Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad

Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad

by Ann Hagedorn


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Beyond the River brings to brilliant life the dramatic story of the forgotten heroes of the Ripley, Ohio, line of the Underground Railroad.

From the highest hill above the town of Ripley, Ohio, you can see five bends in the Ohio River. You can see the hills of northern Kentucky and the rooftops of Ripley’s riverfront houses. And you can see what the abolitionist John Rankin saw from his house at the top of that hill, where for nearly forty years he placed a lantern each night to guide fugitive slaves to freedom beyond the river.

In Beyond the River, Ann Hagedorn tells the remarkable story of the participants in the Ripley line of the Underground Railroad, bringing to life the struggles of the men and women, black and white, who fought “the war before the war” along the Ohio River. Determined in their cause, Rankin, his family, and his fellow abolitionists—some of them former slaves themselves—risked their lives to guide thousands of runaways safely across the river into the free state of Ohio, even when a sensational trial in Kentucky threatened to expose the Ripley “conductors.” Rankin, the leader of the Ripley line and one of the early leaders of the antislavery movement, became nationally renowned after the publication of his Letters on American Slavery, a collection of letters he wrote to persuade his brother in Virginia to renounce slavery.

A vivid narrative about memorable people, Beyond the River is an inspiring story of courage and heroism that transports us to another era and deepens our understanding of the great social movement known as the Underground Railroad.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684870663
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/03/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 593,045
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ann Hagedorn has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and has taught writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her previous books are Wild Ride, Ransom, Beyond the River, and Savage Peace.

Read an Excerpt

Beyond the River

The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad
By Ann Hagedorn

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2002 Ann Hagedorn Auerbach
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-684-87066-5

Chapter One


One hundred ninety-two delegates from antislavery societies throughout the state of Ohio journeyed to the village of Granville on April 25 and 26, 1836. Most entered the town on the very wide road known as Broadway. Past the dogwood trees that had just begun to display their pink-and-white splendor up and down Granville's main streets; past the stately houses where women and children stood in their yards to watch the reputed troublemakers, as if the ragtag troops from some distant army had invaded the town; and past the dozens of strangers from neighboring towns leaning against buildings and hitching posts, malingering and scheming, drinking and waiting. Many had never ventured farther than twenty-five miles from home, and now, in dedication to the cause they risked their lives to advance, they had traveled a hundred miles and more to this seemingly peaceful and innocent town.

Nestled among the ridges, spurs, and hollows of the hills rising above Raccoon Creek, the middle fork of the Licking River, Granville was situated at nearly the center of the state of Ohio: hence the choice of the town for this meeting of delegates from all parts of the state. By the springof 1836, Granville was largely an antislavery town surrounded by small, intense enclaves of proslavery zealots. It was the home of two schools, the Granville Literary and Theological Institution for men, and, for women, the Granville Female Seminary. And there were several safe houses for fugitives, well known among those who worked in the underground movement. Passions had been aroused the year before, in both the academic and residential communities, when Theodore Weld passed through Granville on his statewide tour. Speaking for three nights in a row, he barbed the conscience of the town as he dodged a steady stream of rotten eggs. One of the nights, he spoke near an open window and was repeatedly covered with eggs. Each time, he would wipe the slush from his face and clothing and barely miss a beat.

Granville's roster of antislavery advocates expanded after Weld's tour, but most of the peace-loving citizens of this quiet village considered themselves to be antiabolitionists and wanted nothing to do with what they believed to be a fanatical movement. Although they did not condone slavery - and, indeed, considered themselves antislavers - they also did not know how to end it. Many favored gradual emancipation, and many more were advocates of colonization. And so, in November 1835, during the very same days when Rankin, Campbell, Gilliland, and others in Ripley were discussing how to shape their convictions into the context of a constitution for their new antislavery society, another group of men with a different set of values was meeting in Granville.

