This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” documents the escape of William Peel Jones inside a box sent by steamboat to Philadelphia.
A friend had helped him into the box and wrapped him in straw. We only know the helper’s initials: N.L.J. This true friend travelled by car to Philadelphia with the bill of lading.
The box arrived on a Saturday but would usually not be delivered onwards until Monday. The friend was rightly so concerned that he went to the docks to take the box away by furniture car.
There is an alarming moment when he points out the correct box to the steamboat officer and the fugitive inside lets out a cough! Read on…
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 – Wrapped In Straw And Boxed Up – April 1859
[The headings and text in italics were added by the website editor. The rest is verbatim from the book.]
William is twenty-five years of age, unmistakably colored, good-looking, rather under the medium size, and of pleasing manners.
William had himself boxed up by a near relative and forwarded by the Erricson line of steamers.
He gave the slip to Robert H. Carr, his owner (a grocer and commission merchant), after this wise, and for the following reasons:
For some time previous his master had been selling off his slaves every now and then, the same as other groceries, and this admonished William that he was liable to be in the market any day; consequently, he preferred the box to the auction-block.
He did not complain of having been treated very badly by Carr, but felt that no man was safe while owned by another. In fact, he “hated the very name of slaveholder.”
Excerpt – William Peel Jones’ Very Difficult Journey
The limit of the box not admitting of straightening himself out he was taken with the cramp on the road, suffered indescribable misery, and had his faith taxed to the utmost, – indeed was brought to the very verge of “screaming aloud” ere relief came.
However, he controlled himself, though only for a short season, for before a great while an excessive faintness came over him. Here nature became quite exhausted.
He thought he must “die;” but his time had not yet come.
After a severe struggle he revived, but only to encounter a third ordeal no less painful than the one through which he had just passed.
Next a very “cold chill” came over him, which seemed almost to freeze the very blood in his veins and gave him intense agony, from which he only found relief on awaking, having actually fallen asleep in that condition.
Finally, however, he arrived at Philadelphia, on a steamer, Sabbath morning.
Excerpt – The True Friend
A devoted friend of his, expecting him, engaged a carriage and repaired to the wharf for the box. The bill of lading and the receipt he had with him, and likewise knew where the box was located on the boat.
Although he well knew freight was not usually delivered on Sunday, yet his deep solicitude for the safety of his friend determined him to do all that lay in his power to rescue him from his perilous situation.
Handing his bill of lading to the proper officer of the boat, he asked if he could get the freight that it called for. The officer looked at the bill and said, “No, we do not deliver freight on Sunday;” but, noticing the anxiety of the man, he asked him if he would know it if he were to see it.
Slowly – fearing that too much interest manifested might excite suspicion – he replied: “I think I should.”
Deliberately looking around amongst all the “freight,” he discovered the box, and said, “I think that is it there.”
Said officer stepped to it, looked at the directions on it, then at the bill of lading, and said, “That is right, take it along.”
Here the interest in these two bosoms was thrilling in the highest degree. But the size of the box was too large for the carriage, and the driver refused to take it. Nearly an hour and a half was spent in looking for a furniture car.
Excerpt – Evading Disaster
Finally one was procured, and again the box was laid hold of by the occupant’s particular friend, when, to his dread alarm, the poor fellow within gave a sudden cough.
At this startling circumstance he dropped the box; equally as quick, although dreadfully frightened, and, as if helped by some invisible agency, he commenced singing, “Hush, my babe, lie still and slumber,” with the most apparent indifference, at the same time slowly making his way from the box.
Soon his fears subsided, and it was presumed that no one was any the wiser on account of the accident, or coughing.
Thus, after summoning courage, he laid hold of the box a third time, and the Rubicon was passed. The car driver, totally ignorant of the contents of the box, drove to the number to which he was directed to take it – left it and went about his business.
Excerpt – Inexpressible Delight
Now is a moment of intense interest – now of inexpressible delight.
The box is opened, the straw removed, and the poor fellow is loosed; and is rejoicing, I will venture to say, as mortal never did rejoice, who had not been in similar peril.
This particular friend was scarcely less overjoyed, however, and their joy did not abate for several hours; nor was it confined to themselves, for two invited members of the Vigilance Committee also partook of a full share.
This box man was named Wm. Jones. He was boxed up in Baltimore by the friend who received him at the wharf, who did not come in the boat with him, but came in the cars and met him at the wharf.
The trial in the box lasted just seventeen hours before victory was achieved.
Jones was well cared for by the Vigilance Committee and sent on his way rejoicing, feeling that Resolution, Underground Rail Road, and Liberty were invaluable.
What Became Of William Peel Jones?
William Peel Jones travelled from Philadelphia to Albany.
While he was in Albany, he wrote to William Still to say that he had found work in a store for sixteen dollars a month.
There is another account of a fugitive who escaped by box on a longer journey. You can find it in our excerpt about Henry Box Brown on the Underground Railroad.