Amazing slavery escape of Ellen and William Craft

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.”

The Great Escape From Slavery of Ellen and William Craft (via Making Light)


  1. The Memory Palace with Nate DiMio has an episode about the Crafts –
    Quite enjoyable.

  2. Ah, I remember some youth magazine when I was in school dramatising their story. Or was it a Scholastic novel? I can’t remember, as it was back in 1978, 1979 or thereabouts.

    Still an inspiring tale.

  3. Traveling first class was an excellent component of the subterfuge.  I hope their descendants know this is who they come from.

  4. In the actual text of their book they spend quite a few pages explaining the wretched nature of slavery and also cite examples of white people kidnapped as children and held as slaves because they could not prove they were pure white. So even though enslavement of whites was illegal, the laws were crafted to advantage the rich when they wanted to do it.

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