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Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad
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Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad

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by Mary Kay Ricks

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On the evening of April 15, 1848, nearly eighty enslaved Americans attempted one of history's most audacious escapes. Setting sail from Washington, D.C., on a schooner named the Pearl, the fugitives began a daring 225-mile journey to freedom in the North—and put in motion a furiously fought battle over slavery in America that would consume Congress,


On the evening of April 15, 1848, nearly eighty enslaved Americans attempted one of history's most audacious escapes. Setting sail from Washington, D.C., on a schooner named the Pearl, the fugitives began a daring 225-mile journey to freedom in the North—and put in motion a furiously fought battle over slavery in America that would consume Congress, the streets of the capital, and the White House itself.

Mary Kay Ricks's unforgettable chronicle brings to life the Underground Railroad's largest escape attempt, the seemingly immutable politics of slavery, and the individuals who struggled to end it. Escape on the Pearl reveals the incredible odyssey of those who were onboard, including the remarkable lives of fugitives Mary and Emily Edmonson, the two sisters at the heart of this true story of courage and determination.

Editorial Reviews

James Oliver Horton
“An exciting and important story...A must read for all who seek to understand the history of freedom in America.”
Fergus Borderwich
“The thrilling story of the largest mass escape of fugitive slaves in American history.”
Ann Hagedorn
“Compelling . . . gripping . . . connects the reader to the desperation and courage of freedom-seekers.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“Exciting. . . . Fascinating. . . . Succeeds as both a historical account and an enjoyable read.”
Publishers Weekly
When the Pearl slipped out of the U.S. capital one spring night in 1848 carrying 77 fugitives from slavery, "the largest known attempted escape on the Underground Railroad" had begun. But the ship was overtaken and the slaves sent to New Orleans to be sold, only to be spared by a fluke and returned to D.C., where Henry Ward Beecher took an interest in their plight and Harriet Beecher Stowe recounted their story in her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The "lost" story of their role in the abolition of the slave trade in Washington is one worth telling, but Ricks isn't up to the job. Though a knowledgeable walking tour guide, she's defeated by the story's many threads: the background on slavery, abolition, the Underground Railroad and Washington D.C., the Pearl story (which is really two stories-one about its crew, one about its passengers) and the story of the remarkable Edmonson family, two sisters and four brothers hired out by their owner who joined the heroic escape. When focusing on the Edmonsons, Ricks shines fresh light on the peculiarities of slavery in the capital city. But too often she lapses into digression and repetition. Serious errors (e.g., asserting that Anna Douglass accompanied Frederick on his escape) and loose documentation render this an occasionally stimulating but unreliable account. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Tens of thousands of blacks in antebellum America defied the law and the power of slavery by stealing themselves away from bondage. Among their loosely linked paths of hope lay what has come to be called the Underground Railroad. Spontaneous as well as structured, the underground sheltered those fleeing slavery, though the means varied and escape was seldom easy. Freelance writer and Washington, DC, tour operator Ricks narrates the story of a dash by sea from the U.S. capital in 1848. In perhaps the largest mass escape in U.S. slave history, 77 blacks sailed the 54-ton schooner Pearl from the Potomac into the Chesapeake. Heading north, they made it about 100 miles before an Atlantic storm stalled them and allowed captors to seize and return them to Washington, where their capture was hailed by heckling mobs. The plight of fugitive slaves galvanized and split communities, including Detroit, MI, codenamed Midnight in the underground. Its black residents in particular served as conductors, directing fugitives to safe houses and across the Detroit River to Canada and welcoming settlements such as that of Dawn, as Tobin (Hidden in Plain Sight) and poet Jones richly detail. Their time line nicely situates developments in slave resistance and provides broad historical context for sketches of historical figures and in-depth portraits of black communities in Canada that became home to fugitives who succeeded in making their way "north of slavery," as escaped slave Frederick Douglass once famously dubbed the northern U.S. neighbor. Furthering the Canadian connection and extending her internationally recognized work in public archaeology and history, Frost unearths fascinating aspects of the underground's international dimensions. Following escaped slaves Lucie and Thornton Blackburn from Louisville, KY, to Detroit and then to safety in Canada in 1833, Frost details U.S. blacks' determined resistance and the diplomatic problems cross-border fugitives created in U.S.-Canada relations. Beyond that, she develops blacks' entrepreneurial contributions to Canada, for the Thorntons became prominent in the Toronto livery business. Rich details of determination, hope, and life run through these three books, bringing to life personalities and places in the too often hidden or ignored history in the fight for basic human rights in antebellum America. Nicely complementary, these works each deserve a place in collections on black, local, or antebellum U.S. history, and Canadian collections should also have Frost's as well as Tobin's and Jones's works for their local history.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Readable re-creation of a little-known episode in the long struggle to abolish slavery in America. The residents of Washington, D.C., may have been torn on the issue of slavery, but in 1848, the "curious institution" was still practiced there; moreover, former Labor Department attorney Ricks writes, the Upper South-the District, Virginia and Maryland-was increasingly important as a source of slaves for the Deep South, in what Ricks calls "the internal slave trade." Punishment for those who aided runaway slaves was severe, and it was thus quite daring of the abolitionists and slaves alike to undertake an attempted mass escape on the schooner Pearl. On April 15, 1848, about 70 slaves, including a tight-knit group of siblings, gathered in twos and threes on a dock not far from a slave pen just south of the National Mall-a prison that, Ricks notes, was promoted as "next to the copy of the Declaration of Independence also preserved here, the greatest curiosity to be seen at the Federal City." The schooner slipped away and was well on course for the North and freedom, but then it hit one of the Chesapeake Bay's frequent tempests; a pursuing posse of Georgetown deputies caught up with the Pearl, returned its cargo to slavery and jailed the would-be liberators, who, as Ricks notes, represented a widespread and varied group of interests throughout America, from country preachers to Wall Street magnates. Fittingly, since she now operates a historic-tours firm in Washington, Ricks has a keen eye for sites of the slaves' voyage that can be visited today. She has an equally strong sense, well reflected in her pages, of how the now largely forgotten incident figured into the fierce pro- and antislaverybattles of the time, which would soon end in civil war. A valuable account, closing with a moving precis of the fate of the Pearl's people and their descendants. Agent: Alice Martell/Martell Agency

