the Vigilance Committee Room, Cordelia related substantially the following brief story touching her relationship as a slave to Mrs. Joseph Cahell.

In this case, as with thousands and tens of thousands of others, as the old adage fitly expresses it, “All is not gold that glitters.”

Under this apparently pious and noble-minded lady, it will be seen, that Cordelia had known naught but misery and sorrow.

A Pious Mistress

Mrs. Cahell, having engaged board for a month at a fashionable private boarding-house on Chestnut street, took an early opportunity to caution Cordelia against going into the streets, and against having anything to say or do with “free n****rs in particular”;

Withal, she appeared unusually kind, so much so, that before retiring to bed in the evening, she would call Cordelia to her chamber, and by her side would take her Prayer-book and Bible, and go through the forms of devotional service.

She stood very high both as a church communicant and a lady in society.

For a fortnight it seemed as though her prayers were to be answered, for Cordelia apparently bore herself as submissively as ever, and Madame received calls and accepted invitations from some of the elite of the city, without suspecting any intention on the part of Cordelia to escape.

A Cruel Mistress

But Cordelia could not forget how her children had all been sold by her mistress!

Cordelia was about fifty-seven years of age, with about an equal proportion of colored and white blood in her veins; very neat, respectful and prepossessing in manner.

From her birth to the hour of her escape she had worn the yoke under Mrs. C., as her most efficient and reliable maid-servant.

She had been at her mistress’ beck and call as seamstress, dressing-maid, nurse in the sickroom, etc., etc., under circumstances that might appear to the casual observer uncommonly favorable for a slave.

Indeed, on his first interview with her, the Committee man was so forcibly impressed with the belief, that her condition in Virginia had been favorable, that he hesitated to ask her if she did not desire her liberty.

A few moments’ conversation with her, however, convinced him of her good sense and decision of purpose with regard to this matter.

For, in answer to the first question he put to her, she answered, that, “As many creature comforts and religious privileges as she had been the recipient of under her ‘kind mistress,’ still she ‘wanted to be free,’ and ‘was bound to leave,’ that she had been ‘treated very cruelly,’ that her children had ‘all been sold away’ from her; that she had been threatened with sale herself ‘on the first insult,'” etc.

She was willing to take the entire responsibility of taking care of herself.

On the suggestion of a friend, before leaving her mistress, she was disposed to sue for her freedom, but, upon a reconsideration of the matter, she chose rather to accept the hospitality of the Underground Rail Road, and leave in a quiet way and go to Canada, where she would be free indeed.

Accordingly she left her mistress and was soon a free woman.

Cordelia’s Sad History

The following sad experience she related calmly, in the presence of several friends, an evening or two after she left her mistress:

Two sons and two daughters had been sold from her by her mistress, within the last three years, since the death of her master.

Three of her children had been sold to the Richmond market and the other in Nelson county.

Paulina was the first sold, two years ago last May. Nat was the next; he was sold to Abram Warrick, of Richmond. Paulina was sold before it was named to her mother that it had entered her mistress’s mind to dispose of her.

Particular Cruelty To One Daughter

Nancy, from infancy, had been in poor health. Nevertheless, she had been obliged to take her place in the field with the rest of the slaves, of more rugged constitution, until she had passed her twentieth year, and had become a mother.

Under these circumstances, the overseer and his wife complained to the mistress that her health was really too bad for a field hand and begged that she might be taken where her duties would be less oppressive.

Accordingly, she was withdrawn from the field, and was set to spinning and weaving.

When too sick to work her mistress invariably took the ground, that “nothing was the matter,” notwithstanding the fact, that her family physician, Dr. Ellsom, had pronounced her “quite weakly and sick.”

In an angry mood one day, Mrs. Cahell declared she would cure her; and again sent her to the field, “with orders to the overseer, to whip her every day, and make her work or kill her.”

Again the overseer said it was “no use to try, for her health would not stand it,” and she was forthwith returned. The mistress then concluded to sell her.

