Criminal: In Plain Sight

Jan 20, 2017

This week's Criminal podcast tells a love story. Host Phoebe Judge talks with University of Georgia English Professor and author Barbara McCaskill about Ellen and William Craft. The couple was born into slavery, and they make a daring escape in hopes of having a proper wedding.

Like many other slaves, William was separated from his family very young. He was trained as a carpenter. More is known about Ellen. She was a mixed-race house slave, the product of her master's rape of her enslaved mother. Ellen had an affluent mannerism and was mistaken for a white woman. She was given as a wedding gift to her white stepsister.

William and Ellen met in Macon, Ga., fell in love and wanted to be wed. Slaves weren't allowed to have Christian weddings, so they jumped the broom. But the bride and groom wanted a proper wedding so badly, they decided to escape. And they'd do it in broad daylight.

The plan was to pass the light-skinned Ellen off as a rich white Southern gentleman, and William as her slave, said Judge. They spent eight days assembling a chic outfit for Ellen, who cut off her hair. They wrapped her jaw in a bandage to make it appear that she had an ailment that would prevent her from talking much, so her feminine voice would not give her away. They also bandaged her arm, so the illiterate Ellen could avoid being asked to write.

McCaskill told Judge the pair set off for Philadelphia under the ruse that Ellen's poorly alter-ego was seeking world-class medical treatment.

"Philadelphia was a major center of medicinal innovation and research," McCaskill said. "Also, fortuitously for William and Ellen, Philadelphia was in a free state. They knew that as enslaved persons that if they could make it to Philadelphia, they would be relatively free."

Ellen and William made for a pretty-convincing slave and master, but they did draw attention to themselves.  One solider on the train scolded Ellen for spoiling her slave by being polite to William.
Some young women saw believed Ellen to be an eligible and well-heeled suitor and flirted aggressively.

Despite a series of close calls, Ellen and William kept their scheme intact because of their artful abilities to read cues and play their parts.  McCaskill said those were hard-earned skills honed while growing up in slavery.

"On a daily basis as they were growing up, William and Ellen Craft learned very quickly to avoid punishment and reprisal, to mask their true feelings, to pretend they were happy when they may have felt sad," said McCaskill. "All of that practice served them when they were escaping from the South. In other words, Ellen and William had a well of talent to dig from as they were pretending to be people they were not."

The Crafts eventually made it to Philadelphia, where they became the darlings of the Abolitionist movement. But all that attention brought some negative consequences. You can hear about the commotion they caused in Boston, and their adventures in England and back in Georgia on this week's Criminal podcast.

Ciminal is recorded at WUNC.