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

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Escape on the Pearl
The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad

Chapter One

Two Young Girls

Join an Audacious Escape

On the overcast evening of April 15, 1848, at around 9:00 p.m., a soft clump of dirt struck the window of a servant's small room above the kitchen in the home of Alexander Ray, a prominent businessman in Washington and Georgetown. The family's spacious and well appointed house stood in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, west of the President's House, tucked between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Potomac River, and just a few blocks from where a twenty-two-foot revolving dome cradled the Naval Observatory's telescope. Ray was a prosperous merchant who had the means and the connections to hire the very best of servants, and it was well known in their circle that a family by the name of Edmonson was uncommonly bright and talented help for the better class of people.

That evening, the noise at the upstairs window alerted thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, a still slightly plump girl with a warm brown complexion somewhere between her father's deeper color and her mother's much lighter skin tone. Emily's appealing features were set in a slightly rounded, gentle face that already showed the promise of the lovely young woman she was becoming. Lifting the window, she saw her older brother Samuel, about five feet, six inches tall and fair- skinned like his mother, standing at the side door of the house and looking up at her window. He had come from an elegant home some eighteen blocks to the east on Judiciary Square, not far from the Capitol. Samuel lived and worked as a butler in the home of Joseph Bradley, one ofWashington's most successful and prominent lawyers.

Emily, neatly and modestly dressed as always, quickly picked up a small bag and quietly slipped through the house and out the door into the sleepy neighborhood. She and her brother began walking east near a factory at Seventeenth Street that produced ice cream, which could be delivered to a customer's door for $2.50 a quart, a hugely expensive treat at a time when an acre of nearby Mary land farmland cost about $15 and skilled workers earned around $1.25 a day. They walked steadily and quietly toward the other side of the Executive Mansion, which, as the Stranger's Guide in the most recent City Directory of Washington explained, was now commonly called the White House.

