Escape Disguised As A Woman – Underground Railroad

This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the extraordinary attempts by Charles Gilbert to escape from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia.

In order to board a steamboat, Charles had to go to the town where he was raised. His owner had put up a reward for his capture, so the danger of being recognized was great.

His hiding places included beneath a hotel, up a tree, and under the floor of a washerwoman’s house. He evaded capture from searching officers by disguising himself as a woman.

Eventually, he boarded the boat and arrived in Philadelphia where he was helped by the local committee of the Underground Railroad.

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 nearly verbatim from the book. There are some changes to the punctuation.

Excerpt – Charles Gilbert

In 1854 Charles was owned in the city of Richmond by Benjamin Davis, a notorious negro trader.

Charles was quite a “likely-looking article,” not too black or too white, but rather of a nice “ginger-bread color.”

Davis was of opinion that this “article” must bring him a tip-top price. For two or three months the trader advertised Charles for sale in the papers, but for some reason or other Charles did not command the high price demanded.

While Davis was thus daily trying to sell Charles, Charles was contemplating how he might escape.

Being uncommonly shrewd he learned something about a captain of a schooner from Boston, and determined to approach him with regard to securing a passage.

The captain manifested a disposition to accommodate him for the sum of ten dollars, provided Charles could manage to get to Old Point Comfort, there to embark.

The Point was about one hundred and sixty miles distant from Richmond.

A man of ordinary nerve would have declined this condition unhesitatingly. On the other hand it was not Charles’ intention to let any offer slide; indeed he felt that he must make an effort, if he failed.

He could not see how his lot could be made more miserable by attempting to flee. In full view of all the consequences he ventured to take the hazardous step, and to his great satisfaction he reached Old Point Comfort safely.

Too Well Known

In that locality he was well known, unfortunately too well known, for he had been raised partly there, and, at the same time, many of his relatives and acquaintances were still living there.

These facts were evidently well known to the trader, who unquestionably had snares set in order to entrap Charles should he seek shelter among his relatives, a reasonable supposition.

Charles had scarcely reached his old home before he was apprised of the fact that the hunters and watch dogs of Slavery were eagerly watching for him.

Even his nearest relatives, through fear of consequences had to hide their faces as it were from him.

None dare offer him a night’s lodging, scarcely a cup of water, lest such an act might be discovered by the hunters, whose fiendish hearts would have found pleasure in meting out the most dire punishments to those guilty of thus violating the laws of Slavery.

The prospect, if not utterly hopeless, was decidedly discouraging. The way to Boston was entirely closed. A “reward of $200” was advertised for his capture.

For the first week after arriving at Old Point he entrusted himself to a young friend by the name of E.S. The fear of the pursuers drove him from his hiding-place at the expiration of the week.

Thence he sought shelter neither with kinfolks, Christians, nor infidels, but in this hour of his calamity he made up his mind that he would try living under a large hotel for a while.

Hidden In A Hotel

Having watched his opportunity, he managed to reach Higee hotel, a very large house without a cellar, erected on pillars three or four feet above the ground.

One place alone, near the cistern, presented some chance for a hiding-place, sufficient to satisfy him quite well under the circumstances. This dark and gloomy spot he at once willingly occupied rather than return to Slavery.

In this refuge he remained four weeks. Of course he could not live without food; but to communicate with man or woman would inevitably subject him to danger.

Charles’ experience in the neighborhood of his old home left no ground for him to hope that he would be likely to find friendly aid anywhere under the shadow of Slavery.

In consequence of these fears he received his food from the “slop tub,” securing this diet in the darkness of night after all was still and quiet around the hotel.

To use his own language, the meals thus obtained were often “sweet” to his taste.

Disturbed By An Irish Boy Hunting Chickens

One evening, however, he was not a little alarmed by the approach of an Irish boy who came under the hotel to hunt chickens.

While prowling around in the darkness he appeared to be making his way unconsciously to the very spot where Charles was reposing. How to meet the danger was to Charles’ mind at first very puzzling, there was no time now to plan.

As quick as thought he feigned the bark of a savage dog accompanied with a furious growl and snarl which he was confident would frighten the boy half out of his senses, and cause him to depart quickly from his private apartment.

