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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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Chapter 11

I now come to that part of my life during which I
planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape
from slavery. But before narrating any of the pe-
culiar circumstances, I deem it proper to make
known my intention not to state all the facts con-
nected with the transaction. My reasons for pursuing
this course may be understood from the following:
First, were I to give a minute statement of all the
facts, it is not only possible, but quite probable, that
others would thereby be involved in the most embar-
rassing difficulties. Secondly, such a statement would
most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the
part of slaveholders than has existed heretofore
among them; which would, of course, be the means
of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bond-
man might escape his galling chains. I deeply regret
the necessity that impels me to suppress any thing
of importance connected with my experience in
slavery. It would afford me great pleasure indeed,
as well as materially add to the interest of my nar-
rative, were I at liberty to gratify a curiosity, which
I know exists in the minds of many, by an accurate
statement of all the facts pertaining to my most
fortunate escape. But I must deprive myself of this
pleasure, and the curious of the gratification which
such a statement would afford. I would allow my-
self to suffer under the greatest imputations which
evil-minded men might suggest, rather than excul-
pate myself, and thereby run the hazard of closing
the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might
clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.
I have never approved of the very public manner
in which some of our western friends have conducted
what they call the ~underground railroad,~ but which
I think, by their open declarations, has been made
most emphatically the ~upperground railroad.~ I honor
those good men and women for their noble daring,
and applaud them for willingly subjecting them-
selves to bloody persecution, by openly avowing their
participation in the escape of slaves. I, however, can
see very little good resulting from such a course,
either to themselves or the slaves escaping; while,
upon the other hand, I see and feel assured that
those open declarations are a positive evil to the
slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They
do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst
they do much towards enlightening the master.
They stimulate him to greater watchfulness, and
enhance his power to capture his slave. We owe
something to the slave south of the line as well as
to those north of it; and in aiding the latter on their
way to freedom, we should be careful to do nothing
which would be likely to hinder the former from
escaping from slavery. I would keep the merciless
slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of
flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to
imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible
tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal
grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel
his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with
his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at
every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman,
he is running the frightful risk of having his hot
brains dashed out by an invisible agency. Let us
render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light
by which he can trace the footprints of our flying
brother. But enough of this. I will now proceed to
the statement of those facts, connected with my
escape, for which I am alone responsible, and for
which no one can be made to suffer but myself.
In the early part of the year 1838, I became quite
restless. I could see no reason why I should, at the
end of each week, pour the reward of my toil into
the purse of my master. When I carried to him my
weekly wages, he would, after counting the money,
look me in the face with a robber-like fierceness,
and ask, "Is this all?" He was satisfied with nothing
less than the last cent. He would, however, when I
made him six dollars, sometimes give me six cents,
to encourage me. It had the opposite effect. I re-
garded it as a sort of admission of my right to the
whole. The fact that he gave me any part of my
wages was proof, to my mind, that he believed me
entitled to the whole of them. I always felt worse
for having received any thing; for I feared that the
giving me a few cents would ease his conscience,
and make him feel himself to be a pretty honorable
sort of robber. My discontent grew upon me. I was
ever on the look-out for means of escape; and, find-
ing no direct means, I determined to try to hire my
time, with a view of getting money with which to
make my escape. In the spring of 1838, when Master
Thomas came to Baltimore to purchase his spring
goods, I got an opportunity, and applied to him to
allow me to hire my time. He unhesitatingly refused
my request, and told me this was another stratagem
by which to escape. He told me I could go nowhere
but that he could get me; and that, in the event
of my running away, he should spare no pains in his
efforts to catch me. He exhorted me to content
myself, and be obedient. He told me, if I would
be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future.