Emily and Samuel carefully made their way through the unlit and largely unpaved streets. The Washington Gas Light Company was in its formative stages with a bill of incorporation waiting to be reported in the House of Representatives from the Congressional Committee on the District of Columbia. Unlike New York, Boston, St. Louis, Louisville, Baltimore, or Newark, the city lacked any or ganized system of modern streetlights, and public lighting was limited to the whale oil that burned in a few dozen twelve-foot-tall iron street lamps along Pennsylvania Avenue designed by Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Capitol's low, copper-sheathed wooden dome. A year earlier, Congress had seen to its own needs by installing a self-contained gas lighting system that functioned only when Congress was in session. One of the city newspapers reported that the tall lighting apparatus had resulted in an alarmingly high death rate for swarms of birds drawn to its unusual light.

The darkness served brother and sister well as they made their way to another of the city's still few private homes near Thirteenth and G Streets, where their sister Mary worked, not far from where the recently deceased former president, John Quincy Adams, had lived. Though certainly not a radical abolitionist, Adams had endeared himself to enemies of slavery when he argued the appeal before the Supreme Court that freed the Africans who had revolted onboard the ship called La Amistad and when, as a member of Congress, he successfully campaigned against a congressional gag rule that had for eight years automatically tabled any slavery-related petition.

Mary was watching for her brother and sister. When Emily cautiously called up to her from the back of the house, Mary quickly opened the window above them and, to prevent alerting anyone, tossed out her shoes. At five feet, six inches tall, the slim, fifteen-year-old Mary stood four inches taller than Emily and carried herself with a more grave countenance over her lovely features. She was a sister to look up to in more ways than height: Mary had a particularly spiritual and winsome personality that immediately won over all she met.

Picking up her small bundle of belongings, Mary joined Emily and Samuel outside the house and quickly slipped on her shoes. The siblings stopped briefly to pick up food from a nearby bakery, where the late night shift was preparing breakfast foods, and, in a trade where many blacks worked, found a trusted friend who was willing to discreetly supply them with rolls. With a half-hour walk ahead of them and time running short, the three Edmonsons set off at a brisk pace, but not so fast so that they drew untoward attention. This was not a night to answer awkward questions about where they might be going when they were so close to the 10:00 curfew bell that rang for all blacks, free or enslaved.

The three Edmonsons were slaves, and they were moving carefully toward the Potomac River, where a schooner from the North was waiting to take them on a journey to freedom. They were leaving behind an unusually close, highly spiritual, and even modestly prosperous family. Their parents, Paul and Amelia, lived on a forty-acre farm about fifteen miles north of the city in Norbeck, Maryland, a small rural crossroads in Montgomery County. Thirteen years earlier, shortly before Christmas 1835, Paul Edmonson, a free man of color, purchased his first twenty acres of farmland for $250. In 1847 he doubled the size of his farm with the purchase of an additional contiguous twenty acres of land for $280.*

Escape on the Pearl
The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad
. Copyright � by Mary Kay Ricks. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Ann Hagedorn
“Compelling . . . gripping . . . connects the reader to the desperation and courage of freedom-seekers.”
Fergus Borderwich
“The thrilling story of the largest mass escape of fugitive slaves in American history.”
James Oliver Horton
“An exciting and important story...A must read for all who seek to understand the history of freedom in America.”