The trick succeeded admirably, and the emergency was satisfactorily met, so far as the boy was concerned, but the boy’s father hearing the attack of the dog, swore that he would kill him.

Charles was a silent listener to the threat, and he saw that he could no longer remain in safety in his present quarter.

Hiding Up A Tree

Illustration from the book

So that night he took his departure for Bay Shore.

Here he decided to pass a day in the woods, but the privacy of this place was not altogether satisfactory to Charles’ mind; but where to find a more secure retreat he could not – dared not – venture to ascertain that day.

It occurred to him, however, that he would be much safer up a tree than hid in the bushes and undergrowth. He therefore climbed up a large acorn tree and there passed an entire day in deep meditation.

No gleam of hope appeared, yet he would not suffer himself to think of returning to bondage.

Helped By A Washerwoman

In this dilemma he remembered a poor washer-woman named Isabella, a slave who had charge of a wash-house. With her he resolved to seek succor. 

Leaving the woods he proceeded to the wash-house and was kindly received by Isabella, but what to do with him or how to afford him any protection she could see no way whatever.

The schooling which Charles had been receiving a number of weeks in connection with the most fearful looking-for of the threatened wrath of the trader made it much easier for him than for her to see how he could be provided for.

A room and comforts he was not accustomed to. Of course he could not expect such comforts now.

Like many another escaping from the relentless tyrant, Charles could contrive methods which to his venturesome mind would afford hope, however desperate they might appear to others.

Under The Floor Of The Wash House

He thought that he might be safe under the floor.

To Isabella the idea was new, but her sympathies were strongly with Charles, and she readily consented to accommodate him under the floor of the wash-house.

Isabella and a friend of Charles, by the name of John Thomas, were the only persons who were cognizant of this arrangement.

The kindness of these friends, manifested by their willingness to do anything in their power to add to the comfort of Charles, was proof to him that his efforts and sufferings had not been altogether in vain.

He remained under the floor two weeks, accessible to kind voices and friendly ministrations. At the end of this time his repose was again sorely disturbed by reports from without that suspicion had been awakened towards the wash-house.

Six Officers Hunt For Charles

How this happened neither Charles nor his friends could conjecture.

But the arrival of six officers whom he could hear talking very plainly in the house, whose errand was actually to search for him, convinced him that he had never for a single moment been in greater danger.

The officers not only searched the house, but they offered his friend John Thomas $25 if he would only put them on Charles’ track.

John professed to know nothing; Isabella was equally ignorant.

Discouraged with their efforts on this occasion, the officers gave up the hunt and left the house.

Charles, however, had had enough of the floor accommodations. He left that night and returned to his old quarters under the hotel.

Here he stayed one week, at the expiration of which time the need of fresh air was so imperative, that he resolved to go out at night to Allen’s cottage and spend a day in the woods.

Hiding In A Thicket

He had knowledge of a place where the undergrowth and bushes were almost impenetrable. To rest and refresh himself in this thicket he felt would be a great comfort to him.

Without serious difficulty he reached the thicket, and while pondering over the all-absorbing matter as to how he should ever manage to make his escape, an old man approached.

Now while Charles had no reason to think that he was sought by the old intruder, his very near approach admonished him that it would neither be safe nor agreeable to allow him to come nearer.

Charles remembering that his trick of playing the dog, when previously in danger under the hotel, had served a good end, thought that it would work well in the thicket.

So he again tried his power at growling and barking hideously for a moment or two, which at once caused the man to turn his course. Charles could hear him distinctly retreating, and at the same time cursing the dog.

The owner of the place had the reputation of keeping “bad dogs,” so the old man poured out a dreadful threat against “Stephens’ dogs,” and was soon out of the reach of the one in the thicket.

From A Marsh Back To The Hotel

Notwithstanding his success in frightening off the old man, Charles felt that the thicket was by no means a safe place for him. He concluded to make another change.

This time he sought a marsh; two hours’ stay there was sufficient to satisfy him, that that too was no place to tarry in, even for a single night.

He, therefore, left immediately.