He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take
care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete
thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to de-
pend solely upon him for happiness. He seemed to
see fully the pressing necessity of setting aside my
intellectual nature, in order to contentment in
slavery. But in spite of him, and even in spite of
myself, I continued to think, and to think about
the injustice of my enslavement, and the means of
About two months after this, I applied to Master
Hugh for the privilege of hiring my time. He was
not acquainted with the fact that I had applied to
Master Thomas, and had been refused. He too, at
first, seemed disposed to refuse; but, after some re-
flection, he granted me the privilege, and proposed
the following terms: I was to be allowed all my
time, make all contracts with those for whom I
worked, and find my own employment; and, in re-
turn for this liberty, I was to pay him three dollars
at the end of each week; find myself in calking tools,
and in board and clothing. My board was two dol-
lars and a half per week. This, with the wear and
tear of clothing and calking tools, made my regular
expenses about six dollars per week. This amount
I was compelled to make up, or relinquish the
privilege of hiring my time. Rain or shine, work or
no work, at the end of each week the money must
be forthcoming, or I must give up my privilege. This
arrangement, it will be perceived, was decidedly in
my master's favor. It relieved him of all need of
looking after me. His money was sure. He received
all the benefits of slaveholding without its evils;
while I endured all the evils of a slave, and suffered
all the care and anxiety of a freeman. I found it a
hard bargain. But, hard as it was, I thought it better
than the old mode of getting along. It was a step
towards freedom to be allowed to bear the respon-
sibilities of a freeman, and I was determined to hold
on upon it. I bent myself to the work of making
money. I was ready to work at night as well as day,
and by the most untiring perseverance and industry,
I made enough to meet my expenses, and lay up
a little money every week. I went on thus from May
till August. Master Hugh then refused to allow me
to hire my time longer. The ground for his refusal
was a failure on my part, one Saturday night, to pay
him for my week's time. This failure was occasioned
by my attending a camp meeting about ten miles
from Baltimore. During the week, I had entered
into an engagement with a number of young friends
to start from Baltimore to the camp ground early
Saturday evening; and being detained by my em-
ployer, I was unable to get down to Master Hugh's
without disappointing the company. I knew that
Master Hugh was in no special need of the money
that night. I therefore decided to go to camp meet-
ing, and upon my return pay him the three dollars.
I staid at the camp meeting one day longer than I
intended when I left. But as soon as I returned, I
called upon him to pay him what he considered his
due. I found him very angry; he could scarce restrain
his wrath. He said he had a great mind to give me a
severe whipping. He wished to know how I dared
go out of the city without asking his permission. I
told him I hired my time and while I paid him the
price which he asked for it, I did not know that I
was bound to ask him when and where I should go.
This reply troubled him; and, after reflecting a few
moments, he turned to me, and said I should hire
my time no longer; that the next thing he should
know of, I would be running away. Upon the same
plea, he told me to bring my tools and clothing
home forthwith. I did so; but instead of seeking
work, as I had been accustomed to do previously to
hiring my time, I spent the whole week without
the performance of a single stroke of work. I did this
in retaliation. Saturday night, he called upon me
as usual for my week's wages. I told him I had no
wages; I had done no work that week. Here we
were upon the point of coming to blows. He raved,
and swore his determination to get hold of me. I did
not allow myself a single word; but was resolved, if
he laid the weight of his hand upon me, it should
be blow for blow. He did not strike me, but told me
that he would find me in constant employment in
future. I thought the matter over during the next day,
Sunday, and finally resolved upon the third day of
September, as the day upon which I would make a
second attempt to secure my freedom. I now had
three weeks during which to prepare for my journey.
Early on Monday morning, before Master Hugh had
time to make any engagement for me, I went out
and got employment of Mr. Butler, at his ship-yard
near the drawbridge, upon what is called the City
Block, thus making it unnecessary for him to seek
employment for me. At the end of the week, I
brought him between eight and nine dollars. He
seemed very well pleased, and asked why I did not
do the same the week before. He little knew what
my plans were. My object in working steadily was
to remove any suspicion he might entertain of my
intent to run away; and in this I succeeded admi-
rably. I suppose he thought I was never better
satisfied with my condition than at the very time
during which I was planning my escape. The second
week passed, and again I carried him my full wages;
and so well pleased was he, that he gave me twenty-
five cents, (quite a large sum for a slaveholder to
give a slave,) and bade me to make a good use of it.
I told him I would.
Things went on without very smoothly indeed,
but within there was trouble. It is impossible for
me to describe my feelings as the time of my con-
templated start drew near. I had a number of warm-
hearted friends in Baltimore,—friends that I loved
almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being
separated from them forever was painful beyond
expression. It is my opinion that thousands would
escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the
strong cords of affection that bind them to their
friends. The thought of leaving my friends was de-
cidedly the most painful thought with which I had
to contend. The love of them was my tender point,
and shook my decision more than all things else.