Sale Of A Sick Woman

One Sabbath evening a nephew of hers, who resided in New Orleans, happened to be on a visit to his aunt, when it occurred to her, that she had “better get Nancy off if possible.”

Accordingly, Nancy was called in for examination. Being dressed in her “Sunday best” and “before a poor candle-light,” she appeared to good advantage; and the nephew concluded to start with her on the following Tuesday morning.

However, the next morning, he happened to see her by the light of the sun, and in her working garments, which satisfied him that he had been grossly deceived; that she would barely live to reach New Orleans; he positively refused to carry out the previous evening’s contract, thus leaving her in the hands of her mistress, with the advice, that she should “doctor her up.”

The mistress, not disposed to be defeated, obviated the difficulty by selecting a little boy, made a lot of the two, and thus made it an inducement to a purchaser to buy the sick woman; the boy and the woman brought $700.

Mother’s Anguish

In the sale of her children, Cordelia was as little regarded as if she had been a cow.

“I felt wretched,” she said, with emphasis, “when I heard that Nancy had been sold,” which was not until after she had been removed.

“But,” she continued, “I was not at liberty to make my grief known to a single white soul. I wept and couldn’t help it.”

But remembering that she was liable, “on the first insult,” to be sold herself, she sought no sympathy from her mistress, whom she describes as “a woman who shows as little kindness towards her servants as any woman in the States of America. She neither likes to feed nor clothe well.”

With regard to flogging, however, in days past, she had been up to the mark.

“A many a slap and blow” had Cordelia received since she arrived at womanhood, directly from the madam’s own hand.

Pleas On Deaf Ears

One day smarting under cruel treatment, she appealed to her mistress in the following strain:

“I stood by your mother in all her sickness and nursed her till she died!”

“I waited on your niece, night and day for months, till she died.”

“I waited upon your husband all my life—in his sickness especially, and shrouded him in death, etc., yet I am treated cruelly.”

It was of no avail.

Her mistress, at one time, was the owner of about five hundred slaves, but within the last few years she had greatly lessened the number by sales.

She stood very high as a lady, and was a member of the Episcopal Church.

The Overseers

To punish Cordelia, on several occasions, she had been sent to one of the plantations to work as a field hand.

Fortunately, however, she found the overseers more compassionate than her mistress, though she received no particular favors from any of them.

Asking her to name the overseers, etc., she did so. The first was “Marks, a thin-visaged, poor-looking man, great for swearing.”

The second was “Gilbert Brower, a very rash, portly man.”

The third was “Buck Young, a stout man, and very sharp.”

The fourth was “Lynn Powell, a tall man with red whiskers, very contrary and spiteful.” There was also a fifth one, but his name was lost.

Thus Cordelia’s experience, though chiefly confined to the “great house,” extended occasionally over the corn and tobacco fields, among the overseers and field hands generally.

But under no circumstances could she find it in her heart to be thankful for the privileges of Slavery.

Some Small Satisfaction In The End

After leaving her mistress she learned, with no little degree of pleasure, that a perplexed state of things existed at the boarding-house; that her mistress was seriously puzzled to imagine

  • how she would get her shoes and stockings on and off;
  • how she would get her head combed,
  • get dressed, be attended to in sickness, etc.,

…as she (Cordelia), had been compelled to discharge these offices all her life.


But with regard to Cordelia: she took her departure for Canada, in the midst of the Daniel Webster (fugitive) trial, with the hope of being permitted to enjoy the remainder of her life in Freedom and peace.

Being a member of the Baptist Church, and professing to be a Christian, she was persuaded that, by industry and assistance of the Lord, a way would be opened to the seeker of Freedom even in a strange land and among strangers.

Meanwhile, Back In Philadelphia

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Cordelia’s mistress was boo-hooing to her friends about the desperate state her fugitive slave had left her in.

One of her friends was a prominent pastor. He approached a well-connected black businessman to demand that he track down Cordelia.

You can read about the exchange in our excerpt on Thomas Dorsey defending the Underground Railroad in no uncertain terms!