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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Five (continued)
Dogs, War, and Ghosts

Secret and Dangerous Paths

Aside from the obvious danger of recapture, fugitive slaves faced a myriad of natural dangers in the woods and wilds of Pennsylvania. The Mason and Dixon line provided an invisible political boundary that, once crossed, substantially bettered the odds of achieving the ultimate goal of freedom, but its crossing did nothing to lesson the dangers from harsh weather, rugged terrain, and dangerous wild animals. In some cases, it might even have increased the danger. Freedom seekers from southern states who made their way north during the winter months often faced climate conditions far more harsh than they had ever experienced.

William Still, in the pages of The Underground Rail Road, documented numerous instances of this hardship, including the sad story of George Weems, a fifty-year-old fugitive from Charles County, Maryland. Weems escaped in early March 1857 with a younger companion from the farm of John Henry Suthern. Moving steadily northward, the duo ran out of food and encountered sharply colder weather that severely affected the older Weems. Suffering from hunger and frostbite, Weems sent his younger companion on his way while he rested and took shelter. The younger man reached the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia within a few more days, where Still recorded his story. Weems continued to struggle on, and days later reached the city limits of Philadelphia. Found suffering from cold and exhaustion by a compassionate resident, Weems was “brought by a pitying stranger to the Vigilance Committee in a most shocking condition,” Still wrote. Severe frostbite had claimed his legs and feet, to the extent that he had lost all feeling in them. Members of the Committee immediately contacted local physicians sympathetic to the organization’s activities, and though Weems rallied with the realization that he was now in free territory, his body was so damaged that within a week it became apparent that he was dying. Felled by the harsh Pennsylvania winter and buried in Philadelphia’s Lebanon Cemetery, William Still recorded George Weems as “the first instance of death on the Underground Rail Road in this region.”19

Cold Pennsylvania nights and winter winds chilled freedom seeker Robert Brown, who escaped from Martinsburg, Virginia just before Christmas 1856. His wife and four children had been sold away from him only days before, and when Brown realized he had no hope of preventing their sale, he ran away, crossing the Potomac River on horseback on Christmas night. He rode another forty miles before abandoning his horse and continuing on foot, arriving in Harrisburg after two more days. Local Underground Railroad activists discovered him and took him to their homes to feed him and exchange his freezing clothing for dry, nondescript clothing. When Brown was ready to travel again, a Harrisburg operative, possibly Joseph Bustill, arranged for his safe transport by train to the offices of the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia, where he arrived on New Years Day 1857.20

The frostbite that ultimately killed George Weems also claimed the extremities—usually toes—of many fugitive slaves. William Still, in writing about the Christmas Eve 1855 escape of three married couples from Loudon County, Virginia, noted the harsh effects the “biting frost and snow” had upon them. Two of the couples traveled by horse and carriage, but even this improvement in transportation did little to shield them from the freezing temperatures. Still described how the men “strove to keep the feet of the females from freezing by lying on them” when the party rested for the night in the snowy countryside, “but the frost was merciless and bit them severely, as their feet very plainly showed.”21 Still does not indicate if the women lost toes to the effects of frostbite, but their feet were injured enough to require them to spend time in Philadelphia in recuperation before going on to greater safety in New York and eventually Canada.

In another incident, related to him by a Delaware Underground Railroad activist, a group of thirteen fugitives arrived at a safe house in New Castle County on December 27, 1845, after traveling twenty-seven miles through a snowstorm. Many members of the party, including several children, were suffering the pain of frostbite, but the detail that most stands out, as the storyteller recalled for Still, was the image of one man who was unable to remove his boots from his feet, because they were frozen into one solid mass. The man, taking a very practical approach to this horrible discovery, simply went to the water pump to fill his boots with water, “thus he was able to get them off in a few minutes.”22

A young woman in Still’s accounts, Elizabeth Williams, lost all of her toes after spending four brutally cold nights without shelter on her journey of escape from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Fear of discovery kept her from lighting the fire that might have saved her toes from the crippling effects of the frost. William Still’s accounts are full of such incidents, as can be seen above; he probably saw more frozen flesh in a few winters at the headquarters of the Vigilance Committee than he had seen his entire life to that point.

Although Still highlighted this type of injury as a gruesome reminder of the dangers faced by fugitive slaves, frost damage to human flesh was nothing new, and can be documented in advertisements dating back to much earlier times. An advertisement for the fugitive slave Charles, a twenty-four year old man who escaped in 1738 from slaveholder Amos Strickland of Newtown, Bucks County, notes “on one of his ankles is a large scar, and his feet having been frozen he walks a little crippling.” Slaveholder Adam Galt, of Salisbury Township, Lancaster County, advertised in 1784 for his escaped slave Bill, adding the following description to the runaway ad as a means of identifying the fugitive, “the nails of his big toe have been hurt by the frost.”

In 1788, Carlisle jailor Thomas Alexander captured a black man named William, who claimed to have been one of George Washington’s slaves. Alexander described the man as being “remarkable for the abridgement of his fingers by the frost; more particularly those of his right hand.” John Richardson, a slave to William Bean in East Nottingham Township, Chester County, ran away in 1770. Bean’s runaway ad mentioned that Richardson had “one of his feet frost bitten.” Bean elaborated on the frost damage in a later ad, noting that Richardson “wants the first joint of one of his great toes.” The same injury was described as applying to John Linch, a.k.a. “Dick,” who escaped in March 1770 from David Evans of Cumru Township, Berks County.23 Though some of these injuries were evident before this instance of escape, it is probable they were sustained in a prior escape attempt, as slaveholders were not apt to keep their slaves outside in the freezing cold long enough to risk such a severe injury and the resultant loss of many days of work.

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19. William Still, The Underground Rail Road (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 51-53.

20. Ibid., 121-122.

21. Ibid., 125-127.

22. Ibid., 716.

23. Ibid., 53; Pennsylvania Gazette, 20 April 1738, 30 June, 1 December, 1784; Carlisle Gazette, 10 June 1788; Pennsylvania Gazette, 10, 24 May, 22 November 1770, 5 September 1771.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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