Besides the pain of separation, the dread and appre-
hension of a failure exceeded what I had experienced
at my first attempt. The appalling defeat I then
sustained returned to torment me. I felt assured
that, if I failed in this attempt, my case would be
a hopeless one—it would seal my fate as a slave for-
ever. I could not hope to get off with any thing less
than the severest punishment, and being placed
beyond the means of escape. It required no very
vivid imagination to depict the most frightful
scenes through which I should have to pass, in case
I failed. The wretchedness of slavery, and the
blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me.
It was life and death with me. But I remained
firm, and, according to my resolution, on the third
day of September, 1838, I left my chains, and suc-
ceeded in reaching New York without the slightest
interruption of any kind. How I did so,—what means
I adopted,—what direction I travelled, and by what
mode of conveyance,—I must leave unexplained,
for the reasons before mentioned.
I have been frequently asked how I felt when I
found myself in a free State. I have never been able
to answer the question with any satisfaction to my-
self. It was a moment of the highest excitement I
ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine
the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued
by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate.
In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my
arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had
escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind,
however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized
with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I
was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to
all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough
to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the lone-
liness overcame me. There I was in the midst of
thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home
and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my
own brethren—children of a common Father, and
yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my
sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for
fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby fall-
ing into the hands of money-loving kidnappers,
whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting
fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in
wait for their prey. The motto which I adopted
when I started from slavery was this—"Trust no
man!" I saw in every white man an enemy, and in
almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was
a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one
must needs experience it, or imagine himself in
similar circumstances. Let him be a fugitive slave in
a strange land—a land given up to be the hunting-
ground for slaveholders—whose inhabitants are legal-
ized kidnappers—where he is every moment sub-
jected to the terrible liability of being seized upon
by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes
upon his prey!—I say, let him place himself in my
situation—without home or friends—without money
or credit—wanting shelter, and no one to give it—
wanting bread, and no money to buy it,—and at the
same time let him feel that he is pursued by merci-
less men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what
to do, where to go, or where to stay,—perfectly help-
less both as to the means of defence and means of
escape,—in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the ter-
rible gnawings of hunger,—in the midst of houses,
yet having no home,—among fellow-men, yet feeling
as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness
to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugi-
tive is only equalled by that with which the monsters
of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which
they subsist,—I say, let him be placed in this most
trying situation,—the situation in which I was placed,
—then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the
hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the
toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave.
Thank Heaven, I remained but a short time in
this distressed situation. I was relieved from it by the
humane hand of Mr. DAVID RUGGLES, whose vigi-
lance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never for-
get. I am glad of an opportunity to express, as far as
words can, the love and gratitude I bear him. Mr.
Ruggles is now afflicted with blindness, and is him-
self in need of the same kind offices which he was
once so forward in the performance of toward others.
I had been in New York but a few days, when Mr.
Ruggles sought me out, and very kindly took me
to his boarding-house at the corner of Church and
Lespenard Streets. Mr. Ruggles was then very deeply
engaged in the memorable ~Darg~ case, as well as at-
tending to a number of other fugitive slaves, devis-
ing ways and means for their successful escape; and,
though watched and hemmed in on almost every
side, he seemed to be more than a match for his
Very soon after I went to Mr. Ruggles, he wished
to know of me where I wanted to go; as he deemed
it unsafe for me to remain in New York. I told him
I was a calker, and should like to go where I could
get work. I thought of going to Canada; but he de-
cided against it, and in favor of my going to New
Bedford, thinking I should be able to get work there
at my trade. At this time, Anna,* my intended wife,
came on; for I wrote to her immediately after my
arrival at New York, (notwithstanding my homeless,
houseless, and helpless condition,) informing her of
my successful flight, and wishing her to come on
forthwith. In a few days after her arrival, Mr. Rug-
gles called in the Rev. J. W. C. Pennington, who, in
the presence of Mr. Ruggles, Mrs. Michaels, and
two or three others, performed the marriage cere-
mony, and gave us a certificate, of which the fol-
lowing is an exact copy:—
"This may certify, that I joined together in holy
matrimony Frederick Johnson+ and Anna Murray, as
man and wife, in the presence of Mr. David Ruggles
and Mrs. Michaels.


