Hidden Among Pots On The Underground Railroad

This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still describes how a fugitive escaped by steamboat to Philadelphia.

There are other accounts where steamboat stowaways have very difficult journeys because their hiding places are near the extremely hot furnace.

John Pettifoot was more fortunate as he was hidden “among the pots and cooking utensils” in the kitchen.

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. I have changed the order of some sections to make the narrative clearer. There are also some changes to the punctuation.

Excerpt – John Pettifoot

Anglo-African and Anglo-Saxon were about equally mixed in the organization of Mr. Pettifoot.

His education, with regard to books, was quite limited. He had, however, managed to steal the art of reading and writing, to a certain extent.

Notwithstanding the Patriarchal Institution of the South, he was to all intents and purposes a rebel at heart, consequently he resolved to take a trip on the Underground Rail Road to Canada.

So, greatly to the surprise of those whom he was serving, he was one morning inquired for in vain. No one could tell what had become of Jack no more than if he had vanished like a ghost.

John’s Life In Bondage

As a general thing, he had been used ‘very well;’ had no fault to find, except this year, being hired to McHenry & McCulloch, tobacconists, of Petersburg, Va., whom he found rather more oppressive than he agreed for.

And supposing that he had ‘no right’ to work for any body for nothing, he ‘picked up his bed and walked.’

His mistress had told him that he was ‘willed free,’ at her death, but John was not willing to wait her “motions to die.”

[John was wise here. There were plenty of examples in Still’s book of where the family of deceased owners had reneged on any such promises.]

He had a wife in Richmond, but was not allowed to visit her. He left one sister and a step-father in bondage.

Advertisement For John’s Capture

Doubtless Messrs. McHenry and McCulloch  [his then employers] were under the impression that newspapers and money possessed great power and could, under the circumstances, be used with entire effect.

The following advertisement is evidence, that Jack was much needed at the tobacco factory.

typical newspaper illustration for fugitives


For the apprehension and delivery to us of a MULATTO MAN, named John Massenberg, or John Henry Pettifoot, who has been passing as free, under the name of Sydney.

He is about 5 feet 6 or 8 inches high, spare made, bright, with a bushy head of hair, curled under and a small moustache. Absconded a few days ago from our Tobacco Factory.


Why John Pettifoot Escaped

Jack was aware that a trap of this kind would most likely be set for him, and that the large quantity of Anglo-Saxon blood in his veins would not save him.

He was aware, too, that he was the reputed son of a white gentleman, who was a professional dentist, by the name of Dr. Peter Cards.

The Doctor, however, had been called away by death, so Jack could see no hope or virtue in having a white father, although a “chivalric gentleman,” while living, and a man of high standing amongst slave-holders.

Jack was a member of the Baptist church, too, and hoped he was a good Christian; but he could look for no favors from the Church, or sympathy on the score of his being a Christian.

He knew very well were it known, that he had the love of freedom in his heart, or the idea of the Underground Rail Road in his head, he would be regarded as having committed the “unpardonable sin.”

So Jack looked to none of these “broken reeds” in Richmond in the hour of his trial, but to Him above, whom he had not seen, and to the Underground Rail Road.

He felt pretty well satisfied, that if Providence would aid him, and he could get a conductor to put him on the right road to Canada, he would be all right. Accordingly, he acted up to his best light, and thus he succeeded admirably, as the sequel shows.

How John Escaped

Mr. Pettifoot reached Philadelphia by the Richmond line of steamers, stowed away among the pots and cooking utensils.

On reaching the city, he at once surrendered himself into the hands of the Committee, and was duly looked after by the regular acting members.

[The Philadelphia station of the Underground Railroad usually helped fugitives travel onwards to Canada].