This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” documents the escape of Susan Brooks by being smuggled on a steamship.
The details are fairly scanty in this account. However, there is a very interesting description of the typical method of smuggling female fugitives by steamship.
Of course, part of this was having an inside man on the boat i.e. a steward or other worker who was also an agent for the Underground Railroad. But the women still had to get themselves on board the ship. The method was as simple as it was ingenious!
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.
Excerpt – Escape Of Susan Brooks By Steamship
Susan…was from Norfolk.
Her toil, body and strength were claimed by Thomas Eckels, Esq., a man of wealth and likewise a man of intemperance. With those who regarded Slavery as a “divine institution,” intemperance was scarcely a mote, in the eyes of such.
For sixteen years, Susan had been in the habit of hiring her time, for which she was required to pay five dollars per month. As she had the reputation of being a good cook and chambermaid, she was employed steadily, sometimes on boats. This sum may therefore be considered reasonable.
Owing to the death of her husband, about a year previous to her escape, she had suffered greatly, so much so, that on two or three occasions, she had fallen into alarming fits,—a fact by no means agreeable to her owner, as he feared that the traders on learning her failing health would underrate her on this account.
But Susan was rather thankful for these signs of weakness, as she was thereby enabled to mature her plans and thus to elude detection.
Determined To Flee
Her son having gone on ahead to Canada about six months in advance of her, she felt that she had strong ties in the goodly land.
Every day she remained in bondage, the cords bound her more tightly, and “weeks seemed like months, and months like years,” so abhorrent had the peculiar institution become to her in every particular.
In this state of mind, she saw no other way, than by submitting to be secreted, until an opportunity should offer, via the Underground Rail Road.
So for four months, like a true and earnest woman, she endured a great “fight of affliction,” in this horrible place.
But the thought of freedom enabled her to keep her courage up, until the glad news was conveyed to her that all things were ready, providing that she could get safely to the boat, on which she was to be secreted.
How she succeeded in so doing the record book fails to explain.
How Women Were Smuggled By Steamship
One of the methods, which used to succeed very well, in skillful and brave hands, was this:
In order to avoid suspicion, the woman intending to be secreted, approached the boat with a clean ironed shirt on her arm, bare headed and in her usual working dress, looking good-natured of course, and as if she were simply conveying the shirt to one of the men on the boat.
The attention of the officer on the watch would not for a moment be attracted by a custom so common as this.
Thus safely on the boat, the man whose business it was to put this piece of property in the most safe Underground Rail Road place, if he saw that every thing looked favorable, would quickly arrange matters without being missed from his duties.
In numerous instances, officers were outwitted in this way.
End Of Susan’s Account
As to what Susan had seen in the way of hardships, whether in relation to herself or others, her story was most interesting; but it may here be passed in order to make room for others.
She left one sister, named Mary Ann Tharagood, who was wanting to come away very much.
Susan was a woman of dark color, round built, medium height, and about forty years of age when she escaped in 1854.