"NEW YORK, SEPT. 15, 1838"

Upon receiving this certificate, and a five-dollar
bill from Mr. Ruggles, I shouldered one part of our
baggage, and Anna took up the other, and we set
out forthwith to take passage on board of the steam-
boat John W. Richmond for Newport, on our way
to New Bedford. Mr. Ruggles gave me a letter to a
Mr. Shaw in Newport, and told me, in case my
money did not serve me to New Bedford, to stop in
Newport and obtain further assistance; but upon our

*She was free.

+I had changed my name from Frederick BAILEY
to that of JOHNSON.

arrival at Newport, we were so anxious to get to a place of safety, that, notwithstanding we lacked the necessary money to pay our fare, we decided to take seats in the stage, and promise to pay when we got to New Bedford. We were encouraged to do this by two excellent gentlemen, residents of New Bedford, whose names I afterward ascertained to be Joseph Ricketson and William C. Taber. They seemed at once to understand our circumstances, and gave us such assurance of their friendliness as put us fully at ease in their presence. It was good indeed to meet with such friends, at such a time. Upon reaching New Bedford, we were directed to the house of Mr. Nathan Johnson, by whom we were kindly received, and hospitably provided for. Both Mr. and Mrs. Johnson took a deep and lively interest in our . They proved themselves quite worthy of the name of abolitionists. When the stage-driver found us unable to pay our fare, he held on upon our as security for the debt. I had but to mention the fact to Mr. Johnson, and he forthwith advanced the money.

We now began to feel a degree of safety, and to
prepare ourselves for the duties and responsibilities
of a life of freedom. On the morning after our ar-
rival at New Bedford, while at the breakfast-table,
the question arose as to what name I should be
called by. The name given me by my mother was,
"Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey." I, how-
ever, had dispensed with the two middle names long
before I left Maryland so that I was generally known
by the name of "Frederick Bailey." I started from
Baltimore bearing the name of "Stanley." When I
got to New York, I again changed my name to "Fred-
erick Johnson," and thought that would be the last
change. But when I got to New Bedford, I found it
necessary again to change my name. The reason of
this necessity was, that there were so many Johnsons
in New Bedford, it was already quite difficult to
distinguish between them. I gave Mr. Johnson the
privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he
must not take from me the name of "Frederick."
I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my
identity. Mr. Johnson had just been reading the
"Lady of the Lake," and at once suggested that my
name be "Douglass." From that time until now I
have been called "Frederick Douglass;" and as I am
more widely known by that name than by either of
the others, I shall continue to use it as my own.
I was quite disappointed at the general appear-
ance of things in New Bedford. The impression
which I had received respecting the character and
condition of the people of the north, I found to be
singularly erroneous. I had very strangely supposed,
while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and
scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at
the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the
slaveholders of the south. I probably came to this
conclusion from the fact that northern people owned
no slaves. I supposed that they were about upon a
level with the non-slaveholding population of the
south. I knew ~they~ were exceedingly poor, and I had
been accustomed to regard their poverty as the nec-
essary consequence of their being non-slaveholders.
I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the
absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very
little refinement. And upon coming to the north, I
expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and
uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-
like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury,
pomp, and grandeur of southern slaveholders. Such
being my conjectures, any one acquainted with the
appearance of New Bedford may very readily infer
how palpably I must have seen my mistake.
In the afternoon of the day when I reached New
Bedford, I visited the wharves, to take a view of the
shipping. Here I found myself surrounded with the
strongest proofs of wealth. Lying at the wharves, and
riding in the stream, I saw many ships of the finest
model, in the best order, and of the largest size.
