When slavery was legal in the United States, many slaves devised clever ways to escape their brutal captivity. One of the most daring and creative escapes was undertaken by a pair of married slaves by the names of Ellen and William Craft of Macon, Georgia.
Both of them were born as slaves in Georgia and would have had no chance of ever being freed. Williams had been sold to a Macon family to pay off his former owner’s gambling debts. Ellen, the biracial daughter of her master and another biracial slave, was given as a wedding gift to the Collins family of Macon at age 11, possibly to spare her original owners embarrassment due to her strong family resemblance.
The couple was allowed to marry, even though they were owned by different families, but they could not live together. They desperately wanted to raise a family together, but were firmly opposed to bringing more children into the cruel world of slavery. So, they planned to escape together in December of 1848.
Because of Ellen’s light complexion, she was often mistaken for a white person. Her appearance was the key to the pair’s remarkable escape plan. She cut off her hair and dressed in men’s clothes she had stolen from her master’s house the day of their getaway. In this guise, she posed as a white man and pretended William was her slave. She had to pretend to be a man since no Southern woman at the time would dare to travel alone with a male slave.
Rather than hide in the woods, where they could be tracked by bloodhounds, they decided to be as open as possible. They obtained passes from their masters to be absent for a few days, which was not hard as they were the favorite slaves of their respective families. This gave them a few days’ head start before their disappearance would be noticed. They also saved a little money that William was able to earn from his carpentry work and other small jobs. As they made their way to Savannah, where a steamboat would take them north, they stayed in nice hotels and rode in the first-class car on trains. To hide the fact that Ellen could not read or write, she put her arm in a sling so she would not have to sign hotel registers or documents. She also pretended to be ill so that people would not expect her to engage in much conversation.
They came close to discovery several times. Ellen had to endure a train ride next to a close friend of her master who knew her well. She escaped detection by pretending to be deaf for the duration of the journey. William was also nearly discovered at a train station by the owner of the shop where he worked as a carpenter. Despite all this, the couple arrived at the Philadelphia train station in the free state of Pennsylvania on Christmas Day in 1848.
The Crafts were aided by Philadelphia’s abolitionist network to move to Boston, where William could find work as a cabinetmaker and Ellen could work as a seamstress. They left the United States for England in 1851, though, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, as they feared they would be captured by bounty hunters and returned to Georgia.
William and Ellen settled in London for a time, where Ellen gave birth to five children. They also became active in England’s abolitionist movement. They often gave lectures throughout the country and even published a book about their story, called Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.
The Crafts returned to the United States in 1870, after the Civil War and the end of slavery in the country. They settled near Savannah, Georgia, where they opened a farm school for the newly freed black population. After their school was forced to close due to a decrease in cotton prices, they moved in with their daughter in Charleston, South Carolina. It was there that Ellen died in 1891. William died there in 1900.