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The Underground Railroad in Chester County, Pennsylvania

By Dr. Edwin Fussell

The following letter was printed in Robert C. Smedley's History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Printed at the Office of the Journal, 1883): 182-6. Dr. Edward Fussell (6 Month 14, 1813 - 3 Month 10, 1882) was one of the founders of the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. Dr. Robert C. Smedley (4 Month 5, 1832 - 1 Month 2, 1883), was born in Williston, Chester County and died in West Chester. At his death, the manuscript of his unfinished History was placed in charge of Robert Purvis and Marianna Gibbons and subsequently published by The Journal, a Quaker weekly edited by Joseph Gibbons [1].

Media, 2d Mo. 26th, 1880.

Dear Friend: I will endeavor to give a few facts in relation to the operations of the Underground Railroad in Chester county, so far as they fell within my knowledge. Although I am a center county man by birth, I only lived in that county a few years of the time when the Underground Railroad was in full operation, but knew of its workings in the West and also in Philadelphia.

I do not think there were signs, grips, signals or passes by which fugitives were known, or by which they reached in safety the various friends of freedom and agents on the route of the Underground Railroad. They were generally too well marked by the unerring signs of slavery not to be distinguished at once by any one that should see them on their way or hear them speak three sentences. The trains on this remarkable road nearly always ran in the night, and its success was owing to the darkness, the guidance of the North Star and to the earnest souls of the men and women who loved freedom, and who recognized the rights of every man to be free, and the duty of every one "to remember those in bonds as bound with them."

Those were stirring times in Chester county as elsewhere. We were surrounded by enemies; contumely and persecution were our portion; danger beset us at every step in the dark, yet there were few who bore the despised name of abolitionist that did not take up the work bravely, counting it for gain that they were able at any risk, danger, or sacrifice, "to open the prison doors to them who are bound." My heart leaps at the recollection of those earnest souls who were the fearless workers in those days and nights of peril; guiding the stricken and hunted out of Egypt into the promised land.

The movements were almost always made in the night, and the fugitives were taken from one station to another by wagon and sometimes by foot; they consisted of old men and young, women, children and nursing babes. Sometimes they came singly, sometimes by the dozen. In the middle of the night there came a low knock on the door, a window was raised softly-"Who is there?" a low, well known voice in reply-"How many?" The matter is soon arranged. Hidden away in garrets, barn, cellar, or bedroom during the next day, (or sometimes many days) and then on an auspicious night, forwarded to the next station. Clothing is changed where possible, fetters removed where necessary; wounds are dressed, hungry bodies fed; weary limbs are rested, fainting hears strengthened and then up again and away for Canada. Some were brave and willing to take risks, and, having found friends and a home, would remain, to be undisturbed and still live in Chester county, where they found shelter thirty-five years ago. Some were hunted and traced to be moved on again; some, alas, to be overtaken and carried back from Chester county in chains!

One of the earliest cases that I ever saw was an old man, moving in pain and evidently very sore. It was at the house of Esther Lewis, my wife's mother. I took him into the house and helped him remove his clothing to his hips. His back from his neck to his thighs was gridironed with seams from a recent whipping with a raw-hide, the cruel instrument of torture cutting deep into the flesh with every blow. Pressure upon the back with the end of the finger almost anywhere would cause pus to flow in a stream. His back was also scarred all over with seams and protuberances, the results of former whippings at different dates, from which one could read the history of his life of suffering as plainly as we read the Earth's history by its convoluted strata, burnt out craters, and scars on mountains of upheaval. The offense for which this poor man had received this terrible whipping, was going to see his wife, who belonged to another master; he was detected in the crime, suspended by his wrists to an apple tree limb, his feet tied together, and the end of a rail placed between to keep his body steady, and then the fiendish raw-hide fell with brute force for a hundred times. This man secured his escape to freedom.

Sometimes the slaves would escape with iron fetters upon them placed there to keep them from running away, but these were generally removed by "friends by the way" before they reached Chester county. I once had in my possession a neck ornament taken from a fugitive, an iron band an inch wide, and more than a quarter of an inch thick, with three branches each nine inches long, turned up at the end. This trinket was riveted around the man's neck, and the prongs made it impossible for him to lie down except on a block of wood or other hard substance. Ankle ornaments, made of heavy iron bands, riveted around the legs, were a common device, and often had prongs or chains and balls attached. These were so heavy as to wear into the living flesh, and yet, thus equipped, men set off on their journey to the North Star of freedom.

While living in Philadelphia, we had one day a visit from a young lady of our acquaintance. She was not accounted an abolitionist, was the daughter of wealthy parents living in one of the most fashionable mansions on Arch street. Her mother had a visit from a Southern friend who entertained her hostess with an account of her misfortune in the loss of a favorite slave who had run away from this kind mistress. She dilated upon the slave's virtues, his great value and her great loss, but she was consoled that in this world is not evil, for she had just heard of his whereabouts in West Chester and expected to capture him in a few days. The exact place in West Chester and with whom he lived was detained and the time and plan of his recovery was stated by this confiding lady. The heart of the young girl was moved; she knew no one in West Chester but she new my wife and me-and that we were abolitionists and Chester County people. She went to her own room as soon as she could leave the parlor, wrote down the names of persons and places, and hastened to our house, her face aglow with excitement as she told her story. We did not know any of the persons named in West Chester, but we knew Simon Bernard who lived there then, and we knew he was true as tempered steel. A letter went to him by the next mail; all was found as described. The slave-catchers made their appearance the next day, but "the bird had flown;" it was off to freedom on the Underground Railroad and the disappointed Southern lady thought this was but a poor world after all!

One noteworthy peculiarity of these fugitive parties was that the babies never cried. Was it that slave mothers had no time to attend to infantile wants and the children found it did not "pay" to cry, or did the timid mothers teach their little ones to tremble and be still in horrible fear as do the mother partridges impress their young with dread of the hawk as soon as they are out of the shell?

This is a large subject, and a thousandth part of its miseries and heart-breaks can never be written, but, thanks to the Father of the poor, the horror is dead, the bloodhound is no longer on the track, the Underground Railroad is no more.

Edwin Fussell.

1. The Journal, 3 Month 7, 1883, pp. 60, 61.