There, at the Methodist church, twenty-six leaders of the community, all considered men of conscience as well as property, discussed what they could do to discourage the now-imminent invasion of their town by hundreds of abolitionists. They compiled nine resolutions. And after reassuring each other that they ardently believed in freedom of speech, they wrote: "We consider discussions [that] from their nature tend to inflame the public mind - to introduce discord and contention into neighborhoods, churches, and literary institutions, and put in jeopardy the lives and property of our fellow citizens - to be at varience with all rules of moral duty and every suggestion of humanity." Although they condemned slavery as a menacing evil, they were critical of the abolitionists for scaring slaveholders into strengthening their opposition to emancipation. The measures of the abolitionists, they said, dangerously "strengthen and rivet the chains of the slaves and perpetuate their bondage."

Worse still, they agreed, the abolitionists should not use strident language such as "man stealers," nor should they suggest that Negroes could be educated and one day achieve a place of equality. Such beliefs were "utterly vain and delusive."

They praised the efforts of the American Colonization Society and approved its plans to transport free blacks from the U.S. to Africa, saying that "the unwillingness of the blacks of this country to emigrate to Africa is one of the strongest evidences of that degradation and imbecility which naturally results from their condition while resident among the whites." And on March 31, 1836, the Gazette of Newark, Ohio, published a proclamation signed by the mayor, village clerk, council members, and sixty-nine other citizens of Granville urging against the upcoming abolition convention.

By the morning of April 27, men from the towns and hamlets around Granville began to gather in the taverns, back alleys, and tree-lined streets of the town while the big barn north of town owned by Ashley Bancroft and dubbed by the abolitionists as the "Hall of Freedom" was coming alive with the spirit and sounds of solidarity. That the energy and passions of both groups would eventually collide seemed inevitable.

It was after the townsfolk had rejected all requests for space for the meeting that Bancroft, a thirty-seven-year-old carpenter and one of the leading abolitionists in the region, volunteered his barn, and even built a temporary addition to accommodate the expected masses. The barn was outside the jurisdiction of the mayor and village council, which meant that the delegates meeting there were not entitled to the privilege of police protection on their way to the assemblage, during it, or after it. Still, the delegation of so-called fanatics filed through the big double doors and side doors of the barn, one after another, tipping hats, shaking hands, putting faces to names. They came by the dozens, from as far as Cincinnati and Toledo, as close as Alexandria and Columbus. There were now 120 antislavery societies in Ohio, with the largest having a roster of 942 members in the town of Paint Valley, in Ross County, near Cleveland. The total enrollment of the state societies by the spring of 1836 was approximately ten thousand, out of a population of roughly 1.2 million people.

The list of delegates - most, if not all, active in the Underground Railroad in their regions - included: James Birney, the abolitionist editor and close friend of Rankin's who, on January 1, had issued the first edition of his new antislavery newspaper, The Philanthropist, out of New Richmond, Ohio, near Ripley; Rankin; John Isaac Mahan; Dr. Beck; Asa Mahan, formerly a Lane board member and now the president of Oberlin College; twenty-five others from that college and the town of Oberlin, including Lane Rebels Amos Dresser, Augustus Wattles, and James A. Thome; two students from the Granville Literary and Theological Institution who had become notorious for their oratorical speeches against slavery; and nineteen women, some of whom were students from the local women's academy and some delegates from antislavery societies.

On the first day of the convention, April 27, the delegates crowded the barn, finding space to sit in the hay mows, on high ladders, even on the rafters. More than one hundred spectators entered the barn, carefully watched by men assigned to guard the delegates, standing sentry at the doors of free speech and free assembly. For security, Bancroft placed a big chain across the large gate at the head of the trail leading to the barn from the road; this would require all members of the mob gathering in town to climb the fence, slowing them down and thus preventing a surprise attack on the barn. Others brought dozens of hoop poles from a local cooper's shop. By cutting each one in half, the group had an ample supply of sturdy cudgels, if necessary for self-defense. The poles were piled in a corner of the barn for all to see, and to serve as a reminder that the threat of interruptions and antiabolitionist violence was ever present.

