Reverse Underground Railroad

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Kidnapping of a free black person, in the U.S. free states, to be sold into southern slavery, from an 1834 woodcut

The Reverse Underground Railroad is the term used for the pre-American Civil War practice of kidnapping free blacks from free states and transporting them into the slave states for sale as slaves. The Reverse Underground Railroad operated for eighty-five years, from 1780-1865. The name is a reference to the Underground Railroad, the informal network of abolitionists and sympathizers who helped to smuggle escaped slaves to freedom, generally in Canada.

Notable illegal slave trader kidnappers[edit]

From 1811-1829, Martha "Patty" Cannon was the leader of a gang that kidnapped slaves and free blacks, from the Delmarva Peninsula of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Chesapeake Bay and transported and sold them to plantation owners located further south. She was indicted for four murders in 1829 and died in prison, while awaiting trial, purportedly a suicide via arsenic poisoning.

In the 1820s-1830s, John A. Murrell led an outlaw gang in western Tennessee. He was once caught with a freed slave living on his property. His tactics were to kidnap slaves from their plantations, promise them their freedom, and instead sell them back to other slave owners. If Murrell was in danger of being caught with kidnapped slaves, he would kill the slaves to escape being arrested with stolen property. In 1834, Murrell was sentenced to ten years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary for slave-stealing.

John Hart Crenshaw was a large landowner, salt maker, and slave trader, from the 1820s to the 1850s, based out of Gallatin County, Illinois and a business associate of Kentucky lawman and outlaw, James Ford. Crenshaw and Ford were allegedly kidnapping free blacks in Illinois and selling them in the slave state of Kentucky. Although, Illinois was a free state, Crenshaw leased the salt works in nearby Equality, Illinois from the U.S. Government, which permitted the use of slaves for the arduous labor of hauling and boiling brackish water from local salt springs to produce salt. Due to Crenshaw's keeping and "breeding" of slaves and kidnapping of free blacks, who were then pressed into slavery, his house became popularly known as The Old Slave House and is thought to be haunted.


Free blacks in New York City and Philadelphia were particularly vulnerable to kidnapping. In New York, a gang known as 'the black-birders' regularly waylaid men, women and children, sometimes with the support and participation of policemen and city officials.[1] In Philadelphia, black newspapers frequently ran missing children notices, including one for the 14-year-old daughter of the newspaper's editor.[2] Children were particularly susceptible to kidnapping; in a two-year period, at least a hundred children were abducted in Philadelphia alone.[3]

Prevention and rescue[edit]

An organization called The Protecting Society of Philadelphia, an auxiliary of the Abolition Society of Philadelphia, was established in 1827 for "the prevention of kidnapping and man-stealing."[4] In January, 1837, The New York Vigilance Committee, established because any free black person was at risk for being kidnapped, reported that it had protected 335 persons from slavery. David A Ruggles, a black newspaper editor and treasurer of the organization, writes in his paper of his futile attempts to convince two New York judges to prevent illegal kidnapping, as well as a daring successful physical rescue of a young girl named Charity Walker from the New York home of her captors.[5]

From Philadelphia, high constable Samuel Parker Garrigues took several trips to Southern states at the behest of mayor Joseph Watson to rescue children and adults who had been kidnapped from the city's streets. He also successfully went after their abductors. One such case was Charles Bailey, kidnapped at fourteen in 1825 and finally rescued by Garrigues after a three-year search. Unfortunately, the beaten and emaciated youth died a few days after being brought back to Philadelphia. Garrigues was able to find and arrest Bailey's abductor, Captain John Smith, alias Thomas Collins, head of "The Johnson Gang".[6] He also tracked down and arrested John Purnell of the Patty Cannon gang.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

Illustration from Twelve Years A Slave, a memoir by Solomon Northrup, 1853: "Rescues Solomon from Hanging"

In 1853, Solomon Northrup published Twelve Years A Slave, a memoir of his kidnapping from New York and twelve years spent as a slave in Louisiana. His book sold 30,000 copies upon release.[8] His narrative was made into a 2013 film, which won three Academy Awards.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Manisha Sinha, The Untold History Beneath 12 Years, The New York Daily News, March 2, 2013
  2. ^ Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827 to 1860, Greenwood Publishing, 1993, p. 152
  3. ^ "Kidnapping in Pennsylvania", Africans in America,
  4. ^ Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827 to 1860, p. 152 Greenwood Publishing Group, 1993
  5. ^ Hutton, p. 152
  6. ^ Hutton p. 153
  7. ^ Michael Morgan, Delmarva's Patty Cannon: The Devil on the Nanticoke, Arcadia Publishing, 2015, p. 3
  8. ^ Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Summary, online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 19 July 2012
  9. ^ Cieply, Michael; Barnesmarch, Brooks (March 2, 2014). "‘12 Years a Slave’ Claims Best Picture Oscar". The New York Times.
  • Blackmore, Jacqueline. African American and Race Relations in Gallatin County, Illinois: from the 18th century to 1870. Ann Arbor: Proquest, 1996.
  • Collins, Winfield Hazlitt. The domestic slave trade of the southern states. Broadway Publishing Company, 1904.
  • Giles, Ted. Patty Cannon: Woman of Mystery. Easton Publishing Company, 1965.
  • Morgan, Michael. Delmarva's Patty Cannon: The Devil on the Nanticoke. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2015.
  • Musgrave, Jon. Slaves, Salt, Sex and Mr. Crenshaw: The Real Story of the Old Slave House and America's Reverse Underground R. R., 2004.
  • Musgrave, Jon. "Black Kidnappings in the Wabash and Ohio Valleys of Illinois", Research Paper for Dr. John Y. Simon's Seminar in Illinois History at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, April–May 1997
  • Penick, James L. The great western land pirate: John A. Murrell in legend and history. University of Missouri Press, 1981.
  • Phares, Ross. Reverend Devil: Master Criminal of the Old South. Publisher Pelican Publishing, 1941.
  • Stewart, Virgil A. The history of Virgil A. Stewart: and his adventure in capturing and exposing the great "western land pirate" and his gang... Harper and Brothers, 1836.
  • Wellman, Paul L. Spawn of Evil. Doubleday and Company, 1964.
  • Wilson, Carol. Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865. University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

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