William and Ellen Craft

Along with Henry ‘Box’ Brown, the escape of the Crafts is perhaps the second most famous escape from American slavery. It required great daring, courage and skill, and many times both husband and wife believed they would be snatched back into the jaws of slavery, sold and separated forever.

We thought of plan after plan, but they all seemed crowded with insurmountable difficulties.

Crafts, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, London, 1860, pp.27-8

William (1824-1900) and Ellen Craft (1826-1891) were born enslaved in Georgia. Once they were married, both William and Ellen knew that their union was not recognised by the eyes of the law, and they were susceptible to be sold and separated at any time. They resolved to escape and ingeniously hatched a plan: Ellen appeared to resemble a white woman, so she cross-dressed as a male plantation owner, with William posing as her slave. Since enslaved individuals were not allowed to read or write, Ellen bandaged her right arm and pretended she had damaged it if any papers were required to be signed.

Picture of William and Ellen Craft. William and Ellen Craft (Wikipedia)

After taking several trains (with one hair-raising moment when Ellen recognised a man sitting opposite her as a guest at their master’s table) they managed to escape to Boston via the Underground Railroad. Legally, both William and Ellen were still fugitives, and were in great danger when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. Fugitive slave catchers were sent from the South to retrieve them, but William and fellow black activist Lewis Hayden met them at the door of Hayden’s house, threatening to blow them all up with dynamite if they crossed the threshold. For their safety, the Crafts sailed to England and lectured against American slavery.

For nineteen years, they lived in England, and they toured the country speaking about life in chattel slavery. They returned to the United States in 1868 and set up a farm in Georgia.

He hoped that it would not be supposed that they gloried in the deception they had been obliged to practice in order to make their escape from bondage, but when the meeting considered what a degraded condition they were in slavery, that they were mere things, chattels, liable to be sold like the beasts of the field and when they considered the happy prospect of freedom which was opened before them, he hoped that the people of England would acquit them and not charge the crime upon them, but upon the accursed system which had compelled them so to act in order to regain their God-given rights.