The day commenced with a resolution from Birney "that in order to perpetuate our free institutions the subject of slavery ought to be fully discussed by the non-slaveholding states." James A. Thome delivered a speech titled "Appeal to the Females of Ohio" in which he beseeched women to stand equally with men in fighting for the rights of the oppressed and to break away from "that odious sentiment" that can shape a woman into nothing more than "a painted puppet or a gilded butterfly." James Dickey, who worked the underground with Rankin out of Greenfield, Ohio, proposed several resolutions, all of which passed.

The next morning began with the election of officers for the coming year. Alexander Campbell and James Gilliland were voted in as vice presidents; John B. Mahan and John Rankin were appointed the society's managers for Brown County. Birney and two other delegates recommended that $5,000 be raised over the next year, and as $10, $20, and $50 bills passed over heads in the crowd to the platform where Birney stood, a cry for more, for a goal of $10,000, replaced the $5,000 figure. Within minutes, the crowd raised $4,500. After the amount was announced, hundreds of men and women sang until the timbers shook, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow."

A series of resolutions followed. Then Rankin walked up the three steps to the wooden platform at the center of the barn. A light must have kindled in the depths of his eyes as he looked out onto the throng of hundreds of people united in a cause far larger than themselves. His speech focused on the obligation of the church to take a stand against slavery and began with a denunciation of every Biblical justification for slavery. From Exodus to Deuteronomy to James, he explained, the so-called slaves, which Southern-sympathizers and slaveholders were constantly noting in the Bible, were, in truth, servants. And the difference between slaves and servants was that the natural rights of servants are protected by law, whereas slaves have no such rights to be protected. The servitude in Israel was similar to apprenticeships in America, he said. It was voluntary; the servants were paid for their services; they could be held for no longer than their term of contract permitted; and they had a right to hold property. Slavery in America, he went on to say, was the essence of human oppression. And the spirit, genius, and intention of the Bible were utterly hostile to human oppression.

"The Scriptures represent all men as having sprung from one common parent - all as 'made of one blood,'" said Rankin. "Consequently all are created equally free. Whatever rights the first man had, all his children must have. God created no slaves. He gave to all men the same original rights."

Those who uphold slavery, he said, are therefore committing a sin, and the church should take a strong position against it. And those churchgoers who hold slaves and advocate slavery, justifying their actions and beliefs with twisted interpretations of the Bible, should be excommunicated from the church and at the very least forbidden to take communion. It is the duty of the church to take a stand, he said, as applause filled the "Hall of Freedom."

Raising his voice to be heard above the din, he concluded, "Let the church universal as the army of the living God, come up to the help of the Lord against the mighty; let her voice be heard as the voice of many waters, proclaiming liberty to the captive, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound - and the poisonous fountains of death shall be dried up, the rivers of anguish shall cease to flow, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Union in this great work will prepare the church for the rising of millenial glory, when liberty shall be universal, and the song of redeeming love shall ascend from every tongue."

In unison, the crowd joined Rankin in saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men."

There was then a vote to furnish every minister in the state with a copy of Rankin's speech. Solidarity in the churches was essential, they all agreed. Asa Mahan announced a resolution "that the time has now come when it is the duty of the church to debar from her privileges all who persist in the sin of holding their fellow-men in the bondage of slavery." It was seconded, and the crowd cheered again. Jesse Holmes, of New Lisbon, Ohio, suggested that all antislavery advocates boycott the purchase of any items produced by slave labor. A cheer went up as someone seconded it. E. Judson of Milan, Ohio, shouted, "Resolved that slavery in its nature tends to dissolve the Union, corrupt public morals and destroy that sense of right and wrong, without which liberty soon degenerates into licentiousness." Cheers again. And then the meeting ended with a vote to forgive "the unkindness of that portion of our fellow-citizens which rendered it necessary to hold our meeting in so unusual a place."

Outside the barn and back in town, there was also an air of excitement, fueled by a barrel of local whiskey consumed by many of the men who had congregated on Granville's main streets, in loud anticipation of the moment when the Bancroft barn doors would open. These were mostly men trained in the local and regional militias, and so, though drunk for the most part, they began to march up and down Broadway, between Prospect and Green streets, moving their feet in response to the music of a fiddle. The music and the whiskey kept the crowd moving through town, sharpening the rough edges of their impatience as they waited for the Hall of Freedom "fanatics" to arrive.