A third time, he returned to the hotel, where he remained only two days.

A Mother’s Aid

His appeals had at last reached the heart of his mother—she could no longer bear to see him struggling, and suffering, and not render him aid, whatever the consequences might be.

If she at first feared to lend him a helping hand, she now resolutely worked with a view of saving money to succor him. Here the prospect began to brighten.

A passage was secured for him on a steamer bound for Philadelphia. One more day, and night must elapse, ere he could be received on board.

The joyful anticipations which now filled his breast left no room for fear; indeed, he could scarcely contain himself; he was drunk with joy.

In this state of mind he concluded that nothing would afford him more pleasure before leaving, than to spend his last hours at the wash house, “under the floor.” To this place he went with no fear of hunters before his eyes.

Charles had scarcely been three hours in this place, however, before three officers came in search of him. Two of them talked with Isabella, asked her about her “boarders,” etc.

In the meanwhile, one of them uninvited, made his way upstairs.

It so happened, that Charles was in this very portion of the house. His case now seemed more hopeless than ever.

Escape Disguised As A Woman

The officer upstairs was separated from him simply by a thin curtain.

Women’s garments hung all around. Instead of fainting or surrendering, in the twinkling of an eye, Charles’ inventive intellect, led him to enrobe himself in female attire.

Here, to use his own language, a “thousand thoughts” rushed into his mind in a minute.

The next instant he was going downstairs in the presence of the officers, his old calico dress, bonnet and rig, attracting no further attention than simply to elicit the following simple questions:

“Whose gal are you?” “Mr. Cockling’s, sir.”

“What is your name?” “Delie, sir.” “

Go on then!” said one of the officers.

And on Charles went to avail himself of the passage on the steamer which his mother had procured for him for the sum of thirty dollars.

Delayed In Norfolk

In due time, he succeeded in getting on the steamer. But he soon learned, that her course was not direct to Philadelphia, but that some stay would be made in Norfolk, Va.

Although disappointed, yet this being a step in the right direction, he made up his mind to be patient. He was delayed in Norfolk four weeks.

From the time Charles first escaped, his owner (Davis the negro trader), had kept a standing reward of $550 advertised for his recovery.

This showed that Davis was willing to risk heavy expenses for Charles as well as gave evidence that he believed him still secreted either about Richmond, Petersburg, or Old Point Comfort.

In this belief he was not far from being correct, for Charles spent most of his time in either of these three places, from the day of his escape until the day that he finally embarked.

At last, the long looked-for hour arrived to start for Philadelphia.

Charles Family

He was to leave his mother, with no hope of ever seeing her again, but she had purchased herself and was called free. Her name was Margaret Johnson.

Three brothers likewise were ever in his thoughts, (in chains), “Henry,” “Bill,” and “Sam,” (half brothers).

But after all the hope of freedom outweighed every other consideration, and he was prepared to give up all for liberty. To die rather than remain a slave was his resolve.

Arriving In Philadelphia At Last

Charles arrived per steamer, from Norfolk, on the 11th day of November, 1854.

The Richmond papers bear witness to the fact, that Benjamin Davis advertised Charles Gilbert, for mouths prior to this date, as has been stated in this narrative.

As to the correctness of the story, all that the writer has to say is, that he took it down from the lips of Charles, hurriedly, directly after his arrival, with no thought of magnifying a single incident.

On the contrary, much that was of interest in the story had to be omitted. Instead of being overdrawn, not half of the particulars were recorded.

Had the idea then been entertained, that the narrative of this young slave-warrior was to be brought to light in the manner and time that it now is, a far more thrilling account of his adventures might have been written.

Other colored men who knew both Davis and Charles, as well as one man ordinarily knows another, rejoiced at seeing Charles in Philadelphia, and they listened with perfect faith to his story.

So marvellous were the incidents of his escape, that his sufferings in Slavery, previous to his heroic struggles to throw off the yoke, were among the facts omitted from the records. While this may be regretted it is, nevertheless, gratifying on the whole to have so good an account of him as was preserved.

It is needless to say, that the Committee took especial pleasure in aiding him, and listening to so remarkable a story narrated so intelligently by one who had been a slave.