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

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

by Mary Kay Ricks


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On the evening of April 15, 1848, seventy-seven slaves attempted one of history's most audacious escapes--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. 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. 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. All the while, Ricks focuses her narrative on the intimate story of two young sisters who were onboard the Pearl, and sets their struggle for liberation against the powerful historical forces that would nearly tear the country apart.

After a terrifyingly calm night, the wind came up as the sun rose the next morning, and the small schooner shot off down the Potomac River. Hours later, stunned owners--including a former first lady, a shipping magnate, a former congressman, a federal marshal, and a Baptist minister--raised the alarm. Authorities quickly formed a posse that chased the fugitives down the river. But with a head start and a robust wind that filled their sails, the Pearl raced ahead--unaware that a violent squall was moving into their path and would halt their bid for freedom.

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 the story, who would trade servitude in elite Washington homes for slave pens in three states. Through the efforts of the sisters' father and the northern "conductor" who had helped organize the escape, an abolitionist outcry arose in the North, calling for the two girls to be rescued. Ultimately, Mary and Emily would go on to stand shoulder to shoulder with such abolitionist luminaries as Frederick Douglass and attend Oberlin College under the sponsorship of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

A story of courage and determination, Escape on the Pearl revives one of the most poignant chapters of U.S. history. The Edmonsons, the other fugitives of the Pearl, and those who helped them can now take their rightful place as American heroes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060786601
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/29/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 666,580
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About 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 (, which features in-depth walking tours in the nation's capital, and lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Introduction     1
Two Young Girls Join an Audacious Escape     7
Washington's Underground Railroad     31
Slavery in the Washington Area     63
Waves in Congress     93
The Fate of the Edmonsons     127
Trials and Tribulations     163
More Legal Maneuvers; the Sisters Head North     198
The Fugitive Slave Act and the Great Protest Meeting     213
The Struggle to Free Drayton and Sayres; Mary and Emily Go to Oberlin     239
Emily Comes Home; Samuel Edmonson Escapes Again     258
Dred Scott and the Rise of Lincoln     292
Freedom in the District of Columbia     316
Emily and Samuel Return to Washington; John Is Found     343
Epilogue     352
Acknowledgments     359
The Edmonson Farm     365
The Fugitives     367
Notes     373
Index     417

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.”

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Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 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
cbl_tn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Escape on the Pearl : The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad tells of a failed attempt to transport upwards of 70 enslaved persons to freedom on a schooner sailing from Washington, D.C. up the Chesapeake Bay. Although the Pearl was captured before it reached the Bay, the event drew the attention of the Northern press and helped sway public opinion toward the abolitionist cause. The plight of two teen-age sisters, Mary and Emily Edmonson, illustrated the fate of countless other young women sold away from family members and into concubinage.Many well-known historical figures appear in the story. The slaves on the Pearl were known to many prominent Washington personalities. One of the would-be escapees was owned by former first lady Dolley Madison. Henry Ward Beecher made his first speech for the abolitionist cause at a Broadway Tabernacle fundraiser to raise money to purchase Mary and Emily Edmonson's freedom. The sisters were befriended by former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Harriet Beecher Stowe took a personal interest in the sisters' education, and she included the story of the Edmonson family in her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a non-fiction follow-up to her successful novel. Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, was the prosecutor for the trials of the Pearl's captain and the man who hired the ship. Congressman Horace Mann headed the defense team.It was disturbing to realize the extent to which monetary considerations drove actions. Many people's financial security depended on slavery. People who technically were not slave owners benefited from slave labor by hiring the services of slaves from their owners. Owners who freed their slaves often required the newly-freed person to work out their purchase price over a term of months or years. Slave trader Joseph Bruin, who purchased Mary and Emily Edmonson and several of their brothers after the failed escape attempt, was proud of his reputation as a humane trader, yet he refused to take any less for the sisters' freedom than he would receive for them in the New Orleans market. Even when their cause was taken up by influential people, the Edmonsons still had difficulty raising the large sums needed to purchase freedom for the enslaved family members.Although this is a popular account, it is thoroughly documented. Interested readers will find plenty of references to material for additional reading and research. The well-chosen illustrations include a map of Washington, D.C. in 1848 identifying many of the locations mentioned in the text and a rare photograph of an antislavery rally from 1850, where the two Edmonson sisters and Frederick Douglass are among those on the platform. The photograph that really surprised me is an undated picture of Dolley Madison. She is so strongly associated with the War of 1812 that I had no idea she was still living in the era of photography.Highly recommended to readers interested in the history of slavery, abolitionism, and 19th century U.S. history. The book's focus on the Edmonson family will also be of interest to genealogists, particularly those with an interest in African American genealogy.
SeaWolf More than 1 year ago
Boring... concentrates on inconsequential information
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book kept repeating the same chapters over and over.