Shortly after noon, the sentinels who stood strategically on the hills surrounding Granville, overlooking the town and the Bancroft barn, sent word down the hills and through the streets to leaders among the rabble, who then sent word to their cohorts that the barn doors had opened and soon the abolitionists would be moving through town. Among the crowd on foot, walking from the barn into town, were more than fifty women - the nineteen delegates and at least thirty others from the local female academy. The boarding house where most of these women lived was on the other side of town from the Bancroft barn, so that they had to walk through the center of town. As the abolitionists moved closer to town, their own scouts reported that a mob had gathered. Knowing this, the crowd organized into a column four people wide, to place the women in the interior two columns. Burly men were at the rear and in the front of the column, and men ready to fight walked in the exterior columns. Also at the rear was a procession of men on horseback and in wagons and carriages. Many of the horses no longer had tails or manes, "bobbed" by members of the mob during the convention session that day.

As they walked in their column of fours, they were suddenly hit by a noisome barrage of rotten eggs: the mob's first act of aggression against them. Fetid eggs came hurtling out of the throng, landing on a dozen or more men and women, who neither slowed their pace nor appeared to be scared. Amid the hoots and curses of the egg-throwers, the abolitionists walked ever closer together as they proceeded through the town. The leaders of the column tried to steer the group away from the middle of the street and onto the boardwalk, near the storefronts. But then the mob began to close in around and behind the column, cutting off the men on horseback and in vehicles. Suddenly someone shouted, "Let's egg the squaws." A few of the women burst through the column of people and rushed into the stores, arms covering their eyes and heads as eggs fell upon them. Seconds later, a college student named Cone and a young lady whom he was escorting were pushed into a muddy ditch. Cone grabbed the woman and pushed her into the protective arms of a colleague. That done, he sought out his attacker and with one blow knocked him to the ground. Some witnesses said later that Cone had a stone in his hand to give the punch more power. The gates of violence now wide open, the vanguard of the column and a large portion of the mob dived into each other, swinging and punching, screaming and cursing. At one point, two from the rabble, reeking of whiskey, laid hands on two of the women. A workman nearby witnessed this and, dropping his tools, picked up several stones and began throwing them at the two men. He was joined by others, who disabled one of the men by hitting him hard in the shin. Soon the men released the women.

The column wound through town, safely delivering most of the women to their boarding house and returning to join the free-for-all. One abolitionist student from Oberlin, John Lewis, sought refuge in a nearby home as he was being chased by a man with a club. But when he ran up to an open door, just upon entry, the door shut in his face. He then collapsed on the steps. His attacker took advantage and pummeled him. Another member of the mob pulled the man off the young student, though by that time the boy was covered with blood. The mayor was conveniently out of town that day. When the village constable arrived to establish some sort of order, he was pulled off his horse, and then ran through the town seeking shelter. Chaos and violence were the order of the day.


Excerpted from Beyond the River by Ann Hagedorn Copyright © 2002 by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface: A Double Life


1. The Kindling and the Spark

2. Visions and Ideals

3. On the Wings of His Words

4. River of Anguish

5. "My Dear Brother"

6. The Lantern in the Window

7. 1831

8. Speak Truth to Power

9. Family

10. Agitation

11. Mobocracy

12. The Seventy

13. Two Abductions and a Murder

Part II: 1838

14. Waves Break on Either Shore

15. "Mercy Enough?"

16. The Trap

17. "The Matter Is Highly Mysterious"

18. Exposing the Chain

19. "These Men Are Dangerous"

20. The Unappeasable Spirit


21. A New Season

22. Double or Nothing

23. By Fire and Sword

24. "Thus Have I Been Attacked"

25. "A Victim of the Slave Power"

26. Parker's Ferry

27. With Spur and Rein

28. Neighbors


29. Prison Doors

30. The Quickening Flow

31. Broken Vessel

32. Echoes



Selected Bibliography


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