Meet the Author

A former attorney at the Department of Labor, Mary Kay Ricks has written about Washington history in numerous publications including the Washington Post. She is the founder of Tour DC (www.tourdc.com), which features in-depth walking tours in the nation's capital, and lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

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Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Slavery is America¿s original sin, the darkness at the heart of every claim of American exceptionalism and national virtue. It is our national psychosis, and has continued to mark our national character and daily life long after we thought ourselves purged and cured of it. From that fateful day when slavers appeared unexpectedly at Jamestown, and we were tempted, and we fell, it has shadowed our attempts to live up to our creed of liberty and human freedom. As central as slavery is to America¿s history, our understanding of it is often partial and distant. Academic accounts of slavery¿s inevitability and explanations for why only a civil war could bring about the constitutional revolution that ended it tend to focus on the political history of slavery. They tell us of the Missouri Compromise that the slave power imposed but not the daily moral compromise. Too often, those accounts obscure the human reality of those who were born into and lived within the slave system, and who had to live out their hopes and aspirations without awaiting its end and without any assurance that it ever would end. Whether slave or master, abolitionist or apologist, they recede into dim stereotypes. It is Mary Kay Ricks¿ great achievement to recover for us in our time the persons who lived in slavery days and the world they inhabited. Her story of the escape on the Pearl has at its center the dramatic story of the six Edmonson children who were among the more than seventy fugitive slaves fleeing on that sailing vessel. As the story of the Edmonsons vividly illustrates, the dividing line between slavery and freedom ran not just between sections of the nation but between husband and wife, parent and child, and brother and sister. The Edmondsons¿ father was free, but their mother was not. Her children were born into slavery, but some of the older ones managed to purchase their freedom while their younger siblings remained enslaved, and grasped at the freedom promised by the Pearl. But from the story of that tenacious family¿s struggle to be free and to remain together spirals outward a larger tale of slavery in America. Ricks skillfully tells the story not only of the Underground Railroad that organized the Pearl¿s voyage but also the story of its grotesque mirror image, the much less well-known but very well-organized network of slave pens, traveling coffles (caravans) of slaves shackled together, regularly scheduled slave transportation, and slave auctions that made possible the vast internal slave trade that arose between the Upper South and the Deep South in the first half of the nineteenth century after the importation of slaves from Africa was outlawed and King Cotton¿s voracious demand for slaves to populate his empire grew and grew. These two networks¿one hidden and tenuous but leading to freedom and life, the other open and proud and unassailable and leading to loss of family, degradation, suffering, and death¿sprawled across all of mid-century America and entwined themselves in other, larger worlds. The Underground Railroad was connected to the larger abolitionist movement, to other religious and political organizations, and to the developing literary and cultural life of the North. The slave-trading network was deeply embedded in the commercial world of an industrializing America and its global trading partners. It took advantage of all the arts and sciences of nineteenth-century commerce, demonstrating the brutal compatibility of slaves in shackled bondage with the telegraph, the locomotive, the steamboat, and all the other instruments of a modern economy. The Edmonsons, setting off on the Pearl to journey North on the Underground Railroad¿s freedom network, ended up transported South to New Orleans on the slave-trading network once the Pearl was captured and their owner sold them on to slave traders. Put up for sale in the showrooms of New Orleans, sisters Mary and Emily Edmonson were rescued by an incredi
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1848 some residents of Washington DC owned slaves though many others opposed the ¿curious institution¿. In April, conductors on the Underground Railroad try a bold freedom run using the Pearl to take seventy-seven runaway ¿fugitives¿ to freedom in the north. However, a terrible storm on the Chesapeake doomed the mission. The sheriff arrested the freedom fighters and took the recaptured slaves back to their owner who sent them to New Orleans for sale. Another twist returns the slaves to DC where Preacher and staunch abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher made efforts to get them freed and his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe used their plight as part of her reference notes published as the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, two years after the classic was released.------------------ This is a complex at times convoluted look back at a major incident of its time that has somewhat lost its significance over the subsequent century and a half. The book gets inside the heads of the slaves, slave sellers, slave owners, the Stowes and the Underground Railroad conductors. However, most fascinating besides the link to Harriet Beecher Stowe¿s classic is the way the citizens in the metropolitan DC area looked at slavery. Historical readers need to set aside some time because though difficult to follow because of how complex the events leading to, the event itself, and the subsequent aftereffect and outcome are, this is a discerning insightful look at the abomination of slavery.-------------- Harriet Klausner
SeaWolf 9 months ago
Boring... concentrates on inconsequential information
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book kept repeating the same chapters over and over.