CRM Journal

Book Review

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

By Ann Hagedorn. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002; 352 pp., map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $25.00, paper $14.00.

The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal

By Roland M. Baumann. Lorain, OH: The Bodnar Printing Co. with Oberlin College, 2003; 64 pp., maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index; paper $9.95.


How prudently most men creep into nameless graves while now and then one or two forget themselves into immortality.

—Wendell Phillips, quoted in Beyond the River

Ann Hagedorn is an investigative reporter who tells us that Beyond the River results from "doing what journalists do," telling stories that challenge our assumptions. In this instance, she uses the career of abolitionist Rev. John Rankin to meticulously reconstruct one specific line of that ad hoc, opportunistic network that we now call the Underground Railroad. Operating on the north bank of the Ohio River in the small town of Ripley, Ohio, Rankin and his coconspirators repeatedly violated both the sensibilities of their neighbors and Federal law by assisting freedom-seekers out of slavery. Hagedorn revives gun battles, midnight arson, kidnappings, and torch-bearing mobs faced down by pious abolitionists on the Ohio River borderlands.

Relying heavily on first-person accounts, part character study, part regional study, part grand historical context, Hagedorn calls her work "narrative non-fiction," and it strives for popular appeal. On the first page alone, ridges sprawl, expanses are vast, thickets entangle, panthers and wolves lurk, hills are verdant, and flatboats are cumbrous. But do not be discouraged. Take a break, but please do come back to Hagedorn.

From the evidence in the endnotes, how many different books could have been written based on Ann Hagedorn's extensive research? She could have reconstructed entire routes of the Underground Railroad, with the names of conductors and fugitives, dates of operation, locations of safe houses, and means of transport. Hagedorn could have written a history of the abolitionist movement, or the religious roots of Northern resistance to slavery, or the Southern origins of some of the abolitionist movement's key players. Even if unintentional, Hagedorn's chapters 14 and 22 may well become the definitive reconstruction of the true story underlying the Eliza character from Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Occasionally the lack of deep historical perspective is frustrating. Hagedorn does not have much to say about the enslaved freedom-seekers themselves, who admittedly rarely wrote memoirs or left a paper trail of any kind. But more glaring is Hagedorn's open condemnation of the South, slavery, and slaveholding, with no attempt at anthropological distance. The South is repeatedly described from the outside looking in, in terms used by 19th-century abolitionists. Slave catchers are always drunken louts, proslavery magistrates are always on the take, and slave owners are always brutal and too stupid to see the equality of their chattel. Of course slavery was wrong! Of course those who recognized it as wrong were heroes! But if ever we are going to understand why those few heroes were so scarce for so long, we need to be able to put aside our righteous modernity long enough to see the world as it was at the time.

But this is a book of heroes. Rev. John Rankin is set up as an archetype in order to explore why some people in the 1820s to 1860s chose a path of dissent and civil disobedience. There is a tension throughout the book between Rankin as the hero acting on his convictions and Rankin as the blind actor in a larger historical movement. As the title suggests, the hero wins. If none of us is merely a blind actor, perhaps all of us are called to be heroes.

The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue cover

Roland Baumann is an archivist and a history professor, bringing strong control over the source material and analytical rigor to his booklet, The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal. Reading Baumann's crisp, declarative style and precise endnotes was refreshing.

In January 1856, John Price fled slavery in Mason County, Kentucky, and found refuge in the small college town of Oberlin, Ohio. By September, a professional slave catcher, accompanied by a Federal marshal and his assistant, arrived in Oberlin, arrested Price by subterfuge, and ran for the nearest train south. A rescue party was mounted before the kidnappers had traveled more than 8 miles. On the evening of September 13, 1856, over 200 people surrounded the hotel in the village of Wellington where Price was held. About 50 people entered the hotel, some of whom eventually found Price, hauled him out, and sent him back to Oberlin, thence to Canada, after which he was never heard from again.

The story of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue is only peripherally about John Price. By November 1856, the district court in Cleveland handed down 37 indictments against the rescuers, each to be tried separately. The indicted rescuers included cobblers, clerks, carpenters, cabinetmakers, printers, farmers, grocers, harness makers, brickmakers, and five students. Two lawyers, a physician, and a teacher were the only representatives of the professional classes. The party of rescuers included free African Americans, fugitive slaves, and sympathetic whites. Many of the rescuers were conductors on the Underground Railroad.

Baumann tells the story of the ensuing legal battle, precipitated by one of the most successful large-scale nonviolent episodes of civil disobedience in American history. According to most of the earlier literature on this episode, that success is largely due to the 19th-century equivalent of a media circus that polarized public opinion in support of the rescuers, and indirectly aided the rise of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln. Baumann downplays the national repercussions of the rescue, while highlighting the maneuvering of both sides in what became a national spectacle.

At odds with William Lloyd Garrison's progressively more militant abolitionism, the leadership of the Congregationalist clergy in Oberlin were "committed to a protracted effort to reform society" and were, "informed by civil disobedience, moral suasion, and organizational networking." The rescue was conducted without a riot, and with no vigilance committees, no injuries, or even threat of injuries. Thanks to Baumann's clear description and documentation, the reader can reconstruct the precise route of both kidnappers and rescuers, learn the names of those involved, and read first-person accounts, newspaper stories, and court proceedings.

Baumann demonstrates the extraordinarily astute public relations practiced by the abolitionists before the trials. Public events included 6,000 people in a peaceful demonstration led by Sunday school children, a fundraising banquet for the defense called "The Felon's Feast," and a second defense fund set up by the Republican Central Committee of the Western Reserve called the "Fund for Liberty." In retaliation for the proceedings of the Cleveland Court, Lorain County Court indicted the slave catchers and the Federal marshal on kidnapping charges. In the end, charges were dropped for both rescuers and slave catchers. In Baumann's words, "Oberlin's abolitionist leaders had successfully negotiated the boundaries between social reform, state and local politics, and religious evangelicalism."

Baumann and Hagedorn share a love of exhaustive research, using their results in dramatically different ways. The back-to-back effect of reading their works is like walking out of an overstuffed Victorian parlor into a Danish-modern law office. There is a place in the world for both tastes, and we are in debt to both authors for their fine work.

Orloff Miller
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center