Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Just finished reading - Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad by Randolph Paul Runyon

One of the reasons that the Underground Railroad retains such a strong hold on America's historical memory is the fact that many of the stories associated with it are simply fascinating. This is one of those stories. It has just about everything that makes for a great narrative...close escapes, scorned love, sacrifices, and vengeance.

Delia Webster was born in Vergennes, Vermont in 1817. She had a brief education at Oberlin College before engaging in some unknown impropriety and was asked to leave in 1842. That same year Webster came to Kentucky where she taught painting classes with a couple by the last name of Spencer. They traveled about the bluegrass region teaching their art and also most certainly helped runaway slaves find their way to the Ohio River. Webster and the Spencers moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 1843 and opened up a girl's school. The Spencers eventually moved on, but Webster's academy became one of the most popular in Lexington.

Newly arrived Calvin Fairbank, a Methodist Episcopal minister and a graduate of Oberlin, asked fellow boarding house resident Webster to help a slave, Gilson Berry, escape to Ohio. Their plans for escape did not work out due to difficulty in getting Berry's wife to go, so a different slave that had expressed interest in escaping, Lewis Grant (later named Lewis Hayden), and his wife and child were selected to make the trip.

After attempting to establish the alibi that they were helping a couple of friends elope to Ohio, Fairbank, Webster, and the Haydens (who had been powdered with flour to make them appear white) made their way to Maysville, Kentucky in a rented horse and carriage. Unfortunately one of the horses was sick and had to be changed out on their way north. It was unfortunate because the had to stop and were therefore witnessed. After Fairbank ferried the Haydens to the Ohio side of the river he returned to the Kentucky side, picked up Webster who he had left there, and they headed back to Lexington. Hayden's wife and son had been quickly noticed as missing and their owner at once started asking about town who had rented any carriages. It was found that Fairbank had rented one and also where he had planned on going. The carriage owner and slaves' owner set out to find Fairbank and Webster.

The two were located near Paris, Kentucky and were followed back to Lexington by their pursuers. In Lexington they were apprehended and put in jail. Incriminating letters were found by Webster's landlady and both were eventually put on trial. Webster and Fairbank were both found guilty of aiding runaway slaves. She was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary in Frankfort. Fairbank was sentenced to fifteen years in the same facility; five years for each slave he helped runaway.

State prison warden Newton Craig both pitied and fawned over Webster while she in prison even though he was married and had children. He would soon help her be released after serving less than two months of her sentence. She returned to Vermont, but quickly found her way back to Madison, Indiana where she was set up with living quarters by none other than her former prison warden Craig. He not only provided her a place to live, but he also entrusted his children to her care to be educated in Madison. In 1852 she purchased a large farm in Trimble County, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Madison.

Shortly after moving to the farm a number of area slaves started missing. Webster was the glaring suspect and she was warned again to leave Kentucky. She remained defiant, stayed her ground, and encountered Kentucky mobs more than once. She was arrested for her alleged crimes and placed in the jail in Bedford, Kentucky. After a short stay in jail, she was released and she returned to her farm.

Calvin Fairbank was released from prison in 1849 because a grateful Lewis Hayden had paid off his former master, and thus Fairbank acquired a pardon. Fairbank's freedom was short lived though because in 1851 he helped a female Louisville slave, Tamar, escape to Indiana and was again arrested and put in the state penitentiary. Fairbank would have much longer stay this time. He would not be released until 1864. Fairbank married in the late 1860s and moved to Massachusetts where he ran a bakery and eventfully died in 1898.

Webster continued her free farm dream after being released from the Bedford jail, but was again indicted 1854 for her role in helping Hayden's wife and son escape. Her original conviction in 1844 was for her role in Lewis Hayden's escape only. She eluded her would be captors and made a quick escape to Indiana. This latest indictment had been produced by her scorned benefactor; Newton Craig. Webster hid out in the Jefferson County, Indiana countryside for a number of days by sympathetic Hoosiers. She was eventually tried in Madison on whether she would be turned over to Kentucky officials or not. During the trial the town turned against Craig and the other Kentuckians there, and at the Madison wharf Newton Craig was shot, but survived. Webster left for Vermont for an undetermined amount of time, but returned to Madison as the Civil War started. She still owned her Kentucky farm, but did not live there. In 1861 she was apparently living in a Cincinnati boarding house. After the Civil War Webster moved to Iowa, and lived a rather quite life until she died in 1902.

Runyon is a french professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which hardly seems like a qualification for writing a work on American history, but his research is well documented and his ability to tell this story well is evident after the first page. I highly recommend this to anyone, whether a history enthusiast or not. I sincerely believe that anyone who likes an engaging story will find this book to their liking.

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