Upon the right and left, I was walled in by granite
warehouses of the widest dimensions, stowed to their
utmost capacity with the necessaries and comforts
of life. Added to this, almost every body seemed to
be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what
I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were
no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading
and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid
curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men;
but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man ap-
peared to understand his work, and went at it with
a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened
the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing,
as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me
this looked exceedingly strange. From the wharves I
strolled around and over the town, gazing with won-
der and admiration at the splendid churches, beauti-
ful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing
an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement,
such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding
Every thing looked clean, new, and beautiful. I
saw few or no dilapidated houses, with poverty-
stricken inmates; no half-naked children and bare-
footed women, such as I had been accustomed to see
in Hillsborough, Easton, St. Michael's, and Balti-
more. The people looked more able, stronger, health-
ier, and happier, than those of Maryland. I was for
once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without
being saddened by seeing extreme poverty. But the
most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing
to me was the condition of the colored people, a
great many of whom, like myself, had escaped
thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found
many, who had not been seven years out of their
chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying
more of the comforts of life, than the average of
slaveholders in Maryland. I will venture to assert,
that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson (of whom I
can say with a grateful heart, "I was hungry, and he
gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink;
I was a stranger, and he took me in") lived in a
neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid
for, and read, more newspapers; better understood
the moral, religious, and political character of the
nation,—than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Tal-
bot county Maryland. Yet Mr. Johnson was a work-
ing man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not
his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson. I found the
colored people much more spirited than I had sup-
posed they would be. I found among them a deter-
mination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty
kidnapper, at all hazards. Soon after my arrival, I
was told of a circumstance which illustrated their
spirit. A colored man and a fugitive slave were on
unfriendly terms. The former was heard to threaten
the latter with informing his master of his where-
abouts. Straightway a meeting was called among the
colored people, under the stereotyped notice, "Busi-
ness of importance!" The betrayer was invited to at-
tend. The people came at the appointed hour, and
organized the meeting by appointing a very religious
old gentleman as president, who, I believe, made a
prayer, after which he addressed the meeting as fol-
lows: "~Friends, we have got him here, and I would
recommend that you young men just take him out-
side the door, and kill him!~" With this, a number
of them bolted at him; but they were intercepted
by some more timid than themselves, and the be-
trayer escaped their vengeance, and has not been
seen in New Bedford since. I believe there have
been no more such threats, and should there be here-
after, I doubt not that death would be the conse-
I found employment, the third day after my ar-
rival, in stowing a sloop with a load of oil. It was
new, dirty, and hard work for me; but I went at it
with a glad heart and a willing hand. I was now my
own master. It was a happy moment, the rapture of
which can be understood only by those who have
been slaves. It was the first work, the reward of
which was to be entirely my own. There was no Mas-
ter Hugh standing ready, the moment I earned the
money, to rob me of it. I worked that day with a
pleasure I had never before experienced. I was at
work for myself and newly-married wife. It was to me
the starting-point of a new existence. When I got
through with that job, I went in pursuit of a job of
calking; but such was the strength of prejudice
against color, among the white calkers, that they re-
fused to work with me, and of course I could get no
employment.* Finding my trade of no immediate
benefit, I threw off my calking habiliments, and pre-
pared myself to do any kind of work I could get to
do. Mr. Johnson kindly let me have his wood-horse
and saw, and I very soon found myself a plenty of
work. There was no work too hard—none too dirty.
I was ready to saw wood, shovel coal, carry wood,
sweep the chimney, or roll oil casks,—all of which I
* I am told that colored persons can now get employment
at calking in New Bedford—a result of anti-slavery effort.
did for nearly three years in New Bedford, before I
became known to the anti-slavery world.
In about four months after I went to New Bed-
ford, there came a young man to me, and inquired
if I did not wish to take the "Liberator." I told him
I did; but, just having made my escape from slavery,
I remarked that I was unable to pay for it then. I,
however, finally became a subscriber to it. The paper
came, and I read it from week to week with such
feelings as it would be quite idle for me to attempt
to describe. The paper became my meat and my
drink. My soul was set all on fire. Its sympathy for
my brethren in bonds—its scathing denunciations of
slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its
powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institu-
tion—sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as
I had never felt before!
I had not long been a reader of the "Liberator,"
before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles,
measures and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took
right hold of the cause. I could do but little; but
what I could, I did with a joyful heart, and never felt
happier than when in an anti-slavery meeting. I sel-
dom had much to say at the meetings, because what
I wanted to say was said so much better by others.
But, while attending an anti-slavery convention at
Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841, I felt
strongly moved to speak, and was at the same time
much urged to do so by Mr. William C. Coffin, a
gentleman who had heard me speak in the colored
people's meeting at New Bedford. It was a severe
cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was,
I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to
white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few
moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said
what I desired with considerable ease. From that
time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the
cause of my brethren—with what success, and with
what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my la-
bors to decide.
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