Beyond the River: A True Story of the Underground Railroad

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9780684870656: Beyond the River: A True Story of the Underground Railroad

"Beyond the River" brings to brilliant life the dramatic story of the forgotten heroes of the Ripley, Ohio, line of the Underground Railroad.The decades preceding the Civil War were rife with fierce sectarian violence along the borders between slave and free states. The Ohio River was one such border. Here in the river towns of Ohio and Kentucky, abolitionists and slave chasers confronted each other during the "war before the war." Slave masters and bounty hunters chased runaway slaves from Kentucky into Ohio, hoping to catch their quarry before the slaves disappeared on the underground path to freedom. In the river town of Ripley, the slave hunters inevitably confronted John Rankin and his determined, courageous colleagues.One of the early abolitionist leaders, Rankin began his career when he wrote a series of letters denouncing his brother's recent purchase of a slave in Virginia. The letters were collected and published as "Letters on American Slavery" and influenced William Lloyd Garrison, among others. Rankin, a Presbyterian minister and a farmer, bought property on a high hilltop overlooking Ripley and the Ohio River. His house was visible for miles into Kentucky, and he hung a lantern at night to help guide runaways. He and his fellow abolitionists, both black and white, formed the front line of freedom, and some of them paid a high price for it.In 1838, abolitionist John B. Mahan, a colleague of Rankin's, was lured into a trap and transported to Kentucky for one of the most celebrated trials of the era. Charged with breaking Kentucky laws, even though he had not been in the state for nearly twenty years, he was imprisoned in a windowless cell for three months, shackled at his wrists and ankles. At his trial, slaveholders tried in vain to identify and break the Ripley line "conductors."Another celebrated conductor on the Ripley line, John Parker, a former slave himself, was regarded as the most daring of the Ohio abolitionists. He made dozens of trips across the river into Kentucky to bring out slaves trying to escape, risking his life and his own freedom every time.Ann Hagedorn moved to Ripley from her home in New York City to research and write this book. Ripley's historic area is little changed from antebellum days, and Rankin's house still stands high on the hill behind the town. With this enthralling and compelling book, she has restored John Rankin and the Ohio abolitionists to their proper place in American history as heroes of the Underground Railroad.

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About the Author:

Ann Hagedorn was born in Dayton, Ohio. An author and journalist, she has written for several newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, The San Jose Mercury News, and The Washington Post. She has taught at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of two previous books, Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., and Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping. She currently divides her time between Ripley, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter Eleven: Mobocracy

One hundred ninety-two delegates from antislavery societies throughout the state of Ohio journeyed to the village of Granville on April 25 and 26, 1836. Most entered the town on the very wide road known as Broadway. Past the dogwood trees that had just begun to display their pink-and-white splendor up and down Granville's main streets; past the stately houses where women and children stood in their yards to watch the reputed troublemakers, as if the ragtag troops from some distant army had invaded the town; and past the dozens of strangers from neighboring towns leaning against buildings and hitching posts, malingering and scheming, drinking and waiting. Many had never ventured farther than twenty-five miles from home, and now, in dedication to the cause they risked their lives to advance, they had traveled a hundred miles and more to this seemingly peaceful and innocent town.

Nestled among the ridges, spurs, and hollows of the hills rising above Raccoon Creek, the middle fork of the Licking River, Granville was situated at nearly the center of the state of Ohio: hence the choice of the town for this meeting of delegates from all parts of the state. By the spring of 1836, Granville was largely an antislavery town surrounded by small, intense enclaves of proslavery zealots. It was the home of two schools, the Granville Literary and Theological Institution for men, and, for women, the Granville Female Seminary. And there were several safe houses for fugitives, well known among those who worked in the underground movement. Passions had been aroused the year before, in both the academic and residential communities, when Theodore Weld passed through Granville on his statewide tour. Speaking for three nights in a row, he barbed the conscience of the town as he dodged a steady stream of rotten eggs. One of the nights, he spoke near an open window and was repeatedly covered with eggs. Each time, he would wipe the slush from his face and clothing and barely miss a beat.

Granville's roster of antislavery advocates expanded after Weld's tour, but most of the peace-loving citizens of this quiet village considered themselves to be antiabolitionists and wanted nothing to do with what they believed to be a fanatical movement. Although they did not condone slavery -- and, indeed, considered themselves antislavers -- they also did not know how to end it. Many favored gradual emancipation, and many more were advocates of colonization. And so, in November 1835, during the very same days when Rankin, Campbell, Gilliland, and others in Ripley were discussing how to shape their convictions into the context of a constitution for their new antislavery society, another group of men with a different set of values was meeting in Granville.

There, at the Methodist church, twenty-six leaders of the community, all considered men of conscience as well as property, discussed what they could do to discourage the now-imminent invasion of their town by hundreds of abolitionists. They compiled nine resolutions. And after reassuring each other that they ardently believed in freedom of speech, they wrote: "We consider discussions [that] from their nature tend to inflame the public mind -- to introduce discord and contention into neighborhoods, churches, and literary institutions, and put in jeopardy the lives and property of our fellow citizens -- to be at varience with all rules of moral duty and every suggestion of humanity." Although they condemned slavery as a menacing evil, they were critical of the abolitionists for scaring slaveholders into strengthening their opposition to emancipation. The measures of the abolitionists, they said, dangerously "strengthen and rivet the chains of the slaves and perpetuate their bondage."

