This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the escape of Lear Green concealed in a chest on the deck of a steamboat.
Lear had accepted a proposal of marriage but was determined not to start a family in bondage. To escape, she spent eighteen hours in hiding.
Lear wasn’t on her own in this endeavor. She enlisted the help of the mother of her betrothed who was a free woman. That lady also put herself in considerable danger by buying a ticket and traveling on the ship.
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.
Advertisement For Capture
The book reproduced the advertisement in a newspaper about Lear Green, a runaway slave. A reward was offered for her capture.
Ran away from the subscriber, on Sunday night, 27th inst., my NEGRO GIRL, Lear Green, about 18 years of age, black complexion, round-featured, good-looking and ordinary size.
She had on and with her when she left, a tan-colored silk bonnet, a dark plaid silk dress, a light mouslin delaine, also one watered silk cape and one tan colored cape.
I have reason to be confident that she was persuaded off by a negro man named Wm. Adams, black, quick spoken, 5 feet 10 inches high, a large scar on one side of his face, running down in a ridge by the corner of his mouth, about 4 inches long, barber by trade, but works mostly about taverns, opening oysters, &c.
He has been missing about a week; he had been heard to say he was going to marry the above girl and ship to New York, where it is said his mother resides.
The above reward will be paid if said girl is taken out of the State of Maryland and delivered to me; or fifty dollars if taken in the State of Maryland.
No. 153 Broadway, Baltimore.
Lear Green’s Account
Lear Green, so particularly advertised in the “Baltimore Sun” by “James Noble,” won for herself a strong claim to a high place among the heroic women of the nineteenth century.
In regard to description and age the advertisement is tolerably accurate, although her master might have added, that her countenance was one of peculiar modesty and grace. Instead of being “black,” she was of a “dark-brown color.”
Of her bondage she made the following statement:
She was owned by “James Noble, a Butter Dealer” of Baltimore. He fell heir to Lear by the will of his wife’s mother, Mrs. Rachel Howard, by whom she had previously been owned.
Lear was but a mere child when she came into the hands of Noble’s family. She, therefore, remembered but little of her old mistress.
Her young mistress, however, had made a lasting impression upon her mind; for she was very exacting and oppressive in regard to the tasks she was daily in the habit of laying upon Lear’s shoulders, with no disposition whatever to allow her any liberties. At least Lear was never indulged in this respect.
In this situation a young man by the name of William Adams proposed marriage to her.
This offer she was inclined to accept, but disliked the idea of being encumbered with the chains of slavery and the duties of a family at the same time.
After a full consultation with her mother and also her intended upon the matter, she decided that she must be free in order to fill the station of a wife and mother.
For a time dangers and difficulties in the way of escape seemed utterly to set at defiance all hope of success.
Whilst every pulse was beating strong for liberty, only one chance seemed to be left, the trial of which required as much courage as it would to endure the cutting off the right arm or plucking out the right eye.
Escape Concealed In A Chest
An old chest of substantial make, such as sailors commonly use, was procured.
A quilt, a pillow, and a few articles of raiment, with a small quantity of food and a bottle of water were put in it, and Lear placed therein.
Strong ropes were fastened around the chest and she was safely stowed amongst the ordinary freight on one of the Erricson line of steamers.
A Brave Future Mother-In-Law
Her intended’s mother, who was a free woman, agreed to come as a passenger on the same boat. How could she refuse?
The prescribed rules of the Company assigned colored passengers to the deck. In this instance it was exactly where this guardian and mother desired to be—as near the chest as possible.
Once or twice, during the silent watches of the night, she was drawn irresistibly to the chest, and could not refrain from venturing to untie the rope and raise the lid a little, to see if the poor child still lived, and at the same time to give her a breath of fresh air.
Without uttering a whisper, that frightful moment, this office was successfully performed. That the silent prayers of this oppressed young woman, together with her faithful protector’s, were momentarily ascending to the ear of the good God above, there can be no question.
Nor is it to be doubted for a moment but that some ministering angel aided the mother to unfasten the rope, and at the same time nerved the heart of poor Lear to endure the trying ordeal of her perilous situation.
The Courage Of Lear Green
She declared that she had no fear.
After she had passed eighteen hours in the chest, the steamer arrived at the wharf in Philadelphia.
And in due time the living freight was brought off the boat, and at first was delivered at a house in Barley street, occupied by particular friends of the mother.
Subsequently chest and freight were removed to the residence of the writer [William Still], in whose family she remained several days under the protection and care of the Vigilance Committee.
Such hungering and thirsting for liberty, as was evinced by Lear Green, made the efforts of the most ardent friends, who were in the habit of aiding fugitives, seem feeble in the extreme.
Of all the heroes in Canada, or out of it, who have purchased their liberty by downright bravery, through perils the most hazardous, none deserve more praise than Lear Green.
She remained for a time in this family, and was then forwarded to Elmira. In this place she was married to William Adams, who has been previously alluded to.
They never went to Canada, but took up their permanent abode in Elmira.
The brief space of about three years only was allotted her in which to enjoy freedom, as death came and terminated her career.
About the time of this sad occurrence, her mother-in-law died in this city.