Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad

Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad

Randolph Paul Runyon
Researched in collaboration with William Albert Davis
Copyright Date: 1996
Edition: 1
Pages: 270
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130jgh3
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad
    Book Description:

    In this captivating tale, Randolph Paul Runyon follows the trail of the first woman imprisoned for assisting runaway slaves and explores the mystery surrounding her life and work. In September 1844, Delia Webster took a break from her teaching responsibilities at Lexington Female Academy and accompanied Calvin Fairbank, a Methodist preacher from Oberlin College, on a Saturdary drive in the country. At the end of their trip, their passengers--Lewis Hayden and his family--remained in southern Ohio, ticketed for the Underground Railroad. Webster and Fairbank returned to a near riot and jail cells. Webster earned a sentence to the state penitentiary in Frankfort, where the warden, Newton Craig, married and a father, became enamored of her and was tempted into a compromising relationship he would come to regret. Hayden reached freedom in Boston, where he became a prominent businessman, the ringleader in the courthouse rescue of a fugitive slave, and the last link in the chain of events that led to the Harpers Ferry Raid. Webster, the focal point at which these lives intersect, remains an enigma. Was she, as one contemporary noted, "A young lady of irreproachable character?" Or, as another observed, "a very bold and defiant kind of woman, without a spark of feminine modesty, and, withal, very shrewd and cunning?" Runyon has doggedly pursued every historical lead to bring color and shape to the tale of these fascinating characters.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4841-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. 1 “Deceived in the distance”
    (pp. 1-21)

    Shortly before five o’clock on the afternoon of Saturday, September 28, 1844, Delia Ann Webster left her lodgings at the home of Mr. and Mrs. David Glass, on West Second Street in Lexington, Kentucky, and stepped into a hackney coach that the Reverend Calvin Fairbank had rented from Parker Craig. The fall racing season was at its height, and farmers and gentry alike from all over the state had converged on the city to see the best of breed in action. Webster and Fairbank, however, were not headed for the track. For what they had in mind to do with...

  6. 2 “Perhaps you can decipher its contents”
    (pp. 22-39)

    Though she could hear the key being turned in the lock, Delia Webster, if she can be believed, did not realize she was in jail. The building was called “Megowan’s Hotel” partly by way of a joke and partly because it really was, in addition to a jail, a hotel. There were perhaps as many as a hundred regular boarders, who in fact outnumbered its prisoners. Thomas B. Megowan, in any case, was the jailor of Lexington. For as long as she had been in the city, Webster later wrote, “I had no idea in what part of the town...

  7. 3 “Partner of his guilt”
    (pp. 40-55)

    Meanwhile, Delia Webster was demanding to see a lawyer. Beseiged by visitors, some prying for incriminating information, others offering unsolicited advice, she insisted on having her day in court, but insisted too on obtaining the services of competent counsel. She was told it didn’t matter, the court would appoint her one. Only after she had interested the deputy sheriff, Waller Rodes, in her behalf was she able to get word out to General John McCalla, who agreed to take her case. Her first choice had been Henry Clay, which was only natural as Clay had the reputation of nearinvincibility as...

  8. 4 “On account of her sex”
    (pp. 56-69)

    Newton Craig, born September 16, 1807, was the grandson of Joseph Craig (1741-1819) who, with his brothers Lewis and Elijah, was persecuted for professing the Baptist faith in eighteenth-century Virginia, where the Episcopal religion had the force of law. They suffered repeated imprisonment for stubbornly holding their “unlawful conventicles” and preaching without a license. Once arrested, they would lustily sing hymns through the bars of their prison, attracting large and solemn crowds.¹ Joseph, however, was a little less zealous than the others as far as imprisonment was concerned. Thinking it “no dishonor to cheat the devil,” he managed on more...

  9. 5 “The error of a woman’s heart”
    (pp. 70-86)

    Despite James Lane Allen’s gibe, Delia Webster did not hurry home any sooner than her father. Benajah Webster and his daughter took a steamboat up the Ohio from Cincinnati, passing the river towns of Ripley, Aberdeen, and Maysville, stations along the fateful journey she had taken six months before with Fairbank and the Hayden family. From Pittsburgh they traveled to Philadelphia, as can be learned from the Covington, Kentucky,Licking Valley Registerof March 22, 1845 (with an understandable delay in those days before the telegraph was in widespread use). The paper reported to its readers, who were apparently aware...