Worse still, they agreed, the abolitionists should not use strident language such as "man stealers," nor should they suggest that Negroes could be educated and one day achieve a place of equality. Such beliefs were "utterly vain and delusive."

They praised the efforts of the American Colonization Society and approved its plans to transport free blacks from the U.S. to Africa, saying that "the unwillingness of the blacks of this country to emigrate to Africa is one of the strongest evidences of that degradation and imbecility which naturally results from their condition while resident among the whites." And on March 31, 1836, the Gazette of Newark, Ohio, published a proclamation signed by the mayor, village clerk, council members, and sixty-nine other citizens of Granville urging against the upcoming abolition convention.

By the morning of April 27, men from the towns and hamlets around Granville began to gather in the taverns, back alleys, and tree-lined streets of the town while the big barn north of town owned by Ashley Bancroft and dubbed by the abolitionists as the "Hall of Freedom" was coming alive with the spirit and sounds of solidarity. That the energy and passions of both groups would eventually collide seemed inevitable.

It was after the townsfolk had rejected all requests for space for the meeting that Bancroft, a thirty-seven-year-old carpenter and one of the leading abolitionists in the region, volunteered his barn, and even built a temporary addition to accommodate the expected masses. The barn was outside the jurisdiction of the mayor and village council, which meant that the delegates meeting there were not entitled to the privilege of police protection on their way to the assemblage, during it, or after it. Still, the delegation of so-called fanatics filed through the big double doors and side doors of the barn, one after another, tipping hats, shaking hands, putting faces to names. They came by the dozens, from as far as Cincinnati and Toledo, as close as Alexandria and Columbus. There were now 120 antislavery societies in Ohio, with the largest having a roster of 942 members in the town of Paint Valley, in Ross County, near Cleveland. The total enrollment of the state societies by the spring of 1836 was approximately ten thousand, out of a population of roughly 1.2 million people.

The list of delegates -- most, if not all, active in the Underground Railroad in their regions -- included: James Birney, the abolitionist editor and close friend of Rankin's who, on January 1, had issued the first edition of his new antislavery newspaper, The Philanthropist, out of New Richmond, Ohio, near Ripley; Rankin; John Isaac Mahan; Dr. Beck; Asa Mahan, formerly a Lane board member and now the president of Oberlin College; twenty-five others from that college and the town of Oberlin, including Lane Rebels Amos Dresser, Augustus Wattles, and James A. Thome; two students from the Granville Literary and Theological Institution who had become notorious for their oratorical speeches against slavery; and nineteen women, some of whom were students from the local women's academy and some delegates from antislavery societies.

On the first day of the convention, April 27, the delegates crowded the barn, finding space to sit in the hay mows, on high ladders, even on the rafters. More than one hundred spectators entered the barn, carefully watched by men assigned to guard the delegates, standing sentry at the doors of free speech and free assembly. For security, Bancroft placed a big chain across the large gate at the head of the trail leading to the barn from the road; this would require all members of the mob gathering in town to climb the fence, slowing them down and thus preventing a surprise attack on the barn. Others brought dozens of hoop poles from a local cooper's shop. By cutting each one in half, the group had an ample supply of sturdy cudgels, if necessary for self-defense. The poles were piled in a corner of the barn for all to see, and to serve as a reminder that the threat of interruptions and antiabolitionist violence was ever present.

The day commenced with a resolution from Birney "that in order to perpetuate our free institutions the subject of slavery ought to be fully discussed by the non-slaveholding states." James A. Thome delivered a speech titled "Appeal to the Females of Ohio" in which he beseeched women to stand equally with men in fighting for the rights of the oppressed and to break away from "that odious sentiment" that can shape a woman into nothing more than "a painted puppet or a gilded butterfly." James Dickey, who worked the underground with Rankin out of Greenfield, Ohio, proposed several resolutions, all of which passed.

The next morning began with the election of officers for the coming year. Alexander Campbell and James Gilliland were voted in as vice presidents; John B. Mahan and John Rankin were appointed the society's managers for Brown County. Birney and two other delegates recommended that $5,000 be raised over the next year, and as $10, $20, and $50 bills passed over heads in the crowd to the platform where Birney stood, a cry for more, for a goal of $10,000, replaced the $5,000 figure. Within minutes, the crowd raised $4,500. After the amount was announced, hundreds of men and women sang until the timbers shook, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow."

A series of resolutions followed. Then Rankin walked up the three steps to the wooden platform at the center of the barn. A light must have kindled in the depths of his eyes as he looked out onto the throng of hundreds of people united in a cause far larger than themselves. His speech focused on the obligation of the church to take a stand against slavery and began with a denunciation of every Biblical justification for slavery. From Exodus to Deuteronomy to James, he explained, the so-called slaves, which Southern-sympathizers and slaveholders were constantly noting in the Bible, were, in truth, servants. And the difference between slaves and servants was that the natural rights of servants are protected by law, whereas slaves have no such rights to be protected. The servitude in Israel was similar to apprenticeships in America, he said. It was voluntary; the servants were paid for their services; they could be held for no longer than their term of co...

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