In the summer of 1825, five free black boys were kidnapped in Philadelphia and sold as slaves in the South. Each had been lured to a ship at the harbor with promises of good pay to help unload fruit. The con man they followed was an African American, John Purnell, who earned high wages working for a gang of white southern kidnappers. In narrative form, this book follows the five boys and their kidnappers first from the Philadelphia harbor where they met, to the coast of Delaware, then upriver to the gang’s terrible holding house. When the kidnappers could not find willing buyers locally, they marched the young boys and a few other black captives across the South, all the way to Mississippi. Bell documents the terrible abuse the boys received along the way, and the fears that must have overwhelmed them. Before the boys could be sold, one boy died from a beating received by his kidnapper. In a series of near miraculous coincidences, the boys are sold to a farmer named Hamilton who is willing to hear their story and at least consider letting them return to Philadelphia. Hamilton’s lawyer writes to the mayor of Philadelphia, and the mayor initiates an investigative campaign to find the boys, return them home, and punish those responsible for their kidnapping. With this, a once-famous but now little-known episode in the history of the antebellum, Bell builds a picture of the “Reverse Underground Railroad” – a clandestine network of kidnappers and slave-dealers who smuggled perhaps as many free blacks to the South as there were Southern slaves who escaped to freedom in the North. It is a microhistory with big implications.
In lieu of a traditional book review that might summarize the contents in greater depth or explain the historiographical importance of the book, permit me instead to go over some of the elements of history methods and literary style that I think make this book successful.
One trick of good writing is to remind readers of what you are talking about and where you are headed. Some of us do this with sub-headings for sections or with signposting language like “next, after that, in addition to, etc.” Some of us do this with an all-too-obvious concluding paragraph which simply restates the contents of a chapter. Bell’s transitions and reminders are more subtle, and more successful. Consider, for example, the following sentence from page 44: “The complexities of pursuing predators like Jason Clark and John Purnell across multiple jurisdictions…” With this simple structure, Bell links the topic of his previous paragraph – Clark – with the topic of the preceding pages – the pursuit of kidnappers – with a key actor in the main story line – John Purnell. The point is, the pacing and context clues are set masterfully. Bell never takes readers too far from the main characters without quickly bringing them back. He adds names, people, and places to the story to provide broader context, but he makes it clear who the main characters are, and what names, people, and places the reader should remember as the story progresses. Similarly, Bell gives backgrounds and stories of important characters and places, but never for more than a page or two, and he looks for opportune moments for summarizing. For example, the entire time the enslaved boys were told to keep quiet, not to utter a single word to a white person. But when one of the boys, Sam, temporarily escaped in Mississippi, he hastily related his entire story to the plantation owner who found him. This allows Bell the chance to summarize, based on Sam’s account, some of the main elements of the story so far, while leaving the reader wondering how the plantation owner will respond – his response follows in the next chapter.
While Bell is attuned to the needs of readers to follow the story, he also weaves in just enough historiographical and geographical context to appeal to professional historians who want to place the book in various kind of research fields or literatures. A well-known historian once told me that the optimal amount of historiography in a popular history book is zero. I’m not so sure that is true, but it certainly is important not to inject too many historiographical themes in the introduction. Bell puts the story first, and adds historiographical notes along the way, when they are necessary. For example, in chapter three, after he has related how the boys were kidnapped and brought to Delaware, Bell provides context for the growth of the Reverse Underground Railroad in the 1820s and the economic forces that motivated kidnapping. The U.S. had banned slave imports in 1808. Because of the disruption of wheat markets in Europe, Virginia farmers were switching from tobacco to the less labor-intensive wheat. Meanwhile, cotton cultivation was expanding in the lower Mississippi Valley. All of this created a demand to drive and ship slaves southward, and a demand as well to kidnap free blacks from Northern states to sell in the south. This context explains why the kidnappers in the story marched the boys on foot all the way to Mississippi, and it provides a transition from the captivity of the boys in Delaware to their journey to the deep South.
