Escape From A Tobacco Factory – Underground Railroad

This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still describes the physical and financial ill treatment that caused one man in bondage to flee for freedom.

Elijah Hilton was at one time flogged so badly that he was unable to work for six months. Aside from that, he was hired out for $180 for a year and received only $5 from these earnings.

Elijah had a travel pass to show he was permitted to journey to his place of work (a tobacco factory) in the evenings. The pass is reproduced in the excerpt. It may have been useful in his escape.

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 – Elijah Hilton

After many years of hard toiling for the support of others, the yoke pressed so heavily upon Elijah’s shoulders, that he could not endure Slave life any longer.

In the hope of getting rid of his bondage, by dexterous management and a resolute mind, which most determined and thoughtful men exercise when undertaking to accomplish great objects, he set about contriving to gain his freedom.

In proof of Elijah’s truthfulness, the advertisement of Mr. R.J. Christians is here offered, as taken from a Richmond paper, about the time that Elijah passed through Philadelphia on the Underground Rail Road, in 1857.

Advertisement For Elijah’s Capture


Left the Tobacco Factory of the subscriber on the 14th inst., on the pretence of being sick, a mulatto man, named ELIJAH, the property of Maj. Edward Johnson, of Chesterfield county.

He is about 5 feet 8 or 10 inches high, spare made, bushy hair, and very genteel appearance; he is supposed to be making his way North.

The above reward will be paid if delivered at my factory.


typical illustration accompanying newspaper adverts

Elijah’s Account Of His Bondage

From his infancy up to the hour of his escape, not a breath of free air had he ever been permitted to breathe.

He was first owned by Mrs. Caroline Johnson, “a stingy widow, the owner of about fifty slaves, and a member of Dr. Plummer’s church.”

Elijah, at her death, was willed to her son, Major Johnson, who was in the United States service.

Elijah spoke of him as a “favorable man,” but added, “I’d rather be free. I believe I can treat myself better than he can or anybody else.”

For the last nineteen years he had been hired out, sometimes as waiter, sometimes in a tobacco factory, and for five years in the Coal Mines.

Ill Treatment At The Tobacco Factory

At the mines he was treated very brutally, but at Cornelius Hall’s Tobacco factory, the suffering he had to endure seems almost incredible.

The poor fellow, with the scars upon his person and the unmistakable earnestness of his manner, only needed to be seen and heard to satisfy the most incredulous of the truth of his story.

For refusing to be flogged, one time at Hall’s Factory, the overseer, in a rage, “took up a hickory club” and laid his head “open on each side.”

Overpowered and wounded, he was stripped naked and compelled to receive THREE HUNDRED LASHES, by which he was literally excoriated from head to foot. For six months afterwards he was “laid up.”

Last year he was hired out for “one hundred and eighty dollars,” out of which he “received but five dollars.” This year he brought “one hundred and ninety dollars.”

Up to the time he escaped, he had received “two dollars,” and the promise of “more at Christmas.”

Left brothers and sisters, all ignorant of his way of escape.

The following pass brought away by Elijah speaks for itself, and will doubtless be interesting to some of our readers who are ignorant of what used to be Republican usages in the “land of the Free.”

Elijah’s Travel Pass

[Some states required slaves to have a travel pass if they were out and about in the evening. Of course, this meant that escape was even more difficult.

As you can see below, the pass was highly restrictive in terms.

We have a separate excerpt concerning another travel pass in Virginia.]

RICHMOND, July 3d, 1857.

Permit the Bearer Elijah to pass to and from my FACTORY, to Frederick Williams, In the Vallie, for one month, untill 11 o’clock at night.

By A.B. Wells,


What Became Of Elijah Hilton

[Elijah wrote to the Philadelphia committee to say that he had found work in Toronto. The book reproduces the letter below.]

As usual, the Vigilance Committee tendered aid to Elijah, and forwarded him on to Canada, whence he wrote back as follows:

TORONTO, Canada West, July 28.

Dear friend

In due respect to your humanity and nobility I now take my pen in hand to inform you of my health.

I am enjoying a reasonable proportion of health at this time and hope when these few lines come to hand they may find you and family the same.

Dear Sir, I am in Toronto and are working at my ole branch of business with meny of my friends.

I want you to send those to toronto to Mr Tueharts on Edward St what I have been talking about is my Clothes I came from Richmond Va and expect my things to come to you. So when they come to you then you will send them to Jesse Tuehart Edward St no 43.

I must close by saying I have no more at present. I still remain your brother,