This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still describes how a young man sent his friend to Baltimore to rescue his beloved from bondage.
Matilda Mahoney was the young lady who was spirited away to the Philadelphia stop of the Underground Railroad. By chance, several fugitives arrived on the same day as Matilda.
The local committee that helped fugitives was very worried about slave-catchers. They made sure that the escapees took different routes as they traveled further north.
You will see in the excerpt that the concern was justified, as three were caught.
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 – Rare Incursions Into The Land Of Bondage
While many sympathized with the slave in his chains, and freely wept over his destiny, or gave money to help buy his freedom, but few could be found who were willing to take the risk of going into the South, and standing face to face with Slavery, in order to conduct a panting slave to freedom.
The undertaking was too fearful to think of in most cases.
But there were instances when men and women too, moved by the love of freedom, would take their lives in their hands, beard the lion in his den, and nobly rescue the oppressed.
Such an instance is found in the case of Matilda Mahoney, in Baltimore. The story of Matilda must be very brief, although it is full of thrilling interest.
Matilda’s Fear Of The Auction Block
She was twenty-one years of age in 1854, when she escaped and came to Philadelphia, a handsome young woman, of a light complexion, quite refined in her manners, and in short, possessing great personal attractions.
But her situation as a slave was critical, as will be seen.
Her claimant was Wm. Rigard, of Frederick, Md., who hired her to a Mr. Reese, in Baltimore; in this situation her duties were general housework and nursing.
With these labors, she was not, however, so much dissatisfied as she was with other circumstances of a more alarming nature: her old master was tottering on the verge of the grave, and his son, a trader in New Orleans.
These facts kept Matilda in extreme anxiety. For two years prior to her escape, the young trader had been trying to influence his father to let him have her for the Southern market; but the old man had not consented.
Of course the trader knew quite well, that an “article” of her appearance would command readily a very high price in the New Orleans market.
Matilda’s Young Man And His Faithful Friend
But Matilda’s attractions had won the heart of a young man in the North, one who had known her in Baltimore in earlier days, and this lover was willing to make desperate efforts to rescue her from her perilous situation.
Whether or not he had nerve enough to venture down to Baltimore to accompany his intended away on the Underground Rail Road, his presence would not have aided in the case.
He had, however, a friend who consented to go to Baltimore on this desperate mission. The friend was James Jefferson, of Providence, R.I.
[I assume that James Jefferson was either white or so light complexioned that the could pass for so in Baltimore.]
With the strategy of a skilled soldier, Mr. Jefferson hurried to the Monumental City, and almost under the eyes of the slave-holders, and slave-catchers, despite of pro slavery breastworks, seized his prize and speeded her away on the Underground Railway, before her owner was made acquainted with the fact of her intended escape.
Arrival Into Philadelphia
[Matilda arrived on the same day that other fugitives reached the Philadelphia committee of the Underground Railroad. The more they had to transport, the greater the danger of capture. Indeed, three were seized on that day.]
On Matilda’s arrival at the station in Philadelphia, several other passengers from different points, happened to come to hand just at that time, and gave great solicitude and anxiety to the Committee.
While it was a great gratification to have travelers coming along so fast, and especially to observe in every countenance, determination, rare manly and womanly bearing, with remarkable intelligence, it must be admitted, that the acting committee felt at the same time, a very lively dread of the slave-hunters, and were on their guard.
Arrangements were made to send the fugitives on by different trains, and in various directions.
Matilda and all the others with the exception of the father and two sons (relatives of Dr. Pennington) successfully escaped and reached their longed-for haven in a free land.
The Sad Fate Of Other Fugitives
[As you have just read, three of the other fugitives were captured. I include the excerpt below to show the dangers of escape.]
Hyena-like the slave-hunters pounced upon all three of them, and soon had them hand-cuffed and hurried off to a United States’ Commissioner’s office.
Armed with the Fugitive Law, and a strong guard of officers to carry it out, resistance would have been simply useless.
Ere the morning sun arose the sad news was borne by the telegraph wires to all parts of the country of this awful calamity on the Underground Rail Road.