Betrayed by a Fortune-Teller, He Dresses Like a Woman: An Odd Tale from the Underground Railroad

Generic crystal ball/fortune teller like image

Lewis Williams… dude, what were you thinking?

Lewis Williams was a slave to one Marshall, in the State of Kentucky. He escaped when he was quite a boy, and stopped in the city of Cincinnati for several years. It was thought by some of his friends not necessary to send him to Canada, because, having escaped at an early age, he would soon grow out of his master’s knowledge. So he was permitted to remain with a friend, a short distance outside the city limits. When he came to manhood, he became acquainted with a girl, to whom he became much attached. He paid every attention to her, and thus evinced his own love; but not being very certain as to whether he was loved in return, he thought he would ascertain this piece of information from a Dutch woman, who was known in that city as a “fortune-teller.”

He proceeded to this woman’s place of business, and said to her he wanted his fortune told. She said she must first have the sum of 4s. 2d., or one dollar, before she could tell anything; and it must be paid in silver, or the cup would not turn well. Lewis at once advanced the sum required.

She then commenced by asking him to tell his origin. He began as follows:–“I was born in the State of Kentucky, and was held as a slave until a few years ago. I escaped, and came to this city.” To this the fortune-teller listened with profound attention. She asked Lewis to tell his master’s name, which he did. After further details, she was made acquainted with the post-office address of the master. She then informed Lewis that he would be successful, and that the girl was deeply in love with him. Besides, she told him in three months’ time he would be married to her. This was encouraging news to Lewis. He felt that his money had been spent for useful information.

As soon as Lewis left the house, however, she told her husband of Lewis’s revelations, and they immediately addressed a letter to Mr. Marshall, Lewis’s master, saying if he would pay them the sum of 200 dollars they would tell him where he might find his slave. Lewis’s master was glad to accept the proposal, and came immediately to Cincinnati, and paid the fortune-teller the sum required. Lewis was soon arrested by one of the marshals of the United States, and brought before Commissioner Carpenter, of the said city.

But Lewis had help in the name of Rev. William Troy, a local abolitionist. Troy notes that fortunately for Lewis, they all look alike:

The news of the arrest was soon noised abroad; and, as I went out to see what was the matter, I met the marshals having the boy in custody. I went immediately to a lawyer, John Jolliffe, Esq., who is always ready to plead in such cases, without any charge whatever. He, without delay, repaired to the court house, in order to appear as the boy’s counsel.

I went to spread the news among the coloured people of the city, in order that some plan might be devised to get the boy out of the court house, if possible. We became a sort of committee of ways and means. At last, we concluded that our best plan would be to crowd the court room, and get the prisoner free by some stratagem. There was a man in our company who was very like the prisoner in complexion, and it was arranged that he should occupy the prisoner’s place temporarily, while he should put his own hat upon the prisoner’s head, and thus allow him to make his way to freedom. The wink given Lewis was understood; the hat was placed upon Lewis’s head, and he immediately moved slowly out of the chair, and this other person took his place in the chair.

The attention of the marshal at this time was attracted by certain points in dispute between the counsel, and the prisoner by this time had made his way through the great crowd, on his hands and knees, to the door, and out he slipped and made to the forest. He went as though he was on the most urgent errand. When the point in dispute was partially settled, the marshal missed the prisoner. He exclaimed, “Where is the boy?” Some person standing at the door out of which the boy had passed, said, “The child left some time ago; no use to look, for the creature is going to the Queen; he don’t like this country,” &c. This was quite tantalising to the marshal; but the fact was, the boy was gone: and great excitement consequently prevailed throughout the city.

But Lewis was not yet gone. How would he escape? There’s always the old cross-dressing trick:

I told my friend, however, I thought I could get [Lewis] out of danger, if I could obtain from his daughter certain articles of attire. This was readily consented to. I started to his house in great haste, and fortunately found the young lady in. I told her my errand was a very important one, and at her request explained it briefly, telling her I wanted her to favour me with the loan of one of her dresses and skirts, and bonnet and veil. She immediately gave me all that I had asked for. I stood a little while and said, Miss Cordelia, I hope you will not think me rude, but I would be very glad if you could spare me an old crinoline [petticoat], if you have one. “Certainly,” she said, “you can have one,” and she went into another room, and out came a “whopping” crinoline, for which I tendered my heartfelt thanks. I repaired to my business place, the boy’s place of retreat, and went in at the back door to dress him.

I commenced to put on the things, but I found myself deficient in that line of business. I then called in two ladies of my acquaintance to take the job off my hands, and they kindly came to my relief, and dressed him neatly. Then we made him walk the floor, forward and back, to mimic (pardon it) the ladies as much as possible in their way of walking. This was carried out quite gracefully.

I then called in my eldest brother to take this supposed lady, in the afternoon, to the same chapel from which we went in the morning. They both walked out of the door of the business place, through the back yard, and passed through the crowd of policemen, apparently unnoticed. They made their way down Broadway, the veil, bonnet, and crinoline adding much to the appearance of the supposed lady.

For Lewis, there was a happy ending of sorts:

The marshal was, of course, responsible for the prisoner, and, therefore, every means was resorted to upon the part of the authorities to rearrest this boy. The sum of two hundred pounds (or one thousand dollars) was offered as a reward for his recapture. The day passed, and the boy was not, after all these efforts, retaken. On the other hand, the anti-slavery friends were fully alive to their duty to endeavour to prevent the boy’s recapture…

Lewis, in one disguise or another, was handed along from friend to friend. He was about three weeks making the journey of three hundred miles across the State of Ohio. At the end of three weeks from the disguise I gave Lewis in Cincinnati, he one day walked into the editorial room of William Howard Day, Esq., at Cleveland, the land terminus in that State of the “Underground Railroad,” and he was put upon a steamer and was safely landed in Canada, the only “land of the free.” He now lives in Canada, in the enjoyment of those rights which belong to all men. He can heartily join in singing–

“I no more dread the auctioneer,
Nor fear the master’s frown;
I’ll no more tremble when I hear
The baying of the hound.
Ah! old master!
Don’t think hard of me!
I’m now in sight of Canada,
Where coloured men are free.”

But sadly, it seems Lewis never got the girl.

This story, from the 1850s, appears in the book Hair-breadth Escapes from Slavery to Freedom, by Rev. William Troy. Troy was freeborn negro from Virginia, whose father was a slave and and whose mother was a free negro (he inherited the free status of his mother). He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually to Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Troy was a Baptist minister, an abolitionist, and conductor on the Underground. As noted here, “Troy recounts the stories of slaves who manage to escape from bondage. Many of them are, or were, Troy’s parishioners in either Ohio or Canada. Telling their stories allows Troy to repeatedly highlight the cruelty of chattel slavery and argue that ‘slaveholding is one of the greatest evidences of man’s total depravity, and nothing but moral and spiritual power can effectually tread it down’.”

Troy’s book was published in 1861. It is in the Documenting the American South (DocSouth) online collection at the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. © Copyright 2004 by the University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, all rights reserved. The Usage Statement is here.


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