Evading the "Human Hounds" - Frederick Douglass's dramatic flight to freedom

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Focuses on Frederick Douglas's intricate and dangerous escape from slavery


Evading the "Human Hounds"

Frederick Douglass's dramatic flight to freedom


"Minutes were hours, and hours were days," Frederick Douglas reflected in a memoir.He was reliving his daring 1838 escape through the proslavery states of Maryland and Delaware.  He had already pulled off the gutsy maneuver of fooling a train conductor, but knew peril lurked down the track. As the train pulled near the Delaware border, Frederick's senses took in every sight and sound.  He knew that slave-catchers, whom he described as "human hounds," awaited their prey in the border areas.  "The heart of no fox or deer with hungry hounds on his tail in full chase," he declared, "could have beaten more anxiously or noisily than did mine from the time I left Baltimore, until I reached Philadelphia."

Frederick prayed his good fortune would hold out until he reached the free state of Pennsylvania.  It had to be wearing thin, he surmised, since it had already saved him from near disaster with the conductor.  He knew that many Baltimore residents had a soft spot for sailors because their city was a seaport.  With the indispensible help of a local free black woman, Anna Murray, Frederick had obtained a makeshift sailor outfit and was provided with some money for his escape.  During their planning, the relationship began to take on a romantic aspect.  Although he had no "free papers" to prove he was a freeman, he had managed to borrow a friend's sailor's protection document, which allowed free passage from port to port.

Through several years of slavery, he had toiled among sailors on the Baltimore docks.  This experience would prove invaluable to him.  "I knew a ship from stem to stern and from keelson to cross-trees," he reflected, "and could talk sailor like an old salt." Despite his inner turmoil, Frederick managed to assume a casual self-possessed stance as the train conductor approached.  His sailor garb brought a slight smile to the conductor's face.  In a friendly tone, the conductor inquired, "I suppose you have your free papers?"

"No sir," Frederick responded with as much of a cocky sailor attitude as he could muster, "I never carry my free papers to sea with me."  The conductor nodded in understanding and asked if he had something else to show he was a freeman.  Frederick calmed his trembling hands and produced his friend's sailor's protection paper.  The American eagle on the paper's formal letterhead seemed to do the trick.  The satisfied conductor took the fare and continued walking. "Had the conductor looked closely at the paper," Frederick later revealed, "he could not have failed to discover that it called for a very different looking person from myself…"  Since he was mixed race, with a black mother and white father, he was of a considerably lighter complexion than his sailor friend. Incidentally, although he said "the opinion was whispered that my master was my father," this was never confirmed.

As his exhilarating but nerve-wracking day continued, on the third of September in 1838, destiny was slowly cracking open the door for one of the most famous Civil Rights leaders of all time.  He breathed a well-earned sigh of relief as the train rolled on toward potential freedom, but Frederick knew well that he had only passed the first of many trials.  He soon recognized a German blacksmith he knew well.  The man looked intently at Frederick, stirring terror inside him.  "I really believe he knew me, but had no heart to betray me," he later conjectured.  "At any rate, he saw me escaping and held his peace."

The afternoon of the next day, Frederick reached Wilmington, Delaware where he boarded a steamship bound for Philadelphia.  Although Pennsylvania was a free state, Frederick wanted to lose himself in the bustling impersonal atmosphere of New York, and soon took a train bound for the city. As he stepped off the train in New York, a wave of exhilaration swept over him.  "I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions," he enthused in a letter to a friend. "Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil."

His elation, however, was soon stifled.  He ran into a fellow fugitive he had known as a slave back in Baltimore.  The man told Frederick that New York was full of slave-catchers.  In fact, he said that many other blacks might betray him for only a few dollars' bounty.  He must not go to the wharves to look for work, or into any colored boarding houses, he warned, since such places were closely watched.  Frederick later noted that his nervous companion even seemed to fear that he might be a spy. "Under this apprehension, as I suppose, he showed signs of wishing to be rid of me." Alone again, Frederick summarized his dismal situation. He was "indeed free – from slavery, but free from food and shelter as well."  "Every door," he concluded," seemed closed against me."

Out of desperation, he decided to confide his secret to one more person. He noticed a sailor on Centre Street who seemed to have an honest demeanor.  Fortunately, Frederick's first impression proved correct, and after the sailor learned of his predicament, he took him to his home to rest for the night.  The next morning, they both traveled to see an Underground Railroad officer named David Ruggles.  This meeting would open the doors that had previously been sealed.  Ruggles was the secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee, an antislavery organization, which assisted fugitive slaves. "I was hidden several days," Frederick related, "during which time my intended wife (Anna) came on from Baltimore at my call."

When Ruggles learned that Frederick was an expert at caulking ships, he decided that New Bedford, Massachusetts with its robust whaling trade should be Frederick and Anna's new home.  On the day of their marriage, they set off for their new life there. They were taken in by a benevolent couple, Nathan and Mary Johnson.  Even though New Bedford was a solid antislavery town, Frederick decided he should select a new last name, since he was known as Frederick Bailey during his slave days.  He asked Nathan to choose a name for him.  Nathan had just enjoyed reading Walter Scott's poem, The Lady of the Lake.  Since two of the characters in the poem had the surname of Douglas, he suggested the name.  Adding an "s," Frederick coined the name that would be forever inscribed in Civil Rights history.

Douglass's experiences with his helpful white neighbors in New Bedford, as well as his awareness that some of New York blacks conspired against members of their own race, convinced him that good and bad come in all colors. The motto of his soon-to-be-famous abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, highlighted this belief.  From its 1847 conception, the paper's banner stated, "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren." Through his successful newspaper, as well as hundreds of speaking engagements, and three memoirs, Douglass gave voice to the aspirations of millions of enslaved souls.

During his long and productive life, Frederick Douglass was the most celebrated black man of his era.  He was also the most photographed American of any race in the 1800's.  Drawing upon his early love of words, and an ability to read and write obtained covertly from white children, he quickly became a master of the art of discourse.  In fact, a review of an early speech he gave at the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society's annual meeting, foretold his rhetorical success. "Flinty hearts were pierced," the admiring correspondent reported, "and cold ones melted by his eloquence."


I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thank you!


Submitted: August 05, 2020

© Copyright 2023 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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