In a 2010 Smithsonian magazine article, Marian Smith Holmes tells the story of Ellen and William Craft, two married enslaved African-Americans who fled Georgia and made their way to Philadelphia in 1848. Ellen disguised herself as a young white man (using bandages and an arm-sling to help cover up her face and limit demands on her signing registers) and her husband William was disguised as her slave. They travelled in first-class accommodation and brazened their way past checkpoints and security measures designed to stop the likes of them, with a combination of bravery, nerves and luck. The pair later chronicled their adventure in a memoir called Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.
Pondering various escape plans, William, knowing that slaveholders could take their slaves to any state, slave or free, hit upon the idea of fair-complexioned Ellen passing herself off as his master—a wealthy young white man because it was not customary for women to travel with male servants. Initially Ellen panicked at the idea but was gradually won over. Because they were “favourite slaves,” the couple had little trouble obtaining passes from their masters for a few days leave at Christmastime, giving them some days to be missing without raising the alarm. Additionally, as a carpenter, William probably would have kept some of his earnings – or perhaps did odd jobs for others – and was allowed to keep some of the money.
Before setting out on December 21, 1848, William cut Ellen’s hair to neck length. She improved on the deception by putting her right arm in a sling, which would prevent hotel clerks and others from expecting “him” to sign a registry or other papers. Georgia law prohibited teaching slaves to read or write, so neither Ellen nor William could do either. Refining the invalid disguise, Ellen asked William to wrap bandages around much of her face, hiding her smooth skin and giving her a reason to limit conversation with strangers. She wore a pair of men’s trousers that she herself had sewed. She then donned a pair of green spectacles and a top hat. They knelt and prayed and took “a desperate leap for liberty.”
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.