  10. 6 “Did . . . entice and seduce”
    (pp. 87-105)

    For three days, beginning on Wednesday, October 1, 1845, more than three thousand people thronged Boston’s Tremont Temple to attend what was billed as the “Anti-Slavery Convention of the Eastern, Middle and Western States.” The abolitionist movement had since 1840 been divided between the followers of William Lloyd Garrison, who renounced any attempt to reform the political system from within, and those who believed that political reform to put an end to slavery was indeed possible, and that the best avenue was a new political movement within the system—the Liberty Party, whose candidate James G. Birney had denied Henry...

  11. 7 “It might not appear what I shall be”
    (pp. 106-124)

    Not only did Lewis Hayden sing the praises of Delia Webster in his January 21, 1846, letter to Sydney Howard Gay, but he also expressed sorrow for the fate of her partner in his rescue, the unfortunate Calvin Fairbank, still languishing in the Kentucky penitentiary. “Miss Webster is highly valued, doubtless in the sight of Heaven. But poor Fairbank—he has to suffer on & on, that long fifteen years. I have just seen a gentleman from Lexington, Ky., who said that there is not one particle of sympathy from the people in Ky. for him. My heart bleeds for...

  12. 8 “The sincere desire of your fond father”
    (pp. 125-141)

    After her release from the Kentucky state penitentiary in February, 1845, Delia Webster claimed to have spent the next three years teaching school in Vermont, and living with her parents in Vergennes. “The Green Mountain storms of wind and snow,” however, which (so she said, leaving out for the moment any consideration of helping slaves to escape) had led to her decision to corne to Kentucky in the first place, once more took their toll on her health. On the advice of her family physician, in the fall of 1848 she left Vermont for New York City, where she could...

  13. 9 “I am afraid they will not always be on as friendly terms”
    (pp. 142-163)

    In the fall of 1850, not long after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, William and Ellen Craft learned that their former owners had sent an armed posse to bring them back to Georgia. They had escaped to Boston the year before, light-complected Ellen disguising herself as a young white master, bundled up with obscuring clothing because of illness, accompanied by his manservant, who was in reality her husband. They traveled, naturally, first class. In Boston, William Craft had pursued his trade as a cabinetmaker, undisturbed until then.¹ When warning came of their impending capture, Ellen was hidden in the...

  14. 10 “The very madness of the moon”
    (pp. 164-183)

    Although Delia Webster had chosen Madison, Indiana, as her new home in the spring of 1849, she already had her eyes on a much more interesting site. In fact, she had it constantly in view from the window of her Madison residence, as it was the plateau dominating the high cliffs on the opposite shore, in Kentucky. She would embroider the location with the legend of a sacred arbor in its northeast section, where, upon the rock “Jehovah Shalom,” beneath “the loved branches of an ancient Oak, oft knelt a maiden form to mark the fading of the stars, and...

  15. 11 “A very bold and defiant kind of woman”
    (pp. 184-198)

    On March 7, 1854, a month after their first visit, the committee of Trimble countians returned to Delia Webster’s farm to issue an ultimatum: “Unless you consent forthwith to sell us your plantation, and speedily leave the State no more to return, you will be mobbed at a dead hour of the night, and the threats of the mass executed.” The “threats of the mass” had already been delivered. They were: “Your fences will all be torn down, your fine orchard ruined, your valuable timber destroyed, your cattle and horses slain before your eyes, your barns and out-houses burned, your...

  16. 12 Aftermath: “This remarkable history”
    (pp. 199-224)

    The happy outcome of her hearing before Judge Walker on the writ of habeas corpus did not mean that Delia Webster’s legal troubles with Newton Craig were entirely over. He continued his lawsuit against her, although at times the history of their relations tended to conform to Karl Marx’s observation that in history events tend to happen twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.¹ On March 27,1855, she appeared as a witness for Madison attorney Oliver Pitcher, who held a substantial interest in the Trimble County farm, inPitcher v. Craig,and diarist John Lyle King was...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 225-248)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 249-254)
  19. Index
    (pp. 255-259)