A good book is often remembered for introducing or popularizing a concept, event, or process. Bell’s book will be rightly remembered for exploring the Reverse Underground Railroad. It should be equally remembered, however, for drawing attention to the great forced migration of enslaved persons from the upper South to the lower South during the Antebellum. “Traveler after traveler” Bell writes, “described the convoys of black people that shuffled past them on South roads as looking like nothing so much as funeral processions.” (97). This is, I think, a much-forgotten domestic migration, but it’s implications, as Bell notes, were profound. The migration of Virginias to the cotton belt reshaped the Southern economy, put pressure on the Choctaw and other Native American groups.
Historians need sources; good history cannot be written without them. A strength of this book is that it uses the best available sources on the Reverse Underground Railroad. Of course, to use sources, one must first find them. Bell only hints at this research process in his acknowledgements section, but I can imagine that this book required more sustained research than most. First, Bell needed to find all of the papers directly related to story of the five kidnapped boys. This would have been a hard enough task, but I suspect much of his research time was also spent finding sources to fill in the character and motivations of other characters in the story such as the Mississippi plantation owner, Hamilton, and the mayor of Philadelphia.
Bell mentions some of the sources at the outset – articles from an anti-slavery newspaper – for example, but he doesn’t give away all of his sources right away. Instead, the sources are unveiled as the story progress. The mayor of Philadelphia sent detectives to the homes of the families of the five kidnapped boys. The notes of these interviews survive, Bell mentions, but not until page 139. The boys relate their stories to a lawyer in Mississippi. Those testimonies survive as well. From these sources, Bell extracts the most specific kinds of descriptions, so that it seems every step of the way is documented. Perhaps no other case of a kidnapping on the Reverse Underground Railroad received as much attention or produced such documentation.
But sometimes the sources historians want are not to be found. There are always missing parts of the story. Bell overcomes this with another tactic, which is to highlight similar stories with related evidence. For example, on page 106, Bell comes to the point in his story when the black boys are about to sold to slaveholders in Mississippi. Because this scene was not recorded in any of the surviving evidence, Bell admits as much, but uses evidence from the stories of Solomon Northrup and Charles Ball to suggest what might have happened. Similarly, when one of the boys runs away in Choctaw territory only to be recaptured, Bell makes suggestions, hinting at what might have happened based on other similar recorded stories: “Most likely, a Choctaw man heard him crashing through thickets somewhere in the forest and bolted out to grab him as Sam approached.” Less experienced writers are loathe to add such elements to their stories. They collect facts, assemble them in order, and tell the story, including only the verifiable elements. This may be honest history, as is Bell’s in fact, but it doesn’t inspire the imagination. There is nothing wrong with making suggestions, leaving possibilities in the air for the reader to grasp on to or imagine on their own. History without imagination is dry as dust.
The case of the five black boys was politically and socially important. It led to anti-kidnapping laws, it helped inspire African American self-defense organizations. The whole South was aware of these illegal traders, shunned them, but tolerated them because they had an interest in protecting slaveholding. Yet, Southerners were sometimes willing to aid Northerners searching for kidnapped victims. Such action demonstrated the good faith of the South and respect for law. Bell summarizes this as follows: “To pursue and prosecute the agents of the Reserve Underground Railroad and to liberate their victims was thus to join a broader public-relations strategy to promote the South as a place where individual liberty was respected and private property was protected. Every southern stakeholder was implicated and involved in this broad and long-running campaign… Such initiatives were largely for the benefit of northern observers. All of them worked to blunt the worst criticism and impede the federal regulation of the interstate slave trade…” (160-161). In the end, then, this story is an indictment of Southern society in the antebellum.
The penultimate chapter follows up on the lives of the characters after the story – a technique used in movies like one of my personal favorite, The Sandlot. This really humanizes the characters. It shows how a whole number of stories, one for each life, came together at a moment in time, and then divided, went their own ways. This storytelling technique gives some closure to the story, while also (again) leaving much to the imagination. Some characters in the story can be traced to their deaths, but most of the criminals escaped, never to be appear in the records again. Some of the black boys, as well, disappear from the scene. They place in history was established. They were part of a story with national implications, but then they faded into obscurity and disappeared again on the streets of Philadelphia.